Archive for September, 2001

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