The Sound of Helicopters

When I hear helicopters overhead, wherever I am, I twitch, pause, look up and say a prayer for all the victims of war.

It takes me back to divided Ivory Coast. I wasn’t there for the worst part of the civil war, which remains frozen, but repeated unexplained gunfire in the middle of the night in your neighborhood can be stressful, even if you push it away, or try to feed off the adrenalin of danger.

Waving to French troops atop tanks as a relief to safety can be a strange feeling if you are living in Africa. French troops also took down Ivorian military helicopters, which used to bring fear every time they hovered above.

I experienced war only lightly, and can’t even imagine how it is from the inside.

From the outside, having friendly amusing looks turn into hateful stares from one day to the next spurned on by state propaganda can bring uneasiness. Watching the propaganda is an exercise in incredulity, and the realization that art, even if it is propaganda, requires no level of technicality whatsoever, only brute messagery and using whatever is available to the fullest effect.

Sometimes the rawness makes it even more effective.

Poor farmers appeared on television one after the other saying they were donating the equivalent of a few dollars, some atieke, the local subsistence food, or even their pants to the cause.

Having many of your friends leave from one day to the next can be abrupt and can take a while to recover from. For those who remain, some friendships strengthen but others don’t survive the shock of war.

Seeing dead bodies in courtyards, hearing stories of people who say they were tortured, seeing the gashes in their backs, and their sullen eyes, running away, and hearing bullets, and then seeing someone crumple to the ground down the street can put the fragility of life in perspective.

Whatever the reasons or the intensity of war, it heightens insecurity. Less food and health, homes abandoned, families disjointed, many more people dying than usual, jobs lost, government services downgraded to nothing, vigilante groups patrolling remote areas or dark hours, roadblocks multiplied with gun-toting, drugged up, drunk downed youths, ethnic tensions exacerbated.

I work with a journalist whose former mentor was probably stuffed dead in a cocoa bag after he tried to trace illicit money from the cocoa trade.

The journalist reported about young patriots getting slush cocoa money to burn down United Nations installations, prompting him to be called into a meeting with security cameras, and then after he left, escaping a drive-by shooting attempt in the middle of the night, while he was off looking to lose some edge in the maquis that play the coupe decale music, cut and chase.

Going out west together, we passed towns where the rebels had cut off postal service, phone lines, cell phone service, shut down schools and all offices, basically all communication with the outside world. Some rebel leaders watched pirated Chuck Norris movies brought from Liberia, but only a privileged few could sit in.

To ride around as journalists, you had to get authorization from rival rebel groups, prompting much confusion and high-tailing out of there, on more than one occasion.

In the so-called no confidence zone between the rebels and the army, the French had a base in an old wood factory, with a carefully tended garden full of flowers. They held a July fourteenth ceremony with a little march, pinning several medals on several chests of foreign legion soldiers, who spoke of their passion for singing, while local Ivorian dignitaries looked on. That was surreal.

We passed the journalist’s home town and stopped in a street below his house. He looked up and said, no, I can’t go in there, I heard a rebel leader has been occupying my old home. He slouched down in the car, not wanting his relatives to see him, and ask him for money.

On the way home, the rebels were nicer at roadblocks, asking us to wait, so we would drive some elderly civilians to the next town. At least, we were of service. Anarchy can work both ways, but if there were a way to bring justice without war and violence, I would say think about that path and try to make it happen that way.

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