Pursuing Peace in Italy (April 2003)

I was feeling a bit out of it after my flight to Rome. I looked out the window of the train taking me into the city and saw rainbow flags flying from balconies and windows of houses and apartments. They all had “PACE” on them.

What did it mean? Something to do with gay rights? Like PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbian and Gays)?

Finally it clicked: Pace. Paz. Paix. Peace. A fitting theme for my time spent in Rome earlier this month.

Rome marked the culmination of a six-month’s work to produce our fifth annual report. The Italian government had agreed to pay to bring together our global network of researchers together to submit their updates for the report. Our partner, the Italian Campaign to Ban Landmines had volunteered to coordinate all aspects of the meeting. I was going a week ahead of the meeting to early to make sure it would all go as planned.

I worked out of the campaign’s tiny office at the beginning with my colleagues Simona and Giuseppe speaking to me in an odd mix of English & Italian and me answering in English and sometimes Spanish. In Iraq, a story broke about deminers disarming and removing thousands of antipersonnel mines discovered stored in a mosque. I looked online at their photos. These were Italian-manufactured Valmara-69 antipersonnel mines, a particularly nasty-looking device the size of a tin can with three prongs coming off the top. Designed to jump up a meter before exploding, after wires coming from the prongs were tripped. Italy exported these mines by the millions in the late 1980s and early 1990s. We had our media hook for the opening press conference.

As our participants started arriving from all over the world, I moved into the venue, a converted monastery in the south of the city. We met, slept, ate and partied in this place for three days straight. I awoke on the first day of the conference to see U.S. soldiers in Baghdad and the Republican Guard running away while stripping off their black uniforms. I wondered if we’d be able to stay focused on our discussions. By the end of the meeting, the U.S. seemed to be “winning” Baghdad. We took the participants outside for a group photograph. They posed with the PACE flags. Later we gave everyone a flag, which they dressed up in for the closing party.

For most of our people, the PACE message was more relevant to their situations back home and not the Iraq war. Conflicts simmering or continuing in countries like Armenia, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Burma, Burundi, Colombia, Egypt, Indonesia, Nepal, the Philippines, Serbia, Senegal, Sudan, Uganda, Venezuela and so on… But Iraq was the overriding theme of the week. We watched the bombs drop and knew the hard work was yet to be done. Who will clean up this mess of mines, cluster bombs and other explosive remnants of war? Why did it have to happen in the first place?

At this time in history, Italy was probably the most appropriate place we could have chosen to meet in peace about peace. Pace, pronounced pa-chey. Back in DC, my flag is flying from the balcony.

A Too-Short Trip to Sri Lanka (January 2003)

I was in Sri Lanka at the end of January 2003 for one of the last regional meetings for our report cycle. We stayed in the capital, Colombo, for the first couple of days, barely leaving the hotel and then left on a fieldtrip to the north of the island. We arrived in the ancient city of Anuradhapura at sunset and raced around the temples as the sun disappeared. It was dark by the time we got to the Sri Maha Bodhi, the ‘tree of enlightenment’, an offspring of the Buddha’s fig tree, brought there in the 3rd century B.C. The tree was barely visible in the temple surrounding it; its branches were held in place by crutches, like a geriatric.

The next day we got up very early to continue the drive north. The landscape started to flatten out and become less densely populated. We stopped in Vavuniya to pick up our host, a UN official who briefed us on the bus and got us through the border checks necessary to enter the territory controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). We took the only road through the LTTE-controlled areas, the A9, scene of fierce fighting during the conflict as the Sri Lankan Army attempted to push reunite the government -controlled areas. They made it to within 30 kilometers, before pulling back and as they fought, both sides laid antipersonnel mines in huge numbers. We yelled at our bus driver to stop overtaking as he kept sliding on to the verge of the road, which we believe had not yet been cleared of mines.

Sri Lanka’s north and eastern regions are heavily mine-affected as a result of the conflict with the LTTE that started in 1983. The LTTE and the Sri Lankan government agreed to a ceasefire in February 2002, and since then neither side is believed to have resorted to new use of antipersonnel mines though neither side has subscribed to the ban treaty yet. The peace process is continuing… If it succeeds tourists will take over the country, especially its gorgeous beaches and beautiful temples.

We reached Killinochi, a town in the LTTE-controlled zone by midday and visited a LTTE demining training site where we talked to the deminers and examined their techniques and equipment. Each deminer was equipped with a safety helmet and vest, but wore sandals or just bare feet. Their equipment comprised of basic gardening tools, the main one was a standard garden rake that they used to pull back the vegetation and a layer of dirt. Then they picked up a two-pronged hoe and used it to pull even more dirt away. We were shocked. No metal detectors or mine detection dogs. No prodders to probe the ground at a 45-degree angle for mines. It was a complete turn-around from what little mine clearance I have witnessed to date.

We visited the director of the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization (TRO), the LTTE’s humanitarian wing that government and other donors provide funds to. The TRO established a mine clearance organization when the ceasefire took effect, using soldiers that had previously been laying mines. With no foreign assistance or training, they claimed to have cleared some 83,000 mines using the “rake” method. We asked how they planned to bring the project into compliance with the United Nations international mine action standards and how they assure that the areas they have cleared are 100% free of mines. Their method has cleared more land more quickly than most other projects overseas and they are sticking to it as the internally displaced persons were preparing to return to their homes in their thousands very shortly…

A reporter with “Tamil Tiger Radio” asked me what the campaign was doing to convince the producers to stop manufacturing mines. I told him we now have 14 producing countries, down from 55 just five years ago. We lobby these governments, as in nearly every instance the manufacturing is done by state-owned entities. I asked the reporter to find out what the LTTE was doing to halt its own production of the infamous “Jhonny” wooden box mine and more sophisticated plastic mines.

We had time to stop in at a prosthetic limb-manufacturing center, which was adorned with murals depicting mine awareness messages, before we got back on the bus to start the long ride back to Colombo. I cursed that we had scheduled so little time.

In Colombo the next day, I took some time out before our final press conference and had lunch at the Gallery Cafe in the beautiful former home of renowned Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa. We checked out Fort, the commercial capital of Colombo, and had dinner at the Galle Face hotel, a sprawling colonial-era hotel on the beach, perfect for drinks at sunset. As I left the next day I read in the paper that armed robbers had stolen millions of rupees in a Fort bank while we were in the area. They had apparently made it through several army checkpoints as soldiers protecting the nearby parliament presumed the armed men were security for some politician.

Feasting amid Famine in Ethiopia: A Guilt Trip (December 2002)

This weekend I came back from Ethiopia, where I was organizing yet another regional meeting of the campaign, this time for Africa. The local host put all the participants in the Hilton hotel, which is not normal for us but we shared rooms to split the costs. The rooms had either two views: pool or slum. I got the slum view, which proved much more interesting.

The hotel bookshop stocks numerous copies of a 1989 book by Graham Hancock called “Lords of Poverty.” This scathing critique of the aid and development world was on my reading list during university and it includes a memorable section on the hotel: “At the height of the famine that took more than a million Ethiopian lives in 1984-5, it was perfectly possible during the course of a single morning to travel by light aircraft from the luxury of the Addis Ababa Hilton to the surreal horror of the relief camp at Korem where tens of thousands of gaunt and ragged people lay strewn … One could then take pictures, take notes, or otherwise appraise the and evaluate the situation, and then fly back to Addis Ababa again in time to catch an hour of sunbathing at the side of one of the finest swimming pools in the world.”

Famine is coming to Ethiopia again, due to a drought, deforestation, overgrazing, the land ownership system, coffee prices, politics, and a host of other factors. This was in my mind as I swam in the thermally heated pool, dipped in the Jacuzzi, sweated in the sauna, ran the treadmill in the gym, and sampled their sumptuous breakfast buffet. Talk about feasting amid famine. On the streets, kids and adults ran up to the car at every intersection seeking money for food. I was told that the streetkids are now mainly Aids orphans, as Ethiopia is crippled by one of the highest HIV/Aids rates in Africa.

We didn’t really see signs of the approaching famine until we took a fieldtrip up to the northern Tigray region, bordering Eritrea. Our plane flew over parched and barren land, with few spots of green. Fifty years ago, some forty percent of the country was covered by forest; today it is just 2.5 percent. After landing in Mekele, the regional capital, we drove four hours north on a bone-rattling bus toward the border, passing United Nations feeding centers, which emaciated farmers were traveling hours, sometimes days, to reach.

In the village of Addis Tesfa we were greeted by 1,000 schoolchildren who were waiting for us under the baking sun. The kids, including landmine survivors, performed dance, music, and drama using mine risk education messages taught by our local host, the Rehabilitation and Development Organization (RaDO). They were skinny, wearing a variety of t-shirts with American logos and basketball teams, and acted as if they’d never seen foreigners before, running away at any attempt to talk with them. As we were leaving one boy overcame his shyness and asked me for a pen. I tossed him one from the window of the bus. All of a sudden a dozen kids appeared, all fighting for the pen. I cursed that we had not brought anything for them. Two teachers shooed them away. Then they too asked for pens…

We drove further north, through the town of Zala Anbesa, which was destroyed during the conflict with Eritrea. People were still living in the ruins, using United Nations blue tarpaulin for roofing. The UN Mission in Eritrea and Ethiopia, or the strangely named “UNEEE,” is in charge of keeping the peace along the border, which is being demarcated with border posts. We finally came to village of Marta, in a fertile valley squeezed between some stunning mountains, where we visited a mine clearance operation.

After another backbreaking ride back, we stayed in Mekele and visited the local market the following morning. Many vendors were amused by my efforts to buy a goat, a donkey, and a chicken. Several offered to slaughter the animal if the plane would not allow it on board alive. I wanted to learn what made a good price; some factors included the quality of its coat, its weight, and its sex… The goats we compared ranged in price from 200-500 birr, the local currency, or about US$25-$60…. This is quite a lot for a country with an average annual income of $700 per capita.

Back in Addis Ababa, I extended my stay for a couple more days to help the host wrap up the finances and rest of the meeting. I ate a lot of local food, which all uses “njera” as the base. This unique bread is made from teff seed and, as you eat, it slowly expands in your stomach. You really have to watch how much you take in, as you get fuller and fuller… The stews and vegetables were spicy and tasty. You eat with your right hand, using no utensils, and one interesting tradition requires that you “feed” the person next to you, which turns out quite interesting if you sit next to the right person! I also started drinking coffee again. Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee and espresso machines appeared in the oddest places…

I finally got a bit of sightseeing in:
- To the top of Mount Entoto, a 2,200 meter-high mountain overlooking the city, where I got a taste of altitude sickness (Addis is the third highest capital in the world);
- To Trinity Cathedral, where Emperor Haile Selassie is believed to be buried; and
- To the “Mercato,” Africa’s largest market.

If you didn’t already know it, Ethiopia is the only African country that was never colonized (they don’t count the five years the Italians spent there from 1936-41). The country is poverty-stricken, with a flawed system of government, yet its history is rich and its culture vibrant. It has an average life expectancy of 44 years. Ethiopia also has approximately twelve million people facing starvation. Don’t forget this when you sit down for Christmas dinner on Wednesday. I know this probably reminds you of that stupid Bob Geldof Band Aid song from the 1980s (of course they know it’s Christmas time; they were one of the first countries to adopt Christianity!? And the other half of the country doesn’t care; they’re Muslim!).

You can help Ethiopia by donating to Oxfam, which has been working there since 1974. Hancock was damning of the World Bank, bilateral government donor agencies and United Nations aid workers, but specifically avoided criticizing the non-governmental humanitarian organizations. While you’re at it, join Oxfam’s email campaign to protest Nestlé’s demand for $6 million from the Ethiopian Government, in compensation for nationalizing their company 27 years ago.

Have a very, Merry Christmas! Safe travels…

Baku & Back (November 2002)

I was in Baku, Azerbaijan a couple of weeks ago for a meeting of mine ban campaigners & researchers from the former Soviet Union, one of my favourite groups of people. This was my fourth visit to this region and while brief it was pretty intense. As I waited for my work colleagues at Heathrow, I read about the tragic outcome of the Moscow theatre siege and wondered what to expect…

In Baku we stayed in a huge Soviet-style hotel near the waterfront. Hotel Absheron overlooked a massive square and an ornate building that on closer inspection, had a plaque describing it as the “human rights commission” of Azerbaijan. Interesting given the Human Rights Watch materials I read on the plane featuring titles such as: “Azerbaijan Parliamentary Elections Manipulated,” “Impunity for Torture,” and “Investigate Police Shootings of Protesters.” President Heidar Aliyev has ruled the country since October 1992 when 96% of the electorate turned out to vote, and 98.8% voted for him. It ain’t exactly democracy. Aliyev was a member of the Communist Party’s Politburo and also served as Azerbaijan’s KGB chief during the Soviet era. He is now pushing ahead with plans to pass power to his son, Ilham.

Oil refining is the main industry in Baku and it shows. The town and harbour are surrounded by rusty oil rigs, many still pounding up and down spilling oil all over the ground. The landscape looks dusty and devastated. Oil was first ‘discovered’ in the region in the third century BC by Zoroastrian fire worshippers who built shrines around flames lit by methane gas. We spent an afternoon visiting a temple of fire worshippers, just north Baku. The temple consisted of an altar-like shrine with a fire in the center and fire coming off the four corners of its roof. The shrine sat in the center of a courtyard surrounded by small living quarters where the fire worshippers stayed, prayed and died. I knew nothing of this religion before I got there, but apparently there are still some 150,000 Zoroastrian fire worshippers left, mainly in Iran (where they have parliamentary representation), as well as India and Azerbaijan.

During the week we spent a lot of time meeting with representatives of the mine action community in Azerbaijan. The country is mine-affected as a result of the 1992-1994 conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, which saw the country lose 20 percent of its territory and resulted in one million internally displaced persons. It also suffers from explosive remnants of war leftover from Soviet times.

We traveled by an ancient Soviet-era overnight train to Horadiz in Fizuli region in the far west of the country, just ten kilometers north of the Iranian border. It was about as far as you can get from Washington DC, but my mobile phone still worked?! We met with the local administrator of the region, who I judged as quite important by the number of phones sitting on his desk (six in different colours, plus a gold bust of the President). We visited a mine clearance operation on a hillside by a village being rebuilt and flirted with the deminers, who acted as if they don’t get much entertainment often!

On a Saturday afternoon we met for two hours (?!) with the deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. He agreed to act on some points we raised, but talked for over an hour non-stop on the lack of progress in the ongoing talks to negotiate a peace settlement. As in Armenia one year earlier, we were often asked if we thought the war would end (currently the two countries have only a ceasefire in place), but stayed well away from trying to answer that question. You have to feel sorry for them, it’s been a decade and next-to-no progress has been made in resolving the conflict. Our host, Hafiz, was himself displaced from his home village in Nagorno-Karabakh and spoke a number of commonly used terms, such as “liberation” and “aggression.”

It’s a miracle I got through customs unscathed, as I was loaded down with carpet and gifts including caviar, cake and vodka. When I got back I read a great book by Thomas Goltz: “Azerbaijan Diary” published in 1998. I highly recommend it for anyone wanted to get their head around this curious, chaotic region called the “Caucuses.”

Returning from Vacation … in Circles & Zigzags (Oct. 2002)

When I last traveled three months ago, instead of flying in a straight line the airplane back from Europe zig-zagged all the way down the East Coast of the United States. Now, I asked the flight attendant, why are we circling instead? The on-screen map was showing the plane turning in loops. It’s to slow down as Washington Dulles airport isn’t ready for us yet due to heavy traffic.

“I feel sick,” I complained to anyone who listened. I’m normally never such a wimp, but after 10 ½ hours in the air I’d had enough. Everyone else was complaining too, Italian style. It’s was a rude welcome back “home.”

When I left on 10 September, the Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had ordered the arming of surface-to-air missiles launchers placed around DC in preparation for any unforeseen events during the 9-11 anniversary. In Europe I visited a number of castles with my family during our vacation in Spain, France and Italy: big, small, restored, ruined, on hill tops, along rivers…all equipped with ramparts, towers, gates & all manner of innovation to deter intruders and attackers. And yet still they fell. Will there be a day when tourists gawk at the ruins that were once DC?

How will the fall of the American Empire be told? On the plane, I read an article on neocolonialism by the US: Invade w. all the latest weapons & firepower, rebuild using American products & services, and depart leaving the country economically, politically, socially dependent on the “big guy.” I’m more familiar with the British Empire, coming from one of the realm’s more successful products of colonial rule. Late last century the UK also cobbled together Iraq, from three distinct sections of the Ottoman Empire: Kurdish, Sunni and Shi’ite. Will Iraq still be intact after a U.S. intervention?

The magazine I’m reading is packed with stories on Iraq: Saddam’s eccentricities, brutalities and atrocities. Just as Afghanistan formed the main media curriculum in late 2001, now Iraq is topic of the day. Coming after a month’s absence from my DC diet of the New York Times and Washington Post, it’s all a bit much to take.

My stomach is also churning from a steady diet of rich, indulgent “slow” foods, like truffles, wild boar, forest mushrooms, and salami made from every animal and animal part imaginable. And I didn’t even touch the alcohol. I’ll remember the bottle labels better having seen them in their local contexts: Corbieres, Chianti, Montepulciano, Brunello, Orvieto…

I wonder about my life in DC. How much has my kitten grown? (A lot it turns out.) Are my plants still alive? (Barely.) Have the leaves in my park changed colour yet? (Not a chance!) What’s the deal with the suburban sniper?

I contemplate my crazy travel schedule for the coming six months and my stomach growls as the plane turns, and turns again like a cat chasing its tail or Bush pursuing Bin Laden. Or is he now steadily zig-zagging toward Iraq?

From One Demo-cracy to Another… (April 2002)

Last night I got home from a week’s work in Paris. The pilot made an announcement half-way through our Air France flight that France’s right-wing President Jacques Chirac and far-right National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen had won the first round of the election, pushing their left-wing Prime Minister Lionel Jospin out of the race. A collective gasp went throughout the cabin, before everyone turned their attention back to the Harry Potter movie. In Paris, demonstrations were starting in the very scenic areas where 24-hours before I had been wandering around aimlessly stopping for drinks and coffee. I had seen the election posters up and asked a number of locals for their opinion on the election. The vast majority replied that they were not interested in either of the two mainstream candidates Chirac and Jospin, two “old white men,” preferring instead to cast their vote for one of the minority party candidates as a protest against the status quo. That meant splitting the left vote as voters went for numerous candidates including those from the far-left Trotskyite party for example – with disastrous results.

Back in DC, this morning I walked a leisurely four blocks to work past the Hinkley Hilton (so named by locals after John Hinkley shot then-President Ronald Reagan outside the hotel on 30 March 1991). The hotel is surrounded by police barricades and nearby Connecticut Avenue is due to be closed off to traffic for the rest of the day as anti-globalization protesters come to demonstrate against a pro-Israel lobby group meeting there. Demonstrations have been taking place in the city all weekend while the World Bank meets, but with no huge arrests or violence. It’s quite a contrast to events the previous week when thousands turned out for a pro-Israel rally outside the Capitol.

My time in Paris was mainly spent working on our annual global meeting of Landmine Monitor researchers, the culmination of a long journey of regional gatherings (this time in Seoul, Armenia, Nairobi, Brazil and Geneva) and drafts and deadlines and reminders… We managed to get about 90 researchers/campaigners there from some 75 countries of the far-flung network. I was presented with gifts from Kyrgyzstan, Syria and Azerbaijan, among other places. The meeting had a really good vibe. I’m not sure if it was due to our opulent surroundings in the government-owned conference center, the fantastic food, the undeniably romantic city, or the fact that the world is falling apart and we are all terribly concerned about it.

I managed to get in some leisure time, including visiting some cool flea markets: one at Porte de Clingencourt in the north, which sold expensive antiques and African jewels and hip-hop CDs, and Porte de Montreuil in the east, which was like an Arab souk with some stalls of eccentric collections of cheap second-hand clothes and bags. We spent most of our time on the Rive Gauche, near our hotel by the Eiffel Tower, and also around Saint Michel and Saint Germain, which feature some cool bars, in addition to ones packed with tourists. Ate dinner in what must be one of Paris’s only vegetarian restaurants, aptly located on Rue de Boucherie (Butcher’s Street).

When I arrived home yesterday, I found my letter to the Washington Post in the paper. Sometimes I feel like I’m repeating myself endlessly in my work but someone’s got to say it. For the past few months I’ve been asking myself if the world as I know it is coming to an end… So many bad things seem to be happening right now. I’m glad though that we live in a society where we are able to get up and demonstrate, unlike many of my colleagues from countries with no free speech/media or civil and political rights. For or against, if you don’t do it, you’re sitting out one of the biggest crises of our lifetimes. Get up and get out there…

Christmas in Rio (December 2001)

I have been hesitating about writing up something on my recent trip to Brazil because it was rather self-indulgent. But I did see a lot of the country in a very short period of time and have made it my mission to get all of you to go there at least once in your lifetime so here goes…

I spent from 8-28 December in Brazil. The first thing I saw was Sao Paolo airport for six hours. We then took off for Brasilia straight into a fierce storm with thunder & lightening. As we got higher, I realized it was multiple storms over the biggest urban sprawl I’d ever see – Sao Paolo is huge!

I stayed in Brasilia for five days of meetings with researchers from throughout the region; a really cool bunch of activists, journalists, students and development workers. The meeting was conducted in Spanish, Portuguese and English, which made for some fun interpretation! We did an event in the national parliament on the last day for invited officials, diplomats & media. It was fun to run around afterwards and take pictures of the strange building with its unique architecture shaped like a UFO. Brasilia has a weird layout in the shape of a plane, or bow and arrow or bird, depending on who you talk to and a dated feel, back to the 1960s when it was built. It was not very pedestrian friendly – no sidewalks, trees for shade and huge distances between buildings. After a fight with the hotel over the bill for the meeting (not an unusual occurrence), I got the hell out of there to start my vacation.

I flew to Salvador in Bahia province on the northeast coast of the country where I stayed with a family in their small apartment in an attempt to learn some of the language and understand some culture. It was a great experience. They were very laid back – the beach one day, the market the next, an outdoor concert the next night and so on. I bought lots of records from a guy on the street (made his week I think!) and the music everywhere was fantastic – Bossanova, Samba, Reggae – everywhere, especially in the oldest part of town, which is called Pelourino. Paid a visit to an elaborate church built 400 years ago by slaves who demonstrated their dissent through their work by distorting the faces of the cherubs and making them pregnant with big breasts! The northwest of Brazil is the poorest part of the country (bordering on third world conditions) and also one of the most ethnically diverse with a high number of African descent.

After learning Portuguese and some baby-talk from my four-year housemate
Mateus, discussing politics of race relations and football in Brazil with Moises, the father of the family, and the pros and cons of Brazilian fashion with Vanya, the mother of this family, I reluctantly left for Florianopolis on the island of Santa Catarina, on the southeast coast of the country. My sister Kate (aka Catarina) arrived an hour after me and together in our rental car, we managed to navigate to the north of the island where we were stayed in a cabin on a hill overlooking three beaches. We weren’t really roughing it; we had TV, breakfast delivered and all the mod cons and hammock to check out the view! We spent the next week exploring the island’s 42 beaches, especially the surf beaches at Praia Mole and Joaquin where the national surf championships are held each year. Spent hours burning ourselves on the beach while people tried to sell all sorts of assorted goodies, including henna tattoos, which we indulged in of course (much to the detriment of the rental car upholstery)…

We were pretty sad when it was time to leave the island for Rio. Getting there should have been an easy trip but it turned into an all-night affair when bad weather forced us to land and wait in Sao Paolo (yes, again). The winning team of the previous week’s national soccer final was in our airport lounge trying to get home together with their cup and their chants. They started to take their frustration out on flight attendants from an airline they were not booked on. It was like being at a game! The majority of Brazilians we met were however very happy and reasonable people who seemed to make the most out of awkward situations.

In Rio we stayed in Hotel Debret (or as I called it Hotel Debit), on the west end of Copacabana beach not far from Ipanema beach. Our room had a “lateral” view of the beach, looking right to the beach and left toward the favela (slums) crawling up the steep hillside at the back of Copacabana. It rained and rained on Xmas Eve, Xmas Day and the day after Xmas but we made the most of it by shopping, walking along the beach and lagoon and seeing the Harry Potter movie. Still it was a fierce storm; some 50 people died in Rio as favelas to washed downhill in landslides. On the day we had to leave the sun finally came out, as did as 1,000 guys trying out to be surf lifesavers on Copacabana beach. We planted ourselves on the beach to watch their progress (and tiny swim suits) then raced up to the Jesus statue before we left for the airport and the cold weather.

I was sad to leave – the country deserves three months rather than three weeks to visit it properly. Plus New Year’s in Rio was going to be a spectacle not to be missed. I want to go back and check out the Amazon, the Pantanal wetlands and the northwest for New Year’s and Carnival. Any takers? It’s an awesome place and it doesn’t matter if you are hopeless in Portuguese – any attempt to speak is appreciated. Nonetheless it has been nice to get back to this town I still can’t believe I live in, most importantly because of my friends who manage to tolerate my absences and await my return (perhaps because they get some cool presents every time I come back from somewhere)…

Best wishes for the coming year. May it be peaceful and prosperous.

Next Place: Nairobi (November 2001)

Well this time I’m just back from Nairobi, Kenya, where I participated in yet another marathon regional meeting of the Landmine Monitor researchers, this time from Africa. We stayed and met at the same place – Holiday Inn Nairobi – and barely left it. Nairobi or “Nairobbery” is one of the most dangerous cities in the world, on par with Johannesburg and Bogota in terms of violent crime. Fortunately the hotel was a nice one, with an overpriced restaurant we tired of immediately, a gym playing music direct from Washington DC for some reason and a pool that I only used once since it was cold and raining most of the time. Nairobi is the expatriate destination in the region – I bumped into three people I know, one friend from DC and two work colleagues from New York who were all staying in the same hotel.

So it wasn’t really possible to wander around but I did get out a bit. Went downtown one day to buy my friend some local music and used an ATM machine that had an armed guard standing beside it. The economy is getting worse and kids were tugging at my clothes asking for money. I was told not to carry a purse or wear a watch or anything flashy. Another day we went to the City Market to pick-up some presents, bargaining with the small-time shopkeepers who were very persistent. Nairobi is not a cheap. I spent much more than anticipated.

Kenya is one of the only places I been to which features the president on its currency. Daniel Arap Moi appears on the notes and coins, as he has done since coming to power in 1978. He is due to leave office next year, some twenty-four years later. Widespread corruption and poverty, increased violent crime, ethnic fighting and outbreaks of cholera and malari have characterized his period of rule. In the lead-up to the 2002 election, political meetings, demonstrations, and strikes are likely. Indeed while I was there, some government ministers were stoned (with rocks, right not the other stuff), and inhabitants of a slum were beaten to death during intertribal fighting over rent payments. Also last week, Moi rejected a prior commitment by the government to send a delegation including 1/3rd women representatives to a regional assembly, promoting protests from the women’s movement, which has been quite strong in the past.

As if the country doesn’t have enough problems, on 7 August 1998, 213 people were killed and many more injured when the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi was bombed, allegedly by Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. September 11th was a big deal there and it came up a lot, including at a game park on our last day. Three Masai warriors in full costume asked to take a photo with us in return for some money. I asked how them how business was going and they answered “rather slow since September 11th.” It’s amazing how this thing seems to have reached every corner of the earth.

We didn’t see that much in the park, which has a cool view of the city skyline, despite driving around for hours. Spotted some giraffes, lots of gazelles (impala), some rhinos mating, a tree filled with a family of scary-looking baboons and another tree which was home to some very sweet looking velvet monkeys who were tame enough to let us come within a meter of them. Some of them held tiny baby monkeys, which we saw them swap with each other. Like one big happy family. Made me think of Christmas-time. Hope you enjoy it. I’ll be on the beach in yet another country with my sister. See you in 2002!

Disarming Armenia (November 2001)

I was away again this past week, this time in Armenia in the Caucuses. Go find it on a map! This was for yet another regional training meeting of the campaigners conducting research for Landmine Monitor. They came from all over the former Soviet Union. The campaigner from Azerbaijan was assigned a bodyguard from Armenia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs (secret service) as well as Police & Army escorts since both countries are technically still at war. It made for some interesting trips outside the hotel.

Armenia and Azerbaijan began fighting over an enclave named Nagorno-Karabakh in 1988 and the struggle escalated after both countries became independent in 1991. By May 1994, when a cease-fire took hold, Armenia held not only Nagorno-Karabakh but also a significant portion of Azerbaijan. The unresolved war with Azerbaijan seemed to cast a shadow over everything. Neither country has signed up to the ban treaty.

We stayed in the capital, Yerevan, on the main street just around the corner from the square. My first impressions were that it was extremely poor and run-down. Old women in headscarves swept up leaves on the streets. Lada and Trabant cars polluted the air as did smoke from domestic fireplaces. Like most post Soviet states, Armenia has seen better days. But very few people asked me for money as they do on every block in DC! Among the young male population, there is 60 percent unemployment. All the locals had dark hair and dark eyes – they were quite curious in my blonde hair and that of my colleagues.

In our minimal spare time we were taken to look at their book collection in the national archives, some old churches, the home of a famous Armenian film producer and artist named Sergei Parajanov, and to the Sunday market. Armenia is a very religious country and in the square a huge cross stands where a statue of Lenin was previously placed. The Pope visited in September for the commemoration of 1,700 years since they embraced Orthodox Christianity as the state religion. One church was built to honor “Saint Gregory the Eliminator.” The market had an amazing collection of silver, carpets, stone carvings, Soviet memorabilia and household items and while we were practically the only foreigners visiting, we were not harassed by any of the vendors.

We could see their beloved Mount Ararat from Yerevan but the mountain is in Turkish territory. We visited the genocide memorial, built to remember 1.5 million Armenians killed by Turkey in April 1915. They’ve had a rough history. In 1988, a huge earthquake killed and injured thousands. In November 1999, armed men burst into the Parliament debating chamber and killed the Prime Minister and seven other members, in a crime that is still unresolved.

Our hosts were extremely generous, stuffing us with food and brandy/vodka toasts as well as some fine Armenian wine. They like their BBQ. The main organizer, a woman named Jemma, had for years headed up a region as a Communist Party boss and her authoritarian leadership talents actually translated quite well into coordination of their campaigning efforts against landmines. All the government officials and military generals treated her and our group with respect and interest. Our activities led the nightly national new reports.

Before we left, we made a field visit to the Tavush border region in the north of the country, driving for three hours through some winding tree-lined gorges and mountainous plateau. We stopped for photographs at Lake Sevan, which has a water level that has steadily been dropping but no one knows why. Many of the villages we passed were empty, as Azeri and Russian residents that had fled during the war had not returned. In many parts the soil is polluted with toxic chemicals such as DDT and during the war an energy blockade led to severe deforestation when citizens scavenged for firewood.

After speeches and brandy shots at the Mayor’s office, we headed for a village on the border with Azerbaijan. I rode in an Army jeep with the head of the Engineers, asking him questions about the area and the nature of the problems, which included snipers, uncleared mines and unexploded ordnance (including cluster bombs), poor economy, no road or rail link to neighbouring Georgia or Azerbaijan and so on. The head of the village listed their grievances and thanked us for coming to hear their views. I turned to walk down a path between the buildings to get a better view and was pulled back by a soldier who said that Azeri snipers on the opposite hillside were still taking shots at the residents.

With 3.3 million people, the country is the same size as New Zealand. Probably the biggest difference between the two is NZ’s brief and comparatively peaceful history. I’m glad I had the opportunity to check out Armenia.

Korea Tales (October 2001)

I got back from a five-day trip to South Korea earlier this week – my first time there, it was very interesting! Campaigners from the Asia region came to discuss their research for our next annual report for two days. We were staying and meeting at Yonsei University in the center of Seoul and a neighborhood named “university town,” with all sorts of hip shops, street-sellers and cool students. Particularly hot items seemed to be cell phone accessories (everything from fluffy toys to sparkling aerials), American jeans and bootleg shoes, bag, jackets, etcetera…

On the third day we took a field trip to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which is about one hour north of Seoul. It was strange visiting this last remnant of the Cold War; the most heavily fortified border in the world where North and South Korea have been facing each other off in a constant state of war constrained only by an armistice (ceasefire) agreement made back in 1953. At a time when the U.S. seems to be trying everything possible to close or monitor its borders for a terrorist threat which, like anthrax, is barely visible, the DMZ was like entering a time-warp back to a * MASH * show. As soon as we arrived at this observatory point patrolled by South Korean troops we heard the “propaganda” blaring through loud speakers toward North Korea. In Korean, it played speeches, news, pleas to give up the fight and even music – when we were leaving they started blasting “By the Rivers of Babylon.” We received a briefing by the military in a room with floor to ceiling glass windows looking on to North Korea, which was covered in fog and barely visible. One of their problems, which they barely acknowledge, is that U.S. and other mines laid along the DMZ fifty years ago constantly move, especially in heavy rains and floods, and wind up downstream in the rice paddies, where they maim and kill local civilians.

Before we got to the DMZ, we stopped in a small village to have lunch with some landmine survivors; old Korean men smoking their pipes and showing us their wounds and complaining about receiving no compensation from their government. Outside the restaurant were cages and cages of very cute rabbits and a rather sad looking dog – no wonder they served us all vegetarian food after seeing our looks of concern!

The next day, I attended a church service with a few of the campaigners at a church that is a major financial backer of the Korean campaign. They had just started when we walked in and I nearly died it was so funny. Behind the podium was a huge video screen, the type they have a rock concerts, showing this inspirational (?) footage of nature – geysers, waterfalls, lakes (I swear some of it was from New Zealand). On stage, ten impeccably dressed men and women were singing Christian songs in English into microphones as if they were singing karaoke, with a full band backing them. The preacher was dressed in white, standing before a clear plastic podium trying to give a sermon in English (the only service out of ten given that day) when he clearly could only speak Korean, but the words were also up on the video screen. My Muslim colleagues from Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh were sitting in front of me with their mouths open amazed at it all – afterwards they asked if this is what all church is always like. They said it was a good experience.

We also visited the Olympic Park from the 1988 games. It was packed with kids on skates, skateboards, scooters, roller-blades, bikes and the like – nice to see it being used! There was a man-made lake and when music played, fountains of water spouted up – in sync with the music?! There were also dozens of cool sculptures from all over the world.

Before I left Jody and I met with the man who is likely to be Korea’s next president, as President Kim Dae Jung will after to step down next year after serving a non-renewable five-year term. I was dressed in jeans for the long plane ride back while everyone else had their suits on (oops!) and we sat around a very formal table in one of the poshest hotels in Seoul. They’re pretty formal over there but very nice all the while. I learned from my colleagues in the Korean campaign that they had all served time in jail at one time or another for their pro-democracy and pro-unification work – the country is only now really beginning to change for the good.

Anyway, it was nice to try and get away from this town even for just a week to learn about another country’s problems and what some dedicated people are trying to do to change it for the better. DC is as tense as ever, with new anthrax cases reported every day. At work, on Afghanistan we’re dealing with U.S. airdrops of food that is wrapped in yellow and the same size and colour as cluster bombs they are dropping in the same areas. I don’t know how much dumber it can get. When the cluster bombs don’t explode, they become like little lethal landmines, but there is no sign the U.S. will stop using this particular weapon any time soon.

We’ll see…

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