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Monday, June 26, 2006

Field Report #2 from Seth Altshuler

This is the second in a series of reports, republished from emails I received over the last few months. Seth's words, as usual, are printed below in blue:

I keep waiting for Sally Struthers or that Christian guy with a white beard to come round the corner with two refugees in his hands shooting an ad telling me that, for the price of a cup of coffee, I can feed them for a week. The reason I say this is because much of what you see here with aid is amazing. Some of it is, as one local said to me, nothing more than suits and contracts. The people often get treated as projects or causes, and the humanity gets lost. I have seen Unicef build amazing schools and Care also do some great work. I have then seen them paint everything they give away with a big emblem, lest anyone else take the credit. In this regard I am really glad to be associated with something local. When I am introduced or showed around the camps, they treat me differently. I have already visited each of the six camps where the kids I work with live. They are tragic, often solemn places with nothing more than the kids unending drive for fun (and their ignorance of the situation) keeping the place lively. Each one has a preschool and I usually go hang out there first, then hang out with the families, and walk home reinforced in my belief that these are some of the most resilient, wonderful people I have ever encountered.

The aesthetic beauty of the place is the first of a series of dichotomies that I have found present here. Thick, palm-treed jungle mixed with ponds and fields. Birds, monkeys, and other wildlife are everywhere. I cannot help but see this place as a definition of paradise. Coconut milk, sleeping in the open, tons of stars… to say the area is beautiful is an understatement. This, rather obviously, lends itself to the irony that amidst this place of unending beauty are the remnants of a war-torn landscape and a tsunami blasted group of people. I sometimes hear the shells of the LTT army as they train a few kilometers away. My first reaction is that it’s thunder, but a clear sky says otherwise. They think it is funny when I react, which says a lot.

People here really want to talk about what has happened, as no one ever really asks them. I do about an interview a day with people varying from 16 year old kids, to mothers, to sports officials, to leaders of local government. One guy even took a full day bus ride to come visit me because he heard there was an American here coaching soccer. He is a coach in another town, and he wanted to talk about sports as a form of mental rehabilitation. We spoke for a few hours, and then he headed back for another three hour bus ride home.

But that, to be honest, remains the sweetest of exchanges so far. More are like this one: I went with about 7 guys to this coconut tree they said had the best milk (shit all tastes the same to me) and as we walked the guys began to chat. I have a translator supplied by the organization with me all the time. He is a great guy and doesn't seem to mind relaying everything. They had a few machetes in their hands, and as we walked they showed each other moves and techniques the LTT army had taught them. It was actually quite frightening to see these smiley little guys showing each other good ways to gut a human. Even their faces changed a bit. It showed the Jekyll and Hyde of humanity, for as much as I want to see them for nothing but the kind people they are, I couldn't help but also see that these people do and will kill other people, regardless of the nobility of the cause. I can get swept up in the ideals, but the realities of their war are far beyond my understanding or temperament. I hear stories from guys I spend lots of time with about when they saw bombs dropped on schools that killed 50 thirteen year olds. I see the shrapnel still embedded in one of my friend's knees. I see the old soccer coach who has one arm. I see the pictures of the dead family members. The orphans. The widows. The seven families living in tiny one bedroom refugee camps. I hear the stories about the large number of woman who died in the tsunami because their hair got caught in the thatch fences that surrounded their home (this happened a lot, apparently.) I see the anger in their faces when they talk about this war. It is an anger I will never know, easy though my judgments may be about non-violence. I heard a story about a guy's friend who was captured by the army and tortured. He now lives in a bed, because they put a hollow pole up his rectum, slid barbed wire up the pole, pulled the pole out, and then the wire. The shit goes on and on and on. I never know what to say.

On an even sadder note, I mentioned the nun who was working with the orphans in that beach town I went and visited and where I was going to go and try and do a camp....it was shelled last night. They are once again displaced. The army sends a bomb once in a while to keep them moving and nervous. It appears that no one was killed, though some were injured. We have cancelled all plans there, as there is nothing we can do.

Again, things are soft and gentle and things are hard and bruised. There is no good way to segue out of that type of topic, so I'll just move on.

The flip side of all that is that I spend a ton of time playing with these kids, and it really is amazing. After going around to all the camps and doing introductions and small ceremonies and eating tons of curry and listening to speeches, we finally arrived at the day when the camps would begin, which was another ceremony of candles and flags and moments of silence for the dead and then an explosion of kids running around pegging each other with soccer balls. I do two camps a day at two different locations. The first day we had thirty at each. The second day around 70 at each. It goes up and down, but we average about 50 for each one, with a dedicated core of people ranging from 6 years old to 35 year old men. Some of these kids ride 6 kilometers every day to get there. Some of them ride the six kilometers home to eat, and then back to go to the second camp. We ended up getting more balls to accommodate, and I basically run around like crazy for two hours or so at a time trying to make things work. It always does, in a chaotic sort of way. There is no doubt in my mind that they are having a good time with it. Some of the old fathers come out and watch, and someone always makes a bucket full of tea and some cookies to eat at half time. The work is really tiring, especially in this heat. But as corny as it sounds, seeing these little shits come running to us as we get to the field waving thumbs ups and throwing dirt at each other makes me find the energy. The kids, as always, make things fun and easy. They make me just give up the charade of a drill when I see them wrestling in line. I came here to make them laugh and have fun and forget things. However they want to do it is fine with me. I wonder sometimes about the worth of my project versus something more sustainable and more tangible, but I also see that this is how I can help.

I spend my nights with my host-family playing marbles and cards with the folks who stop by and bullshitting about why I look so old. They are so unbelievably kind and will not accept anything I try to give them, monetary or other. My total relinquishment of privacy, from the brother who puts a chair in front of me and just stares at me to the three snoring guys sleeping around me, is my only complaint. But I keep every sign of annoyance as distant as I can. How could I possibly be ungrateful for what they are doing? The food is great, albeit super hot, and the two puppies that live there are no longer growling at me and slowly becoming my friends.

Things are hard and tiring, but they are going amazingly well. I can't help but be relieved and grateful for all the events leading up to this, as it is what I had hoped and more than I expected.

Some of you have offered to send financial help or letters, and I greatly appreciate the sentiment. My time here is too short and the mail system too crappy to make that a possibility. However, I have written my parents and we are going to work on setting up a fund that will be sent to the organization I am working for, the North East Youth Action Organization. They are really fantastic, and this way you won't send money to Sally Struthers.



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