Twisters & Tarantulas (September 2001)

These are some observations from my long-awaited trip to Nicaragua and the return back to ground zero …

I got back to DC from Managua yesterday afternoon. They cancelled the bus service from Dulles airport so it is either a $50 cab ride taking 1/2 hour or bus & metro that takes over an hour. National airport, which is much closer, is closed indefinitely since it is so near the White House but they’ll have to open it soon for all the politicians who, like everyone else, hate Dulles, as it is way out of town. The plane that hit the Pentagon left from Dulles and they claimed to be improving their security but on the way out and back in again I noticed no meaningful changes, other than being given two forks to eat the food with. They pay the security people next to nothing and provide no meaningful training or other benefits, as they get in Europe, and still expect them to notice terrorists boarding planes? I don’t think so! Still this has not deterred me from getting on a plane – how else will I get home!

I was back in my apartment less than 30 minutes before I looked out the window and saw a tornado/twister coming down from a huge black cloud next to the Washington monument (that pointy white thing). It looked like a thin line. Everything was going nuts – rain, wind, thunder, lightening and now this. Less than ten minutes later it had passed through the district and on to a university where it killed two students, destroyed a building, crushed some cars and toppled some trees. And to think I had come back expecting some man-made disaster to strike!

Nicaragua is awesome – they have beautiful beaches, lakes, volcanoes and all sorts of cool animals, food, and music. And the rest of the world still think they are at war! There is a battle going on but it is through the ballot box, as elections will take place in less than 6 weeks. All the bases of the palm trees were painted pink for Daniel Ortega’s Frente Sandinista de Liberation Nacional (FSLN) party (a change from their old colours of red & black). There were also blue flags flying for the conservative Liberal Alliance, which is currently in power. Everyone I talked to told me that both parties are equally incompetent and corrupt. There is a terrible poverty, exacerbated by Hurricane Mitch in 1998, corrupt authorities and by policies brought about to comply with IMF and World Bank requests. Kids tugging at your clothes asking for money. In Managua itself, there is no centre as all of downtown was destroyed by a massive earthquake in the 1970s and never rebuilt.

Despite the events in the U.S., over 80 governments and 100 campaigners attended the meeting I was there for. The Nicaraguan Ministry of Foreign Affairs did some fantastic work to prepare for the conference and made everyone feel much more welcome than we do in Geneva, which is the reason we were there. Our report on compliance with the ban was warmly received and I didn’t get beat up by nearly as many governments as I had anticipated. I got food poisoning after one of the cocktail parties and teased endlessly for not drinking by my friends in the campaign. I practiced my Spanish on some poor, unknowing people!

I stayed on over the weekend to see something other than the conference center and our hotel. We went to Granada on Saturday, which is the third-largest city in the country and ate lunch by the lake that has fresh water sharks. Saw alligators, turtles, lizards, monkeys, birds and encountered all sorts of bugs. Went to a market where I also saw many of
The same animals but this time as shoes, bags and other items I could probably bring back into Dulles without anyone noticing.

On Sunday I found a swimming pool and then headed out of town again, this time to a volcano. In the forest and coffee plantation on the side of the volcano, we did some eco-tourism which involved putting on a harness and all sorts of strange gear, climbing 30 (? it was very high!) metres up a huge tree to a platform where you are hooked up to a wire (like a flying fox) and then pushed off to literally fly through the jungle to the next tree where there is another platform and the next tree and so on. Like Tarzan and we were screaming like he does too. The only problem was that we had been out so late the night before at some parties that we turned up late in the afternoon and by the time were up in the trees it was dark! Couldn’t see the tarantulas, howling monkeys and other goodies they had in store. But I recommend to anyone – they should try it in NZ!

I tried my hardest to miss my plane home as Nicaragua would be one of the better places to be stuck in should something happen. It was way too short. During the week I found myself constantly reasserting my identity as a New Zealander by wearing my bone carving and explaining my messed-up accent. My colleagues are terribly concerned about what is going to happen next. Whatever it is, I hope I’m not in DC to witness it this time! See you later…

What Happened Here…?

Yesterday was pretty surreal – it all started for me as I reached the office and started to answer my email. When I heard about the second plane, I turned on the TV and within minutes all the staff was watching. I tried to get back to work but then heard on my radio that the Pentagon had been hit. I looked out my window and sure enough, smoke was rising in what was a crystal clear sky. They then started to evacuate downtown and from where we are on one of the city’s main boulevards we could see a steady stream of office workers walking north away from the city as well as backed-up traffic. No one looked like they were panicking though. I began to feel very glad that HRW took the decision to move to Dupont Circle from its previous location just one block from the White House. Rumours started circulating that a low-flying plane was headed for the White House but obviously this did not turn out to be true. By about 11:30am, nearly all of the planes were accounted for and it seemed that no more crashes would happen.

At midday I had to take a very painful decision to cancel events we had planned here in DC to release the global report we have been working so hard on. We has some great briefings for media and diplomats lined up for the Organization of American States where NGOs are not normally welcomed but they are located about two blocks from the White House. So given the access problems and the fact that we would get nil media attention we canceled. We went ahead with the global release of the report, which if you are interested you can see online at

When I left the office at 1pm, the traffic on Connecticut Avenue had all but disappeared and the shops and restaurants were closing. I headed for my friend Simone’s house and from there did what everyone else in the world did yesterday – watched TV. That was kind of numbing after 10 hours. It was interesting to see how the U.S. media took some care not to show the jumpers and the dead until much later in the evening. The famous news anchors spent the entire day on TV and by the evening were starting to sound incoherent. This morning the newspapers are full of stories and photos of the carnage, as I expect they are around the rest of the world.

What is concerning me now is exactly what the government here will do to pursue those who carried out these terrible crimes against humanity. In his statement Bush said the US will, “make no distinction between the terrorists and those who harbor them.” No crime should be retaliated if it means killing more innocent people. I fear for my colleagues in places like Afghanistan, Sudan and Yemen who have sent been sending us messages of support. In the US, if you kill, then you will be killed through their despicable use of death penalty. This is the method I fear they will use to retaliate for yesterday’s crimes, but on a far larger scale. I fear they will destroy the work I have engaged in over the past five years both in the landmines campaign and at Human Rights Watch to ensure that the laws of war are abided by and given due respect. The principles of distinction between soldier and civilian, of proportionality with respect to the use of force, the prohibitions of unnecessary suffering and respect for basic human rights. I have seen the US strive to adhere to these rules, most recently in the Kosovo conflict, which was executed with surgical accuracy (but still with civilian casualties). Yesterday’s events have brought everything down to such a level, that I find myself terribly concerned about how the US will respond.

The streets in DC are now quiet apart from intermittent sirens while the skies are clear with the exception of some helicopters and some fighter jet flying thousands of miles above. They should lift the state of emergency by the weekend. Until then everyone is told to remain at home, if they are not at work or school. I should know later today whether the meeting I was due to fly down to on Friday in Nicaragua is going ahead. I’m booked on American, the airline of the Americas, but expect will be one of the safest to fly following these events.

I always thought something like this could happen here and have been working for a long time now to wake up this country. They should be reaching out and seeking help from this huge outpouring of sympathy by the international community. But this is the Bush administration and I’m more than skeptical as to what their next step will be. At least I know I can always come home to New Zealand, where sanity prevails and the grass is green! Missing you madly…

Love Mary

Trading Glances in Tunisia (January 1999)

It was a strange meeting and a strange country – my first real experience of the Arab world. Lots of men everywhere smoking and drinking coffee, trying to sell me antiques, talk to me. Annoy me. I was warned before leaving for Tunisia that the secret police would follow me as I work for Human Rights Watch. We print what they don’t in their newspapers about what really goes on in their country. It has no free and open society. My hotel room has an entire wall of mirrors and my email cut off after one successful attempt to get through.

At the seminar I attended, I spoke about the mine problem and its solutions at the end of the first day after a lot of panel presentations. A representative of the embassy of Egypt (Aly Sirry, consellor) took the floor in the question and answer period afterwards and without directing naming me or HRW started a speech on documents circulating at the meeting that did not correctly reflect Egypt’s position on the ban on the treaty. His argument was the, “lack of incentives in the treaty that would help Egypt deal with its massive landmine problem.”

The chair (the only woman to chair any part of the conference) cut him off and I responded by asking for him to put his concerns in writing, that we welcome a dialogue but that this was a non-governmental conference and this was not an appropriate time to engage in a debate and invited him to speak with me afterwards. In private he said Egypt has halted its mine production. I said Egypt must make these statements in public or in writing if we can take them seriously. The next day during the final plenary he read out a written statement without mentioning mine production.

Besides the meeting the people that I met were nice. Eager to show off their history – I went to Carthege at the northernmost tip of Africa together with Sylvie Brigot, which was a ten minute cab ride from the city. The place was once home to all sorts cultures roman included. Shopped in the souk in the medina (old town). Bought a carpet after haggling but still think I was ripped off! And a red fez hat that I’ll give to Dad for his birthday so he looks distinguished!

Doin’ it in Dublin (September 1998)

Swiss Air Flight 111 left New York City at right before my plane took off and we followed it up the East Coast of Canada. Our pilot saw it crash. So spooky to be so close… The Americans on my flight were saying how Air Lingus is so safe, but I bet they were saying the same about Swiss Air. A lot of good people went down with that plane, including Jonathan Mann, head of the UN Aids program so it was pretty sad.

President Clinton also arrived in Dublin thirty minutes after my plane and proceeded to follow me down to County Kerry to play golf where I spent the weekend sightseeing. I can get away from DC, but can’t get away from the man!

Despite the work, Dublin is a fun place to spend 3 weeks. We stayed in Trinity College and met in Dublin Castle.

While we were there Burkina Faso became the 40th country to ratify the Mine Ban Treaty, triggering entry into force of the agreement six months later. At last, the ban will be international law! Needless to say, a lot of Guinness (both white and black) was consumed when we received the news.

On my last weekend, my Kiwi friends came to visit from London (Chris Tubbs, Zane Lowe) together with their Irish friend Patrick Meager, who manages the Dirty Beatniks. We had a great time! Saw the Beatniks DJ a set at the Funnel. Sat in the VIP area at U2’s hotel club called Kitchen, where the Edge and other rock stars were hanging out. Laughed as Zane, a presenter on MTV Europe, was chased through the streets by his fans. Little did we know that was just the beginnings of his stardoml…

Weaving in Preah Vihear (January 1998)

Johm Riap Sua/Greetings from Preah Vihear province I am on a working vacation with my employer, the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (VVAF). I’ll be back in Washington DC shortly, but wanted to send this postcard – it’s a bit longer than a postcard. This is not directly about the campaign it involves landmines. I have been traveling through Vietnam and Cambodia with VVAF President Bobby Muller and a delegation from VVAF. It involves some work – visiting our projects but also a lot of downtime that I need after the hectic events of the latter half of 1997. Distance does wonders for your perspective and being in Cambodia brings back the reality of what we have all been campaigning for over the past years. This is only my second visit to this country – the last was in June 1995 to participate in the immensely successful 3rd international NGO conference on landmines.

In Cambodia VVAF operates Veterans International/Cambodia, a prosthetics and orthotics center at Kien Khleang on the outskirts of Phnom Penh (operating since 1991), as well as a rehabilitation center in Prey Veng province (established in early 1995), and a rehabilitation and skills training center in Preah Vihear, the last of which I want tell you about. I stayed from 7 to 9 January in Tbeng Meanchey, with the director of our project in Preah Vihear, Mr. Bud Gibbons.

Preah Vihear province lies directly north of Phnom Penh and borders Thailand and Laos to the north, Siem Reap province to the west and Stung Treng province to the east. Its capital Tbeng Meanchey lies in the centre of the province, about 60 kilometers south of the Khmer Rouge rebel stronghold of Anlong Veng on the Thai border. The day before I arrived the Bangkok Post ran a front-page story and photograph of Pol Pot, the man who led Cambodia’s dark period of genocide and famine in the late 1970s during which up to two million people were killed. The Post showed Pol Pot at his home in Anlong Veng contradicting rumors that he had left for China.

Preah Vihear is one of Cambodia’s poorest provinces and with an estimated population of 109,030 (source: Health Unlimited), it is one of the more sparsely populated. In August 1994, the Khmer Rouge took control of most of the province but not Tbeng Meanchey. The rebels are now located along the northern border and national Army of co-Prime Minister Hun Sen control most of the province. No comprehensive survey has been undertaken of the province’s problem with landmines and there is currently no mine clearance underway by any NGO or by the national Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC). The worst mine-affected districts are in the west and north of the province although every district has some problems with uncleared mines.

Vietnam Veteran Bud Gibbons has working for VVAF in Cambodia for about four years. He first established the mobile outreach service to provide simple prosthetic services to isolated amputees in Stung Treng. Since July 1995 he has provided prosthetic and wheelchairs in Preah Vihear as well as creating an income generating skills training project that I’ll call here ‘Invest in Vests’ for the clothing that is weaved and made even through this range of products diversifies daily.

In February 1996, five female mine and polio survivors women that had received services from Bud’s outreach program trained as tailors in Battambang province, but none could gain employment on their return home to Tbeng Meanchey. VVAF provided sewing machines and women started sew garments starting with the vest. By the time of my visit there were more than 12 tailors and a teacher at the main house, more than 15 weavers at the silk farm, and 3 cooks and 6 laborers ensuring the project has clean water from the well and continuing the construction and maintenance of the project’s buildings.

Many reside at either the farm or the house, separated by sex. Other workers return home at night to their own families and at least four live in the nearby camps of the internally displaced persons (IDP) that are not serviced by the WFP or UNHCR. Basic health and education services are lacking in the IDP villages.

Until recently the province was only accessible by military aircraft but the Australia/New Zealand Missionary Aviation Fellowship flew me in from Phnom Penh on their six-seater plan. The army charges as much as $1,800 per flight, but MAF charges about $400. It heavily subsidizes its flights to provide essential services to the population and the few non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working there including VVAF, Action Contra le Faim, Health Unlimited, and the Food for Work program of the World Food Program (WFP). Pilot Ian Stacy told me he has seen a lot of things in his career that has taken him to Papua New Guinea, Australia’s northern territories and now Cambodia but the landmines have affected him greatly: “I write more letters to politicians on this issue than anything else.”

Tbeng Meanchey’s red dirt strip “airport” is a ten minute drive from town. The dusty frontier township of 3,000 people has two main streets (neither is paved) and consists of a primary and secondary school, a technical college, a development centre for women, the old UNTAC headquarters, civilian and army hospitals and various buildings housing the local authorities. Communities of internally displaced persons (IDP) surround the town; over 1,000 families have moved here in recent years to escape the fighting and the landmines.

I spent my time between the main house where the tailors work and at the farm where the the fabric is made. Together with the translator Dara, I spent two days interviewing and photographing as many of the workers as I could.

The project’s farm lie about 500 meters down the road from the house and consists of a large plantation of mulberry bushes to feed the silk worms, two vegetable gardens, a well, a fish pond, a buildings housing the silk worms that hatched during my visit, a dormitory and the building used for weaving. Construction was underway to build a smaller structure to hang and dye the silk and cotton. The project has four large and two small looms for the fabric and spinning wheels to make the thread, all made of wood by the project.

I had a long conversation with Te Nguon, a 42-year-old blinded by a bounding antipersonnel landmine on 12 February 1987. A transport officer, he was hurt investigating a report of rebel activity on the road to Kompong Thum. He said, “I have not heard of the campaign to ban landmines, but I want to send a message to the world’s powerful countries to pressure the countries that make, sell and use mines to stop. We can fight war without mines.” When we talked it was his third day at work – he was carving wooden spools for the thread. “I am married with five grown children, but this is the first job I have had since I was hurt ten years ago. I cannot express how happy I am now; I have work and the people assist me to get around.”

The silk-making and weaving teacher is a woman called Bun Nareth, aged 34 years. From Prey Kabas district in Takeo province, this was only her third week at the silk farm. Her mother and grandmother taught her traditional Khmer weaving. She said she is enjoying her job and wants to stay. “The people in this province are very, very poor but gradually they can improve their lives,” she says. “Especially the lives of these disabled who are the poorest of the poor.”

I talked to the rest of the silk farm workers and recorded their stories. I’m struck that for all of them this is their first job. “I hurt in 1995 while working back from working in the fields,” says Taat Nam, 26 yrs, from Sra Lo village in Tala district, Stung Treng province. “I was the last in a line of nine people walking when I stepped on an antipersonnel landmine. It took three days to transport me to the provincial hospital, but I was able to buy medicine to stop the pain.” Taat Nam’s right leg was amputated below the knee. “There was nothing for me to do at home and my parents were very old and had to look after me. I am very happy to be working here,” she said.

Bud told me only women were employed at the start of the project because he found, “the men who were disabled by mines were more angry than women at being young and disfigured. Many were former soldiers and they were upset if their war pensions did not come through. None of the women injured by mines were soldiers – they are innocent victims. In Cambodia, becoming an amputee or disabled presents enormous problems – some of these women were abandoned and ostracized by their community. They were stigmatized for in this country much emphasis is placed on inner and outer wholeness – often, the victim who steps on the mine is seen as having brought this upon themselves for having bad karma.”

Men are now being employed. According to Bud, “they have seen the women learning skills and earning money. They see the benefits to the community as the women purchase goods at the local market. They now understand what we are trying to do here and want to work.” One woman, Tum Roeun, 24yrs, has traveled with Bud to international conferences in Tokyo and Oslo to talk about herself and the project in Preah Vihear. Others are sent to Phnom Penh to develop their business skills, learn English language and develop contacts within and outside the disabled community. The students have started a school at night when the generator powers electricity from 6pm to 9pm. “I checked in one night and they were taking a reading and writing class,” said Bud. “I didn’t organize any of it – they did it of their own accord.”

I ask the teacher who also works as a tailor how the school began. Chun So Peap, 28 yrs, has polio in both legs and one arm. “I got polio when I was 16 years old in my home village of Kdey, in Sangkum Thmey district, Preah Vihear. I was in school for eight years and wanted to be a teacher, but when I got polio I had to stay at home with my parents. Bud came to the village and gave me a wheelchair. Chun So Peap married and has a four-year old child. His wife left him a couple of years ago, but returned when she heard he was employed embroidering with the sewing project. She now weaves at the silk farm. “The students asked if I would teach them at night and I agreed – very few people in this province know how to read or write,” he told me.

I visited the civilian and army hospitals but there was not a lot to see. The tuberculosis ward was busy and despite it being the dry season, there were several patients, including children, ill with malaria. There were a few landmine disabled including a 16-year old who had fled from Anlong Veng two weeks earlier. There was more medicine available for sale at the local market than in the hospitals. VVAF’s project operates a mobile outreach team in cooperation with Health Unlimited, a British NGO with a focus on training in health. Access to and within the province is one of the biggest problems. The main roads are impassable during the wet season and dangerous all year round due to the presence of landmines. For a short time during the UNTAC peacekeeping operation, most roads were open, but now the province is isolated again. The VI/HU mobile teams train healthcare workers in immunization and vaccinations to service mobility impaired and more recently to teach mine awareness using materials and workers trained by the British demining agency Mines Advisory Group.

Disclaimer: This informal thumbnail sketch of my impressions at Tbeng Meanchey is not intended in any way to be representative of VVAF’s projects or even entirely accurate. There is no phone, fax or email available in Tbeng Meanchey to get in touch with Bud Gibbons so for more information please contact VVAF’s Washington DC office.

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