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Archive 2
January Edition


Twelve Times Mathew

Otto's Last Run

Police Talk


Crossing the Line
Nathan Rabe
...I know what you’re thinking: running guns and grain in parallel convoys,
you got to be kidding, right?

He is coming to murder me, I can sense it. He’ll be here before dawn, in a few more hours, just as daylight starts crashing down from the mountaintops. Like warmth fading from a bath I can feel his coldness creeping steadily up the valley. I’ve given word to the men to let him through unhindered, though he’ll never be out of their sight.
My name is Michaelson. Anders Michaelson. You’ve probably heard of me. I’m the one they call mad. ‘Gone native’ was what they used to say about people like me. I’ve heard they even consider me evil, a sort of human tumour. I’m an object of hate. A mirror reflecting the darkness they fear.

I no longer believe.

They want to see me dead. Five times they’ve sent their assassins up this valley. Always this time of year, as soon as the snows melt and the apricot blossoms cover the trees. Five times they’ve forced me to act. He who lives by the sword shall die by the same, my father used to say. Evangelista, the one on his way, the latest assassin, will be here soon. Perhaps this time they will succeed. I am tired. My insides are eaten away. Perhaps I do have the madness. It is such a thin line. I’ll let you decide. But first let me tell you my tale.

I came to Afghanistan after the big quake. Four, maybe five years ago now. The villages around here had been totally destroyed--the landscape was a wasteland. Houses which had once protected little children and animals had become murdering things, squashing, splitting apart and covering all living beings. Mountains slipped away as new ones rose from the earth. For those minutes of terror the ground became as unstable as the sea, sucking everything into its swirling mouth.

By the time I arrived, the first outsider, five days later, the survivors had crawled out from beneath the stones and earth but they moved and blinked in slow motion. They spoke in whispers as if afraid to disturb the mountains again. Women wailed in silence for their dead. I had come with medicines, water pipes, sacks of food and four helicopters full of gear, ready to rehabilitate the survivors, bury the dead and quarantine chaos from order. The agency had sent me up to establish a humanitarian intervention, like a beachhead against the forces of disorder and local helplessness. It was nothing new. That’s what I do. I am an aid worker. A post-modern missionary.

That was before. Now I am mad.

My former colleagues, my co-religionists, who once praised and promoted me as a secular saint, now want me dead. Murdered is all right with them. I haven’t left the Wakhan, Afghanistan’s thin extended finger, since the quake. This is my home now, and these people are my family. I am safe with them and they leave me alone. I ask nothing of them but they give me all I need.

My father was a man of the old religion who believed in the salvation of souls and the mandate of Heaven. But I sold my soul to another Faith. I became an apostle of Humanitarianism. A creed universal and acceptable to all. Infallible and intolerant of dissent. My conviction in the Greater Good was no less strong than my old man’s had been in the Almighty. He had his Great Commission, given by the Spirit to spread the Word to every corner of the globe. We Humanitarians had the Imperative, given by ourselves, to ourselves, to feed the hungry, reconcile the fighting, empower the weak and to spread the new gospel: that the day of salvation was at hand once we arrived with our trucks full of kit, our experts full of knowledge, our bags of food, our tents and latrines.

I was a true believer and among the elite. Some even called me a genius. If you wanted to make sure your program was a success, if you wanted to get a real mess cleared up, you got Michaelson. I cut my teeth in the Cambodian refugee camps in Thailand and in the dry lands of Ethiopia. Since then I‘ve been spreading the gospel in dozens of places: Mogadishu, Kurdistan, Sudan and Guatemala. Freetown in ‘97, Sarajevo in ‘92. Great Lakes I and Great Lakes II. The biggest human disasters of our time. I was the best. I accepted the agency’s call because they were paying well and because the Wakhan seemed about the farthest place from where I was: Angola. Where I went cross-line.

They flew me in from Brussels and didn’t let me even leave Luanda airport. Three pot-bellied big wigs, one each from the American Embassy, the European Union and the UN, briefed me for three hours in a huge room with grimy windows facing the sea. Russian cargo planes and fat troop transporters skidded and roared down the runway. The American is the only one I can still remember. Dick Jaspers was who he said he was as he shook my hand; I can’t remember who he said he represented.
I introduced myself but the other two didn’t say much. The UN guy slid his card across the table like he was putting a deposit down on a dirty deal. The European mumbled his name and took the notes. Jaspers, a former military man--I could read a hairdo--was in charge of the show.

He knew my CV real well, and ran through it; for the benefit of the other two, he claimed, but I think he really just wanted to let me know how much he knew. While he did, I stared out at the Atlantic and thought of all that oil beneath the surface and of the Indian diamond dealer who had sat next to me on the plane. Angola was rich and a rich country in Africa is to be pitied.

Jaspers had stood up and with the aid of the UN man was blu-tacking a badly reproduced map of the country to the wall, making Angola look like a mess of spilled ink. There was a pocket of displaced persons, internal refugees, "right about here," he said, moving his finger in a circle on the map. "In the Altiplano, the highlands. Rebel country." There were, he reckoned, about 30,000 in Chitembo, 14 maybe 16, 000 in Cangote and an unknown number in the jungle between Vila Nova and Jamba. "About a hundred thousand, a hundred and a half, tops."

Naturally, Jasper and his friends wanted to get food and relief to these people immediately. The jungles of the Altiplano were thick and the roads completely fucked where they existed at all. Most of the fighting was further to the west, Jaspers said, but mines were a problem and the fact that the DPs, the displaced persons, were spread over a space of several hundred square kilometres would mean this project needed strong leadership. "Which is why we insisted upon you, Michaelson."

I’d run similar missions deep in Zaire, before it became Congo. At least these DPs weren’t on the run moving deeper into the jungles like Hutus fleeing Rwanda. Setting up a camp is one thing but running mobile soup kitchens in the middle of a forest that hasn’t been penetrated in centuries is insane. This operation, what Jaspers and these other two wanted me to do, seemed a cinch.

The hitch of course was that it wasn’t. Angola was not Congo. War here was a refined art; they’d been at each other’s throats, burning each other’s villages, stealing each other’s children, and violating one another’s women for thirty years without an intermission. Lines here were never crossed. You chose to work on one side of the line or the other. Either you worked with the government or you worked with United Movement For Angola, UMFANG. The rebels. No question. Angola was an expensive place to operate out of. Every agency had to run double programs. Like working in two different countries. People who worked in UMFANG controlled areas never saw Luanda. And if you worked in Lobito forget visiting your colleagues in Caimbambo, just thirty klicks up the pike. The country was stained in hate and distrust and we agencies began to act that way too. You distrusted your sisters and brothers working across the line. You despised them. Hate grew inside you like a hungry worm.

Jaspers was saying that this project was unique and innovative. Cutting edge was the phrase he used. This was the first cross-line operation ever attempted in this country.
"The front lines in this area," Jaspers was tracing his finger down a river and then inland and then back towards the river, "are always shifting." Because the DPs were stuck behind both lines and because the armies were so close, they were pretty freaked out. Constantly moving a few miles this way and then back the other direction. They were getting pretty weak; some had already died from hunger. They need help, Jaspers said, but no one was willing to set up a program across the lines. Too risky. Who wanted to lose all their vehicles and supplies? No one wanted to put the lives of their staff at risk. The government troops up in the Altiplano were the toughest; they had been given liberties, a different rulebook, than their fellow soldiers in the lowlands.
"I thought the DPs were in rebel-controlled land," I said to Jaspers, still looking out at the black ocean.
"Some of them are. Chitembo is a UMFANG town. Vila Nova isn’t. Cangote goes back and forth, depending."
The European kept taking notes. The UN just nodded.
"Depending on what?"
"Things." Jaspers wasn’t a smoking man but he looked like he could use a cigarette. I turned away from the window to look at him. He had sat down next to the UN man and for a moment avoided my eyes. I waited.
"Hell, I’ll level with you, Michaelson," he stood up again but then sat right back down. "This is Angola we’re dealing with. Its different here."
"What are you telling me?"

Angola, he said, was not just another screwed-up African backwater ala Somalia. There were things at stake here. Lots of things, like wealth and influence, for example. Oil and diamonds. Coastal waters thick with fish and the richest soil in Africa. Angola was prime real estate. South Africa right there, Congo to the east. French, British and American oil companies had been here for decades but they had never been allowed to truly exploit the black crude because of the fighting. The time had come, Jaspers said. The world wasn’t prepared to stand around any longer waiting for the government and UMFANG to settle this thing. "They’ve had 30 years already, for chrissakes, and they’re no nearer ending the war then when the Portuguese left in ‘75."

Angola needed development. But that just wasn’t going to happen, Dick Jaspers said, as long as the military situation remained as it was. One side had to get the upper hand. Sure everybody, the UN, the Europeans, we Americans, hell, even the Russians, were trying their damnedest to keep both parties true to the peace accord, "But to be honest, Michaelson," Jaspers sighed, "there comes a day when you gotta draw a line."
I suspected there was more to come.
"Since the last government offensive in November," Jaspers was back at the map pointing at things, "UMFANG hasn’t been able to get back to Vila Nova. It’s immensely important to them, symbolically. Where their movement started back in the early sixties. A holy sort of place. But the government has the town locked up tighter than a you know what." Jaspers coughed but didn’t smile; I was getting antsy. I could sense where he was leading but I just wanted the bottom line.

The bottom line was that this was not your straightforward humanitarian mission. Sure the DPs, on both sides of the front line, needed assistance, but so did the UMFANG units in the area. If they could recapture Vila Nova the government would suffer a psychological blow that just might bring the whole corrupt facade down like the walls of Jericho.
What did they need me for, I wondered.

"To make sure that the two programs go ahead with equal urgency but that the, ah...um, assistance to UMFANG segment doesn’t get out of the bag. There’ll be lots of publicity, media interest and what not, in the relief program ‘cause it’s the first time anyone’s attempted it across the lines. So that’ll be a natural diversion, so to speak, from the other operation."
The other operation, the guns for the rebels part. I raised my eyebrow and turned around and asked who was running that?
Jaspers said not to worry. What he needed me to do was to keep the focus on the relief side of things. He and this sour companions wanted a perfectly run operation, something the media and the UN could feel proud about. Something so clean, so big, even Woodward and Bernstein wouldn’t suspect the shadow operation. "Can you handle it?" Jaspers asked.
I know what you’re thinking: running guns and grain in parallel convoys, you got to be kidding, right? But what Jaspers had to say didn’t phase me. I’d seen the same thing done in Afghanistan in the early ‘80s and you’re looking at one of the Contras biggest fans. You can’t swim in the river without getting wet.
I could handle it, I said, as long as we kept a couple of things absolutely crystal clear. One, UMFANG kept Jaspers’ guns pointed at government soldiers and, two, they stayed out of the DP camps. As long as the Greater Good was being served, Jaspers’d have no problems from me. In this world things aren’t always as clear-cut as we’d like them to be. Making sure the rebels got a steady stream of weaponry may be a humanitarian act. Who knows? Depends which side of the line you look at it from.

I set up base in Chitembo because it was the furthest settlement from the fighting and because the airstrip there seemed like it could be re-rolled quickly if we needed to. The few buildings that hadn’t been completely destroyed had no windows and were pock marked from bearing the brunt of thousands of artillery shells. Kids in tattered shorts and barefeet played on the rusting Russian tanks that lay half buried in grass and clay on the edge of town. The DPs were huddled close to the town to avoid the constant shelling in the jungles. Every building overflowed. Excess humanity shivered under tin, or plastic, or shanties with leafy roofs. The highland colours are the only pleasant memory of the place I have. Wide blue skies, the burnt red clay roads, green green jungle, black faces. Red mangoes, yellow plantains, avocados by the ton.

The little market started to grow again as soon as we arrived. The three camps around town and the market drew people out of the jungles like a magnet. Creaky lorries, with old tires bolted on the wheels, splashed through the puddles. Twisted, rusted metal-framed beds, scraps of blue plastic, roots, cassava, scrawny chickens and porcelain toilet bowls looted from the houses, were put on sale on the side of the road. That guitary, riffy, African music twirled out of battered tape machines from morning till night. Chitembo was a carnival at the gates of hell.

Jaspers found some Australian engineers and a slew of Irish nurses. We set up camps near Vila Nova and in Cangote as well. Jungle was cleared, roads were bulldozed, latrine pits three meters deep were gouged into the earth, huge tin water tanks erected. Overnight six new villages complete with clinics, food stores, administrative offices, whorehouses and video halls sprung up on the outskirts of the three towns. We worked our asses off but when the camps were finally up and the displaced families issued with their ration cards you couldn’t help but feel good. The Europeans made sure we had all the money we needed and those camps were the best I’d ever seen. Each time I drove through the camps with the kids jumping and hanging from the jeep, seeing the queues by the water collection points and nurses weighing the new babies, I tell you it was a feeling like a king. Almost divine. We had done it again. Drawn a thin line between madness and order.

After an endless series of meetings and negotiations with government and UMFANG, both sides agreed to let our vehicles move freely across the lines. As long as we gave each side notice each morning and as long we kept to the one radio channel they allowed us. There were teething problems, to be sure. Government commanders tried to negotiate a cut of the food rations. Some of our nurses were detained for 6 hours by drunken UMFANG soldiers at a checkpoint, but they were just young boys having a hoot. Both UMFANG and the government were glad to have us in the area because our camps meant they could officially wash their hands of any responsibility for the displaced and concentrate on the real objective: continuing the war.

I didn’t see Jaspers much once the camps were set up. On one of his trips up from Luanda he introduced me to the UMFANG regional supremo, Joao Batista Mulagu, a tall, broad-chested man who never removed his sunglasses and who wore a rubber shower cap under his blood-coloured beret. Once a week I’d travel out to his bush headquarters to be briefed on the ‘other’ operation. Whenever his people harassed us at the checkpoints I reported it to Joao Batista and he took care of it. He was always interested to know how the camps were running, and expressed his appreciation for the international community’s kindness to his people. I wasn’t looking for a friend and only visited him to make sure his men stayed away from my camps.

Commander Joao loved to smoke and he had a collection of smoking paraphernalia. One afternoon before the rains started in earnest, with the sky bruised all black and blue with heavy, threatening clouds, he pulled out his leather case and proudly showed me his collection of pipes, cigarette cases, lighters, worn leather tobacco pouches and Portuguese wooden match boxes, decorated with pictures of old Popes and the dictator Salazar.
"In three days we go for Vila Nova," he said, setting the case on the camp bed. We sat inside his large canvas tent drinking rum and warm banana beer. Outside you could hear the low rumble of heavy lorries rolling through the camp; Jaspers’s convoy of arms, mines and ammunition.
"Will you take it?" I asked. I hoped so. That would mean easier access to the camps around Vila Nova. I didn’t think, like Jaspers and Joao Batista, that the government was going to collapse if they lost the town but if the rebels managed to move the front line back towards the lowlands, that would give the DPs more protection.
"We have the weapons this time," Joao was tamping the tobacco into a large bowled pipe. "And the men are eager and brave. But in warfare you always need some luck." He smiled at me from behind the veil of smoke that rose from the pipe with each deep pull.
The rum was sweet but the banana beer rancid. I avoided the dirty glass of it that he had placed in front of me. I returned his smile but wanted to leave.
"You have been good to us Mr Michaelson, to my people. Without your camps we would not have been able to concentrate on our main goal."
"That’s what its all about, Commander Joao," I said. I had no idea what it took to win a battle, whether luck played a part in victory or not. All I knew was that on this continent there were millions of people who needed help and that it was up to people like me and the nurses and our logisticians and engineers to save them. Nothing would happen if we left it to the government of Angola or UMFANG. Without me and my people, his people were snowballs in hell.

I finished my rum and lit a cigarette of my own. I stood up to leave. Commander Joao rose as well and put his hand on my shoulder. I bent my head and moved out of the tent into the humid, greying evening. Commader Joao’s pipe needed lighting too so I held out my old Zippo lighter. His tobacco was nearly gone; he was having trouble getting the smoke going. But I was edgy and wanted to leave. "Add it for your collection, Commander," I said. "Good luck at Vila Nova."
A weak ray of sun flickered against his reflector shades when he waved to me as I drove out of the bush towards Chitembo.

The assault on Vila Nova never took place. The rains began to fall the night I left UMFANG headquarters and didn’t stop for a week. Floods were reported on several rivers and half of Cangote II camp was under water. One of my people radioed me to come as soon as possible but I couldn’t do anything till the rains stopped. On the ninth day after my meeting with Commander Joao, I took a driver and a jeep and headed down toward Cangote town.

The road was rutted deep making progress slow. We kept the jeep in low gear, moving steadily forward lest we got bogged in the red gluey mud. It was a beautiful morning. The black clouds were far to the east hovering over the hills but on three sides we had blue sky and revealing sunshine making the water on the avocado trees sparkle. You had the feeling, as so often in Africa, of looking out onto Eden.
At midday we had to turn off the main road because a bridge was out and a lorry had broken its rear axle and would block the way for days. The higher we climbed into the hills the rockier the narrow path became but the less muddy. We made good progress. With my arm out the window I was enjoying the sun for the first time in days.
Very few people were on the track. Most of the villages in this area had been forcibly evacuated years before. Both warring parties were desperate to ensure that no civilians remained to give succour or support to the enemy. The only people who lived outside the camps were the families of UMFANG fighters and the nuns who kept a watch over the churches and convents that lay in the shallow valleys like they were trying to avoid detection.

The wet sunshine stung my arm and neck. The driver said that his sister was a nun at the convent of Donna Maria de CoraÁao, just a few klicks up the road. Could we stop and have some coffee? The difficult driving conditions had exhausted him. I said yes, but that we had to make Cangote before dusk. I’d never been to the convent of Donna Maria de CoraÁao but some of my nurses visited the place every fortnight to deliver high protein cereal for the orphans which the nuns cared for.
We could see the square steeple of the convent’s chapel with its huge white cross from across the small valley. The driver moved faster, eager to see his sister and stretch his limbs.

When we pulled into the gate a half hour later we realised that the chapel was the only building not destroyed. Three long residential halls to one side, the school rooms behind the chapel and the shacks which housed the animals the nuns kept for food and milk were burned to the ground. All that remained were charred smouldering limbs of timber. All around the courtyard, strewn like cans of beer at a festival, were the heads and limbs of infants, small stuffed toys and grey and white pieces of habits. The sisters, their bodies contorted and twisted, some with the horror still on their dead faces, lay to one side. Blood, like pink spray paint, covered the chapel walls and next to a mound of burned animal and human carcasses lay a Bible and a calendar photo of an old church in Lisbon.

The driver walked through the carnage muttering to himself. He didn’t stop moving, just walking around and around in circles, whispering to himself as if he’d gone mad. The government had been active in this part of the country. The front line was on the other side of the bridge that had washed out, but the convent was definitely on the government side. Dirty fucking bastards.

The smell of death made my neck cold; my rage made me queasy. I was desperate to get to Cangote to protest to the government’s man. This sort of thing threatened our continued humanitarian presence in the area. I called to the driver who was still muttering and rubbing his fingers against his dry lips. I would drive. I started the jeep and was about to turn the wheel when near the pile of charred bodies I’d just come away from I saw something glint in the sun. I don’t know why but I got out of the car and walked toward it. It was only a few paces away. I stooped to pick it up. A battered old Zippo lighter.

Jaspers couldn’t understand why I was leaving. I’d done, he said, such an outstanding job. Both operations were a success. Things were working out just like we planned. For once.
I said I couldn’t explain. I had to go. I caught the Sabena flight back to Brussels and then the quake happened. Sent eighteen villages and four thousand people under the ground. An agency I‘d done work for from time to time was surprised I was in town. Would I go? It was a humanitarian disaster. The worst thing to hit this part of the world since God knows when. Already they had raised a million and a half dollars without even trying. The victims needed food, medicine, shelter, the whole shooting match.
You’re our man, they said. We pay well.
I accepted.
It wasn’t Angola that I was afraid of, or running from. It was the horror. Something had worked its way inside me at that convent, and it had begun to devour me from inside. It’s still eating me alive. The world ended for me at Donna Maria CoraÁao and I saw it for what it was. A conjurer’s trick. The lid popped off, revealing nothing but an empty box. The curtain of the temple had been rent from top to bottom. Christ was dead.

That day when they said go to Afghanistan the people need you, they are suffering, I wanted only to forget the horror. So I flew to Islamabad and two days later, with four helicopters of pipe, chlorine, plastic sheeting, sacks of wheat and tins of oil, I jumped out on to a narrow mountaintop and surveyed the scene. The agency had sent a Dutch administrator and a water engineer from Bangladesh as my team. More would be recruited they told me, just get there now. It’s an emergency.

It was too late that day to do anything. And that night I saw the dream. The same one I had had since my visit to Donna Maria de CoraÁao. A vast landscape of devastation. Trees have been turned to stumps, rivers have run dry. Fields no longer produce paddy or wheat. People have shrunken into grotesque children. The sky is red and purple and the giants on the earth are ghostly and silent. They reach down with pale hands full of food but as the ‘children-people’ reach up the food disappears and the hands throttle the supplicant’s throats. Some ‘children-people’ do not come forward, preferring to cower in the shadows, afraid of and yet desperate for the attention of the giants of the land. In the earth are scraps of tattered clothes, broken pottery, shards of glass and twisted striplets of iron. It is ugliness. I am observing the scene, unsure of where I am but with a warm sense of familiarity. I’ve been here. This is where I live.

Slowly, a ‘child-person’ crawling on all fours approaches me. Its face is that of an old woman, wrinkled and ashen, but her body is of a nine month infant. Her eyes are black and impenetrable but as she moves with such fragility I am not afraid. I look at her. She moves closer and reaches out her small, fleshy hand. In it is a shard of green glass and I am afraid lest she harm herself. I come close and try to remove the glass from her hand but now she is growing larger, more adolescent. I reach for the glass but she moves her hand away and brings it to my neck. I know what she is to do. I don’t move. I feel the glass press against my skin and feel the vein pop as she cuts me open. She has now lost her child’s body and her face has become young. Her body is strong and adult and beautiful. She moves away and I see that the other ‘children-people’ have grown as well and the giants have disappeared. I am alone and dying. The people have turned away and left me.

The agency wanted to know what had become of the Bangladeshi and Dutch. Why did I not allow the helicopters to land? How could I explain the lack of communications from my side? Why didn’t I answer their messages? Had I forgotten that there were people to be saved? The world had responded to helplessness and chaos once again. What I was doing?

He’s here. I know he has arrived. Feel my limbs, and neck. Here. They are cold. He’s brought the coldness. Even though it’s summer, I am shivering.
The horror. The horror.
It will consume the little of me that is left.
They say I’ve gone mad. I’m the devil, is what they say. Michaelson is the devil. I’ve heard the reports. I know what goes on. Don’t think I don’t. This one, Evangelista, the sixth emissary to come and collect me. Why should I allow him to get away? I can’t resist any more. I’ve tried. I’ve tried to forget. To hide from the horror. I’ve prayed to it and cursed it and pleaded and let my mind be ravished by it, but it is never satisfied. There is no salvation.
My father was a man of faith. I told you that, didn’t I. He used to warn me, but what son listens to his father? I remember his warning. I can hear it now: the devil comes as an angel of light.

© Nathan Rabe

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