Saturday, July 2, 2011

The French Lieutenant's iPod

The French Lieutenant and I are riding beside one another in a rattletrap, 30 year old, Soviet-made cargo helicopter. We're returning to Abeche in eastern Chad from a refugee camp called Kounoungo about 120 kilometers away. Kounoungo is close to the Darfur border and is home to refugees who were driven from their homes by the war. It's not really a giddy flight.

We're quiet partly because it's a very depressing problem. The war in Darfur has been going on for four years now and these people are no closer to going home than they were three years ago. But we're also quiet because we've just more or less witnessed two senseless killings and then walked away because we were worried that something worse might happen. Something worse than two men killing each other, that is.


The war in Darfur and Chad is part of an on again off again war the leaders of Chad, Sudan and Libya have fought since 1971. More often than not the political leaders have been able to pit one tribe against another, exploiting ethnic tensions by manipulating access to scarce resources. But when this won't work they go at each other with their nations' standing armies. This fighting is just another round in the long war. These men were only the latest to die.

In 2003, at about the same time the Darfur crisis moved from rebellion to war and genocide, a young Chadian military officer left the ranks to form a rebel band just across the border in Darfur. The man, Mahamat Nour, was a Tama tribal leader. As he left Chad for Sudan, he took hundreds of young Tama men with him. The Sudanese government, keen to see a change in the government of Chad because that regime supported the Darfurian rebels who were fighting the Sudanese, gave Nour weapons, support and sanctuary for his nascent rebellion.

In return, Nour and his fighters did the Government of Sudan's bidding, fighting as part of the Janjaweit militias killing, burning and raping among the Zaghawa, Fur and Massaliet villages in West Darfur. Civilians in the path of these atrocities civilians fled across the border in to Chad. The United Nations established relief camps in eastern Chad for refugees. Once the camp at Konoungo was established, 18,000 refugees from the war moved in.

Konoungo itself is a fine place for camels. The land is hard and rocky, desiccated. A family can scratch out a meager garden of sorghum and beans, but nothing will flourish if the rains don't come. The rains haven't come for five years. The refugees receive shelter, food and water from the UN but the local townspeople receive little or nothing. The refugees are ethnic Zaghawa; the townspeople are ethnic Tama.

And into this we've come, the French Lieutenant and I. We've been sent here by our governments to report what's happening back to our respective capitals. We often travel together when the African Union's peacekeepers have space on their aircraft for us, and on this day we are standing in the market area of the camp interviewing refugees about the ethnic tension when we hear an exchange of gunfire a couple hundred meters away. There have been bandits in the area and the local gendarmes are eager to capture them.

Given the proximity and intensity of the gunfire, we figure something might soon be happening over at the medical clinic, so we walk across the field in that direction trailed by the dozen or so refugee kids who are our unofficial escorts in the camp. They don't have much to do, school only runs for part of the day. So when a couple khawajah - white people - arrive it must feel like they've just gotten 100 channels of cable TV and a jumbotron.

The clinic isn't much to look at really. It's just a couple of white tents erected by a western medical NGO. There is always a line of patients outside. Maybe even more today since it's one of the days the NGO doctor visits. The doctor is Azerbaijani and has come here on a year-long contract to work for a not-quite-western salary because it's better than anything she could get in the former Soviet republics. She is a surgeon who spends much of her time delivering babies and taking bullets out of young men. She is small and pretty with a thatch of dark curly hair she keeps mostly tied back, and she looks as out of place here as I do.

Some of the people waiting in line to see her watch us walk up and make a space for us in the shade provided in the lee of the tent. I smile and say shoukhran - thank you - and touch my right hand to my heart.

We wait outside the clinic for a few minutes until, predictably, a small truck arrives bearing the bodies of the men killed in the firing we heard. What happened is seemingly relatively simple: two men shot each other in the wadi - the dry creekbed - just outside the refugee camp. One man was a bandit, robbing refugees and local townspeople as they walked through the wadi to market. The other was a gendarme trying to arrest the bandit. But this isn't just a cops and robbers story, and these aren't just two dead men. No, that would be too simple.

One man was a Zaghawa and the other a Tama. In the fragile, precarious existence between refugees and locals, ethnicity is an accelerant: it increases the volatility of the spark. We came here because this place is on the cusp of something sinister, something that looks a lot like ethnic cleansing or the early stages of genocide. These killings could be the spark that ignites a prairie fire of ethnic violence across Dar Tama.

The doctor comes out of the clinic into the gravel parking area where we are standing to pronounce dead the two men, for surely they are dead and this is just a formality. The dead men are laid out in the back of the pick up, their legs and arms akimbo and entwined as they would never have been in life, but in death uncaring I suppose. It's hot and already flies are buzzing around them, attracted to the blood on their shirts and the moisture around their eyes and mouths.

I exchange glances with the doctor. We've been in a catch-as-catch-can relationship for a few weeks now, and I have sought comfort in her arms after investigating some truly grisly stuff. Just the week prior, several Zaghawa men were pulled off of a bus by a group of armed Tama men. Their bound and mutilated bodies were found a couple days later along the edge of the road. A lone survivor was made to witness the tortures and murders. He was badly beaten, then released and told to warn others that this is what will happen to all the Zaghawa who stay in Dar Tama. There have been other things, too. Not long before that, ... well, never mind. Suffice to say it's a cruel, nasty war even as these things go and each of these events serves to magnify the unease most everyone feels, to ratchet up the tension a little bit more.

The doctor puts her hand on my shoulder and pulls herself up into the bed of the pickup. She leaves her hand on my shoulder perhaps a second longer than is necessary. I suppose I am the only one who notices, but I do notice and I know she is thinking about me, worrying probably. She knows I have been falling apart for a couple years. Since Afghanistan my brain doesn't work well sometimes.

She squats down and puts her fingers along the dead gendarme's carotid artery for a couple seconds, checking one side then the other. She shakes her head slightly. He's dead. She moves on to the dead bandit and repeats the fingers to the throat thing. He's dead too. She stands and moves back to the edge of the tailgate. The French Lieutenant reaches up to help her down. She takes his hand, then steps down off the back of the truck.

One of the peacekeepers steps up into the bed of the pickup, pulls the dead bandit's corpse up into a sitting position and braces it against his knee, then beckons for me to take a photograph. I'm thinking please don't open his shirt just as he begins to pull at the buttons of the man's bloody yellow shirt to open it and expose the wounds in his chest. The dead bandit's head lolls about and one of the other officers reaches over the edge of the truck's bed to hold it up so his face will show in the photo. I look at his chest and it is covered in blood. I can see the three bullet holes and without really thinking I'm pointing my little camera at it and I'm pressing the button and checking the shot and I'm nodding to the officer, who drops the dead bandit's corpse back onto the bed of the truck and moves to pick up the dead gendarme's corpse. And we go through the same series of tasks with him opening the gendarme's bloody camouflage tunic and me pointing the camera at the man's bloody chest except that now I'm shaking on the inside and trying not to and then I've got the shot and I put my little camera away.

I've been a reporting officer for the government for about 15 years. I've worked in Rwanda, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Darfur, so I've seen lots of this stuff. But I'm not inured to it. Others seem somehow unmoved, but I simply cannot steel myself against a visceral reaction to the dead, the mutilated, the humiliated no matter how many times they confront me.

These dead are just the latest in the line of dead in the wars I've reported. And while they all look different, they bleed the same. These bleed just like all the others bled: just like the Kosovars, just like the Serbs, just like the Hutus and just like the Tutsis, just like the Afghans, just like the Iraqis, just like the Darfuris. They all look different, but they all bleed the same and they all die the same. The only other constant seems to be me wandering around pointing my camera at corpses and taking notes in my little spiral notebook.

I turn on my heel back towards the hospital tent's door, and I see the doctor standing there in the shade. She has surgery to conduct inside but she's waiting there just long enough for me to see her. She smiles a little and gives me a look that I think means she wants me to know she cares and is concerned about me. I nod and look down at the ground because I'm embarrassed, and then she's gone.

I catch myself looking down at the ground and shaking my head almost imperceptibly, so I straighten up and push my sunglasses back up a little. I pause and take stock of what I know. I've seen enough to write my report.

I've seen enough. Maybe I've seen too much. Sometimes I feel like I'm still in all those other places, in all those other wars. Or maybe all those other places and all those others wars are still in me. I don't know. But for right now at least, I'm here. And still the killing and dying goes on. I could write a hundred thousand words about the root causes of the conflicts citing historic grievances and ethnic rivalries manipulated by despotic leaders through the inequitable distribution of resources, and still it will go on. Only the venue changes. There is a war and there are dead guys and I am here. Me and The French Lieutenant.

The peacekeeper steps off of the back of the truck, and as he does the dead gendarme's head plops over and I see that his eyes are still open. They stare blindly, open, flat and dull, into the sun while I stare mutely at him. And as I'm staring at him I think of the line in The Odyssey where Agamemnon's ghost recounts his murder at the hands of his wife Clytemnestra:

"As I lay dying, the woman with the dog's eyes would not close my eyes even as I descended into Hades."

I pause for a second and wonder what this guy saw as he lay dying. I wonder if he is watching us as he descends into… where, hell? I worry that if his eyes are open he won't have his obolus, the pennies on his eyes to pay his toll, and I wonder if Charon will ferry him across the Acheron without payment? This guy was just a cop trying to do his job, trying to arrest some kid who is robbing refugees. I mean really, robbing refugees, how low is that? This bandit kid was probably with Nour burning villages and raping as part of the Janjaweit. He might have taken part in the attacks that displaced some of the people in this camp. He had probably been fighting and killing since he was twelve or thirteen, he looks about sixteen now. He survived the war and then gets killed here near his hometown while robbing refugees. And he took the cop out with him. I can't bring myself to reach out and close the gendarme's eyes, but when nobody's looking I reach into my pocket and slip a Chadian coin under his collar, for Charon, just in case.

Someone in the group suggests we get back to the helicopter. The peacekeepers are concerned about more gunplay or an uprising from within the camp. I can’t tell if it's me feeding off of the peacekeepers' nervousness or what, but there is definitely a weird vibe. So we make our way back to the field next to the market where the aircraft sits. The pilots must have sensed something, too, because they have already done their pre-flight checks. We trundle aboard the aircraft and sit side-by-side on the bench seats along the fuselage. As the crew chief is closing the door the engines whine and the big five-bladed rotor starts to turn overhead. I look out through the port side windows and see the crowd of people standing around the aircraft in a loose circle watching us. The jumbotron is departing, I think. But that's not it. These people are watching us leave and wondering why the hell we came in the first place. Before the shooting started some of the tribal leaders were complaining that western diplomats come out to the camp every couple weeks, they all make promises to improve things and to end the genocide that drove the refugees here in the first place, but nothing ever happens. The leaders told us they have a hard time rustling up a crowd to meet with visiting dignitaries now because people are tired of telling the same stories over and over for nothing.

Now we're lifting off. And just as the downdraft from the rotor is roiling the dirt and rocks into a whirlwind among the crowd, a squadron of seven or eight gun trucks arrives, bad-assing their way in from the northeast, each truck laden with eight or nine troops and a heavy machine gun or recoilless rifle.

As we pass over the formation, the refugees' attention shifts away from the helicopter leaving. It is clear that we can do nothing for them or to them now. Some shift their attention to the Chadian troops who have come to give chase to the other bandits and avenge the death of their comrade, while others shift back to the issue at hand, the sale of a few peanuts or a couple AA batteries on a razor thin profit margin.

And now, just now, there is something about the way the light hits the glass or the smell of the dust in the air or the shudder of the helicopter as it turns, something, and I know that this is my last field mission. I'm done. I've seen enough.

So the French Lieutenant and I sit side by side in the aircraft flying back to Abeche, both settling into the recesses of our iPods. I choose "Gimme Shelter" by the Rolling Stones; he chooses "Civil War" by Guns 'N Roses. I'm sure this means something, but I'll have to wait to think about it. This place is complex enough without trying to draw some great metaphorical significance out of the music two westerners choose to listen to while we fly away from the problem.

(This essay won First Prize for Creative Non-Fiction in the Press 53 Open Awards competition.)

1 comment:

Karon Luddy said...

Haunting story about terror-stricken people, places, and things. Thanks for being such a generous witness to these atrocities.