Monday, 7 April 2008

Last Days

My time here is almost up. But I know I'll be back. Zlatko has already asked me to come back in August for another film. There's still a lot to be done, still many refugees, rebels still hiding in the jungle, crouching over their ancient Kalashnikovs in the rain, still political prisoners like Hussein Radjabu serving 13 years in prison, still a parliament paralysed by confusion.

There's one last thing tomorrow. One final scene to film before I leave. It is, perhaps, the most obvious scene, in a film about landmine clearance. But as yet, it hasn't happened. It almost happened today, but it was delayed. I'm talking about an explosion. Yes, I still haven't seen an explosion. It should be the highlight of the trip, but so far - maybe because there aren't so many landmines even remaining in Burundi - I still haven't seen it. I'm talking about an intentional explosion, not an accidental explosion - that would be terrible. No, controlled demolition of abandoned mines, one electrical spark setting off a chain reaction that takes, Zlatko tells me, one hundred-thousandth of a second to complete.

This is, incidentally, about the same amount of sleep I get every night. Pure coincidence.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Dancing at Archipel

Alain and I leave the base at around 1am, we’re driving to Archipel, a club that Zlatko recommended to me while laughing, embarrassed, to himself. “It’s ridiculous,” he said “you just look at a girl and she’s all over you. It’s really...what’s the word...indiscrete. She’s touching herself and rubbing herself all over you.”

As we turn out of the FSD compound, the headlights of the car catch rows of long horn cattle in the road. Dozens of cows, trudging slowly up the main road towards us, in complete darkness and silence. “Oh my goodness, what is happening?” Alain says aloud. I can only laugh.

“At this time?” He’s already a bit drunk. I didn’t realise when I first got in the car with him, but he soon explains he’s been drinking whiskey with his parents. He stops to wind down the window and ask the farmer what’s going on. Further ahead, we see a heard of sheep, also heads bobbing, feet clicking on the asphalt. “They’re going to the Vice President’s house,” Alain explains, “because they heard that the FNL was going to steal their animals. They came from Ruigi, they started walking here at 3pm.”

For ten hours, they’ve been walking on the road, moving their animals to the only safe place they can think of – the Vice President’s house in the capital. I picture them camped outside this door, exhausted, pleading for protection.

At Archipel, men are stumbling outside drunk and aggressive. Alain’s been talking about money on the drive here, that someone was offering him 200 dollars a month to work for them. He can make that much in a week, he says. He writes one article for a hundred dollars, he says. I can’t help wondering if this is his drunken way of telling me how much money he expects when it comes time to pay him at the end of our three weeks together. “I’m not doing this for the money” he said at the time, when I asked him what his rate was. “Give me what you can,” and I told him I didn’t have much money.

There is one dimly lit dance floor in the centre of the club, everything else is so dark I can only see vague shapes moving around. Some of the shapes are couples dancing energetically, others are just stumbling around drunk. Alain points out several Burundian celebrities and government ministers. There’s an older French man in the corner, leaning on a tiny, thin Burundian girl who laughs and touches him on the shoulder. Outside, there are hookers lining the walls and talking to anyone who walks by. Inside, they’re girlfriends for hire, Alain explains. They’re not prostitutes, but they’ll ask you for money. I don't understand the difference. It reminds me of the girlfriends for hire in Morocco, and the old, French men in bars, also leaning on thin little girls.

Alain and I are moving lazily to the music with a friend of his, when a girl who looks only 16 or 17 walks over and puts her arms around me, says her name is Melissa. “It’s okay,” Alain tells me.
"French or English?" she asks
She smells of alcohol, asks me to buy her a beer. This is uncomfortable. She pulls me close and puts her legs between mine, grinding to the music. She rubs her hands hard over my chest and strokes my beard and keeps trying to pull my head to hers to kiss me. It's fun for a while - and even funny - and I’m dancing, doing my best to enjoy it. But after a few minutes it just become depressing. It's too much. I try to push away from Melissa, but it’s literally impossible. She's wrapped around me tightly, and without aggressively shoving her across the room, there's nothing I can do but play this game of trying to keep my distance and looking anywhere but at her face. She tries again to rub up against me and grabs my hand to move them over her body, I'm fighting against it, and we're wrestling like that in the corner of the dance floor. She’s asks me to buy her a drink again, she tries to hold my hand again. This is getting tedious now. Finally she tells me "I'm going home" - and I just say okay, and feel relieved that she's gone. I look at Alain and laugh.

This is what Zlatko was talking about.

Soon after, one of Alain’s friends is dancing with us. She’s very beautiful and seems to know Alain well - she's not young and desperate like Melissa. I never got her name. She looks elegant in a tight black and white dress, and she isn’t afraid to dance with Alain and I. All around me, people are crushing against each other, sweating in the humid and hot night. Men are pulling young girls closer, women are rubbing themselves against their boys. No one is embarrassed. If you want to dance with someone, pull them closer and put your arms around them. If they like it, they’ll stay. If not, they’ll move away. No one pretends that they're not looking, or not interested, or that they don't want to touch.

At first, I’m uncomfortable holding Alain’s friend so close, I think if I put my hand here, or move like this, she’ll think I’m a pervert and slap me. But, quickly, I understand what’s going on here. It’s something we should all understand, it’s something so simple. Everyone’s enjoying themselves. The girl may not know me, but she knows Alain, so maybe she trusts me, and if it feels good to have a stranger hold you close and move his hips with yours, then why not do it. She smells of sweat and shampoo. Her dress is soaked in sweat, but it doesn’t bother me tonight. I like it. The whole club smells like this, and it’s a hot and sexual smell.

Sometimes, I move away but Alain’s friend pulls me closer. Other times, she moves away and I pull her closer.

My Lungs About to Burst

I wake up early this morning, after very little sleep last night from editing. I’m ready to fall asleep in the car, but the drive to Bubanza is so beautiful I don’t want to miss it. Green, smooth hills and mountains. All lush countryside. A warm breeze brushes my eyes. For a moment I forget how exhausted I am that I’m so tired. On the hike down to the site – a suspected unexploded rocket - my legs are shaking. I haven’t been hiking in years, and carrying my equipment every day I feel like I’ve been working out regularly, so all my muscles are already tired. The ground is loose and very steep, sometimes I have to jump over a few rocks or slide down a few feet of mud.

We stop, Didier tells me looking at his GPS, only 650m from the car, but the hike down makes it feel more like a few kilometres. The team sets up their base near a collection of stone houses, a few metres above the suspected field. I haul a fragmentation protection jacket over my head, strap it around my waist and through my legs with the help of Pontien. I pull a helmet and mask over my face.

Digging through the field, following the squeals of their metal detectors, the team finds fragments of the rocket, already exploded, so they can now declare the field as safe.

In this case, the farmer decided to use his land anyway, even before knowing whether it was safe or not. In many other cases, though, the fear of a mine or unexploded ordnance is enough to keep people away from their precious land. Burundi is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, and every square inch of land is used. Yesterday, I saw a family collecting plants from in between the stones in the perking area of the FSD base.

After several hours in the sun, my skin is burning, and I’m sweating heavily under all the protective clothing. Now we have to hike back up. I didn’t expect it to be so hard. I’m immediately out of breath and my lungs are in pain, they feel like they’re about to burst. Several times, I feel like I might actually collapse. I’m dehydrated, and not in shape, my lungs burning painfully. At over 2000m, a deep breath feels like I’m just wheezing, barely getting enough oxygen. I keep repeating to myself “smooth...calm...“ with each step, just to stop me from getting frustrated and tense and losing hope. I look at the ground, watching my feet with each step, rather than looking at the steep, loose path ahead. I can hear local children laughing and running around behind me. They’re wearing only flip-flops or barefoot. I remember when I was climbing mount Toubkal in crampons, having to kick every step into the thick snow, and thinking that was the hardest thing I’d ever done. I think this beats Toubkal. At least in Toubkal I could rest when I wanted, I was climbing alone, but here I had to keep up with the rest of the group. I have to stop myself from looking up, because I knew as soon as I see the vehicles, my legs will collapse.

Stumbling to our jeep, I sit in the shade, sweat covering my face and hair, I can’t even sit down I’m so exhausted and short of breath. I’m sipping air through a straw. I suck sugar water from the strands of a chunk of sugar cane that Gabriel hands me, just to get some hydration and energy back.

From Bugume, we drive to Kayanaga where Pontien and Aaron talk to locals who say they discovered several unexploded mines. With their white Jeeps, equipment, walkie-talkies, and my two cameras, the group attracts a large crowd. Soon, kids are screaming and running around us so fiercely Dider has to ask them all to shut up so we can hear the old man describing the mines he says he found. Joseph is short, wearing a ripped tank top that barely hangs over his bony frame. He wears a rough grisly beard. I can’t understand him as he describes the mine to Theo in Kirundi, but he moves around so energetically, acting out the shape of the mine, and the accident that happened in December. At one point, after one of his short stories, everyone around him laughs. Didier and I look at Theo for an explanation, and he tells us “he was describing an accident where a man lost his testicles.”

Theo and Didier follow their incident map closer to the site of the suspected mines, and along the way they meet the local army commander, Seargent Major Theodore Ndikumana. Several accidents have already been reported here, with old and forgotten fragmentation mines surrounding the military base.

I’m so tired and hungry I want to cry. We stop in a room, a store room, with one bulb in the centre, sacks of grain stacked in the corner. I eat fried Makaki fish and friend banana, all wrapped in banana leaves and heated over open coals outside, as I watch the eight police men – our security escort – getting drunk on local Primus beer.