On a work assignment in Haiti, it was easy to see why Port-au-Prince was considered a bit of a no-go zone. Crime and the risk of kidnapping kept us behind coiled-wire barricades in hotels and using alternating routes to drive through the streets, while Brazilian blue-helmeted peacekeepers were stacked, fully armed, into the back of circulating pick-up trucks patrolling the streets. Favellas crammed the steep mountainsides that hemmed in the capital and overlooked the sprawling harbour, fragile and impoverished, and washed away by every passing cyclone. While the scenery was alluring and the people colourful, there was an intensity and oppression about the place that was quite invasive.
The second half of the trip, however, was spent on the island of La Gonave, a half-hour flight by light aircraft off the coast. Peaceful, idyllic and eye-wateringly beautiful, the white rocks and rich green flora leant the place an air that suggested the Swiss Family Robinson could have settled well here. The people were friendly, the village streets safe to walk. The roads were horrendous but the beautiful landscape and diverse vegetation made the journeys worthwhile.
Before catching our flight home, a colleague and I asked the driver to take a detour down to the coastline near the airstrip. In the tropical sun, clouds billowed over the mainland and the white coral beach was searing to look at. Within the reef, the water was still and quiet and bath-warm, translucent and quite magical. We walked a little way along the coastline, then went for a swim in the shallow sea. It was an absolute highlight of our time in the country, and a place that I hold in a special place in my memory.
Reposting some of my earlier posts which I have now added to the “Articles and Travel Writing” section of the website. This one involves some musings on exposure to violence in humanitarian work.
It’s been interesting returning to what can loosely be described as a war-zone. I should point out that I’m not actually hanging out on the front-lines (for those who read this who might have some concern for my safety), but the places I’ve been spending my time are what you’d call highly militarized. In several parts of the country there are concerns of terrorist attacks, and this is as evident in the capital as elsewhere, where roadblocks are part of the daily commute, and you carry your papers with you 24/7 to show to any friendly uniformed and kalashnikov’d commandos.
I’ve always been a little sensitive to unexpected loud noises. It’s just the way I’m wired. I have a fairly well developed sense of personal security, and have done since I was quite small. This line of work hasn’t really helped me any. In addition to travelling to a number of distinctly dodgy environments and security trainings which involve things that go bang [bang bang], eighteen months ago I was caught up in an ambush in Darfur in which three colleagues were shot and seriously injured, and a neat row of bullet-holes were drilled into a metal vehicle strut inches behind my skull. This was all fairly noisy. It was also relatively unexpected, oddly enough…
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Recovering from a tough year in Papua New Guinea, I spent five days in north-western Thailand. Pai sits in the middle of a gentle valley in Mae Hong Son Province, beset by soft rolling hills, hay fields, rice paddies, and a slowly arcing river. Morning mists gave way to cloudless blue-sky days as the air warmed, which in turn surrendered to evenings dotted with fluffy clouds, the better to play in the rays of the lowering sun.
Celebrating the freedom of my little scooter, I found myself exploring the byways around the local villages as the light shifted. It was delightfully peaceful, with nothing to do but sit, read, write, and explore the offenseless countryside. Stopping alongside a farmer’s field one late afternoon, I fell in love with the way the slanting light fell before the hills and played in the smoke from a bonfire, and the way the warm beams lit off the dry grasses in hues of amber and gold. The air stirred slowly and was disturbed only by chirping birds and singing insects, and the sense of peace was tangible like an aroma. I’ve never really been much good at sitting and doing nothing, but I have to say that Pai was the one place I can look back to and say I truly rested there.
A photograph is only ever a sliver of a moment in a particular place. The specific play of photons at a particular conjuncture of space-time is never repeated exactly the same twice, nor is the exact location of the photographer’s frame. Every photograph is, therefore, unique, however similar it may appear to its sister of the same location at a different time. It’s what make’s photography a creative art- every snap of the shutter is entirely unique, with endless possibilities.
An image on its own can be powerful. I want to take more images that, on their own, can stand void of any words to accompany them and still pack a punch for the viewer. However sometimes words can add a little depth to a photograph that allows the viewer to take an extra step into the dimension the photographer experienced.
I wanted to share a few of these moments in space and time with you, some of my favourite places that have correspondingly been captured by photographs that I feel grabbed a little something of the atmosphere of the place. Apologies if you’ve seen a couple of them before. I hope you enjoy this little journey over the next few posts.
The following post was written some time ago for friends and family while on deployment in a restricted context.
The day I get my permission to head north we get clearance to get into the camps. They’re controlled by the military- an affront to International Humanitarian Law (IHL)- but this isn’t our country so we work with what we’re given.
The Checkpoint is twenty k’s north of Town. The IDPs (our user-friendly acronym for Internally Displaced People; the word refugee relates to people who flee across an international border and has specific conotations under IHL, while IDPs stay within their country of origin) come through here to get to the camps. The UN reckons up to 190,000 of them are stuck in a tiny strip of coastline a few kilometres long and about sixty klicks from here. They’re in an area known as the Safe Zone (SZ). The SZ is a few hundred metres from the battle lines pitched between the army and the rebels.
Sitting in the SZ, these civilians are getting shelled by either the army, or maybe the rebels, or maybe both. Nobody knows. But we do know that they’re getting shot at if they try and leave the SZ by the Rebels, who are using them as a human shield to stop the army using aerial bombardment and heavy artillery, and that the SZ is one of the greatest misnomers since ‘misnomer’ was first coined. It’s not a pretty picture. One of the worst, actually. Dozens are getting killed each day, hundreds more injured and maimed. The IDPs trickle through in small groups, risking their lives to do so. When they make it to ‘safe’ territory, the government considers them as possible terrorists, so it takes them first to a screening post deep within the military-controlled north where there are no international monitors, before shipping them south to the Checkpoint.
The Checkpoint is the second screening post. The IDPs get trucked here, then dropped off and detained for a while. Maybe a few hours. Maybe a few days. Military intelligence is looking for any rebels it can find hidden in the population. They’re not wrong to be worried. A few weeks ago a female rebel blew herself up at one of these checkpoints, killing nearly a dozen people including three soldiers. However it doesn’t merit locking up an entire subpopulation of the country on the basis of their ethnicity.
The Checkpoint is up in no man’s land. Aid agencies haven’t gotten in here for six months. We’re going this morning for the first time…
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