Tasha

Tasha says she never, ever – never! – raised her kids – Darius, who’s dead, and Isiah, who got shot in the face three weeks ago – to be criminals. I had asked her if either had run into trouble with the law. No, she said, shaking her head, no, no, no. I noticed her teeth, long snaggly things shaped like the rounded, prehistoric teeth of a long-extinct feline, interspersed in her mouth so sporadically, clumps of white protruding here and there like boulders. Her jaws are tight, she’s clenching them on and off and on again and grinning at me with half-shut eyes like she’s about to explode. Craig says she might have hooked up with some poor white trashy speed freak who’s started to hang around lately, feeding her the latest cocktails of bliss from the white side of the world. No, says Tasha, Isiah and Darius were good kids, good kids. Darius got slain down on 14th and Peralta a year ago next week, on October 7th at 10 A.M in the morning – 10 AM! – and it took the police 40 minutes to arrive at all and the whole time Darius just lay there dying, dying, dying, dead by the time they got there and the fire station was just a block away. But the fireman can’t come unless the police get there first, she says.

Old Tasha is familiar with how the city works, how to break its balls, bust it, milk it, fuck it up and suck it down, drain it of all its power. She shakes her head and the tears start spilling out and down her soft brown cheeks. So there it is. And now in the way she’s talking to me, calm and articulating wherever she can and maybe saying the things that she thinks I want to hear – that she’s a good person, that she loves her kids, wants what’s best for them, and she’s shaking her head and saying all this and then suddenly she’s laughing. Darius was shot down at 10 AM in the morning and he wasn’t even the target, he was just sitting or standing, she can’t be sure which, with the wrong set of boys at the wrong time and in the wrong place, and here comes a car full of the wrong kind of people and – ratta-crack-ratta-ratta-crack – down he goes in blood – and he wadn’t even the target — and it took the police 40 minutes just to get there, and the fire station is only a block away – a block! She’s laughing now.

“So much for aim,” she says, the kind of thing a kid says to impress a teacher, I think. She shakes her head. In her right hand she holds a cigarette away on the other side of the rotting banister and she shuffles her feet along the boards that make up the stairs, also rotting and tells me to watch where I sit because the boards are old, and her pink velour sweatshirt is open part way and every now and again when she gestures a giant scar in the middle of her chest rears up, an ugly, closed eyelid seared into her sternum and I want more than anything to ask her where she got it but I don’t. Next time, I think. Tasha says that for years she lived in the basement of the house, or the bottom floor, it isn’t entirely clear what’s what, until the old lady who used to live upstairs died and then she had to move out for a while. But Tasha doesn’t really want to talk about all that. She wants to talk about Ms. V. Ms. V who lives down the street, right there, in that big white Victorian house with the two windows in front and the black SUV parked in the driveway because Ms.V has always been her rock, her mother to go, her lean-to here in this neighborhood which is going to shit, with all the drug dealers running around and the kids who can’t walk home from school no more and the people who can’t sit out on their front porches no more – shit, I get nervous just sittin here like this – and the random men truckin around with their shopping carts full of cans and bottles which they’re gonna take to the recycling center down the street. Ms. V has lived here for years, longer than anyone and she’s the one Tasha goes to when she’s got problems, problems with her kids or her ex-husband Carlos, who’s just one of the fathers to her three sons gone, Darius shot down in the street a year ago, Tyrone sent to prison for armed robbery earlier this year and now Isiah shot in the face and gone into hiding and not even Tasha really knows where he is and even if she did she’s not going to say to me, who’s just come up on her front porch like this and started asking questions. Ms. V knows Tasha’s pain she does, she knows it because she’s probably lived through it herself, and because Ms. V, well, her name is Lavine but that’s all Tasha knows, is about the closest thing she’s got to, to, to a mother, you know? She’s all Tasha’s got. Well, except for Isiah, who’s gone now and she don’t want to bother him none until he comes up for air, and then he’ll be ready to talk and Tasha will be there for him. That’s how it’s gonna be, that’s how it always has been, and ain’t nothing gonna change that now.

Miner

People killing each other in Alaska.

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On the horizon was a low rose bank of clouds, and underneath the clearness that marked the open sea and the rainless stretch to the Charlottes. They had passed to the east. Passed in near silence, the long arms of the spreaders peeled out and swaying like the brass levers of a meat balance. To each side plates of silver, and on the near shores the thick green of the forest.
Jim raised the red metal of his cup to his face.
Miner stood by the bulwarks and watched the waters skin. He saw people, then lost them. They floated up before him in slow drifts and hovered. His grandfather, Cy, sitting in the tamaracks and warm wind. Claire, swimming naked in the river, then squatting in the yellow autumn grass, her face just above the seed pods, a curtain for her mouth. He had been gone three weeks. Paul had made him sign a paper to absolve them of his death should it occur on their watch, and shuffled it away in a drawer full of table screws and yellowed paper, and when the drawer fell out in innocence one day, it got put back empty.

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Miner was the first on deck to see the buoys. He called up to Paul.
They were just markers. Underneath, like the one they had just left behind, the line led down to the floor, where the hooks began. It disabled them momentarily in the throat. Once they bit they sat for hours waiting brainlessly. Fuckers can’t think, Butler had said. And then at some appointed hour they began to rise, first one, then another, then like souls toward heaven, all of them at once. They started to rise in white skeletal lightness towards a surface they’ve never seen. The bright green and frothing barrier of sound. The dozens or hundreds of them, all strung along a lone iron wire coiling beneath them, all those bodies through ochre sand and grit, ripped from plants and arrested, wafting in a chain of circling diamond-shaped hanks, in circles, to death.

Paul rounded the boat alongside the pink buoys and Jim leaned over the side and hauled them aboard. He untied them from the line and tossed them into the stern and then placed the line into the hydraulic pulley. He snapped a bolt over the line to lock it in place, and winched it in electronically to make it tight. Then he stepped back. Paul was climbing down the ladder from the top-house. He had a beer in one hand.
“Careful,” said Jim.
Paul shook his head. He was smiling.
“Goddamn if a guy don’t get old,” he said.
“I’ll still be fucking in my grave,” Jim said, and laughed, “Never stop.”
Paul took up his place by the winch, and the rest of them moved to their positions. Jim and Miner stood at the side with the gaff hooks. Butler stood behind them, with the hammer.
The boat listed gently and they bent their knees in time. The sky was grey and low all the way to its end. And there they hid.
“Alright,” Paul said, “Let’s get em in.”
The first hooks came up empty. Miner handed them back to Butler, who took them with gloved hands and hooked them into the side of a plastic bin. Paul stopped the pulley for each hook, then started it up again. The sea broke against the boat in the troughs, blew water in near their feet, threw marionettes of spray into their faces. Paul leaned over the side and watched for the beasts to rise.
Long and red-wrought, the weight of the hook in Miner’s hand was heavy. He pinged it against the bulwark then didn’t anymore.
Suddenly the line stopped. Miner peered over. The darkness ripped and a flash of white was visible.
Paul brought the line up a few more inches then stopped it again.
“Fuckers big,” he said.
Butler began to get up from the stern but Paul motioned him down again. He looked at Miner and started the line again.
Miner leaned over, his gaff hook poised. The fish broke the surface quietly, like a swimmer, big as a man and weighty. Miner leaned in and tried to hook the gills underneath its eye. But the hook bounced off.
“Don’t be a goddam pussy about it!” Paul was screaming.
Miner raised the hook again. But he was too slow. Jim suddenly pushed him out of the way, hauled one leg over the bulwark and slipped the other around a guy wire. He raised his hook and slammed it into the waging fish. Paul groaned because of the gash.
“Get it in,” he shouted.

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All fury and discordant death. She began to slam into the wet deck. Butler stepped in and hammered three quick blows and as the thrashing ceased the men’s shoulders dropped. Jim dropped his gaff hook and picked up a knife. No one said anything. He gave the knife to Miner. He slid the knife up her throat and cut clean into her neck. He slit her belly open and peeled back the skin. On the other end of the knife was a spoon. He dug into her belly and emptied her of her guts, which washed across the wood into the wash holes. Then, he took a rope and slid it through her mouth and tied her to the bulwark.
Miner looked around. The others were busy working the line and the incoming hooks. Paul looked back at him now and again. He took his gloved fingers and put them through her jaws, feeling the teeth through the plastic and the blood seeped out in blooms across his fingers.

One by one they tossed them back to him, fish the size of men, and one by one he killed them with his knife. Gutted them with the spoon, slashed their innards out of the oval hollow that lay beneath their eyes, washed it clean with water from a bucket, and then tied them with ropes to the sides of the boat. Their numbers grew. Until the line was clear and the last empty hook came up. Paul stopped the line, pulled the pink buoys in and tossed them back into the stern.
“Pack em up with ice and put em in the hold,” he said, “Then you’re done.”

– Alaska, 1998

Sadr’s dream

Muqtada al-Sadr is still angry.

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Here’s what his neighborhood looked like in 2004, Part II:

After our interview, Amar decided he wanted us to meet another commander, someone higher up in the hierarchy who could give us an even better perspective on what was happening in Iraq. After driving around for a while behind a truck full of fighters, we pulled onto a long, wide avenue that had been completely deserted. This part of the city looked as if it had been the site of a plague. Muddy brown shacks stretched off for as far as I could see in every direction. The walls of the houses were crumbling, some had fallen down completely and there were pools of raw sewage in several places. We got out of the car and Amar led us up a set of narrow stairs and onto a white-tiled patio with an outside sink and a line where some laundry still hung. We took off our shoes and he ushered us into a small room whose windows had been painted an ochre-colored green. On the wall was a painting of a woman reading the Koran, but over her breasts someone had placed yet another portrait of Muqtada. In this one, too, he seemed to be in remarkably good dental health.

A short while later, a young man came into the room and greeted us. He was thin, too, but not so gaunt and his face was infused with a great deal of peacefulness. His eyes twinkled when he spoke and he was gracious to the point of excess. He wore a loose white robe, plastic sandals and he had a simple silver ring on one finger. We greeted him and then he disappeared again, only to emerge a short time later with a tray of glasses filled with Tang.

This sheikh, who only ever identified himself to me as Abu Ali, was one of the more senior military and religious figures in the complex network of the Mehdi Army. It is common for people like this to use aliases, and most of them begin with the common Abu, or father, followed by an equally familiar one-word name, usually of a son, like Ali. He sat down opposite us and smiled. A flurry of fighters poured in and out of the room, some delivering messages, others simply sitting down for a while and then leaving to see to some other duty. The sheikh had a cell phone at his feet, which he monitored quite closely, but other than that and the occasional order whispered tersely into someone’s ear, he devoted all of his attention to us. I am continually struck by the extent to which faith, or belief in a cause, can bestow a feeling of peace and calm on people who are responsible for acts of considerable violence. I’ve seen this on both sides of the war here.

As I sat across from this man, he calmly explained to me that his fight was guaranteed to be victorious because martyrdom for God was the greatest of victories. “We are fighting for God, for wisdom, to be fighters in a Muslim army. We are confident that our fight is for God, which is why we will fight until death. This is what happened to Imam Hussein. He died after an honorable battle. This is a great victory for a Muslim. The whole world will see what we’re talking about.” At that point, a small child came into the room carrying a fistful of detonation wires that will eventually be used on the IED’s that are being mined all around the city. The Sheikh took them and placed them carefully in a drawer, which he then locked. And then he said, “It’s not just us who believe. It is our children. It is our families. Our children have been raised to believe what we believe.”

Just then, a huge blast went off outside our window. Everyone scurried outside and the sheikh motioned us up some stairs. Two flights up, we emerged onto a balcony that overlooked the giant slum. The sheikh had his phone to his ear and he was speaking quickly and looking over the edge down into the street where, suddenly, I saw several fighters emerge from behind a series of walls. Then the whole street was crawling with men armed with Kalishnikovs and RPG’s. All had masks on their faces. The sheikh called down to them and waved and they shouted back up to him. I crouched down behind one of the walls wondering what had happened. After a few minutes, the sheikh came over and told us that one of his groups had just launched a Katyusha rocket, a Russian-made surface-to-air missile, at an American base a few miles away. The big, hollow explosion had been the blast as it whistled over our heads. The sheikh was watching the horizon, perhaps to see if there would be an immediate reaction to the attack.

A few days before, U.S attack helicopters had been active around this part of the city, but the Mehdi Army had apparently shot one down and since then the area had been relatively quiet. When it became clear that no such attack was imminent, we followed him back downstairs. The sheikh then told us we could stay the night with his fighters if we wanted, but we declined. Just before leaving, an old woman appeared in the doorway. She was dressed in black but she had uncovered her face, which was tightly drawn and smooth. Her two sons were policemen in Sadr City and they had been kidnapped in another part of the city, a largely Sunnni neighborhood called Adhimiya which has been the site of several serious battles between insurgents and U.S forces. She had come to plead with the sheikh for their release. He immediately got on the phone and spent the next half an hour calling everyone he knew to negotiate on their behalf. The woman eventually got up to leave and she tried to embrace the sheikh, but he pulled away from her, laughing, and shooed her off.

He saw us down to the street and waved us good-bye, as if we were in-laws. The usual throngs of loyal soldiers stood at the ready, but in the empty street it seemed a bit pathetic. I imagined them pulling off their masks, whipping out some cigars, making funny faces.

Two weeks ago, several churches were bombed in Iraq. I pick the churches because they are only the most recent example, but there are very few places of worship that have not been targeted at one point or another. Last year, the Shia holy shrines were attacked and hundreds were killed. Imams have been assassinated. People have been murdered on the steps of their mosques, or kidnapped walking out of them. But one day, I went to visit one of the sites, the Church of Peter and Paul, in a poor neighborhood called Dohra, where it’s thought that several groups of Sunni extremists make their base. After speaking to the pastor, I went out into the parking lot. It was charred black and it held the skeletons of 19 cars. There was one man poking around in the rubble and I asked if I could speak to him. It was his car that had been destroyed, he said. Many of his friends had died. The congregation had gathered for a burial service when the bomb went off. Who would do this, he wanted to know, and why. That same day, five other bombs went off in four separate churches. Every site was a disaster. If you have never seen what a bombsite looks like, or you have become numbed by images that do not convey the scope of the destruction, consider how it might look where you are right now. Imagine that spanning outward from where you are sitting, for 50 feet in every direction, there is now nothing, and no one, left. It is black from having been burnt, or it is still burning. The object that is now on your immediate left is suddenly 80 feet away, and it is ripped in two. Every solid object you can touch or see, objects you think could withstand large shocks, is hollow and destroyed. It smells like you are breathing ash, and you are. You feel surrounded by emptiness and, for perhaps the first time, you are thinking about who those people were, and every living face around you is strikingly close, near to you.

Baghdad, 2004

“Our Wish…”

One of the villains has surrendered in DRC.

Meanwhile…

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Below, in the lower fields that stretch up the long valley that leads to the Mountain of the Moon are the refugee camps. We don’t stop at any of these because we want to see those that have been established at the higher, more precarious encampments, but we know they’re down there, full by the tens of thousands.

One day I sat down with one of the Virunga Park rangers, Paulin Ngobobo, and asked him to explain the situation in Congo’s east to me. “There is a profusion of armed groups here,” he said, “That’s the biggest problem. People thought something was going to work after the war, but the warlords around here were just rewarded with bigger posts in the Army, or they got paid off, and other people started to see that it was a good way to get ahead.” Paulin said the near constant insecurity about the political and military situation resulted in an ever-increasing pool of people who fed off the conflict – poachers, scavengers, hunters, Rwandan war criminals eager to seek revenge on their Tutsi enemies, Tutsi militias eager to finish off the Hutu Interahamwe who were still living in the forests by the thousands, Mai Mai rebels whose grievances dated back to colonial times and whose allegiance was constantly shifting.

Paulin was responsible for the southern end of the Virunga Park, where many of the militias were living, and fighting. “Sometimes we go out and nothing bad happens,” he said, “But there are parts of the park that we’ve totally lost control of. You get five guys with guns in the jungle and one of them declares himself a general and the government comes in and either promotes him or pays him off – that says a lot about the state of affairs we’ve got here.”

Laurent Nkunda was the general responsible for a lot of the conflict. It was complicated, but Nkunda bore a significant share of the blame for the chaos in the Kivus. He was a Tutsi and many people believed, and he had said as much in interviews with the press on various occasions, that his loyalty was to the Tutsi population that spanned the Congolese-Rwandan border, more than to the sovereign governments of either state. Tutsis were still being massacred on the Congolese side, he said, which was true. The Hutu Interahamwe that had fled Rwanda after the genocide had come here, to these hills, and most estimates put their numbers at around 10,000, and they were still out for Tutsi blood.

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Nnkunda had fashioned himself as a sort of uber Tutsi protector, holing himself up in a jungle redoubt in North Kivu, and taking the righteous Tutsi war to anyone and everyone who dared to put his people in danger. Nkunda’s detractors said that his Tutsi soldiers were as responsible as anyone for the proliferation of rapes that were spreading through the little villages along those lush hillsides, that his righteous Tutsi anger meant that any Hutu had become a target, and they pointed to numerous cases of group executions, mass graves and roving bands of Tutsi thugs whose only aim seemed to be to spread mayhem and chaos and destabilize the Congolese government.

Nkunda was a murderous thug and a war criminal. Nkunda was a hero and savior. No one really knew the truth. But no one doubted that the killing was rampant, gruesome, and that ultimately nobody gave a damn. “Nkunda can kill all the innocent civilians he wants and nobody bats an eyelid,” said Emmanuel, one of the supervisors of Virunga’s park ranger program, and the one showing Brent and me around, “But as soon as a gorilla gets killed the whole world rises up in protest.”

Just north of the Kivus is a region called Iturri. This was one of the places Joseph Conrad visited when he came to the Congo during the murderous reign of King Leopold II, when hundreds of thousands of Congolese were being slaughtered to satisfy Leopold’s rapacious need for the rubber that was fueling his empire’s expansion. Again, after the Rwandan genocide, Iturri became a place of horror. Between 2001 and 2003 Tutsi sympathizers swept through plundering and murdering as they went. They had Rwandan government support. One day, Emmanuel tells me that he has a video of a gang of Tutsis who killed a woman and then made her children eat her. “It really is like Kurtz,” Emmanuel says, “Nkunda? Is he a saint? A sinner? This place makes those kinds of people possible.”

In Virunga, every time the militias emerge from the forest the people living in and around the park have to clear out. The regular army, on the heels of the militias, sweeps through and destroys the towns. They rape and pillage. They steal. The Congolese Army isn’t getting paid, or at least it wasn’t when I was there, and so they take what they can from the villagers instead.

One day I sat down with a villager, a woman named Nyira Machuri. She was 50 years old. She started to tell me about the fighting in 1996, right after the Rwandan genocide. “The Tutsi military came and said they wanted to liberate the Congo,” she said, “They brought their goats and killed my husband. After that they killed my son as well.” Ten years later, when the war with Laurent Nkunda was in full swing, Machuri got hit again. “They came again and stole all our vegetables, our goats, everything, and then took off for Mngongo. The military that is based around here don’t have any salaries so they stole all our food, they ate our dogs! It’s difficult.” A week before my visit, she told me, the military came again and killed her father. “The troops came and asked for food. They ate the food. Then they took my father to his room and asked for money. He said he didn’t have any. They beat him. Then they killed him.”

I met with another villager, Zabonimba Mbunyimbuga, 47, who related a similarly gruesome tale. “At night sometimes we think we won’t make it through. A month ago bandits came through here and hacked a guy to death with machetes. It’s mostly the Congolese military that comes through, they ask for money, anything, they take what they want. When there are problems we tell the officials but they don’t do anything. Even now the Interahamwe live close by. Right now they’re not doing anything but when they do, they’ll start killing people all over. The only way for us to have peace is to get these people out of here.”

I asked about the time when the bandits came and killed the guy with machetes. He seemed to have glossed over it. It had happened seventeen days earlier. A group of men came and started drinking some banana liquor called kassiksi.

“We welcomed them in,” Zabonimba told me, “One guy wanted to drink, so they all started. Then he said, ‘We’re eating now, but our wish is to kill the people in this house.’ So people started to run away when they heard that. The whole village panicked and fled, but that was when they killed the guy with machetes.”

Zabonimba said the whole village sleeps in the jungle now, so they can escape if they need to. It was on the edge of the park, an hour’s walk distant. A few nights earlier he had gone back to his village to see how things were. He stayed on the edge of the forest and peered over, but the huts were destroyed or burned, the animals were all gone, the stench of abandon had set in. That night he slept in the bananas and in the morning he returned to the forest.

– DR Congo, 2007

Juba Child

Africa will welcome a new nation on Saturday with the birth of South Sudan.

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One day in 2009 I went to an orphanage in Juba, the capital of South Sudan. It was a hot afternoon, and dusty, but inside the walls were cool and clean and I sat down on a bench to wait.

There I met George Komagun. He was 16. George was born in a small Ugandan town called Kitgum. Sometime in March of 2005, he was abducted by soldiers from the Lord’s Resistance Army. LRA soldiers killed his parents when they abducted him. The day I met him he wore a pair of tattered green pants, a thin blue shirt and blue flip-flops. He sat on the bench across from me and told me what he could of his story.

For going on 30 years the LRA has been abducting children from villages in northern Uganda, Eastern Congo and here, in South Sudan, and turning them into brutal child soldiers. George spent five years in the bush with Joseph Kony, the LRA’s leader and Africa’s longest surviving warlord.

George thinks he killed a lot of people, he told me. He had trouble meeting my gaze, stared at the floor often, and periodically slurped a spoonful of greenish pea soup towards his mouth, sometimes managing to get half the contents into his mouth.

He explained how it worked with Joseph Kony.

“If you kill someone, Kony will say, ‘You killed that person, you drink their blood now and eat their liver.’ I ate the livers.”

I asked him how many times.

“Maybe twenty times,” he said. He remembers drinking blood. He tells me he may have killed about 200 people. There is no way to verify this. But as I sit watching him, he seems dead inside, dead to the world, and I’m inclined to believe his story. He is defeated, broken. He slurps some more soup and casually watches the world around us, as if it’s something he would like to partake of, like to understand.

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“Kony should be killed,” he says when I ask him what should happen, “He killed a lot of children.”

He takes another bite of soup. “If Kony is killed, people will eat his body.”

His social worker, a young woman from Juba who works with former child soldiers here in Juba, tells me that George is heavily medicated.

“People should eat Kony, he killed so many people,” George repeats.

He tells me he was with Kony that December, when the Ugandan army, with the help of the Americans, mounted an air assault on a compound in Eastern Congo to rout the rebel leader out. George saw the helicopters come, a big airplane, black.

“They were bombing us,” he says, “Some people died, I ran when the airplanes bombed us seriously. We tried to fight the helicopters but couldn’t.”

Three months later, on March 23rd, he escaped. He cried for two days.

I ask him what his nights are like now.

“At night?” he asks, and I nod. “These people I killed come in dreams,” he says, “They’re crying, saying don’t kill me, don’t kill me.”

Juba, South Sudan, 2009

La Jungle Part 2

Chiapas state, in Mexico, can be a pretty dangerous place sometimes.

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Part Two of the Chiapas story, by popular demand!

“You’ll see your children again,” I whispered, “I’m not worried.”
But the men kept talking, louder and louder, throwing their voices and their scorn over the thin plywood wall that separated us so precariously. On one wall a picture of the Virgen de Guadalupe, cloaked in blue robes and thin, white outstretched hands, stared mournfully down at us. Fernando listened wide-eyed to the chatter and every now and again peered over at us and mouthed a few noiseless words, trying to convey some sense of what the latest threats could mean for us. M lay in the corner and shuddered from fear and from the pains that wracked her belly. Until eventually the voices slowed, then dimmed, and then with the light on the other side, disappeared altogether.

None of us slept that night.

And in the morning the man returned to wake us. He knocked gently on the door and swept inside.
“They’re waiting for you,” he said.
“Who is waiting?” we asked.
“El pueblo,” he said. The village.

So we stumbled outside into a morning that was gray and wet. The whishing palms were quiet. The grasses smelled fresh. The dogs had been heeled in and wandered along dirt roads, sniffing for the refuse of the night before. The man led us to a field. I stopped short at the sight.

A giant circle of men stood silently waiting. The diameter must have been a hundred meters wide. Every man in the village seemed to be standing there. It was 7:30 in the morning.
Refuse from the night before was scattered across the ground. Bottles, plastic, cardboard and clothes, and a few women and children were slowly making their way through the village starting the cleanup. But the rest of the crowd was focused soberly on us, and it suddenly dawned on me just how disruptive our visit must have been. Whatever wretchedness the night before had produced, in their minds our ours, in their bellies or ours, it was nothing compared to the force, the sense of solidarity that drew them here in the dawn hours to confront the people who had come uninvited and unimpeded into their midst on such a holy night. Because now there they stood in judgment of us, and our trial was about to take place within the circle of their community, ringed by nothing more than the ground and the men who stood upon it, and the machetes those men carried.

A looming maple tree, hundreds of years old, stood at one end. No one was talking. They stared at us, ushered us into the center of the circle, equidistant from one and from another, and for a very long time they said nothing.

Some of the men had machetes at their sides. They did not look friendly at all, even though some of them were speaking quietly among themselves, and a few of them laughed. Off to one side, in the shadows of trees or leaning next to some small shacks were the women, dressed in bright gowns, shoeless, and holding their babies in tightly wrapped cloth sacks strapped to their backs. And they swayed.

A man of medium height with strapping arms and a fierce scowl stepped forward into the circle and addressed our translator.
“Tell us who you are, and what you want here,” he bellowed out, “You have told us you are journalists. What is it you are doing here?”
The crowd nodded its silent assent at this request. The machete blades gleamed like dead fish in their hands, caught in the silver of the morning sun.

“We come as friends,” Fernando told them. “We come in peace.”

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He addressed their fears as he had heard them expressed to him on earlier visits. We were not part of the government, come to take their lands, he told them, nor their water or their wives. This had happened before, we knew, and maybe those hard men of the night before were the ones who had made it happen.

The government had tried to quell these villages in the dark of night. And because of that these villagers had known war. It wasn’t too far from here that the rebel leader, El Sub Commandante Marcos had staged his uprising, and his soldiers were known to live in the nearby forests. But we were not the government, Fernando said in his quiet voice, we were not here scouting for energy. The water was theirs. The land was theirs.

There was a shifting among the crowd and some of them were nodding their heads and smiling. Some laughed. But they wanted to hear it from us. Daniel and Fernando took turns reassuring them of our good intentions. Then it was M’s turn and she apologized and told them she only wanted to take pictures of them “so that the world can understand.”

No one asked me to speak, and I didn’t. I was too foreign, perhaps, too white.
I watched them and bowed my head and felt contrite.

And slowly, the circle began to dissolve and disappear and the women at its edges turned away and began walking back into the wide green palms of the morning, disappearing.
As if the world had opened once more, we were left in that open field with nothing but the sky above our heads, and the massive tree that rooted it to this earth, and all I wanted was to rush to it and lie on the ground beside its great, enduring weight.

Chiapas, Mexico 2003