Thank God for the rains! If not for it, I couldn’t have been of any use to you. Thank God for the rains and the flood. The boatman who had rowed us over three kilometres of flooded land looked at our faces and at the fare we’d paid him. Perhaps he was attempting something akin to a smile, genuine and filled with gratitude, but the furrowed skin of his face had grown taut with grief. Communal strife, violence and war had bleached away all colour from his laughter; it was painful to see past that smile into a mind shredded by fear, clinging to a skeletal frame, silhouetted on a face darkened before its time by the unnatural horrors that came with inhabiting his time, his land.
The young soldier who had accompanied us on the boat shifted his gun from his right hand to the left, pointed far into a devastated landscape and said with the authority of an armed, uniformed man: “If you want to visit there, you must make sure each of you has his papers in order. The badge with your organization’s sign should be visible on your chest. That’s the POW camp you want to inspect. I am returning with this boat. Remember — if anyone stops you, anybody at all, show them your papers promptly, or anything can happen. Anything at all.” He hopped back into the boat without adding anything more to his menacing message. The boat was a shabby excuse for one — the slightest imbalance could capsize it, and spill the rider into the flood below.
The three of us represented an internationally respected organization that was mediating between two warring groups in the country, now desperate to find a solution to the plethora of problems created by ad hoc divisions of the land among fragmented factions. We were in the thick of the war, inspecting POW camps to prepare the country for the eventual resolution of the conflict and to provide relief, if only in the smallest measure, to those who languished in cages. There was another three-member team of representatives on the other side of the war front, inspecting the camps there.
Ashwi Nigrov from Indonesia, Martin of Australia, and I made up the team. Martin was an old hand in situations like this, but Ashwi and I were new to such an experience. We were at the edge of a POW encampment: the beast of terror that roamed the battlefields had come upriver on the boat with us. It had caught scent of our inexperience, and now it stalked us, breathing down our necks.
Ashwi had been gazing at the demolished huts that lined the river, bracketed by foliage lapped up by tongues of fire; the fear and suspicion on the faces of the people we encountered was reflected on her face and made it grave and sullen. You couldn’t guess looking at her face that Ashwi was one of the more cheerful women around. She had the pleasant, soothing and constant smile of a practiced hostess whose warmth infects anyone who comes close to her. Now, her face had become devoid of any joy at all, wrung out and colourless.
“What’s the matter, Ashwi?” I asked.
“I can’t say… I feel as if these past hours have loaded me with the cumulative horrors of human life: the poor in their tatters, huts torn into splinters, the road like a display of depravity of all kinds, destitution and hunger. I have to say I’m deeply revolted by how ugly human existence really is. My stomach turns; I am disgusted at being a human amidst all this.” She flung her arms out to include the carnage around. An inborn frustration had taken hold of Ashwi, and she searched for an answer to the riddle of existence.
“If you’ve already abandoned hope, if you’ve already incorporated the ugliness of humanity into your view of life, how will you ever find the small and beautiful things that make life worth its drudgery? Please, Ashwi, don’t hook your claw of deprivation round the throat of life. There is a lot more of this to see, a lot worse of the same to wade through for a while to come. The point isn’t to give up and accept it, but to strive, constantly, to make it better, for others, for ourselves. That’s why we are here, isn’t it?” Martin’s wise voice tried to soothe our agitated souls, and share with us his brawn of experience so we might better face up to the hopelessness and short-sightedness the situation inspired.
Our initial security fears seemed unfounded — we encountered no obstacle on our way to the POW encampment. News about our arrival had preceded us. The commander of the camp welcomed us outside the gates. He inspected each document with the utmost care: the agreement between the warring factions to allow inspection of the buildings where POWs were being held, our credentials and authorization documents. It had not been easy to put together the documents for the process. A lot of back-and-forth discussion, a thorough combing of all relevant facts, talks that were shot through with mistrust and hyperbole, and a final, comprehensive yet tentative agreement had been necessary before three strangers, each from disparate corners of the world, were allowed to visit the encampments on either side of the divide. I’d be lying if I said the commander got the time then and there to examine each document in all its minutiae, but he was an excellent actor who gave a perfect outward semblance of perusing every page, every word.
My eyelids shrank and folded behind my eyeballs and the breath in my lungs balled up and refused to let any air in or out: what I saw astonished me so much, I felt something boil inside, something like rage and grief and helplessness, and more anger, more furious and righteous grief. The walls were made of tin sheets, and the small space was roofed with more tin sheets. In that space were forty, fifty prisoners packed like matchsticks in a box. It was an inferno heated by tin walls and a tin roof and the heaving, desperate breath of the prisoners. I glanced at Ashwi’s face — her eyes, too, were melting with anger and hurt.
There was a ripple of movement through the prisoners when the three of us entered their space. Perhaps they were astonished to see us there, because we carried no weapon, no finger restlessly tapped the trigger on a gun with a jumpy barrel that pointed at faces, hearts, wombs. The room wasn’t large at all, and not all of the prisoners there were captured soldiers. Some squatted on the floor, their backs inches away from hot tin walls, while others spread themselves on the floor in a gesture of abandonment. Most prisoners had been living in that space for the past forty-five days. Not only did they eat and sleep there, they were also forced to defecate in the same space. Filth covered the floor. The stench was strong enough to make anyone want to retch. The room was an arena where inhuman cruelty slowly dragged the prisoners towards a filthy, scabby and degrading death.
Ashwi forgot her diplomatic ethics for a moment and said in a loud voice, “How can you call this hell-hole a prison?”
“Like they say,” Martin said, “All is fair in love and war.” Perhaps he, too, was forgetting the boundaries drawn by the diplomatic code of conduct.
“But, Martin, can’t we change that maxim to say all is not fair in love and war?” The situation was getting to me — I, too, wanted to ask a question, give an answer.
“Of course, of course,” Martin tried once more to encourage us to measure up to the circumstances. “That’s what we’re here for, isn’t it?”
As we talked among ourselves, a few young men tentatively approached us. One of them haltingly asked, “How did you get here without weapons? You don’t look like prisoners of war. Nobody beat you or was disrespectful to you as you came into the room. For us they only have abuses, punches and kicks, but you, they didn’t even touch!”
By then, every able-bodied prisoner had surrounded us, while the infirm and injured sat where they were. A handful had been soldiers, but the majority were old men and women too weak to move without assistance; innocent children yet unsullied by the horrors that surrounded them; or blameless young men and women who had dreamed, with the naivete of youth, of wondrous feats of courage and moral strength. They might not have been armed soldiers, but they were still enemies, the other that lived across the line of divide: that was reason enough for imprisonment. I wanted to put my arms around them, put my heart beside their unblemished hearts, and let my tears wash us together, let my cries mingle with their sorrow. But, circumstances! Circumstances!
“We are here to study your condition. I don’t guarantee it, but we’ll be trying our best to get you released from this POW camp.” Martin had barely finished explaining, briefly, the reasons why we were there when a young man, red with anger, shouted at Martin, “I know why you are here — all you want is to mock us, laugh at us. You’ll say — Look! I’m not a prisoner like you. I eat two meals a day and I get to bathe and live in comfort. I am not in pain, I am fortunate, not washed in my own filth. All you want is to know how superior you are, because you aren’t in our situation.”
To the oppressive discomfort of that room, dense with an intolerable human stench and corrosive mistrust, this young man’s bitter outburst added another dimension, another burden, upon our consciences.
“Friend! Please, don’t say such things. Would we take such deadly risks, travel with constant fear through a war zone if all we wanted was to gloat at your misfortune? It isn’t as if we are here on a private errand. We represent an internationally respected humanitarian organization. There is another group, just like this across the front there, bearing exactly the same message, helping people you would call your enemy, working among people kept captive by your side.” Ashwi’s friendly, gentle voice worked its magic — the angry young man’s rage dissipated a little. He became quiet, lost in a newfound inner quietude.
“That may be so, but it is hard to believe. Will we really be free? Does my fate hold one more day with a lungful of unshackled air under a free sky?” I didn’t think I had the courage to face such questions from an aged woman, who dreamed nonetheless of an innocent liberty uninterrupted by violence.
“Please, don’t lose hope,” I said. “Let’s not blame fate for everything — fatalism is a dangerous philosophy to base our lives on. It kills optimism, and it kills the will to progress, to forge ahead despite troubles. It is not right to blame fate for everything our small imaginations find impossible. Have you wondered if the reason you have been kept captive is because nobody bothered to work out a deal for your freedom? All we want is that every group, everybody, behaves humanely, is treated humanely. And we always want to remain optimistic in the face of circumstances like these, like yours.” In a single burst, I tried to explain to her the philosophy of our organization, to show her and other prisoners a glimmer of hope by which to live for tomorrow.
“Ah! You’re like an artist, a painter who doesn’t discriminate between different colours, but finds each equally beautiful.” Another young man made this comment, seemingly insignificant, but in reality profoundly touching, gratifying. Could we not? If we can’t all be painters, couldn’t we at least learn to be like a painter, capable of treating as equal all those of a different colour?
Martin, Ashwi and I set off from three different corners of the crowded space to take down particulars about each prisoner, sharing with each our uncoloured sympathy, giving each our attention and fraternal love in exchange for their names, for tragedies that had shrouded them since war came.
Twenty-year-old Summima was among those I was interviewing: she suffered terrible pains and cramps in her lower abdomen. Some forty-five days before, Summima had been an expectant mother. It was a rainy Saturday night when a raging crowd of her neighbours — who lived in the same village but were of a different race, a different faith — attacked her home. Her husband tried to save her by fleeing with her through the back door. They were discovered, surrounded by the crowd. Summima’s husband was tortured and killed before her eyes. The crowd then took turns raping Summima. She miscarried after the trauma. She barely ever spoke now. She sat in a corner, always crying, her face hidden behind frail arms.
“I haven’t eaten enough in ages now, son! I think I’ll die soon.” When an old woman held her head in her hands, trying to communicate through the haze of a fierce fever, I saw proof that a sentence can carry the burden of all things cruel. That woman, so old she couldn’t correctly remember her own age, was a prisoner of war, dragged there by strong arms, kicked into submission by combat-booted feet, to be kept captive for the worth of the bones in the bag of her skin, in revenge, in exchange.
Anna, mother of a three-month-old baby boy, was swollen as if she were made of bread and had been dipped in milk for days. “You might think I have grown fat, but the swelling is because of the cold. It is unbearably hot during the day because of the roof. But, when night comes, the floor gets unbearably cold. My baby of three months has nothing but my milk to live on. Look, he has even forgotten how to cry. What could I give him even if he cried? I know my baby will die. If they had let me bring a blanket, a rag to cover him, anything…” Her voice trailed off, but she didn’t cry. I heard in her voice the finality of an unforgiving knowledge, just as her baby seemed to recognize the approach of its death.
Jurina and Maxim, sister and brother, fourteen and twelve, weren’t feeling good, either. These kids didn’t know the whereabouts of their parents, didn’t know if they lived still. They often cried for their parents. Maxim remembered his school, the playground milling with friends, stories from his textbooks, the songs in a CD their father had given Maxim for his birthday, a CD player to play the wonderful songs on the CD.
“A handful of dry oats, two pieces of biscuit, a piece of coarse bread — how can anyone survive on these? Rations not enough even to make one simple meal! Is it being courageous and intelligent when you use force against the defenseless and the weak? No. I think it is cowardice, shameful and base cowardliness.” Mark Tsivatarev couldn’t suppress the sobs that came gushing as he talked about himself. He was a schoolteacher who had refused to abandon the injured children in his classroom when rockets rained on their school building. He had been caught because he had refused to run.
Nobody there was without his share of misfortunes. Disease, anger, guilt, pain, anguish — nobody was untouched; everybody had a story of horror. The repetition of details, inhuman and revolting, from one person to the next: death and rape, needless violence, again, again, the horrors of a night or a battle made alive just for me. I, too, became captive in this cage of repetition. The pain, the anguish, siphoned in piecemeal from their hearts to mine. Ashwi’s eyes could barely contain the tears that, surely, were making it difficult for her to fill in the report. Martin, the old horse, his face sternly controlled, but disturbed by the many stories he had heard, was touching the arms and shoulders of the prisoners, sharing their grief if only just enough to keep them going.
We finished our assignment after many hours of hard work. The security guards were watching each move of ours with the utmost attention. After completing the rounds of interviews with the prisoners, we came out and started a conversation with the armed guards outside the prison.
The officers initially hesitated to talk to us. But when they understood that our organization was doing similar work on the other side of the front, organizing dialogues to secure the freedom of their friends and family held captive by the opposite side, they warmed to us. That token feeling of trust worked wonders. They became animated with a new excitement, wanted to share their thoughts and fears with us.
After a long conversation, they promised to arrange for a lavatory for the prisoners. They assured us that they’d be diligent in their efforts to improve the condition of the camp.
And, immediately, we realized that people aren’t basically bad; that man, as an animal species, does possess some amount of good. The respect for others, love, trust, kindness — these exist in each person. I had never felt as glad in my heart as I did in that hour, to see how the hearts of the security officers had changed, from those of cruel captors to those of fellow men. I thought: powerful politicians come and go. Empires are built, razed. Ideas are equally fleeting. Impermanent: appearing, disappearing. But humanity, cordiality, faith in fellow humans — these are unshakeable values, immutable bonds between people. These do not destroy; these truths eternal do not destroy.
Even before the Secretariat of our organization in Geneva published the final report on the detention camps on either side of the conflict, news came that arrangements had been made for two square meals a day and bathing water for each detainee. Sometime after this, the detainees were allowed to walk around in the camp for a certain number of hours each day. Soon after, facilities were added, camps expanded, so that each detainee had more space in which to live.
By the time we returned to our respective countries, the sounds of gunshots and exploding bombs were no longer heard in that region. We were certain about all prisoners being liberated in the next few weeks. As we were leaving, in a distant corner in different circumstances, I heard a rooster crow.
Translation by La.Lit. Amod Bhattarai’s collection of short stories Chapters is being published in February 2013.