Sunday, August 2, 2009

My Week In Pursuit

Colombo is a city where information circulates by way of clandestine candle-lit dinners. Stories of corruption, abductions and arbitrary shootings are prefaced with a distancing "I've heard" or "They say" to avoid liability, not for false statements but dangerously accurate ones. There is no tangible truth here.

"Surekha, it's gone. I promise," he says in an effort to comfort me.

The branches invading our airspace ruffle and I see a bat briefly eclipse the moon. We're on a dirt driveway, standing around what looks like a boat with wheels. No doors, no windshield, no mirrors and a vacant space for a backseat that one has to share with a tool box. We're preparing for a joyride.

"Dude, there is no way I'm stepping into that vehicle till you catch that cockroach."

I lied. Ten minutes later we're roaming the empty Tuesday night roads of Colombo. The engine spits out sounds disapprovingly every time the gear changes. As we pick up speed he involuntarily groans, then belatedly tries to muffle it. He's in the seatless backseat with his legs braced and his arms clinging on to the metal frame of the car. I'm in the front seat, with my legs stretched out over where the left mirror should be, utterly at ease.

Now I'm stretched out in the back of a van listening to Elliott Smith on my iPod. Parked for the past hour in an obscure village slightly inland from the southern coast, waiting for the male reporters to return from interviewing a Sheik who does not tolerate the presence of women. For a while I entertain myself by watching a goat troll a cluster of roof tops in a shanty town, but now I'm growing restless with my exclusion from the action. The raw heat from the afternoon sun isn't exactly helping me keep a cool head. Elliott, of course, never fails.

I haven't eaten since dinner with him the night before, but after walking around that mangled Mosque I'm not hungry. The senior reporters briefed me on the assignment during our hour long trip from Colombo. Muslim sectarian violence in Sri Lanka manifested itself on Friday night in the form of arson and murder in a small village near a booming tourist town. We originally planned to attend the court proceedings - woah, I'm going to photograph killers! - but police postponed the case. Our van re-routed to the scene of the crime.

From Black Sand Journal

I never expected to be granted entry to the Mosque, especially in a t-shirt and without my head covered, but in the eyes of these Muslim men the testimony of my camera trumped my gender. I received a guided tour in English from a man with an entourage that carried 9mm pistols in their sarongs. With a crowd circling he showed me the atrium of the Mosque, every inch of it covered in shards of glass and charred furniture. I snapped away at soot-coated walls covered in fingered-graffiti along the lines of "Prepare 4 Jihad."

Then we walked to the area for ablutions, where the massacre took place. The noxious stench foreshadowed the actual scene. A large room of wall-to-wall white tiles stained with dried pools of blood and splatter. Discarded makeshift murder weapons - rakes, concrete slabs - littered the floor. The hacked wooden doors that lined the back of the room looked like something out of The Shining. Flies swarmed the scene, buzzing between the patches of gore, sometimes landing on my arms or feet in transit. Thank God I didn't have breakfast.

My guide wanted me to photograph a thick layer of blackened blood with a victim's name scribbled in Tamil on a piece of paper lying next to it . There is no way my editor is going to publish photos of this slaughter house. I ended up taking over a hundred shots to appease my guide; I figured my cooperation would earn his. He explained that his sect of Islam is more orthodox than that of the mob that attacked his Mosque. Tensions had been brewing since his Mosque was first built in 2002, primarily due to its proximity to the rival sect's Mosque. A Friday midday sermon that called members of the rival sect "unislamic" ignited hostilities. The attack occurred shortly after midnight prayer the same day, and lasted about an hour. Two men slayed, nine injured, every window shattered, the Mosque and adjacent library and medical clinic all incinerated. The sound of crashing glass echoed through the Mosque even as I took pictures four days after the incident. Clean-up operations had just begun when we arrived perhaps a few hours too early.

From Black Sand Journal

Back at the back of the van, I'm absorbing. It is only a matter of time till the villains and victims switch roles. I'm dreading editing those photos. The smell won't vacate my nostrils. I contemplate going vegetarian, because currently I cannot fathom eating anything that bleeds. The war is over, but Sri Lanka is by no means cured of conflict. Muslim sectarian violence isn't a mere glitch - it is a symptom of what allowed a civil war to rage for a quarter century. The substance of divisions - Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, Christian, etc. - is insignificant compared to the fact the divisions simply exist. In the absence of ethnicity or religion, I'm sure people would divide themselves as fiercely based on shoe size or favorite flavor of ice cream.

Edited the photos (before breakfast), wrote the article, visited Stefhan, ate sandwiches (yum!) and discussed this short anime (it is 5 minutes long - watch it!).

It walks the line of women-who-live-with-cats cliché, but I love what this film says about being single. I've never said "I hate being single." When a romance ends I am undeniably unsettled, not out of hostility towards the idea of being single, but because I miss that person in particular for a considerable length of time (oh, say a summer?).

But I enjoy my solitary morning routine. I enjoy my melangé à trois cereal experience while I read the news online. I enjoy yelling at messages in my inbox, then determinedly storming out on my computer. I enjoy the smell of CK One and FA Caribbean Lemon deodorant and St. Ives aloe vera cream. I enjoy only putting on my shirt 30 seconds before I walk out the door. I enjoy that last look in the mirror. And I do all that for myself. I do not need a lover to appreciate all those things for me to still enjoy them. I am the proud owner of an inner cat.

If the stakes are high I let my sense of duty guide me - even if it ends up leading me in the opposite direction of happiness. Applicable to journalism, applicable to my personal life. Maybe it was unfair of me to expect the you to take the same risk.

Hm, then again, maybe it wasn't at all.


Mike said...

Loved the part where people cover up accurate statements with appropriation. I also love that you're writing again.

And no, it wasn't at all.

Nicole Callihan said...

Wow. With a Monday through Friday like that I can hardly imagine what the weekend will hold.

Roshana Vander Wall said...

I don't know what to say really. It is quite beautiful. The blood, the inner cat, the sense of duty in opposition to joy. But the clandestine candle light dinners grow to spread the word like wildfire.