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Mushroom Picking, Naked Saunas and Vodka Exchange Rates: Life in the Russian Countryside (1992)

One of the major benefits of growing up in a Western city is the seemingly unlimited availability of everything, with a choice of food that is obscene. I fondly remember a Russian friend's first visit to Sainsbury's, as she stared incredulously at the potato section.

"There are TEN different types of potato! Why so many? In Russia, a potato is a potato."

"Until it becomes vodka," I replied.

One of the major disadvantages of growing up in a Western city is the disassociation at birth from the ways of Mother Nature. Coming from a culture where 'fresh' tomatoes, pineapples and kiwi are available all year, it was perhaps not surprising to hear the musings of a fellow expat on my idyllic Croatian island:

"There don't seem to be any tomatoes. They have been really hard to find since the Summer. I wonder why?"

Russian Cultural Experiences - In Search of the Perfect Mushroom

My culinary inadequacies were perhaps most lastingly highlighted in my psyche by the withering look of a six-year old Russian girl, whose total contempt at my triumphant find of my first Russian mushroom, in a forest north of St. Petersburg, informed me there was a massive void in knowledge on how things grow:

"Those are poisonous. Everyone knows that." I will try anything once (although the dog kebab in Seoul and the rat cutlet in Guyana are not top of my list for repeats), but it took more than the usual ration of distilled potato to convince me that I really wanted to spend my first free weekend in weeks trekking round a monastery as a prelude to the main event - the Russian national pastime of mushroom picking.

A whole morning was allocated to the event, which consisted of wandering through the forest, scouring the ground for mushrooms. I stopped listening at that point, but Fiona, my partner in crime in this Russian adventure, sat politely through a detailed explanation on the subtleties of mushroom picking.

Although not keen, we entered into the spirit of things and set off enthusiastically into the woods, wondering once again how we ended up in situations like this. We were eight in total, aged from six to sixty, and attacked the forest as if de-mining it, or as part of a forensics team: each had his own patch and progress was slow, cautious and focused.

Fiona and I were the crappest mushroom pickers ever seen in the region, and a little like the incident with the milkless American cows, the locals looked at us with curiosity - if these two were the pride of the West, perhaps Communism and the Soviet Union weren't so bad after all?

As the rest of the team picked up numerous mushrooms, we were lagging behind until Fiona and I had a simultaneous find - two juicy mushrooms! We screamed out joyously, announcing our find. Whether to humour or encourage us, I am not sure, but the whole posse headed in our direction to celebrate our find, and we watched as each cheerful face turned incredulous that we could have interrupted their sport for such an obviously poisonous mushroom. Westerners!

Russian Cultural Experiences - The Weekend Dacha Visit

We were on a mission and decided to avail ourselves of every opportunity to acquaint ourselves with the earthy nature of Mother Russia, so when we were invited to spend the weekend at a friend's dacha, some 80km south of Petersburg, we jumped at the chance.

Asking what we needed to bring, we were told to bring as many half litre bottles of vodka as we could carry, not for drinking (well not all of it), for vodka was gorodski dyengi, or 'city money' - we were soon to find out why.

As Volodya's battered pale blue Lada took more punishment on the final approach on a rough road to the hamlet where they had bought a dacha, Natasha took great delight in pointing out the various local landmarks - fruit and vegetable related of course. Cranberries were divine in that forest, the mushrooms should be ready over there and so on. She was looking forward to all the potatoes and apples they would be returning with. That sounded like hard work to us, for even I, with my city background, had worked out that kilos of apples and potatoes don't magically appear in sacks.

I needn't have worried. Within minutes of our arrival at the decidedly rustic two-storey wooden house, there was a grunt from outside. Volodya disappeared with a bottle of city money, chatted with the grunter and reappeared with the bottle. He had just negotiated the purchase of twenty kilos of potatoes and had shown the seller that the currency was genuine. Volodya had learned from experience that paying in advance in these situations adversely affected delivery.

Russian Cultural Experiences - The Russian Sauna

More grunters appeared and were dispatched to different parts of the surrounding countryside, while Volodya was focusing on what was for him the main event of the weekend, our private banya, or Russian sauna.

We found the little hamlet enchanting, with its full-time population of two old ladies, abandoned by the young who had left long ago for life in the city. Volodya's pride and joy was the banya he had built behind his house, and it quickly dawned on us both that the real reason for the weekend invitation was so that he and Fiona could spend some time in the sauna.

We had heard about the Russian banya, with its birch tree branches immersed in hot water before being used to lightly beat the body in what was allegedly a very enjoyable and therapeutic experience. Fiona and I were debating the etiquette of the Russian banya - girls first, boys second, or all together, in which case what to wear? - when any further questions were pre-empted by our hosts, who both stripped naked and then invited us to do the same, with Volodya's gaze firmly fixed on my friend.

We looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders and went native, and within seconds found ourselves sat in surreal naked sweltering silence in the sauna, which was very hot indeed. "Who's first?" enquired Volodya.

"Paul", answered Fiona, before asking what was on the agenda. I was told to lie down on the wooden bench, while Fiona was invited to choose some birch branches which had been quietly soaking in hot water in the corner. Under Volodya's keen instruction, she then proceeded to beat me from my neck down.

This was my first banya, in July, and an experience I will never forget, but for an added twist, a banya in a Siberian winter is worth the effort. Having been beaten with the birch branches in the heat of the sauna, my colleagues then tossed me stark naked out into the snow and, for twenty seconds - no more - the feeling of rolling around naked in the snow in temperatures of minus twenty after the intense heat, was exquisite. By second twenty-one, the body told me it was time to beat a hasty retreat to the salt fish and beer inside.

Russian Cultural Experiences - Home Delivery Service

Having survived Volodya's attentions, we dressed and returned to the house, to find two huge sacks of apples, 40kg in all, by the front door, with an anxious-looking peasant looking for his payment. Our host disappeared into the house and fetched four half litres of city money.

And here's an interesting cultural difference between home delivery in the UK and the Russian countryside: ordering for home delivery is a simple process - order placed by phone, deliveryman paid on delivery, end of transaction, except in Russia, where the deliveryman was so desperate to cash in that he simply opened the first bottle and settled in to a solo session in our front garden.

We left him to it and he was still there the next morning. He was not alone. We were woken at 3am by another grunter, who had stolen 20kg of potatoes from a farm 10km away, hauled his illicit cache through the forest and demanded instant payment and gratification. The front garden was a war zone in the morning.

I thoroughly enjoyed my forays into Russian nature, and I often raise a smile, as I pick up my nicely packed mushrooms or choose from a variety of potatoes at the supermarket. You get what you pay for but Sainsbury's is quite handy, isn't it?

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A Visit to the Gaza Strip on the Eve of The Gulf War in 2002

"Do you speak Hebrew?"

"Shalom, and that’s about it."

"This way please."

I knew that this was going to be an ordeal, but I had expected to at least reach the check-in counter at Heathrow before being separated from my fellow passengers. The surprising news is that Israeli security is bucking the international trend: when I entered last year, I was subjected to seventy-one questions (and yes, I did count), whereas they let me go this time with a mere sixty-two.

I had decided El Al (or El Kebab, as I learned some call it), the Israeli airline, for a number of reasons. With the American conquest of the Middle East just starting, many airlines had suspended flights to Tel Aviv. El Kebab took the war as a challenge, an opportunity to show how strong Israel is these days. The El Kebab web-site promised that all flights would continue, no matter what happened in the war. Jews could relax, safe in the knowledge that the Israeli military would guarantee that life would continue as normal.

As I booked the flight from my home in Croatia, I knew that it would unlike any flying experience before. As a non-Jew, my motives for travelling at this time would be suspicious; I would be labelled an Arab-loving do-gooder, heading for the Occupied Territories to show solidarity with those terrorists. I thought it better to go through the questioning at Heathrow with El Kebab, since there was a possibility I might get my money back if they refused to let me board the plane; being refused entry at Ben Gurion airport after arriving with another airline (as has happened to a number of foreigners who wanted to express solidarity with Palestine) would have been an expensive exercise.

Why was I going to Israel? Where was I staying? What were the surnames of the people I was staying with? How would I get from the airport to their house? Had I been to any Arab countries? Did I have an Arab friends? Why was I coming to Israel now? Had I been to Israel before? Had I been to the Territories before? Why did I not have a Japanese visa if I was going to Japan? Why was my passport issued in Belgrade? Where was my proof that I lived in Croatia? What was the real purpose of my visit?

I had been relieved of my hand luggage some minutes before. Prior to departure, I had carefully selected my hand luggage, for I knew it would all be scrutinised. I wrote the names, numbers and addresses of my Jewish friends in large letters and committed the Palestinian details to memory. Soon I was deprived also of my shoes. It was cold in the room and I could hear whispered conversations in Hebrew behind the screen where they were searching and, it seemed, cutting things open. And then the questioning started once again, this time from a diminutive brunette.

Why was I going to Israel? Where had I been in previous visits? What were the surnames of my hosts? What did they do for a living? Why was my passport issued in Belgrade? Why was I flying El Al? Why did I not have a Japanese visa if I was going to Japan? Where was all my other luggage if I was going to Japan the day after Israel? Where did I stay in London? Who with? How did I know him? How did I know my hosts in Jerusalem? Did I intend to go to the Territories?

I was impressed. There was good variety in the questioning, with certain questions repeated to check the authenticity of my story. It was clear to me that they did not believe me, but they had no reason yet to prohibit my onward journey. A voice from behind the screen resulted in another question:

"Has anyone touched your shoes since you bought them?" I laughed, internally of course, for there was little humour here, and asked her to clarify what she had meant by the question. She wanted to know whether or not my shoes had been tampered with since I had bought them. While I answered truthfully that they had not been interfered with, I would answer differently now, as the soles of my shoes were cut open and resealed behind the screen.

I was free to go to the departure gate, but my luggage was not; I would be reunited with it in the departure lounge. As I approached the lounge some twenty minutes later, at the far end of the terminal, I had some idea of the isolation that Israelis endure when travelling – they pay for their security with curtailed freedoms. But as for freedom, I was not yet free to join the Jews:

"This way please." A smiling uniformed youth ushered me away from the rest and behind a screen. There was my Gentile bag and, while I might have been pleased to see it, my Gentile shoes were once again removed. I went to sit down, exhausted now by the endless questions and searching. There was another shoeless passenger behind the screen.

"I assume you are the only other person in the room with a foreskin?" I ventured.

"Unbelievable, isn’t it?" He was a Kiwi, on a business trip to Tel Aviv. There were no tourists. My request for an aisle seat seemed to fall on deaf ears as I was shunted into a window seat, but the flight was pleasant enough, despite it being overnight. Six in the morning at Ben Gurion. I approached immigration with dread – I was too tired to face another grilling. But there was none, for word had got ahead that El Al had done its job. I was surprised also at the lack of military presence there, so much more downbeat than Heathrow.

The dark-haired, olive-uniformed, heavily made-up soldier was cute, but I was in no mood for chat as I handed over my passport. I asked only one thing, that she not stamp my passport (a common request among travellers, since the Israeli stamp bars entry to most of the Arab world).

"Certainly," she smiled, then stamped my passport, handing it back to me with a broader smile. "Welcome to Israel." Bastards. I have no doubt that she had been instructed to do that. Had the same thing happened to me last year, I would have been prohibited from returning to my job in Somalia.

West Jerusalem was more relaxed on this, my third visit, than at any time I had seen it. The cafes and restaurants, so empty last year, were now brimming with confidence and style. The buses were full. There was a marked reduction in the number of troops on the streets. After all, the United States was taking on perhaps the last Arab strongman and, if certain rumours were to be believed, Syria and Iran would be next. Perhaps finally the threat of Arab invasion and Israeli annihilation, so real in the early life of the Israeli State, would soon be a thing of the past. Perhaps soon Israelis would be able to be able to walk around without fear of attack from missiles and biological attack. Not yet perhaps, as many walked around with gas masks packed in cardboard boxes, slung over the shoulder – sometimes two if there was a mother and child – but soon. As one drunk shouted in a pedestrian zone: "Soon Israel will rule the world."

There was always the threat from Palestinian terrorism of course - that could never be discounted. But the suicide attacks were down and the one that did attack while I was there succeeded in killing only the bomber and nobody else. It was as though even suicide bombers could be rendered impotent in the changing new world order. But even if they did attack and kill, the world was no longer watching the Israeli Defence Force’s violent retribution. And while my sympathies in this conflict are overwhelmingly Palestinian (and I make no apology for that), I also have total sympathy for the innocent civilians on both sides, and as such, I am happy for peace-loving Israelis that the current state of the world indicates that theirs should be a more secure and happier existence. But I can only say that because I can divorce the peace-loving Israeli citizen from the fascist regime that governs them. Ten miles away in Ramallah, the repression and the hopelessness continue.

The real reason I had come to Jerusalem was to see the Bikini Goddess, that fascinating North American who had modelled a bikini for me in Beirut on the Ginger Tour. She was now living in Ramallah, working for an aid agency, and had refused to evacuate, as she and her international colleagues had been instructed to do as soon as the weapons inspectors were ordered out of Iraq. She refused to abandon what she had come to regard as her home, refused to abandon people who relied on her, just because the going was tough. I know that family and friends despaired at her stance, but my reaction was the opposite – admiration and jealousy. Jealousy, because I have never felt sufficiently strongly about anything to dedicate my life to it. I can do a fortnight in Jerusalem, pop into a genocide memorial in Rwanda, get into the Balkans conflict for a while and potter around Somalia, but I am not a stayer. I admired her commitment of more than two years in the West Bank in deteriorating conditions, and I wanted to give her a hug to show her how much I admired her. That was the reason I went to Israel.

As we met at Damascus Gate, I smiled as I approached her. Her hair was shorter than before, but everything else was the same: the pale blue eyes, the nervous smoking, the slim physique. As most of you ladies have discovered to your cost, I am extremely tactile these days and I am a whore for a good hug. I am normally the last to let go, but not this time. The Bikini Goddess held on for several seconds longer and I was happy to oblige.

For someone I have only spent five days with in previous meetings, I feel strangely close to this young lady. The initial bikini attraction has given way to respect, admiration and deep friendship. We are serial e-mailers and I will occasionally call her mobile in Palestine from my island home, just to remind her that there are people in the outside world who care about what is happening in Palestine.

It was an emotional reunion. For my part, I was exhausted – the intensive course in Budapest had been followed by two weeks of manic travel over Eastern Europe, sorting out my house, finally sorting out my divorce, and preparing for a new life in Japan. There were other emotional considerations too, but my troubles were nothing compared to the ordeal that the Bikini Goddess had been subjected to. As we sat in an Arab restaurant in the Old City, we held hands across the posh restaurant table and we both cried, openly and without embarrassment. We cried a river for Palestine, as she explained what she and her friends had been subjected to since last we met.

Her phone rang. I saw her tense up immediately, for every call was potentially tragic news – another arrest, another murder. I watched her face muscles tighten, her eyes close. It was bad news. A suicide bomber had struck somewhere north of Tel Aviv. Rumours of seventeen dead eventually gave way to forty injured, but I will never forget her face as she received the initial news. There was shock, anger, frustration, fear and concern, all in one. Suicide bombing was pointless, so counter-productive and while she (and I now) understands why it happens, it achieves nothing except invite severe reprisals from the Israelis. Especially now, as the eyes of the world are elsewhere.

One of my biggest problems with sympathising with the Palestinian cause is that I deplore suicide attacks on innocent civilians. Most people think of terror and suicide bombers when they think of Palestinians. It is an act borne of the most intense desperation, but this does not make it right. Suicide bomber in Jerusalem kills nine. Twelve Israeli children blown up by suicide bomber in Tel Aviv. Haifa bomber brings carnage to busy pizzeria.

These headlines sound so familiar to a British audience. It is hard to defend the actions of a suicide bomber, even if you want to. And yet, there is something that struck me as I approached my new home of Hiroshima on the bullet train a few days later. Suicide bombings are always reported in isolation, with no backdrop as to why someone is prepared to sacrifice his life in an attempt to kill others. As I travelled at speed through Japan, I wondered how people would react to the following news item, reported in isolation:

Americans drop atom bomb on city of Hiroshima, killing 50,000 (or whatever the figure is). Taken out of context, it is arguably the greatest war crime in history (if we use current trendy terminology). Give it some context – that it brought about the end of the Second World War – and one can, if not agree with, then at least begin to understand why the bomb was dropped. Suicide bombers are never given the luxury of context and yet, after my four hours in the Gaza Strip, I can fully understand why people become suicide bombers, indeed I am surprised that everyone there is not a suicide bomber. Not only that, I am almost certain that if I, an intelligent, educated and rational (sometimes at least) person, was subjected to the realities of day-to-day life in Gaza all my life, I too would happily – HAPPILY – give my life in the same way.

Before I take you into Gaza, I want to describe an incident at a checkpoint between Ramallah, in the West Bank, and Jerusalem, this following a peaceful choir practice, which included me giving instruction in German pronunciation for a Mozart piece. Some of you will have read about it in the newspaper article I wrote, but it serves as a useful Gaza backdrop.

It was dark at the checkpoint and we could make out perhaps twenty people in front of us, in front of whom stood three Israeli soldiers. I couldn’t see much, but I could follow the conversation in English between a soldier and a young Palestinian woman, her white coat the only thing visible in the darkness.

"Please just let me go. I want to go home to Jerusalem. I have nowhere to stay in the West Bank."

"You want to go to Jerusalem? We wanted to go to Jerusalem before 1967 but you Arabs wouldn’t let us. So now you know how we felt."

"I wasn’t born in 1967. I just want to go home."

"I wasn’t born either, but your father wanted to drive my father and my family into the sea." Silence for a moment. "What happened in 1967?" Silence. "I said what happened?"

"There was a war."

"Correct. There was a war. And who won?" Silence. "I said who won?"

"Israel."

"Correct. Israel won. We are in charge. The checkpoint’s closed. Go away now."

It transpired that the reason that the checkpoint was closed earlier than 9pm was that Israel had put its clocks forward by an hour four days earlier, whereas the West Bank was still operating on winter time. If the occupying force changes its time, you can bet the checkpoints will follow suit. An elderly Palestinian man in front of me suggested that we two foreigners go to the front of the queue, because the soldiers would probably let us pass. I thought briefly about this, aware that I was already late for my dinner date with my Israeli hostess, but stayed put – it would have been shameful to cross when these ordinary folk were left behind.

The girl was becoming more desperate.

"If I run past you, what will you do? Will you shoot me?"

"I might."

"Well, I am desperate enough to take the risk." And with that she disappeared into the night. The soldier, caught off-guard, dropped his weapon, ran round the desk that had separated them, and gave chase. The tension among the rest of us was palpable. I felt a hand clutch my upper arm:

"Don’t worry, they will not shoot her," pronounced a soft female voice.

The girl was back fifteen minutes later, a little ruffled and a lot desperate.

"I know I am nothing to you, that I am not a person in your eyes, but I ask you as a human being to let me go home."

"The checkpoint is closed. Leave now." We lingered, what else was there to do? Some walked dejectedly back to town, but most hung around as the chill of the night crept upon us. Cigarettes, so many cigarettes were smoked and there was silence. What was there to say? Suddenly, a loud screeching sound, as a barrier was pushed back and then the soldier barked:

"Go now, go to Jerusalem." We could not understand the change of heart but we moved quickly, surprised and grateful. And then the soldier became Mr. Nice Guy.

"Don’t be angry on us. We are just doing our job." In other circumstances, I might have corrected his English, but it was all I could do to refrain myself from punching him, I who have not raised a finger in anger since John Barrow stole my orange at primary school.

Lying in bed, I thought about my evening and I smiled. I still felt the warmth of the school and the average choir, and I hummed the tune of one of their songs, Freedom is coming, oh yes I know. I have never seen a group of people who were so free. Palestinians are the freest people I know; for two hours every Tuesday evening, these choristers experience total and exquisite freedom. Their only problem is coping with the other one hundred and sixty-six hours a week, every week, for the past thirty-six years, and the other one hundred and sixty-six hours a week, every week, for every year that this illegal occupation continues.

An Israeli friend kindly dropped me at the Gaza checkpoint on the way to work. We laughed and joked all the way about the absurdities of life. She was convinced that there was no way I would be allowed into Gaza, especially as the breaking news on Hebrew radio was that helicopter gun-ships had entered Rafah refugee camp and attacked certain targets. But we laughed about trivial things – my fear of dogs, my soft spot for her friend, the prospect of teaching Japanese infants. We even had a Coke fight as we drove, showering the car and each other in Diet Coke. We laughed as we cleaned the car. The sun was shining, life was beautiful. She dropped me at the checkpoint and headed to Tel Aviv, sure that I would be refused entry with my Coke-stained trousers.

Gaza. So many stories, so many rumours. I had no idea where to go, even if they did let me in, but I would worry about that later. Given the Israeli penchant for questioning, I had prepared my story. Carrying my Teach Yourself Japanese and my certificate of eligibility from the Japanese government, I was en route to Tokyo, but had agreed to meet some aid workers for some Japanese colleagues, in order to write a health proposal for the Japanese Government to fund. If only there was not so much Coke on my trousers…

The first checkpoint waved me by after a cursory look at my passport – he was pre-occupied with a delegation from, and I can’t explain why, Madagascar. Next I visited the office, where my passport was registered and my tourist card stamped ‘Gaza.’ Oh fuck, how many questions is that going to invite on my flight out? The answer was 177, of which more later. I explained my purpose in visiting and was free to proceed to the final checkpoint. On my way, I heard voices to my left. As I walked in splendid isolation towards Gaza, I peeped though a hole in the wall and caught sight of hundreds of Palestinians being herded in the same direction. It was wrong of me, but my thoughts went back to a Polish prison sixty years ago.

It was oppressively hot and this was late only March. The Eres checkpoint was deserted and I walked more than a kilometre from one end to the other, this next to one of the most densely populated areas in the world. There were a few yellow cabs in front of me, but the Palestinian drivers did not hurry in my direction – I would need a cab and they were all brothers, so negotiations could wait until I reached them. The Bikini Goddess had recommended a quaint (whatever quaint might mean in the Gaza context) hotel by the beach. "Al Deira?" I enquired.

"Fifty shekels." Perhaps a reasonable price in Israel, but clearly a rip-off in Gaza, where people could not afford taxis. I didn’t argue – who was I to haggle over ten dollars with someone who probably had a wife and eight children to feed? His English was broken and, as we drove, he offered me a tour a Gaza, for which I could pay what I liked. Which meant whatever you offer will not be enough and I will give you the real price later. I looked at him and agreed, thinking bizarrely of my mate Dave in Serbia, who is convinced I am a war junkie. Perhaps he is right.

Perfect Israeli roads gave way to potholes, flash cars to mangy donkeys pulling women in chadors in carts. There were some fields, but not many. The concrete jungle was soon upon us. Hot, dusty, busy, goat-infested, bustling, chadors, shops peddling anything, people, so many people. It reminded me of one place so much – Bosaso, in northern Somalia, not a great reference point for most of you, I realise, but this was Bosaso times thirty.

We parked next to a rubbish tip – it would have been difficult not to in Gaza. Children, barefoot, were scavenging, as though there might have been something worthwhile discarded by the other refugees. Disease was rife among them, but they smiled and waved. We passed a boy of three - thin, frail, gaunt, frightened – wearing dark red ‘Snoopy’ pyjamas. He too was barefoot and looked as though he had not eaten for a week. In my childhood, Snoopy had been a figure of warmth, of comfort – his appearance on that child’s pyjamas was grotesque.

We entered Jabalya refugee camp, a warren of streets, with families in such close proximity that one snoring man could have kept hundreds awake. Rubbish everywhere, children barefoot, yet smiling. "Salam Aleykum" I said in bad Arabic, offering my hand. Lots of giggling as they took the hand of the fat foreigner. Kids. Rwanda, Somalia, Gaza – life might deal them a pile of shit, but it only takes a warm word to bring out their best smile.

"This way." I was ushered into a house at the heart of a camp, to be greeted by an old man with a crooked toothy grin. I removed my shoes and was shown into the main room, a pleasant whitewashed affair, blue cushions lining its walls, a simple rug in the middle. As we waited for the tea to arrive, there was an awkward silence.

"I love these cushions, they are really pretty."

"Do you? Israeli rubbish. Israeli not want. Good for Palestinians only." How to kill a conversation in three seconds. I was saved by the tea and, as always in the Arab world, hospitality was the priority. Tea was followed by coffee and spicy vegetables wrapped in cabbage. And with refreshments came conversation, animated conversation. Ahmed’s English improved as his anger intensified, much to the amusement of his three dutiful daughters, dressed in black chadors.

The girls intrigued me. Huda was the eldest, twenty-two, extremely bright and with a good command of English. She was a fourth-year chemistry student (thirteen girls in a class of thirty-three, which surprised me in this conservative society) and was concerned about finding a job upon graduation – nobody else in the family worked, because there was no work as they were not allowed to look for work outside Gaza. I smiled, internally, at the irony of it – here in Gaza, international capital of bomb-making and here is a sweet Muslim girl with a chemistry degree fretting about job prospects.

When I was in Croatia, I had been struck by my builder’s German. He had worked in Germany for eight years and his building site German had been perfect – cement mixer, screed, tea-break – but he could not answer simple questions about the weather. Here too in Gaza, the specialist English knowledge was astounding – mortar attack, suicide bombing, repression, rocket attack, curfew, imprisonment, helicopter gun-ship, occupation. From girls of twelve years old. What had happened to their carefree childhood? The same childhood that included them being awoken in the middle of the night to the sound of helicopter gun-ships circling above and destroying the houses of neighbours and family. Childhood does not exist in Gaza.

I asked about water. Water? Well, it came every day, for an hour. They queued with their buckets with all the other families to collect as much of this increasingly salinated and hazardous drinking water, before the supply was turned off for twenty-three hours. Water is an emotive issue and in short supply in many parts of the world, but it is plentiful supply in some parts of Gaza – 6,500 Jewish settlers enjoy a third of Gaza’s water supply, while 1.3 million Palestinians make do with the rest.

It was my turn to face the questioning. I was British. What was Blair doing? Have people forgotten the people of Gaza, kept in this prison? Should Ahmed have hope for outside intervention? Do people in England care what is happening in Gaza? He told me of the time that the soldiers came into his house, shot dead his cousin in front of them all, then left. What was eerie about the tale was that his three daughters giggled through the story, laughing as their father struggled for the English for cousin. Death and suffering were so common to them that it did not touch them. Twelve years old.

He told me of his eldest son, who was chased down the street by Israeli soldiers as he went to the mosque to pray. He was so frightened by the incident that all his hair fell out and now, fourteen years later, he is unmarried. There is no work. There is no hope in Gaza. Just the humiliation. Just the hopelessness. Just the knowledge that the occupiers can, and do, do whatever they choose, safe in the knowledge that nobody in the wider world cares.

"Does nobody out there care?" He focused on me with greater earnestness. "Is there no hope for us? Do we sit here and die? Do we sit and wait for Israelians to kill our children? Do we do nothing? Let Israelians take our land, our water, our olives, our everything? Do Britain not care what happens here?" He was angry now, aware that he lived in the world’s biggest prison, where there was no hope of parole. He had almost graduated from university, but the Israelis had prevented him from taking his final exams. He had diabetes and some other illness and medication was intermittent. Where could he go? What could he do? Nothing, except wait. The Israelis came, they arrested some, they killed others. Perhaps his son would be next.

"Does nobody out there care?" Imagine you lived in a city and it was encircled. There was no way out. Normal life is suspended. There is no work. For survival, you depend on sporadic handouts from the UN. The people encircling your city persuade the world that you are terrorists, animals, who must be kept behind barbed wire. But your captors need land for their own and so they begin to demolish some of your houses, forcing the inhabitants deeper into the city. Suddenly, spacious complexes housing the families crop up where your house used to be. You cannot do anything. Some of your friends try and offer armed resistance, but they are branded terrorists in the eyes of the world. Your captors take the opportunity to attack and destroy more of your city, while taking more land for its citizens. Water is in short supply and much is diverted to the occupier’s citizens. Attempts to resist are branded terror attacks. Those animals behind the barbed wire are terrorists. Imagine that you are fifteen years old and watch as the occupiers destroy your house with twenty minutes’ notice, as you watch your mother wail and your father interned. Do you feel angry, helpless? Do you want revenge? Do you want to fight back? There is no hope in your life. It is only a matter of time before they come for you and your new home. The world is not listening. The world does not care. You are nothing but an animal, nothing but a terrorist who lives behind the barbed wire. How do you get your message across to an outside world that is not listening and does not care? How do you fight back when you have significantly inferior weapons? How can you inflict losses on your occupiers? What do you have to live for if not the freedom of your family?

That, at least in part, in my opinion, is the context of the suicide bomber. A person who is dispossessed, humiliated, devoid of hope, stripped of dignity, unable to work, unable to provide for his family, unable to move outside a confined zone, watching helplessly as the occupier destroys more of his neighbours homes, while grabbing more land for occupying families, looking at his nation’s children as they experience record levels of malnutrition. Does he just sit there and accept it, this in a world where nobody cares about the Palestinians. They are a bunch of terrorists. If a Palestinian is armed and attacks Israeli soldiers occupying his land (an illegal occupation, according to those precious UN mandates that seem so important when the cause grabs American attention), he is a terrorist. If an Israeli attacks a Palestinian, he is defending himself or keeping the peace. Never has the phrase ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ been so true for me.

"Does nobody out there care?" Before I embarked on the Ginger Tour in 2001, I never really took the time to see things from other perspectives. My night in Pale, Bosnian Serbia, changed that, as Maja challenged me to decide how I would react if all this had happened to me. So how would you react in the situation above? How would you react if, as in Rwanda, they brought your neighbour to your house and gave you a choice: kill him now or watch as we rape your wife and daughter before we kill them in front of you. It is so easy to call people savages from the armchair in front of the television, but would you do if you were in their shoes?

"Does nobody out there care?" I looked at him and attempted a conciliatory answer, but we both knew I was waffling. No, Ahmed, we don’t care, we don’t give a shit. Ninety percent of people who will read this will have forgotten you by lunch-time. At best you will be an anecdote down the pub. My mate was in Gaza last week and went to see this family of refugees - that sort of thing. If I am sounding holier than thou at the moment, that is not my intention, as those of you who know me well will confirm. It is just that I see a lot of this suffering at first hand and the reality does not filter back home. The night before I flew to Israel, I was at a party in London where everyone was doing lines of coke as I sipped my Chardonnay. A girl was telling me about a mutual friend, who was off to Basra to make a film – how totally cool was that. As she went off to snort another line, I was depressed, so depressed because all that suffering in Iraq had been reduced to an awesome trip that a friend was making into the carnage.

It was the same as I left Gaza. I hitched a lift with three Swedes up to Tel Aviv. They were involved in the construction of a power plant in Gaza and were regularly fired on by Jewish settlers. Conversation varied from the light-hearted (Russian hookers, famous Swedish exports to England – Sven and Ulrika – and why the Finns are so stupid) to the more serious, especially the current situation in the region.

"So where do you Swedes stand in all this?"

"We are officially opposed to the war. It is so stupid. We are an insignificant country and our voice does not matter. Why don’t we back the obvious winner? Now Swedish companies will be excluded from the massive contracts in the rebuilding of Iraq." Money, money, money. Greed, greed, greed. No, Ahmed, nobody gives a shit about you or your family, or your suffering, or your fellow Palestinians. Even when Israelis murder citizens of the their great benefactor, America, nobody (including America) gives a shit. Have you heard of Rachel Corrie? She was world news for a day and then forgotten. She pledged to help these defenceless Palestinian children and was murdered by an Israeli bulldozer. If they can kill American sympathisers with no consequence, how are you, Ahmed, a mere Palestinian terrorist?

I do care and, perhaps because I was affected directly, because I spent time with Ahmed and his family, I am going to do something I have never done before, despite the numerous worthy causes I have encountered on my travels – I am going to ask you for money.

My time in Gaza affected me deeply. It is a prison, there is no escape, just repression and hopelessness. The people there know that the world has forgotten and does not care. I tried to imagine what it must be like to be given a life sentence with no hint of parole or a loved one who cares. I thought of the Beirut hostages and the sense of hope engendered with a message from a loved one. Perhaps I am being emotional, naïve – whatever – but I want Ahmed to know that, while you and I cannot change the situation, there are people outside Gaza who do care.

His family has nothing and needs everything, but above all his family needs hope, a message from outside the prison that someone is thinking of them. What I am asking is that you think about what I have written and make a contribution according to your means, so that we can do something to help Ahmed’s family, to let him know that there is someone outside his life sentence who is thinking of him. There is so much that they need – food, education materials, medicines, and a host of other things. The Bikini Goddess has agreed to liaise with the family and procure whatever is required. This is a rare care of charitable donation where 100% of the funds will go to the recipient. I have a friend in Oxford who has agreed to open a bank account and handle any cheques that may come in.

Please send cheques to:

Gaza Family

C/o Mrs. A. Bidwell

1a Davenant Road

Oxford

OX2

UK

Tel 01865-558034

If it easier for you to transfer cash, please contact me and I will give you my bank details, after which I can write a cheque for the amount. Any donors outside the pound zone – please contact me and we will figure a way. If you would like some input as to how your cash is spent, let me know. A full report on how the money is used will be provided on request.

I had by now gained Ahmed’s trust and friendship. Or had I? My cultural awareness is improving and I treaded carefully. The Bikini Goddess had told me that Gaza is the most conservative part of Palestinian society, although it appeared a little freer than Somalia, for example. I wanted to borrow his daughter and, as she excitedly showed my name and email address to her sisters, I knew that she was keen to spend more time with me, conversationally at least.

"Ahmed, if this is not acceptable in your culture, I understand, but can I borrow Huda for two hours to come and show me Gaza with the driver? She speaks much better English." His eyes narrowed, his suspicions aroused. "If she cannot come because of your culture, I totally understand. I just want to see as much as possible and she can translate for me." Huda looked expectantly in the direction of her father. He reluctantly agreed to two hours only. She let out a gasp of joy and then asked me to wait, while she prayed and changed.

The three of us did Gaza and I was not sure whether or not to be depressed or happy. Huda took delight in everything, pointing out all the beautiful buildings, the wonderful views. It is a total shit-hole, Huda, I wanted to say, but her pride and enthusiasm made me agree with her in everything. As we approached the coast, the buildings grew more opulent, something akin to a third-rate Turkish holiday resort. Hotels, empty hotels, erected by Arafat and his cronies, using money destined for the Palestinian people. Yes, Huda admitted, she was angry that they had kept the money for themselves. This for me is another real kick in the teeth for the average Palestinian – not only do they have to deal with the occupation, but their own leaders are totally corrupt as well, ruling by decree and terror.

The beach was as sandy and as welcoming as any I had come across. At least it would have been if it was not covered in rubbish. I smiled as we walked, a pretty young girl in black chador walking in the late afternoon on a humid, sandy beach. I closed my eyes and was back in Somalia with Muna, my Kenyan Somali friend, with whom I had shared so many special moments on the beach in Bosaso. Young Palestinian men, clad only in shorts, ran into the water and eyed us with suspicion. Huda could not swim, she was afraid. Swimming here was good though, although the Israelis would only let the boats go out so far and sometimes their gunboats came close to the shore and opened fire.

Arafat’s compound was next, or what was left of it. It was in slightly better condition than his main headquarters in Ramallah, which I had visited the previous day. Nothing remained there except one building at the edge of the complex. An area the size of two football pitches reduced to rubble. Israelis don’t get mad, they get even and then some. While everyone abhors the suicide bombings that kill Israeli civilians, little mention is made of the fact that far more innocent Palestinians civilians die at the hands of Israeli force.

As we drove back to the checkpoint – me to another carefree evening of beer and good food, she to her prison cell – I looked around the curiosity that is Gaza: the only place in the world where I have seen a No Entry road sign on the main street – for horses; the painted murals: Iraqi and Palestinian children – born to live; the numerous portraits of Saddam Hussein – a hero to some Palestinians, not only because he was an Arab strongman who stood up to America, but also because he had linked the withdrawal from Kuwait to an Israeli withdrawal back in 1991 (Palestinians paid heavily for that allegiance, as the Gulf States expelled all Palestinian guest workers, a vital source of income lost for good); but above all, people trying to get on with their lives in extremely difficult circumstances. As I said goodbye to Huda, I did something I have never done before on my travels – I made a promise that I would help her family in some way. And help her I will, and I ask you to help me in that help.

As you have probably realised if you have read this far, this is a subject about which I feel strongly. In a way, I feel bad about asking you for money, but I know a lot of you have Palestinian sympathies. There is my first and last Ginger appeal for cash. In the meantime, relax, the next Ginger Report is from Japan, and features eating raw eggs with chopsticks and a classroom full of Japanese six year-olds learning root vegetable vocab by rote, while running rings round a new Ginger teacher, while not forgetting of course to acquaint you with the machinations of Japanese washing machines, diminutive ironing boards, and my new role as an unlikely sex symbol.

As I returned to Jerusalem, I couldn’t help notice the new hotel by the bus station in Jaffa Street: Welcome to the George W. Bush Hotel.

After a final, wonderful evening in East Jerusalem with the Bikini Goddess and her lovely boyfriend, the only things that stood between me and a frantic day’s shopping in London prior to departure for Tokyo, were the chaps from El Kebab. The Gaza stamp seemed to enrage them and I was subjected to five consecutive interviews, each interviewer billed as more senior than the last. There was consistency in the questioning and I dealt with their questions easily enough. As my shoes were sent off for further analysis, I stuck to my story that no, I had not been to Ramallah and that I had visited Gaza out of curiosity, having heard it on the news so often. The only person I met the entire time was a taxi driver who spoke no English. They broke off the questioning for a while, as they asked me to stand in a cubicle while they went through my bag and shoes, and this was the unnerving bit.

I had nothing to hide, so I was not worried, but a guard was posted to stand directly in front of me, just to observe me, to assess my level of agitation, I guess. I looked up at him a couple of times, and he looked away. After a few minutes, I glanced at him again and this time he did not avert his eyes, but stared right back. We locked eyes for perhaps a minute, his pale blue eyes increasing in intensity. There was hate and contempt in those eyes, those Aryan blue eyes. The 177 questions did not phase me, but I will never forget those eyes. He was not the one who looked away.

Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.

Keep writing,

Love Paul

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Rwanda Remembered 20 Years On

I met a girl from Gitarama, Rwanda at an expats drinks gathering the other night in Split, Croatia. I knew the anniversary was approaching, but I was not prepared for the emotions unleashed from within from that night.

We laughed. A lot. She was 29, pretty, funny, engaging. Happy.

She took me took me back to a place I need to go, but never will properly. I am crying for the first time in years as I write this.

Rwanda 1994. I want you to meet Rose and hear her story, and my return to Rwanda in 2001. April 6 is 20 years since the start of the genocide.

From my book, Lebanese Nuns Don't Ski. 

Rose is one of the most astonishing people I have ever met. One of the things that had always bugged me about my time in Rwanda was that I did not really understand what happened there, for the simple reason that I never talked to a local about their experiences. I couldn’t. I mentioned earlier asking one of my staff about his family and he replied that they had all been shot dead and he only survived by pretending to be dead, escaping with a bullet wound to the neck. I never asked again. A few years later, while visiting them in Sri Lanka, I mentioned all this to Jeff. He told me to talk to Rose. I said I couldn’t, it was too intrusive. He said that Rose was Rose and she would be fine about it. So I talked to Rose, and Rose was Rose, and more. It was the most remarkable conversation I have ever had, not just for its content, but also for its conclusion

At the end of March 1994, Jeff's contract with the aid agency finished. Things were tense in Kigali and there were several reports of isolated killings. Jeff suggested to Rose that they went to Uganda for a while and although her French and Kinyarwanda would not be understood there, she agreed. She didn't say goodbye to her parents. Soon after they arrived, Jeff was asked to go to Angola on a three-month contract. He went three weeks later, leaving Rose with money and friends. In between his accepting the contract and actually departing, the plane carrying the presidents of Burundi and Rwanda was shot down as it approached Kigali airport

The killing had begun and over the next hundred days, up to a million people would be systematically killed, mostly Tutsis but also moderate Hutus. Rose was a Tutsi and she knew that none of her family would survive the slaughter. She was twenty-six, in a country where she did not speak the language. Alone. There was no news coming out of Rwanda, phone lines had been cut. The only things coming out of Rwanda were the dead bodies floating into Lake Victoria. Thousands of them. She went once to help with the clean-up operation, but only once. She couldn’t bear the prospect of seeing someone she knew being washed up. Years later we were in a restaurant in Sri Lanka, which had great seafood. I ordered prawns and urged her to do the same. She smiled:

“I can’t eat fish. Not after Lake Victoria. I feel like I might be eating my friends or family.”

Not knowing what to do, she approached the Tutsi army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, volunteering to fight against the slaughter. She was turned down as they were not recruiting women. She vowed never to go back to Rwanda, preferring to live on the street if necessary. Jeff, who had left for Angola, could not be contacted.

A few weeks later she received a phone call from her former employer. A former employer because she had left due to his sexual harassment. She was terrified that he had tracked her down to Kampala. He said that he had news of some of her family. She did not believe him, thinking it was just a ruse to get her to meet him. Eventually she relented and he told her that at least two sisters were alive and a brother-in-law was a minister in the new government. Transport was almost impossible but an army contact arranged a shared car. She spent her remaining money on clothes to give her surviving family - they would not have changed for weeks. She went first to her parents’ house. It had been levelled. Then she went to her sister’s house.

There were no words. There were no tears. There was just shock. Her sister and brother-in-law had been a teacher and a lawyer. Now they were just shadows of their former selves. They were so thin, their heads shaved because of lice, their young child suffering from malnutrition. They had known all along that Rose was okay because she had got out in time, but all this was new to her. Now she was not alone, she had some family. But they didn’t talk and even today, there is so much that has remained unsaid.

Details began to emerge. Her parents and younger sister went to take refuge in a church. Her paternal grandmother was a hundred years old and wanted to stay in her home, the house next door to Rose’s parents. Rose’s father could not leave her alone and so went back to see if she was okay. The militia caught up with him. They interrogated him and for every question they asked, they cut off another piece of his anatomy. Then they left him to bleed for a while. His hundred year-old mother brought water to tend his wounds, but the militia took her back to her own house and killed her. Rose knows all this because her sister, Irene, was sitting in a mango tree in the back garden with her brother, Deicore. They heard their father’s screams as he was being tortured. After the soldiers left, Deicore saw that there was no escape and, rather than hide, he walked into the street where they quickly finished him off.

Irene went back to the church, but could not tell her mother what was happening at home. There was not much time left for conversation anyway, as the militia came to attack the thousands of frightened and defenceless people seeking protection in this holy place. The priest opened the door and fled. All the old women were taken out, blindfolded and bound by hands and feet. Then they were taken by truck and thrown in the river, alive. They later arrived in Lake Victoria, dead. Rose knows this because she later met an old lady who had somehow survived. Her traumatic experience had sent her mad and she screamed at Rose:

“Your Mum was an idiot. She couldn’t even swim.” Bound by legs and arms, she didn’t have a chance.

The killers returned to the church where they completed the job with machetes. Irene suffered a severe machete blow to the head. She passed out. (At this point in the story, I am sat in Rose’s living room in Colombo, fighting back tears, when she suddenly bursts out laughing).

“You know what, Paul, when she came round, she looked up to the top of the church and she thought she could see Heaven. Then she looked around her and saw all the bodies and concluded that God had thrown her out of Heaven. There could be no other explanation.”

The only survivor from the church massacre, she went to the local convent for help, but the nuns shut their doors; Tutsis were a liability. She went to the forest and found temporary shelter with a friend of her father’s. But neighbours had suspicions that he was harbouring a Tutsi and so she had to flee. She hid in banana plantations for a week and then walked to Kigali. The RPF had taken control and it was now safe for Tutsis. She had survived.

Another sister, Claire, was heavily pregnant. They came and took her husband and son and killed them, but she was spared by a Hutu soldier. He told her that if the baby was a boy, he would kill them both, but that if it was a girl, he would take care of them, the implication being he would take her as his wife, having just killed her husband. He took her to the forest for safety. She gave birth - to a boy. Just then the RPF overran the forest and the Hutu soldier fled to Goma. She had survived.

Another sister, Immacule, was at home with her husband and children. He was on a hit list. Managing to escape through a neighbour’s garden, he jumped over a fence and found himself face to face with his potential killers. He was saved only because they did not know who he was. Giving them all the money they had, he fled to a nearby orphanage. By chance, so did his wife and children. They were holed up in terrible conditions for weeks, not knowing of the other’s existence. The RPF eventually liberated the area. They had survived.

A brother, Aimable, was trapped in his house and needed something for his small baby. As soon as he left the house to look for it, he was captured. He took hisfate calmly, asking only that he might be allowed to smoke a last cigarette. They granted his wish and then hacked him to death. Another brother was reported killed in Gitarama to the south, but there are no details. That left only the final sister, Leah.

She lived some way from Kigali and they came for her husband. While she was pregnant and cowering in one room, they were dealing with her husband in the next room. She heard his screams as he was tortured. She heard how it was explained to his killer that if he cut out the heart while the man was still living, and then ate it, he would not be troubled by the dead man’s spirit. His killer slept soundly that night. She somehow managed to escape to Burundi. She had survived.
Jeff, meanwhile, had had no news whatsoever, except for periodic reports in Angola from the BBC. He was sent back to work in Rwanda via Burundi and eventually managed to get to the house of Rose’s parents. Seeing it destroyed, he went next door and found Rose’s sisters. They informed him that she had left to go back to Kampala twenty minutes previously. She was living with different people now and it took them a long time to find each other.

In June, 2001, the day before her wedding, Irene assembled her sisters together and took them to their father’s grave. There she told them, some seven years later, what her father had said just before he died:

“Tell whoever survives that I am dying with my mother. Death is not so bad.” They found his body eight months later. I remember the day well. Jeff came to the house and informed me quietly. I went out. This was no place for a foreigner who simply did not understand. They could only identify the body by the clothing - everything else was too disfigured. I asked Rose how she felt about finding the body:

“I felt good. You know, Paul, the nicest thing was that when I got my first pay packet, I bought my Dad a shirt. And that was the shirt he was wearing when he died.”

This was close to the end of the story. It had taken four hours, four of the most absorbing and compelling hours of my life. Throughout it all, I was close to tears, even though I had not suffered. Looking at me, with her braided hair, her big brown eyes and one of the most beautiful smiles I have ever seen, revealing a set of perfect white teeth, she finished with this thought, which for me was more breath-taking than everything I had just heard:

“You know, Paul, life is good, life is bad. People live, people die. Shit happens.”

I couldn’t respond to that. We sat down again in Nairobi to talk about the events one more time so that I could get the accurate facts. At the end she thanked me because for her it was a release to actually talk about it. As she sat in the yard, sunglasses on, hair tied back, engaging smile, Liam asleep on her lap, I asked her about hatred. Didn’t she feel hate towards the people who had killed her parents, grandmother and brothers?

“No. It wasn’t their fault. They were used by the authorities. I don’t blame the people who actually did it.” We talked about reconciliation and about Hutus. “You know, Paul, I don’t see a person as black or white, Hutu or Tutsi. I see them as a person. If I find a Hutu I like, and I have, they will be my friend.”

From that lonely person in Kampala at the start of the genocide, Rose has blossomed. Jeff and Rose married in California. They have two lovely boys. She showed me her house and her new life. It is impossible to detect signs of the tragedy that she has been through. For someone to have been through so much and to have come through the other side seemingly so unscathed and not bitter, is a shining example to us all.

And there was I sat in the Blackbird for months in a vat of beer, because I could not deal with a tragedy that would not even register on Rose’s scales.
Rwanda was everywhere in Nairobi and I could not escape it. I was reunited with Jeanne-Francine, the only secretary I had ever had.  She terrorised me and bossed me around in Rwanda and it was lovely to see her as she waltzed into Rose’s house some six years later, as beautiful and dominant as ever, complete with lovely husband and three kids.  Although I had forgotten my French, she insisted that that was the language we speak.  One of the first things I asked was what had happened to Augustin after I had left. Augustin Sagahutu had been my warehouse manager.  He had stolen $5,000 worth of stock and I had caught him red-handed through the documentation.  My boss had insisted that we prosecute.  Prosecution in Kigali in 1995 was an interesting affair.  There were 15,000 prisoners awaiting genocide trails, but the killing had left only two judges alive.  The military had stepped in to administer arbitrary justice.

We were both summonsed to appear before a major in battle fatigues.  As he sat behind his desk, he motioned for me to open the case for the prosecution.  I showed all the documentation and put over a convincing case for the theft.  Defence council, Augustin himself, admitted the crime.  With a bored look, the major turned to me once again.

“What do you want us to do with him?” 

What indeed? If I had asked for Augustin to be executed, I have no doubt that it would have happened. People were dying of disease, AIDS, stabbings in the prisons, and it was not certain that he would have survived an extended stay there.

“I expect him to be punished according to the law of the land.”  It was agreed that he would be imprisoned for a few days while a formula was worked out whereby he could repay the money.  I left the case with my very inadequate American assistant, because I flew out of Rwanda the next day for good.  I had never found out what happened to him since and I had been plagued by the thought that I had not made better provision for his release.   It was with much relief that Jeanne-Francine informed me that he was set free less than a week later, only to be re-arrested some months later, for stealing from another warehouse.

At least he had been freed. Now all I had to worry about was Albert, the author of the tatty Russian letter.

Chapter Twelve: The Great Lakes – Goodbye Genocide

The dreams are getting more bizarre. Consider last night.  My dream started with a breakfast of rum and coke, followed by champagne.  Soon after that I was transported into a field of mud, where all the ladies were wearing evening dresses, fabulous hats and expensive perfume.  The point of the meeting was to watch a bunch of goats, resplendent in numbered jackets and doing a perfect imitation of the reluctant greyhound, careering round a racetrack.  In my dream, I soon fell into conversation with a cute girl from Byelorussia, who had not spoken her native tongue in depth for almost two years: she was so excited that she completely abandoned her Australian-Greek pilot boyfriend, took my hand and wandered off into the sunset.  Sometime later I found myself holding the knee of a young Ugandan prostitute called Alison, as she poured out the tears over her wretched life.  Declining Alison’s generous offers of hospitality, I left the bar and realised I was completely lost and alone in the middle of Kampala.  I ended up in an unlit industrial estate and survived an attempted mugging, finally arrived home about 4.30 am with a packet of Rich Tea biscuits, only to find the guard could not hear my banging, so I was forced to spend the night on the street with the mosquitoes.  Two soldiers woke me about six and aroused the guard, taking the remainder of my Rich Tea in payment.  I finally got to my room to find my host and hostess asleep on the floor there.  As if to confirm that all the above must have been a dream, England beat Germany 5-1 in a World Cup qualifier - we had watched it on a giant screen with the goats.  Thank God my life was not as exciting as my dreams.

The Sunday paper headline was Germany 1, England 5.  Did all the above really happen?

Kampala rocks, like no city I had been in thus far, with the possible exception of Beirut.  Of course, impressions of a city depend largely on the company you keep and I was once again fortunate (although my liver will not agree) with my hosts, Shelly and Moses.  I met Shelly once in 1995 in Armenia, when she gave me a lift from Yerevan to Tbilisi.  I remember only two things about the drive;  firstly, I thought it would be highly amusing to smear an After Eight chocolate into her thigh while she was driving;  and secondly, I insisted that she stop so that I could pick a bunch of wild flowers for Keti, whom we were to meet later at a party.  The flowers had wilted by the time we crossed the border and I was laughed out of the party.  Flowers have always been an Achilles heel for me.  I remember once sending a Russian girlfriend a dozen red roses for her birthday.  She did not speak to me for three weeks, because, I was later to find out, even numbers of flowers symbolise death in Russia. We split up a month later.

Shelly was busy so she sent Moses to meet me at my hotel.  Within minutes, we had retired to a lively bar, consuming pints of Pils and listening to conversation-drowning renditions from Oasis, James, REM.  It could have been anywhere in England on a Friday night.  It had been a while and it was good to touch base briefly with my former life.

“Do you want to meet a bunch of black blokes?”

“Sure.”

“When I say a bunch, I mean a lot.”

“How many are we talking?”

“My entire extended family. But there’s good beer.”

“Let’s go.  What’s the occasion?

“Jasper’s going to China.”

I briefly debated to ask who the hell Jasper was, but decided to keep quiet, as I was sure Jasper’s mission would reveal itself in due course.  We pulled into a Soviet-style set of apartment blocks, built in the Sixties by Israel, long before Idi Amin rerouted Uganda’s foreign policy into anti-Zionism in return for Libyan dollars.

It was a special part of the night.  I say part of the night because it was not possible to be in just one place in Kampala - you just kept moving on until you fell over.  Jasper was Moses’ cousin and, at nineteen, he had never been outside of Uganda.  But on Saturday he was flying to China to study international law at Beijing University.  He will not return for four years and he speaks no Chinese.  As the beer flowed, so did the oration.  The only person not to make a speech was myself, fortunately, as I had arrived that morning on the overnight bus from Nairobi and was fading fast on my one-hour’s sleep.  I was not only the only mzungu (white man) but also the only non-family member.  The bar was owned by Alfred, a brother, and I was made very welcome. I fell into conversation about the politics of the Great Lakes region with a Presidential advisor, but we were soon hushed as the speeches were getting to the important people.
Jasper admitted to being terrified.  I didn’t blame him.  His female cousins joked that he would return with a harem of Chinese wives, an uncle lectured him on the evils of drink (although his slurred words indicated he did not practise what he preached), another uncle, the master of ceremonies, spoke movingly about the contribution of the various aunties, who had done all they could to keep the family together, especially after Jasper’s father died.  Another uncle made an authoritative speech.  I was later informed that he was the Minister of Agriculture, after he had introduced himself to me.  It all ended with prayers.  A special time for me, because I have never been close to an extended family and it was nice to see such strong bonds.

Uganda is known as the Pearl of Africa and is one of the continent's best-kept secrets. I met people from the British Embassy who describe it as a choice posting.  It is one of the most fertile parts of the continent, there is reasonable infrastructure left by the British colonial legacy and it one the few countries in Africa which has a declining AIDS rate, the result of intensive education (in stark contrast to Kenya, for example, whose President Moi recently gave a newspaper article under the headline ‘Why I am embarrassed by condoms’). President Museveni has held the country together reasonably well, despite internal divisions and unstable neighbours, and, while the country may not be as democratic as it is hailed, it is much better than in the recent past.  You will all have heard about the rule of Idi Amin in the Seventies, whose forces raped and pillaged the country for an eight year period, killing several hundred thousand at will, and expelling the entire Asian population, who were allowed to take out just one hundred dollars per person, while  everything else was confiscated.  Amin’s rule was preceded and succeeded by Obote, as ruthless a killer as Amin himself.  There seems to be little trace of those horrors these days, but the memories live on.  I met the son of Uganda's UN representative in Alfred's Bar, who told me about his family's flight during the Amin years.  His mother and six-year old brother were caught and spent six months in brutal custody.  His mother has to this day never spoken of what she went through.

I was keen to learn more of Ugandan politics but failed, because most of what I experienced was through a beer or rum bottle.  I don’t think I would have survived if I had been sober that Saturday in Kampala, because it was one of the most surreal days of my life.  The capacity was there from the start, especially as I watched Shelly make a perfect ladies hat out of a piece of fabric and part of a cereal packet (Blue Peter, eat your heart out), but the most normal thing about the Royal Ascot Goat Races was the goat racing. Everything else was just too bizarre.

As the name suggests, it is an event where the cream of Ugandan society dresses up to the nines, quaffs champagne and indulges in false conversation.  The most important thing is to be seen and to get an invite to the right hospitality tent.  I was much pleased that it absolutely pissed with rain and so many of those wonderful outfits were ruined by mud.  I was also much impressed by our hospitality tent, the Sheraton Kampala, whose generous barman filled my gut with beer, rum, champagne and wine over a six hour period. I drank more than I should have because I have a grudge against the Sheraton, ever since they fired me in Munich over the snake episode.

Germans.  They just never see the funny side.  As the evening progressed, a giant screen appeared and the football started to wild enthusiasm.  The Germans scored first and half the locals went crazy.  I had just been introduced to Tina, a slim, bespectacled brunette.

“So do you follow football?”

“Used to, but not so much now.  Although I hope we stuff the Germans.  Hate the buggers.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.  Can’t explain.  Anyway, you don’t look as though you want to talk football.  Where are you from?”

“Germany.” 

Ah.

But back to the goats.  There were ten in each race and they were for sale before the race, for up to $400 each.  Winning prize-money was in the thousands. 

They really did look like shy greyhounds as they lined up.  I watched the five o’clock race.  Basically, the goats had to get round (I refuse to say run round, because I would be sued for misrepresentation) a grass circuit twice.  There was a commentator in the middle, who did a marvellous job through his microphone.

“And...  they’re off.  What a blistering start.  All jockeying for position.   No clear front runner yet.” 

No goats had actually moved. 

Goats are not aquatic animals, but they struggled on in the pouring rain.  An ingenious method of encouraging the competitors forward was an advertising board on wheels, which was gently prodded into their behinds until they moved.  And so, to tumultuous cheers and inventive commentary, our heroes moved forth.  My favourite moment was the climax of the race.

“And as they dash into the home straight, it’s number four, Specialised Cargo, who has it by a nose.”  At this moment, Specialised Cargo and all his chums stopped dead.  Only when the boarding hit them where it hurts did they saunter over the finishing line.

More beer and garlic shrimp was followed by the 6.00 Emirates Derby, sponsored by Emirates Airline, a two-furlong dash. Goat 5, Poster Board, a huge black creature, stole the show, and probably a competitor’s virginity, in what proved to be a hilarious finale. The race started normally enough (in as far as the word ‘normal’ applied to the day’s proceedings), with the goats in a tightly-packed bunch. Poster Board then came into his own with some innovative tactics. He started mounting Goat 10, a rather frightened Silk Purse. This emboldened Silk Purse to run faster, as she was fighting for her honour, and she quickly took the lead. All was going well for her, until Poster Board caught up and made another attempt to climb on top of her. Silk Purse turned backwards and headed into the field for protective cover, only to find herself being entered while facing the oncoming advertising board. The final lap brought her to the fore again, and she won the race quite literally with Poster Board riding on her back.

The victory celebration lap was something I have never seen or will see again. Poster Board had got his girl and he was busy consummating the relationship for a full minute amid delirious cheering from the crowd.

“And the winner is Goat Number Ten, Silk Purse. After a steward’s enquiry, Goat Number Five, Poster Board, has been disqualified for interfering with another competitor.” A novel way of interfering, I am sure.

I was disappointed to learn that the goats did not become kebabs in the evening.  But the day was all about drinking.  Olga, the Byelorussian, spirited me away from the rest and I soon found myself talking French to her prospective mother-in-law somewhere in Kampala.  I liked her boyfriend, but he did not speak Russian and Olga wanted to speak Russian. She was a nice lass, but I was aware that Boyfriend was getting a little impatient with her, so when Alison approached, I was more than happy to talk.

I had, by this stage, been drinking for thirteen hours and through my beer goggles, Alison appeared the most beautiful girl in the world.  Although I have many bad habits when I am drunk, I still manage to detect a prostitute and am able to explain that I am not interested.  She just wanted to talk, which struck me as suspicious, but as I had no money (Visa cards don’t work in Uganda, something I learned at 3.01pm on a Friday, just after the banks shut), I was not unduly worried.

I am a bit hazy as to what happened next, but we fell into earnest conversation.  She was twenty, beautiful, lost and miserable.  I kept a supportive (for her an emotional support, for me a physical one - I was totally pissed) hand on her knee for the next two hours as she cried her eyes out.  I remember only snatches of phrases.

“I do this as I need to eat... I am scared of AIDS but I am scared of hunger... You are the first mzungu who has been nice to me...  I hate this life but I am alone in Kampala...  You can pay me whatever you like.”  At one stage I became aware that she was supposed to be working and I apologised for taking her time as I was not interested in her services, but she replied that it was just so nice to be able to talk to someone who was prepared to listen and was interested in her for herself, not her body. I found her telephone number and email address in my pocket the next morning. 

Alison offered me a place to stay for the night, but I thought it prudent not to accept.  The thing was, I was totally lost in the middle of Kampala.  Everyone I knew in the bar had gone.  I had no idea of Shelly’s address, although I knew roughly where it was, past an industrial estate just off Jinja Road.  I staggered off.

As I entered the industrial estate, I became aware of two youths following me. There wasn’t much I could do except continue, but I tried to walk in a straighter line, in order to give an impression of sobriety. When we turned the corner into an unlit part of the road, they quickened their pace.

“We have come for your money.”  I made a drunken calculation.  They didn’t look armed.  Or particularly scary.  But then I was not scared of anything at the moment, for I had drunk too much.

“Are you prepared to kill me for my money?”

“No.”

“Well fuck off then.”  They fucked off. 

I passed a 24-hour garage and bought chocolate, water and Rich Tea biscuits.  Soon I was home.  Champion.  I knocked on the metal gate, but not too loudly as

I did not want to wake the neighbourhood.  The guard did not hear me, so I decided on a lush clump of grass by the side of the road.  It was 4.30am.  I was bitten relentlessly by the mosquitoes, but I did not mind as I was fortified by lager.  Just after six, I was awoken by two soldiers on patrol, who were concerned for my welfare.  They awoke the guard and the neighbourhood and I was soon in my room, only to find Moses and Shelly on the floor there, laughing at my adventures. A great night.

It was the calm before the storm, for the return to Rwanda was about to become a reality.

***

I last went camping nine years ago, a totally forgettable do-it-yourself Russian holiday on the Black Sea.  It had seemed a good idea at the time, as both Fiona and I were new to St. Petersburg, broke, and keen to improve our Russian language and cultural understanding.  We both jumped at the chance to spend ten days with Volodya and his friends in this “unbelievably beautiful spot on this pristine beach.” Ten days at the beach, as well as forty-four hours on the train down and fifty-six on the way back.  We wouldn’t have minded if the beach had been all it was cracked up to be, but the pristine beach was all pebbles, the Black Sea lived up to its name, there were no facilities, the company was dull, we even came home one evening to find some Russians asleep in our sleeping bags.  The only bright spot in the whole trip was Fiona’s admirable decision to go topless for the first time. Apart from her delicious state of undress, it ranks as the worst holiday of my life.  Both of us resolved never to camp again.  She never has and I was as good as my word until I returned to Rwanda.  I doubted that anything could surpass the previous weekend's entertainment of the Royal Ascot Goat Races, but Jungle George’s Hippo Safari proved me wrong.  It also showed me that there was an enjoyable side to camping.

George was a white South African diplomat (an oxymoron I know) and a good friend of my excellent hosts, Chris and Maria.  With a Swiss diplomat called Marc completing the quintet, we prepared for an overnight stay in Akagera Park, in the east of Rwanda, in order to escape the masses and see what game we could spot.  George was my real life Crocodile Dundee and he emerged with the vehicle for the trip, a Toyota Hilux pick-up.  But not your ordinary pick-up, this one had been modified and included impressive gadgets from satellite tracking (do you realise we are sixty-four hours from Kigali at the moment, as we jumped from pothole to pothole), to a tent attached to the roof which unfolded and was supported by a ladder, to a self-winching kit (useful when we got stuck in a hole the size of Wales).

I have never been a great animal person, but driving around the park (with two of our number sat on the roof with binoculars) there was something fantastic about seeing animals in the wild.  The park itself was diverse, ranging from thick forest to open savannah.  And there were no other people at all, except for a few Belgian fishermen. To be able to find a space in Rwanda where you are not constantly addressed by the phrase “Mzungu, donne-moi cent francs a manger” is bliss indeed.  To think that the whole of Rwanda must have all been like this several generations ago was astonishing. It was how I had pictured Africa in my childhood - vast open spaces, a rich variety of green shrubbery, tree-infested hills and clear tranquil lakes.  And wandering around aimlessly were the zebras, the impalas, baboons, monkeys, oryx, maribus and another mammal that we didn’t recognise and whose name George only knew in Afrikaans.

And there were hippos. Lots of them.  All in the lake.  It was decided that we should pitch tent there and, after having checked with the Belgians that the spot we had chosen, some ten metres from the lake, would be safe from hippo attack, we started to make camp, erecting the tents and gathering the firewood.  The hippos occasionally raised their heads above water, croaking deeply and lazily. I didn’t know much about them, but I was certainly not feeling relaxed at the proximity. Still, Jungle George knew what he was doing.

“Hippos are responsible for more human deaths in Africa than any other animal,” he reassured me cheerfully, examining his tent.  “The trick with hippos is not to get in their usual path, because you will be toast if you do.” As the light faded, the kerosene-assisted fire provided the only light. The croaking seemed to get louder.  And nearer.  It was like that Budweiser advert with the three frogs, just deeper and with more menace and with a lot more frogs.  Was this how I was to go, after having come so far?

Dinner was among the best I had had on the trip.  Maria, despite being born with the misfortune of Swedish parentage, had made a go of things and married Chris, a Brit who excelled in toilet humour and extremely funny stories. She had prepared dinner beforehand, and we four boys were treated to fresh avocado in a caviar mayonnaise sauce, followed by deliciously marinated kebabs, cheese and biscuits, coffee and chocolate. Lots of great conversation, some bad singing from Chris, and a chance to enjoy the peace that the clear sky, so full of stars, offered.

“It’s a nice night for a genocide.” I can’t remember who said it, but the phrase stuck with me.  April 6, 1994 could have been a clear night like that night.
When it came to bedtime, Marc and JG climbed the ladder and slept in the tent on top of the jeep (very safe from the hippos I thought to myself), leaving the newlyweds and myself to doss down in the six-man tent on the ground.  There was a double air mattress, which we positioned vertically, so that at least our heads and backs would receive some sort of cushion. 

We brushed our teeth, said our goodnights and wandered into sleep. At least Chris did.  Budweiser Hippo seemed to be outside the tent.  I was just as scared as Maria, but she hid her fear less well.  Soon she was sat bolt upright, panicking.  They are coming closer, I think I can see them.  The only time Chris was even slightly ruffled during the night was when Maria and I were awoken from a very light slumber by the sound of a hippo baritone duet.  We both woke with a start, sat up immediately and listened.  The effect on the mattress of our sudden movement meant that Chris found himself lowered to ground level.  It was enough to waken even him.

Maria could bear it no longer.  Clad in knickers and t-shirt, she ventured forth, determined to confront her fears.  Chris, loyal husband that he is, watched her go, then drifted back to sleep. She found nothing amiss and returned to continue her tortured night. I was having problems myself, as there was something running close to my right ear.  I tried to ignore it and eventually drifted into sleep.  Things were by now getting too much for Maria - she heard a baby hippo inside the tent, before concluding that it must be the gentle snoring emanating from somewhere in my sleeping bag.  I had no idea what she meant. I now understand the phrase, a rumble in the jungle. 

It was nice to be back on terra firma in Kigali, but an excellent weekend, with some very good company.  Again.  These friends of friends really were an excellent mode of travel.   Having said it was nice to be back, I was awoken a couple of days later by a sound more terrifying than a (whatever the collective noun is) of hippos - the family cat was giving birth.  Poor thing, it had no idea what was happening.  I escaped to the Congo and learned on my return that she had given birth to four kittens, but only three remained as Callous Chris had brutally massacred Number Four, one over quota, with a combination of a spoon and bucket of water.  I shall spare you the details.

Returning to Rwanda was always going to be an emotional time for me.  I didn’t do it sober.  Moses looked delighted in Kampala when I said that there was not much point going to bed if I had to be up at five to catch the bus.  Another tour of Alfred’s Bar and several others culminated in us arriving home at 4.45am, just enough time for fifteen minutes kip on the sofa, before Shelly's smiling face greeted the new day.  I was totally drunk and would not have made the bus, had it not been for help from Shelly’s other guests, also destined for Kigali.

I am glad I was drunk, as I would not have survived sober.  The bus journey was scarier than flying Yemenia.  Strictly sixty passengers, it stated.  Was that sixty sitting and sixty standing?  The driver was in a hurry, achieving speeds I never managed in my Landcruiser.  That was all very well, but what really freaked me was the fact that the body of the bus did not seem to be secured to the rest of the vehicle. I lost count of the times I seemed to be at a 45-degree angle as we careered around corners at improbable speeds.

My mind wandered back to that extraordinary summer in 1994, where events had taken on a life of their own.

After graduating, I had moved to Moscow, for my megabucks graduate job in freight forwarding, only to quit after a month, once it became obvious that the company was just a pawn of the mafia, and was heavily involved in shipping arms. A chance encounter with a friend in a bar sparked a phone call to my old boss, who was just being transferred to Rwanda; on learning that I spoke French, he assured me that a job would be waiting. I knew nothing of Rwanda, had never been to Africa, and it was only that night, in a Moscow sports bar, that I saw for myself the graphic pictures of the camps in Zaire and Tanzania.

Things moved quickly after that. Within a week, I was in Nairobi, having passed through the office in London for a briefing; the problem was that nobody really knew anything there as the genocide had only finished a couple of weeks earlier and there were no telephone links with Rwanda. I bought water-purifying tablets, a first aid kit and malaria pills, searching also for a map of the country, but London’s map shops had long sold out of its 1960’s map of Rwanda and Burundi.

My one night in Nairobi was spent in the company of an American press officer, also an African first-timer and, at the famous Carnivore restaurant, we gorged on zebra, alligator, wildebeest, eland, perversely I thought, as the following day we would be entering a country with almost no food. We flew to Entebbe and were chauffeured to the office in Kampala, where there was just time for a coffee, before I was handed the keys to a white Peugeot 405 and informed that I would be driving to the border town of Kabale, following a mad Ugandan in a Landcruiser. I remember little of the scenery on the way down, for I was concentrating on keeping up with Gordon, while avoiding obstacles such as donkeys and pot-holes; I do remember inadvertently destroying a police roadblock, but it was either that or lose Gordon for good.

In Kabale, I met my new supervisor, a weird American woman, deaf as a post, who had no idea what I would be doing, which proved to be the case for most of my time there. Rwandan operations were being run out of a small sub-office there, as things in Rwanda were too tense, although I had been informed in London that I would be working in Rwanda proper.

The following morning I drove across the border, changing from the left (British influence in Uganda) to the right (Belgian in Rwanda) and whatever tension I felt at this unfamiliar territory was magnified by the first roadblock, a crude affair consisting of a rope attached to a couple of rusted out oil drums; the soldier, in smart battle fatigues, Kalashnikov and toothy grin, was no more than twelve years old.

Any relief I might have felt at finding a familiar face was short-lived, for my Moscow boss looked exhausted and could barely manage more than a handshake and the following words:

“Great to see you. No time to talk. Have a nice agricultural project for you. Proposal is here. East of the country. Driver and interpreter will be here in the morning. Do your best. Gotta dash, another meeting. See you at dinner.”

Accommodation was insane. We were billeted at the boss’ house, a picturesque four-bed in quieter times, but now a morass of bodies, as fifteen expats struggled for sleeping space. There was no running water, just a few jerrycans in the morning, never enough for everyone, but then thirteen of the fifteen were turned around in 24 hours and sent on to the camps, and the new arrivals never knew of the lack of water until it was too late.

The ‘nice agricultural proposal’ sounded a challenge. As the country had been emptied of living people during the preceding murderous months, due either to death or flight, nobody knew how many people had returned. What was known was that all the harvests had rotted in the field, that most houses had been looted and destroyed, and that food was scarce. So scarce in fact, that there were no restaurants and scarcely any markets in the capital. There was also no electricity, no telephones, no nothing, apart from that wartime essential - beer. Crates of Primus saw us through the first few weeks.

My job was to assess how many people were back, to get them organised through their villages and communities, and organise distributions of food, seeds and tools. By providing enough food until the next harvest a few months hence, it was hoped that the majority would be helped back to self-sufficiency, which is broadly what happened.

Not that it looked as though it would in those early months. We headed east that first morning, to the first small town, our destination the district authorities. If anyone had information, then they would be the ones to ask. I had some idea of the enormity of the task that lay before me when we arrived at the building. I had been hoping to meet some officials with a broad estimate of people around, but instead found a shell of a building, with no roof, doors or windows; papers were strewn liberally about and there was a giant safe whose door had been forced. There were no signs of recent human life there.

But slowly, surely, patiently, we built up a picture, we found local officials, we talked to village leaders, and a distribution plan to help 320,000 people was put into place. Warehouses were filled with the seeds and tools that we had bought, as well as the food from the UN, fuel was purchased for the trucks that we hired, and all was ready within a month.

Of all the extraordinary experiences of my life, nothing has come close to those distributions; it was awesome. Having arranged for the trucks to be fuelled and loaded the previous day, our convoy would set off at five or six in the morning, arriving in a field in the middle of Africa some hours later. Local helpers would then start to unload the cargo, neatly arranging the fifty kilo sacks of food and seeds in piles to ease the distribution process. My team of five local staff would erect a simple distribution site, with stakes and rope, and all would be ready.

At around eight in the morning, we would see the first of the beneficiaries on the horizon, walking, often barefoot, having come distances of twenty kilometres or more. Upon arrival, they would simply sit in silence and wait until it was their turn. Local authorities would then arrange people by village and they would be given their allocation after being checked against the previously compiled lists. Ten kilos per family meant that a 50kg bag was given to five heads of family and then split afterwards, always under supervision. The heads of family were often small boys, no older than six, the only surviving males.

And as the five local staff processed up to four thousand people an hour, my supervisory role became redundant, and I would walk around, the only white man in a field of twenty thousand Rwandese, who had all come here because we had announced that there would be food. And when they had divided the food, they put their new supplies into smaller bundles, placed them on their heads, then quietly walked the twenty kilometres home. There was rarely any shouting, any fuss, for the genocide had placated the nation. One of the most gratifying moments of my life was touring the fields a few months later, as these same beneficiaries were harvesting their beans. Back on their feet, trying to get back to normal life.

The hard work had all been worth it.

Those local staff worked hard, day in, day out, and I did my best to keep morale high. We would stop for beer and goat kebabs after distributions at my expense, and while I don’t kid myself that I belonged, there was a warmth, a mutual respect that meant something.

Which made the events of early 1995 all the more difficult. It started with Josef, the tall Hutu with a stammer, as gentle a giant as I had come across. He was popular amongst all the staff, and Jeff rated him highly, having worked with him for five years previously. He was always punctual and never ill, so we were surprised when he didn’t show for work for a couple of days. We were even more surprised when we were told that he had been arrested for genocide.
Jeff went to visit him, to put a stop to what was obviously a trumped-up charge, but Josef asked him to leave, not to come again, to accept his apologies for letting Jeff down, for all the charges were true. This same gentle Josef had been accused of first raping, then murdering, then cutting up numerous women. We had been laughing over beer earlier that week, just as we had every week for the previous six months.

Emile was the next to disappear, although I suppose I should not have been too surprised, for there was something sinister that lurked in the character that hid behind those metallic sunglasses. He was wandering through the market when he was accosted by a wide-eyed eight year-old, who pointed to him determinedly and uttered two sentences over and over, getting louder with each utterance:

“You killed my father. I saw you kill my father.”

Emile tried to brush the boy away with a couple of hundred francs for a Coke, but the boy would not be deterred. He knew what he had seen and he was not going to be silenced. Eventually, a crowd surrounded them both and the boy’s story was told – Emile and his accomplices had killed the entire village, with the exception of this boy, who had witnessed the whole thing from the safety of a banana tree.

More were arrested until I lost all faith in these people. People I had relied on, trusted. Murderers, rapists, sadists. And then they came for Albert, my Russian-speaking friend. Not him, surely?

The thought of Albert brought me back to the present. We were entering Kigali, my home for nine mind-numbing months after the genocide. Memories, memories.  But Kigali was my home no longer.  And Kigali was not the city I remembered.  Some parts were still the same, the single-storey, corrugated roofed buildings dotted randomly in the numerous lush, green hills.  But there were new buildings, smarter, grander, built from the proceeds of stolen minerals from the Congo.  Internet cafes abounded, businessmen walked around with mobile phones clutched to the ear, the streets were full of orphaned beggars, teenagers selling postcards, trousers, themselves, anything to keep the devil of poverty at bay.  Flash new bars were two a penny.  But my first impression was how quiet the place had become.  Gone was the multitude of aid agencies, which dominated the roads in the posh white jeeps.  Expatriate population was back to its pre-1994 days.

Some agencies were still here, as well as the UN, but diplomats and mineral dealers were all the rage these days.

I wandered down to my old house, which I shared with Jeff and Rose.  So many memories, many happy, the 5am starts, the whisky-fuelled cursing of our boss until late at night, the parties, the fleet of jeeps in the drive, the opening of my office downstairs, the balcony with a G&T at sunset, finally leaving the house with Jane early one morning and being hurt that Jeff had not come to say goodbye (I learned later that he spent the next two days in bed drunk and physically could not move), all those memories.  And as I approached, I noticed the Red Cross still rented next door, the makeshift wall having been rebuilt after I had destroyed it with a spectacular piece of speed reversing.  But my house was empty.  Peering over the barbed wire and broken glass that lined the gate and walls, I saw the windows smashed, the air of abandonment.  It was a tremendously sad moment.  I went to the office, but that too had moved on, now rented by another organisation (I later discovered that the new director decided the building reeked of genocide and the past - a fresh start was required.  I think she was right).

Walking slowly up the hill in the midday sun, I took solace in the fact that The Ministry would still be there. The Ministry was our local, a spit and sawdust kind of place, where beer came in bottles, seating in plastic chairs and comforts were limited.  The only advantages it had were proximity to the office, a constant supply of cold beer and the fact that one of our expats fancied the waitress.  It was basic and I loved it.  It was called The Ministry because the same expat was expected home at a certain time by his wife.  She would radio to ascertain his whereabouts.  I'm in a meeting at the Ministry, dear.  Home in twenty.  Just time for another quick one, he would wink at us.

But now The Ministry has become the Crescendo Bar, specialists in barbecues.With its bamboo fence and roof, lilac plastic chairs, floral tablecloths, hanging pots, walls ‘tastefully’ decorated in turquoise and light pink, waiters in bow-ties, who pour beer into glasses for the customer, The Ministry was not as it had been.  The only improvement was that it served my favourite Mutzig in bigger, 72cl bottles.  I was mourning the passing of the Kigali I had known over another cold one when I realised I was glad.  Kigali had moved on and so had I.

The one person I really wanted to find was my assistant, Felix, a large and jovial Burundian.  He was my Mr. Fixit and the project would have collapsed without him.  I found his number, called and introduced myself by the old radio call sign.  His surprise was total after a six-year silence, but he was soon round to collect me, insisting on paying for the beer and brochettes, driving his jeep and talking importantly into his mobile phone. He used to rent cars for the aid agency - now he sells them to the same organisation. He has become a successful businessman and I was tremendously pleased for him.

The other person I wanted to find was Albert.  I don’t remember now exactly what he looks like, just that he was the only Russian-speaking Rwandan I ever met, a supremely nice guy, and as unlikely a killer as I am likely to meet.  He was arrested a week before I left.  I got involved, went to the prison, demanding to know the charges, only to be informed that there were no records of his case and that the arresting officer was now elsewhere.  Nothing could be done.  I learned that Albert’s father had been in dispute with a local leader, and that the latter had accused him of genocide crimes.  On that basis alone, he was arrested with his sons and beaten up. About this time, United Nations Human Rights monitors were trying to get their teeth into all the claims of false arrest. 

They agreed to take on the case but they had no transport to investigate the claims.  I arranged for a car and they left the same morning I flew out of Rwanda.  I had heard nothing since.  All I had was the scrawl of a letter written in Russian, which he had smuggled out of the prison the day before the UN was due to investigate. 

I was reasonably confident that enquiries at my old office would yield something, which indeed they did, but they had nothing to do with Albert.  I knew that he was friendly with two other colleagues, both of whom I liked.  Investigations revealed that one had disappeared but the other, Faustin, a tall and amiable agronomist, who had bridged my insufficient agricultural knowledge on several occasions, was in prison, having been arrested for ‘genocide’ in 1997.  I should have been prepared for this but I wasn’t.  Prison visits by non-family members where not necessarily allowed, but I determined to give it a try and was happy to hire the former head driver, Joseph, now a private taxi driver, for the day.

As we drove south past Gitarama, Joseph and I swapped information on former colleagues, laughing at the good times, pausing at the deaths from AIDS, imprisonment for genocide and firing for thieving.  We talked about the effect of the genocide on his friends and family - it is okay to talk about it now, it is something that happened in the past already for many Rwandans.  I just could not get my head around this attitude, which I encountered again and again.  If it were me, I could not simply forget.  If I found Joseph’s attitude bewildering, it was nothing compared to meeting Faustin again after six years without a word.
The guard was accommodating, probably bemused that a mzungu was taking an interest in a prisoner in a rural detention centre.  I was nervous as I waited.  I remembered his face well, I liked him immensely, but what a strange location for meeting after all this time.  I was the subject of curiosity, not only because I was white, but also because I was one of the few people not wearing pink.  I have no idea why, but all prisoners in Rwanda are forced to wear a regulation light pink outfit, a loose-fitting shirt, and shorts.  Looking at these poor wretches so effeminately attired, it was hard to believe they were the perpetrators of such butchery.

“Monsieur Paul, comment ça va?”  He had not changed a bit, outfit notwithstanding, since 1995.  Still the same broad smile, still the same closely cropped hair. One of my former colleagues told me before I left on this trip that the one place she would never return to was Rwanda.  Because of the mentality.  It was too bizarre.  I now know what she meant.  Here we were, chatting nonchalantly about life, friends, genocide, the future, the past, as though we saw each other every day.  That I had turned up out of the blue after six years and found him imprisoned did not phase him at all.  He told me that someone had accused him of genocide crimes and he had been arrested.  That was in 1997.  In March 2001, he was tried and sentenced to five years imprisonment, including time already served.  There was no evidence, he said, and his appeal is scheduled for November (I later learned that a five year sentence equates to being at a roadblock and not killing, or showing the killers where the victims were hiding, both of which he denies).  His humour and sprits were positive as ever, he looked in good health and he showed neither remorse (should he need to have any), nor bitterness at false imprisonment.  It was extraordinary.

I asked if there was anything I could do for him, and he asked me to call his brother in Kigali.  He also told me that he thought Albert had been freed eight months previously, but that his brother would know.  He took my hand warmly and waved me off and then cheerfully wandered back whence he came.  I was spooked.  Joseph shook his head and declared that he would visit Faustin, because he was sure he was one of the good guys.  We decided to proceed to Albert’s house.
Addresses in rural Rwanda don’t come with street names and postcodes.  All you get is the name, the hillside, the cellule (perhaps a couple of hundred people), the district and the county.  After that, you are on your own.  I gave thanks that I had found Joseph - there was no way I could have found the place on my own.  I did not realise it was so far into the interior.  Nor did Joseph.  As his already battered Toyota Corolla left the last of the tarmac, the permanent smile gave way to a slight frown, as he negotiated pothole after pothole on the red dirt track.  Cars were a rarity here, mzungus even more so, and suspicious looks were the norm.  We eventually found the hillside, only to be directed down the wrong side of the hill.  I had my doubts that we would be able to climb back up, but Joseph was determined to take his former boss all the way.  I finally convinced him that this was madness and he agreed to turn around, but found he couldn’t.  We were stuck.  As always happens in Africa, just when you think you are all alone, a throng of people descends from the bush.  Within minutes, we were mobile once more.

We decided to walk the rest, down a rough path.  The house was pointed out to us, a much more impressive affair of brick and a tiled roof, than its mud-caked neighbours.  We approached the front door and knocked.  My heart was beating - I was about to find out what happened to him, after six years of wondering whether I could not have done more for him.

No answer.  As far as anti-climaxes go, this was pretty big.  We walked around the back and found a simple hut, smoke rising from the chimney.  Two small children came to greet us, followed by a young woman.  My heart was beating faster.  Finally.  Joseph posed a question and the reply was one that neither of us were expecting, a high-pitched wail.  She was deaf and mute, and, looking closer at the wretched creature, I had misgivings about her sanity.  I wonder what she had been through in 1994.  The kids were too young to be of help, so we wandered down the hill to the next house, which was abandoned and roofless, like so many in the area.  Further down, we met an old peasant woman, a bright scarf covering her hair, a grubby torn t-shirt covering most of her upper torso, although the rips exposed both jet-black nipples and her sagging breasts.  She did not seem to care.  Resting her weight on her stick, she shook hands solemnly and informed us that Albert and his brother were freed in March and are now in Kigali, but that their father was still in custody.  They had been arrested, as the village leader did not like them due to a personal feud.  They were innocent.  The village leader is still the village leader.  She shrugged her shoulders.  Such tales are not uncommon in Rwanda.

She continued on her way and Joseph and I paused on the hillside, each lost in his own thoughts.  I have stood on many hillsides in Rwanda, the Land of a Thousand Hills, but I had never taken the time to think, to try and imagine.  And so I took the time, standing there, next to the cassava plants, the sweet potatoes, under the banana trees, looking into the valley, at the other hills, every inch under cultivation, the randomly designed and randomly spread houses, many deserted, destroyed, the sound of birds, but no humans.  A chill went down my spine.  Now, for the first time, I could picture the killers climbing the hill with their blood-soaked machetes.  There could have been no escape.

Once back on the tarmac, Joseph loosened up once more.  I bought him lunch and he insisted I visit his mother on the way back.  She was a lovely lady, although I caused a logistical nightmare as I asked to use the toilet.  A niece was dispatched to make the preparations and I was eventually ushered into a simple room with a hole in the ground.  The stench of air-freshener was overpowering.  We returned to Kigali and called Faustin’s brother.  He was suspicious that someone was enquiring about Albert, but eventually told me that he now lives in Nairobi.  He promised to ring the following day with a number.  He never did.  I suspect he never will.  But at least Albert is free, albeit five years too late. Yes, it would have been great to track him down when I returned to Nairobi, but that was only for my selfish gratification. Either he feels let down by my inaction or else he is trying to start afresh, not wanting to be reminded of the past. I suppose I could have tried harder to find him, but he knew I was looking for him and he chose not to reply. I respected that.

Talking about Rwanda without mentioning the genocide is impossible.  I came across a very bizarre column in a local newspaper.  It was one of those Did You Know sections, containing facts on Rwanda. I forget all the details but it went something like this: Rwanda’s literacy rate is 49%. Average income is $290 per annum. Population is 9 million (a few more facts like this and then the statistic that will forever set Rwanda apart). Rwanda holds the world record for the quickest extermination of people ever. On average, over a three-month period, people were killed at an average rate of 467 people an hour.

That’s an impressive rate of killing, especially as only basic tools were generally available.  From our television screens in the West, it looked barbaric and it was, and we asked how people could kill their neighbours just like that.  It could never happen in England.  So it’s quiz time.  Put yourself in this situation.  A bunch of armed killers come into your house with your neighbour.  They give you two options, either you kill the neighbour with the machete provided (collective guilt was part of the plan) or you are held while your wife and daughter are gang-raped and then murdered.  Your choice.  What would you do?  I was having this discussion with the Papal Nuncio from the Vatican Embassy as he gave me a lift to the Congolese border.  He was new to the country, and I told him Rose’s story. 

He was shocked, but the shock seemed to be more the fact that the priest gave the keys of the church to the killers before fleeing.  He was adamant that he would have stood in front of the church and would have had to have been killed first, martyred for his faith.  Yes, Father, you say that now, but would you say the same if it really happened to you?  It reminded me of Bosnia - so easy to pass judgement on others, because we have the luxury of knowing that such a thing can never happen in our societies. But what if it did?  How would you really react?

The genocide was holding Rwanda back.  There were 115,000 awaiting trial.  So far only 6,000 cases had been judged, since 1994.  It was going to take generations at the current rate for everyone to be tried, and so a new idea, the gacaca (pronounced ‘gachacha’) was being introduced.  Basically, these would be village courts, with appointed leaders, and accusers and accused would meet and justice be meted out accordingly.  There was much emphasis on confession - sentences would be reduced by half - and reconciliation.  While these people remained in prison, the families were burdened: the head of the family is not in the fields, time and food are required for the regular visits to prison.  There was a feeling that gacaca would quicken the judicial process and help with reconciliation and economic growth.  But it would not be easy. 

Imagine a woman whose family was wiped out living next to the murderer’s family.  Confessing to his crimes, he is once more a free man and moves back to his old home, next to the woman whose family he murdered.  Yet surveys show that reconciliation is happening and old wounds are being healed.  It will obviously take time.  Gacaca is seen as a participatory process, which will give the whole community a chance to deal with the past.  I wish them luck.  If the UK had 115,000 prisoners awaiting genocide trials for seven years, it would be hard enough, but for the tenth poorest country in the world, the burden is more severe.
On the subject of reconciliation, I was told the inspiring story of a nun who is working for this important goal.  She encouraged some remorseful killers to write to the families of their victims, to express regret and encourage forgiveness.  Sixty percent of families wrote back, many arranging meetings with the prisoners.  One of the topics for discussion is how the criminals can help their victims in practical ways (farming the land etc.) on their release.  In the course of her work, the nun met her own family's killers.  They are now working closely together on the project.

Kigali felt safer than ever.  The Rwandan Patriotic Front, the incoming Tutsi army, had imposed discipline and security as best they could.  They were mostly returning refugees from Uganda, victims of genocide in 1959.  They were English-speaking and Rwanda had become a dual mzungu-language-speaking country. 

Advertising was sometimes in French, sometimes in English.  Taxi drivers spoke one, but not the other.  The British were the largest bilateral donors, although the French and Belgians were not ready to give up their Francophone influence just yet.

Rwanda should not feel as safe as it does.  The talk in diplomatic circles was that another war is imminent.  The murderous interahamwe and former government troops are massing on the borders in Burundi, Tanzania and southern Congo.  Many have lived in the forest for years now and have little to lose.  The RPF use this as justification for incursions deep into the Congo, much to the annoyance of the international community.  They are controlling vast areas of the Congo, areas rich in minerals and yet thin in rebels.  The rape of the Congo continues.  In some ways, the attitude of the government reminded me of another country I was in earlier:  Israel. 

Both are bloody-minded in their approach, using as justification for their policies the fact that the international community did nothing to prevent genocide and holocaust and so they are perfectly within their rights to do whatever it takes for their own security, since they cannot depend on anyone else.

****
Jesus looked like a Tutsi and that’s why he had to die. He was hacked to pieces and there is nothing left of him.  The Virgin Mary fared somewhat better, escaping completely unscathed.  Were I religious, I might attribute her wholesome state to a miracle, for there she stands today, hands held together in prayer, face towards the floor, her expression one of, what?  Before the killing, I would have described it as serene, but now only sadness.  It really is incredible that her statue was not damaged at all - she reminded me of the glamorous lady in the knife-throwing act at the circus - completely unharmed while the knives flew all around her.  There are no knives at Nyamata church, a short drive from Kigali, but there is precious little left intact.  The blood has dried with the years, but it still lines the walls, bullet holes and grenade shrapnel give the simple brick walls an acned look, the sun shines through the shrapnel holes in the corrugated iron roof, the benches are thick with dust, the tabernacle has been vandalised.  You can still smell the fear.

As far as genocide memorials go, it has the power to shock.  Nyamata is a simple rural community, no different to so many others in Rwanda.  Some ten thousand people took refuge in the church and surrounding compound as the killing began in April 1994.  Within five days, all but a handful had been butchered in cold blood.  The government decided to preserve the site with its dark past.  There are a couple of simple banners as you enter the church:  “Non aux revisionistes, non aux negativistes” and, in Kinyarwanda, a more potent one for me:  “If you know me and you know yourself, how can you kill me?” - a clear reference to the hundreds of thousands killed by neighbours and family.  The padlock is still intact on the iron door, but the door was forced.  There was no protection here.

As with most museums, there is a guided tour, this one in French.  In the middle of the church, a large hole has been dug, steps constructed and pristine white tiles line the descending walls.  I felt as if I was visiting a public toilet as I descended.  Below, there was a central glass case on three levels: the top shelf contained bones - arms, legs and so on; the second shelf contained skulls, dozens of them, staring blankly forward, many with visible cracks where the machetes had sliced through - they should have made an impression on me but they didn’t, I don't know why; the bottom tier was below our feet and contained a simple coffin, that of a twenty-five year old woman and her child.  Apparently, her body did not decompose for months, nobody knows why.  What we do know is that she met a vicious end, a branch being inserted into her and forced through until it came out of her head.  Her baby was clinging to her breast all the while.

My solemn guide took me outside and showed me another coffin.  The body of Tonia Locatelli is contained therein.  Some two years before the genocide, in 1992, the local authorities in Nyamata decided to kill all the Tutsis in the area.  There were rounded up and locked in the church without food or water and simply left to die.  Tonia, an Italian volunteer, managed to get word to the international press and the ensuing uproar ensured that the Tutsis were freed without any casualties.  Tonia’s reward for her courageous act was the full vengeance of the local authorities.  She was the only victim.

Behind the church is another hole in the ground.  The musty smell of a cellar hit me as I descended - it reminded me of many a customer's wine cellar in my previous job.  No vintage claret here, but it was certainly fully stocked - coffins on the top shelf, skulls just below, and bones, so many bones at the bottom.  Someone told me recently that you cannot detect terror in a bare skull, so I decided to look deeper to see if he was right.  Looking at most of the skulls, I was detached, they seemed almost like the skulls you play with in biology classes, but there was one which caught my eye.  The jaw was wide open, all the front teeth missing, except for an improbably long wisdom tooth protruding out of the bottom left hand side.  I could almost see the pain and the terror of the face, could almost hear the scream.  Just along was the top half of a small skull, from the eye sockets up, perched on top of another random head - were baby and parent reunited in death? I doubt it.

There was a visitor’s book at the end of the tour.  What struck me was that all the comments were almost the same - monosyllabic or single word entries - speechless, tears, shocked.  I don't think it is possible to put into words the whole experience.  The church has not been used for services since the tragic events, although there was a move to clean things up and get back to normal, but the surviving locals refused and a new church was constructed.  As I left the church and silently sat in the taxi on the way home, I reflected that the visit marked the end of my Genocide Tour.   I hadn’t meant to embark on such a journey, it just happened, and although I was deeply disturbed by what I saw, I was glad that I had made the effort to visit the sites in Armenia, Israel and Rwanda. 

Which site moved me the most?  Not the Children’s Room in Yad Vashem, not the terrified skull in Nyamata, no, and I don’t know why, as they were powerful and immediate images.   The memorial that moved me the most was the simple and dignified construction in Yerevan: the simple wreaths, the lack of words, the air to breathe and remember, the only sound apart from the distant barking dogs being that of the eternal flame, the magnificent backdrop of snow-capped Mount Ararat, formerly Armenian and now in the territory of the perpetrators of the genocide, Turkey.

As I walked over the border back to Uganda a couple of days later, I looked back at the Land of a Thousand Problems.  I looked full on for a minute or so and then turned my back on the troubled country and ventured forth, thereby closing a chapter of previously unfinished business. But before heading north and back to Nairobi, there was one more small diversion that I felt was necessary - a brief foray across the border into the Congo.

The Congo.  I have always been curious about the place and a trip to Goma was essential if I was to put Rwanda to bed in my head.  This was the town made famous by the biggest refugee camp in the world, back in 1994.  I went to one of the camps, Mugunga, a few kilometres by moped taxi (lots of fun) from the town itself.  With a base of black rock and volcanoes in the distance, it did not make for an ideal site, but then UNHCR did not have much choice. I met Xavier, a local who lived in one of the ten shoddily constructed rotting wooden huts that comprised the community.  He had been here in 1994, minding his own business.  Suddenly they came, in their hundreds of thousands and moved in next door, felling trees, erecting tents, terrorising the locals.  And then one day in 1996, they all left, his environment trashed.  There is little reminder of what was once there, and I was amazed at how many trees were now occupying the site - young trees, for a million refugees over two years do need their heating sources.

And it was in Goma that I spent that infamous day, September 11, 2001. News of the tragedy in America spread quickly. I myself was in the town’s only Internet café when news came through from an incoming email from Edinburgh. Initial Internet news was sketchy and so I decided to seek out a bar with a television. The next few hours were freaky, as I am sure they were the world over. In what has been the only time that I have been glued to CNN for hours, the drama unfolded before our disbelieving eyes, as we all downed more Primus, the local beer. Apart from the waiters, we were all Westerners, mostly American pilots. The reaction was unexpected – there was the initial shock of the pictures, then almost a jokey atmosphere. A moustachioed middle-aged Yank had parked himself in the chair next to me. After his fifth Primus, he spoke:

“I am not surprised. We have been asking for something like this for years. It was obviously Saddam. Now we will bomb Iraq to shit and start a world war.”
Other Americans in the bar concurred – there was little of the outrage that I encountered when I got back to ‘civilisation,’ more a notion that American foreign policy had invited something like this for some time. I left the bar after one Primus too many, with heavy heart, thinking of the thousands of dead in New York, but also the hundreds of thousands of civilians suffering in Iraq and other countries, largely as a result of sanctions, and I just wanted to crawl into my room and be depressed alone, but there was one more shock waiting for me that night. A Congolese teenager, perhaps sixteen, barefoot and sporting a ragged navy blue shirt, strutted towards me:

“Vous êtes americain?  Ha ha ha.” And with that, he walked off in hysterics.

On reflection, my choice of the Hotel des Grand Lacs on September 11 was ill-advised, given my recent flying experiences and the day’s events.  I awoke from fitful sleep the following morning to the sound of a plane flying through my room. And then another.  Not quite in my room, but upon leaving the hotel, I noticed that I was staying precisely ten metres under the flight path of Goma Airport and the Twin Otters and Antonov 24s were hurtling in.

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My First Online Bereavement: The Death of Suite101

I have never lost anyone close in my adult life. A fortunate thing in one sense, perhaps, but when the loss does come, it will make me all the less prepared. Even when I entered Rwanda as an aid worker in August 1994 just after a genocide, the only body I saw in the killing fields was that of a cat with rigor mortis at a strategic fork in the road. It helped with my bearings in that unfamiliar city until it disappeared one day a week after my arrival.

And so when it comes to mourning, perhaps I am not best placed to judge. And yet loss is loss, whatever the context, and loss can be virtual as well as physical. And so I come to write my first obituary, at the age of 44 - to an online forum that is no more.

It is a relationship which is hard to describe to the outsider, but I will try. 

The year is 2010. The location a small Adriatic island in Croatia called Hvar. Not even the main town on the island, but its third most populous - Jelsa.

It is the end of another tourist season on Croatia's premier island, and the reality of the global crisis and a long hard island winter brings the financial situation once more into the spotlight. Just how can one make a living all year on this beautiful island without speaking the language fluently?

A morning's online research, followed by another, and another, offered an intriguing possibility - making money online by writing. Put me in a kitchen, tell me to be a mechanic, ask my medical opinion on an illness - I am a total disaster. But write? And write quickly? I am your man. 

Apparently, if the Internet hype was to believed, there were websites which offered things called 'revenue share' and 'recurring revenue'. The gig seemed to be that you could write about anything you wanted for certain websites, and revenue would be accrued and shared on articles when readers clicked on the Google Adwords. Although there was no upfront money, it did not cost either, and the beauty of it was in the 'recurring revenue' concept. Once you had written the article, it was online for life (or so we thought) and any future ad click would yield pennies, perhaps pennies of pennies, but recurring revenue all the same.

The season over, there was plenty of time for researach. Eager to get started and never one for big research, I stumbled upon www.suite101.com which looked ideal. Not only did it seem that you could write about anything you chose, but people were making real money - some woman called Lena was raking in $3,000 a month. Now that sounded nice. Especially the recurring revenue bit.

After a day of research. I decided to press forward - Suite101 looked the real deal. There were some negative comments on some forums, but the general impression was positive. As I understood it, if I could provide the volume of content, enough people would read the articles, and a proportion of these would click on an ad from Google, which would generate 'revenue share'; if the article was 'evergreen' - relevant in the future or better, forever, that 'revenue share' would be 'residual income'. 

I penned my first article on October 28, 2010. Entitled "Driving in Albania, Not for the Fainthearted", it was my trial article for the site. If they thought my writing was good enough based on the article, I was in - free to publish what and when I chose, with post-publication editing. If I could get enough articles online, then the 'residual income would flow'.

I found the forum on the website, where I spent hours. Here were some 20,000 writers in a private forum, offering the most phenomenal advice, support and tips. I spent hours pouring over old forum posts, full of writing nuggets freely given, and I learned that 20% of writers who had posted 300 hundred articles or more were on $1,000 a month residual income. I began to write... Winters are long on Hvar, and if one could knock out 300 articles or more this winter, that $1,000 a month residual looked very enticing indeed.

Two things happened the day after I published that first piece of Albania driving advice: I found stats on the back end where I could track my page view minute by minute; and I became big in Toronto. 

Looking back with the knowledge I have now, a free writer producing content on Albania and the like must have been a syndicate's dream. There was a bomb in Greece, and some newpaper's online edition needed some boxes filling with current content from the region. My article was ideal and they were saved. The (few) subsequent clicks made me realise that the power of a well-written blog or article was were the power of the future lay. 

I also discovered that Suite101 had a forum, a very lively and informative place. New to the online forum world, it quickly became clear that it was a place of friendship and networking, but that like any community, it had its rules and its rulers.  Like many approaching a new forum, I lurked in the shadows without making my presence known, until I finally decided to introduce myself. After all, who were these people? 

The reaction was a revelation and led to a new journey, a road along which I am still travelling. Warm, welcoming, encouraging and, above all, a willingness to share knowledge and advice. As a rookie writer, I could not have found a better university if I had been thousands of dollars, and all this was available for free. 24/7, for this was a truly international forum. It was my first proper taste of forum life, and I found it hypnotic. Of course none of it was real, as these people were just profiles, real or imaginary, around the world, and they would not actually enter my physical life. Until they did - firstly as I knocked on a door in Bournemouth in southern England one evening, armed with a young daughter and a bottle of gin to meet my first Suite writer in the flesh, then later as another turned up for month right here in Jelsa, encouraged by the articles I had written. 

It was a forum from which I have learned so much, and it has led me to a situation where I can now do what I never thought possible - make a living as a writer on a remote island in the Adriatic. With gentle encouragement, advice, contacts, I went from a rookie writer to guide book producer, with my own app and Kindle version, then an accompanying website, which brought further opportunity. Google News accreditation opened up the world of news and media exposure. And all the while, the helpful, homely forum to bounce ideas, rant when necessary, follow the personality clashes online. 

And then it happened. Panda.

A Google algorithm change that would change my online comfort zone forever. The decimation of that online writer's currency, PVs (page views) devastated a lot of my colleauges. With an overnight loss of 90% of traffic by Panda, Suite101 became the poster child of Google's wrath, and there was nothing we could do about it. I did not so much mind the loss of page views, or the subsequent reduction of revenue that it entailed, as I had long ago learned that Lena with the $3,000 a month and I would never be on the same page, but it mattered little, as I had found something a lot more valuable - my free university. 

And then my first painful experience of a lingering death came to be. Virtual, far away, and yet far too close to home. 

I had a hero on the forums, her name was Jennifer, and she stood out from the crowd from the first day I lurked. Young and pretty from her profile picture (not that that meant anything, or was necessarily real). What made her interesting was her (savage) cutting humour, combined with an intimate knowledge of Google practices which she was willing to share. She was brutal to the uninitiated, but it soon became clear that for her the forum was a board for letting off steam on ine. When she let off steam, it was hot!

She disappeared, and as the incompetent management fumbled (and, rather pathetically, continues to fumble to this day, years later), a new forum and blog appeared, mocking those of us who still believed in the management who had led us into the path of Google's wrath. Most Probably Suite101 was decidedly clever, intensely personally and brilliantly funny. There could have only been one person behind it - Jennifer 'Harsh' Marsh. 

Most Probably divided my beloved online community, with some expressing outrage at the betrayal, others cheering on the rebellion against authority, but all secretly agreed on one thing - Most Probably was addictive reading. With her considerable computer knowledge, she was tracking all the hits to the site of course, and poked fun at the Vancouver management, who were regular readers. 

And so things settled down. Some of the best writers left, and when I say best, I mean most generous in their advice and support. Despite all the promises, which we all wanted to believe, the site continued to plummet, and then plummet further as Google pounded it again with Penguins and other beasts. But at least the precious forum, albeit much diminished, survived the bloodshed. 

We were left to regroup, clinging to the hope of positive change and messages of hope from our great leadership. We became used to the phrase 'exciting new changes', then even more used to their non-delivery. But there was one thing that kept us loyal to the site - that precious forum. 

One day, as part of the exciting changes that were coming to the site, the enlightened management announced that the previously closed forum would now become open to the wider Internet community, a move which was greeted with understandable outrage. Soon after that, the threat of Internet exposure was removed, with the announcement that the forum would shortly be closed forever. 

And just like that, on the whim of a leadership which continues to move from incompetent brilliant new idea to incompetent brilliant new idea, I was returned to my Adriatic isolation of life in the third largest town on an unpronounceable Croatian island. 

Dozens of friends, a 24/7 helpline gone in an instant. It was painful to experience, but after a while I learned to be grateful for all I had learned. 

And then gradually, out of the ashes, a community rebuilt itself without the help of an enlightened leadership, as one of our group - who also visited me on Hvar last year while cruising through the Adriatic - formed a Facebook group for former writers of Suite101. It started slowly, grew gradually, and while today it is not quite at the heights of the forum, it is an important part of my - and others' - online life. 

My first online bereavement. A time of loss and pain, but also of learning. Life - even online life - goes on. 

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