November 8, 2011 § Leave a comment
It’s 7 a.m. and there is a knock on the door. It’s loud enough to wake me up, but truth be told I’m still half asleep. I stay in bed hoping to be ignored in whatever is about to transpire. I hear a loud voice, slightly annoyed, and then multiple pairs of footsteps, leather shoes on the tiled floor. Military shoes. I open the door and the inquisition begins. There is no probable cause in this country, just the apparent right for the military and police to enter any place, at any time, for any reason, to ask any question. Civil liberties, like human rights, are not to be spoken of here. They are silly words that came with the foreigners.
As I search for my shirt, I hear the simple, cautious English of a policeman, able to speak a few words, unable to understand most of what comes back. This, mind you, is a country where English is the official language, yet few speak it well and fewer understand it, in part a misguided nationalism implicit in the rejection of colonial powers long ago. I am summoned by the lead policeman who has lost interest in my hostess and is happy to have a new investigation on his hands. He is young, stands upright like a pencil, and like a junior varsity boy looking up to the star of the varsity team, he fashions the look of his idol, the president, a black mustache that grows from corner to corner. A mustache that hugs the wily grin that has descended on this place, a grin that reassures, while behind the scenes so many lives are swept under the carpet.
The policeman stands in front of me, an audience of guns, landlords, and onlookers at his back. He pauses as if to remember his lines, as this is most certainly an elaborate play, and with a clearing of the throat he speaks,
“where is your passport…?”
“At my house…”
“Where is your house…?”
“Why are you here…?”
“I slept here…”
He pauses again, apparently in awe of my equally simple responses. He looks back at his entourage as if to say, “line please.” There is a brief huddle, and then he returns, confident again.
“Where is your passport?”
“At my house.”
His face sinks. He thought he had me. The policeman turns again to his entourage, translates my response, and they all nod in agreement. The two boys with rifles in the back of the group stare and smile at the red-haired foreigner. I yell “see you” in their native language, which produces a giggle. I have learned how to play too.
My hostess sits angry, she says this is the second time in a few months this has happened. It’s violating. And she’s right, it is violating, and slightly humiliating, and debilitating too. In other words, it’s extremely effective. Unbeknowst to the simpleton policeman, the leader of this hunting party, who thinks he is merely searching for terrorists and ultimately glory, the people who train and position him are simply trying to piss us off. And they are very good at it.
A week earlier I am sitting in a town at the cusp of the war front. It’s 8 p.m. and my colleague and I are in front of a chain grocery store, an oddity and a bit of a triumph in a place that has seen more conflict than development. A couple of young local boys stand watch in front of the store, they have been charged with a new promotional experiment, a grill. They slowly cook tandoori chicken on a bed of charcoal, the smell wafting through the warm night air. They face a number of problems in their quest for customers. First, there are no street lights in town, so after dark its tough to get peoples attention. Problem two is that nobody goes outside after dusk, dozens of clandestine kidnappings and disappearances over the last few months have made sure of that. People leave work at 4:30 and immediately race home and lock their doors.
My colleague and I are trying to lighten the mood after another long day, indeed every day seems a little long in this place. We purchase a few sausages inside the grocery store and convince our new friends, the grill keepers, to let us have an impromptu barbecue next to their chicken. We crack open a couple of beers and sit, breathe, and listen to what is left of the town. A massive Army convoy vehicle pulls up in front of the store, gunners still at their posts, watching for attacks. The turret gun swings towards us and points at our beer cans. We don’t flinch, we stopped doing that a long time ago. To our right is an army bunker, dug into the front of the sidewalk next to the grocery store, as much a part of the street as the liquor store behind it or the tailor next door. They are just neighbors with guns. That’s the thing with this war, it’s a nine to five kind of deal. It’s been going on so long that people would be lost without it. Conflict is part of the scenery, the infrastructure, the daily flow of this town. And this institutionalization, more than anything, makes it a tragic affair.
But if you look in the cracks, if you explore the alleyways of this place, you will see signs of life, of people trying, desperately, to find breathing room. Earlier in the day my staff and I follow up on a lead. Just down from the grocery store there is a lodge housing a special visitor. Ducking into a dim lit alleyway, my driver asks a man where to find the place. We have a bit of a method to our madness. The driver and I are the first wave, asking questions, getting bits of information, checking for safety. He knows everyone, speaks all the languages, and has a friendly disarming charm that usually gets us where we need to go. We confirm the location of the lodge, and head in, keeping an eye out for spies or other trouble. The front desk is a Vegas style show with blinking lights illuminating religious symbols and gods. A group of middle-aged women surround the room, chatting away and waiting for two telephone booths to open up. The manager is speaking into a full on PA system, calling out names through a microphone. Eventually women hustle down from the second floor, as if they have just won the big prize on a game show, and they are coming to collect.
My driver and I pass on the name we are looking for, and the manager calmly reads it over the microphone. A woman comes down responding to our call, but she’s not the one we are looking for. Another woman tells us on the second floor there’s a room where we might find who we are looking for. My driver and I head upstairs on the narrow staircase, squeezing by phone call recipients racing downstairs. Word has gotten out that a couple of strange visitors are in the building, and women peak out from their rooms to get a glimpse of the Muslim and the white boy. My driver ducks into a big barren concrete room filled with more middle-aged women. He returns with a lady in her 60s in a bright yellow Sari. She is forcing a smile but obviously in pain. She is from the North, a place currently closed off to the world by a military offensive and a humanitarian disaster. Somehow she got permission to make her way just South to this last outpost of government controlled territory, where she could seek medical attention no longer available at home. My driver and I look at each other and nod, we have been looking for this story for a long time.
News comes out of the North, but not about the people caught in the middle of the war. Journalists are not allowed in to talk to the estimated hundreds of thousands struggling to stay safe and have a life. Guns, mortars, casualty estimates, land captured, and small battles are the details, as if the North was just a lifeless chess board, with no humanity involved. This woman is our first proof of that humanity, of the fact that there are indeed people up there, fighting for survival. She talks of food shortages, medical conditions, flooding, schools being used as houses, and trees as shelters. A few minutes into the conversation the rest of the room turns away from the soap opera on the tv, gets up and starts to circle us, listening intently. 21 women, dressed in beautiful tattered batiks, gold jewelry, and barefoot come to life as the story commences. It turns out we have hit the jackpot, all of them have come from the North, and they are staying here, sleeping on a concrete floor for 50 cents a night, waiting…for phone calls, and for a chance to go back to the warzone.
My driver and I know we have something, we also know we need some backup if we are going to do a professional job. We tell the ladies we’ll be back in 20 minutes, and we hustle back to our hotel. One of the benefits of my reporting team is that we seem to compliment each other well. The driver is the fixer, his smoking buddy, the senior journalist, is the guy who keeps us safe, speaking the military language and making the right people happy so we can do our work, the young producer is the talent, finding interesting voices and stories everywhere he goes, and then there are the two girls, one older, one just out of high school, both daring and brave, traveling, as journalists no less (Sri Lankan ranks third in the world in terms of danger for reporters) in a country that culturally, socially, and otherwise does not look kindly on that behavior.
Simply by getting into our van they challenge a system that views them, dark, small, female, from the minority, as suspects, and on occasion suicide bombers. They are harassed by the female police and army who man the checkpoints we spend so much time at, they are harassed by the men of their own ethnicity who work at the hotels we frequent, they are harassed by their own colleagues, and yet they continue to get in the van. I am thankful for them, and at this very moment, I need them, they are my stars when it comes to sensitive interviews.
We knock on their door, interrupting music videos, and the younger of the two girls pokes her head out. I apologize, it’s already late, 7:30 p.m., but, “I have some work for you.” She looks back somewhat frustrated, closes the door, and in ten minutes she and the older reporter appear with their recorder bags and notebooks. My driver explains what the job entails in their language as we walk back through the pitch black streets, mindful of the drunks and the army, the only people who brave the night here.
Peaking their heads cautiously into the dorm room at the lodge, my two reporters size up their task. The women see me and the driver and jump to greet us. They thought we wouldn’t come back. They want to talk they say. They offer me the one chair in the room, and I oblige. I explain who we are, why we are here, and what we want. I throw out the few local words I know, and that, as usual, is a hit. I am essentially warming up the crowd in hopes of hearing their stories. My driver translates, and tells them not to be afraid, we are here to help. I split the room in two, and half the crowd joins the older reporter on the balcony, while the other half stays sitting on the concrete floor as my younger reporter squats down to ask them about their lives.
As in any group, a few members are more than ready to talk, unafraid of the microphone, or where exactly their voice will be broadcast. These are the hardest parts of my job, as the women get animated, and emotional, and begin to conjure adventures with their hands, I desperately want to understand and know every detail. My driver translates on the fly, but its never enough. There is crying, and shouting, and nodding from the audience. It turns out these women are all from the North, all from rebel controlled areas, all risking their lives and the lives of family members left behind to come to the other side. These phone calls they are getting from the hotel are from relatives, long since escaped to the West. Many are waiting for money transfers from the relatively wealthy sons and daughters in Norway, Canada, and London, they say jobs are scarce in the North and almost everyone missed the planting season because of the war. One has to assume that the rebels will tax (take) a portion of whatever these women bring back, a common move from a system that stays afloat through exploitation. Most of these women say they received permission to travel South because of medical conditions, although most of them seem quite strong. They are desperate now to return to the North, many talk of sons or daughters being held as collateral to ensure they go back. Every morning they get up at 4 a..m, pool what is left of their money, and hire a vehicle to take them to the last outpost between South and North. The say that every morning, for the last few weeks, they have been turned away.
What is amazing about all of this is that public perception, supported by government propaganda, characterizes those trapped in the North as wanting desperately to flee to the South. That if the other side was more humane hundreds of thousands would be allowed to walk out of danger and into the government held area, to safety. But safety is relative in a country where one side forces people to fight and the other side forces people to register, treating them as outsiders in their own country. It will never get out, but if it did, the thought that a group of middle aged women trying desperately to go back to the warzone, to floods, ramshackle housing, and food shortages, now that would be something. That would blow the lid off the “reality” created by so many government owned newspapers. Like the Bush government before it, this one has called the public’s bluff, and created “reality.” What it says is true…well, that becomes truth.
The PA system booms another name, and a slightly younger woman in a beautiful red floral batik rushes away from her interview, there is more important business at hand. We wrap up our stories, thank our new friends and wish them luck. They tell us that we must get their voices out, that they want peace, and most importantly they want to see their families again. One young girl, only 9 years old, fled the North with her uncle. She sleeps with the older women who have temporarily adopted her. My older reporter asks her if she has anything to share. She looks down at the ground, shy at first, and then looks up to let us know that she just wants the road open, can we please open the road so she can go see her mother again. She misses her mom. My reporter fights back her own tears. Digesting these stories is often overwhelming, and carrying around the voices of the dispossessed is heavy baggage. Exhausted, we head home, silent. I search for objectivity in my mind, but it is hard to not want to just let these stories and voices stand alone. They are the missing pieces in a coverage that has all but forgotten those caught, against their will, fleeing their farms and homes.
The next day I stop by a government sponsored human rights office. I take the younger reporter with me, she doesn’t speak English very well, but she seems to understand me fine, and she likes a little danger. Our target is a man who keeps track of disappearances and extra judicial killings. He’s from the majority, but speaks all three languages, and has lived much of his professional life in the land of the minority. I explain that we are not interested in interviewing him or putting him into trouble, we just want to understand a few things better. He agrees, but fidgets non-stop in his chair. He prefaces his nervousness with a story about a day when he lived in the North, returning to his office he found an envelop on his desk with single bullet in it. He has continued his work despite many such threats. He says he can’t give me exact numbers, but that disappearances and kidnappings have gone up as of late, dozens in the last two months. One of the problems this town faces is that in addition to being on the border of the war, it is also home to six or seven paramilitary groups, all with their own agendas, fighting, like gangs, for influence, political clout, turf, and who knows what else. Many insist the government helps support these groups, as destabilization benefits the state agenda. Families of the disappeared come to this office to register a complaint, the man says almost all the stories begin the same, a knock at the door, masked men, a white van, and then, deep loss and sadness. Few are found alive, if at all.
My reporter turns to me and gives me a look. She asks a few questions, but none of this is new to her. I’m working hard at chipping away at an apparent bias, hoping she learns to be more objective. It’s hard, though, to tell her that what she personally experiences should not affect her reporting. She’s pissed off, and traveling around the North and East, seeing how her people are treated, seems to only inform her feelings more. We thank our host, who makes a nervous request for us to be careful with his words. Walking back to the road we cross paths with an army outpost, the guards seem to take note of a white man and a minority girl walking out of the human rights office. I wonder how many lists our names must be on.
My colleague and I spend the rest of the day making our rounds as our reporters split up to cover stories they have researched about humanitarian issues. Part of our goal is to get a feeling at the administrative level of what, really, is happening with the war and the humanitarian collateral. We spend hours with the largest international monitor (The Organization), the local Government Representative(GR), local NGO leaders and all of the international NGOs that were asked by the government two months ago, for their own safety, to leave the conflict zone. At the very basic level all of these different pieces to the puzzle are out of place, and increasingly FRUSTRATED, as they struggle to fulfill their mandates, proposing to take care of the populations in need.
We stop by our favorite section of The Organization, there are many branches, and there is a good reason why we focus our efforts, not all these arms function in a useful or intelligent manner. At our chosen destination the two ex-pats in charge are happy to see us. Both are capable, intelligent, hard workers, who have tried to find solutions where there have been few. More than anything they are honest with us, showing us the information they have, and explaining their predicament, something we rarely get from their supervisors in the big city. The Organization is seemingly handcuffed by its stated role as support to the local government. It is justifiably afraid to lose the little access it has to the Northern displaced, but simultaneously disjointed in its seeming lack of willingness to push further for better access and a more meaningful response. Many, including its own, wonder why The Organization is here if it has no intention of standing up to a hopelessly derailed train. Basically The Organization has been demoted from protection and defense of human rights to a more meals on wheels like operation, sending lorries to the North every week or so with government authorized supplies, mostly rice, daal, sugar and flour. The only non food related supplies to go up included school items. Somehow The Organization saw it fit to send, amongst notebooks and pencils, cricket bats to those in need. My colleague and I laugh upon hearing this, we are not surprised, but we are depressed by this news. I secretly hope those in the North use the bats as firewood.
What people really need, according to the few voices coming from the inside, are shelter materials for the tens of thousands of houses destroyed in recent floods. They need tarpaulins and kerosene, items they can’t afford, and often can’t get. In fact, if one ever needed a tarpaulin, The Organization would be the safest bet, as they have a Wall Mart sized stock, but that would be too easy in this growing heart of darkness. The government issued an edict that all materials sent to the North, including tarpaulins, cannot feature logos, something The Organization has plastered on every vehicle, pencil, and latrine from Somalia to Peru. Masterful.
The Government Agent(GR), the legal face of the government in this region, is fighting her own battles on a late morning. We wait a few meters from her desk as she sends emails. Sporting her own computer, she is a contrast in modernity to the rest of her office where typewriters and nicely stacked paper files are more the norm. Our wait is extended by an impromptu visit by two army personnel, who feign respect by tucking their hats under their arms, but immediately try to bully the lady in charge. She is firm, and speaks back to them in their own language, then switching to English she explains that they cannot just barge in and order her to do things without an authorized letter. Everyone in the room knows ultimately the military will get what it wants, but it is heartening to see her put up a fight. Our conversation is a short one. She likes us, and what we are trying to accomplish, and she usually gives us what information or access to visit local sites we need, but that is getting more complicated. When pressed on the progress of sending important resources to the North, she pauses, sits back in her chair, and gives us a “that’s complicated.” She’s from the North, and the anguished look on her face lets us know that she is worried about her people. But, like The Organization, she knows she cannot help those trapped without maintaining the little access she has now.
The GR writes us a short note on her official stationary, signs it, and grants us permission to visit a small, but controversial group of refugees from the North who have made their way to her region, immediately escorted into a restricted army controlled camp. We drive an hour for the visit, presenting our letter, knowing the army will likely dismiss it and our interest in talking to the displaced inside the camp. We have been turned around enough times to know the routine, yet we try, out of obligation and journalistic curiosity. The army commander is cordial, reads our short permission slip, and in a show of PR, calls his supervisor, but we already know the answer. We say thanks, and head off, but not before we take stock of the hundreds of Northerners sitting idly in the hot sun, living in makeshift classrooms and partitioned quarters, staring at the world outside. The official story so far goes that they risked their lives for some freedom. But despite their relative isolation in the North, they must have known the fliers dropped from government planes, advertising a better life in the South, were not such an easy proposition. There is more to their decision to come, we know it, we just aren’t allowed to ask it. Why would they come if they knew the “freedom” waiting for them was going to involve barbed wire. Damned if you do I guess.
Our questions lead us to a local friend who runs an NGO that seeks to empower local communities. He is known as a real grass roots crusader, something that wins him many fans and enemies. After a long time in Europe trying to avoid the perils of being part of the minority in his country, he came back and returned to his home region to start a family and see what he could do to help out. His staff buzzes around the office, answering phones, faxing documents meeting with locals who have come for consultation, and racing off on motorcycles to visit local projects. At the center of this sea of activity our friend calmly sits, barefoot, drinking tea. We ask him about the camp we have just seen, and the story of the people in it. He says he wants nothing to do with that place, that the government is basically running an open prison on the grounds of a local school, something he despises on many levels. He’s worried for the people, but today, he says, he’s got bigger concerns.
Our friend explains that he has had some “visitors” in the morning that came both to his office and house while he was busy with meetings. A local paramilitary group wants to ask him some questions apparently. He is used to this, as there are at least 6 armed groups in town, but that does not mean he is immune to the threat. He is a target, essentially, because he is offering an alternative to the violence, a choice to push forward and create something shared, something tangible for local people. Fear is a blanket of uncertainty, and all the guns and white vans and checkpoints in town are used to maintain this chaos that benefits those in charge, and undermines those just trying to get by. Our friend fights this fear with civic projects. He brings them together in newly built housing communities where they can grow vegetables, organize their efforts with neighbors, begin to make better incomes, and rise out of poverty and isolation.
On this afternoon there is noticeable strain on his face, worry has taken its toll. And our faces reflect his pain, we worry about our friend, but he cannot just up and leave and stop what he started, and we certainly cannot tell him to do so. Sometimes our fates are more clearly out of our hands. I wonder if that is a freeing, albeit daunting feeling. Maybe waking up and knowing today may be your last becomes a calming notion after awhile.
We wish our friend safety, and invite him for some pizza next time he makes it to the big city. We are off to our final destination, another friend who is manning what is left of an international NGO.
As my colleague and I enter the Western sponsored NGO office, we are struck by a sound we are not used to hearing. A land phone line is ringing, a distinct tone to the indoctrinated personal audio statements we are used to with cell phones. But cell phone coverage is blocked out from sunrise to sunset here, a military decision to try and hamper communication in the North. So people have had to go back a decade and get real phones again. Our contact sits at his desk, pouring over a spreadsheet. He swears about ten times, and explains that two months ago he was doing important, life saving work, and now he is managing a warehouse. He was asked to leave the North, along with twenty or so other International agencies, by the government. He wanted to stay and defy the request, but bombs were dropping and his main protection, The Organization, was pulling out too. He says it was hard to leave behind his local staff, praying that they would not be recruited into the ranks of the battle by the Northern regime. Many of them have organized in the North he says, and begun to use their skills to continue helping the hundreds of thousands of displaced families. He is desperate to find a way to get back into the North, otherwise, why stay here?
The stress of sitting idly while your mandate, people in need, run for their lives is palpable. He feels pain, and sitting just on the other side of the border from where he wants to be is unbearable. He might as well be halfway around the world he says. His biggest frustration is that the humanitarian big shots are not coming together and forcing the government to give access back into the North. To allow for real aid and assistance. The energy bottled up by his idleness is released at meetings where he yells at those who seem comfortable to wait and see. He has even put together some numbers and mathematical equations showing just how poorly the agencies are doing their jobs. The problem is nobody seems to care. He runs down a list of what this means.
The government doesn’t care because it has one goal, crush the North, and anything that deviates from that plan is irrelevant. The Organization wants to stay in the country, according to our friend so it can in part collect nice salaries and life in paradise, so it does not dare upset the government. Other countries are not interested because this is a small country, and its fate is seemingly minimal in the larger picture. The international media occasionally sends out short dispatches, but ultimately seems to acknowledge that this is a small country, and nobody cares. And most disconcerting is that the people of this country, the majority population, they do not care. They go about their daily routines as if nothing is happening, as if their own countrymen were not dying.
But he cares, more than words.
He finishes a half pack of cigarettes he started an hour ago when we arrived, and looks down at his feet. I am exhausted. I mentally cannot fit any more information in my head.
We give our friend a hug, and wish him luck, its time to leave.
An hour later we are back in the van, heading towards home. 170 kilometers seems like a nice quick trip. Here…on a narrow highway full of colorful lorries, ox carts, and old diesel cars, and a series of three deliberately slow and tedious checkpoints, that distance can take 10 hours.
The first checkpoint is the worst, a mere 5 kilometers out of town, the vehicle is forced to enter an old football ground, the pitch now hardened mud, lined with a few camouflaged bunkers. This checkpoint is parallel universe, and we have been here enough to know that once you enter, your life is no longer your own. Phase one is a painstaking police registration process full of passports copies, state id registrations, interrogations and lots of yes sirs and yes madams. My colleague and I, the token foreigners, are not allowed to engage in this parade of nonsense, and in fact if we intervene, it will most certainly take longer. So, as a subtle protest against this dour place, we bring a Frisbee, and turn the checkpoint into a playground, to the delight of the neighbors separated by barbed wire, and some of the police and army soldiers themselves. We race around the ground jumping high to catch the disc, and bouncing it off bunkers, lorries, and any other surfaces we can find.
Phase two is an army cadre searching through all of our bags. We pose a unique problem as we are traveling with tape recorders, laptops, cameras and more. Journalists from the big city don’t venture up here anymore, and being that we are an NGO makes us a double curiosity. More than anything I am amazed that we do not cause more of a problem with all of our technology. I’m still waiting for a bored army sergeant to put an end to all of this. Every we time we make it through another checkpoint I exhale, feeling a little sheepish that we’ve duped them again, even though we have every right to do what we are doing. That’s another triumph of this government system, it makes you feel the criminal for doing things that are perfectly normal.
Forty five minutes into our stay at the checkpoint we finally enter phase three, when the army tears apart the vehicle, lifting the engine, removing the spare tire, looking for any sort of hiding place. My colleague and I are now putting on a Frisbee throwing clinic for local children and our employees. In a couple of more visits we’re fairly certain we will have a solid local team to work with. The check ends and we pile back into the van, waiting for one final paperwork check before we drive off. Fifteen kilometers later we are stopped at checkpoint number 2, we all pile out of the van again, and my staff trudge off to join a line of bus travelers and others passing towards the South. I eat saltines and drink a coke while they are asked the same questions, and have their bags checked again. Twenty minutes later the last employee makes it through the checkpoint, and we regroup. A few of the reporters have run into friends in line they haven’ seen for a while. A unique spot for a reunion, but not a surprising one. I am reminded that this is an extremely small country, geographically and otherwise, which is an easy thing to forget when you are lost in the jungles of its backroads.
Checkpoint 3 is the largest and most complex. We have taken to leaving our own van on the South side and hiring a driver to pick us up on the North side, as it can add anywhere from 1 to 3 hours to the trip to have the military check the entire vehicle a second time, complete with bomb sniffing dogs. We pass through a long cue, my colleague and I sit behind and make sure the two girls and one of the male reporters make it through. One time the girls were stopped in their tracks, and I had to cross back over the line to help them out. This time there are no problems, and we all exhale again, finally on our way back home. We left our original destination at 12:30 pm, it’s now 3:30 and we have traveled around 30 kilometers. We won’t be back home until late.
The final 6 hours is usually an uneventful stretch of winding roads, a test of endurance after a long week. The reporters in the back have decided to lighten the mood today. One of them begins singing a Bollywood song, popular on the radio, another starts playing a beat on the roof of the van, and the girls chime in with the bridge. Next thing I know the driver is singing along and we are all stomping our feet and singing, even though I don’t know the words. The last year of my life has been one, long, exhausting road trip, and while I have my frustrations, ultimately I feel very fortunate for this strange, amazing adventure. Together we have braved language barriers, cultural misunderstandings, professional disagreements, stolen radios, jail, police raids, heart attacks, and the death of friends and acquaintances. I am not the same, that is an easy leap of faith…but more importantly, my hope is that they are not the same. I pray for this.