We have been driving for hours on dusty, pothole filled and washed out roads for countless miles it seems. Our pace is so slow at times that I am sure I saw a tortoise pass us by. But, when riding in the back of an old 1980’s era manual shift pickup truck that grinds each time the gears are shifted and the truck jolts as it tries to stay into gear certainly adds to the journey. We, of course, were long ago overtaken by the exhaust fumes from the rusted out muffler, our clothes and faces covered in layers of dust and grime from the elements, our bandanas we used to cover our faces no longer shed the vibrant colors they once had.
We joked about being herded like cattle and our mastery of our new skills of jumping off of the back of the truck and climbing back on at checkpoints. I am certain more times than once my mind flickered to the moments of high school basketball practice drills of running the court. There are only so many times you can load and unload from the back of a pickup for border checkpoints and not have mastered the expectation of the search of your gear. Twelve times actually. Twelve checkpoints and just one border. It’s not like these were hostile countries or a coup de’ tat was in the works or even an outbreak of a fast spreading disease. But there was something….
Having traveled extensively, this was a different mindset here, not of cultural difference but of disdain to say the least.
These guys here were serious about who came into their country. The soldiers, each time would motion us out of the back of the truck with their weapons as if we were prisoners, not aid relief. The look in their eyes of uncertainty, of fear, of who we were, and were we really; who we said we were.
The first one or two of the checkpoints I certainly expected these events to occur, as with most remote locations in the world, there exists a patch of land known as “No Man’s Land” it is here two countries divide, the line is drawn, the border exists and no one owns the few hundred yards of the dusty, well traveled path of earth. It is a mutually shared piece of land, set with strict rules and equally no rules of law. It is here, in No Man’s Land that life transitions in a mix of cultures, beliefs and laws or lawlessness to list just a few. Characters are defined as “find the elder man carrying the chicken” he is who you need to see, he will guide you through….
Always stay with your team. Here, is No Man’s Land. Here, you do not walk alone.
It’s daunting and it is real.
See today is the day I learned I am the one. Today is the day I learned ninety seconds changes everything and nothing remains the same ever again. Status quo exists no more. Today is the day you understand life in ninety seconds and what you do next determines the outcome. Traveling through No Man’s Land simply was an obstacle that we had to pass through that day. Daunting and questionable at times but expected. You see, I chose the journey, I accepted the position of photojournalist, I agreed to do the job. This was simply a part of the job.
Those few hours were just that, repetitive motions to get to our destination and begin the work we had set out to do.
“What I did not know, was that this day would change who I am forever.”
As the hours passed into mid afternoon, we finally arrived at our location. We unloaded our gear and setup the stations of supplies accordingly to see the villagers. To get the aid relief in place and complete the job we had been tasked to do.
Days earlier we had been briefed on the dangers and the possibilities of events we could encounter, things we would see. For us to be sure to brace ourselves for what we would walk through, what we would smell, what we would witness. And what would stay with each of us for the rest of our life.
“It’s unsafe at times, hostility can breakout without reason, fear is real, hunger is real…”
The village we had arrived at was spread out similar to a compound over several acres, surrounded mostly by sugarcane fields. The fields of cane standing tall, towering over the landscape, dense to the point of darkness. Crops planted so closely together sunlight could not penetrate to the ground in the fields that went on and on for miles.
You could look into the fields and you would never know what was looking back at you.
They said to us, “do not go near the fields” as we unloaded our gear.
The team setup in a small community building which was surrounded by many thatched roof houses. Villagers began to collect around us to watch and to help us pull supplies from the back of the trucks. I had grabbed my gear and started taking photographs of the relief efforts, the bustle of the villagers, the mix of languages, the laughter, and the excitement of someone new in the village. It was surreal and to capture it through the lens of a camera at times made the moments almost imaginary and scripted. Add in having taken a flight just days earlier that had not pressurize properly left me in a very muffled world of noises, my hearing basically was diminished significantly for a number of days into the journey. I was functioning by sight, by prompts, instinct and asking a lot of people to repeat what they said had become a norm quickly. I had been reassured my hearing would return but like any injury, time is necessary to heal and it was time we did not have to extend or prolong our days in the field. One assignment, one mission, one result. Get the job done.
As I had stepped back from the crowd I searched for a new angle, a better location to film and photograph from. Seeing homemade ladders leaning against the walls of some homes I took the time to look for a means or way of access to get above the team and the villagers to document the work. So I stepped away from the main crowd and walked towards the center of the commons area, simply a dust laden patch of earth that was well used and collectively the main gathering place of the village. It was then, when I turned around to take the photograph I learned, today is the day.
No one was standing in the village anymore, the crowd behind me had all disappeared, the team was not in sight, the community building doors were closed, the shutters of the windows drawn.
The village had become instantly silent and void of life.
See today is the day I would learn life in ninety seconds. My actions, my responses, my decisions would change the course of everything I had ever known. Today is the day, and I am the one.
I never heard the alarm to take cover, my back was turned to the crowd momentarily. I never heard the call to take cover to go inside, to hide.
I stood alone in a small village in the middle of an open commons area standing in the dirt looking out into the dense cane fields. There was no wind that day, yet I watched the movement of the canes. I knew what our local contact had said, “do not go near the fields, you will be taken.”
There is no where to go.
They already know I am here, they are feral and I am alone. If I run, I invite the chase.
Today is the day life changed forever. Today is the day status quo would never exist again and today is the day you understood the meaning of life, of humanity, of innocence and its today, you are the one and you have a decision to make.
You have less than ninety seconds to decide. Live, die or be taken hostage.
By process of events, you are the one because there is no one else in sight. I stood still watching the canes move in the field a hundred yards in front of me, waiting for them to make themselves known, make themselves visible, to charge and every second that passed they were getting closer.
Time is running out. Decide.
….to be continued