Gandhians with a Gun? Arundhati Roy plunges
into the sea of Gondi people to find some answers...
The terse, typewritten note slipped under my door in a sealed
envelope confirmed my appointment with India’s Gravest Internal
Security Threat. I’d been waiting for months to hear from
them. I had to be at the Ma Danteshwari mandir in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh,
at any of four given times on two given days. That was to take
care of bad weather, punctures, blockades, transport strikes and
sheer bad luck. The note said: “Writer should have camera,
tika and coconut. Meeter will have cap, Hindi Outlook magazine
and bananas. Password: Namashkar Guruji.”
Namashkar Guruji. I wondered whether the Meeter and Greeter would
be expecting a man. And whether I should get myself a moustache.
There are many ways to describe Dantewada. It’s an oxymoron.
It’s a border town smack in the heart of India. It’s
the epicentre of a war. It’s an upside down, inside out
In Dantewada, the police wear plain clothes and the rebels wear
uniforms. The jail superintendent is in jail. The prisoners are
free (three hundred of them escaped from the old town jail two
years ago). Women who have been raped are in police custody. The
rapists give speeches in the bazaar.
Across the Indravati river, in the area controlled by the Maoists,
is the place the police call ‘Pakistan’. There the
villages are empty, but the forest is full of people. Children
who ought to be in school run wild. In the lovely forest villages,
the concrete school buildings have either been blown up and lie
in a heap, or they are full of policemen. The deadly war that
is unfolding in the jungle is a war that the Government of India
is both proud and shy of. Operation Green Hunt has been proclaimed
as well as denied. P. Chidambaram, India’s home minister
(and CEO of the war), says it does not exist, that it’s
a media creation. And yet substantial funds have been allocated
to it and tens of thousands of troops are being mobilised for
it. Though the theatre of war is in the jungles of Central India,
it will have serious consequences for us all.
If ghosts are the lingering spirits of someone, or something,
that has ceased to exist, then perhaps the new four-lane highway
crashing through the forest is the opposite of a ghost. Perhaps
it is the harbinger of what is still to come.
The antagonists in the forest are disparate and unequal in almost
every way. On one side is a massive paramilitary force armed with
the money, the firepower, the media, and the hubris of an emerging
Superpower. On the other, ordinary villagers armed with traditional
weapons, backed by a superbly organised, hugely motivated Maoist
guerrilla fighting force with an extraordinary and violent history
of armed rebellion. The Maoists and the paramilitary are old adversaries
and have fought older avatars of each other several times before:
Telangana in the ’50s; West Bengal, Bihar, Srikakulam in
Andhra Pradesh in the late ’60s and ’70s; and then
again in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra from the ’80s
all the way through to the present. They are familiar with each
other’s tactics, and have studied each other’s combat
manuals closely. Each time, it seemed as though the Maoists (or
their previous avatars) had been not just defeated, but literally,
physically exterminated. Each time, they have re-emerged, more
organised, more determined and more influential than ever. Today
once again the insurrection has spread through the mineral-rich
forests of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal—homeland
to millions of India’s tribal people, dreamland to the corporate
It’s easier on the liberal conscience to believe that the
war in the forests is a war between the Government of India and
the Maoists, who call elections a sham, Parliament a pigsty and
have openly declared their intention to overthrow the Indian State.
It’s convenient to forget that tribal people in Central
India have a history of resistance that predates Mao by centuries.
(That’s a truism of course. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t
exist.) The Ho, the Oraon, the Kols, the Santhals, the Mundas
and the Gonds have all rebelled several times, against the British,
against zamindars and moneylenders. The rebellions were cruelly
crushed, many thousands killed, but the people were never conquered.
Even after Independence, tribal people were at the heart of the
first uprising that could be described as Maoist, in Naxalbari
village in West Bengal (where the word Naxalite—now used
interchangeably with ‘Maoist’—originates). Since
then, Naxalite politics has been inextricably entwined with tribal
uprisings, which says as much about the tribals as it does about
This legacy of rebellion has left behind a furious people who
have been deliberately isolated and marginalised by the Indian
government. The Indian Constitution, the moral underpinning of
Indian democracy, was adopted by Parliament in 1950. It was a
tragic day for tribal people. The Constitution ratified colonial
policy and made the State custodian of tribal homelands. Overnight,
it turned the entire tribal population into squatters on their
own land. It denied them their traditional rights to forest produce,
it criminalised a whole way of life. In exchange for the right
to vote, it snatched away their right to livelihood and dignity.
Having dispossessed them and pushed them into a downward spiral
of indigence, in a cruel sleight of hand, the government began
to use their own penury against them. Each time it needed to displace
a large population—for dams, irrigation projects, mines—it
talked of “bringing tribals into the mainstream” or
of giving them “the fruits of modern development”.
Of the tens of millions of internally displaced people (more than
30 million by big dams alone), refugees of India’s ‘progress’,
the great majority are tribal people. When the government begins
to talk of tribal welfare, it’s time to worry.
The most recent expression of concern has come from home minister
P. Chidambaram who says he doesn’t want tribal people living
in “museum cultures”. The well-being of tribal people
didn’t seem to be such a priority during his career as a
corporate lawyer, representing the interests of several major
mining companies. So it might be an idea to enquire into the basis
for his new anxiety.
Over the past five years or so, the governments of Chhattisgarh,
Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal have signed hundreds of MoUs
with corporate houses, worth several billion dollars, all of them
secret, for steel plants, sponge-iron factories, power plants,
aluminium refineries, dams and mines. In order for the MoUs to
translate into real money, tribal people must be moved.
Therefore, this war.
When a country that calls itself a democracy openly declares
war within its borders, what does that war look like? Does the
resistance stand a chance? Should it? Who are the Maoists? Are
they just violent nihilists foisting an outdated ideology on tribal
people, goading them into a hopeless insurrection? What lessons
have they learned from their past experience? Is armed struggle
intrinsically undemocratic? Is the Sandwich Theory—of ‘ordinary’
tribals being caught in the crossfire between the State and the
Maoists—an accurate one? Are ‘Maoists’ and ‘Tribals’
two entirely discrete categories as is being made out? Do their
interests converge? Have they learned anything from each other?
Have they changed each other?
The day before I left, my mother called, sounding sleepy. “I’ve
been thinking,” she said, with a mother’s weird instinct,
“what this country needs is revolution.”
An article on the internet says that Israel’s Mossad is
training 30 high-ranking Indian police officers in the techniques
of targeted assassinations, to render the Maoist organisation
“headless”. There’s talk in the press about
the new hardware that has been bought from Israel: laser range-finders,
thermal imaging equipment and unmanned drones, so popular with
the US army. Perfect weapons to use against the poor.
The drive from Raipur to Dantewada takes about 10 hours through
areas known to be ‘Maoist-infested’. These are not
careless words. ‘Infest/infestation’ implies disease/pests.
Diseases must be cured. Pests must be exterminated. Maoists must
be wiped out. In these creeping, innocuous ways, the language
of genocide has entered our vocabulary.
To protect the highway, security forces have ‘secured’
a narrow bandwidth of forest on either side. Further in, it’s
the raj of the ‘Dada log’. The Brothers. The Comrades.
On the outskirts of Raipur, a massive billboard advertises Vedanta
(the company our home minister once worked with) Cancer Hospital.
In Orissa, where it is mining bauxite, Vedanta is financing a
university. In these creeping, innocuous ways, mining corporations
enter our imaginations: the Gentle Giants Who Really Care. It’s
called CSR, Corporate Social Responsibility. It allows mining
companies to be like the legendary actor and former chief minister
NTR, who liked to play all the parts in Telugu mythologicals—the
good guys and the bad guys, all at once, in the same movie. This
CSR masks the outrageous economics that underpins the mining sector
in India. For example, according to the recent Lokayukta report
for Karnataka, for every tonne of iron ore mined by a private
company, the government gets a royalty of Rs 27 and the mining
company makes Rs 5,000. In the bauxite and aluminium sector, the
figures are even worse. We’re talking about daylight robbery
to the tune of billions of dollars. Enough to buy elections, governments,
judges, newspapers, TV channels, NGOs and aid agencies. What’s
the occasional cancer hospital here or there?
I don’t remember seeing Vedanta’s name on the long
list of MoUs signed by the Chhattisgarh government. But I’m
twisted enough to suspect that if there’s a cancer hospital,
there must be a flat-topped bauxite mountain somewhere.
We pass Kanker, famous for its Counter Terrorism and Jungle
Warfare College run by Brigadier B.K. Ponwar, Rumpelstiltskin
of this war, charged with the task of turning corrupt, sloppy
policemen (straw) into jungle commandos (gold). “Fight a
guerrilla like a guerrilla”, the motto of the warfare training
school, is painted on the rocks. The men are taught to run, slither,
jump on and off air-borne helicopters, ride horses (for some reason),
eat snakes and live off the jungle. The brigadier takes great
pride in training street dogs to fight ‘terrorists’.
Eight hundred policemen graduate from the warfare training school
every six weeks. Twenty similar schools are being planned all
over India. The police force is gradually being turned into an
army. (In Kashmir, it’s the other way around. The army is
being turned into a bloated, administrative police force.) Upside
down. Inside out. Either way, the Enemy is the People.
It’s late. Jagdalpur is asleep, except for the many hoardings
of Rahul Gandhi asking people to join the Youth Congress. He’s
been to Bastar twice in recent months but hasn’t said anything
much about the war. It’s probably too messy for the People’s
Prince to meddle in at this point. His media managers must have
put their foot down. The fact that the Salwa Judum—the dreaded,
government-sponsored vigilante group responsible for rapes, killings,
for burning down villages and driving hundreds of thousands of
people from their homes—is led by Mahendra Karma, a Congress
MLA, does not get much play in the carefully orchestrated publicity
around Rahul Gandhi.
I arrived at the Ma Danteshwari mandir well in time for my appointment
(first day, first show). I had my camera, my small coconut and
a powdery red tika on my forehead. I wondered if someone was watching
me and having a laugh. Within minutes a young boy approached me.
He had a cap and a backpack schoolbag. Chipped red nail-polish
on his fingernails. No Hindi Outlook, no bananas. “Are you
the one who’s going in?” he asked me. No Namashkar
Guruji. I did not know what to say. He took out a soggy note from
his pocket and handed it to me. It said, “Outlook nahin
mila (couldn’t find Outlook).”
“And the bananas?”
“I ate them,” he said, “I got hungry.”
He really was a security threat.
His backpack said Charlie Brown—Not your ordinary blockhead.
He said his name was Mangtu. I soon learned that Dandakaranya,
the forest I was about to enter, was full of people who had many
names and fluid identities. It was like balm to me, that idea.
How lovely not to be stuck with yourself, to become someone else
for a while.
We walked to the bus stand, only a few minutes away from the
temple. It was already crowded. Things happened quickly. There
were two men on motorbikes. There was no conversation—just
a glance of acknowledgment, a shifting of body weight, the revving
of engines. I had no idea where we were going. We passed the house
of the Superintendent of Police (SP), which I recognised from
my last visit. He was a candid man, the SP: “See Ma’am,
frankly speaking this problem can’t be solved by us police
or military. The problem with these tribals is they don’t
understand greed. Unless they become greedy, there’s no
hope for us. I have told my boss, remove the force and instead
put a TV in every home. Everything will be automatically sorted
In no time at all we were riding out of town. No tail. It was
a long ride, three hours by my watch. It ended abruptly in the
middle of nowhere, on an empty road with forest on either side.
Mangtu got off. I did too. The bikes left, and I picked up my
backpack and followed the small internal security threat into
the forest. It was a beautiful day. The forest floor was a carpet
In a while we emerged on the white, sandy banks of a broad flat
river. It was obviously monsoon-fed, so now it was more or less
a sand flat, at the centre a stream, ankle deep, easy to wade
across. Across was ‘Pakistan’. “Out there, ma’am,”
the candid SP had said to me, “my boys shoot to kill.”
I remembered that as we began to cross. I saw us in a policeman’s
rifle-sights—tiny figures in a landscape, easy to pick off.
But Mangtu seemed quite unconcerned, and I took my cue from him.
Waiting for us on the other bank, in a lime-green shirt that
said Horlicks!, was Chandu. A slightly older security threat.
Maybe twenty. He had a lovely smile, cycle, a jerry can with boiled
water and many packets of glucose biscuits for me, from the Party.
We caught our breath and began to walk again. The cycle, it turned
out, was a red herring. The route was almost entirely non-cycleable.
We climbed steep hills and clambered down rocky paths along some
pretty precarious ledges. When he couldn’t wheel it, Chandu
lifted the cycle and carried it over his head as though it weighed
nothing. I began to wonder about his bemused village boy air.
I discovered (much later) that he could handle every kind of weapon,
“except for an LMG”, he informed me cheerfully.
Three beautiful, sozzled men with flowers in their turbans walked
with us for about half an hour, before our paths diverged. At
sunset, their shoulder bags began to crow. They had roosters in
them, which they had taken to market but hadn’t managed
Chandu seems to be able to see in the dark. I have to use my
torch. The crickets start up and soon there’s an orchestra,
a dome of sound over us. I long to look up at the night sky, but
I dare not. I have to keep my eyes on the ground. One step at
a time. Concentrate.
I hear dogs. But I can’t tell how far away they are. The
terrain flattens out. I steal a look at the sky. It makes me ecstatic.
I hope we’re going to stop soon. “Soon,” Chandu
says. It turns out to be more than an hour. I see silhouettes
of enormous trees. We arrive.
The village seems spacious, the houses far away from each other.
The house we enter is beautiful. There’s a fire, some people
sitting around. More people outside, in the dark. I can’t
tell how many. I can just about make them out. A murmur goes around.
Lal Salaam Kaamraid (Red Salute, Comrade). Lal Salaam, I say.
I’m beyond tired. The lady of the house calls me inside
and gives me chicken curry cooked in green beans and some red
rice. Fabulous. Her baby is asleep next to me, her silver anklets
gleam in the firelight.
After dinner, I unzip my sleeping bag. It’s a strange intrusive
sound, the big zip. Someone puts on the radio. BBC Hindi service.
The Church of England has withdrawn its funds from Vedanta’s
Niyamgiri project, citing environmental degradation and rights
violations of the Dongria Kondh tribe. I can hear cowbells, snuffling,
shuffling, cattle-farting. All’s well with the world. My
We’re up at five. On the move by six. In another couple
of hours, we cross another river. We walk through some beautiful
villages. Every village has a family of tamarind trees watching
over it, like a clutch of huge, benevolent, gods. Sweet, Bastar
tamarind. By 11, the sun is high, and walking is less fun. We
stop at a village for lunch. Chandu seems to know the people in
the house. A beautiful young girl flirts with him. He looks a
little shy, maybe because I’m around. Lunch is raw papaya
with masoor dal, and red rice. And red chilli powder. We’re
going to wait for the sun to lose some of its vehemence before
we start walking again. We take a nap in the gazebo. There is
a spare beauty about the place. Everything is clean and necessary.
No clutter. A black hen parades up and down the low mud wall.
A bamboo grid stabilises the rafters of the thatched roof and
doubles as a storage rack. There’s a grass broom, two drums,
a woven reed basket, a broken umbrella and a whole stack of flattened,
empty, corrugated cardboard boxes. Something catches my eye. I
need my spectacles. Here’s what’s printed on the cardboard:
Ideal Power 90 High Energy Emulsion Explosive (Class-2) SD CAT
We start walking again at about two. In the village we are going
to meet a Didi (Sister, Comrade) who knows what the next step
of the journey will be. Chandu doesn’t. There is an economy
of information too. Nobody is supposed to know everything. But
when we reach the village, Didi isn’t there. There is no
news of her. For the first time, I see a little cloud of worry
settling over Chandu. A big one settles over me. I don’t
know what the systems of communication are, but what if they’ve
We’re parked outside a deserted school building, a little
way out of the village. Why are all the government village schools
built like concrete bastions, with steel shutters for windows
and sliding folding steel doors? Why not like the village houses,
with mud and thatch? Because they double up as barracks and bunkers.
“In the villages in Abujhmad,” Chandu says, “schools
are like this....” He scratches a building plan with a twig
in the earth. Three octagons attached to each other like a honeycomb.
“So they can fire in all directions.” He draws arrows
to illustrate his point, like a cricket graphic—a batsman’s
wagon wheel. There are no teachers in any of the schools, Chandu
says. They’ve all run away. Or have you chased them away?
No, we only chase police. But why should teachers come here, to
the jungle, when they get their salaries sitting at home? Good
He informs me that this is a ‘new area’. The Party
has entered only recently.
About 20 young people arrive, girls and boys. In their teens
and early 20s. Chandu explains that this is the village-level
militia, the lowest rung of the Maoists’ military hierarchy.
I have never seen anyone like them before. They are dressed in
saris and lungis, some in frayed olive-green fatigues. The boys
wear jewellery, headgear. Every one of them has a muzzle-loading
rifle, what’s called a bharmaar. Some also have knives,
axes, a bow and arrow. One boy carries a crude mortar fashioned
out of a heavy three-foot GI pipe. It’s filled with gunpowder
and shrapnel and ready to be fired. It makes a big noise, but
can only be used once. Still, it scares the police, they say,
and giggle. War doesn’t seem to be uppermost on their minds.
Perhaps because their area is outside the home range of the Salwa
Judum. They have just finished a day’s work, helping to
build fencing around some village houses to keep the goats out
of the fields. They’re full of fun and curiosity. The girls
are confident and easy with the boys. I have a sensor for this
sort of thing, and I am impressed. Their job, Chandu says, is
to patrol and protect a group of four or five villages and to
help in the fields, clean wells or repair houses—doing whatever’s
Still no Didi. What to do? Nothing. Wait. Help out with some
chopping and peeling.
After dinner, without much talk, everybody falls in line. Clearly,
we are moving. Everything moves with us, the rice, vegetables,
pots and pans. We leave the school compound and walk single file
into the forest. In less than half an hour, we arrive in a glade
where we are going to sleep. There’s absolutely no noise.
Within minutes everyone has spread their blue plastic sheets,
the ubiquitous ‘jhilli’ (without which there will
be no Revolution). Chandu and Mangtu share one and spread one
out for me. They find me the best place, by the best grey rock.
Chandu says he has sent a message to Didi. If she gets it, she
will be here first thing in the morning. If she gets it.
It’s the most beautiful room I have slept in, in a long
time. My private suite in a thousand-star hotel. I’m surrounded
by these strange, beautiful children with their curious arsenal.
They’re all Maoists for sure. Are they all going to die?
Is the jungle warfare training school for them? And the helicopter
gunships, the thermal imaging and the laser range-finders?
Why must they die? What for? To turn all of this into a mine?
I remember my visit to the open cast iron-ore mines in Keonjhar,
Orissa. There was forest there once. And children like these.
Now the land is like a raw, red wound. Red dust fills your nostrils
and lungs. The water is red, the air is red, the people are red,
their lungs and hair are red. All day and all night trucks rumble
through their villages, bumper to bumper, thousands and thousands
of trucks, taking ore to Paradip port from where it will go to
China. There it will turn into cars and smoke and sudden cities
that spring up overnight. Into a ‘growth rate’ that
leaves economists breathless. Into weapons to make war.
Everyone’s asleep except for the sentries who take one-and-a-half-hour
shifts. Finally, I can look at the stars. When I was a child growing
up on the banks of the Meenachal river, I used to think the sound
of crickets—which always started up at twilight—was
the sound of stars revving up, getting ready to shine. I’m
surprised at how much I love being here. There is nowhere else
in the world that I would rather be. Who should I be tonight?
Kamraid Rahel, under the stars? Maybe Didi will come tomorrow.
They arrive in the early afternoon. I can see them from a distance.
About 15 of them, all in olive-green uniforms, running towards
us. Even from a distance, from the way they run, I can tell they
are the heavy hitters. The People’s Liberation Guerrilla
Army (PLGA). For whom the thermal imaging and laser-guided rifles.
For whom the jungle warfare training school.
They carry serious rifles, INSAS, SLR, two have AK-47s. The leader
of the squad is Comrade Madhav who has been with the Party since
he was nine. He’s from Warangal, Andhra Pradesh. He’s
upset and extremely apologetic. There was a major miscommunication,
he says again and again, which usually never happens. I was supposed
to have arrived at the main camp on the very first night. Someone
dropped the baton in the jungle-relay. The motorcycle drop was
to have been at an entirely different place. “We made you
wait, we made you walk so much. We ran all the way when the message
came that you were here.” I said it was okay, that I had
come prepared, to wait and walk and listen. He wants to leave
immediately, because people in the camp were waiting, and worried.
It’s a few hours’ walk to the camp. It’s getting
dark when we arrive. There are several layers of sentries and
concentric circles of patrolling. There must be a hundred comrades
lined up in two rows. Everyone has a weapon. And a smile. They
begin to sing: Lal lal salaam, lal lal salaam, aane vaale saathiyon
ko lal lal salaam (red salute to the comrades who have arrived).
It is sung sweetly, as though it was a folk song about a river,
or a forest blossom. With the song, the greeting, the handshake,
and the clenched fist. Everyone greets everyone, murmuring Lalslaam,
Other than a large blue jhilli spread out on the floor, about
15 feet square, there are no signs of a ‘camp’. This
one has a jhilli roof as well. It’s my room for the night.
I was either being rewarded for my days of walking, or being pampered
in advance for what lay ahead. Or both. Either way it was the
last time in the entire trip that I was going to have a roof over
my head. Over dinner I meet Comrade Narmada, in charge of the
Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sangathan (KAMS), who has a price on
her head; Comrade Saroja of the PLGA who is only as tall as her
SLR; Comrade Maase (which means Black Girl in Gondi), who has
a price on her head too; Comrade Rupi, the tech wizard; Comrade
Raju, who’s in charge of the division I’d been walking
through; and Comrade Venu (or Murali or Sonu or Sushil, whatever
you would like to call him), clearly the seniormost of them all.
Maybe central committee, maybe even politburo. I’m not told,
I don’t ask. Between us we speak Gondi, Halbi, Telugu, Punjabi
and Malayalam. Only Maase speaks English. (So we all communicate
in Hindi!) Comrade Maase is tall and quiet and seems to have to
swim through a layer of pain to enter the conversation. But from
the way she hugs me, I can tell she’s a reader. And that
she misses having books in the jungle. She will tell me her story
only later. When she trusts me with her grief.
Bad news arrives, as it does in this jungle. A runner, with ‘biscuits’.
Handwritten notes on sheets of paper, folded and stapled into
little squares. There’s a bag full of them. Like chips.
News from everywhere. The police have killed five people in Ongnaar
village, four from the militia and one ordinary villager: Santhu
Pottai (25), Phoolo Vadde (22), Kande Pottai (22), Ramoli Vadde
(20), Dalsai Koram (22). They could have been the children in
my star-spangled dormitory of last night.
Then good news arrives. A small contingent of people with a plump
young man. He’s in fatigues too, but they look brand new.
Everybody admires them and comments on the fit. He looks shy and
pleased. He’s a doctor who has come to live and work with
the comrades in the forest. The last time a doctor visited Dandakaranya
was many years ago.
On the radio there’s news about the home minister’s
meeting with chief ministers of states ‘affected by Left-Wing
Extremism’. The chief ministers of Jharkhand and Bihar are
being demure and have not attended. Everybody sitting around the
radio laughs. Around the time of elections, they say, right through
the campaign, and then maybe a month or two after the government
is formed, mainstream politicians all say things like “Naxals
are our children”. You can set your watch to the schedule
of when they will change their minds, and grow fangs.
I am introduced to Comrade Kamla. I am told that I must on no
account go even five feet away from my jhilli without waking her.
Because everybody gets disoriented in the dark and could get seriously
lost. (I don’t wake her. I sleep like a log.) In the morning
Kamla presents me with a yellow polythene packet with one corner
snipped off. Once it used to contain Abis Gold Refined Soya Oil.
Now it was my Loo Mug. Nothing’s wasted on the Road to the
(Even now I think of Comrade Kamla all the time, every day. She’s
17. She wears a homemade pistol on her hip. And boy, what a smile.
But if the police come across her, they’ll kill her. They
might rape her first. No questions will be asked. Because she’s
an Internal Security Threat.)
After breakfast, Comrade Venu (Sushil, Sonu, Murali) is waiting
for me, sitting cross-legged on the jhilli, looking for all the
world like a frail village schoolteacher. I’m going to get
a history lesson. Or, more accurately, a lecture on the history
of the last 30 years in the Dandakaranya forest, which has culminated
in the war that’s swirling through it today. For sure, it’s
a partisan’s version. But then, what history isn’t?
In any case, the secret history must be made public if it is to
be contested, argued with, instead of merely being lied about,
which is what is happening now.
Comrade Venu has a calm, reassuring manner and a gentle voice
that will, in the days to come, surface in a context that will
completely unnerve me. This morning he talks for several hours,
almost continuously. He’s like a little store manager who
has a giant bunch of keys with which to open up a maze of lockers
full of stories, songs and insights.
Comrade Venu was in one of the seven armed squads who crossed
the Godavari from Andhra Pradesh and entered the Dandakaranya
forest (DK, in Partyspeak) in June 1980, 30 years ago. He is one
of the original forty-niners. They belonged to People’s
War Group (PWG), a faction of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)
or CPI(ML), the original Naxalites. PWG was formally announced
as a separate, independent party in April that year, under Kondapalli
Seetharamiah. PWG had decided to build a standing army, for which
it would need a base. DK was to be that base, and those first
squads were sent in to reconnoitre the area and begin the process
of building guerrilla zones. The debate about whether communist
parties ought to have a standing army, and whether or not a ‘people’s
army’ is a contradiction in terms, is an old one. PWG’s
decision to build an army came from its experience in Andhra Pradesh,
where its ‘Land to the Tiller’ campaign led to a direct
clash with the landlords, and resulted in the kind of police repression
that the party found impossible to withstand without a trained
fighting force of its own.
(By 2004, PWG had merged with the other CPI(ML) factions, Party
Unity (PU) and the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC)—which functions
for the most part out of Bihar and Jharkhand. To become what it
is now, the Communist Party of India-Maoist.)
Dandakaranya is part of what the British, in their White Man’s
way, called Gondwana, land of the Gonds. Today the state boundaries
of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra
slice through the forest. Breaking up a troublesome people into
separate administrative units is an old trick. But these Maoists
and Maoist Gonds don’t pay much attention to things like
state boundaries. They have different maps in their heads, and
like other creatures of the forest, they have their own paths.
For them, roads are not meant for walking on. They’re meant
only to be crossed, or as is increasingly becoming the case, ambushed.
Though the Gonds (divided between the Koya and Dorla tribes) are
by far the biggest majority, there are small settlements of other
tribal communities too. The non-adivasi communities, traders and
settlers, live on the edges of the forest, near the roads and
The PWG were not the first evangelicals to arrive in Dandakaranya.
Baba Amte, the well-known Gandhian, had opened his ashram and
leprosy hospital in Warora in 1975. The Ramakrishna Mission had
begun opening village schools in the remote forests of Abujhmad.
In north Bastar, Baba Bihari Das had started an aggressive drive
to “bring tribals back into the Hindu fold”, which
involved a campaign to denigrate tribal culture, induce self-hatred,
and introduce Hinduism’s great gift—caste. The first
converts, the village chiefs and big landlords—people like
Mahendra Karma, founder of the Salwa Judum—were conferred
the status of Dwij, twice-born, Brahmins. (Of course, this was
a bit of a scam, because nobody can become a Brahmin. If they
could, we’d be a nation of Brahmins by now.) But this counterfeit
Hinduism is considered good enough for tribal people, just like
the counterfeit brands of everything else—biscuits, soap,
matches, oil—that are sold in village markets. As part of
the Hindutva drive, the names of villages were changed in land
records, as a result of which most have two names now, people’s
names and government names. Innar village, for example, became
Chinnari. On voters’ lists, tribal names were changed to
Hindu names. (Massa Karma became Mahendra Karma.) Those who did
not come forward to join the Hindu fold were declared ‘Katwas’
(by which they meant untouchables) who later became the natural
constituency for the Maoists.
The PWG first began work in south Bastar and Gadchiroli. Comrade
Venu describes those first months in some detail: how the villagers
were suspicious of them, and wouldn’t let them into their
homes. No one would offer them food or water. The police spread
rumours that they were thieves. The women hid their jewellery
in the ashes of their wood stoves. There was an enormous amount
of repression. In November 1980, in Gadchiroli, the police opened
fire at a village meeting and killed an entire squad. That was
DK’s first ‘encounter’ killing. It was a traumatic
setback, and the comrades retreated across the Godavari and returned
to Adilabad but in 1981 they returned. They began to organise
tribal people to demand a rise in the price they were being paid
for tendu leaves (which are used to make beedis). At the time,
traders paid three paise for a bundle of about 50 leaves. It was
a formidable job to organise people entirely unfamiliar with this
kind of politics, to lead them on strike. Eventually the strike
was successful and the price was doubled, to six paise a bundle.
But the real success for the party was to have been able to demonstrate
the value of unity and a new way of conducting a political negotiation.
Today, after several strikes and agitations, the price of a bundle
of tendu leaves is Re 1. (It seems a little improbable at these
rates, but the turnover of the tendu business runs into hundreds
of crores of rupees.) Every season, the government floats tenders
and gives contractors permission to extract a fixed volume of
tendu leaves—usually between 1,500 and 5,000 standard bags
known as manak boras. Each manak bora contains about 1,000 bundles.
(Of course, there’s no way of ensuring that the contractors
don’t extract more than they’re meant to.) By the
time the tendu enters the market, it is sold in kilos. The slippery
arithmetic and the sly system of measurement that converts bundles
into manak boras into kilos is controlled by the contractors,
and leaves plenty of room for manipulation of the worst kind.
The most conservative estimate puts their profit per standard
bag at about Rs 1,100. (That’s after paying the party a
commission of Rs 120 per bag.) Even by that gauge, a small contractor
(1,500 bags) makes about Rs 16 lakh a season and a big one (5,000
bags) upto Rs 55 lakh. A more realistic estimate would be several
times this amount. Meanwhile, the Gravest Internal Security Threat
makes just enough to stay alive until the next season.
We’re interrupted by some laughter and the sight of Nilesh,
one of the young PLGA comrades, walking rapidly towards the cooking
area, slapping himself. When he comes closer, I see that he’s
carrying a leafy nest of angry red ants that have crawled all
over him and are biting him on his arms and neck. Nilesh is laughing
too. “Have you ever eaten ant chutney?” Comrade Venu
asks me. I know red ants well, from my childhood in Kerala, I’ve
been bitten by them, but I’ve never eaten them. (The chapoli
turns out to be nice. Sour. Lots of folic acid.)
Nilesh is from Bijapur, which is at the heart of Salwa Judum
operations. Nilesh’s younger brother joined the Judum on
one of its looting and burning sprees and was made a Special Police
Officer (SPO). He lives in the Basaguda camp with his mother.
His father refused to go and stayed behind in the village. In
effect, it’s a family blood feud. Later on, when I had an
opportunity to talk to him, I asked Nilesh why his brother had
done that. “He was very young,” Nilesh said, “he
got an opportunity to run wild and hurt people and burn houses.
He went crazy, did terrible things. Now he is stuck. He can never
come back to the village. He will not be forgiven. He knows that.”
We return to the history lesson. The party’s next big struggle,
Comrade Venu says, was against the Ballarpur Paper Mills. The
government had given the Thapars a 45-year contract to extract
1.5 lakh tonnes of bamboo at a hugely subsidised rate. (Small
beer compared to bauxite, but still.) The tribals were paid 10
paise for a bundle which contained 20 culms of bamboo. (I won’t
yield to the vulgar temptation of comparing that with the profits
the Thapars were making.) A long agitation, a strike, followed
by negotiations with officials of the paper mill in the presence
of the people, tripled the price to 30 paise per bundle. For the
tribal people, these were huge achievements. Other political parties
had made promises, but showed no signs of keeping them. People
began to approach the PWG asking if they could join up.
But the politics of tendu, bamboo and other forest produce was
seasonal. The perennial problem, the real bane of people’s
lives, was the biggest landlord of all, the Forest Department.
Every morning, forest officials, even the most junior of them,
would appear in villages like a bad dream, preventing people from
ploughing their fields, collecting firewood, plucking leaves,
picking fruit, grazing their cattle, from living. They brought
elephants to overrun fields and scattered babool seeds to destroy
the soil as they passed by. People would be beaten, arrested,
humiliated, their crops destroyed. Of course, from the forest
department’s point of view, these were illegal people engaged
in unconstitutional activity, and the department was only implementing
the Rule of Law. (Their sexual exploitation of women was just
an added perk in a hardship posting.)
Emboldened by the people’s participation in these struggles,
the party decided to confront the forest department. It encouraged
people to take over forest land and cultivate it. The forest department
retaliated by burning new villages that came up in forest areas.
In 1986, it announced a National Park in Bijapur, which meant
the eviction of 60 villages. More than half of them had already
been moved out, and construction of national park infrastructure
had begun when the party moved in. It demolished the construction
and stopped the eviction of the remaining villages. It prevented
the forest department from entering the area. On a few occasions,
officials were captured, tied to trees and beaten by villagers.
It was cathartic revenge for generations of exploitation. Eventually,
the forest department fled. Between 1986 and 2000, the party redistributed
3,00,000 acres of forest land. Today, Comrade Venu says, there
are no landless peasants in Dandakaranya.
For today’s generation of young people, the forest department
is a distant memory, the stuff of stories mothers tell their children,
about a mythological past of bondage and humiliation. For the
older generation, freedom from the forest department meant genuine
freedom. They could touch it, taste it. It meant far more than
India’s Independence ever did. They began to rally to the
party that had struggled with them.
The seven-squad team had come a long way. Its influence now ranged
across a 60,000 sq km stretch of forest, thousands of villages
and millions of people.
But the departure of the forest department heralded the arrival
of the police. That set off a cycle of bloodshed. Fake ‘encounters’
by the police, ambushes by the PWG. With the redistribution of
land came other responsibilities: irrigation, agricultural productivity
and the problem of an expanding population arbitrarily clearing
forest land. A decision was taken to separate ‘mass work’
and ‘military work’.
Today, Dandakaranya is administered by an elaborate structure
of Janatana Sarkars (people’s governments). The organising
principles came from the Chinese revolution and the Vietnam war.
Each Janatana Sarkar is elected by a cluster of villages whose
combined population can range from 500 to 5,000. It has nine departments:
Krishi (agriculture), Vyapar-Udyog (trade and industry) Arthik
(economic), Nyay (justice), Raksha (defence), Hospital (health),
Jan Sampark (public relations), School-Riti Rivaj (education and
culture), and Jungle. A group of Janatana Sarkars come under an
Area Committee. Three area committees make up a Division. There
are 10 divisions in Dandakaranya.
“We have a Save the Jungle department now,” Comrade
Venu says. “You must have read the government report that
says forest has increased in Naxal areas?”
Ironically, Comrade Venu says, the first people to benefit from
the party’s campaign against the forest department were
the mukhias (village chiefs)—the Dwij brigade. They used
their manpower and their resources to grab as much land as they
could while the going was good. But then people began to approach
the party with their “internal contradictions”, as
Comrade Venu put it quaintly. The party began to turn its attention
to issues of equity, class and injustice within tribal society.
The big landlords sensed trouble on the horizon. As the party’s
influence expanded, theirs had begun to wane. Increasingly, people
were taking their problems to the party instead of to the mukhias.
Old forms of exploitation began to be challenged. On the day of
the first rain, people were traditionally supposed to till the
mukhia’s land instead of their own. That stopped. They no
longer offered them the first day’s picking of mahua or
other forest produce. Obviously, something needed to be done.
Enter Mahendra Karma, one of the biggest landlords in the region
and at the time a member of the Communist Party of India (CPI).
In 1990, he rallied a group of mukhias and landlords and started
a campaign called the Jan Jagran Abhiyaan (public awakening campaign).
Their way of ‘awakening’ the ‘public’
was to form a hunting party of about 300 men to comb the forest,
killing people, burning houses and molesting women. The then Madhya
Pradesh government—Chhattisgarh had not yet been created—provided
police back-up. In Maharashtra, something similar called ‘Democratic
Front’ began its assault. People’s War responded to
all of this in true People’s War style, by killing a few
of the most notorious landlords. In a few months, the Jan Jagran
Abhiyaan, the ‘white terror’—Comrade Venu’s
term for it—faded. In 1998, Mahendra Karma, who had by now
joined the Congress party, tried to revive the Jan Jagran Abhiyaan.
This time it fizzled out even faster than before.
Then, in the summer of 2005, fortune favoured him. In April,
the BJP government in Chhattisgarh signed two MoUs to set up integrated
steel plants (the terms of which are secret). One for Rs 7,000
crore with Essar Steel in Bailadila, and the other for Rs 10,000
crore with Tata Steel in Lohandiguda. That same month, Prime Minister
Manmohan Singh made his famous statement about the Maoists being
the “Gravest Internal Security Threat” to India. (It
was an odd thing to say at the time, because actually the opposite
was true. The Congress government in Andhra Pradesh had just outmanoeuvred
the Maoists, decimated them. They had lost about 1,600 of their
cadre and were in complete disarray.) The PM’s statement
sent the share value of mining companies soaring. It also sent
a signal to the media that the Maoists were fair game for anyone
who chose to go after them. In June 2005, Mahendra Karma called
a secret meeting of mukhias in Kutroo village and announced the
Salwa Judum (the Purification Hunt). A lovely melange of tribal
earthiness and Dwij/Nazi sentiment.
Unlike the Jan Jagran Abhiyaan, the Salwa Judum was a ground-clearing
operation, meant to move people out of their villages into roadside
camps, where they could be policed and controlled. In military
terms, it’s called Strategic Hamleting. It was devised by
General Sir Harold Briggs in 1950 when the British were at war
against the communists in Malaya. The Briggs Plan became very
popular with the Indian army, which has used it in Nagaland, Mizoram
and in Telangana. The BJP chief minister of Chhattisgarh, Raman
Singh, announced that as far as his government was concerned,
villagers who did not move into the camps would be considered
Maoists. So, in Bastar, for an ordinary villager, just staying
at home became the equivalent of indulging in dangerous terrorist
Along with a steel mug of black tea, as a special treat, someone
hands me a pair of earphones and switches on a little MP3 player.
It’s a scratchy recording of Mr Manhar, the then SP Bijapur,
briefing a junior officer over the wireless about the rewards
and incentives the state and central governments are offering
to ‘jagrit’ (awakened) villages, and to people who
agree to move into camps. He then gives clear instructions that
villages that refuse to surrender should be burnt and journalists
who want to ‘cover’ Naxalites should be shot on sight.
(I’d read about this in the papers long ago. When the story
broke, as punishment—it’s not clear to whom—the
SP was transferred to the State Human Rights Commission.)
The first village the Salwa Judum burnt (on June 18, 2005) was
Ambeli. Between June and December 2005, it burned, killed, raped
and looted its way through hundreds of villages of south Dantewada.
The centre of its operations were the districts of Bijapur and
Bhairamgarh, near Bailadila, where Essar Steel’s new plant
was proposed. Not coincidentally, these were also Maoist strongholds,
where the Janatana Sarkars had done a great deal of work, especially
in building water-harvesting structures. The Janatana Sarkars
became the special target of the Salwa Judum’s attacks.
Hundreds of people were killed in the most brutal ways. About
60,000 people moved into camps, some voluntarily, others out of
terror. Of these, about 3,000 were appointed SPOs on a salary
of Rs 1,500.
For these paltry crumbs, young people, like Nilesh’s brother,
have sentenced themselves to a life-sentence in a barbed wire
enclosure. Cruel as they have been, they could end up being the
worst victims of this horrible war. No Supreme Court judgement
ordering the Salwa Judum to be dismantled can change their fate.
The remaining hundreds of thousands of people went off the government
radar. (But the development funds for these 644 villages did not.
What happens to that little goldmine?) Many of them made their
way to Andhra Pradesh and Orissa where they usually migrated to
work as contract labour during the chilli-picking season. But
tens of thousands fled into the forest, where they still remain,
living without shelter, coming back to their fields and homes
only in the daytime.
In the slipstream of the Salwa Judum, a swarm of police stations
and camps appeared. The idea was to provide carpet security for
a ‘creeping reoccupation’ of Maoist-controlled territory.
The assumption was that the Maoists would not dare to attack such
a large concentration of security forces. The Maoists, for their
part, realised that if they did not break that carpet security,
it would amount to abandoning people whose trust they had earned,
and with whom they had lived and worked for 25 years. They struck
back in a series of attacks on the heart of the security grid.
On January 26, 2006, the PLGA attacked the Gangalaur police camp
and killed seven people. On July 17, 2006, the Salwa Judum camp
at Erabor was attacked, 20 people were killed and 150 injured.
(You might have read about it: “Maoists attacked the relief
camp set up by the state government to provide shelter to the
villagers who had fled from their villages because of terror unleashed
by the Naxalites.”) On December 13, 2006, they attacked
the Basaguda ‘relief’ camp and killed three SPOs and
a constable. On March 15, 2007, came the most audacious of them
all. One hundred and twenty PLGA guerrillas attacked the Rani
Bodili Kanya Ashram, a girls’ hostel that had been converted
into a barrack for 80 Chhattisgarh Police (and SPOs) while the
girls still lived in it as human shields. The PLGA entered the
compound, cordoned off the annexe in which the girls lived, and
attacked the barracks. Some 55 policemen and SPOs were killed.
None of the girls was hurt. (The candid SP of Dantewada had shown
me his PowerPoint presentation with horrifying photographs of
the burned, disembowelled bodies of the policemen amidst the ruins
of the blown-up school building. They were so macabre, it was
impossible not to look away. He looked pleased at my reaction.)
The attack on Rani Bodili caused an uproar in the country. Human
rights organisations condemned the Maoists not just for their
violence, but also for being anti-education and attacking schools.
But in Dandakaranya, the Rani Bodili attack became a legend: songs,
poems and plays were written about it.
The Maoist counter-offensive did break the carpet security and
gave people breathing space. The police and the Salwa Judum retreated
into their camps, from which they now emerge—usually in
the dead of night—only in packs of 300 or 1,000 to carry
out cordon and search operations in villages. Gradually, except
for the SPOs and their families, the rest of the people in the
Salwa Judum camps began to return to their villages. The Maoists
welcomed them back and announced that even SPOs could return if
they genuinely, and publicly, regretted their actions. Young people
began to flock to the PLGA. (The PLGA had been formally constituted
in December 2000. Over the last 30years, its armed squads had
very gradually expanded into sections, sections had grown into
platoons, and platoons into companies. But after the Salwa Judum’s
depredations, the PLGA was rapidly able to declare battalion strength.)
The Salwa Judum had not just failed, it had backfired badly.
As we now know, it was not just a local operation by a small-time
hood. Regardless of the doublespeak in the press, the Salwa Judum
was a joint operation by the state government of Chhattisgarh
and the Congress party which was in power at the Centre. It could
not be allowed to fail. Not when all those MoUs were still waiting,
like wilting hopefuls on the marriage market. The government was
under tremendous pressure to come up with a new plan. They came
up with Operation Green Hunt. The Salwa Judum SPOs are called
Koya Commandos now. It has deployed the Chhattisgarh Armed Force
(CAF), the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), the Border Security
Force (BSF), the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), the Central
Industrial Security Force (CISF), Greyhounds, Scorpions, Cobras.
And a policy that’s affectionately called WHAM—Winning
Hearts and Minds.
Significant wars are often fought in unlikely places. Free Market
Capitalism defeated Soviet Communism in the bleak mountains of
Afghanistan. Here in the forests of Dantewada, a battle rages
for the soul of India. Plenty has been said about the deepening
crisis in Indian democracy and the collusion between big corporations,
major political parties and the security establishment. If anybody
wants to do a quick spot check, Dantewada is the place to go.
A draft report on State Agrarian Relations and the Unfinished
Task of Land Reform (Volume 1) said that Tata Steel and Essar
Steel were the first financiers of the Salwa Judum. Because it
was a government report, it created a flurry when it was reported
in the press. (That fact has subsequently been dropped from the
final report. Was it a genuine error, or did someone receive a
gentle, integrated steel tap on the shoulder?)
On October 12, 2009, the mandatory public hearing for Tata’s
steel plant, meant to be held in Lohandiguda where local people
could come, actually took place in a small hall inside the Collectorate
in Jagdalpur, many miles away, cordoned off with massive security.
A hired audience of 50 tribals was brought in a guarded convoy
of government jeeps. After the meeting, the district collector
congratulated ‘the people of Lohandiguda’ for their
cooperation. The local newspapers reported the lie, even though
they knew better. (The advertisements rolled in.) Despite villagers’
objections, land acquisition for the project has begun.
The Maoists are not the only ones who seek to depose the Indian
State. It’s already been deposed several times by Hindu
fundamentalism and economic totalitarianism.
Lohandiguda, a five-hour drive from Dantewada, never used to
be a Naxalite area. But it is now. Comrade Joori, who sat next
to me while I ate the ant chutney, works in the area. She said
they decided to move in after graffiti had begun to appear on
the walls of village houses, saying, Naxali aao, hamein bachao
(Naxals come and save us)! A few months ago, Vimal Meshram, president
of the village panchayat, was shot dead in the market. “He
was Tata’s man,” Joori says. “He was forcing
people to give up their land and accept compensation. It’s
good that he’s been finished. We lost a comrade too. They
shot him. D’you want more chapoli?” She’s only
20. “We won’t let the Tatas come there. People don’t
want them.” Joori is not PLGA. She’s in the Chetna
Natya Manch (CNM), the cultural wing of the party. She sings.
She writes songs. She’s from Abujhmad. (She’s married
to Comrade Madhav. She fell in love with his singing when he visited
her village with a CNM troupe.)
I feel I ought to say something at this point. About the futility
of violence, about the unacceptability of summary executions.
But what should I suggest they do? Go to court? Do a dharna at
Jantar Mantar, New Delhi? A rally? A relay hunger strike? It sounds
ridiculous. The promoters of the New Economic Policy—who
find it so easy to say “There Is No Alternative”—should
be asked to suggest an alternative Resistance Policy. A specific
one, to these specific people, in this specific forest. Here.
Now. Which party should they vote for? Which democratic institution
in this country should they approach? Which door did the Narmada
Bachao Andolan not knock on during the years and years it fought
against Big Dams on the Narmada?
It’s dark. There’s a lot of activity in the camp,
but I can’t see anything. Just points of light moving around.
It’s hard to tell whether they are stars or fireflies or
Maoists on the move. Little Mangtu appears from nowhere. I found
out that he’s part of the first batch of the Young Communists
Mobile School, who are being taught to read and write and tutored
in basic Communist principles. (“Indoctrination of young
minds!” our corporate media howls. The TV advertisements
that brainwash children before they can even think are not seen
as a form of indoctrination.) The young Communists are not allowed
to carry guns or wear uniforms. But they trail the PLGA squads,
with stars in their eyes, like groupies of a rock band.
Mangtu has adopted me with a gently proprietorial air. He has
filled my water bottle and says I should pack my bag. A whistle
blows. The blue jhilli tent is dismantled and folded up in five
minutes flat. Another whistle and all hundred comrades fall in
line. Five rows. Comrade Raju is the Director of Ops. There’s
a roll call. I’m in the line too, shouting out my number
when Comrade Kamla who is in front of me, prompts me. (We count
to twenty and then start from one, because that’s as far
as most Gonds count. Twenty is enough for them. Maybe it should
be enough for us too.) Chandu is in fatigues now, and carries
a sten gun. In a low voice, Comrade Raju is briefing the group.
It’s all in Gondi, I don’t understand a thing, but
I keep hearing the word RV. Later Raju tells me it stands for
Rendezvous! It’s a Gondi word now. “We make RV points
so that in case we come under fire and people have to scatter,
they know where to regroup.” He cannot possibly know the
kind of panic this induces in me. Not because I’m scared
of being fired on, but because I’m scared of being lost.
I’m a directional dyslexic, capable of getting lost between
my bedroom and my bathroom. What will I do in 60,000 square kilometres
of forest? Come hell or high water, I’m going to be holding
on to Comrade Raju’s pallu.
Before we start walking, Comrade Venu comes up to me: “Okaythen
comrade. I’ll take your leave.” I’m taken aback.
He looks like a little mosquito in a woollen cap and chappals,
surrounded by his guards, three women, three men. Heavily armed.
“We are very grateful to you comrade, for coming all the
way here,” he says. Once again the handshake, the clenched
fist. “Lal Salaam Comrade.” He disappears into the
forest, the Keeper of the Keys. And in a moment, it’s as
though he was never here. I’m a little bereft. But I have
hours of recordings to listen to. And as the days turn into weeks,
I will meet many people who paint colour and detail into the grid
he drew for me. We begin to walk in the opposite direction. Comrade
Raju, smelling of Iodex from a mile off, says with a happy smile,
“My knees are gone. I can only walk if I have had a fistful
Comrade Raju speaks perfect Hindi and has a deadpan way of telling
the funniest stories. He worked as an advocate in Raipur for 18
years. Both he and his wife Malti were party members and part
of its city network. At the end of 2007, one of the key people
in the Raipur network was arrested, tortured and eventually turned
informer. He was driven around Raipur in a closed police vehicle
and made to point out his former colleagues. Comrade Malti was
one of them. On January 22, 2008, she was arrested along with
several others. The charge against her is that she mailed CDs
containing video evidence of Salwa Judum atrocities to several
members of Parliament. Her case rarely comes up for hearing because
the police know their case is flimsy. But the new Chhattisgarh
Special Public Security Act (CSPSA) allows the police to hold
her without bail for several years. “Now the government
has deployed several battalions of Chhattisgarh police to protect
the poor members of Parliament from their own mail,” Comrade
Raju says. He did not get caught because he was in Dandakaranya
at the time, attending a meeting. He’s been here ever since.
His two schoolgoing children, who were left alone at home, were
interrogated extensively by the police. Finally, their home was
packed up and they went to live with an uncle. Comrade Raju received
news of them for the first time only a few weeks ago. What gives
him this strength, this ability to hold on to his acid humour?
What keeps them all going, despite all they have endured? Their
faith and hope—and love—for the Party. I encounter
it again and again, in the deepest, most personal ways.
We’re moving in single file now. Myself and one hundred
“senselessly violent”, bloodthirsty insurgents. I
looked around at the camp before we left. There are no signs that
almost a hundred people had camped here, except for some ash where
the fires had been. I cannot believe this army. As far as consumption
goes, it’s more Gandhian than any Gandhian, and has a lighter
carbon footprint than any climate change evangelist. But for now,
it even has a Gandhian approach to sabotage; before a police vehicle
is burnt, for example, it is stripped down and every part cannibalised.
The steering wheel is straightened out and made into a bharmaar,
the rexine upholstery stripped and used for ammunition pouches,
the battery for solar charging. (The new instructions from the
high command are that captured vehicles should be buried and not
cremated. So they can be resurrected when needed.) Should I write
a play, I wonder—Gandhi Get Your Gun? Or will I be lynched?
We’re walking in pitch darkness and dead silence. I’m
the only one using a torch, pointed down so that all I can see
in its circle of light are Comrade Kamla’s bare heels in
her scuffed, black chappals, showing me exactly where to put my
feet. She is carrying 10 times more weight than I am. Her backpack,
her rifle, a huge bag of provisions on her head, one of the large
cooking pots and two shoulder bags full of vegetables. The bag
on her head is perfectly balanced, and she can scramble down slopes
and slippery rock pathways without so much as touching it. She
is a miracle. It turns out to be a long walk. I’m grateful
to the history lesson because apart from everything else it gave
my feet a rest for a whole day. It’s the most beautiful
thing, walking in the forest at night.
And I’ll be doing it night after night.
We’re going to a celebration of the centenary of the 1910
Bhumkal rebellion in which the Koyas rose up against the British.
Bhumkal means earthquake. Comrade Raju says people will walk for
days together to come for the celebration. The forest must be
full of people on the move. There are celebrations in all the
DK divisions. We are privileged because Comrade Leng, the Master
of Ceremonies, is walking with us. In Gondi, Leng means ‘the
voice’. Comrade Leng is a tall, middle-aged man from Andhra
Pradesh, a colleague of the legendary and beloved singer-poet
Gadar, who founded the radical cultural organisation Jan Natya
Manch (JNM) in 1972. Eventually, JNM became a formal part of the
PWG and in Andhra Pradesh could draw audiences numbering in the
tens of thousands. Comrade Leng joined in 1977 and became a famous
singer in his own right. He lived in Andhra through the worst
repression, the era of ‘encounter’ killings in which
friends died almost every day. He himself was picked up one night
from his hospital bed, by a woman Superintendent of Police masquerading
as a doctor. He was taken to the forest outside Warangal to be
‘encountered’. But luckily, Gadar got the news and
managed to raise an alarm. When the PW decided to start a cultural
organisation in DK in 1998, Comrade Leng was sent to head the
Chetna Natya Manch. And here he is now, walking with me, for some
reason wearing an olive-green shirt and purple pyjamas with pink
bunnies on them. “There are 10,000 members in cnm now,”
he told me. “We have 500 songs, in Hindi, Gondi, Chhattisgarhi
and Halbi. We have printed a book with 140 of our songs. Everybody
writes songs.” The first time I spoke to him, he sounded
very grave, very single-minded. But days later, sitting around
a fire, still in those pyjamas, he tells us about a very successful,
mainstream Telugu film director (a friend of his) who always plays
a Naxalite in his own films. “I asked him,” Comrade
Leng said in his lovely Telugu-accented Hindi, “why do you
think Naxalites are always like this?”—and he did
a deft caricature of a crouched, high-stepping, hunted-looking
man emerging from the forest with an AK-47, and left us screaming
I’m not sure whether I’m looking forward to the Bhumkal
celebrations. I fear I’ll see traditional tribal dances
stiffened by Maoist propaganda, rousing, rhetorical speeches and
an obedient audience with glazed eyes. We arrive at the grounds
quite late in the evening. A temporary monument, of bamboo scaffolding
wrapped in red cloth, has been erected. On top, above the hammer
and sickle of the Maoist Party, is the bow and arrow of the Janatana
Sarkar, wrapped in silver foil. Appropriate, the hierarchy. The
stage is huge, also temporary, on a sturdy scaffolding covered
by a thick layer of mud plaster. Already, there are small fires
scattered around the ground, people have begun to arrive and are
cooking their evening meal. They’re only silhouettes in
the dark. We thread our way through them (lalsalaam, lalsalaam,
lalsalaam) and keep going for about 15 minutes until we re-enter
At our new campsite, we have to fall-in again. Another roll call.
And then instructions about sentry positions and ‘firing
arcs’—decisions about who will cover which area in
the event of a police attack. RV points are fixed again.
An advance party has arrived and cooked dinner already. For dessert,
Kamla brings me a wild guava that she has plucked on the walk
and squirrelled away for me.
From dawn, there is the sense of more and more people gathering
for the day’s celebration. There’s a buzz of excitement
building up. People who haven’t seen each other in a long
time meet again. We can hear the sound of mikes being tested.
Flags, banners, posters, buntings are going up. A poster with
the pictures of the five people who were killed in Ongnaar the
day we arrived has appeared.
I’m drinking tea with Comrade Narmada, Comrade Maase and
Comrade Rupi. Comrade Narmada talks about the many years she worked
in Gadchiroli before becoming the DK head of the Krantikari Adivasi
Mahila Sangathan. Rupi and Maase have been urban activists in
Andhra Pradesh and tell me about the long years of struggle by
women within the party, not just for their rights, but also to
make the party see that equality between men and women is seen
as central to a dream of a just society. We talk about the ’70s
and the stories of women within the Naxalite movement who were
disillusioned by male comrades who thought themselves great revolutionaries
but were hobbled by the same old patriarchy, the same old chauvinism.
Maase says things have changed a lot since then, though they still
have a way to go. (The party’s central committee and politburo
have no women yet.)
Around noon, another PLGA contingent arrives. This one is headed
by a tall, lithe, boyish-looking man. This comrade has two names—Sukhdev,
and Gudsa Usendi—neither of them his. Sukhdev is the name
of a very beloved comrade who was martyred. (In this war, only
the dead are safe enough to use their real names.) As for Gudsa
Usendi, many comrades have been Gudsa Usendi at one point or another.
(A few months ago, it was Comrade Raju.) Gudsa Usendi is the name
of the party’s spokesperson for Dandakaranya. So even though
Sukhdev spends the rest of the trip with me, I have no idea how
I’d ever find him again. I’d recognise his laugh anywhere
though. He came to DK in ’88, he says, when the PWG decided
to send one-third of its forces from north Telangana into DK.
He’s nicely dressed, in ‘civil’ (Gondi for ‘civilian
clothes’) as opposed to ‘dress’ (the Maoist
‘uniform’) and could pass off as a young executive.
I ask him why no uniform. He says he’s been travelling and
has just come back from the Keshkal ghats near Kanker. There are
reports of 3 million tonnes of bauxite that a company called Vedanta
has its eye on.
Bingo. Ten on ten for my instincts.
Sukhdev says he went there to measure the people’s temperature.
To see if they were prepared to fight. “They want squads
now. And guns.” He throws his head back and roars with laughter,
“I told them it’s not so easy, bhai.” From the
stray wisps of conversation and the ease with which he carries
his AK-47, I can tell he’s also high up and hands-on PLGA.
Jungle post arrives. There’s a biscuit for me! It’s
from Comrade Venu. On a tiny piece of paper, folded and refolded,
he has written down the lyrics of a song he promised he would
send me. Comrade Narmada smiles when she reads them. She knows
this story. It goes back to the ’80s, around the time when
people first began to trust the party and come to it with their
problems—their ‘inner contradictions’, as Comrade
Venu put it. Women were among the first to come. One evening an
old lady sitting by the fire got up and sang a song for the dada
log. She was a Maadiya, among whom it was customary for women
to remove their blouses and remain bare-breasted after they were
Jumper polo intor Dada, Dakoniley
Taane tasom intor Dada, Dakoniley
Bata papam kittom Dada, Dakoniley
Duniya kadile maata Dada, Dakoniley
(They say we cannot keep our
blouses, Dada, Dakoniley
They make us take them off, Dada,
In what way have we sinned, Dada,
The world’s changed, has it not Dada)
(But when we go to market Dada,
We have to go half-naked Dada,
We don’t want this life Dada,
Tell our ancestors this Dada).
This was the first women’s issue the party decided to campaign
against. It had to be handled delicately, with surgical tools.
In 1986, it set up the Adivasi Mahila Sangathan (AMS) which evolved
into the Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sangathan and now has 90,000
enrolled members. It could well be the largest women’s organisation
in the country. (They’re all Maoists by the way, all 90,000
of them. Are they going to be ‘wiped out’? And what
about the 10,000 members of CNM? Them too?) KAMS campaigns against
the adivasi traditions of forced marriage and abduction. Against
the custom of making menstruating women live outside the village
in a hut in the forest. Against bigamy and domestic violence.
It hasn’t won all its battles, but then which feminists
have? For instance, in Dandakaranya, even today women are not
allowed to sow seeds. In party meetings, men agree that this is
unfair and ought to be done away with. But, in practice, they
simply don’t allow it. So, the party decided that women
would sow seeds on common land which belongs to the Janatana Sarkar.
On that land, they sow seed, grow vegetables and build check dams.
A half-victory, not a whole one.
As police repression has grown in Bastar, the women of KAMS have
become a formidable force and rally in their hundreds, sometimes
thousands, to physically confront the police. The very fact that
KAMS exists has radically changed traditional attitudes and eased
many of the traditional forms of discrimination against women.
For many young women, joining the party, in particular the PLGA,
became a way of escaping the suffocation of their own society.
Comrade Sushila, a senior office-bearer of KAMS talks about the
Salwa Judum’s rage against KAMS women. She says one of their
slogans was Hum do bibi layenge! Layenge! (We will have two wives!
We will!). A lot of the rape and bestial sexual mutilation was
directed at members of KAMS. Many young women who witnessed the
savagery then joined the PLGA and now women make up 45 per cent
of its cadre. Comrade Narmada sends for some of them and they
join us in a while.
Comrade Rinki has very short hair. A bob-cut, as they say in
Gondi. It’s brave of her, because here, ‘bob-cut’
means ‘Maoist’. For the police, that’s more
than enough evidence to warrant summary execution. Comrade Rinki’s
village, Korma, was attacked by the Naga battalion and the Salwa
Judum in 2005. At that time, Rinki was part of the village militia.
So were her friends Lukki and Sukki, who were also members of
KAMS. After burning the village, the Naga battalion caught Lukki
and Sukki and one other girl, gang-raped and killed them. “They
raped them on the grass,” Rinki says, “but after it
was over, there was no grass left.” It’s been years
now, the Naga battalion has gone, but the police still come. “They
come whenever they need women, or chickens.
Ajitha has a bob-cut too. The Judum came to Korseel, her village,
and killed three people by drowning them in a nallah. Ajitha was
with the militia and followed the Judum at a distance to a place
close to the village called Paral Nar Todak. She watched them
rape six women and shoot a man in his throat.
Comrade Laxmi, who is a beautiful girl with a long plait, tells
me she watched the Judum burn 30 houses in her village, Jojor.
“We had no weapons then,” she says, “we could
do nothing but watch.” She joined the PLGA soon after. Laxmi
was one of the 150 guerrillas who walked through the jungle for
three-and-a-half months in 2008, to Nayagarh in Orissa, to raid
a police armoury from where they captured 1,200 rifles and 2,00,000
rounds of ammunition.
Comrade Sumitra joined the PLGA in 2004, before the Salwa Judum
began its rampage. She joined, she says, because she wanted to
escape from home. “Women are controlled in every way,”
she told me. “In our village, girls were not allowed to
climb trees; if they did, they would have to pay a fine of Rs
500 or a hen. If a man hits a woman and she hits him back she
has to give the village a goat. Men go off to the hills for months
together to hunt. Women are not allowed to go near the kill, the
best part of the meat goes to men. Women are not allowed to eat
eggs.” Good reason to join a guerrilla army?
Sumitra tells the story of two of her friends, Telam Parvati
and Kamla, who worked with KAMS. Telam Parvati was from Polekaya
village in south Bastar. Like everyone else from there, she too
watched the Salwa Judum burn her village. She then joined the
PLGA and went to work in the Keshkal ghats. In 2009, she and Kamla
had just finished organising the March 8 Women’s Day celebrations
in the area. They were together in a little hut just outside a
village called Vadgo. The police surrounded the hut at night and
began to fire. Kamla fired back, but she was killed. Parvati escaped,
but was found and killed the next day.
That’s what happened last year on Women’s Day. And
here’s a press report from a national newspaper about Women’s
Day this year:
Bastar rebels bat for women’s rights
Sahar Khan, Mail Today, Raipur, March 7, 2010
The government may have pulled out all stops to combat the Maoist
menace in the country. But a section of rebels in Chhattisgarh
has more pressing matters in hand than survival. With International
Women’s Day around the corner, Maoists in the Bastar region
of the state have called for week-long “celebrations”
to advocate women’s rights. Posters were also put up in
Bijapur, a part of Bastar district. The call by the self-styled
champions of women’s rights has left the state police astonished.
Inspector-general (IG) of Bastar, T.J. Longkumer said, “I
have never seen such an appeal from the Naxalites, who believe
only in violence and bloodshed.”
And then the report goes on to say:
“I think the Maoists are trying to counter our highly
successful Jan Jagran Abhiyaan (mass awareness campaign). We started
the ongoing campaign with an aim to win popular support for Operation
Green Hunt, which was launched by the police to root out Left-wing
extremists,” the IG said.
This cocktail of malice and ignorance is not unusual. Gudsa Usendi,
chronicler of the party’s present, knows more about this
than most people. His little computer and MP3 recorder are full
of press statements, denials, corrections, party literature, lists
of the dead, TV clips and audio and video material. “The
worst thing about being Gudsa Usendi,” he says, “is
issuing clarifications which are never published. We could bring
out a thick book of our unpublished clarifications about the lies
they tell about us.” He speaks without a trace of indignation,
in fact, with some amusement.
“What’s the most ridiculous charge you’ve had
He thinks back. “In 2007, we had to issue a statement saying,
‘Nahin bhai, hamne gai ko hathode se nahin mara (No brother,
we did not kill the cows with a hammer).’ In 2007, the Raman
Singh government announced a Gai Yojana (cow scheme), an election
promise, a cow for every adivasi. One day the TV channels and
newspapers reported that Naxalites had attacked a herd of cows
and bludgeoned them to death—with hammers—because
they were anti-Hindu, anti-BJP. You can imagine what happened.
We issued a denial. Hardly anybody carried it. Later, it turned
out that the man who had been given the cows to distribute was
a rogue. He sold them and said we had ambushed him and killed
And the most serious?
“Oh, there are dozens, they are running a campaign, after
all. When the Salwa Judum started, the first day they attacked
a village called Ambeli, burned it down and then all of them—SPOs,
the Naga battalion, police—moved towards Kotrapal...you
must have heard about Kotrapal? It’s a famous village, it
has been burnt 22 times for refusing to surrender. When the Judum
reached Kotrapal, our militia was waiting for it. They had prepared
an ambush. Two SPOs died. We captured seven, the rest ran away.
The next day the newspapers reported that the Naxalites had massacred
poor adivasis. Some said we had killed hundreds. Even a respectable
magazine like Frontline said we had killed 18 innocent adivasis.
Even K. Balagopal, the human rights activist, who is usually meticulous
about facts, even he said this. We sent a clarification. Nobody
published it. Later, in his book, Balagopal acknowledged his mistake....
But who noticed?”
I asked what happened to the seven people who were captured.
“The area committee called a jan adalat (people’s
court). Four thousand people attended it. They listened to the
whole story. Two of the SPOs were sentenced to death. Five were
warned and let off. The people decided. Even with informers—which
is becoming a huge problem nowadays—people listen to the
case, the stories, the confessions and say, ‘Iska hum risk
nahin le sakte (We’re not prepared to take the risk of trusting
this person)’, or ‘Iska risk hum lenge (We are prepared
to take the risk of trusting this person)’. The press always
reports about informers who are killed. Never about the many who
are let off. So everybody thinks it is some bloodthirsty procedure
in which everybody is always killed. It’s not about revenge,
it’s about survival and saving future lives.... Of course,
there are problems, we’ve made terrible mistakes, we have
even killed the wrong people in our ambushes thinking they were
policemen, but it is not the way it’s portrayed in the media.”
The dreaded ‘People’s Courts’. How can we accept
them? Or approve this form of rude justice?
On the other hand, what about ‘encounters’, fake
and otherwise—the worst form of summary justice—that
get policemen and soldiers bravery medals, cash awards and out-of-turn
promotions from the Indian government? The more they kill, the
more they are rewarded. ‘Bravehearts’, they are called,
the ‘Encounter Specialists’. ‘Anti-nationals’,
we are called, those of us who dare to question them. And what
about the Supreme Court that brazenly admitted it did not have
enough evidence to sentence Mohammed Afzal (accused in the December
2001 Parliament attack) to death, but did so anyway, because “the
collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if
capital punishment is awarded to the offender”.
At least in the case of the Kotrapal jan adalat, the collective
was physically present to make its own decision. It wasn’t
made by judges who had lost touch with ordinary life a long time
ago, presuming to speak on behalf of an absent collective.
What should the people of Kotrapal have done, I wonder? Sent
for the police?
The sound of drums has become really loud. It’s Bhumkal
time. We walk to the grounds. I can hardly believe my eyes. There
is a sea of people, the most wild, beautiful people, dressed in
the most wild, beautiful ways. The men seem to have paid much
more attention to themselves than the women. They have feathered
headgear and painted tattoos on their faces. Many have eye make-up
and white, powdered faces. There’s lots of militia, girls
in saris of breathtaking colours with rifles slung carelessly
over their shoulders. There are old people, children, and red
buntings arc across the sky. The sun is sharp and high. Comrade
Leng speaks. And several office-holders of the various Janatana
Sarkars. Comrade Niti, an extraordinary woman who has been with
the party since 1997, is such a threat to the nation that in January
2007 more than 700 policemen surrounded Innar village because
they heard she was there. Comrade Niti is considered to be so
dangerous and is being hunted with such desperation not because
she has led many ambushes (which she has), but because she is
an adivasi woman who is loved by people in the village and is
a real inspiration to young people. She speaks with her AK on
her shoulder. (It’s a gun with a story. Almost everyone’s
gun has a story: who it was snatched from, how, and by whom.)
A CNM troupe performs a play about the Bhumkal uprising. The
evil white colonisers wear hats and golden straw for hair, and
bully and beat adivasis to pulp—causing endless delight
in the audience. Another troupe from south Gangalaur performs
a play called Nitir Judum Pito (Story of the Blood Hunt). Joori
translates for me. It’s the story of two old people who
go looking for their daughter’s village. As they walk through
the forest, they get lost because everything is burnt and unrecognisable.
The Salwa Judum has even burned the drums and the musical instruments.
There are no ashes because it has been raining. They cannot find
their daughter. In their sorrow, the old couple starts to sing,
and hearing them, the voice of their daughter sings back to them
from the ruins: the sound of our village has been silenced, she
sings. There’s no more pounding of rice, no more laughter
by the well. No more birds, no more bleating goats. The taut string
of happiness has been snapped.
Her father sings back: my beautiful daughter, don’t cry
today. Everyone who is born must die. These trees around us will
fall, flowers will bloom and fade, one day this world will grow
old. But who are we dying for? One day our looters will learn,
one day Truth will prevail, but our people will never forget you,
not for thousands of years.
A few more speeches. Then the drumming and the dancing begins.
Each Janatana Sarkar has its own troupe. Each troupe has prepared
its own dance. They arrive one by one, with huge drums and they
dance wild stories. The only character every troupe has in common
is Bad Mining Man, with a helmet and dark glasses, and usually
smoking a cigarette. But there’s nothing stiff, or mechanical,
about their dancing. As they dance, the dust rises. The sound
of drums becomes deafening. Gradually, the crowd begins to sway.
And then it begins to dance. They dance in little lines of six
or seven, men and women separate, with their arms around each
other’s waists. Thousands of people. This is what they’ve
come for. For this. Happiness is taken very seriously here, in
the Dandakaranya forest. People will walk for miles, for days
together to feast and sing, to put feathers in their turbans and
flowers in their hair, to put their arms around each other and
drink mahua and dance through the night. No one sings or dances
alone. This, more than anything else, signals their defiance towards
a civilisation that seeks to annihilate them.
I can’t believe all this is happening right under the noses
of the police. Right in the midst of Operation Green Hunt.
At first, the PLGA comrades watch the dancers, standing aside
with their guns. But then, one by one, like ducks who cannot bear
to stand on the shore and watch other ducks swim, they move in
and begin to dance too. Soon there are lines of olive-green dancers,
swirling with all the other colours. And then, as sisters and
brothers and parents and children and friends who haven’t
met for months, years sometimes, encounter each other, the lines
break up and re-form and the olive green is distributed among
the swirling saris and flowers and drums and turbans. It surely
is a People’s Army. For now, at least. And what Chairman
Mao said about the guerrillas being the fish and people being
the water they swim in, is, at this moment, literally true.
Chairman Mao. He’s here too. A little lonely, perhaps,
but present. There’s a photograph of him, up on a red cloth
screen. Marx too. And Charu Mazumdar, the founder and chief theoretician
of the Naxalite Movement. His abrasive rhetoric fetishises violence,
blood and martyrdom, and often employs a language so coarse as
to be almost genocidal. Standing here, on Bhumkal day, I can’t
help thinking that his analysis, so vital to the structure of
this revolution, is so removed from its emotion and texture. When
he said that only “an annihilation campaign” could
produce “the new man who will defy death and be free from
all thought of self-interest”—could he have imagined
that this ancient people, dancing into the night, would be the
ones on whose shoulders his dreams would come to rest?
It’s a great disservice to everything that is happening
here that the only thing that seems to make it to the outside
world is the stiff, unbending rhetoric of the ideologues of a
party that has evolved from a problematic past. When Charu Mazumdar
famously said, “China’s Chairman is our Chairman and
China’s Path is Our Path,” he was prepared to extend
it to the point where the Naxalites remained silent while General
Yahya Khan committed genocide in East Pakistan (Bangladesh), because
at the time, China was an ally of Pakistan. There was silence
too, over the Khmer Rouge and its killing fields in Cambodia.
There was silence over the egregious excesses of the Chinese and
Russian revolutions. Silence over Tibet. Within the Naxalite movement
too, there have been violent excesses and it’s impossible
to defend much of what they’ve done. But can anything they
have done compare with the sordid achievements of the Congress
and the BJP in Punjab, Kashmir, Delhi, Mumbai, Gujarat.... And
yet, despite these terrifying contradictions, Charu Mazumdar was
a visionary in much of what he wrote and said. The party he founded
(and its many splinter groups) has kept the dream of revolution
real and present in India. Imagine a society without that dream.
For that alone, we cannot judge him too harshly. Especially not
while we swaddle ourselves with Gandhi’s pious humbug about
the superiority of “the non-violent way” and his notion
of trusteeship: “The rich man will be left in possession
of his wealth, of which he will use what he reasonably requires
for his personal needs and will act as a trustee for the remainder
to be used for the good of society.”
How strange it is, though, that the contemporary tsars of the
Indian Establishment—the State that crushed the Naxalites
so mercilessly—should now be saying what Charu Mazumdar
said so long ago: China’s Path is Our Path.
Upside Down. Inside Out.
China’s Path has changed. China has become an imperial
power now, preying on other countries, other people’s resources.
But the Party is still right, only, the Party has changed its
When the Party is a suitor (as it is now in Dandakaranya), wooing
the people, attentive to their every need, then it genuinely is
a People’s Party, its army genuinely a People’s Army.
But after the Revolution how easily this love affair can turn
into a bitter marriage. How easily the People’s Army can
turn upon the people. Today in Dandakaranya, the Party wants to
keep the bauxite in the mountain. Tomorrow, will it change its
mind? But can we, should we let apprehensions about the future
immobilise us in the present?
The dancing will go on all night. I walk back to the camp. Maase
is there, awake. We chat late into the night. I give her my copy
of Neruda’s Captain’s Verses (I brought it along,
just in case). She asks, again and again, “What do they
think of us outside? What do students say? Tell me about the women’s
movement, what are the big issues now?” She asks about me,
my writing. I try and give her an honest account of my chaos.
Then she starts to talk about herself, how she joined the party.
She tells me that her partner was killed last May, in a fake encounter.
He was arrested in Nashik, and taken to Warangal to be killed.
“They must have tortured him badly.” She was on her
way to meet him when she heard he had been arrested. She’s
been in the forest ever since. After a long silence, she tells
me she was married once before, years ago. “He was killed
in an encounter too,” she says, and adds with heart-breaking
precision, “but in a real one.”
I lie awake on my jhilli, thinking of Maase’s protracted
sadness, listening to the drums and the sounds of protracted happiness
from the grounds, and thinking about Charu Mazumdar’s idea
of protracted war, the central precept of the Maoist Party. This
is what makes people think the Maoists’ offer to enter ‘peace
talks’ is a hoax, a ploy to get breathing space to regroup,
re-arm themselves and go back to waging protracted war. What is
protracted war? Is it a terrible thing in itself, or does it depend
on the nature of the war? What if the people here in Dandakaranya
had not waged their protracted war for the last 30 years, where
would they be now?
And are the Maoists the only ones who believe in protracted war?
Almost from the moment India became a sovereign nation, it turned
into a colonial power, annexing territory, waging war. It has
never hesitated to use military interventions to address political
problems—Kashmir, Hyderabad, Goa, Nagaland, Manipur, Telangana,
Assam, Punjab, the Naxalite uprising in West Bengal, Bihar, Andhra
Pradesh and now across the tribal areas of Central India. Tens
of thousands have been killed with impunity, hundreds of thousands
tortured. All of this behind the benign mask of democracy. Who
have these wars been waged against? Muslims, Christians, Sikhs,
Communists, Dalits, Tribals and, most of all, against the poor
who dare to question their lot instead of accepting the crumbs
that are flung at them. It’s hard not to see that the Indian
State is an essentially upper-caste Hindu State (regardless of
the party in power) which harbours a reflexive hostility towards
the ‘other’. One that, in true colonial fashion, sends
the Nagas and Mizos to fight in Chhattisgarh, Sikhs to Kashmir,
Kashmiris to Orissa, Tamilians to Assam and so on. If this isn’t
protracted war, what is?
Unpleasant thoughts on a beautiful, starry night. Sukhdev is
smiling to himself, his face lit by his computer screen. He’s
a crazy workaholic. I ask him what’s funny. “I was
thinking about the journalists who came last year for the Bhumkal
celebrations. They came for a day or two. One posed with my AK,
had himself photographed and then went back and called us Killing
Machines or something.”
The dancing hasn’t stopped and it’s daybreak. The
lines are still going, hundreds of young people still dancing.
“They won’t stop,” Comrade Raju says, “not
until we start packing up.”
On the grounds I run into Comrade Doctor. He’s been running
a little medical camp on the edge of the dance floor. I want to
kiss his fat cheeks. Why can’t he be at least 30 people
instead of just one? Why can’t he be one thousand people?
I ask him what it’s looking like, the health of Dandakaranya.
His reply makes my blood run cold. Most of the people he has seen,
he says, including those in the PLGA, have a haemoglobin count
that’s between five and six (when the standard for Indian
women is 11.) There’s TB caused by more than two years of
chronic anaemia. Young children are suffering from Protein Energy
Malnutrition Grade II, in medical terminology called Kwashiorkor.
(I looked it up later. It’s a word derived from the Ga language
of Coastal Ghana and means “the sickness a baby gets when
the new baby comes”. Basically the old baby stops getting
mother’s milk, and there’s not enough food to provide
it nutrition.) “It’s an epidemic here, like in Biafra,”
Comrade Doctor says, “I have worked in villages before,
but I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Apart from this, there’s malaria, osteoporosis, tapeworm,
severe ear and tooth infections and primary amenorrhea—which
is when malnutrition during puberty causes a woman’s menstrual
cycle to disappear, or never appear in the first place.
“There are no clinics in this forest apart from one or
two in Gadchiroli. No doctors. No medicines.”
He’s off now, with his little team, on an eight-day trek
to Abujhmad. He’s in ‘dress’ too, Comrade Doctor.
So, if they find him, they’ll kill him.
Comrade Raju says that it isn’t safe for us to continue
to camp here. We have to move. Leaving Bhumkal involves a lot
of goodbyes spread over time.
(We’ll meet again, some day, in the Dandakaranya forest).
It’s never taken lightly, the ceremony of arrival and departure,
because everybody knows that when they say “we’ll
meet again” they actually mean “we may never meet
Comrade Narmada, Comrade Maase and Comrade Rupi are going separate
ways. Will I ever see them again?
So, once again, we walk. It’s becoming hotter every day.
Kamla picks the first fruit of the tendu for me. It tastes like
chikoo. I’ve become a tamarind fiend. This time we camp
near a stream. Women and men take turns to bathe in batches. In
the evening, Comrade Raju receives a whole packet of ‘biscuits’.
60 people arrested in Manpur Division at the end of Jan 2010
have not yet been produced in Court.
Huge contingents of police have arrived in South Bastar. Indiscriminate
attacks are on.
On Nov 8, 2009, in Kachlaram Village, Bijapur Jila, Dirko Madka
(60) and Kovasi Suklu (68) were killed
On Nov 24, Madavi Baman (15) was killed in Pangodi village
On Dec 3, Madavi Budram from Korenjad also killed
On Dec 11, Gumiapal village, Darba Division, 7 people killed (names
yet to come)
On Dec 15, Kotrapal village, Veko Sombar and Madavi Matti (both
with KAMS) killed
On Dec 30, Vechapal village Poonem Pandu and Poonem Motu (father
and son) killed
On Jan 2010 (date unknown), head of the Janatana Sarkar in Kaika
village, Gangalaur, killed
On Jan 9, 4 people killed in Surpangooden village, Jagargonda
On Jan 10, 3 people killed in Pullem Pulladi village (no names
On Jan 25, 7 people killed in Takilod village, Indravati Area
On Feb 10 (Bhumkal Day), Kumli raped and killed in Dumnaar Village,
Abujhmad. She was from a village called Paiver
2,000 troops of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) are camped
in the Rajnandgaon forests
5,000 additional BSF troops have arrived in Kanker
PLGA quota filled.
Some dated newspapers have arrived too. There’s a lot of
press about Naxalites. One screaming headline sums up the political
climate perfectly: ‘Khadedo, Maaro, Samarpan Karao (Eliminate,
kill, make them surrender).’ Below that: ‘Vaarta ke
liye loktantra ka dwar khula hai’ (Democracy’s door
is always open for talks).’ A second says the Maoists are
growing cannabis to make money. The third has an editorial saying
that the area we’ve camped in and are walking through is
entirely under police control.
The young Communists take the clips away to practice their reading.
They walk around the camp reading the anti-Maoist articles loudly
in radio-announcer voices.
New day. New place. We’re camped on the outskirts of Usir
village, under huge mahua trees. The mahua has just begun to flower
and is dropping its pale green blossoms like jewels on the forest
floor. The air is suffused with its slightly heady smell. We’re
waiting for the children from the Bhatpal school which was closed
down after the Ongnaar encounter. It’s been turned into
a police camp. The children have been sent home. This is also
true of the schools in Nelwad, Moonjmetta, Edka, Vedomakot and
The Bhatpal school children don’t show up.
Comrade Niti (Most Wanted) and Comrade Vinod lead us on a long
walk to see the series of water-harvesting structures and irrigation
ponds that have been built by the local Janatana Sarkar. Comrade
Niti talks about the range of agricultural problems they have
to deal with. Only 2 per cent of the land is irrigated. In Abujhmad,
ploughing was unheard of until 10 years ago. In Gadchiroli on
the other hand, hybrid seeds and chemical pesticides are edging
their way in. “We need urgent help in the agriculture department,”
Comrade Vinod says. “We need people who know about seeds,
organic pesticides, permaculture. With a little help we could
do a lot.”
Comrade Ramu is the farmer in charge of the Janatana Sarkar area.
He proudly shows us around the fields, where they grow rice, brinjal,
gongura, onions, kohlrabi. Then, with equal pride, he shows us
a huge but bone-dry irrigation pond. What’s this? “This
one doesn’t even have water during the rainy season. It’s
dug in the wrong place,” he says, a smile wrapped around
his face. “It’s not ours, it was dug by the Looti
Sarkar (the government that loots).” There are two parallel
systems of government here, Janatana Sarkar and Looti Sarkar.
I think of what Comrade Venu said to me: they want to crush us,
not only because of the minerals, but because we are offering
the world an alternative model.
It’s not an Alternative yet, this idea of Gram Swaraj with
a Gun. There’s too much hunger, too much sickness here.
But it has certainly created the possibilities for an alternative.
Not for the whole world, not for Alaska, or New Delhi, nor even
perhaps for the whole of Chhattisgarh, but for itself. For Dandakaranya.
It’s the world’s best-kept secret. It has laid the
foundations for an alternative to its own annihilation. It has
defied history. Against the greatest odds it has forged a blueprint
for its own survival. It needs help and imagination, it needs
doctors, teachers, farmers.
It does not need war.
But if war is all it gets, it will fight back.
Over the next few days, I meet women who work with KAMS, various
office-bearers of the Janatana Sarkars, members of the Dandakaranya
Adivasi Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan (DAKMS), the families of people
who had been killed, and just ordinary people trying to cope with
life in these terrifying times.
I met three sisters—Sukhiari, Sukdai and Sukkali—not
young, perhaps in their 40s, from Narayanpur district. They have
been in KAMS for 12 years. The villagers depend on them to deal
with the police. “The police come in groups of two to three
hundred. They steal everything: jewellery, chickens, pigs, pots
and pans, bows and arrows,” Sukkali says, “they won’t
even leave a knife.” Her house in Innar has been burned
twice, once by the Naga battalion and once by the CRPF Sukhiari
has been arrested and jailed in Jagdalpur for seven months. “Once
they took away the whole village, saying the men were all Naxals.”
Sukhiari followed with all the women and children. They surrounded
the police station and refused to leave until the men were freed.
“Whenever they take someone away,” Sukdai says, “you
have to go immediately and snatch them back. Before they write
any report. Once they write in their book, it becomes very difficult.”
Sukhiari, who as a child was abducted and forcibly married to
an older man (she ran away and went to live with her sister),
now organises mass rallies, speaks at meetings. The men depend
on her for protection. I asked her what the party means to her.
“Naxalvaad ka matlab hamara parivaar (Naxalvaad means our
family). When we hear of an attack, it is like our family has
been hurt,” Sukhiari says.
I asked her if she knew who Mao was. She smiled shyly, “He
was a leader. We’re working for his vision.”
I met Comrade Somari Gawde. Twenty years old, and she has already
served a two-year jail sentence in Jagdalpur. She was in Innar
village on January 8, 2007, the day that 740 policemen laid a
cordon around it because they had information that Comrade Niti
was there. (She was, but she had left by the time they arrived.)
But the village militia, of which Somari was a member, was still
there. The police opened fire at dawn. They killed two boys, Suklal
Gawde and Kachroo Gota. Then they caught three others, two boys,
Dusri Salam and Ranai, and Somari. Dusri and Ranai were tied up
and shot. Somari was beaten within an inch of her life. The police
got a tractor with a trailer and loaded the dead bodies into it.
Somari was made to sit with the dead bodies and taken to Narayanpur.
I met Chamri, mother of Comrade Dilip who was shot on July 6,
2009. She says that after they killed him, the police tied her
son’s body to a pole, like an animal and carried it with
them. (They need to produce bodies to get their cash rewards,
before someone else muscles in on the kill.) Chamri ran behind
them all the way to the police station. By the time they reached,
the body did not have a scrap of clothing on it. On the way, Chamri
says, they left the body by the roadside while they stopped at
a dhaba to have tea and biscuits. (Which they did not pay for.)
Picture this mother for a moment, following her son’s corpse
through the forest, stopping at a distance to wait for his murderers
to finish their tea. They did not let her have her son’s
body back so she could give him a proper funeral. They only let
her throw a fistful of earth in the pit in which they buried the
others they had killed that day. Chamri says she wants revenge.
Badla ku badla. Blood for blood.
I met the elected members of the Marskola Janatana Sarkar that
administers six villages. They described a police raid: they come
at night, 300, 400, sometimes 1,000 of them. They lay a cordon
around a village and lie in wait. At dawn they catch the first
people who go out to the fields and use them as human shields
to enter the village, to show them where the booby-traps are.
(‘Booby-traps’ has become a Gondi word. Everybody
always smiles when they say it or hear it. The forest is full
of booby-traps, real and fake. Even the PLGA needs to be guided
past villages.) Once the police enter a village, they loot and
steal and burn houses. They come with dogs. The dogs catch those
who try and run. They chase chickens and pigs and the police kill
them and take them away in sacks. SPOs come along with the police.
They’re the ones who know where people hide their money
and jewellery. They catch people and take them away. And extract
money before they release them. They always carry some extra Naxal
‘dresses’ with them in case they find someone to kill.
They get money for killing Naxals, so they manufacture some. Villagers
are too frightened to stay at home.
In this tranquil-looking forest, life seems completely militarised
now. People know words like Cordon and Search, Firing, Advance,
Retreat, Down, Action! To harvest their crops, they need the PLGA
to do a sentry patrol. Going to the market is a military operation.
The markets are full of mukhbirs (informers) who the police have
lured from their villages with money. I’m told there’s
a mukhbir mohalla (informers’ colony) in Narayanpur where
at least 4,000 mukhbirs stay. The men can’t go to market
anymore. The women go, but they’re watched closely. If they
buy even a little extra, the police accuse them of buying it for
Naxals. Chemists have been instructed not to let people buy medicines
except in very small quantities. Low-price rations from the Public
Distribution System (PDS), sugar, rice, kerosene, are warehoused
in or near police stations, making it impossible for most people
Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention
and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines it as:
Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy,
in whole or part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group,
as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily
or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting
on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its
physical destruction in whole or part; imposing measures intended
to prevent births within the group; [or] forcibly transferring
children of the group to another group.
All the walking seems to have finally got to me. I’m tired.
Kamla gets me a pot of hot water. I bathe behind a tree in the
dark. But I can’t eat dinner and crawl into my bag to sleep.
Comrade Raju announces that we have to move. This happens frequently,
of course, but tonight it’s hard. We have been camped in
an open meadow. We’d heard shelling in the distance. There
are 104 of us. Once again, single file through the night. Crickets.
The smell of something like lavender. It must have been past 11
when we arrived at the place where we will spend the night. An
outcrop of rocks. Formation. Roll call. Someone switches on the
radio. BBC says there’s been an attack on a camp of Eastern
Frontier Rifles in Lalgarh, West Bengal. Sixty Maoists on motorcycles.
Fourteen policemen killed. Ten missing. Weapons snatched. There’s
a murmur of pleasure in the ranks. Maoist leader Kishenji is being
interviewed. When will you stop this violence and come for talks?
When Operation Green Hunt is called off. Any time. Tell Chidambaram
we will talk. Next question: it’s dark now, you have laid
landmines, reinforcements have been called in, will you attack
them too? Kishenji: Yes, of course, otherwise people will beat
me. There’s laughter in the ranks. Sukhdev the clarifier
says, “They always say landmines. We don’t use landmines.
We use IEDs.”
Another luxury suite in the thousand-star hotel. I’m feeling
ill. It starts to rain. There’s a little giggling. Kamla
throws a jhilli over me. What more do I need? Everyone else just
rolls themselves into their jhillis.
By next morning the body count in Lalgarh has gone up to 21,
Comrade Raju is considerate this morning. We don’t move
One night, people are crowded like moths around a point of light.
It’s Comrade Sukhdev’s tiny computer, powered by a
solar panel, and they’re watching Mother India, the barrels
of their rifles silhouetted against the sky. Kamla doesn’t
seem interested. I ask her if she likes watching movies. “Nahin
didi. Sirf ambush video (No didi. Only ambush videos).”
Later, I ask Comrade Sukhdev about these ambush videos. Without
batting an eyelid, he plays one for me.
It starts with shots of Dandakaranya, rivers, waterfalls, the
close-up of a bare branch of a tree, a brainfever bird calling.
Then suddenly a comrade is wiring up an IED, concealing it with
dry leaves. A cavalcade of motorcycles is blown up. There are
mutilated bodies and burning bikes. The weapons are being snatched.
Three policemen, looking shell-shocked, have been tied up.
Who’s filming it? Who’s directing operations? Who’s
reassuring the captured cops that they will be released if they
surrender? (They were. I confirm that later.)
I know that gentle, reassuring voice. It’s Comrade Venu.
“It’s the Kudur ambush,” Comrade Sukhdev says.
He also has a video archive of burned villages, testimonies from
eyewitnesses and relatives of the dead. On the singed wall of
a burnt house, it says, ‘Nagaaa! Born to Kill!’ There’s
footage of a little boy whose fingers were chopped off to inaugurate
the Bastar chapter of Operation Green Hunt. (There’s even
a TV interview with me. My study. My books. Strange.)
At night, on the radio, there’s news of another Naxal Attack.
This one in Jamui, Bihar. It says 125 Maoists attacked a village
and killed 10 people belonging to the Kora tribe in retaliation
for giving police information that led to the death of six Maoists.
Of course, we know that the media report may or may not be true.
But, if it is, this one’s unforgivable. Comrade Raju and
Sukhdev look distinctly uncomfortable.
The news that has been coming from Jharkhand and Bihar is disturbing.
The gruesome beheading of the policeman Francis Induvar is still
fresh in everyone’s mind. It’s a reminder of how easily
the discipline of armed struggle can dissolve into lumpen acts
of criminalised violence, or into ugly wars of identity between
castes and communities and religious groups. By institutionalising
injustice in the way that it does, the Indian State has turned
this country into a tinderbox of massive unrest. The government
is quite wrong if it thinks that by carrying out ‘targeted
assassinations’ to render the CPI (Maoist) ‘headless’,
it will end the violence. On the contrary, the violence will spread
and intensify, and the government will have nobody to talk to.
On my last few days, we meander through the lush, beautiful Indravati
valley. As we walk along a hillside, we see another line of people
walking in the same direction, but on the other side of the river.
I’m told they are on their way to an anti-dam meeting in
Kudur village. They’re overground and unarmed. A local rally
for the valley. I jump ship and join them.
The Bodhghat dam will submerge the entire area that we have been
walking in for days. All that forest, all that history, all those
stories. More than 100 villages. Is that the plan then? To drown
people like rats, so that the integrated steel plant in Lohandiguda
and the bauxite mine and aluminium refinery in the Keshkal ghats
can have the river?
At the meeting, people who have come from miles away say the
same thing we have all heard for years. We will drown, but we
won’t move! They are thrilled that someone from Delhi is
with them. I tell them Delhi is a cruel city that neither knows
nor cares about them.
Only weeks before I came to Dandakaranya, I visited Gujarat.
The Sardar Sarovar Dam has more or less reached its full height
now. And almost every single thing the Narmada Bachao Andolan
(NBA) predicted would happen has happened. People who were displaced
have not been rehabilitated, but that goes without saying. The
canals have not been built. There’s no money. So Narmada
water is being diverted into the empty riverbed of the Sabarmati
(which was dammed a long time ago.) Most of the water is being
guzzled by cities and big industry. The downstream effects—saltwater
ingress into an estuary with no river—are becoming impossible
There was a time when believing that Big Dams were the ‘temples
of modern India’ was misguided, but perhaps understandable.
But today, after all that has happened, and when we know all that
we do, it has to be said that Big Dams are a crime against humanity.
The Bodhghat dam was shelved in 1984 after local people protested.
Who will stop it now? Who will prevent the foundation stone from
being laid? Who will stop the Indravati from being stolen? Someone
On the last night, we camped at the base of the steep hill we
would climb in the morning, to emerge on the road from where a
motorcycle would pick me up. The forest has changed even since
I first entered it. The chiraunji, silk-cotton and mango trees
have begun to flower.
The villagers from Kudur send a huge pot of freshly-caught fish
to the camp. And a list for me, of 71 kinds of fruit, vegetables,
pulses and insects they get from the forest and grow in their
fields, along with the market price. It’s just a list. But
it’s also a map of their world.
Jungle post arrives. Two biscuits for me. A poem and a pressed
flower from Comrade Narmada. A lovely letter from Maase. (Who
is she? Will I ever know?)
Comrade Sukhdev asks if he can download the music from my Ipod
onto his computer. We listen to a recording of Iqbal Bano singing
Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s Hum Dekhenge (We will Witness the Day)
at the famous concert in Lahore at the height of the repression
during the Zia-ul-Haq years.
Masnad pe bithaiye jayenge
(When the heretics and the reviled will be seated on high)
Sab taaj uchhale jayenge
Sab takht giraye jayenge
(All crowns will be snatched away
All thrones toppled)
Fifty thousand people in the audience in that Pakistan begin
a defiant chant: Inqilab Zindabad! Inqilab Zindabad! All these
years later, that chant reverberates around this forest. Strange,
the alliances that get made.
The home minister’s been issuing veiled threats to those
who “erroneously offer intellectual and material support
to Maoists”. Does sharing music qualify?
At dawn, I say goodbye to Comrade Madhav and Joori, to young
Mangtu and all the others. Comrade Chandu has gone to organise
the bikes, and will come with me to the main road. Comrade Raju
isn’t coming (the climb would be hell on his knees). Comrade
Niti (Most Wanted), Comrade Sukhdev, Kamla and five others will
take me up the hill. As we start walking, Niti and Sukhdev casually
but simultaneously unclick the safety catches of their AKs. It’s
the first time I’ve seen them do that. We’re approaching
the ‘Border’. “Do you know what to do if we
come under fire?” Sukhdev asks casually, as though it was
the most natural thing in the world.
“Yes,” I said, “immediately declare an indefinite
He sat down on a rock and laughed. We climbed for about an hour.
Just below the road, we sat in a rocky alcove, completely concealed,
like an ambush party, listening for the sound of the bikes. When
it comes, the farewell must be quick. Lal Salaam Comrades.
When I looked back, they were still there. Waving. A little knot.
People who live with their dreams, while the rest of the world
lives with its nightmares. Every night I think of this journey.
That night sky, those forest paths. I see Comrade Kamla’s
heels in her scuffed chappals, lit by the light of my torch. I know
she must be on the move. Marching, not just for herself, but to
keep hope alive for us all.
Neighborhood women pulled stools and sitting room seats up to
windowsills in preparation. They licked salt sweat off their
lips, adjusted scarves around heads, massaged arthritic hands
and waited. Girls gathered around them, giggling, pulling hair,
anticipating. Men and boys loitered outside, on driveways in front
of gates with cigarettes and stones, respectively. Ivy, bougainvillea
and jasmine draped the weights of their flesh from the high marble
walls blocking neighbor from neighbor, street from home. All comings
and goings paused; only the used water, draining down descended
stone ditches on each side of the street, moved. Just before noon,
just before prayer, before lunch and nap, Abadaan Street quivered
deliriously in the gaseous heat of midday, subsumed by stillness.
The residents stood at the ends of their properties, pulled like
magnets of audacious curiosity: the attraction of positive to
negative. Here, a curtain swept aside to reveal a face or two;
a servant's eyeball, there, pushed up against the hole in the
concrete washroom wall; everywhere, children's toothless mouths
gumming windowsills. All of Abadaan Street, but for the rivulets,
draining off to some unknown stream, paused as one, to watch the
parade death made.
The young boys, who played on the cobblestones of Abadaan Street
every afternoon with beaten-up balls or kites, knew first. Slowly
fathers and old men heard the news at smoky teahouses. Before
eating the evening's sofre, they told their wives, and the listening
daughters heard. Mohammed Reza, the old man down the street, died
last week. "So what?" thought the daughters, for girls'
lives existed only within the walls of the house. "Interesting,"
thought the mothers and grandmothers chewing on the news. Fathers
and grandfathers sighed, thinking of death's inescapability, "Will
I be next?" "Pass it to me! Here! Here!" The boys
went back to playing in the street, unaware.
Mohammed Reza: the old man with the family, neighbor of many
years, the man with the limp and occasionally the cane, the owner
of the only bookstore that sold foreign books in Tehran's bazaar,
a respectable bookseller (everyone assumed from the brown suit
he wore and the hat donned every morning and carried home each
afternoon), the man with the wave and the smile, the man without
words, the man down the way, across the street, next door, the
man with the light-eyed sons and fabled daughters -- the oldest
of whom he sent to school and the youngest harboring a beauty
only whispered about: an unremarkable man never associated with
cause or calamity. Even in death it was impossible to fatten his
gaunt, lifeless frame by suspicion or suspense. Aside from educating
his oldest daughter at the Armenian school, none of his acts called
for inquiry, his wife met the meat and milkmen every afternoon
with a shawl tightly wrapped about her head. So on the morning
of his burial they gathered, these view-hungry neighbors and non-friends,
not to see Mohammed Reza, nor spit upon his passing grave, nor
grieve the loss of an otherwise unknown neighbor, but for a clear
view: of the tragedy of death, the moving feast of sadness that
belonged to someone else, the slow exposition of grief. And for
a glimpse of the daughters, a drop of liquid gossip to replenish
their well of whispers long since dry.
At their evening washings, with a slathered hand across a bony
shoulder, a supple slippery haunch, questions were asked. Mothers
probed sons for information. Beauty on Abadaan Street was one
thing, a common thing, even, but the word was out that Mohammad
Reza's daughter flaunted an exquisiteness of the dangerous sort.
So how old is she? What color are her eyes? Will she go to school,
too? The boys, wet, with bubbles of the day's street dirt floating
off them, held back, pretending to know more than they did. Mohammed
Reza's sons, 14 and 12, played in the street occasionally, when
they weren't studying, and the network of playing boys caught
their offhand words: "She's got men calling already."
"We can't wait until she's gone, she doesn't do anything
around the house, thinks she's too good." "Baba spoils
her." The games would continue, the boys ignoring the brotherly
complaints. Only at home, with a piece of honey candy dangled
in front of them by the fat fingers of their tired mother, did
they associate worth with information. "She's 9," eyes
glazed, "she doesn't do any work," mouth watering, "her
eyes are blue," snatch, unwrap, suck, "ywess" (mouth
full), "zzthey are bluuu."
All for this day, with their knees pressed up against the area
beneath the window (they couldn't get any closer), brazenly staring
out onto the street. Searching other head-filled windows for recognizable
faces and seeing only silhouettes. Hoping only silhouettes of
them would be seen. Mothers and fathers alike gathered, pushed
out of their own dark secrets to watch Mohammed Reza's family
march and weep behind him, thinking about their own deaths in
passing, and inshallah, catching a glimpse of the salacious; the
tragedy; the menace of beauty. They sat reassured, waiting; the
little girls tying each other's hair into knots, the men cautiously
not smoking the last cigarette in the pack, the boys bemoaning
the emptiness of their street. For while all else went into the
wrought iron gates and high walls of the houses on Abadaan Street
-- love, deceit, comfort, beatings, caresses (illicit and maternal),
revelation, disgust, devotion, misery -- only death came out.
Ali Akbar sat on the balcony protruding elegantly above the garden
of his house, knifing out the dried secretions and dead skin crusted
underneath his fingernails from last night's harem girl. "Dirty
whore, my hands are filthy, and for what? Next time I'll get my
money's worth and give her a little something to remember ..."
His thoughts trailed and a shower of flakes and follicles snowed
like builder's dust onto the ground near his feet. Pausing to
sip his tea, he noticed an unusual amount of activity in the second-story
windows and front gardens of the houses on Abadaan Street. Curtains
pulled aside and silhouettes shifted in the window frames; men
and boys caged behind the gates of their houses, pacing. The street
itself was empty, usual for mid- morning. Ali Akbar mimicked the
street, sitting without movement, the demitasse poised at his
lips, striking a pensive pose equal to any of the elegant V-neck-clad
men he'd seen in European magazines. He was reminded again of
last night's whore. He put the tea down and dug beneath his fingernails,
ignoring the street's sizzling murmur.
Abadaan Street ignored Ali Akbar as well. The wealthy 45-year-old
rug merchant who gave the boys their first smell of European aftershave,
took such good care of his mother and father, came home every
day at the same time with a newspaper and a bag of groceries for
the cook, was, like his recently dead neighbor, an unfaultable
man. True, he was a little old not to have been married at least
once. But he was a man and time was his to take.
Without sons, or a nosy wife, Ali Akbar was not privy to the
information of Mohammed Reza's death. Or the news of the two daughters
he left behind, one more beautiful than the porcelain head of
a European doll. So when the screaming started at the end of the
street, Ali Akbar flinched, piercing himself in the space between
finger and nail. "Mother of a dog." He shook his hands
and drops of blood fell from the finger: a liquid point.
She pounded her chest with a rhythm Ali Akbar found appealing.
With each step she fired out a fist, retracted it and released
a wail. He stood up and watched, pulled to the procession like
all the other eyes on Abadaan Street. Leaning his pelvis against
the bar of the balcony he rubbed himself on the metal banister,
a not-quite arousal, something to be seen, what is it? What is
it? He scanned the street below. Not the coffin, a formality of
transport to be abandoned at the rim of whatever hole the poor
bastard would fill. Not the pallbearers, the sons and uncles of
death marching in small steps, their mustaches and eyelids drawn
down by the weight of honor, careful to shoulder their duty with
manly faces of un-grief. It was not the widow, with her screeching
sobs and one drum rhythm of grief (though her sharp blue eyes
did call to something in him, she was old, tears streaking down
her elastic face). Ali Akbar continued pushing his pelvis up against
the bar, arousing not so much a feeling of stimulation as of curious
assurance. Something good is coming. Something good. At the end
of the formal procession, last to leave the gates of Mohammed
Reza's house, came the girls. Covered, but for their downturned
faces and their clasped hands. Aha, Ali Akbar swayed his hips
back and forth, never once losing contact with the bar. Aha.
A taller and a shorter. This much everyone expected. A young
and an old. The veils were not as much a surprise as a disappointment.
Old women began to rely on the experience of age, interpreting
a swagger and analyzing a gait. The younger women, mothers and
daughters, used expert eyes to gauge weight through the black
draperies falling around round heads, across one set of sharp
shoulders and one set of curved shoulders, down one chest of formidable
femininity and another of gaunt girlishness. The men with their
street-level views left the scrutiny aside and waited patiently.
Their vantage point would bring them a clear view. Be it the slant
of a nose, a lid of lashes falling on a cheek, or even an open-eyed
stare, their position afforded them a look. Everyone on Abadaan
Street itched in anticipation for those first few minutes, forgetting
the dead, swaying to the beat of the widow's death drum and freezing
with the fall of the youngest girl's shawl.
From her head to her shoulders the loose head shawl dropped.
Quickly the older sister pulled it back up. Quickly the youngest
tugged it down. Shaking her hair out from its confines, pushing
it away from her eyes, getting a clear view of the street she
had never seen.
At 7, Ali Akbar's mother opened a door in him that led to an
empty room. She placed him between her legs and showed him the
scar of his birth. Her gentle eyes begged him to touch it, to
place an unused child's finger on the wound. With contact, a history
of pain flashed before his eyes: the pain his slick oblong body
caused her, the pain his father had caused and the pain of herself.
Into his mother's gentle eyes he smiled, delighted. Into every
whore and harem girl since he has probed for pain. He lived without
compassion, but not without curiosity; making a point, as of late,
to seek out the youngest girls, the ones without histories of
pain, for a different experience, a push into an interior landscape
not yet charred; verdant, and unscarred. Gazing down at the dead
man's youngest daughter as she, unsheathed, illuminated the street,
Ali Akbar pulsed toward the purity in her. He saw a blank canvas,
a place where he would leave the first mark. The original stroke
in a lifetime's shape of pain.
Laleh Khadivi is a master's of fine arts student in creative
writing at Mills College. "The Parade" is an excerpt
from a work in progress that takes place in Iran in the 1940s
and '50s. She lives in Oakland.
 Written in August 1940, for an American symposium on current
matters concerning women.
The Germans were over this house last night and the night before
that. Here they are again. It is a queer experience, lying in
the dark and listening to the zoom of a hornet which may at any
moment sting you to death. It is a sound that interrupts cool
and consecutive thinking about peace. Yet it is a soundfar
more than prayers and anthemsthat should compel one to think
about peace. Unless we can think peace into existence wenot
this one body in this one bed but millions of bodies yet to be
bornwill lie in the same darkness and hear the same death
rattle overhead. Let us think what we can do to create the only
efficient airraid shelter while the guns on the hill go pop
pop pop and the searchlights finger the clouds and now and then,
sometimes close at hand, sometimes far away, a bomb drops.
Up there in the sky young Englishmen and young German men are
fighting each other. The defenders are men, the attackers are
men. Arms are not given to Englishwomen either to fight the enemy
or to defend herself. She must lie weaponless tonight. Yet
if she believes that the fight going on up in the sky is a fight
by the English to protect freedom, by the Germans to destroy freedom,
she must fight, so far as she can, on the side of the English.
How far can she fight for freedom without firearms? By making
arms, or clothes or food. But there is another way of fighting
for freedom without arms; we can fight with the mind. We can make
ideas that will help the young Englishman who is fighting up in
the sky to defeat the enemy.
But to make ideas effective, we must be able to fire them off.
We must put them into action. And the hornet in the sky rouses
another hornet in the mind. There was one zooming in THE TIMES
this mominga woman¹s voice saying, ³Women have
not a word to say in politics.² There is no woman in the
Cabinet; nor in any responsible post. All the idea makers who
are in a position to make ideas effective are men. That is a thought
that damps thinking, and encourages irresponsibility. Why not
bury the head in the pillow, plug the ears, and cease this futile
activity of ideamaking? Because there are other tables besides
officer tables and conference tables. Are we not leaving the young
Englishman without a weapon that might be of value to him if we
give up private thinking, teatable thinking, because it seems
useless? Are we not stressing our disability because our ability
exposes us perhaps to abuse, perhaps to contempt? ³I will
not cease from mental fight,² Blake wrote. Mental fight means
thinking against the current, not with it.
That current flows fast and furious. It issues in a spate of
words from the loudspeakers and the politicians. Every day they
tell us that we are a free people, fighting to defend freedom.
That is the current that has whirled the young airman up into
the sky and keeps him circling there among the clouds. Down here,
with a roof to cover us and a gas mask handy, it is our business
to puncture gas bags and discover seeds of truth. It is not true
that we are free. We are both prisoners tonighthe boxed
up in his machine with a gun handy; we lying in the dark with
a gas mask handy. If we were free we should be out in the open,
dancing, at the play, or sitting at the window talking together.
What is it that prevents us? ³Hitler!² the loudspeakers
cry with one voice. Who is Hitler? What is he? Aggressiveness,
tyranny, the insane love of power made manifest, they reply. Destroy
that, and you will be free.
The drone of the planes is now like the sawing of a branch overhead.
Round and round it goes, sawing and sawing at a branch directly
above the house. Another sound begins sawing its way in the brain.
³Women of ability²it was Lady Astor speaking in
THE TIMES this morning³are held down because of a subconscious
Hitlerism in the hearts of men.² Certainly we are held down.
We are equally prisoners tonightthe Englishmen in their
planes, the Englishwomen in their beds. But if he stops to think
he may be killed; and we too. So let us think for him. Let us
try to drag up into consciousness the subconscious Hitlerism that
holds us down. It is the desire for aggression; the desire to
dominate and enslave. Even in the darkness we can see that made
visible. We can see shop windows blazing; and women gazing; painted
women; dressedup women; women with crimson lips and crimson
fingernails. They are slaves who are trying to enslave. If we
could free ourselves from slavery we should free men from tyranny.
Hitlers are bred by slaves.
A bomb drops. All the windows rattle. The antiaircraft guns
are getting active. Up there on the hill under a net tagged with
strips of green and brown stuff to imitate the hues of autumn
leaves, guns are concealed. Now they all fire at once. On the
nine o¹clock radio we shall be told ³Fortyfour
enemy planes were shot down during the night, ten of them by antiaircraft
fire.² And one of the terms of peace, the loudspeakers say,
is to be disarmament. There are to be no more guns, no army, no
navy, no air force in the future. No more young men will be trained
to fight with arms. That rouses another mindhornet in the
chambers of the brainanother quotation. ³To fight against
a real enemy, to earn undying honour and glory by shooting total
strangers, and to come home with my breast covered with medals
and decorations, that was the summit of my hope. . . . It was
for this that my whole life so far had been dedicated, my education,
training, everything. . . .²
Those were the words of a young Englishman who fought in the
last war. In the face of them, do the current thinkers honestly
believe that by writing ³Disarmament² on a sheet of
paper at a conference table they will have done all that is needful?
Othello¹s occupation will be gone; but he will remain Othello.
The young airman up in the sky is driven not only by the voices
of loudspeakers; he is driven by voices in himselfancient
instincts, instincts fostered and cherished by education and tradition.
Is he to be blamed for those instincts? Could we switch off the
maternal instinct at the command of a table full of politicians?
Suppose that imperative among the peace terms was: ³Childbearing
is to be restricted to a very small class of specially selected
women,² would we submit? Should we not say, ³The maternal
instinct is a woman¹s glory. It was for this that my whole
life has been dedicated, my education, training, everything. .
. .² But if it were necessary. for the sake of humanity,
for the peace of the world, that childbearing should be restricted,
the maternal instinct subdued, women would attempt it. Men would
help them. They would honour them for their refusal to bear children.
They would give them other openings for their creative power.
That too must make part of our fight for freedom. We must help
the young Englishmen to root out from themselves the love of medals
and decorations. We must create more honourable activities for
those who try to conquer in themselves their fighting instinct,
their subconscious Hitlerism. We must compensate the man for the
loss of his gun.
The sound of sawing overhead has increased. All the searchlights
are erect. They point at a spot exactly above this roof. At any
moment a bomb may fall on this very room. One, two, three, four,
five, six . . . the seconds pass. The bomb did not fall. But during
those seconds of suspense all thinking stopped. All feeling, save
one dull dread, ceased. A nail fixed the whole being to one hard
board. The emotion of fear and of hate is therefore sterile, unfertile.
Directly that fear passes, the mind reaches out and instinctively
revives itself by trying to create. Since the room is dark it
can create only from memory. It reaches out to the memory of other
Augustsin Bayreuth, listening to Wagner; in Rome, walking
over the Campagna; in London. Friends¹ voices come back.
Scraps of poetry return. Each of those thoughts, even in memory,
was far more positive, reviving, healing and creative than the
dull dread made of fear and hate. Therefore if we are to compensate
the young man for the loss of his glory and of his gun, we must
give him access to the creative feelings. We must make happiness.
We must free him from the machine. We must bring him out of his
prison into the open air. But what is the use of freeing the young
Englishman if the young German and the young Italian remain slaves?
The searchlights, wavering across the flat, have picked up the
plane now. From this window one can see a little silver insect
turning and twisting in the light. The guns go pop pop pop. Then
they cease. Probably the raider was brought down behind the hill.
One of the pilots landed safe in a field near here the other day.
He said to his captors, speaking fairly good English, ³How
glad I am that the fight is over!² Then an Englishman gave
him a cigarette, and an Englishwoman made him a cup of tea. That
would seem to show that if you can free the man from the machine,
the seed does not fall upon altogether stony ground. The seed
may be fertile.
At last all the guns have stopped firing. All the searchlights
have been extinguished. The natural darkness of a summer¹s
night returns. The innocent sounds of the country are heard again.
An apple thuds to the ground. An owl hoots, winging its way from
tree to tree. And some halfforgotten words of an old English
writer come to mind: ³The huntsmen are up in America. . .
.² Let us send these fragmentary notes to the huntsmen who
are up in America, to the men and women whose sleep has not yet
been broken by machinegun fire, in the belief that they will
rethink them generously and charitably, perhaps shape them into
something serviceable. And now, in the shadowed half of the world,
Does the statement, "We've
always done it that way" ring any bells...?
The US standard railroad gauge (distance
between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5
inches. That's an exceedingly odd number.
Why was that gauge used?
Because that's the way they built them in England, and English
built the US Railroads.
Why did the English build them like that?
Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who
pre-railroad tramways, and that's the gauge they used.
Why did "they" use that gauge
Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and
that they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing.
Okay! Why did the wagons have that particular
odd wheel spacing?
Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels
on some of the old, long distance roads in England, because that's
spacing of the wheel ruts.
So who built those old rutted roads?
Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe (and
for their legions. The roads have been used ever since.
And the ruts in the roads?
Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else
match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chariots
made for Imperial Rome, they were all alike in the matter of wheel
The United States standard railroad gauge
of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived
from the original specifications for an Imperial Roman war chariot.
bureaucracies live forever.
So the next time you are handed a spec
and told we have always done it that
way and wonder what horse's ass came up with that, you may be
right, because the Imperial Roman war chariots were made just
to accommodate the back ends of two war horses.
Now the twist to the story...
When you see a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, there
are two big
booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These
rocket boosters, or SRBs. The SRBs are made by Thiokol at their
in Utah. The engineers who designed the SRBs would have preferred
them a bit fatter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from
the factory to
the launch site.
The railroad line from the factory happens
to run through a tunnel in the
mountains. The SRBs had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel
wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track, as you
is about as wide as two horses' behinds.
So, a major Space Shuttle design feature
of what is arguably the world's
most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand
years ago by the width of a Horse's ass.
And you thought being a horse's ass wasn't
A parable for our times
A man approached the gate of an unfamiliar
city. As he reached
the gate a magician standing there said "Wait! You shouldn't
there without a weapon! Demons lurk there!"
The man said "I need
no weapon and have nothing to do with demons."
The magician drew a sword
from the sheath he held; as he drew it
a frightful demon appeared, but the magician was able to kill it
"Now will you take
a weapon!?", he said, but the man still refused.
"Are you blind!?",
said the magician, "Do you see the sword
I drew killed the demon?"
"Are you blind?"
the man responded, "Do you not see that the sword
you drew created the demon?"
And he walked on into the
city, armed only with the clarityof his mind
from Leonard Jacobson)
The bonds of friendship
in a bitter war
In a year of unspeakable
horror, Israeli and Palestinian teens
join in a Maine refuge to seek a path toward peace
Photo: Melanie Stetson Freeman
By Amanda Paulson
OTISFIELD, MAINE In the end, Ariel
Tal came back and Saja Abuhigleh stayed.
Simple acts, perhaps. But also acts of courage
and hope at this wooded Maine camp, a refuge from the devastating
daily violence of the Middle East, a place where teenagers from
Israel and Palestine meet in an effort to find solutions rather
than propagate hatred.
Ariel had twice before attended Seeds of Peace, as the camp is named.
But that was before a suicide bomber in Jerusalem last December
blew up his friend just 20 feet from the ice cream store where Ariel
was sprinkling jimmies onto a cone. Had he not lingered a few seconds,
he knew, it could have been his funeral for which the neighborhood
Amid the carnage, he looked down and realized
he was wearing his green Seeds of Peace sweatshirt. "I got
really confused," Ariel says. "I didn't know what I
was looking for here, and why I was chasing it so hard."
Even before arriving for her first year
at camp, Saja had her doubts about sharing a bunkhouse and breaking
bread with Israelis. On her second day, she called home and learned
Israeli soldiers had occupied Ramallah, her hometown. They had
detained her great-uncle's son and struck the elderly man when
he asked why.
"When [my family] told me, I started
crying, and I said, 'I want to go to my home in Palestine right
now! I can't stay here,' " Saja says, stumbling over
her words in the rush to get them out.
But Saja stayed and Ariel shed short-lived
thoughts of vengeance and came back, one of the small group of
returning campers who offer support and mentoring to new arrivals
Their experiences, however, attest to the
challenges facing a camp that some call naively idealistic and
others see as the only sane response to a world situation that
seems to have lost all reason. Journalist John Wallach founded
Seeds of Peace in 1993, prompted in part by the first bombing
of the World Trade Center. He invited 46 teenagers that year,
hoping to teach young people from this bitterly divided region
how to listen to one another.
But the camp has never faced a summer quite
like this one. Working for peace in the Middle East has always
been a courageous choice. Doing it amid the horrific violence
of the current intifada, and Israel's brutal backlash, is practically
inconceivable. It is a violence that has become personal, even
for teenagers, even for children.
And if the camp is to succeed if
the three weeks teenagers from each side spend laughing, arguing,
and living together is to mean anything it is a violence
they somehow must find the strength to look beyond.
On June 24 the same day President
Bush called for the ouster of Yasser Arafat in a much-anticipated
Middle East policy speech 166 teenagers arrived at this
sleepy lakeside retreat 30 miles northwest of Portland, where
only the names of the campers and the constant presence of police
cars at the gate indicate that this is any different from the
dozens of other camps nearby.
Almost all the campers are sponsored by
Seeds of Peace; all went through a lengthy, competitive application
process to get here, and all were selected by their education
ministries in part for their potential to lead.
Their mission: to get to know one another
as individuals rather than as the enemy, in a place removed from
the hatred back home. Though Seeds of Peace has expanded over
its first decade it now accepts young people from other
regions of conflict and has established a year-round Center for
Coexistence in Jerusalem it still rests on the same simple
premise: that interaction breeds understanding.
You don't have to like each other, camp
director Tim Wilson reminds the campers at the opening ceremony
just recognize that each individual is a human being deserving
"You can go home, and yes, there are
things there we have no control over," Mr. Wilson tells them.
"But here, we do have control. You have the right to sit
down and talk to someone you normally would not talk to."
The campers listen eagerly, applauding
vigorously. When it comes time to sing the Seeds of Peace song,
they belt it out: "People of peace, rejoice, rejoice/ For
we have united into one voice...."
When the gathering ends, however, they
cluster with others like them, finding comfort in a shared language
and traditions. It takes a few days, or more, says Wilson, before
many start branching out. When he sees girls from different sides
"sitting around talking about P. Diddy," or boys discussing
the World Cup, he knows they've reached common ground.
The camp is designed for informal interaction.
Six to nine campers, grouped by conflict region, share each of
the well-kept bunkhouses that line the shore of Pleasant Lake.
Campers eat with a second group and join a third for the daily
90-minute "coexistence session." With this third group,
they also play sports and participate in activities intended to
build cooperation and trust, from a ropes course to a dance exercise
in which they mimic each other's movements.
One of this year's new campers is Sami
Habash, an articulate, blond Palestinian from Jerusalem who plans
to attend Israel's prestigious Hebrew University next year although
he's only 16. An intense young man, he's pleased to be in an environment
where everyone wants peace. But his first interest is in scoring
"I want to tell [the Israelis] that
we don't have water at night. I go up to drink, and no water."
During debate, Sami hopes "to see Israelis themselves freely
admitting their country's mistakes."
Adar Ziegel, an Israeli from Haifa who
for as long as she can remember has dreamed of being her country's
prime minister, has less formulated plans. She's heard great things
about the camp from her boyfriend and is excited to see whether
teens on opposite sides of the checkpoints can find solutions.
Adar shares her bunkhouse and her coexistence
session with Saja. Sami will be in a coexistence session with
Ariel. The Monitor chose to focus on these four teens two
Israelis and two Palestinians to gain some insight into
the small triumphs, epiphanies, and setbacks that occur in these
weeks of typical camp fun mixed with not-so-typical discussion
All four arrived with hope, but also a
degree of skepticism their homeland, after all, is in tatters.
Saja, who has never met an Israeli before, came armed with photos,
downloaded from the Internet, that graphically portray Israeli
soldiers' abuse of Palestinians. She cannot forget the day she
saw a soldier strike a small boy on the head, causing blood to
And Sami, though ready to listen, has a
long list of grievances from life under occupation to share with
his Israeli counterparts.
In past years, says Ariel, discussions
focused mainly on policy. "We just argued about the past
and whether or not we want Jerusalem to be united." This
year, "the new kids have personal experiences. I have experiences
of my own."
Trying to win
In a nondescript one-room cabin, words
and allegations fly.
Facilitator Marieke Van-woerkom had eased
into the coexistence session with a rather vague question: "What
does it take to have peace?"
But after a few predictable, detached responses
"Stop war," "End the bombs," "Both
sides have to trust each other" the campers switch
gears to get at specific gripes, often using a "we-you"
"We can't trust you," says one
Israeli. "We gave you weapons in Oslo. Today, we see those
weapons being used on us." And, he asks, why did Arafat reject
Israel's offer at Camp David two years ago?
"It wasn't enough," responds
a frustrated Palestinian. "We want our land, but also to
be free in this land. We want borders like other countries. A
government, like other countries."
"What do you want us to build
a government for you?" the Israeli shoots back.
"When you give us the land, you must
Saja objects when one Israeli refers to
suicide bombers as terrorists. A fellow Palestinian likens them
to messengers, delivering a message from a people who have no
"Do you think the message is being
delivered in the way you want it delivered?" an Israeli girl
wants to know.
After about 90 minutes, Ms. Vanwoerkom
brings the session to a close with a final suggestion: "What
I'd like for you to think about is, what it is inside of us that
makes it so hard to truly listen and understand each other? You
feel you're not being listened to, but where are you not listening?"
Ariel, in his third year, has seen campers
doggedly stake out their own positions before: "They come
to win." So did he, when he first arrived, a camper with
right-wing politics and the view that the best solution was to
remove all Arabs and "put them somewhere else."
"It changes," he says. "They
face the reality and say, 'OK, we can't win. What next?' You realize
understanding is the important part."
Still, even during this particular heated
session, the teenagers have accomplished what many of their compatriots
back home seem incapable of. They've carried on a debate without
violence or, for the most part, raised voices.
Besides, reaching consensus is not really
the goal. Vanwoerkom says she's wary of pushing campers too far,
too fast. The "brick wall" they hit when they get back
home will be that much harder especially this year. "I'm
trying to find that balance," she says, "between learning,
development, growth and going back home and being able
to build on those lessons."
Midway through camp, Adar finds her political
She considers herself progressive, even
But when Saja compares the Israeli occupation
of Palestine to the Holocaust, Adar loses her composure. Her grandparents
narrowly escaped Poland and Germany. Many of her relatives died
in concentration camps.
"[Saja] said that from their point
of view, we can just go back to Germany and Italy and stuff,"
says Adar angrily. "I myself would never go back to a place
that put numbers on my grandparents' arms."
Still, she thinks carefully about how to
teach as well as react, giving Saja a copy of "Anne Frank:
The Diary of a Young Girl." "She's actually reading
it," Adar says a few days later. "I feel that once she
reads that book she'll have a much more wise understanding."
For Sami, facts have been the primary source
The Israelis in his coexistence session,
he says, get them all wrong. "When I'm talking to [one Israeli
settler], I'm counting on some facts that I know. When he changes
the facts, I say I'm sure my facts are correct. He's changing
my facts just to make it more difficult for me to talk!"
Like Saja, Sami in his session pressed
the point that Israelis should leave Palestine. He remains baffled
by the outburst his comment provoked.
"They got really crazy about it,"
the normally mild-mannered Palestinian says resentfully. "They
said they were offended because some of them understood it as
'Go back to Hitler.' Others understood it as, 'I don't agree with
the idea of a Jewish state.' "
Neither is true, Sami insists. What he
wants is for Israelis to acknowledge they took land that wasn't
theirs. Finally, he lets it drop. But the experience leaves a
bad taste in his mouth. "At the beginning of camp, I had
some more positive ideas about the people I was negotiating with.
But now some of [those opinions] have changed."
If the informal mingling of Israeli and
Palestinian teens signals success, then camp this year could get
The camp's color games three days
of athletic competition further erode national allegiances.
The competition here is between blue and green, not Israel and
"My team won!" says Saja brightly.
She played baseball and canoed for the first time. Now she's running
around like a senior before graduation, asking everyone she knows
to write indelible-ink messages on her T-shirt.
Adar, meanwhile, eagerly recounts tales
of the talent show, for which she coached a boys' bunkhouse in
a ballet routine.
Now, with a teenager's bent for melodrama,
she says she's heartbroken at the thought of leaving. "I'm
going to hug a tree and carve myself into it," she sighs.
She's already making plans to visit Nada, an Egyptian girl in
her cabin, and says she's even forgiven Saja.
"We have the best bunk ever,"
Adar says firmly.
But all hasn't been perfect.
In the middle of color games, John Wallach,
the camp's founder, died in New York.
"I didn't want to continue any more,"
says Ariel, who knew Wallach. "I was unable to think. But
I realized the kids are looking up to me, and if I were to leave
color games, they would do the same. [So] I kept on going."
Just days after Wallach's death, Dateline
NBC runs an hour-long special about the camp, focusing on five
teenagers from its first summer. One Israeli is now a right-wing
settler, and a Palestinian he befriended at the timeis active
in promoting nationalist causes. The other three also seem to
have drifted a long way from the idealistic teenagers who shook
hands with Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat 10 years ago.
The camp may create an aura of hope, Dateline
implies, but the dreams the teens walk away with will likely wither
in the heat of the violence back home.
It's a charge the camp's leaders are familiar
with. They accept that some campers will lose the lessons of peace.
Still, Bobbie Gottschalk, the camp's executive
vice president, says she's heard from most of those original campers
since Wallach's death. One, an Egyptian named Tamer Nagy, is this
year's program coordinator. Koby Sadan, who attended Seeds of
Peace in 1994 and '95 and just finished his three-year stint in
the Israeli army, is also working as a counselor this summer.
Seeds of Peace now has more than 2,000
graduates, Ms. Gottschalk says. If just a few of them hang on
to what they've learned and eventually become leaders in
their region they could have a big impact.
"We're just trying to get people to
think for themselves," she says. "And to care about
people who are not like them. If we can expand the circle of their
concern to go beyond people who are not exactly like them, then
we've gone a long way toward building a citizen of the world."
No one can say what makes the camp's message
stick with one person and fizzle with another. All that's certain
is that it will be tested back home, one reason the camp has created
a year-round center in Jerusalem to continue work with former
Saja is excited to have made Israeli friends.
But she hesitates when asked what life will be like when she returns
to Ramallah. "Here, I can do everything I want," she
says. "But [in Palestine] I can't move.... To go to school
from Ramallah to Jerusalem, I have to pass three checkpoints.
When I stand there I think that I want to kill these soldiers,
and I don't want peace with them."
Adar insists the bonds she has formed in
three weeks, with Palestinians as well as Israelis, are stronger
than those she's formed over three years back home. She still
feels her country is "falling apart," but she takes
heart from something Tim Wilson, the camp director, told her.
"Tim [who is African-American] asked his father when segregation
will end. And his father said, 'When this generation dies.' "
She and her fellow campers, Adar hopes, will form a new generation.
Sami, however, finds it harder to imagine
how Palestinians his age, pushed to a boiling point, might respond
to a message of tolerance. "They're going to tell me, 'Can't
you see what's happening? Aren't you living in this country? You
still want peace after all you can see?' "
To a point, Sami shares their rage. He
is furious when he thinks of Israeli tanks and guns overpowering
unarmed Palestinians. Still, he has thought carefully about the
situation. "There is no way but peace for Palestinians. The
Israelis have power. They can manage with peace or without peace.
We Palestinians have rocks. We have nothing. So, of course, I
will keep trying."
A few days after he returns home to Jerusalem,
Sami is already thinking about contacting the Israeli friends
he made and visiting the Seeds of Peace center. Recent events
have changed one plan, though: He no longer wants to attend Hebrew
University, shattered last month by a cafeteria suicide bombing.
The Technion, in Haifa, he reasons, is as good a school
and less of a potential target.
From what Ariel suggests, much of what
Sami, Saja, Adar, and other new campers learned at Seeds of Peace
this summer has yet to sink in. He has learned that the emotional
highs campers take with them from Maine can quickly crash to devastating
lows. Only then can they begin to decide whether what they experienced
was illusion or truth. "The experience is different [for
each one]," says Ariel. "Camp is a bubble."
Ariel, who toyed with the idea of vengeance
after the suicide bombing he saw in December, is now firm in his
"I got to a conclusion that we have
no other way [but to work for peace]," he says. "We
can do this. We can't do anything else."
Jerusalem -- On the day of the bombing,
my friend Julia and I arrived at Hebrew University around 12:45
p.m., said hello to friends in the student forum and walked to
the Frank Sinatra cafeteria to buy sandwiches. On our way out,
we ran into one of my professors. He jokingly reminded me that
I still owe him a paper from the fall semester. We walked
across the plaza, down the steps and through the pedestrian tunnel
that connects the outside courtyard and the cafeteria to the Boyar
I went upstairs to pick up a registration
form for my Hebrew exam, then went looking for Janis Coulter,
assistant director of academic affairs for the Rothberg International
School. She worked at the university's New York office and had
arrived in Israel the day before to greet new students and meet
with colleagues. My friend Daniel had sent Janis a package of
lecture notes and tapes, which she had agreed to bring to me.
We met at 1:15, exchanged phone numbers and planned to meet again
after my 5 p.m. exam. It was the first time Janis and I had
met -- and it turned out to be only 15 minutes before she was
I went to the third-floor foyer, a large
open area with seats. A few minutes later, as I sat eating my
sandwich and reviewing for my Hebrew exam, I watched Janis walk
out of the building on her way to lunch. Marla Bennett walked
with a friend out the same door. Julia pointed out Ben Blutstein,
someone she knew from Pardes (Institute of Jewish Studies), as
he walked out, playing his drum as he strolled off to eat lunch
at Frank Sinatra.
Suddenly, a tremendous boom rocked the
building. A huge roar seemed to come from the general direction
of the cafeteria. Everything continued as normal for the next
few minutes, and nobody seemed to pay much attention to the explosion.
Then it all changed. Slowly, people began running into Boyar,
screaming and crying. A woman came through the entrance with her
hair singed and her arm burned by the blast. I will never forget
the smell of her burned hair.
She sat down next to an Asian man, who
had blood on his back. I asked if he was hurt and needed help.
He answered in Hebrew that he couldn't hear me. The blast was
so loud he couldn't hear anything.
The next hour is a blur. We crowded together
in the lobby and on the stairs,
watching out the window, as the campus
became engulfed in a sea of police officers, soldiers and emergency
officials dressed in orange and yellow vests. There was a crowd
of people on the bridge in front of the law school, so at first
I thought the explosion had taken place there. Someone else said
he saw the bomb go off in the parking lot. As I walked toward
the third floor exit, a woman was laid on a stretcher, her clothes
drenched with blood from her head to her waist. I started to cry
and had to turn away.
The staff of the overseas school gathered
students in the auditorium, making announcements in several languages
that the phones would be open to call family abroad. I called
Janis' cell phone right after the bombing and then again in the
evening, leaving two messages, asking her to please call and let
me know that she was OK. She never returned the call.
A few friends and I left the university
around 3:30. I spent the rest of the afternoon answering phone
calls, assuring everyone that I was OK. I finally reached the
professor I'd bumped into on my way out of the cafeteria. He was
walking out of the cafeteria when the bomb went off. Thankfully,
he was not injured.
Julia and I needed to get some fresh air
and went for a walk in the park around 7. Gan Sacher Park was
full of families picnicking and barbecuing. There were several
soccer games going on, kids riding their bikes, people having
fun. It was as if they lived in another world and had no sense
of what had just happened. Or perhaps they knew too well and had
made a point of getting on with their lives.
A few friends gathered at my apartment
for dinner later. As we ate, Julia got a phone call from a friend
named Michael Simon, saying that his girlfriend,
Marla, was not on any of the hospital lists.
The following morning, Marla Bennett's body was identified. She
was from San Diego and only 24. Ben Blutstein's name was also
listed among those killed.
The next afternoon, Julia and I went to
Pardes so she could pay her condolences to Michael, a friend and
Dorot fellow. A group of teachers, staff and students was standing
in the common area, talking quietly, hugging and just being with
As soon as I saw Michael, it suddenly occurred
to me who Marla was. I hadn't put the names and faces together.
Both Michael and Marla were in a couple of my classes, and I saw
them occasionally at Shabbat dinners, at Merkaz Hamagshimim and
other social events. Marla was a friendly, outgoing girl, full
of life and energy. I can see clearly an image of her face --
her sweet smile and warm eyes.
Until the attack at the university, the
bombing at Rehavia's Cafe Moment in March had been the most difficult
attack to digest. It struck right in the heart of my neighborhood,
two blocks from my apartment. Those killed were mostly young Israelis,
but I was lucky not to have had any friends injured or killed.
This time, I knew two who were killed and several of those injured.
I had never considered the possibility of a terrorist attack at
the university. Like many others, I considered it off-limits.
I now realize that there are no boundaries or rules in this game
of violence and terror.
I ran into one of my professors this morning
who asked: "Why are you still here? Why don't you go back
to your home in America?"
"Because my home is here," I
said as I pointed to my apartment building down the block. "I
made Aliyah and chose to live my life here. I am staying here,
and not going anywhere."
As Israel continues to suffer through these
difficult times, I will endure the strain as well. There's no
doubt that the road ahead will be bumpy. But in my heart, I know
that the struggle must eventually come to an end. I want to be
here to smell peace when it comes.
Victoria Blint, a former Bay Area resident,
is studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
This article is excerpted from a recent e-mail
she sent her family and friends.
Natasha Walter reports
from Kabul on what the future
holds for the women of Afghanistan
The Guardian, July 20, 2002
are crammed on to the benches in the cavernous lecture hall of
Kabul University's science faculty. Four hundred eager faces stare
down at us, and 150 of them are female. A few rows from the front
sits a young woman wearing a white lace scarf tucked tightly around
her rosy face. Her name is Zohal Faiz Mohammed. She shakes her
head, smiling, when I ask how she feels to be back at university
after five years' absence. "I can't say my feelings - you
can see. For the first time we can experience the university,
this atmosphere. We can all study, boys and girls together."
That evening, Zohal invites us to have
supper with her and her parents. They live in what is, by Kabul's
standards, a comfortable neighbourhood, but that still means a
chaotic stretch of apartment blocks with blown-out windows and
walls riddled with bullet holes. While Zohal prepares the meal,
we sit on cushions on the floor of the pink sitting room, talking
to her parents. Suddenly Zohal rushes in, worried that we are
bored, and shows off one of her most precious possessions, a video
of songs from Indian films. "My father and I love these,"
she says eagerly.
She watches the gorgeous Aishwarya Rai
dancing in a Technicolor field of dreams. "Isn't she beautiful?"
As she watches the video, Zohal, in jeans and a white shirt with
the sleeves rolled up, her thick black hair in a ponytail, looks
younger than her 22 years.
She is determined to be young, determined
to be happy, determined not to talk about politics - instead,
we talk about her errant fiance and her plans for the future.
After dinner, she, her mother and her cousin squabble over the
arrangements for the photographs. "Don't fight!" Zohal
says. "All right, do fight." "I'll be Rabbani and
you can be Hekmatyar," says the photographer. Peals of laughter
ring out. Those are the names of the men whose armies laid Kabul
waste in the 1990s. "All you can do sometimes is laugh,"
says her mother, wiping her eyes with a corner of her scarf.
As we talk over dinner, I can't help thinking
that Zohal's happiness feels like the uncomplicated optimism of
any young woman at the start of her life. But Afghan women are
not like other women, and when they sound optimistic, this is
an act of determined bravery. On another day, when Zohal and I
meet for tea, she talks about the past. Her face changes, loses
its pink glow, and she fumbles with her fingers.
Her comfortable childhood came under siege
in 1992, after the Soviet-backed regime fell and mujaheddin armies
- armed by the west - battled for control of Kabul, street by
street. "I remember every night, sitting in the corner of
the room, listening to the rockets and the bombs," says Zohal
in a dull tone very different from her earlier quick chatter.
"And every morning we would go out and help to collect the
dead bodies. There was nothing to think about. We were just waiting
for our death. We had no hope for the future, not even for our
Zohal's family were forced out of their
home more than once when the fighting concentrated around their
area. They became refugees again when they fled from the extreme
oppression of the Taliban, and spent two years in Pakistan, but
the destitution that faced so many Afghans there forced them back
to Kabul last year. They went on the move again to the Pakistani
border during the US bombing last winter. Refugees three times
- from the mujaheddin, the Taliban and the Americans - Zohal's
family are now starting over, trying to put their lives back together
out of the fragments they have left.
But Zohal's face is set towards the future.
She wants to be an engineer, studies at the university in the
morning, and takes English and computing classes in the afternoon.
Since today is a holiday, we visit one of Kabul's newly opened
beauty salons. Marya salon sits next to a restaurant where lamb
kebabs are seared over open barbecues, and beside a music stall
that is stacked with colourful Indian and Iranian cassettes. But
even here, in this reawakened part of Kabul, if you stop on the
street for a moment, the beggars, women and children, tug at your
arms and hands.
Inside the salon, the air is thick with
hairspray and scent, and Fazila, the owner, a stout woman in a
black dress with neatly styled auburn hair, is getting through
one client after another with astonishing speed. She and her two
young daughters work like an assembly line. Curlers are whipped
out and in, tweezers tug at eyebrows, kohl is rubbed on to eyelids.
Shaima and Suheila, two sisters, both doctors, are waiting on
Fazila's couches. Both have their hair pinned up under hairnets.
Tomorrow is Shaima's wedding day and they are determined to do
it in high Afghan style, all glittery dresses and curled hair
and hennaed hands.
"When she had her engagement ceremony,"
Suheila explains, "we couldn't take photographs - though
we did, secretly. We couldn't even have musicians." What
would the Taliban have done if you had invited musicians? Suheila
draws a finger across her throat. "But I played a cassette,
quietly, and I danced - I was determined to dance." She is
about to tell me more when a little boy runs in. The girls at
home need more curlers. Suheila springs to her feet and picks
up her burka. "Don't you want to know why I still wear this?"
she asks. She stands silhouetted in the bright doorway, holding
the swathe of blue nylon above her face.
The western press has made so much of the
idea that, as the Taliban left Kabul, the liberated women threw
off their blue shrouds. But in Kabul, almost all the young women
are still wearing the burka. This is not through force of tradition.
There was a custom of wearing the burka among some ethnic groups
in Afghanistan, but not among educated women in the cities. I
asked 20 or 30 women why they were still wearing it, and all gave
the same answer. Fear.
"We aren't safe yet," says Suheila
succinctly. This sense of insecurity is understandable. The mujaheddin
and the Taliban weren't just a few maniacs who have now disappeared,
but hundreds and thousands of "willing executioners"
- men who gang-raped women as part of their wars, as the mujaheddin
did, or who beat women savagely for showing their faces, as the
Taliban did. These men have not gone away, and although in Kabul
they are kept quiet by the presence of the international security
force, if that departs, many women fear that the violence will
"Of course, the burka was not the
worst thing about the Taliban time," Suheila emphasises.
"But until we are safe, we can't take it off." Even
now, reports of politically and religiously motivated violence
against women continue. Human Rights Watch has documented rapes
and assaults against certain ethnic groups in northern Afghanistan.
Female aid workers have even been withdrawn from Mazar-i-Sharif
after one was gang-raped. In Kabul a month ago, two women wearing
scarves instead of burkas had acid sprayed in their faces. So,
for the women of Afghanistan, the anonymity of the burka still
gives them a sense of protection. Zohal, who also wears the burka
when she goes out, agrees with Suheila.
"Of course we would like to take it
off," she says, "but it just isn't possible yet."
Some of the women who have taken off the
burka are those now moving into politics. My visit coincides with
the start of the loya jirga, the gathering of a council of 1,500
delegates who are to decide the structure of the future government.
Nearly 200 are women. I visit the council offices, where dozens
of Afghan men circle the courtyard, talking eagerly. Out on the
parched grass is a tent, and inside the stifling tent sit 15 women,
newly arrived delegates from western provinces of the country.
A woman in her early 30s, also called Zohal,
talks enthusiastically about what this means to her. Her two-year-old
daughter, silently playing with a wilted pink rose, sits on her
lap as she talks. "The doors of everything have been closed
to women for so long," she says. "Now we hope that the
doors are swinging open. This loya jirga is only a first step,
but in the future parliament there must be equal representation
for women and for men."
Mindful that even in western countries
women haven't achieved such representation, I ask the other women
in the tent if they feel the same. There is an eruption of noise.
"Yes, they all agree," my translator says solemnly.
"They say that women make up more than half of the population
of Afghanistan and that they have been the first victims of war.
They must now be allowed their rights."
"It hasn't changed at all from the
KGB," said a former intelligence operative familiar with
the agency's workings. "They use the same methods."
The literacy course in Sarasia is funded
by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan.
This extraordinary organisation has been going since 1977 and
is a testament to the determined resilience of Afghan women. The
thousands of RAWA members have worked underground and in exile
for nearly 30 years - against the Soviet regime, the mujaheddin,
the Taliban - and they are now stronger than ever. But although
RAWA is beginning to operate more openly, most of its work is
still anonymous and underground. Oddly, despite the west's much-touted
support for a more liberal society, RAWA has never received support
from any government.
But RAWA's members are still agitating
for women's equality and a secular government, and they are also
passionately involved in rebuilding civil society. In contrast
to some of the rather chaotic government and non-governmental
projects, the couple of RAWA schemes I see, in Sarasia and Kabul,
are models of good organisation and sustainability. One day, I
visit one of their schools in Kabul, which operates in the family
home of a former radio broadcaster from Mazar-i-Sharif, who prefers
to remain anonymous.
Sitting next to Zohal is Bibi Kur, a woman with a look of the
younger Doris Lessing. She comes from Herat. "There, our
leaders did not want a single woman to go to the loya jirga,"
she says scornfully. "But people from Kabul came and insisted,
so they said there could be one woman from each province, one
out of eight delegates." Is she scared to be a delegate when
the warlords are so against women's involvement? "I am afraid,"
she says. "I know these men. But I've survived 23 years of
war. I have been injured.
"My husband has been injured. Now
I am happy that I am here and that I can defend women's rights."
It is easy to be delighted by the energy
and determination of these women who are moving back into politics.
But in the weeks that follow, as the loya jirga progresses, the
idealistic women are sidelined. The power is still held by men
who control the guns and the money, former mujaheddin who gained
their influence through bloody fighting and terrorising civilians;
men such as Abdul Rashid Dostum, Ismail Khan and Burhanuddin Rabbani,
all of whom retain power over areas of Afghanistan and who pack
the loya jirga with their supporters. Although we in the west
see such men as useful allies, the women I spoke to have not forgotten
their crimes. Indeed, on the first day of the loya jirga, some
female delegates, among them Tajwah Kakur, confront Rabbani. "Why
did your armies kill and rape so many women?" Kakur asks.
"Why are there so many widows in our country?" He is
I spend an afternoon talking to Kakur at
her office in the women's ministry, set up last year by the interim
administration. Kakur, the deputy women's minister, sits still
as a monument behind her glass-topped desk, her silver hair piled
up under a grey voile scarf. She is unusual among the new women
in Afghan politics, because she was even tolerated by - and herself
accepted - the Taliban regime, and ran a boys' school in Kabul
during their rule. Even so, she says her dreams have now come
true: "I am so happy looking at women going back to work
and school. I think, is this a dream? Or is it real life?"
But for all her optimistic talk, Kakur
is angry about the current situation and the men who are moving
back into power. "All Afghan women know who I am talking
about. These men kidnapped and raped the women of Afghanistan.
Until the guns are taken away from them, women will not have security.
Yes, now we are told that these men are heroes. But who broke
all the buildings and kidnapped the women? They are not heroes.
They are zeroes."
But women in Afghanistan are not only struggling
against the men who rule them. Many are simply struggling to survive.
As we leave Kakur's office, we walk through a corridor where dozens
of women with their burkas pushed back from their faces are squatting
outside the offices. A female official shoos them away into a
courtyard. We follow them into the blinding glare of the midday
sun, and ask who they are and why they are here. As they speak,
I catch a glimpse of another Afghanistan, the one where so many
women, especially those whose husbands and brothers were killed
in the decades of fighting, now live.
One of these women, Khandijal, is five
months pregnant, although her bump hardly shows on her skeletal
frame, wrapped in its blue burka. Five months ago, a US bomb killed
her husband and injured her leg. "For four months I have
been coming here every day to beg for work," she says. "There
is no work for us." Khandijal has five daughters, all younger
than 12. "Every day I go back home and my children cry out,
'Where is the money, where is the food?' I have nothing for them.
My children are starving and nobody here will do anything for
"Life for me was better under the
Taliban," Hanifa, a tiny, skinny woman, says defiantly. Her
husband was killed three years ago, and she has seven children.
"The UN gave the widows in Kabul a card to take to a centre
to get food free. We got five naan bread a day. So our children
ate lunch and dinner. Now we have nothing. At first, when the
Americans came, I was happy. I thought, our lives will get better.
But there is nothing for us. The Americans never asked about us."
"Will you help us?" all the women
ask, one by one. "Will you help to find us work?" When
we explain that we don't work for the UN or an aid organisation,
they look puzzled. I go on asking questions, which they answer
eagerly, perhaps hoping that we will give them something in return.
We have all seen and read tales of such desperation a thousand
times, but looking at desperation is very different from having
desperation look back at you, hungrily.
If you listen to the talk of the amount
of money that has been promised to Afghanistan, it is easy to
feel complacent about the way the international community is stepping
in to reconstruct the country. Certainly, for many people life
has improved - despite what Hanifa says, for instance, the UN
World Food Programme tells me that it is now reaching about three
times as many destitute people as it could under the Taliban regime.
But although more aid is coming in now, far more has been promised
than is reaching the country, as donors hold back in case the
fragile peace collapses. And what has arrived - around $800m in
the first half of the year - is not enough to stop the immediate
suffering of millions of ordinary people. Afghan women are thought
to have the highest maternal mortality rates of women in any country,
at around 1,700 per 100,000; life expectancy is about 46 years,
and around 50% of children are stunted through malnutrition -
yet donor fatigue is already a real ! danger. Dr Lynn Amowitz
of Harvard Medical School, who is leading a new maternal mortality
survey in Afghanistan, said recently, "Afghanistan is falling
off people's radar screen and funding is becoming harder to find."
One of the women standing with the widows
is younger than they are, and her face still has the sleekness
of a girl who eats every day. Akala is only 19.
"I started school again last month,"
she says. "But every afternoon I come here and ask for work.
There are 10 of us brothers and sisters, and my father is too
old to work. For us, life is becoming worse day by day."
Has she seen anything get better? "Yes, of course, we are
free to go outside," she says quickly, "and now I can
go to school. But what can I say about my future? Unless I find
work, I will have to leave school. I can't pay for paper and pencils.
And I can't go to school if my brothers and sisters are starving."
As we drive away from the government buildings,
clouds of dust rise from the roads and even the men walking on
the streets pull scarves over their faces to protect their eyes
and mouths. This is the regular Kabul dust-storm that rises up
every afternoon. One returning Afghan told me that in his childhood,
before the wars, they never used to have this weather, these clouds
of dust blocking out the sunlight and surrounding the mountains
with what looks like drifting smoke. He was probably right, since
this drought started only a few years ago, but his statement sounded
metaphorical - as if the very earth had begun to choke on its
burden of misery.
The idea that Afghanistan was destroyed
by war was only an image to me until I actually saw Kabul, with
the rubble and ruins stretching for mile after mile into the bleak
mountains, like a film set designer's vision of a city after a
nuclear war. I had to keep reminding myself that Kabul was not
always a dystopian city - that once, in the 1970s and 1980s, it
was cosmopolitan, with women walking down the streets in miniskirts,
crowded jazz clubs and colourful parks. It's also important to
remember that Afghan women were not always victims. In the 80s,
40% of doctors and 50% of university students in Kabul were women
- and though such liberation did not extend throughout Afghanistan,
many urban, educated women lived lives of relative freedom.
But one thing that astounded me was that
even those women who have lived all their lives in the most traditional
sections of society can still speak a language of resistance.
One day, for instance, I visited Sarasia, a bleak little village
west of Kabul. Women here live close to the edge; even the village
well, after three years of drought, is no longer working, so the
women and children traipse across the fields to the neighbouring
village every day to collect water. In one of the stark white
houses, a literacy class is in progress. The women in this class
couldn't be further from the educated elite. Soraya, for instance,
is a widow of 50 and has been illiterate all her life. "If
you are illiterate, it is as if you are blind," she says.
Her eldest son doesn't want her to learn to read, but she has
finally won his permission because this class is run by women
for women in their own village.
In this village, all the women wear burkas;
they always have. None can leave the village without the permission
of the men in her family, and none of the women in the room has
had any formal education. And yet, somehow, they have kept alive
the idea of a different society. Aisha, a middle-aged woman whose
husband is too old to work, says, "Because we are uneducated,
we can't speak out and defend our rights. We don't want that for
our daughters. We want them to know how to speak up in front of
outsiders." Again and again, I ask if all the women they
know, even in the most traditional families, feel the same. They
almost get angry trying to convince me, and the hot little room
seems to get hotter as they all speak at once. "Of course
we want more freedom," says Soraya. "Even women who
are not allowed to come to this class want that. But our husbands
and brothers and fathers don't want it. The mullahs keep saying
freedom is not good for us."
The literacy course in Sarasia is funded
by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan.
This extraordinary organisation has been going since 1977 and
is a testament to the determined resilience of Afghan women. The
thousands of RAWA members have worked underground and in exile
for nearly 30 years - against the Soviet regime, the mujaheddin,
the Taliban - and they are now stronger than ever. But although
RAWA is beginning to operate more openly, most of its work is
still anonymous and underground. Oddly, despite the west's much-touted
support for a more liberal society, RAWA has never received support
from any government.
But RAWA's members are still agitating
for women's equality and a secular government, and they are also
passionately involved in rebuilding civil society. In contrast
to some of the rather chaotic government and non-governmental
projects, the couple of RAWA schemes I see, in Sarasia and Kabul,
are models of good organisation and sustainability. One day, I
visit one of their schools in Kabul, which operates in the family
home of a former radio broadcaster from Mazar-i-Sharif, who prefers
to remain anonymous.
On the street outside, it is the usual
Kabul scene: heaps of rubbish, a blinding glare, dust-filled air.
Then you push open a large blue door to a courtyard. Here, somebody
is growing herbs and vegetables, and two white-and-yellow butterflies
dip their wings over the thick green fronds of radish plants.
Under awnings on the sides of the courtyard, one group of women
is spelling out its Persian lesson and another is cutting bright
cloth, learning to make shirts.
One of the teachers here is Zahmina Nyamati.
She is 42, with a weather-beaten, sensible face. Twenty years
ago, Zahmina was like Zohal Faiz Mohammed, an optimistic science
graduate from Kabul University. She married a civil servant and
had five children. But after her husband died seven years ago,
she took her family to live in a refugee camp in Pakistan. She
became a servant for Pakistani families all day and sewed all
night, trying to earn enough money to keep her children in school.
As she speaks, the tears run down her face. She doesn't try to
wipe them away.
"I have good memories in my life,
from my childhood, and when I was first married. But then everything
was lost. I worked in houses where I was dirt, and I was allowed
as a great favour to collect the food they were going to throw
out to take to my children.
"When I got married, I thought at
least we will live in peace. At least we will have a simple house,
where we can say, 'It's my room'; at least when my children go
to school, they can say, 'These are my shoes, this is my pencil.'
But my children sit alone. They never play with other children.
When I come home, they say, 'What have you brought us?' And I
can't say anything. My life is over. But I want a better life
for them. This is why I work all day and all night. I must be
strong. I pray every day, 'God make me strong.' "
After her class is over, Zahmina takes
me to her home. This neighbourhood is what most of Kabul looks
like - a slum, where the sewers drain into the street, and the
street is just packed dust. She lives in one room with her four
children, one of whom is handicapped and lies on the floor, unable
to walk or crawl. There is no furniture except for one bed heaped
with scraps of clothes and blankets. After the Taliban fell, like
hundreds of thousands of others, Zahmina returned to Kabul with
the help of the UN refugee agency, which gives returning refugees
$10-$30 per person. Zahmina's family also received two plastic
sheets, two blankets and three bags of flour. First, they went
to live in Chehl Sutoon, a ruined area where there is no running
water, no roofs, no windows. Now they feel lucky to have found
one room with a roof. If it wasn't for RAWA, she might soon be
begging like the other women whose claw-like hands grab at you
on the streets.
As we talk about the past, she asks her
daughter, a fresh-faced girl of 12, to get out the photographs.
Alya pulls the box from under the bed. The few family snaps show
a big, happy family at birthday parties, sitting around with the
children on their parents' laps, a cake and watermelon and biscuits
on a table, balloons in children's hands. Alya and her brothers
handle the pictures reverently, dreaming over them.
I ask Zahmina if she has any hopes for
the future. She doesn't hesitate. "I hope, it is my only
wish, that the international organisations that have promised
to help Afghanistan will fulfil their promises, especially for
women. And I have heard our politicians talk about women's rights.
I hope Afghan women will achieve these. We have known such suffering
for these 23 years. We just want to give our children what they
need, so they can grow up to fulfil their dreams." I am struck
once again, struck with an almost physical shock, by the way in
which Afghan women are facing the future with such stony determination.
Alya listens to us talk. The little girl,
who has grown up in a refugee camp, then moved to a ruin and then
to a slum, is slender and bright-eyed in green shalwar kameez.
I ask what she thinks she will do in the future. "I will
be a doctor!" she says determinedly.
We just stumbled into it, one of us starting
it off to pass the time, then me chiming in with a harmony, then
the next one with hers. It sounded, well, not bad.
Could it enhance our take? Since we had,
as a group, taken in zip, it couldn't hurt. For the previous 48
hours, we had been standing on streets and sleeping on concrete
as part of a religious witness of clergy and lay people, doing
our days and nights as many homeless people do, trying to understand
from their perspective.
We tried our song on a guy down a ways
from us on Polk Street, himself spread on a blanket in front of
a Walgreen's. At first he was uncomfortable -- these three white
women singing to him. But as he listened, well, he seemed to like
it. His face brightened. Then he was all advice, like a lot of
people on the streets, trying to be helpful to others among them:
"You go down to Powell Street, by the cable car, and you'll
So there we were that next morning, the
three of us (after a better night's sleep on the loam of a churchyard,
rather than the previous night's cement near the Transbay Terminal),
singing for enough money to avoid the institutional fare of the
St. Anthony's free food line and rise to the heights of breakfast
at MacDonald's. The song and our harmonies were all fine enough.
Especially for a sleepy 8 a.m. Powell Street work crowd making
its way, for the most part, passing us by.
We were better at singing than soliciting
donations, however. "Spare change?" We couldn't get
behind the idea one colleague had suggested. She'd consulted the
Internet before participating in this Sunday through Wednesday
street retreat. There she learned the number one-grossing line
to give to would-be donors on the streets: "Help the homeless
today?" We weren't homeless. Not really. We were there as
witnesses, and as it turned out, fair-weather witnesses (it poured
Sunday morning, but the sun was out by the time our turns came).
We didn't feel quite right, even though,
as this one well-meaning colleague had pointed out, we wouldn't
actually be saying we were homeless. No. "Spare change?"
followed by "Have a good day," whether they gave us
anything or not, seemed in keeping with our personal and collective
missions: to get money for food; to learn through experience;
to impart good will to all.
This first try, however, we just set the
styrofoam cup out on a prayer shawl and left it passively awaiting
the clink of coins. We sang till we were hoarse. We sang the song
over and over as people poured out of the BART station. And we
sang especially clear and loud when we saw someone who seemed
to need a lift, whether a commuter in a suit or a street person
in tatters -- anyone whose body language suggested he was in pain,
she was in despair, lonely and unloved or just having a rough
morning, we couldn't know.
After half an hour we'd collected all of
two dollars, and those two dollars had come one dollar at a time.
With what other change we'd already parlayed earlier individually,
we barely had enough money for one egg Mcmuffin meal with one
Then there was the challenge of the coffee.
We could see our way to cutting the Mcmuffins into two-thirds
portions. But one cup of coffee? We had a tea bag. And how much
for a cup of hot water? Twenty-seven cents, in case you're saving
up. So we negotiated. Keep the one cup of coffee and just give
us three cups of hot water, OK?
These decisions of whether or not to give
three cups of hot water for one cup of coffee become major doings
in a world that gives authority to someone who is about an inch
away from being on the streets herself. Still, this woman behind
the counter traffics in such mercies all day every day, I figure.
She's not a counter person at McDonald's. She's a saint.
The lesson? It hardens a person to have
to ask for what she wants when she has nothing to give. If it
was true over only four days, imagine what stiffening oneself
for the potential rejection does to the spirit when you have to
do it day and night for what seems like will be, and sometimes
is, the rest of your life.
Weak peppermint tea was divine. It tasted
wonderful, and the thrill of having made it happen tasted even
better. Thankfully, one among us didn't care for the greasy potato
thingy (McDonald's version of hash browns) that I myself was unwilling
to relinquish. So we split that sliding slice of starch only two
ways. Judicially divided, the Mcmuffin pieces were exquisite,
an extraordinary culinary masterpiece. And we were satisfied.
The song we sang? It's by Libby Roderick.
The lyrics are these: How could anyone ever tell you,/ you are
anything less than beautiful?/ How could anyone ever tell you,/
you are anything less than whole?/ How could anyone fail to notice/
that your loving is a miracle?/ How deeply you're connected to
We decided we'd do this again, singing
this very song, maybe once a month during a commute time. Any
money we collect we'll donate. Any good vibe we can impart, we
will donate that, too. We truly felt good about singing as a ministry,
you might say.
On the face of things, it may have seemed
we were doing it for other people. The truth is, we were doing
it for ourselves, to bring our own hearts, our own spirits back
to the basics of living. There is nothing more basic than trying
to figure out where you're going to get your next meal or where
you can find your next toilet. And, oddly, nothing more intimate
than singing to strangers how they, and you, are worthy.
"What source can you believe in order
to create peace there?" a friend writes when I come back
from Palestine. I have no answer, only this story:
June 1, 2002: I am in Balata refugee camp
in occupied Palestine, where the Israeli Defense Forces have rounded
up four thousand men, leaving the camp to women and children.
The men have offered no resistance, no battle. The camp is deathly
quiet. All the shops are shuttered, all the windows closed. Women,
children and a few old men hide in their homes.
The quiet is shattered by sporadic bursts of gunfire, bangs and
explosions. All day we have been encountering soldiers who
all look like my brother or cousins or the sons I never had, so
young they are barely more than boys armed with big guns. We've
been standing with the terrified inhabitants as the soldiers search
their houses, walking patients who are afraid to be alone on the
streets to the U.N. Clinic. Earlier in the evening, eight of our
friends were arrested, and we know that we could be caught at
any moment. It is nearly dark, and Jessica and Melissa and I are
looking for a place to spend the night. Jessica, with her pale,
narrow face, dark eyes and curly hair, could be my sister or my
daughter. Melissa is a bit more punk, androgynous in her dyed-blond
We are hurrying through the streets, worried. We need to be indoors
before true dark, and curfew. "Go into any house," we've
been told. "Anyone will be glad to take you in." But
we feel a bit shy. From a narrow, metal staircase, Samar, a young
woman with a wide, beautiful smile beckons us up.
"Welcome, welcome!" We are given refuge in the three
small rooms that house her family: her mother, big bodied and
sad, her small nieces and nephews, her brother's wife Hanin, round-faced
and pale and six months pregnant.
We sit down on big, overstuffed couches. The women serve us tea.
I look around at the pine wood paneling that adds soft curves
and warmth to the concrete, at the porcelain birds and artificial
flowers that decorate a ledge. The ceilings are carefully painted
in simple geometric designs. They have poured love and care into
their home, and it feels like a sanctuary.
Outside we can hear sporadic shooting, the deep 'boom' of houses
being blown up by the soldiers. But here in these rooms, we are
safe, in the tentative sense that word can be used in this place.
"Inshallah', "God willing', follows every statement
of good here or every commitment to a plan.
"Yahoud!" the women say when we hear explosions. It
is the Arabic word for Jew, the word used for the soldiers of
the invading army. It is a word of warning and alarm: don't go
down that alley, out into that street. "Yahoud!" But
no one invades our refuge this night. We talk and laugh with the
women. I have a pocket-sized packet of Tarot cards, and we read
for what the next day will bring. Samar wants a reading, and then
Hanin. I don't much like what I see in their cards: death, betrayal,
sleepless nights of sorrow and regret. But I can't explain that
in Arabic anyway, so I focus on what I see that is good.
"Baby?" Hanin asks.
The card of the Sun comes up, with a small boy-child riding on
a white house. "Yes, I think it is a boy," I say.
She shows me the picture of her first baby, who died at a year
and a half. Around us young men are prowling with guns, houses
are exploding, lives are being shattered. And we are in an intimate
world of women. Hanin brushes my hair, ties it back in a band
to control its wildness. We try to talk about our lives. We can
write down our ages on paper. I am fifty, Hanin is twenty-three.
Jessica and Melissa are twenty-two: all of them older than most
of the soldiers. Samar is seventeen, the children are eight and
ten and the baby is four. I show them pictures of my family, my
garden, my step-grandaughter. I think they understand that my
husband has four daughters but I have none of my own, and that
I am his third wife. I'm not sure they understand that those wives
are sequential, not concurrent-but maybe they do. The women of
this camp are educated, sophisticated-many we have met throughout
the day are professionals, teachers, nurses, students when the
Occupation allows them to go to school.
"Are you Christian?" Hanin finally asks us at the end
of the night. Melissa, Jessica and I look at each other. All of
us are Jewish, and we're not sure what the reaction will be if
we admit it. Jessica speaks for us.
"Jewish," she says. The women don't understand the word.
We try several variations, but finally are forced to the blunt
and dreaded "Yahoud."
"Yahoud!" Hanin says. She gives a little surprised laugh,
looks at the other women. "Beautiful!"
And that is all. Her welcome to us is undiminished. She shows
me the shower, dresses me in her own flowered nightgown and robe,
and puts me to bed in the empty side of the double bed she shares
with her husband, who has been arrested by the Yahoud. Mats are
brought out for the others. Two of the children sleep with us.
Ahmed, the little four year old boy, snuggles next to me. He sleeps
fiercely, kicking and thrashing in his dreams, and each time an
explosion comes, hurls himself into my arms.
I can't sleep at all. How have I come here, at an age when I should
be home making plum jam and doll clothes for grandchildren, to
be cradling a little Palestinian boy whose sleep is already shattered
by gunshots and shells? I am thinking about the summer I spent
in Israel when I was fifteen, learning Hebrew, working on a kibbutz,
touring every memorial to the Holocaust and every site of a battle
in what we called the War of Independence. I am thinking of one
day when we were brought to the Israel/Lebanon border. The Israeli
side was green, the other side barren and brown.
"You see what we have made of this land," we were told.
"And that-that's what they've done in two thousand years.
I am old enough now to question the world of assumptions behind
that statement, to recognize one of the prime justifications the
colonizers have always used against the colonized. "They
weren't doing anything with the land: they weren't using it."
They are not, somehow, as deserving as we are, as fully human.
They are animals, they hate us.
All of that is shattered by the sound of Hanin's laugh, called
into question by a small boy squirming and twisting in his sleep.
I lie there in awe at the trust that has been given me, one of
the people of the enemy, put to bed to sleep with the children.
It seems to me, at that moment, that there are indeed powers greater
than the guns I can hear all around me: the power of Hanin's trust,
the power that creates sanctuary, the great surging compassionate
power that overcomes prejudice and hate.
One night later, we again go back to our
family just as dark is falling, together with Linda and Neta,
two other volunteers. We have narrowly escaped a party of soldiers,
but no sooner do we arrive than a troop comes to the door. At
least they have come to the door: we are grateful for that for
all day they have been breaking through people's walls, knocking
out the concrete with sledgehammers, bursting through into rooms
of terrified people to search, or worse, use the house as a thoroughfare,
a safe route that allows them to move through the camp without
venturing into the streets. We have been in houses turned into
surreal passageways, with directions spray painted on their walls,
where there is no sanctuary because all night long soldiers are
passing back and forth.
We come forward to meet these soldiers, to talk with them and
witness what they will do. One of the men, with owlish glasses,
knows Jessica and Melissa: they have had a long conversation with
him standing beside his tank. He is uncomfortable with his role.
Ahmed, the little boy, is terrified of the soldiers. He cries
and screams and points at them, and we try to comfort him, to
carry him away into another room. But he won't go. He is terrified,
but he can't bear to be out of their sight. He runs toward them
"Take off your helmet," Jessica tells the soldiers.
"Shake hands with him, show him you're a human being. Help
him to be not so afraid.
" The owlish soldier takes off his helmet, holds out his
hand. Ahmed's sobs subside. The soldiers file out to search the
upstairs. Samar and Ahmed follow them. Samar holds the little
boy up to the owlish soldier's face, tells him to give the soldier
a kiss. She doesn't want Ahmed to be afraid, to hate. The little
boy kisses the soldier, and the soldier kisses him back, and hands
him a small Palestinian flag.
This is the moment to end this story,
on a high note of hope, to let it be a story of how simple human
warmth, a child's kiss, can for a moment overcome oppression and
hate. But it is a characteristic of the relentless quality of
this occupation that the story doesn't end here. The soldiers
order us all into one room. They close the door, and begin to
search the house. We can hear banging and crashing and loud thuds
against the walls. I am trying to think of something to sing,
to do to distract us, to keep the spirits of the children up.
I cannot think of anything that makes sense. My voice won't work.
But Neta teaches us a silly children's song in Arabic. To me,
it sounds like:
"Babouli raizh, raizh, babouli jai, Babouli ham melo sucar
"The train comes, the train goes, the train is full of sugar
The children are delighted, and begin to sing. Hanin and I drum
on the tables. The soldiers are throwing things around in the
other room and the children are singing and Ahmed begins to dance.
We put him up on the table and he smiles and swings his hips and
makes us all laugh.
When the soldiers finally leave, we emerge
to examine the damage. Every single object has been pulled off
the walls, out of the closets, thrown in huge piles on the floor.
The couches have been overturned and their bottoms ripped off.
The wood paneling is full of holes knocked into every curve and
corner. Bags of grain have been emptied into the sink. Broken
glass and china covers the floor.
We begin to clean up. Melissa sweeps: Jessica tries to corral
the barefoot children until we can get the glass off the floor.
I help Hanin clear a path in the bedroom, folding the clothes
of her absent husband, hanging up her own things, finding the
secret sexy underwear the soldiers have obviously examined. By
the time it is done, I know every intimate object of her life.
We are a houseful of women: we know how to clean and restore order.
When the house is back together, Hanin and Samar and the sister
cook. The grandmother is having a high blood pressure attack:
we lay her down on the couch, I bring her a pillow. She rests.
I sit down, utterly exhausted, as Hanin and the women serve us
up a meal. A few china birds are back on the ledge. The artificial
flowers have reappeared. Some of the loose boards of the paneling
have been pushed back. Somehow once again the house feels like
"You are amazing," I tell Hanin. "I am completely
exhausted: you're six months pregnant, it's your house that has
just been trashed, and you're able to stand there cooking for
all of us." Hanin shrugs. "For us, this is normal,"
And this is where I would like to end this story, celebrating
the resilience of these women, full of faith in their power to
renew their lives again and again.
But the story doesn't end here.
The third night. Melissa and Jessica go
back to stay with our family. I am staying with another family
who has asked for support. The soldiers have searched their house
three times, and have promised that they will continue to come
back every night. We are sleeping in our clothes, boots ready.
We get a call.
The soldiers have come back to Hanin's house. Again, they lock
everyone in one room. Again, they search. This time, the soldier
who kissed the baby is not with them. They have some secret intelligence
report that tells them there is something to find, although they
have not found it. They rip the paneling off the walls. They knock
holes in the tiles and the concrete beneath. They smash and destroy,
and when they are done, they piss on the mess they have left.
Nothing has been found, but something is lost. The sanctuary is
destroyed, the house turned into a wrecking yard. No one kisses
these soldiers: no one sings.
When Hanin emerges and sees what they have done, she goes into
shock. She is resilient and strong, but this assault has gone
beyond 'normal', and she breaks. She is hyperventilating, her
pulse is racing and thready. She could lose the baby, or even
Jessica, who is trained as a Street Medic for actions, informs
the soldiers that Hanin needs immediate medical care. The soldiers
are reluctant, "We'll be done soon," they say. But one
is a paramedic, and Melissa and Jessica are able to make him see
the seriousness of the situation. They allow the two of them to
violate curfew, to run through the dark streets to the clinic,
come back with two nurses who somehow get Hanin and the family
into an ambulance and taken to the hospital.
This story could be worse. Because Jessica
and Melissa were there, Hanin and the baby survive. That is, after
all, why we've come: to make things not quite as bad as they would
But there is no happy ending to this story, no cheerful resolution.
When the soldiers pull out, I go back to say goodbye to Hanin,
who has come back from the hospital. She is looking dull, depressed:
something is broken. I don't know if it can be repaired, if she
will ever be the same. Her resilience is gone; her eyes have lost
their light. She writes her name and phone number for me, writes
"Hnin love you." I don't know how the story will ultimately
end for her. I still see in the cards destruction, sleepless nights
of anguish, death.
This is not a story of some grand atrocity.
It is a story about 'normal', about what it's like to under an
everyday, relentless assault on any sense of safety or sanctuary.
"What was that song about the train?"
I ask Neta after the soldiers are gone.
"Didn't you hear?" she asks me. "The soldiers came
and got the old woman, at one o'clock in the morning, and made
her sing the song. I don't think I'll ever be able to sing it
"What source can you believe in order
to create peace there?" a friend writes. I have no answer.
Every song is tainted; every story goes on too long and turns
nasty. A boy whose baby dreams are disturbed by gunfire kisses
a soldier. A soldier kisses a boy, and then destroys his home.
Or maybe he simply stands by as others do the destruction, in
silence, that same silence too many of us have kept for too long.
And if there are forces that can nurture peace they must first
create an uproar, a vast breaking of silence, a refusal to stand
by as the boot stomps down.
November, I dropped into a depression that just wouldnt
quit. Certainly, some of it was caused by the death of my mother
and the deaths of two old friends.
But there was something else too, and I
couldn't get a handle on it. Then Lynn Woolsey, my friend of over
3 decades who is now a Member of Congress, called inviting me
to join her on the Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage
sponsored by the Faith and Politics Institute. The plan was that
I would join her on Feb. 28th, flying to Washington, DC, would
do whatever I chose to do the next couple of days, then we would
go to Alabama on March 2nd for the pilgrimage. Sounded good.
The time spent watching Lynn and her staff
conduct our business in Congress, working for so many things which
are dear to my heart, was wonderful. But the telling about that
will have to wait. We boarded a chartered plane in DC with about
20 members of Congress and some 70 others, landing in Birmingham
Friday afternoon. The next two and a half days were filled with
visits to historic places in the Civil Rights Movement, such as
16th Avenue Baptist Church, watching portions of "Eyes on
the Prize", the documentary of the Movement, as we moved
from place to place in buses. We sang familiar Movement songs
led by people who had been in the midst of the fray. We spent
much time in museums devoted to telling the story - the Civil
Rights Museum, the Rosa Parks Museum, the Voting Rights Museum.
Here were the stories and pictures of people who suffered so much,
even death, for the cause of justice, freedom and dignity for
all. Here was the reminder of that deep faith in God which sustained
them and which so undergirded the entire Movement.
In Montgomery an amazing exhibit allowed
us to look into Martin Luther King Jr.'s kitchen as he sat at
the table praying about the call to become a leader of the bus
boycott. I had forgotten he was only 26 at the time.
Our leader was John Lewis, a Congressman
from Alabama. He had been on of the first Freedom Riders, enduring
beatings from hostile mobs, and remained a Movement leader for
a decade. He and Hosea Willliams were in front of the march on
Bloody Sunday, when the tried to cross the Pettus Bridge leading
out of Selma and were set upon so brutally by the police. He suffered
a fractured skull and 3 days later was airlifted to Mass. General.
It's a miracle he lived but that he is in Congress is not a miracle.
It is a monument to his own courage and that of all of those whose
names we do not know but without whom that Movement would never
have gotten started much less prevailed. No march consists only
of leaders. There is no march without marchers.
The Civil Rights Memorial, like the Vietnam
War Memorial, is a product of the creative genius of Maya Lin,
who deems the memorial not a monument of suffering but a memorial
to hope. There, I put my hand into the waters that were constantly
caressing the names of 39 women and men who gave their lives,
famous and non-famous martyrs to the cause of Gods righteousness:
Lamar Smith, Medgar Evers, Louis Allen, Denise McNair (childhood
friend of Angela Davis). The 39th name is that of a man assassinated
in his 39th year: Martin Luther King, Jr.
I thought of my own small involvement in
that epic Movement, of the "soul force" that had suffused
it, and knew how much I yearn to tap into that again. Perhaps
that is greedy. Indeed, I do feel very grateful to have been the
age I was in the place I was with the people I was with during
those years.My life was totally changed. I came home energized,
revived in some deep place and know that "soul force"
is still very much among and within us.
The Sunday after I returned, was the day Presbyterians set aside
to "Celebrate the Gifts of Women" in specific ways and
I had been invited to preach in the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown.
The following was the closing for the sermon:
cure for depression is faithful, prayerful, informed action
for Life in solidarity with others. For as long as you live.
In the Selma Voting Rights Museum there is
a room devoted to women who fought for the right to vote. Susan
B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton died before the effort to
which they had given so much of their lives was won. Viola Liuzzo,
a homemaker who had come to help out on the march to Selma, was
gunned down as she drove to pick up some marchers at the bus station.
And there were so many others, in Birmingham we remembered Diane
Nash - RAISE YOUR HAND IF YOU KNOW WHO SHE IS OR WHAT SHE DID. Diane
Nash, barely in her 20's was the coordinator for the Freedom Rides
which did so much to break down the Jim Crow segregation laws. In
Montgomery, we visited the Rosa Parks Museum where I bought a T-shirt
saying: "Quiet Strength". Rosa Parks was a 42 year old
woman riding the bus home after a hard day at work when she uttered
the "no" heard round the world. All this reminded me of
visiting Chile in 1980, at the invitation of the Union of Women,
to be in solidarity with those celebrating International Women's
Day in defiance of Pinochet's ban on public Political gatherings.
I met women who had endured unspeakable tortures, whose loved ones
had been made to disappear, who had been imprisoned, yet they were
out there again denouncing tyranny. What is most noteworthy about
all these women is that there is nothing particularly noteworthy
about them. They were just ordinary women - like us - who discovered
extraordinary courage and gifts when the times demanded it.
The times demand it now. It doesn't seem
likely that we will be called upon to suffer, as these women did.
But the times demand that we pour our life's energy, our soul
force, into the struggles to end racism, poverty, violence, the
awful destruction of God's beautiful Creation, the growing gap
between those who have more than anyone could every really use
and those who have nothing, the neglect of our children and our
elders. THE TIMES DEMAND that ordinary women discover the extraordinary
courage and gifts God gives to us each and all. And that we call
forth these gifts from each other and from the men we know. TAKE
BACK YOUR POWER, SISTERS. FIND YOUR POLITICAL VOICE. Who better
to speak up for life than those who birth it into being.
The cure for depression is faithful, prayerful,
informed action for Life in solidarity with others. For as long
as you live.
This was filmed four days before the 1906 earthquake. You'll
appreciate the research that it took to date this film so be sure
to read the material that follows.
The film is from a streetcar traveling down Market Street in
San Francisco, four days before the big earthquake/fire that destroyed
the area. You can clearly see the clock tower of the Ferry Building
at the end of the street at the Embarcadero wharf that is still
there. The quality & detail is great, so be sure to view it
The film, was originally thought to be from 1905 until David
Kiehn with the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum figured out exactly
when it was shot. From New York trade papers announcing the film
showing to the wet streets from recent heavy rainfall & shadows
indicating time of year & actual weather and conditions on
historical record, even when the cars were registered (he even
knows who owned them and when the plates were issued!).
It was filmed only four days before the quake and shipped by
train to NY for processing. Amazing but true!
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