Category Archives: War

“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

Sad(r) stories

Muqtada al-Sadr is back and he’s got a few things to say.

Here’s what his enclave of Sadr City was like back in 2004:

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Early last week, I went to Baghdad’s largest slum, a warren of market streets and crumbling houses known as Sadr City. It’s estimated about 2 million Shiites live here, making it by far the largest single neighborhood in Iraq. In one of his more vainglorious moves, Saddam Hussein gave the neighborhood a personal baptism, called it Saddam City, and adorned it with a self-promotional billboard, a montage of him in military fatigues set against a backdrop of Mecca and collective religious devotion. After the war, crowds ripped the poster down and replaced it with a similar visual barrage featuring a young cleric named Muqtada al-Sadr who, it is said, is the latest in a long line of clerics descended directly from the prophet Mohammed. Sadr City is in open revolt these days. There are hundreds of men with Kalashnikovs, RPG’s and pistols roaming the streets.

My guide was a young man named Hisham. He is 30 years old and volunteers as a block commander in the Mehdi Army, the band of young men who have supported Muqtada in his revolt against the U.S occupation and the interim Iraqi government. Saddam Hussein jailed Hisham for two years, from 1998 to 2000, for subversive activities. It’s likely that he, like thousands of other Shia who went to prison or were executed by the former regime, was innocent. In jail, he met other young men like him. They were impoverished and angry, persecuted for their religious devotion to the Sadr family and their belief in the Mehdi, an esoteric religious figure whose return to earth is thought to herald the beginning of an era of peace and prosperity, followed by the end of the world. When Hisham got out of jail he married. Then the war and the Americans came. He welcomed them at first. But as time went on it became clear that the situation in his neighborhood wasn’t improving as he first thought it would. Raw sewage still spilled out into the streets. There was no clean water. Typhoid was rampant. It wasn’t long after that Muqtada al-Sadr rose to power and, calling upon the masses in the Shia slums, he found a foot soldier in Hisham. During the first insurrection last April, when U.S tanks rolled into Sadr City, Hisham fought them tooth and nail from his own house, which sits on a corner of two of the city’s main arteries and is pock-marked with bullet holes and gouged with shrapnel and debris. During the worst of the fighting, Hisham lay with his family on the floor clutching his wife in his arms. When I visited, he ushered us into a partially exposed sitting room where every wall bore the scars of last spring’s fighting. He sat across from me with his feet tucked neatly under his legs. He told us he was sorry that we wouldn’t be able to stay, but that he would do everything to help us come back in the next day. We agreed and I left him by the side of his house. Several small children were running around in the streets and he picked one up in his arms and held him.

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(Baghdad from on high)

It was several days before I came back to Sadr City, and by then serious fighting had also broken out between the Mehdi Army and about 2,000 U.S Marines in the southern city of Najaf. The Marines were being helped by the newly established Iraqi National Guard, the first well-trained and disciplined native Iraqi force since the invasion not actively fighting against the Americans. This time, I drove in with a photographer friend who had been coming to the city fairly regularly for the previous week. Hisham directed us in through a snarl of traffic. He had spent most of the previous night fighting and had only had two hours of sleep. As we got nearer, Hisham lay his head back against the rest on the chair and began to chant a religious song. My friend motioned outside to several smoldering fires in the pavement where it looked as if the tarmac itself had spontaneously and volcanically combusted. She told me the Mehdi Army had been laying bombs in the road in preparation for the imminent U.S invasion of the neighborhood. These improvised explosive devices, or IED’s in the military jargon, have probably accounted for more U.S military deaths than anything else in Iraq. The strategy here on the edges of Sadr City is simple: place a tire in the road and light a fire. The flames will melt the tarmac deep enough to plant a bomb, after which the hole is filled in again and, with time and the passage of traffic, will become indistinguishable from the rest of the road.

“You can drive over these ones though because they’re not pressure activated,” said my friend. Up ahead, a knot of congestion had formed at a Mehdi Army checkpoint where armed and masked men were directing traffic over curbs and islands to keep too many cars from rolling over the ambushes that had been set up there. The fact is that scenes like this are more and more common. This last week it’s estimated that around 1,000 people died in Iraq in various skirmishes around the country.

Hisham turned around and put his hand on his chest. “Strong heart?” he asked.

I nodded.

Hisham’s military commander and the man most responsible for his more recent religious formation is a young sheikh named Amar. We visited him at his house, a small ground floor room off a sewage-filled side street in the middle of the city. Amar is rail thin, sports a long black beard and loose-fitting black clothes, and carries a black Italian-made Berretta with a delicate silver likeness of Julius Caesar emblazoned in the stock. He put the pistol under his leg and welcomed us. A small boy emerged from a back room with Pepsis; cola of any sort transcends all ideological boundaries. As we exchanged greetings and thank you’s, Amar’s soldiers began to gather in the doorway and some of them came into the room and sat down on the floor next to us, piling their guns against the walls or between their legs. One man in the corner casually twirled a grenade on his index finger, resting it on the trigger clip, while a small child hacked away at a long green tube containing a Russian-made RPG.

Amar began to speak. He told us that he saw no difference between the new interim government that had been appointed by the Americans and the one led by Saddam Hussein. He said that the people of Sadr City had a name for Iyad Allawi, the recently appointed prime minister. “We call him The Slayer,” he said, “The U.S says it liberated Iraq but then it brought in the slayer who loves blood more than Saddam. It’s like a habit for him.” Getting more animated and speaking more to the fighters who had assembled to listen to our interview, he went on. “Is this a terrorist,” he asked, pointing to the small child at his side who had been playing with the RPG earlier. He was speaking calmly and he let a flicker of a smile work its way into his gaze. “We are going to fight to the death and if Allawi wants he will rule over stones. We will not kneel down.” On the wall behind Amar was a large poster of Muqtada. Photos of the cleric that have appeared in the press reveal a mouth with only a very few, yellowing teeth, giving him the look of a snarling but somewhat impotent saber tooth tiger. In this image, the rotting mouth had been cleaned up, probably in photo-shop, and Muqtada had a clean set of small, dainty-white incisors.

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Every once in a while, a breathless young fighter would push his way through the doorway with a report from some front or other. They were various, seemed exaggerated in scope (30 U.S tanks just a few streets away) and conspiratorial (the Peshmerga, Kurdish special forces, were on their way). At every announcement, several of the soldiers would pack their guns onto their shoulders and leave the room briefly for a reconnaissance mission. Not all the intelligence reports were faulty. The Mehdi Army is surprisingly well organized. Armed units of three to five men man every street corner in the city. They often wear masks and they carry radios or cell phones. If there is fighting somewhere in the city, they organize themselves into battalions and limit the number of soldiers that can participate in any one action so as not to deplete resources that might be needed elsewhere. If a foreigner, like a journalist or even an Iraqi who looks suspicious, does enter the city, he is instantly spotted by spies, often small children, whose job it is to keep an eye on the general movement in the city. There is the fever of war in this place and, at times, it is festive. Small groups of fighters will break into spontaneous songs or chants at every opportunity. Outside one of the biggest hospitals, I watched as several young men held up what they claimed to be, and what looked like, the door to a U.S Bradley Fighting Vehicle. They danced around and around it, waving their weapons in the air in the scene that you have seen on television. “Ya Allah, Ya Mohammed,” they shouted, “Ya Ali, Ya Mehdi.” Like the U.S military, this army has cadences which it will sing on the way to a fight. You can see buses full of soldiers, their weapons shoved outside of the windows, sometimes firing off rounds into the sky.

There is, in Shia Islam, this longing for martyrdom, a sort of historical necessity for a rapprochement with death. The two greatest figures in Shiite Islam, Ali and Hussein, were both martyred in bloody and lopsided battles against overwhelming odds, battles they had absolutely no chance of winning, but for which they are remembered now with the most acute sense of longing and devotion I have ever seen. Those battles took place in what is now Iraq. As I write this, the U.S military is engaged in a very fierce firefight with the ideological descendants of those two men on the very same ground, sacrosanct ground to many, about two hours south of Baghdad. In the holy city of Najaf, they are fighting inside the largest Islamic cemetery in the world, an immense expanse of tombs and catacombs filled with the bones of hundreds of years of Shia dead. There is no holier place to be buried if you are Shia and even during the fighting last week people were still arriving from all over Iraq to lay their dead to rest.

– Baghdad, 2004

Haunting World War 1 – Part 2

The last surviving American veteran of WWI has died. He was 110. I wrote about him here last November, and included the first part of an interview I conducted several years ago with a French veteran of that war. Here is the rest of that interview, conducted at Les Invalides Hospital in Paris, in honor of Frank Buckles, who died peacefully in West Virginia.

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Q After the war, did you feel de-sensitized? How did the war change you?
A: It didn’t change me. At the end of the war, I was exactly twenty. I was a young lieutenant. For me it didn’t really change anything. For most French people at the time, it was a huge relief. For me, it wasn’t that, it was just a void. I wondered what was going to happen to me. What’s my actual position? I had a grade, a salary, a uniform, a certain amount of prestige, so what’s going to happen to me? And if I let go of all that, remember I was only seventeen when I started the war, so if I let go of all that all of a sudden, what’s going to happen to me then? I would have to start my studies again, but what studies, those that I had left over three years before? I had gotten into bad habits too. From seventeen to twenty I abandoned my studies, my life aspirations. We didn’t have any idea. We didn’t want to go backwards either. We weren’t ready for life with everything that went with it. So, I stayed in the army. Out of laziness, and with the attitude of we’ll see what happens later. I didn’t have any kind of patriotic sentiment, there was no longer a need to defend France, it was just laziness.

Q: Were you wounded in the war?
A: I was wounded on April 16th of 1917. Almost right after I had been engaged. A German shell exploded near me and I was wounded badly. It was during an offensive when the French army was moving forward in the German lines. I was wounded near Rheims, Bierry au Bac. I was hurt on my arm and in the chest, and my whole left leg. My knee was broken, I was limping. I couldn’t get up. I was evacuated to the southwest of France. I was wounded three times in the different wars that the French were involved in. I never had a terrifying impression of being wounded or of death. I wasn’t a militarist by nature, I was one by laziness.

A: Why did you want to go into the war?
Q: I was curious. I wanted to see what the older boys were doing? What did it mean to go to war? It was also a solution.

Q: Did you ever have hand-to-hand combat in the war?
A: No. What I did have, and which is a sensation which is more agonizing, is the feeling of dying. My first engagements were in the Char. I was wounded six or seven kilometers inside the German lines. I found myself all alone behind the lines, and I had to find a way to get back to the French station which was six or so kilometers behind me. So, I had to do this sort of “chemin de croix” which obliged me to walk six kilometers, multiplied by N, because of the nature of the battlegrounds at that time which were covered with guts and trenches and obstacles of all kinds, and then the cadavers – all that keeps you from making headway. So in order to get across the battlefield I had to walk at least twelve kilometers. And in conditions that were so difficult that I thought I was going to die. I had to get to the emergency station which was near Rheims. I walked about twelve kilometers through a lunar terrain to get there. I either had to get there, or die, that was the only choice. I never would have made it if I hadn’t had the help of an officer. His arm had been burned, but he could still walk. He was a Parisian, he wanted to go home. He found me at the bottom of a trench just at the moment when I couldn’t go on any longer. He asked me what I was doing there and I told him I couldn’t go on any further. So he told me he was going to help me and he gave me his arm and took me to the French medical station. He saved my life. I never knew who he was, he disappeared after that. He was only twenty, he did it out of pity for me. At the station it was a real drama.. It was difficult to get help because we were in the middle of an offensive, there were wounded people everywhere, they were only giving anti-tetanus shots to the officers. There were just a whole lot of problems and difficulties. At any rate, he saved my life. After, it turned out that they needed soldiers who had been behind German lines in order to tell the commanders how and where to proceed. The French artillery needed to know where to shoot. I was in a pretty bad state, but wanted to help if I could. I had been six kilometers inside the lines, the farthest anyone had been, I could help the artillery and tell them where to shoot and where to stop. The Colonel was happy to have found someone who could tell him what he needed to do.

Q: Why were you so far behind the German lines?
A: Because I was in the tanks. I was in the first attack of the tanks, the first time it ever happened. The reason the tanks existed was to penetrate the enemy lines, to rupture them, and then go as far back behind them as possible.

Q: What was the attitude of the French soldiers?
A: They were sick of it, they had had enough. In 1918, it had been going on for four years already, we were getting massacred on the spot, we were stuck in the trenches all the time, there was just no tangible results that we could see. No one could have imagined the result at the beginning of the war. By 1917, the soldiers were sick of the war, it was the period when there were a few rebellions, a few revolts in the French army. But that was related to an unexpected phenomenon. We had been united with Russia. When the Russian Revolution happened in 1917, they stopped wanting to fight in the war. That freed up a huge part of the German army, the part that had been fighting against the Russians, to come back down to France. At that moment, it’s certain that if the Americans hadn’t come, the war would have finished with a German victory. I met some of the first Americans to arrive, they came to the l’Oise, I don’t remember exactly when.

Q: What do you think now?
Q: Whatever else I think, war is an enormous mistake. It leads to nothing. Millions and millions of people, because it was millions, were put face to face just to kill one another, it’s truly idiotic. Any kind of discussion that can be found is preferable. Why go to war? As soon as I became involved in that madness I discovered what war was. When I was sixteen until seventeen, before I went into the army, I was a real patriot, and for me patriotism is a kind of religion. But that was pretty well subdued by the experience of being in the war itself. When I enlisted I thought I was something to see, but it was a mistake really. Everybody should refuse to fight. Little by little you start to ask yourself “what the hell am I doing here?” Apart from the millions who are dying, there are other millions who are trying to live a peaceable life, a happy life. War is reserved for a minority.

Q: What was the worst thing that you saw?
A: That’s difficult to define. I chose to stay in the army. I needed something to fill the void. Why did I do that?

Q: After, you were in WW2 as well?
A: That’s something totally different. I had to leave my wife, my family, but it wasn’t the same kind of destruction. But by then I was a captain, I had certain advantages. The first war was a war of the trenches, the fighting was with very short distances, there were a lot of deaths, the conditions were horrible. The second one was more like a game of hide and seek. In the first one, you couldn’t move. The people on the other side were in exactly the same position and both of you are keeping the other one from moving anywhere. Because of the combat conditions, both sides were caught between eachother and they couldn’t move. Sometimes we would be in the trenches for a week before the replacements came.

Q: Did you see people go crazy?
A: I remember once at an army hospital I saw something. The Hospital of Messe. There was a young officer who had been evacuated like me. He had been sent to the front and hadn’t been able to handle it. He was in total shock, and then he went crazy, totally crazy. He thought he was a traffic director, and he stayed up all night screaming and keeping people from sleeping. He would tell people “Stop, Stop, where are you going?” He went crazy.

Q: And your wounds?
A: I was wounded, pretty seriously, near the Somme, by a German who fired at me from about a hundred and fifty feet. At that distance, you can recognize perfectly well who it is who is shooting you and where they’re aiming and how they’re going about it. The guy who wounded me was a Bavarois, near Munich. After the war was over, there was a battlefield visit organized by some veterans of an international association. And I found myself in the same forest with the guy who had shot me. And we fell into one anothers arms. We kissed. He invited me to his house to eat. We became the best European friends of the world. Simply because we were facts of an evil; it revealed the stupidity of the hate that we had had for one another. It wasn’t far from Abbeville, near La Manche.

– Paris

The Bomb

The U.S dropped a lot of bombs on Afghanistan last year.

I drew this map in 2002 at the site of an aerial bombing by U.S planes.  The victims were part of a wedding party.  However, it also turned out that the site of the destruction was an arms cache.  Afghanistan confounds.

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There was snow on the ground the other day.  It made me think of white bodies flailing in the darkness.  At dusk people wandered around the streets and we told begging children that we’d come back the next day and they believed us.  They have little metal cans that they hold on sticks and rattle around as they follow you.  Sometimes they touch your arm, and you can hear these little voices humming beside you, but there is no articulation.  You wouldn’t be able to understand, and really you understand too much already.  The leather seller sold us vests, and I wear mine every day, made of sheep.  At home we eat sheep, and call it sheep when we eat it.  It’s simpler that way.  A bird squawks whenever someone sits down at the table, and it’s ear-splitting.  They call him canary, the way some man calls his dog dog.  I don’t want to think about some of the people I know, but I end up doing it anyway.  What would be really nice is not to know them at all.  You can’t just think about the people you’re glad to know.

When the snow fell, people were slipping and sliding around in the streets, and there were several accidents.  But in the larger scheme of things here…and when you ask them if they’re upset that the Americans have bombed them on several occasions, they say no.  They say they’ll forgive us if they’re assured that these are accidents, which they may or may not be.  They speak about the B-52′s as if they’re the ultimate salvation.  The warlords like to threaten one another with bombing strikes if they don’t get what they want.  And the government tells the warlords that if they don’t behave they’ll sick the planes on them.  These planes that are so ancient, and were once destined for the military trash heap.  They arch around in huge circles, and apparently they’re banking when they do this so you can imagine the pilot sort of looking out his window at the ground below.  Because looking straight ahead the pilot can’t see anything.  And it’s usually on the curves that the bombs are dropped.  And then they disappear off into a straight line. Sometimes, you don’t see them until they’re at the end of a curve, and no one knows if it’s because suddenly the contrail appears, or because it’s one of those things one doesn’t see until it’s almost over.

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You can see the impact of the explosion long before you hear the boom, so you look around wondering what was hit, and all of a sudden a hill just implodes in a raft of dust.  It cracks across the desert, like a whip.  They’re used to it, and they laugh when they see us ducking, as I used to do, or looking around astonished at the reverberation.  The fourteen year olds carry guns and smile at you through broken teeth.  They tell you they’re much older, and you can believe them or not.  It doesn’t really matter.  No one knows how old they are.

Kabul is empty in the dark.  Or it’s not. The drivers switch their high beams on and off again all the time.  You see things in the burst, like donkeys or carts, or small children scurrying off the sides of the road.  You can see the shadows and the ruts.  We listen to music when we drive, Indian and pashtun, cassettes with pictures of beautiful Indian actresses on them which were banned during the Taliban.  Now they’re sold at marketplaces all around the city.  Taxis carry them in their back windows.  About the bombs, you always wonder if whole villages were wiped out.  I’m not sure we’d have heard about it, but I think so.  What you think will be a big town usually ends up being a smallish village.  There is nothing like Kabul.  Dogs chase the car down the road and bark at you through the window.  Often they’re white dogs and I’m not sure why, and they glow in the headlights and they also glow in the darkness, so close to the cars.  No one is really afraid of them, but they are afraid of the german shepherds that the german peacekeepers keep around.  Today, a german was yelling at some Afghans in German and of course nobody understood him, and this is the problem that everyone keeps talking about, above all others.

In Gardez we stayed at a hotel that had no toilet and so we went out onto the roof.  It looked like a minefield.  But the stars were out by the thousands and I knew that the planes were still there. And the mountains.  In the afternoon we had seen them in a ring around the valley, snow-capped, high, like mirages, and the people under them as if they were moving around holding a blanket over their heads.  There was no rain and it was warm in the sun.  At the American outpost, we were shooed away by men with guns and drove back down the road we came in on, which lead straight to Kabul.  The Americans fort has probably been there for years, and it looked like something out of the middle ages.  Four walls and a rooftop lookout.  They say they’re built that way so that others can’t see a man’s women, and so that the women can work in peace.  It’s also probably so they can’t steal their women.  The women only leave to go to market.  Other than that they live there forever.

– Afghanistan, 2002

Falcon and Man

Last week, a radical Pakistani murdered the governor of a province after the governor urged for reform of Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws. More than ever, people seem to fear that Pakistan is, or will soon be, descending into anarchy.

I lived in Pakistan for two years as a child. When the U.S invaded Afghanistan in 2001, I returned there to work, and to visit. I spent one Christmas there, and went falconing with a friend.

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The khans are strolling through the hills. They wear flowing white and gray shalwar kameezes and smoke joints. One khan proudly carries a falcon on his arm. Ahead of them scamper the boys they have hired to trample the bushes, beating them with sticks to flush out the smaller birds and force them to take flight.

A is one of the khans. He lives on a nearby compound with his wife and two children. I have come to spend Christmas with him. One of A’s cousins owns all the land we’re tracking, and far in all directions. The people who live on his land are serfs, by and large. A is very aware of this discrepancy, and talks openly about it, about how uncomfortable it makes him.

“These people have nothing to do,” he says, not including himself in the grouping, “They don’t work. They’re not educated and they don’t want to be. But they’ve inherited all this land and all this power.”

The man with the bird, the cousin whose land we were on, never went to school; instead, he’s taken on the roll of the guardian of the land. He patrols it regularly, sometimes with his falcon, sometimes with a gun and he chases off intruders. On this day, he has a pistol on his belt. A says it’s for personal protection.

The men watch the hunt from afar, and when the bird is let go to chase a dove that’s been raised, they run on ahead, the tails of their loose robes flapping in the wind. The khan calls to his son, “Be careful my beloved son, the falcon is just over your head.”

A comes over to tell me this, and then says, “I’ve never seen a man who loves his son more, I’ve never seen that kind of love.”

They watch together as the falcon swoops toward a thicket of brush, and settles on one of the branches. The dove has escaped inside, and will be virtually impossible to root out now. The men hover around the bush, beating it with their sticks for a quarter of an hour, until they tire, and start to move away down the hill.

An old man who works for A comes out and greets us. He looks at A’s small son, and compliments him. Suddenly, the son sees some tractors on the far side of the field and points. A obliges him, and sends one of his men over there with his son. As we walk over the fields, we can hear the son screaming on the tractor.

Over the last 20 years, the khans in A’s village area have essentially maintained their power through a combination of brutal armed repression, consolidation of their forces and maintenance of the feudal system that allowed them to rise in the first place. A describes how this part of the country needs desperate reforms, mainly in education and in health. When I ask him about land reform, he has a different view.

“We can’t do any land reform because if we did, then we would be left with nothing. In order to properly govern here, you need to rule with a certain amount of fear. You need to let the people know that you’ll help them, but that you are the one in charge.”

Just then the boys and the khan beckon us over. Come quick. We follow them up a small incline. They have cornered the small bird inside the bush. Shortly after there is a slight rustling and the bird flees. The khan unlooses the hood off the falcon’s head. No sooner does he do this than the bird is off, soaring down the hill just over the tops of the bushes. The khan and everyone marvel at its beauty. It is truly an incredible animal, graceful beyond measure. It finds the bird quickly, sparingly.

Back on the cousin’s arm, the falcon sits and watches us quietly. Its eye moves quickly and deliberately. It is dark, liquid, very old. It is impossible, looking at it, not to wonder what it is thinking, to doubt that it thinks at all, but above all, impossible to fear what it knows of us, our own minds, our own black hearts.

That night, we eat the dove for dinner.

Peshawar, Pakistan, 2001

The mask and the gun

The U.N is pushing for fair trials for Iraqi prisoners.

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They speak to us through the sacks the American soldiers have placed over their heads. They say they don’t know anything. An American who speaks Arabic translates for them. They sit or stand, turning their heads this way and that, talking about what they don’t know. Now and again, they twist their hands to ease the pain of the plastic binds. They ask that the sacks be removed from their heads. But they aren’t. The journalists ride in the back of the truck with them, looking at them, taking pictures of them, imagining them under their hoods. They have become like tree birds, I think, not entirely sure why, or what that means.

The target was a housing compound in the desert off Route 7, an hour or so south of Al Kut. The Marines had been manning a checkpoint along the road, searching vehicles for weapons or Saddam Fedayeen, recognizable by a heart-shaped tattoo somewhere on their body. One day last week, an Iraqi showed up at the checkpoint and said he had some information. A Baath party member had raided his cousins house and taken it over with four of his cronies, he said. The Iraqi provided the soldiers with detailed information about the compound, the whereabouts of the party members as well as their guard positions. He also gave them digital images off a camera the soldiers provided and a map of the compound. The team moved a few days later, just before dawn.

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Sometimes the prisoners kneel, hands behind them, facing away, and few, I think, know it then but this is a scene that will replay thousands of times in the coming years, all across the country. I have never seen it before, this slow capturing, and rote questioning, and general misunderstanding. Once the sacks are placed over their heads there is very little to be done. Now and again, in response to some question or other, some accusation, it’s very apparent that what is going on beneath the sack is incredibly emotional, a wagging of the head, a desperate kind of swaying. I heard tears a few times, sobbing. But the grimaces of fear and pain are no longer visible.

They moved into town in seven cars, armed with lightweight M-4 rifles and night vision goggles. The compound had three triple-storied houses surrounded by a wall. Dogs began to bark as the soldiers moved down the road. “As soon as we started walking down the road and we heard the dogs, we were sure that we were going to take some fire,” said one of them, Jim, “We just had to stay calm so we wouldn’t shoot everybody, the adrenaline was pumping so hard.” They quietly broke through the outer wall and made their way to the doors. They threw flashbangs and moved into the house. Several people were sleeping on the floor. As they entered, alarm clocks began to ring. The soldiers swarmed the house. The roof had been sandbagged and machine guns had been pre-positioned. There were RPG’s, 60-mm mortars and several AK-47’s. “They definitely expected resistance,” says Jim.

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The soldiers, in turn, have been given authority to take these prisoners and place sacks on their heads and transport them elsewhere. They have obtained the sacks for this very purpose. Some of them move away from this scene, preferring instead to undertake some other component of the mission. Some of them, just like some of us, observe, because this is the first visual or moral experience of this kind they’ve ever had. Some smoke or joke. The questioning of the prisoners is intense and, in a very American fashion, polite and almost concerned. Perhaps that is for our, the journalists, benefit. Perhaps it would be different if we weren’t here. But perhaps it wouldn’t.

Two of the Marines moved towards a bathroom that hadn’t been cleared. When they entered, they noticed that the door wouldn’t open all the way. They looked behind it. The Baath party leader was there, hiding with his son. “They both started to fake strokes,” said Christian, another soldier, “But we told them to shut the hell up and they stopped.” In another room, they found the leader’s nephew.

Meanwhile, the weapons were still piling up. “There were guns under every nook and cranny,” says Jim, “They had hidden RPG’s under piles of carpets.” They discovered French made gas masks and Russian Draganov sniper rifles. AK-47’s had been rolled under bed mattresses. A pair of first generation night-vision goggles tumbled out of a corner. All in all, the soldiers filled an entire 7-ton truck with the weapons cache – one of the largest found so far in the war, at least in the countryside. “There was enough stuff there that if the operation had been done differently, a whole lot of Americans could have been killed.”

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There is a lot of milling about with the prisoners. A lot of watching them. Talking about them, what they know, or don’t know, what to do with them. Meanwhile, the prisoners sit there with the sacks on their heads. Sometimes they speak to each other through their sacks. The soldiers don’t like this, and they make it known. No talking, they say, no talking.

These soldiers say that the real battle for Iraq lies in these small villages and hamlets – too small for bombs, but big enough to cause problems. “The operation until now didn’t clean out all the enemy,” says one soldier, Jason, “The towns want us here, but we have some sources who tell us, ‘We see you Americans here, but the Baath party is still operating at full capacity. Now we have to go back through here and see about that.”

– Iraq, 2003

Haunting World War I

This Thanksgiving, there exists, in America, one lone survivor of World War One. He is Frank Buckles, and he lives on a plot of land once owned by George Washington. Now, nearly one hundred years on, at this time of giving thanks and remembering, I thought we might do well to remember those who have passed, and whose wisdom could help us all.

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Sometime back in 2000, I interviewed the man who was, at the time, France’s oldest living WWI survivor. I spoke to him for several hours at his bedside at the Paris veteran’s hospital, Les Invalides. He was a small man with bright blue eyes and he smiled throughout our talk. Here is Part I of the interview:

Q: You are a veteran of WWI.
A: I’m what the French call a witness. I have a blurred memory. I started the war in 1916, quite a while ago. I was engaged in the war when I was seventeen and a half years old, in March or April, I don’t remember.

Q: Were you involved in battles right away?
A: First of all, I was a student, I was in a lycee. To go into the Army in those days you had to meet two conditions. You had to be at least seventeen years old, and you had to have your mother’s permission. The situation wasn’t all that bad and so I got permission even though she was scared that I would be killed.In the end though she gave me the permission.

Q: Were you scared in the beginning?
A: Looking back, I don’t recall being scared, I don’t know what it is to be scared really. I knew where I was going, approximately, and I knew that I was going to discover danger, so I wasn’t really scared. But later, I had moments of fear, moments that lasted several seconds. But I have seen people who were scared, people right next to me, in the same conditions that I was in. I remember once a Russian officer who was in the Polish army who shit his pants in front of me. He just couldn’t take it, couldn’t finish. I never felt anything like that. There were a lot of anxious moments where I said to myself “this could be dangerous.” Everybody went through that. There are so many different levels to fear, I’m just not all that afraid, it’s not my fault, I just have strong nerves I guess.

Q: Where were you in the war?
A: I was in a lot of different places. It was curiosity more than anything else that pushed me to look a little farther, to go farther than I had gone before.

Q: Did you have friends who died in the war?
A: Of course. When I started to see combat, I was just past seventeen. Even though I was a student, I was made a sub-officer, so I had a small command under my control in trench artillery. The shells we used were designed to fire in a high arc and land on the enemies who were right next door. Sometimes only a hundred meters away. It was about as imprecise as possible. The shells fell where they wanted to fall. The mortar shells that we put in sort of fell all over the place, but never very far. But that was the point because it was up to us to get the enemy that was close. I saw quite a few deaths out there. Half of my command was killed, they never came back, but they were replaced. I had a lousy bunch of soldiers though. Everyone in my command had just turned eighteen, and they were generally delinquents of one kind or another who had been in French prisons. As soon as they turned eighteen, the government gave them the choice of joining the army or staying in prison. So most of them chose the section that seemed to them to be the least dangerous, in this case artillery. They thought they would be with the cannons that were far from the front and consequently less exposed. But they miscalculated because as soon as we were engaged, they moved us up to the front, to the most vulnerable and the most exposed positions. Those were the trenches, close to the enemy. Half the people I had under my control during that time were killed, I don’t remember exactly how many. They were killed by lots of different things. Sometimes it was just the war, but sometimes it was the equipment that we were using ourselves. Sometimes the things exploded before they even left the mouth of the canon. That was in Alsace, all the way to the sea. A lot of it happened near La Manche. Abbeville, Amiens, Loise, no farther. I never went to Verdun, the kind of weapons I was specialized in weren’t used there. That was a horrible time, and it didn’t last very long, only about a month. But it left a huge hole because in terms of its length, the number of dead was enormous.

Q: After the war, what were your impressions?
A: In the circumstances of the time, we had mostly animal impressions: to live, to get the most out of the leaves of absence we got to go and maybe find a girl, anything other than what was happening. At twenty, all you want is to live, that’s all that counts. If I had a four day leave, where am I going to pass it, and with whom? It was essentially the search for a girl. And we found them really easily. You have to remember that during that period, the notion of death, of danger and so on didn’t really play that big of a role. It was more like the life of an animal. The goal was to live, and so if you had four days, you spent four days and four nights trying to do that.

– Les Invalides, Paris, 2000

The remainder of this interview will follow in posts to come. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

long live algeria

There’s a new movie out about Algeria’s war of independence:  “Outside the Law”

War has never really left Algeria.  Some people still carry WWII weapons, like this man, who I met when I visited in 2001:

The town of Sig is a dusty, brown spread of low-roofed houses and pre-fabricated condominiums about three hours north of the Algerian port city of Oran. It is an area of high desert, marked by row upon row of barren, camel-colored ridges. Goat tracks hash the slopes and scattered hedges of sagebrush and olive stalks muscle feebly against the wind. Above the ridge summits the sky becomes a fierce blue. Sig lies at the end of a long valley, giving it a closeted feeling. On one edge, separated from the rest of the village by a derelict cemetery where gravestones poke up out of the dirt like broken teeth, is the town’s poorest neighborhood, la Cité Redouane. A gentle slope stretches off from the cité toward a hillock covered with pine trees. It was from these trees, the villagers of Sig told me, that one day in 1999 13 armed men swarmed down out of the hills and massacred eight people who lived in two of the houses that border the slope. One of these houses that bordered the road, with a view that gave onto the sloping hills and the green pine trees, belonged to the Hadrouga family.  It is a simple house; the walls a combination of plaster and mud, which abut those of the neighboring houses, making it easy for people to hear their neighbors’ goings-on.  On the day I arrived, a group of villagers had gathered around and a few small girls crouched in the shadows along the walls of their houses, watching their fathers and uncles shyly.

Hanifi Oneiz, 45, is a short man with long graceful fingers and a gentle, wrinkled face. He works at the local sugar mill in Sig to support his wife and three children. When Oneiz moved to Sig, he built his house near the edge of the cité, right behind the Hadrouga family. On the night of the massacre, Oneiz was at home. At around 7:30 p.m., he heard screaming coming from the Hadrouga house. He started for his front door, but decided against it on a friend’s advice. He heard commotion through his own walls — women and children screaming, and the loud voices of men shouting at them to open their front door. He also heard gun shots. At one point during the fighting, which didn’t last longer than a few minutes according to Oneiz and others, he heard footsteps overhead, padding across the roof that joins his house to the Hadrougas.  This was followed by more shots and more screaming. Finally, everything stopped and Oneiz ventured outside. Other villagers had also begun to emerge. All in all, the neighbors counted eight dead, including Mrs. Hadrouga, who had been executed on her roof under the laundry line, leaving a stain of blood that was still visible a month later. The villagers had conflicting accounts of exactly what had happened, or when. Some said the attackers escaped through the village, while others claimed they ran back into the hills. But there were a few things everyone seemed to agree on. One was that all of them had been dressed in military fatigues and wore Army issue boots. Another was whispered at first by the men in the street, and then as the day wore on, pronounced with more and more certainty and vehemence, was that the killers, whoever they were, were “terrorists.”

Oneiz accompanied me down the road to the edge of the cemetery and stopped. On a nearby wall was a poster the military police had recently begun putting up in the towns and villages around Oran. It showed black and white photos of “suspected terrorists” and offered a reward to any information leading to their capture. A small boy was standing underneath the photo staring up at it quizzically. Then he suddenly turned around and ran out into the cemetery where some of his friends had begun to play. Oneiz glanced at me again, and saw that I was looking at the cemetery. A woman wearing a brilliant white burkha was walking slowly up the hill, threading her way through the stones. Oneiz let go of my hand. “There are two cemeteries here,” he said finally, pointing first at the cemetery and then to la Cité Redouane behind him, “One for the dead…” He trailed off, shook my hand in silence, and walked back up the road. The living had started to disappear as well, as the sun wore the afternoon along.