With a copy of the police report in hand to please the insurance adjustors, I catch the next flight out of Uganda for New York City. I land squarely on Elaine’s couch as my apt is sublet for the summer. There are yellow post-it notes with messages in red such as, Eat Something. The computer is on, email me when you get in. I open the fridge and there is a pot labeled pork roasted with figs, another stewed chicken and vegetables. This is love! This is a friend.
I have been without a phone for 5 days in Kampala and I almost don’t miss it. My mind’s been quiet and I’ve enjoyed the silence. Yet the minute the flight touched down in NYC, my blasé attitude on not having a phone disappears and I suddenly need a phone with a degree of desperation. I need a phone NOW.
I stop by the apartment to pick up some clothes fit for NYC and a few misc things. There is a large envelope in the box of mail; I open it with curiosity. Emergency Sex (and Other Desperate Measures): True Stories from a War Zone. Oh yeah! I had ordered this book before I left, wanting to take it with me but it didn’t get here in time. I grab the book, a black dress and a couple of hard drives and head for the Apple Store.
Kenneth Cain, Heidi Postlewait and Andrew Thomson joined the UN and Red Cross in the early 90’s and spent the decade in the bloody theaters of Cambodia, Rwanda, Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti and Liberia. Emergency Sex is structured as alternating essays with each of them recalling their time as human rights lawyer, UN peacekeepers and doctors in some of the bloodiest conflicts in the last twenty years. The book opens with Heidi (social worker in the Bowery) shopping for a black dress for the Christmas party her husband (a model agent) is throwing and the quiet knowledge that even when she tries, she doesn’t fit into his life. The first section ends with Heidi, The room is filled with photographers busy documenting this terribly insignificant moment in history to be forgotten by morning.
I am hooked.
Kesha was one of the first calls I made after the robbery. I had a plan for what is next but I need a sounding board and a sanity check first. I am so glad nothing happened to you my dear, Kesha utters with equal mixture of panic and relief. Her voice hits a particular pitch on the word, dear, and I felt the warm rush of tears fighting with my next sentence. Tell it to me straight; am I insane for wanting to come back out here? I can go hide somewhere for the summer even if I can’t go back to NYC to my place. Without hesitation, Kesha says no. You will always hate yourself if you don’t do what you want to do. That was all I needed to hear.
The next week flies by in a blur of errands, coordinating shipping on cameras coming from various places and nearly setting my AMEX card on fire with the rate I am swiping it. A decade of cameras I’ve collected and abused all need to be replaced in a week and some of them are now collector’s items. There is no pleasure when you are spending money like this. Thank god for insurance. Every tiny thing needs to be replaced, from the hard to find cameras to mundane things like sunscreen and chap-stick. Emergency Sex accompanies me through the steamy tunnels of Manhattan underground as I run across the city.
Ken, with a Harvard pedigree, human rights lawyer on election monitoring in Cambodia,
It doesn’t come cheap, does it? I rejected the hail-fellow-well-met club at Harvard and now I got what I wanted. I seek work of moral significance. A human dies. Then Dr Thomson explains to me in detail how ill equipped I am to understand political violence here, never mind constructively intervene. But this time it’s worth it. I’ll earn my way into the doctor’s club if it kills me.
Calls to my inner circle of friends are made and a few dinners and coffee dates are scheduled. It’s hard to keep news like the robbery homicide quiet. Everyone seems to be more shocked and traumatized than I. Not raped. Not kidnapped. Not murdered. Not hurt. I repeat this at the end of every re-telling, at first it was for me and soon for them. I can see how hard the concept of rape is for my friends when I say the word. It is a reality that is difficult to contemplate from the high perch where most of us live, they won’t even say the word. The reluctance reminds me of how the wizards would never call Voldemore by name. Not raped. Not kidnapped. Not murdered. Not hurt. I’ve long understood the reality of the world, the one I live in and the one I travel through. I didn’t need a dead man shot within feet of me or be faced down on the side of the road to understand how cheap life can be or the statistic of rape to be more than a number. I wish I am that naive.
Ken in Mogadishu,
Somalia, This isn’t quiet the kind of logic I learned in law school and there are no provisions in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to negotiate with a murderous militia in control of a prison. I have trouble wrapping my mind around how cheap death is here. It’s a commodity to negotiate and trade. Three dead prisons for a ton of rice. The release of one girl who’s been gang-raped for months in exchange for a shipment of penicillin. The joyous look on a child’s face when she realizes she is free from a Somali prison seems, momentarily, to justify our work. But the next day they pick up three more girls. There is no way for us to win. The more effective we are, the more damage we do.
Dr Andrew, during the evacuation of Haiti, We just showed Haitians that our lives are more valuable than theirs. The logic of the mission was ours, not theirs, and so is the logic of our retreat. ‘Tell us the truth and we will seek justice’ was our idea. ‘It’s too dangerous and we must evacuate’ is our privilege. Neither applies to the Haitians. A ship with soldiers arrives at the dock and exits the dock. Haitians have no exit.
I meet Jeremy at the Corner Bistro for a burger and quickly tell him what happened. Every thing is just quick set of facts now. I don’t have the patience to retell with exacting details and I think my friends might be better off not hearing it. They can read about it if they wish. I now see how this is harder on them than it is on me. Phew. That is fucking crazy Jeremy says. Not raped. Not kidnapped. Not murdered. Not hurt. I repeat again. I can only hope these facts bring them as much perspective as it does for me. I hope you are writing all of this down. You keep on telling me to write a book but what am I writing a book on? You. Your life. I’m not convinced this life is worth a book…yet…but maybe…We walk through the west village in search of ice cream. He folds me into a big hug and holds on tight. Thanks love. This is what I came home for.
The concern looks are mounting as the week goes by. Everyone is more freaked out than I am. I send John a text asking him for a professional assessment. I want to make sure that I am as okay as I feel and that I am not overlooking anything. If there is going to be residuals, I want to aware of it. After an hour on the phone, John gives me a temporary all clear under the condition that I pay attention to details of how I feel and react and dream for the next three weeks. I don’t have a whole lot of emotions on the robbery but Ken, Andrew and Heidi’s words make me want to cry.
I find myself in a continued chase for the next thing, the next high, next adventure. I believe in the stories and the art, anchored in food, love, adventure or ephemeral moments of kindness and connection with another. My parents did not sign up for a child like me. They wanted one who will obey them / my husband and work for the likes of McKinsey. A predictable life that is safe. I can’t blame them except I have failed on all counts. It’s harder to sleep at night with a child that who has purpose, adventure, and fearlessness would flowing through her veins like a drug she can’t quit. I sit back and wonder what is next? Am I just getting myself closer and closer to the kind of work Ken, Andrew and Heidi are doing? Or a photojournalist such as Ben Lowy and Tim Hetherington? Except I don’t have the illusion of youth to buckle on the flak jacket for me. I don’t believe in the American Way enough to go sell it worldwide.
Dr Andrew, after spending months exhuming bodies from mass graves in Rwanda and Bosnia, I’ll let go of this millstone of belief and ideals that’s breaking my neck, watch it tumble down and sink slowly into the mud at the bottom. I’ve had it with our humanitarian hubris. Let the dead bury the dead.
Heidi from Mogadishu, When we were in Cambodia, he [Ken] was a missionary for the American Way. Export democracy, the New World Order….it was funny to me then, because I thought it was just naive Harvard drivel…I feel bad for him; his illusion are shattered…they were both looking for trouble and they both found it….No one cares except them that they had a plan to save the world and it didn’t work.
Darcy in all of her wisdom is the only one who asked me how I feel about the whole thing and if it changed my perspective. When I was walking on the pitch-dark road with Peace and everyone else, minutes after the robbers took off with the bus; I thought…if I am going to risk my life for this work, then I better make it good. The work better be exceptional. Except I also know this…whatever the work may end up being and in what shape or form, it’s significance will not be judge by me. It is for you, time and history to decide, all I can do is show up and make give it my all.
I waited until the morning of my flight to Kenya to call my mom and tell her what happened. I know she will freak out and tell me not to go back. I dread her resistance and I hate myself for making her worry. I nearly want to chicken out and just not tell her. She doesn’t really need to know does she? There is something so wonderful when your parent surprises you. She didn’t freak out. She didn’t tell me not to go. Instead she said, it doesn’t matter how long this life is. Just make it good and make it count.
What have you done with my mom?!
Yes mom. That I can do.