Friday, 28 December 2007

Christmas Songs

We are invited to Campbell's for Christmas dinner. His entire family is there, all 21 of them (with Robert and I added as last-minute guests), too big to fit in their home, so they rent out an entire bed-and-breakfast for themselves. They are, on the surface, a typical mid-west family: sweet, polite, apple pie and gingham shirts. Campbell's grandparents introduce themselves: "I'm grandma," his grandmother chirps and shakes my hand. "And I'm grandpa!" his grandfather chimes excitedly. It's all so sweet and bible-belt looking it's easy to forget these people are actually fairly radical pacifists, many of them willing to break federal law to help "fugitives" escape from the U.S. military.

My first impression of the sweet, harmless family is quickly shattered when we start talking about international politics. There aren't many Mid-west Christian families who can talk confidently about Palestine and Israel, some of them from first-hand experience having worked there in peace-making and human rights teams.
"What do you think of this Annapolis Conference?" Campbell's uncle asks, smiling deviously and sarcastically fishing for a reaction. "They've never tried that before have they? It looks like it'll be sorted within a year..."

When Campbell's grandfather bows his head to say grace before our meal, he asks if anyone would like to sing a song before we start. Dara, one of the younger granddaughters, requests "Joy to the World," and I expect (as I'm used to hearing at impromptu family sing-a-longs) a half-hearted, off-key rendition. But I'd forgotten the Menonite tradition, explained to me earlier by a proud Campbell, for spontaneous group singing in harmony. In Campbell's family, they take this tradition particularly seriously.

"Joy to the World" was a rousing, beautiful ode in four-part harmony, with everyone knowing their part perfectly. I struggled to choose a key. Robert was hopeless. As the family finished the meal and moved into the living room to read the Christmas story and sing more hymns and carols, it became increasingly clear that Robert had absolutely no hope of singing anything in key. He couldn't even follow the melody. I tried to throw in a few harmonies to impress the family (no one noticed) but as I filmed Robert, I started to feel bad, slightly embarrassed for him. He really was terrible. At times when he did actually make a sound, it was way off. Not even close to the tune. I was filming him closely for the documentary, but it ended up looking like an exercise in humiliate him, and getting it all on tape for future humiliations, possibly broadcast around the work on Al-Jazeera International.

No one said peace-loving, Christian army deserters had to be able to sing.

Thursday, 27 December 2007

A Few Days Waiting

The next few days pass slowly. Robert and I have little to do, except wait for something else to happen. The weather is well below zero in Northern Indiana, and the hotel room's heater barely works. I watch cheap tv at night because I can find little inspiration to do anything else. I go for short runs while the sun is still up, slipping on ice in the road and running straight into snow and oncoming car headlights (there are no pavements in this part of the city).

Because Robert has no plan of his own - he is working based on Campbell's advice - he's often left waiting for Campbell before making any real decisions. He's very much alone in this - without family or friends to support him. On the days Campbell spends away from us, with his family, Robert is lost. He often asks me about the process, about how military law treats people like him (what should we call them? Conscientious objectors? Deserters? Criminals? Patriots? It depends on who you ask) Robert asks me about turning himself in, about protocol and procedures. I know only what I've been reading lately about it, but I try to put his mind at ease as best as I can. He switches quickly and constantly between acting very confident, and showing his true vulnerable self.

Most of the time, he considers everything he wants to say very carefully. Listening to his reasoning, his intelligent speech, you would never guess he was only 19. Most of the time he presents himself as a very relaxed, but angry kid.

But one night he gets a little drunk and I finally see the angry teenager. He vents his anger at the military, yelling at me in the deserted hotel bar as though I was the military.
"You just degrade me like that, trying to make me feel less than human! Everything is designed so that the men who were once soldiers being picked on and beaten up then become officer, and they pick on you and bear up the soldiers under their command because that's how they were treated. You de-humanise everyone! How can you ask me to respect when you treat me like shit!"

It goes on like this for almost an hour - occasionally looking up at the television above his head to distract myself - before I have to ask Robert to calm down, and I leave for my room to watch more cheap television and fall asleep.

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

This Small Town

As Campbell drives us through this small town in Northern Indiana, Robert and I slump into exhaustion. He jokes with Campbell about the experience, about the state Trooper who was only interested in questions about videos on YouTube, the moment we thought he would surely be arrested. I laugh with him, somewhat reveling in the fact that we're finally safe. I'm tired and hungry, looking out the window, into the freezing night, watching the quintessential American signs pass us by: the glowing MacDonalds logo, petrol stations, green road signs, stick on lettering in front of Churches wishing me a Merry Christmas and reminding me that Jesus loves me.

As he drives, Campbell calls his father asking where he recommends as a safe house for Robert. We pull into a Motel where we'll be staying for two nights until the safe house is confirmed. We pay in cash just in case the FBI are looking out for credit card transactions. After dumping our bags into our rooms, Robert and Campbell sit on opposite beds, eating the pizza we ordered for dinner (everywhere else was closed...) and falling into theological debates. They're not arguments, though Robert enjoys being combative, perhaps knowing that his knowledge of the Bible and its interpretations is immense. They discuss drinking, is it written in the Bible that Christians shouldn't drink, or just that they shouldn't get drunk? Robert's Chaplain in the army who - amongst other things - advocated hitting your children believes the Bible instructs Christians not to drink at all. He also believes the war in Iraq to be one battle in a major Christian-Muslim Holy War, so I wouldn't take his opinion as gospel. Anyone whose job it is to provide religious justification for war should be suspect...

Pizzas finished, we head to the bar downstairs for a drink. It was closed when we checked in, and the receptionist told us that Christmas Day it wouldn't be open. But the bar-tender agreed to open it just for a few drinks for his friends. Then we found it open so he could hardly refuse to serve us (though he did demand exact change). We sit in the cold bar, right beside the speaker churning out loud hip-hop, with the dance floor empty beside us. On the tvs above our heads various sports games are playing. The Patriots are set to be the first team in history to finish a 16-game season undefeated. I don't care about American football, but Robert seems excited.

Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Two flights

These are the worst flights of my life. I want to get them over with as quickly as possible, my stomach permanently tense. I want to bang my fist against the airplane window. I want to be in Indiana instantly, can't stand to wait for one take off and landing, another wait in another airport, another take-off and landing. It's just dragging out the inevitable, that's how I feel.

Robert, too, is certain that, any minute now, the Troopers would be back, having spoken to his platoon, with orders to detain him. We wait by the gate before we board in Connecticut. Our names are called again at the gate, but this time only to re-issue us with boarding passes. I want to run on to the plane as fast as possible, yell at the pilot "Don't you know what's happening? We need to get out of here as soon as possible!"

Once on the plane, I'm waiting anxiously for them to close the cabin doors as quickly as possible. I hope for the wheels to run quickly over the tarmac until we lift off and can at last see the airport shrink below us, and feel safe for the two hours it takes us to reach Chicago.

There, we expect the police to be waiting for Robert on the tarmac. Surely, by this point, they would have contacted the platoon and get orders to arrest him.

"This is where the black SUVs pull up" Robert laughs as we hit the runway at O'Hare. Throughout the flight, he keeps repeating as much to himself as anyone else:
"I can't believe this, it could have been so easy. I can't believe my sister would do this. My own flesh and blood. Merry Christmas, you know!" And he laughs nervously.

He had called his sister from the airport in Connecticut, as soon as the Troopers were done questioning him, but she denied she had called the FBI.
"They called me" she told him, but of course he didn't believe her.

At O'Hare, we sit in Chilis to get something to eat. We're both damn hungry, more from tension thank anything else. All I had today was a small muffin from Dunkin' Donuts. There are servicemen all over the airport. Whenever we pass one, I expect him to turn to Robert and ask his name, hold up a photograph, ask for his ID, and radio it in. I eat because I'm hungry, but my stomach was still turning.

At every gate, with each member of staff, I expect to be found out. Everywhere I look, everyone I looked at, I expect they know what Robert's doing, and every announcement over the loudspeaker makes me cringe with the thought of hearing our names read out again. I had expected there would be descriptions of Robert sent to O'Hare airport, since the FBI knew all our flight details by this point.

But none of this happens. Campbell would later describe it as a Christmas Miracle...

State Troopers: The Conclusion

I'm standing still for about an hour, as I try to humour the bomb-disposal Trooper and Robert's interrogation continues with the Sergeant. Finally the Sergeant lets Robert walk outside for another cigarette, and asks me over for some questions. He doesn't make small talk like the Trooper, he gets straight to the point, definitely someone who wants to assert his authority. But he's also fair enough to answer me with respect when I ask him questions.

He wears a round hat that makes him look like a Canadian Mountie.
"The situation is," he tells me "we got a call from Robert's sister saying she was concerned that he was planing on deserting the army,"
"Oh," I reply, saying as little as possible. I don't t want to let on that I know, but I also don't want to deny that I know in case he finds out eventually that I'm lying. One thing I've learned from interrogation at Israeli airports: if you don't know what they know, it's always safer to tell the truth - as incriminating as it may be - than to be caught lying.

I tell the Sergeant as little as I can get away with. I always feel, in situations like this, that I have a certain degree of immunity as a journalist. It may not be true, but at least it gives me the confidence to look the Sergeant in the eye and tell him what he wants to know. He radios in my information to another officer, and I lean in to overhear pieces of the conversation.

"I've got this journalist with me from Britain. I heard something about Al-Jazeera, he says he's doing a documentary."

As relaxed as I feel, and as calm as Robert looks, I'm still convinced that it's all over, that they're here to arrest Robert and as soon as they hear from his unit, they'll take him away in handcuffs.

But this doesn't happen. To my surprise, when the Sergeant finally lets me outside to talk to Robert, he's enjoying a cigarette with the bomb-disposal officer. They're discussing Robert's position as a conscientious objector.
"We're not holding you, you're free to fly now, we're just trying to clear this up," he tells Robert.

Inside, bomb-disposal officer wants to ask me a few questions, so I turn the camera to him.
"Oh, they have nothing to do with this," he explains "I just want to know how I can put my own videos on YouTube. I don't get it. I'm not good with technology. You got three wires; red, yellow and black and I don't know what to do with them!"

State Troopers: The Interrogation

The first trooper that approaches us asks Robert's name to confirm his identity. He asks for ID. He looks into the camera and says "hello to anyone watching this on YouTube". It's only the beginning our conversations about YouTube with this feckless cop. He explains to Robert that they were just checking up on him based on a phone call. We still have no idea, at that point, that his own sister had called the FBI to turn him in.

A Sergeant eventually comes over and takes control. It's clear he's in charge, he doesn't joke with us the way the bomb disposal expert does, the Sergeant doesn't wave at the camera. The bomb-disposal trooper deferrs everything to him as the Sergeant put his hand in front of the camera and asked me to turn it off. He took Robert aside and interrogated him separately.

I was left with the feckless trooper. He seemed to have no idea what was going on around him
"We're not holding him, we're just checking up on him"
He wanted to talk about college football, he talked about the riots in London but he was thinking of Paris. "Oh, there all over there" he said, waving his hand to indicate the Atlantic between the United States and everything over there.

I was sure that Robert was being arrested. It would be a quick and possibly easier end to his plans, saving him being on the run for 30 days, saving him the fear and tension of knowing, over the next month, that the military was looking for him. I was doing my best to follow his interrogation with the Sergeant while humouring the Trooper in front of me, now asking me questions about the reason for this film.

I made up a story about filming a documentary on the regeneration of small American towns. It was all I could think of after I looked up the name of Robert's town online and found it contained a "traditional" Main Street, and an old cinema opened by the original Warner Brothers themselves.

"But what about your friend in the military, what are you doing with him?"
"Uh...well, with these small towns, when a lot of guys go to the military, they lose a lot of their work force, so that has a lot of influence on how they have to re-generate their cities."

He seemed happy with that, and threw in his own opinion.
"Yeah, I know Torrington pretty well, it's a pretty - I don't want to be insulting - but it's a pretty lower class place where there aren't many opportunities for guys."

While trying to pretend I was keeping up a conversation with the Trooper, I kept looking over my shoulder to see what was happening with Robert and the Sergeant. Barely concentrating, I kept talking with the Trooper about sports, music, college...

State Troopers: The Introduction

This is the story of our narrow escape:

Robert and I headed to Bradley Airport, Connecticut, on the morning of December 25th, Christmas morning. It was quite a depressing way to spend Christmas morning, but I got the feeling from Robert that he never had a particularly good experience at home anyway, so perhaps he wasn't missing much.

Our first Chicago flight is canceled because of bad weather, so we have four hours to kill. We buy breakfast at Dunkin' Donuts and sit with our coffees to wait, discussing what foods contain trans-fats. Robert laughs to himself because he's eating a bacon croissant, full of trans-fats, and he'd spent the past few days telling me how unhealthy they were.

Later, we sit by the giant window, overlooking the runway, filming a few questions before we fly. It was supposed to be a very simple journey, connect through Chicago to a smaller town, then get our ride from there to the safe house. He would be underground before the military even realised he was missing. But something went wrong.

While we're sitting and talking, Robert's name is called over the loudspeaker, asking him to go to the ticket counter. Robert suddenly looks up, at the speakers, scared. He asks me what he should do. After a few moments of deliberation, he decides that hs has to go to the counter, it might just be a question about our changed tickets.

We picked up our bags and walk back through security, Robert is worried that this is it. Somehow they had found him, and they were here to arrest him. He walked outside the airport first for a cigarette,
"If I'm going to be arrested, I want a last cigarette" he chuckles.
"Alright,"he sighs, as he stubs out his cigarette, "I guess this is it. I was going to get arrested anyway, so this just makes it a really short journey."

The plan was for him to wait in hiding for 30 days, then his name would be struck from the active duty roster, then he could turn himself in and do his time in prison, but without the danger of being sent - in handcuffs if necessary - back to serve in Iraq.

He walks back inside, approaching the ticket counter. Surprisingly, the guy behind the counter doesn't seem to know why Robert's been called:
"No, I didn't call you. Hey!" he turns to the other man at the counter behind him and calls out "did any of you call this gentleman? No?"

Maybe it was a mistake. Maybe they just wanted to check that he had picked up his new boarding pass. Relieved, we walk back to security and start to take of our shoes, our jackets, our belts to slide them through the x-ray machine again. Half way through, with my shoes and belt off, we hear his name again over the load speaker.

This time, as we quickly collect our things and walk out to the departure lounge for the second time, we finally see what we were expecting: two state troopers, standing in front of the airport exit.

"Yep, this is it" Robert says to me, without too much regret.

Indiana

Our flights take us to Northern Indiana, where Robert has arranged to meet the man who's going to help him go into hiding. "Campbell" has done this before, helping unsuccessful conscientious objector applicants to hide from the military police until they're ready to turn themselves in. Usually, they wait 31 days until their names are struck from their unit roll to ensure that, when they do finally turn themselves in, their unit doesn't simply try to send them back into combat in handcuffs. It happened to another conscientious objector, Agustin Aguayo, but he didn't stop running. He eventually served time in prison, but he believed he was doing the right thing, and now he campaigns against others joining the military.

Talking to Campbell on my mobile as soon as we touch down, he tells me to let Robert walk out first, alone, while I wait to collect his bags in case the military police have finally been alerted to his flight path and are expecting him to walk out with a journalist. With Robert safely outside the airport, Campbell joins me beside the luggage carousel, joking comfortably about our situation. He points to a sign above the exit: "Michiana welcomes back its service men and women". Despite people like Campbell, this is a red state, the home of the Hummer, and heavily invested in defence spending.

On the drive through the freezing night, Robert and I tell the story of our narrow escape from the state troopers. Campbell, like the rest of us, still finds it hard to be believe that Robert's own sister would turn him in. "I don't know, it doesn't surprise me that much," Robert adds. That only makes it worse...

We can finally rest for a moment, finally joke about our situation. The interrogation, the flights, that certainty that Robert was going to be arrested - possibly with me - was exhausting, draining.

We weren't expecting it, of course.

"Usually," Campbell explains, "We don't have to deal with anything like this until a few weeks into it when their unit realises they're missing..." But we got it out of the way sooner. I watch the city lights reflecting off the car window, the air outside sharp with snow and ice. I listen to Robert and Campbell laughing together, discussing the next 31 days during which Robert will be in hiding, waiting for the right time to turn himself in and, if necessary, serve his time in prison.

We drive in to the Travelodge where Robert and I check in for two nights until Campbell can arrange for a safe house. I leave a London address, a combination of several of my old addresses which the receptionist misspells anyway. I don't want to be able to traced in case the police come looking for us. They already know we were flying in to here, it wouldn't take much for them to search the hotels closest to the airport for our names.

Campbell has some good news a little later that night. The hotel bar, which we were told was closed for Christmas, was open for a few hours. They didn't plan to serve anyone except a few friends, but we ordered anyway and sat in the freezing bar, music hammering on an empty dance floor, and talked about the journey so far.

Saturday, 22 December 2007

AWOL

From the stories we've heard so far about people who enlist in the military - and people who try to get out as conscientious objectors - Robert is fairly typical. He enlisted when he was only 17, and needed his parents to sign a consent form. He says he didn't know what else to do - he had nowhere else to go, no idea what he wanted to do with his life. His mother had also joined the military under similar circumstances when she was younger. His older sister is now in the National Guard.

Robert is from a fairly typical "broken home." His parents are divorced, his father took his mother Anne to court, and now she lives on welfare in government housing.
She has two other kids from another man, a man with eleven kids himself who broke her nose in a fight once. She also has another daughter from another man whom she doesn't seem to know very well. Her brother, Robert's uncle, is in prison after being arrested for drunk driving for the fifth time, but even Robert doesn't know this. Robert joined the military when he literally had no other choice, after his mother kicked him out of the house and, later, the friend whom he was living with was also kicked out of his house. With no job, and nowhere to live, Robert finished high-school a year early and enlisted at 17.

We at Tourist have been following the story of Robert closely for several months now, since before we started filming in Germany, because he seemed like such a sincere and eloquent conscientious objector. He was in email contact with Michael at the Military Counseling Network once every few weeks, explaining that he wanted out of the military as a conscientious objector, and saying he was willing to go AWOL. We were very eager to follow Robert's story, and film the process of getting out with him, so when we heard his application had been rejected, and he was planning to go AWOL, we decided to fly to the US immediately to join him on the run.

His mother, Anne, picks me up from the airport. She doesn't seem to trust me, and she's not afraid to say it.
I realise it's very strange me just showing up from out of nowhere and recording her son's life, but sometimes Anne takes it a little too far.
"I don't know who you are, I don't know what your agenda is."
"Well, I don't have an agenda."
"Yeah, well, you say that, but I don't know you."
"Okay, uhh...but I guess you just have to trust me,"
"I mean, you could be a terrorist or something, I don't know,"
"Yeah...uhh...well I guess you just need to trust me that I want to tell your son's story."

Later, she confronts me again in front of Robert,
"This film isn't going to be unAmerican, is it?"
"Well, no, I don't have that in mind,"
"Robert, it's not going to be unAmerican is it?"

But, despite all this, she still seems to have a lot of - perhaps begrudging - respect for me. She doesn't mind telling it straight, but she also doesn't mind me telling it straight.

I get the feeling she's been through too much already to waste time bullshitting. Or, if I take Robert's word for it, she's just crazy.

Robert, too, isn’t afraid to tell it straight. He has a lot in common with his mother, though he might not like to hear that. They both say “I don’t care” a lot. They both say “I don’t know” and then go on to explain that they actually do know. Robert isn’t afraid to talk about everything he’s been through, and everything he’s planning. I appreciate that it’s a surreal situation for him to suddenly find a cameraman following him, “I don’t know what to expect,” he told me on the phone before I left London.

“I don’t know what to expect, either,” I told him.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

The Path of Even More Resistance

After a successful week filming in Bammental, Germany with the Military Counseling Network, we thought our latest film was going well. We had principal photography done, we were on schedule and under budget, and - surprisingly - the war in Iraq was not yet over, ensuring our film wasn't suddenly redundant.

All we had left was a quick return trip to Germany to film a prize-giving ceremony with a well-known Iraq War conscientious objector-turned-deserter, followed by an interview with said objector-turned-deserter. It was to be a touching and beautiful end to the film, a plucking of the heart-strings as this shy but determined man told the story of his transformation from gun-toting medic to lover of humanity.

But no. It wasn't to be so easy. The man (whose name I won't mention for his own sake) had changed his mind. After two months of contact, he suddenly went quiet. He went from expressing his support for the project to completely ignoring us. We finally tracked him down to the house of a gynecologist in Heidelberg (the association is, I'm told, immaterial) where he explained that he didn't want to be associated with Al-Jazeera.

Or, to be more accurate, he first he said he was too busy and tired to be interviewed, which sounded a little suspect coming from a man who was willing to go to prison for his ideals, and who has dedicated his life - since being discharged - to highlighting the inequalities and brutalities of the US military in Iraq. He's been doing interviews, marches and protests since his release from prison - this guy doesn't get "too busy and tired." Eventually Gareth called him (I was too afraid to push it...) and arrived at the truth. He was scared.

"I already get enough hate mail and abuse from Americans," he explained timidly. "I don't want to get any more." He was worried about the heartland of American, the Bible-belters: precisely the kind of people who would NEVER WATCH AL-JAZEERA. Especially since, as we explained to him, Al-Jazeera doesn't even broadcast in the US unless you specifically subscribe.

"Everyone who will hate you already hates you!" I wanted to say to him. But I didn't. "The Bible-belters already thing you're a traitor! They couldn't possibly hate you any more!"

We did all we could, we called his friends whom we had already filmed with for a week and asked them to convince him. No luck. We tried to pressure him. We tried to emotionally blackmail him (note to Gareth: you tried emotional blackmail, right?) No luck.

It was clear by the end of the conversation that there was no chance we were going to get this man to talk to us. We were not happy. I was afraid the whole film was ruined. We had wasted money on tickets, our schedule was out the window, we were pissed.

But then something even better came along...