Newsflash: Shell finally admits to massive oil spills in Nigeria. Read my prize-winning short story, based on a meeting I had with Owens Wiwa, brother of Ken Saro Wiwa, executed by Nigerian government for his political stance against Shell.
That Tears Might Fall
There are times when I just want to flip over the cover of my notebook, toss it into a garbage bin and walk away. What good does it do, this writing down of other people’s misery?This chronicling of injustice and rape and killing?
Take last night, on TV: a war photographer defended his pictures of bloodied children, of stricken men, of wailing women.
“I do it,” he said, “so that they may have a voice through me.”
Lying, unctuous bastard. He does it because one, it pays well and two, he gets a thrill out of it. I should know. I’ve covered four wars. It’s wars that put my children through school, bought my wife a Nissan Infinity 4 by 4. That keep me in whiskey. That give me a thrill. Or used to – though in those early days, of course, I called it idealism: I was risking my life for a cause. Any cause that looked good on paper and you could take a picture of.
Take the old boy on the Gaza strip. Living in a cardboard lean-to on the beach. His corrugated tin shed had been bulldozed by the Israeli army because he’d erected it two metres the wrong side of some invisible line or other.
He came to me in his grubby djellabiya and said: “Write it down, what they did to us here so that it never happens again.” So I wrote it down in my notebook and I wrote it down again, in different notebooks, in Rwanda, in Chechenya, in Northern Ireland. In a township in South Africa. And the paper printed the story each time. The only thing they had to change was the date-line. Whereas I was changing the world. Making it a better place for the smiling, ragged orphans playing in a village in Laos ringed by anti-personnel mines. For the old women struggling to bring them up. For the South African girls who didn’t even bother to report they’d been raped on the way to school because it was such a common occurrence. For the Zairean teenagers, robbed of their childhood and forced to carry guns by members of a jungle platoon themselves armed by some distant country they wouldn’t even be able to locate on a map – that’s if they had one.
Do I sound angry? No, I’m not. But Hettie is.
“You’re just a supercilious cynic,” she shouted at me last night. And because I’m fed-up taking the shit, I shouted back at her.
“If I’m a cynic,” I yelled, “what does that make you? You’re happy enough with a four bedroomed house, your own car, a skiing holiday every year. You’d have none of those things if peace prevailed throughout the world. If people went around smiling and shaking hands instead of maiming and killing each other. You make me sick.” And I stormed out into the kitchen to find a beer.
We made it up, of course. We always do.
“I think you provoke these rows,” she said afterwards, in bed, “so that you can let off steam. It’s all that tension building up.”
“If I remember rightly,” I said, “it was that gob-shite of a photographer on the television justifying his sleazy existence that started everything up.”
She’s right, of course. I am a cynic. But who wouldn’t be after what I’ve seen? Done what I’ve done, cradling Bill’s head as he died, his blood seeping through my shirt onto my skin. And as he died, I wondered when it would be my turn.
Once, trying to get some respite from the African heat, I stood at the doorway of the Jumbo bound for Khartoum, grounded in Cairo with some bomb scare or other, and looked at the metallic gleam of moonlight on the curved helmet of a soldier standing guard by a plane. And thought of his skull inside it: one shell inside another.
I can see my own death: my head crushed quietly, like a Christmas tree bauble, blood and thick white matter seeping from it into the sand. People standing around. There are always people who want to do that. It’s compulsive viewing, watching death for the first time.
But I’m hardened to it all. Death? Grief? I look away. And when I’ve got my story, I walk away.
“That’s your trouble,” Hettie said last night, at the height of our domestic battle. “You just turn away. You don’t deal with pain. Not mine, not the children’s. No-one’s.”
“Others have that job,” I said. “The UN, the Red Cross. That’s what they’re paid for. Mine is to get the story out.”
“That’s all it is,” she said, “a story.”
“Look,” I said later, for her words still pricked me, “if I took war personally, I’d never get out of bed. The snipers that killed Bill weren’t aiming for anyone in particular. Nothing personal. The fact that he was a close friend of mine was neither here nor there.
“Oh, no,” said Hettie, “Nothing personal. Like rape.” She turned over in bed abruptly and the conversation, if you could call it that, ended.
The trouble is, I’m right. I’ve seen snipers up in the hills around Sarajevo. Stood behind them as they pushed their Kalashnikovs through the small hole in a boarded-up window of some school or apartment they’d commandeered, waiting their moment and then firing at a figure beetling from one shelter to another. It was like lobbing pebbles at a column of ants. They didn’t care which one they got as long as they got someone.
Hettie and I never resolve these arguments and in the end, we call a cease fire. I go back to whatever war zone is currently in the news and while I’m away, she sees to the children, does the disco run, holds down her part-time job and puts up with my silences when I get back. And my rages.
This morning, she was cool, polite. Silent. Smiled at me over the coffee pot. After five minutes, I couldn’t stand it.
“There’s nothing I can do, you know,” I said, more loudly that I meant to. “I can’t go in somewhere and get the two sides talking. I’m not a negotiator. I go in, set up the satellite phone, file my piece and get the hell out of it again chop-chop. Christ! Sometimes they don’t want to talk. It’s only when the required number of people have been killed on both sides that they’re ready to even consider it. But the figures have to tally first – number of civilians killed against number of women raped against number of children orphaned. The scoreboard from hell.”
“Oh, of course,” she said and got up to carry her plate and mug to the sink.
“And don’t be so bloody sanctimonious about all this,” I shouted at her back.
She spun round: “That’s what you think, is it? I’m sanctimonious? Well, you listen to me. I’m part of it too – whichever bloody war it is. You may think the only way to deal with something is to turn away but I’m tired of watching you turning away from your own children. There’s no war here yet you never listen to anything they say. They show you things they’ve done, tell you about what’s happening in their lives. Hope for your attention. But you’re operating on another level. You’ve cut yourself off from reality. If I could find some way of pinning you down, I would. Make you take on board what’s happening around you. Force you to look. And listen.”
But I’d had enough and I left the house, banging the door behind me.
As soon as I was outside, I wished I was inside again. I’d walked out into a cold December drizzle. I thought of going back. A kiss, a bunch of flowers, a few words would do it but I walked on, head down, till I came to a pub.
Women are too emotional. They just don’t have the capacity to withdraw. Pin me down? Like a sniper picking out his target? She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. I’d like to see the man who could pin me down. But that’s dangerous talk, of course. You can be caught unawares, like Bill. A bullet in the head while he set up his camera, his mind on something else.
I caught a taxi to a bar across town to meet Kwame Nbane’s brother, Uchebe. I could have done without this interview, today of all days.
Uchebe was waiting for me at a table by the door, a glass of mineral water in his hand. I got myself a beer, took out my notebook and sat down. But of course, I already knew the story. Everyone did: his brother had been tried by the military regime back home – rigged, it was generally believed – accused of being a political activist, found guilty and hanged immediately – before the international community had a chance to protest. Then they’d thrown his body into a lime pit.
What shocked everyone was that Kwame was a poet – had been a poet – and poetry and hanging don’t go together. Poetry is reflective, quiet, uplifting. Inspiring. A poet is a harmless fellow. Probably a bit of a loony. Except that Kwame’s poetry had charted the destruction of the land by the petroleum companies and his people sang it in the villages, beat their drums to it along the river banks. Danced to it in the compounds. Which is why he was hanged.
But the hanging had gone wrong. He was a tall man and first time they did the drop, his feet hit the ground. He had to be hauled up again, semi-conscious, and held there while the rope was adjusted. That part I didn’t know. But Uchebe did and his eyes filled with tears as he told me.
“He was my oldest brother,” he said. “I was next to him. Now I have to wear his shoes.”
I looked away, first through the window at the wet pavements and the shops decked out with bright Christmas lights, then down at my glass of beer. I counted to ten – I’m used to these moments – and counted to ten again just to give him time. Through the window, I watched a woman go past pushing a baby buggy and dragging a large dog behind her on a lead. A man got out of a taxi wearing a long black coat, a red scarf wrapped round his neck and carrying a large camera case. My heart missed a beat: Bill? But of course it wasn’t. Just someone with a red scarf like the one Bill used to wear. The man paid the taxi, pulled some gift-wrapped packages out from the back seat and ducked into the shop next door. I felt the tension drain from my body.
Three days to Christmas and I still hadn’t got anything for the children. What does Hettie mean, anyway, that I turn away from them? I’m with them as much as I can but teenagers like their own space. I didn’t want my father around when I was fifteen. Last thing I wanted.
I looked up at Uchebe. His eyes were still full of tears and it wasn’t until I looked into them, and he held mine steady with his, so that I couldn’t look away again, that the tears fell, bright and sharp as diamonds, leaving a trail of salt on his black face.