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Monday, June 26, 2006

Field Report #3 from Seth Altshuler

Report #3 came several weeks after the first two posts.

I debated about writing again. I hope you’ll understand my reasoning, as I feel torn between what is glorification and what is revelation...What brings you closer to the people and what just makes a good story....What illuminates and what just reads.

I received enough worried emails to realize that I should write, as there was no way I was going to tell this over and over again. Here is what happened. And as lucid as the last few days are in my mind, I am not sure yet how to compartmentalize them, so they are floating.

I realized today on the 7 hour train ride to Colombo that my mass emails exploit what I am doing, as they shine on me. In my head right now, I shame those people by trivializing what they go through into a running journal of Seth. I am heartbroken about their lives and can not use it as a forum for good storytelling. I want to be fair.

Things changed very drastically in a very short time.

Violence increased tenfold in the last week, some of which was finding its way around me, though not in my face. I was invited to a huge Hindu ceremony on Monday with over 20,000 people, and upon returning we were re-routed by some local police. The road we take home had been claymore mined (remote devices that blow up buses) and killed some people on the way home. The other road we took, we later found out, was also to be mined but the LTT caught the guy. My guess is he died a torturous death.

Then a family was killed, then the bus incident in the ancient city that killed 65, of which you may have heard heard. During this time, Rohan (a member of the organization) came up and told me on Thursday that I needed to have the tournament this weekend, as the war was getting ready to start. That afternoon, as many of us were hanging out at the home, army planes began to fly over head. They could be heard, but not seen, as they only dive in to shell at the last minute. The women stayed with the kids in the house, and the men and I waited in the shade, watching to see if we were going to get bombed. The army shelled a town about 20 kilometers away, and shelled Kilinochi (where the office is and where I go for the weekends). Amazingly, no casualties that we know of yet. I kept thinking in my head about what I would do: Would I grab my shoes? Which direction would I run? Why am I here? How can I leave? The bombs really roll like thunder, and it is scary as shit… even from a distance.

It was decided that I would spend the night, meet with the kids tomorrow to explain that I was going, and then I would leave in the afternoon. Somehow I slept, but I kept waiting for the sound of a plane. No candles were used in order to limit the light visible from the sky, and everyone was quiet.

The next morning we divided up the jerseys and headed over to the first camp. It was explained to them in honest words. Having these kids on an open field in a large group was asking for serious trouble. In addition, having them away from their families should bombs be dropped elsewhere was not something I could stomach. Finally, I was becoming a target. I was not affiliated with the UN, or any other international organization. I was a Tamil sympathizer, living in the heart of Tamil territory. The army was beginning to bomb, and their navy was three miles off shore. Who knows to what extent I would have been a target, but no one wanted to find out.

So we gave the Jerseys to the kids of the first camp (comprising 3 of the 6 refugee camps I was working with) and they ran around and we took pictures and then one of them showed up with a gift, which of course made me lose it. I thanked them in the ways that I could, and bid them goodbye.

The second camp (made up of the other 3 camps) was the one I was closest to. I spent time with those kids and the adults, ate with their families, laughed with them, and really grew to love them. They also created a small ceremony, and we handed out the jerseys and they gave me more gifts...all set up amazingly fast and with so much compassion and heart. The speeches were so beautiful and the words so honest that I really couldn't take it. As we gave out the shirts, they said that they wanted to have a world cup final with me as the referee. We all ran out to the field, set up a little opening walk out ceremony, and they played this game, in essence, for all of us. I can barely write this as I start to envision it, as it is so sweet and sad.

We finished the game, and many of them came back to the house for one final lunch. We ate and joked, and I slowly packed as we sat. The family also gave me gifts, and the stoicism of the men and the quietness of the women was lost in the end. It was the saddest thing I have even been a part of, and I hope for the sake of my future and my approach to the world that I never forget it. I had to leave and they had to stay. They gave faces and veiny arms and voices and hair and walking styles and mannerism to a tragedy I knew little of not too long ago. It makes me hate the world. It makes me certain no God would allow it, though they believe so firmly in their respective gods. I have pictures, and I have stories, but really all I have is the thoughts, which I can only share if I tell it honestly and fairly, with nothing but them in mind.

I drove away. I cried again to myself under my sunglasses and hat, driving through the cities that were shelled not long ago. You can't really tell, because they move on and go on about their lives so quickly and without distraction. I arrived in Kilinochi just in time to see the planes overhead as they bombed that vicinity as well. I saw the smoke rising in the distance and stood there with a group so used to this that I am afraid to think of what they haven't seen. I slept very uneasily.

So I suppose I should be grateful. I am alive, I am safe, and I will continue to be so. It is being arranged for me to go south and work in those camps, giving me an interesting perspective on the two sides, my contact here said. My heart isn't in it, but I came so far.

The reality is I don't want to forget. I need to remember this vividly, so as to not forsake their lives, should they lose them. But even on the train, I dreamt about other things, and at times enjoyed the view.

Seth updated this letter a week later:

I will be heading south this weekend to begin my work there. It will be good to see the other side of things and get a better perspective, as right now I feel mostly anger and confusion. I have calmed a bit, and the memory of those few days is already softening. I hate that shit. Things so seemingly important or traumatic can fade to normalcy in a matter of days. I guess we have to, as otherwise we paralyze ourselves.

Basically, I am fine and safe and headed south to do some more work. I'm done writing, and really even questioned writing this. I imagine you will understand.

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