...I know what youre
thinking: running guns and grain in parallel convoys,
you got to be kidding, right?
He is coming to murder
me, I can sense it. Hell be here before dawn, in a few more hours,
just as daylight starts crashing down from the mountaintops. Like warmth
fading from a bath I can feel his coldness creeping steadily up the valley.
Ive given word to the men to let him through unhindered, though
hell never be out of their sight.
My name is Michaelson. Anders Michaelson. Youve probably heard of
me. Im the one they call mad. Gone native was what they
used to say about people like me. Ive heard they even consider me
evil, a sort of human tumour. Im an object of hate. A mirror reflecting
the darkness they fear.
I no longer believe.
They want to see me dead. Five times theyve sent their assassins
up this valley. Always this time of year, as soon as the snows melt and
the apricot blossoms cover the trees. Five times theyve forced me
to act. He who lives by the sword shall die by the same, my father used
to say. Evangelista, the one on his way, the latest assassin, will be
here soon. Perhaps this time they will succeed. I am tired. My insides
are eaten away. Perhaps I do have the madness. It is such a thin line.
Ill let you decide. But first let me tell you my tale.
I came to Afghanistan after the big quake. Four, maybe five years ago
now. The villages around here had been totally destroyed--the landscape
was a wasteland. Houses which had once protected little children and animals
had become murdering things, squashing, splitting apart and covering all
living beings. Mountains slipped away as new ones rose from the earth.
For those minutes of terror the ground became as unstable as the sea,
sucking everything into its swirling mouth.
By the time I arrived, the first outsider, five days later, the survivors
had crawled out from beneath the stones and earth but they moved and blinked
in slow motion. They spoke in whispers as if afraid to disturb the mountains
again. Women wailed in silence for their dead. I had come with medicines,
water pipes, sacks of food and four helicopters full of gear, ready to
rehabilitate the survivors, bury the dead and quarantine chaos from order.
The agency had sent me up to establish a humanitarian intervention, like
a beachhead against the forces of disorder and local helplessness. It
was nothing new. Thats what I do. I am an aid worker. A post-modern
That was before. Now I am mad.
My former colleagues, my co-religionists, who once praised and promoted
me as a secular saint, now want me dead. Murdered is all right with them.
I havent left the Wakhan, Afghanistans thin extended finger,
since the quake. This is my home now, and these people are my family.
I am safe with them and they leave me alone. I ask nothing of them but
they give me all I need.
My father was a man of the old religion who believed in the salvation
of souls and the mandate of Heaven. But I sold my soul to another Faith.
I became an apostle of Humanitarianism. A creed universal and acceptable
to all. Infallible and intolerant of dissent. My conviction in the Greater
Good was no less strong than my old mans had been in the Almighty.
He had his Great Commission, given by the Spirit to spread the Word to
every corner of the globe. We Humanitarians had the Imperative, given
by ourselves, to ourselves, to feed the hungry, reconcile the fighting,
empower the weak and to spread the new gospel: that the day of salvation
was at hand once we arrived with our trucks full of kit, our experts full
of knowledge, our bags of food, our tents and latrines.
I was a true believer and among the elite. Some even called me a genius.
If you wanted to make sure your program was a success, if you wanted to
get a real mess cleared up, you got Michaelson. I cut my teeth in the
Cambodian refugee camps in Thailand and in the dry lands of Ethiopia.
Since then Ive been spreading the gospel in dozens of places: Mogadishu,
Kurdistan, Sudan and Guatemala. Freetown in 97, Sarajevo in 92.
Great Lakes I and Great Lakes II. The biggest human disasters of our time.
I was the best. I accepted the agencys call because they were paying
well and because the Wakhan seemed about the farthest place from where
I was: Angola. Where I went cross-line.
They flew me in from Brussels and didnt let me even leave Luanda
airport. Three pot-bellied big wigs, one each from the American Embassy,
the European Union and the UN, briefed me for three hours in a huge room
with grimy windows facing the sea. Russian cargo planes and fat troop
transporters skidded and roared down the runway. The American is the only
one I can still remember. Dick Jaspers was who he said he was as he shook
my hand; I cant remember who he said he represented.
I introduced myself but the other two didnt say much. The UN guy
slid his card across the table like he was putting a deposit down on a
dirty deal. The European mumbled his name and took the notes. Jaspers,
a former military man--I could read a hairdo--was in charge of the show.
He knew my CV real well, and ran through it; for the benefit of the other
two, he claimed, but I think he really just wanted to let me know how
much he knew. While he did, I stared out at the Atlantic and thought of
all that oil beneath the surface and of the Indian diamond dealer who
had sat next to me on the plane. Angola was rich and a rich country in
Africa is to be pitied.
Jaspers had stood up and with the aid of the UN man was blu-tacking a
badly reproduced map of the country to the wall, making Angola look like
a mess of spilled ink. There was a pocket of displaced persons, internal
refugees, "right about here," he said, moving his finger in
a circle on the map. "In the Altiplano, the highlands. Rebel country."
There were, he reckoned, about 30,000 in Chitembo, 14 maybe 16, 000 in
Cangote and an unknown number in the jungle between Vila Nova and Jamba.
"About a hundred thousand, a hundred and a half, tops."
Naturally, Jasper and his friends wanted to get food and relief to these
people immediately. The jungles of the Altiplano were thick and the roads
completely fucked where they existed at all. Most of the fighting was
further to the west, Jaspers said, but mines were a problem and the fact
that the DPs, the displaced persons, were spread over a space of several
hundred square kilometres would mean this project needed strong leadership.
"Which is why we insisted upon you, Michaelson."
Id run similar missions deep in Zaire, before it became Congo. At
least these DPs werent on the run moving deeper into the jungles
like Hutus fleeing Rwanda. Setting up a camp is one thing but running
mobile soup kitchens in the middle of a forest that hasnt been penetrated
in centuries is insane. This operation, what Jaspers and these other two
wanted me to do, seemed a cinch.
The hitch of course was that it wasnt. Angola was not Congo. War
here was a refined art; theyd been at each others throats,
burning each others villages, stealing each others children,
and violating one anothers women for thirty years without an intermission.
Lines here were never crossed. You chose to work on one side of the line
or the other. Either you worked with the government or you worked with
United Movement For Angola, UMFANG. The rebels. No question. Angola was
an expensive place to operate out of. Every agency had to run double programs.
Like working in two different countries. People who worked in UMFANG controlled
areas never saw Luanda. And if you worked in Lobito forget visiting your
colleagues in Caimbambo, just thirty klicks up the pike. The country was
stained in hate and distrust and we agencies began to act that way too.
You distrusted your sisters and brothers working across the line. You
despised them. Hate grew inside you like a hungry worm.
Jaspers was saying that this project was unique and innovative. Cutting
edge was the phrase he used. This was the first cross-line operation ever
attempted in this country.
"The front lines in this area," Jaspers was tracing his finger
down a river and then inland and then back towards the river, "are
always shifting." Because the DPs were stuck behind both lines and
because the armies were so close, they were pretty freaked out. Constantly
moving a few miles this way and then back the other direction. They were
getting pretty weak; some had already died from hunger. They need help,
Jaspers said, but no one was willing to set up a program across the lines.
Too risky. Who wanted to lose all their vehicles and supplies? No one
wanted to put the lives of their staff at risk. The government troops
up in the Altiplano were the toughest; they had been given liberties,
a different rulebook, than their fellow soldiers in the lowlands.
"I thought the DPs were in rebel-controlled land," I said to
Jaspers, still looking out at the black ocean.
"Some of them are. Chitembo is a UMFANG town. Vila Nova isnt.
Cangote goes back and forth, depending."
The European kept taking notes. The UN just nodded.
"Depending on what?"
"Things." Jaspers wasnt a smoking man but he looked like
he could use a cigarette. I turned away from the window to look at him.
He had sat down next to the UN man and for a moment avoided my eyes. I
"Hell, Ill level with you, Michaelson," he stood up again
but then sat right back down. "This is Angola were dealing
with. Its different here."
"What are you telling me?"
Angola, he said, was not just another screwed-up African backwater ala
Somalia. There were things at stake here. Lots of things, like wealth
and influence, for example. Oil and diamonds. Coastal waters thick with
fish and the richest soil in Africa. Angola was prime real estate. South
Africa right there, Congo to the east. French, British and American oil
companies had been here for decades but they had never been allowed to
truly exploit the black crude because of the fighting. The time had come,
Jaspers said. The world wasnt prepared to stand around any longer
waiting for the government and UMFANG to settle this thing. "Theyve
had 30 years already, for chrissakes, and theyre no nearer ending
the war then when the Portuguese left in 75."
Angola needed development. But that just wasnt going to happen,
Dick Jaspers said, as long as the military situation remained as it was.
One side had to get the upper hand. Sure everybody, the UN, the Europeans,
we Americans, hell, even the Russians, were trying their damnedest to
keep both parties true to the peace accord, "But to be honest, Michaelson,"
Jaspers sighed, "there comes a day when you gotta draw a line."
I suspected there was more to come.
"Since the last government offensive in November," Jaspers was
back at the map pointing at things, "UMFANG hasnt been able
to get back to Vila Nova. Its immensely important to them, symbolically.
Where their movement started back in the early sixties. A holy sort of
place. But the government has the town locked up tighter than a you know
what." Jaspers coughed but didnt smile; I was getting antsy.
I could sense where he was leading but I just wanted the bottom line.
The bottom line was that this was not your straightforward humanitarian
mission. Sure the DPs, on both sides of the front line, needed assistance,
but so did the UMFANG units in the area. If they could recapture Vila
Nova the government would suffer a psychological blow that just might
bring the whole corrupt facade down like the walls of Jericho.
What did they need me for, I wondered.
"To make sure that the two programs go ahead with equal urgency but
that the, ah...um, assistance to UMFANG segment doesnt get out of
the bag. Therell be lots of publicity, media interest and what not,
in the relief program cause its the first time anyones
attempted it across the lines. So thatll be a natural diversion,
so to speak, from the other operation."
The other operation, the guns for the rebels part. I raised my eyebrow
and turned around and asked who was running that?
Jaspers said not to worry. What he needed me to do was to keep the focus
on the relief side of things. He and this sour companions wanted a perfectly
run operation, something the media and the UN could feel proud about.
Something so clean, so big, even Woodward and Bernstein wouldnt
suspect the shadow operation. "Can you handle it?" Jaspers asked.
I know what youre thinking: running guns and grain in parallel convoys,
you got to be kidding, right? But what Jaspers had to say didnt
phase me. Id seen the same thing done in Afghanistan in the early
80s and youre looking at one of the Contras biggest fans.
You cant swim in the river without getting wet.
I could handle it, I said, as long as we kept a couple of things absolutely
crystal clear. One, UMFANG kept Jaspers guns pointed at government
soldiers and, two, they stayed out of the DP camps. As long as the Greater
Good was being served, Jaspersd have no problems from me. In this
world things arent always as clear-cut as wed like them to
be. Making sure the rebels got a steady stream of weaponry may be a humanitarian
act. Who knows? Depends which side of the line you look at it from.
I set up base in Chitembo because it was the furthest settlement from
the fighting and because the airstrip there seemed like it could be re-rolled
quickly if we needed to. The few buildings that hadnt been completely
destroyed had no windows and were pock marked from bearing the brunt of
thousands of artillery shells. Kids in tattered shorts and barefeet played
on the rusting Russian tanks that lay half buried in grass and clay on
the edge of town. The DPs were huddled close to the town to avoid the
constant shelling in the jungles. Every building overflowed. Excess humanity
shivered under tin, or plastic, or shanties with leafy roofs. The highland
colours are the only pleasant memory of the place I have. Wide blue skies,
the burnt red clay roads, green green jungle, black faces. Red mangoes,
yellow plantains, avocados by the ton.
The little market started to grow again as soon as we arrived. The three
camps around town and the market drew people out of the jungles like a
magnet. Creaky lorries, with old tires bolted on the wheels, splashed
through the puddles. Twisted, rusted metal-framed beds, scraps of blue
plastic, roots, cassava, scrawny chickens and porcelain toilet bowls looted
from the houses, were put on sale on the side of the road. That guitary,
riffy, African music twirled out of battered tape machines from morning
till night. Chitembo was a carnival at the gates of hell.
Jaspers found some Australian engineers and a slew of Irish nurses. We
set up camps near Vila Nova and in Cangote as well. Jungle was cleared,
roads were bulldozed, latrine pits three meters deep were gouged into
the earth, huge tin water tanks erected. Overnight six new villages complete
with clinics, food stores, administrative offices, whorehouses and video
halls sprung up on the outskirts of the three towns. We worked our asses
off but when the camps were finally up and the displaced families issued
with their ration cards you couldnt help but feel good. The Europeans
made sure we had all the money we needed and those camps were the best
Id ever seen. Each time I drove through the camps with the kids
jumping and hanging from the jeep, seeing the queues by the water collection
points and nurses weighing the new babies, I tell you it was a feeling
like a king. Almost divine. We had done it again. Drawn a thin line between
madness and order.
After an endless series of meetings and negotiations with government and
UMFANG, both sides agreed to let our vehicles move freely across the lines.
As long as we gave each side notice each morning and as long we kept to
the one radio channel they allowed us. There were teething problems, to
be sure. Government commanders tried to negotiate a cut of the food rations.
Some of our nurses were detained for 6 hours by drunken UMFANG soldiers
at a checkpoint, but they were just young boys having a hoot. Both UMFANG
and the government were glad to have us in the area because our camps
meant they could officially wash their hands of any responsibility for
the displaced and concentrate on the real objective: continuing the war.
I didnt see Jaspers much once the camps were set up. On one of his
trips up from Luanda he introduced me to the UMFANG regional supremo,
Joao Batista Mulagu, a tall, broad-chested man who never removed his sunglasses
and who wore a rubber shower cap under his blood-coloured beret. Once
a week Id travel out to his bush headquarters to be briefed on the
other operation. Whenever his people harassed us at the checkpoints
I reported it to Joao Batista and he took care of it. He was always interested
to know how the camps were running, and expressed his appreciation for
the international communitys kindness to his people. I wasnt
looking for a friend and only visited him to make sure his men stayed
away from my camps.
Commander Joao loved to smoke and he had a collection of smoking paraphernalia.
One afternoon before the rains started in earnest, with the sky bruised
all black and blue with heavy, threatening clouds, he pulled out his leather
case and proudly showed me his collection of pipes, cigarette cases, lighters,
worn leather tobacco pouches and Portuguese wooden match boxes, decorated
with pictures of old Popes and the dictator Salazar.
"In three days we go for Vila Nova," he said, setting the case
on the camp bed. We sat inside his large canvas tent drinking rum and
warm banana beer. Outside you could hear the low rumble of heavy lorries
rolling through the camp; Jasperss convoy of arms, mines and ammunition.
"Will you take it?" I asked. I hoped so. That would mean easier
access to the camps around Vila Nova. I didnt think, like Jaspers
and Joao Batista, that the government was going to collapse if they lost
the town but if the rebels managed to move the front line back towards
the lowlands, that would give the DPs more protection.
"We have the weapons this time," Joao was tamping the tobacco
into a large bowled pipe. "And the men are eager and brave. But in
warfare you always need some luck." He smiled at me from behind the
veil of smoke that rose from the pipe with each deep pull.
The rum was sweet but the banana beer rancid. I avoided the dirty glass
of it that he had placed in front of me. I returned his smile but wanted
"You have been good to us Mr Michaelson, to my people. Without your
camps we would not have been able to concentrate on our main goal."
"Thats what its all about, Commander Joao," I said. I
had no idea what it took to win a battle, whether luck played a part in
victory or not. All I knew was that on this continent there were millions
of people who needed help and that it was up to people like me and the
nurses and our logisticians and engineers to save them. Nothing would
happen if we left it to the government of Angola or UMFANG. Without me
and my people, his people were snowballs in hell.
I finished my rum and lit a cigarette of my own. I stood up to leave.
Commander Joao rose as well and put his hand on my shoulder. I bent my
head and moved out of the tent into the humid, greying evening. Commader
Joaos pipe needed lighting too so I held out my old Zippo lighter.
His tobacco was nearly gone; he was having trouble getting the smoke going.
But I was edgy and wanted to leave. "Add it for your collection,
Commander," I said. "Good luck at Vila Nova."
A weak ray of sun flickered against his reflector shades when he waved
to me as I drove out of the bush towards Chitembo.
The assault on Vila Nova never took place. The rains began to fall the
night I left UMFANG headquarters and didnt stop for a week. Floods
were reported on several rivers and half of Cangote II camp was under
water. One of my people radioed me to come as soon as possible but I couldnt
do anything till the rains stopped. On the ninth day after my meeting
with Commander Joao, I took a driver and a jeep and headed down toward
The road was rutted deep making progress slow. We kept the jeep in low
gear, moving steadily forward lest we got bogged in the red gluey mud.
It was a beautiful morning. The black clouds were far to the east hovering
over the hills but on three sides we had blue sky and revealing sunshine
making the water on the avocado trees sparkle. You had the feeling, as
so often in Africa, of looking out onto Eden.
At midday we had to turn off the main road because a bridge was out and
a lorry had broken its rear axle and would block the way for days. The
higher we climbed into the hills the rockier the narrow path became but
the less muddy. We made good progress. With my arm out the window I was
enjoying the sun for the first time in days.
Very few people were on the track. Most of the villages in this area had
been forcibly evacuated years before. Both warring parties were desperate
to ensure that no civilians remained to give succour or support to the
enemy. The only people who lived outside the camps were the families of
UMFANG fighters and the nuns who kept a watch over the churches and convents
that lay in the shallow valleys like they were trying to avoid detection.
The wet sunshine stung my arm and neck. The driver said that his sister
was a nun at the convent of Donna Maria de CoraÁao, just a few
klicks up the road. Could we stop and have some coffee? The difficult
driving conditions had exhausted him. I said yes, but that we had to make
Cangote before dusk. Id never been to the convent of Donna Maria
de CoraÁao but some of my nurses visited the place every fortnight
to deliver high protein cereal for the orphans which the nuns cared for.
We could see the square steeple of the convents chapel with its
huge white cross from across the small valley. The driver moved faster,
eager to see his sister and stretch his limbs.
When we pulled into the gate a half hour later we realised that the chapel
was the only building not destroyed. Three long residential halls to one
side, the school rooms behind the chapel and the shacks which housed the
animals the nuns kept for food and milk were burned to the ground. All
that remained were charred smouldering limbs of timber. All around the
courtyard, strewn like cans of beer at a festival, were the heads and
limbs of infants, small stuffed toys and grey and white pieces of habits.
The sisters, their bodies contorted and twisted, some with the horror
still on their dead faces, lay to one side. Blood, like pink spray paint,
covered the chapel walls and next to a mound of burned animal and human
carcasses lay a Bible and a calendar photo of an old church in Lisbon.
The driver walked through the carnage muttering to himself. He didnt
stop moving, just walking around and around in circles, whispering to
himself as if hed gone mad. The government had been active in this
part of the country. The front line was on the other side of the bridge
that had washed out, but the convent was definitely on the government
side. Dirty fucking bastards.
The smell of death made my neck cold; my rage made me queasy. I was desperate
to get to Cangote to protest to the governments man. This sort of
thing threatened our continued humanitarian presence in the area. I called
to the driver who was still muttering and rubbing his fingers against
his dry lips. I would drive. I started the jeep and was about to turn
the wheel when near the pile of charred bodies Id just come away
from I saw something glint in the sun. I dont know why but I got
out of the car and walked toward it. It was only a few paces away. I stooped
to pick it up. A battered old Zippo lighter.
Jaspers couldnt understand why I was leaving. Id done, he
said, such an outstanding job. Both operations were a success. Things
were working out just like we planned. For once.
I said I couldnt explain. I had to go. I caught the Sabena flight
back to Brussels and then the quake happened. Sent eighteen villages and
four thousand people under the ground. An agency Id done work for
from time to time was surprised I was in town. Would I go? It was a humanitarian
disaster. The worst thing to hit this part of the world since God knows
when. Already they had raised a million and a half dollars without even
trying. The victims needed food, medicine, shelter, the whole shooting
Youre our man, they said. We pay well.
It wasnt Angola that I was afraid of, or running from. It was the
horror. Something had worked its way inside me at that convent, and it
had begun to devour me from inside. Its still eating me alive. The
world ended for me at Donna Maria CoraÁao and I saw it for what
it was. A conjurers trick. The lid popped off, revealing nothing
but an empty box. The curtain of the temple had been rent from top to
bottom. Christ was dead.
That day when they said go to Afghanistan the people need you, they are
suffering, I wanted only to forget the horror. So I flew to Islamabad
and two days later, with four helicopters of pipe, chlorine, plastic sheeting,
sacks of wheat and tins of oil, I jumped out on to a narrow mountaintop
and surveyed the scene. The agency had sent a Dutch administrator and
a water engineer from Bangladesh as my team. More would be recruited they
told me, just get there now. Its an emergency.
It was too late that day to do anything. And that night I saw the dream.
The same one I had had since my visit to Donna Maria de CoraÁao.
A vast landscape of devastation. Trees have been turned to stumps, rivers
have run dry. Fields no longer produce paddy or wheat. People have shrunken
into grotesque children. The sky is red and purple and the giants on the
earth are ghostly and silent. They reach down with pale hands full of
food but as the children-people reach up the food disappears
and the hands throttle the supplicants throats. Some children-people
do not come forward, preferring to cower in the shadows, afraid of and
yet desperate for the attention of the giants of the land. In the earth
are scraps of tattered clothes, broken pottery, shards of glass and twisted
striplets of iron. It is ugliness. I am observing the scene, unsure of
where I am but with a warm sense of familiarity. Ive been here.
This is where I live.
Slowly, a child-person crawling on all fours approaches me.
Its face is that of an old woman, wrinkled and ashen, but her body is
of a nine month infant. Her eyes are black and impenetrable but as she
moves with such fragility I am not afraid. I look at her. She moves closer
and reaches out her small, fleshy hand. In it is a shard of green glass
and I am afraid lest she harm herself. I come close and try to remove
the glass from her hand but now she is growing larger, more adolescent.
I reach for the glass but she moves her hand away and brings it to my
neck. I know what she is to do. I dont move. I feel the glass press
against my skin and feel the vein pop as she cuts me open. She has now
lost her childs body and her face has become young. Her body is
strong and adult and beautiful. She moves away and I see that the other
children-people have grown as well and the giants have disappeared.
I am alone and dying. The people have turned away and left me.
The agency wanted to know what had become of the Bangladeshi and Dutch.
Why did I not allow the helicopters to land? How could I explain the lack
of communications from my side? Why didnt I answer their messages?
Had I forgotten that there were people to be saved? The world had responded
to helplessness and chaos once again. What I was doing?
Hes here. I know he has arrived. Feel my limbs, and neck. Here.
They are cold. Hes brought the coldness. Even though its summer,
I am shivering.
The horror. The horror.
It will consume the little of me that is left.
They say Ive gone mad. Im the devil, is what they say. Michaelson
is the devil. Ive heard the reports. I know what goes on. Dont
think I dont. This one, Evangelista, the sixth emissary to come
and collect me. Why should I allow him to get away? I cant resist
any more. Ive tried. Ive tried to forget. To hide from the
horror. Ive prayed to it and cursed it and pleaded and let my mind
be ravished by it, but it is never satisfied. There is no salvation.
My father was a man of faith. I told you that, didnt I. He used
to warn me, but what son listens to his father? I remember his warning.
I can hear it now: the devil comes as an angel of light.
© Nathan Rabe
< Back to Index
< Reply to this Article