GUNS AND DEATH, AND DYING, AND MONEY SHOTS
The money shot, the big moment, usually involves guns, pow-wow, blood in the streets, hunger, refugees, a dramatic rescue or escape. That is the unfortunate reality.
It’s a get, a wrap, a sell, a job well done, a return from the gates of hell, but it’s also testifying and untestifying to our humanity, and the edges of the precipice we all live on but sometimes ignore.
So Kari, who was shooting tv and to which I owe so much for so many African multi-media trips, and me had huge problems with the fixer, driver, translator, cash related of course, unclear in the details of CFA, the west African ones or the Central African ones, dollars, big heads, small heads, what was the current exchange rate with the Lebanese woman at the bakery in Bangui? where soldiers stop more than fully armed to get their baguettes and croissants? but we absolutely needed him, because he knew of these militias in a small town where the mayor had been killed, every woman, man and child from there seemed to have been kidnapped by road bandits, the much daunted and talked about Zaraguinas, the “coupeurs de routes”, cutters of roads. There had just been a clash with three dead, according to their accounts.
It started raining heavily during the late night, early morning hours, making me stress yet again, that like the planned washed out mission with Eufor, the soldiers in their duck outfits, me cradling to save my equipment, my teeth clattering, Kari hovering over the ever more precious camera, clattering even more, note to self, trips during the rainy season add several layers of unpredictability and fun of course, but when we woke up, it seemed the worst of the rain had passed, and the fixer arrived only 30 minutes late.
To leave Bossangoa, the military man seemed fine, waved us off after a few minutes of talking with the fixer, but somewhat inexplicably, a few meters away, a young man, still in his teens, not even dressed like anything close to military, not a single piece of military outfit on him, would not lift the second barrier. Were there road bandits? Was the mud bad? Did he not like our fixer? I sat very passively, as if everything was just a blur, and I was half-dead, and maybe I was. Kari said nothing. Those meditators have something going in them and for them, I thought.
Finally, the barrier lifted.
The road was dirt but hard and fast. The water had seemed to slide right off. The fixer/driver/translator/ enabler explained it was nice because this was the road from the capital to the president’s village, which happened to be Bossangoa, and that the president sometimes drove alone, with a gun at his side.
The road seemed tranquil, but then we stopped and there it was, a gleaming new barrier up ahead, red and white, and walking proudly around us, there they were, the auto-defense group with their resold donated clothes, gris-gris and artisanal guns, and stories of being kidnapped, and having better potions now, and having just defeated the Zaraguinas, killing them, chasing them away, and that the military had been of no help, drunk and stealing their chickens, but them being ready for the next battle, with even better potions, against the foreigners, from across the border in Chad and Sudan, Arabic speaking former fighters who needed food, unpaid mercenaries who had once fought for the president, living in the jungle in between borders, in between rebel, army and no man’s land, now meeting their match with Central African hunters, one of whom for good measure popped a shot in the air, just as we had stepped out of the car, before the carnival of guns, and stories, and bravado, and fear, and accusations against the world, this little village, being rocked from any semblance of security, the women just turning their stews around, not saying anything.
After a while of hearing their stories, filming and taking pictures from all angles of their not so impressive artillery really, but them posing, acting as they thought they should, walking along the road to where the zaraguinas had set camp, pushed a log across the road, made a fire and back to the village, good exercise with the militiamen, and then hearing from the village chief, and the student, who had left his books behind in the capital, the men starting to put their guns away, and have cigarettes, or watch the women prepare food, we decided it was time to go.
With people with guns, whatever side they are on, however good they say they are, I have found it is not good to make them think too long. It’s a matter of judgment, sometimes just a minute will be too long, or even a flash of the eyes, it depends how angry they are, how quick reflexed they seem to be mostly in the mind, sometimes it flickers and alters from one extreme to the other, inversely the slowness of thought process can allow for up to an hour, but it’s usually time to go, and as we were saying our goodbyes, another militiaman, maybe the same as the first, shot in the air in good measure, cutting short the goodbyes, us back to the hard dirt road, Bossangoa, our big town, everything always relative.
Which made me think of my first trip to a surf spot in Ivory Coast, getting away from the capital, even though the war was still going on strong, and the artisinal barricades all along, in areas where war had never been but for good measure when there is war, you must protect kilometers and kilometers around, there were rumors in Abidjan of taxi drivers shot and killed when they refused to stop at military roadblocks, so you always had to stop or pretend you were stopping and glide through if you could, but here, I thought the guns looked flimsy, I had no idea, I was not driving, and I was egging the driver on who was scared to keep going, through and through, the militiamen banging on the car, waving their fists in the air, some of them wearing camouflage on their heads.
My first surf trip I got some help from a young kid who would become my first and very few enemies in Africa, since I paid him a little lentil meal for the first time he helped me find a surf spot, and I would one day give him a used surfboard I should have never bought, which he would break, he always thinking I owed him something, when I didn’t give him anything, screaming on palm wine, or high on Ghanaian weed, saying he would rip apart my car, standing in front of me defiantly kicking sand, cursing in my face, and unsettling me at times, especially when Ivory Coast turned sour, and it was chase down the white man week, but here in the beach village, the militias were confused, because they said the white people were their cocoa, their livelihood, but they were militiamen at heart, defending the president as well, thinking of looting the beach houses which would anyway soon be washed away by rising tides.
I learned on my last trip back, he had died of AIDS. Not even out of his teens.
Which brings me back to Bossangoa, where we followed around an HIV/AIDS activist who’d been sick for twenty years he said, and helped women, many of them rape victims from the previous civil war, grow vegetables, and did the rounds in the afternoons, and on this afternoon, went inside a hut, where a small man, very well mannered, said in a very sad voice, Lucie is very sick, and in the dark, dampness of a room where you could not see anything but utter desolation, with an even smaller voice, and a body so frail, lay Lucie, who said she was not doing very well, the dad said she had been getting better, but then had gotten pregnant with twins who had both died at birth, what could you say. How could your heart not be broken? asked the AIDS activist.