Reporting violence

One night in Florida

There is no power in this motel, nor in this street or in this neighborhood, nor in any place in this town that does not have the luxury of a generator. Once you close the door, the bedroom turns into a circus of shadows. Each one is alone with the consuming darkness.

Our little Florida though, a brothel in the area most hit during the war has a generator – but the machine has not worked for months now. It’s been broken since the rebels attacked the capital.

People took everything that could be stolen and the inventory was  sold across town. Everything else that could not be removed was vandalized – including dignity.

Nights in Monrovia are sticky and heavy. We have with us a few matches and some candles, but we keep them for later - keep them for when the rats and the cockroaches dare to crawl over us. Wolf Böwig, the photojournalist with whom I’ve been on assignment in Africa, start to formulate the day’s work in our minds.

We don’t need to talk – it’s better we don’t. After we’re done with the «bucket» shower, we perform, so to speak, our most intimate ablutions: we pick from our memory everything that can be harmful to it. We dissect our thoughts the same way we try to give sense to the world around us.

The thorns of the day: the room with the dying «old folks» in the Samuel K. Doe Stadium, an arena where those who survived the fighting don’t survive starvation; a teenage girl from the Plumkor refugee camp, forced to join the fighters the day one of them came to her and said «I want to fuck the girl»; a friend of hers that, just a few months  earlier, was known to cut penises from the soldiers she could kill, during the assault on the New Bridge – and who has a baby on her lap, «His daddy was killed by a rocket»; a young man that saw his uncle being literally cut alive by a chainsaw, bottom up, before the unfortunate’s halves were cooked «and eaten with rice» by the soldiers; a woman sitting under a jacaranda, the tree drops flowers with the same gentleness that she drops tears, telling about a village upcountry, the women there were raped and then cut with the help of a fish with fins like blades…

It’s good we managed to spit out these thorns so they don’t stick to our dreams while we sleep. And so that we can handle some more in the days to come. I share with Wolf this sharp sense of what brought us to this chaos: we look for flowers where the forest was burned down. We always looked for the scent, not the blood.

«Blood is a drug», a woman told me once in Guinea-Bissau. She was telling me about the men’s wars. I agree with her. Blood is an addiction. Some reporters got addicted to that drug. The journalism they practice is soaked in vanity and comes to be, in the end, a kind of trafficing.

Some time ago a Spanish reporter told me his rage when he was refused an assignment in the USA for the simple justification of: «It’s not a place for you. Your metaphors need blood».

To find some scent of life in the ashes or in the desert involves some degree of mystification, even from a honest kind. It’s something at the same level of the people that throw ashes over the table to read the future.

We also know that these thorns hurt our eyes, our ears, our fingers. We must be careful not to be cut and avoid injuries widen into infections.

Wolf and I, we know people like this: reporters, humanitarian workers, warriors and other professionals of disaster. Quite often they fall into the abyss after working so close to it’s edge. The bleeding works like this: we abuse our own steps, we fall off the map, we loose our hands, our soul, so rotten or so hardened, leaves us while we are still alive.

In the dark, I think: I dread to step on an anti-personal land-mine or to be shot at. But even more dreadful is the thought of falling into the abyss, of not feeling the thorns anymore, of waking up one day and looking into a mirror of blood and recognizing my own portrait as if painted in fresh water.

It’s as dreadful a thought the idea of looking at the tragedy of someone else’s and taking it as our own landscape, where we walk the privilege of going in and out of Hell. The point is: Hell is punishment, not impunity. You don’t always come back from Hell untouched.

In the darkness of this Florida i think that «The Divine Comedy» was, to a certain point, the first comprehensive piece of reportage - fictitious, we know – about the ruin of humanity.

Suddenly, from outside our night, from a window in the house next door, we hear a scream, or an insult. It’s a woman. She weeps, she speaks fast, we think she’s kneeling, or that she is bending over, or  protecting herself from something.
There is a man that beats her hard with a belt or a whip, that’s the thin noise that cuts our night and leaves us frozen in this violence so absurd and so brutal. The beating goes on. I go to the window and shout: «Stop it, will you?! Stop it!»

«What a world…» Wolf, sitting in his bed, lights a cigarette and smokes it with the gestures of a robot. The nervous candle light glows in his empty eyes. I know that he, the photographer, is trying right now to get rid of the sharp images of the event we just witnessed – even without actually seeing it.

«What a world…»

This is a world that doesn’t fit our understanding, a world cruel as it is vulgar. This is also because we don’t listen to this world anymore. Also because the words such a world speaks to us belong to a strange or foreign dictionary, to a grammar of alienation that we refuse to accommodate, but that we have to at least accept it exists.

«Our time is, scary enough, one of genocide», writes Susan Sontag in the foreword to a book by the French reporter Jean Hatzfeld, «Une Saison de Machettes» («A Season of Machetes»).

It’s not the technology – the gas chambers or the machetes – that defines genocide. Genocide is defined by the belief that some men are superior to other men regarding their own right to exist. Genocide is the ability to dispose of the Other and the legitimacy to exterminate. Ultimately, genocide is the fabrication of silence around the denial of someone’s human condition. It’s an assault on that which is most intimately human, more the human flesh than the flesh itself: words and language.

Absolute silence, the interruption of words, equals the notion of genocide as a conspiracy against memory, by means of inflicting the utmost violence, the one that aims to erase in each person the narratives that build his and her human condition.

Hence, the strong sense of urgency in reporting and in looking beyond what is given for us to see - or, in a way, to push the limits of what can be told.

As a reporter, I learned that the ultimate level of violence is this onslaught on «humanity» (in the sense given to the word by the ancient philosophers). Horror is measured not only or mainly by physical assault and that’s the reason why genocides flow all the victims into one single individual: the last one. But it’s the last man that survives and endures the most pain. Death acts upon this last one while all the others look on death making its sculpture.

First in Rwanda, then in Afghanistan, but above all in Angola I was challenged by the human and professional difficulty to articulate collective trauma. This is the kind of trauma that condemns each individual in insularity. That’s what it is: an archipelago of many men and women isolated in a moment, somewhere, quite far but always present, where the fracture happened and fear got a hold.

Nothing prepares us to write in this void, about the void, because the multiplication of fractures attains a nightmarish scale and eludes any conventional approach. It’s shocking how the intimacy of violence goes unnoticed by journalists, humanitarians or politicians in countries, say, like Angola. And all these people build their own understanding about the nature of hate and the strategies of reconstruction.

The first reason for this is that we mostly live in denial of the fact that in some places trauma is not a disruption of a linearity but something that occupies all of the inhabitable world. Places where trauma monopolizes reality. In countries like Angola, the only linearity possible is a chaotic and random accumulation of fractures. In such a context, one individual can live in deep trauma (social, cultural, emotional) not because it happened to him but because he and she was already born into it. In this case, such a person has a place equal to his and her role as a part of a monstrous machine.

In June 2003, in the swamps of South western Sierra Leone Wolf and I looked for a boy that had survived the slaughter of his entire village – 1200 victims were killed in one single day in Bendu Malen, Pujehun district, back in 1997. The RUF rebels only spared the life of Morie, who was five at the time of the massacre.

«They showed me the corpses and appointed me the chief of the village and threatened to kill me too if I ever was to cross their paths.»
Morie’s mother had put her little prince to sleep just before the attack on Bendu Malen. In the middle of the killing, the shootings woke Morie to the nightmare of life. «When the rebels found me inside the house, they took me by the hand and walked me around the village until I could find my father». Eventually they found him in the middle of the apocalypse, still recognizable, «his belly open and his throat cut open».

We were taken to Morie with the help of Father Garrick, from Pujehun Catholic Mission. I have a restless memory of the conversation with young Morie. I remember that I was somehow speechless. I even told the priest that I didn’t have strength enough to face a child with such a story. I remember Morie speechless too. We muttered a brief dialogue between us. Before meeting Morie, I knew there was a limit to my own capacity to produce narratives from someone else’s life and experience. Quite often, I felt this limit to be getting near. This time, though, it was apparent that the limit was there. It was standing right before me, melding an invisible sphere with his nervous fingers. I bent to the same conclusion spoken by Colonel Kurtz in «Heart of Darkness»: «The Horror, the Horror».
Our map and Morie’s don’t belong on the same page of the atlas. But we know at least that Morie lives somewhere in another page of the book. It’s important to realize that different maps, stories, different lives communicate through hidden ways, unpredictable. Sometimes in a tragic way. It’s the same narrative mechanism from the anti-personal land-mines, a weapon so mean and so efficient that it can relate two different lifelines in one single moment, the moment when one line intercepts the other to terminate it.

Such a weapon implies a willing action aimed to kill without seeing the killing. Death acts like a mole: the will to kill survives the decision to kill. War doesn’t cope with faces too well, maybe because a face is by definition the opposite of distance.

A face is a platform of intimacy. Hence we have to insist on putting faces where they don’t exist, even if the face itself was erased by means of chemical warfare, horrible from outside but intact on the inside, like a man I once met in the Angolan Highlands, in Bonga, a clearing in the forest that was the site for a «camp» filled with war–related handicapped people.

In Bendu Malen, human bones are brought to light by the hoe. People throw this human remains in two different mass graves in opposite sides of the village. In one of these dumps, skulls stick out of the rubble, green-velveted by the rain. These skulls have no name until someone, and then someone else, and yet another someone, gets closer and brings back the memory of the fallen. «Tiange Lahai»; «Kefa Morana, Jussu Morana, Suleyman Morana, Mariama Morana»; «Massa Cissé»; «Momo Bendu»; «write down: Hawa Siaka, Lucy Lansana, Mariama Soaré»; «Uata Bockarye»; «Baby Cenci»; «Kadi Cenessi»... These names, spoken in the fetid air of the clearing, against oblivion and against shame, seem to win over the silent skulls. Maybe this is the reason why me and Wolf should be there in Bendu Malen, in the slaughterhouse. «Mamen Soko»; «Lahai Yorgboh»; «Braima Caulker», «Sina Mahe», «Gassumu Kandó», «Morie Massalé», «Foday Cassó, Braima Lamine, Lamine Conowy», «Massah Kokima», «Mamie Kone»...

I’m not sure I gave something back to Morie. I believe that we must spell the names of the dead, for the sake of those who lost them. That’s what grief amounts to. For us, it’s important to recall the names that are still alive. If needed, by stealing them. Those are the voices I bring with me. I don’t hear them but they are in me like they are in Wolf’s photographs, speaking an unbearable ordeal.

I remember how the fireflies crashed against the chests of Father Garrick’s pupils while he drove back his vehicle from Bendu Malen to Pujehun. The path is littered with mass graves. Those pupils paid attention to Morie´s story but uttering no surprise. All of them are orphans from the civil war and all of them suffered irreparable loss. There they go: they stand on the back of the pickup and hold tight the bar of the vehicle, riding out of the kingdom of ghosts. The pupils look ahead to the muddy road lit by the pickup headlights. The pickup takes them away from the swamps and into another time – maybe still during the night but already bordering the territory of hope. The fireflies: they crash against us and lit before they die, in a kind of cardiac humming, flickering gently until the light completely fades out.

Wolf’s cigarette burns invisible and mute in the darkness of the Florida. From time to time, the cigarette flares an ember, a small red firefly. In each one of these moments of fire, of life, the firefly dies a bit more in Wolf’s lips, the lips that breath for it - until the cigarette dissolves itself in ashes. In the house next door, the beating came to a halt. The man, the aggressor («the son of a bitch!», we shout mentally to ourselves), or his voice, or his fury, are no longer to be heard. On stage, with the cold sweat of this night, the only presence left is the woman’s weeping and her sobs, discrete and disturbing.

It’s a lonely weeping. A monologue. Weeping is always a monologue: we talk with ourselves, writing tears to our own pain. «I did not!…» In a very low voice, the monologue, almost a murmur, a plea, an accusation to our own guilt. «I did not…» The humming gets into my sleep and, throughout the night, drowns my dreams in fear. I wake up anxious with the very sharp feeling of being the one that was beaten with the belt. The first thing I hear is again the woman weeping. No one weeps then, of course. Only the echo. Maybe trauma is the longevity of a painful echo.

In Gbanga, a town demolished by combats in Eastern Liberia, there was a church in ruins amidst all other ruins. The altar was desecrated. Two guinea–fowl, perched on a wooden bench, contemplated the Holy Cross, littered over the floor. A flow of Lutheran mass-books and songbooks was carpeting the ground. I took one leaf from the floor with a song for contemplation, to be played «devotedly, in moderate tempo».
«The bit – ter - ness of ev – er – lasti – ng woe», written by John Bacchus Dykes (1823-76). The nails, the spear, and man’s un – pity – ing scornand with the syllables fragmented, like any tale of faith, including the good war reporting (in this case, not the faith in God but the faith in the demons that He created),

And all for me, thy way - ward sin - ful child.

also like all human voices that sing their own exile from the Creation,


What is trauma? Fortunately enough I think I don’t really know. I only know that we must make room to listen to those fragmented voices and for sure that we have to learn from this lexicon of the darkness - so the darkness don’t go on speaking to itself or speaking in a dead language. If we don’t listen, we’ll end up «speaking to the beheaded and the beheaded reply in «wolof», the night steals the remaining gestures from them», like in the poem by Henri Michaux.

When Wolf and I arrived in the Florida there were palm trees and beaches and oceans and skies painted in tropical colours by the motel corridors. All this landscape vanished over the following weeks under a layer of fresh paint, as the motel renovation went on. The Florida owner, Mr. Jacques, an old Lebanese lost in Monrovia, gave a new name and a new face to the motel. Now it’s called Dokoné. Everyone, though, keeps using the old name for the motel. It’s simple: Florida is the name that precedes the great violence.

In Southern Guinea–Bissau, a converted Muslim tribe taught me a few years ago the sacred power of words. «Words heal», explained me an old Caramoco, the traditional healer of the village. In a bucket filled with water, the Caramoco washed a wooden board until the handwriting dissolved completely in the water. Then, the old man joined his hands in a cup and threw some water over his head. It’s apparent: the diseases that most need to be washed in water are those of memory and prophecy.

Maybe trauma is when even God is dead and only we survived to weep.

«I did not!… I did not…»

Trauma, I suppose, is when we manage to grasp a few images in the dark and we touch the projection of what we are no longer. The day, like in Monrovia, is when the rain stops falling.