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.
This hasn’t dampened my spirit for aid work. It also hasn’t left me with any psychological impairment. I say this having spent time with a few different psychological trauma professionals who all attest to this point, so it’s not just my own opinion. Anything that’s wrong with me today was wrong a long time before Darfur, I assure you. But jokes aside, I’ve not experienced any negative repurcussions of the event. No flashbacks, no nightmares, no catatonic episodes where I’ve ended up curled in a corner of my wardrobe sucking my thumb. Yay for me.
The one thing it has left me with, however, is what I’d call a sensitivity to loud noises. I really can’t stress strongly enough just how it sounds to have three 7.62mm rounds hammer into a piece of metal four inches from your right ear. The description I can most aptly use to describe it would be like having a large steel box being struck repeatedly by a sledgehammer being wielded by Jean-Claude van Damme, while you’re on the inside. So sudden loud noises make me prick up my ears. Somebody dropping a plate, a door slamming, a thunderclap out of the blue- I am instantly aware of them, and it takes me a second or two to process what I’ve heard before I’ll return to what I was doing. No more than that, really. An incremental increase over my state or wariness prior to the attack.
Coming here has been the first time I’ve been back to an insecure environment (Port Moresby notwithstanding). There are armed soldiers on the streets, gunboats on the water, convoys on some of the roads. I was curious to see how I’d react, and I’ve not been disappointed. Guns have never bothered me- courtesy in part being a boy and therefore fascinated by military hardware, and in part to growing up on the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva where I crossed an armed checkpoint twice a day for ten years of my life. They continue to not bother me. The presence of an AK-74 is something I take note of but don’t worry about.
But regardless, coming into an environment like this, your senses automatically ratch up just a little notch higher- and you may not even be aware of it. It took me a little time to realise mine had. But I find myself listening for a few seconds longer after I hear a thunderclap, just to make sure I know what it is. The other morning I was awakened to the sound of prolonged heavy gunfire- the chatter of light machine-guns and the popping of a .50-calibre or two. Once in my head I’d worked out it was gunfire, and that it wasn’t coming my way, I moved cautiously to the hotel window and peered outside. On the street we have an array of checkpoints, all armed. The soldiers were standing around in the dawn light, chatting and paying no attention to the noise. I shrugged it off and went back to bed- though I didn’t sleep after that. A golden rule in an unfamiliar context- look and see what the locals are doing. If people carry on business-as-usual, you can be pretty sure that it’s nothing to worry about. If you see people running for cover, break a sweat. An hour later, and I received a text message informing that the navy was carrying out exercises in the harbour, which was to account for the gunfire we were hearing. Sure enough, at breakfast, there they were on the silver sea, a dozen patrol-boats in an intricate dance of tactics and manouevres.
Up north, the sensitivity goes up yet another notch. We’re twenty kilometres from no man’s land, about seventy-five from the front lines. All in all it’s pretty quiet, but it doesn’t hurt to be vigilant. My first evening up there and the thunder is really rocking the sky beneath black clouds. A colleague points out that a few months back, that was what the falling artillery sounded like here. When it rattles the windows, I look up, but nobody else is paying it any attention.
It’s called arousal, I believe. It’s a physiological term which relates to the body’s natural instincts kicking in to a perceived threat. The first stage of a fight-or-flight mechanism, where a stimulus triggers an alert reaction. A little pulse of adrenaline rushes through the system, and the brain deliberately switches attention to your senses to give you heightened awareness. The heart squeezes a couple of extra-strong rushes of oxygenated blood to the muscles in case you need them, and the diversion from non-essential organs causes a brief tension in the pit of the gut. When it runs its full course, it’s probably most easily identified as a startle reaction or a fright, although there’s not necessarily any fear associated with it when it hits. In fact, over time, I’m told, it can be quite addictive. It’s a highly sensory state of being, but like the abuse of any substance, if your body keeps taking these adrenaline hits it can start to become desensitized and even dependant on them. It’s one of the thing that causes people in high-stress situations to burn out over time.
I’m not at that stage. Trust me, I’m really not. I’m very aware of my body, my mind, and how they react. It’s part of how I monitor myself, part of how I cope with being in pressured situations. But when those unexpected noises come, that’s how I react. I was outside up north a few days back, and a high-explosive round went off. The boys in the office up there have all been under incoming shellfire, an experience I have no desire to share with them, and they know the difference between a thunderclap and a blast. As do I. There is a distinct difference in the way the air seems to flatten on its way past your ears and the way it reverberates in your chest. In this instance, I watched the gateman twitch into a semi-crouch position, and the others look around cautiously. If I had had any doubt about the sound alone, their body-language was all the messaging I needed. We never worked out what it was- whether a misfiring artillery shell, or a claymore attack somewhere on the edge of town, both of which were discussed at the time.
I got back to the capital after a long day on the roads, most of the way down the length of the country. I was pretty exhausted, and hopped straight in the shower. I had barely turned the water off and grabbed a towel when outside, close by, was a loud bang, followed quickly by a string of pops, then a silence, then more sharp popping. I listened for any other sounds that might give me clues as to what was happening, and then realised that I was standing on the bathroom floor in a bathtowel with my knees bent in a crouch position ready to go for cover and my heart-rate beating in my ears. I snuck cautiously to the window, and there in the street below were nonplussed passers-by staring at the sky above the hotel, watching a pretty fireworks display.
I have now decided that it should be obligatory to make a public announcement before letting off fireworks.
However I would like to point out that I am not at the stage of another of my colleagues with whom I was conversing a couple of days earlier. Following an incident when a hotel he was staying in was bombed, he found himself at a restaurant with a good friend. A loud bang went off nearby, and like a scene from a movie he immediately seized his friend about the waist and hurled both of them to the floor, before realising that a waiter had dropped a tray in the kitchen.
The cliche takes on life, and it is truly funny.
I’m just glad he wasn’t near me when the fireworks went off.
Note: Yes, I realise some of the photos have nothing to do with the text, but I can’t really take photos out here (at least, not subject-related ones), so you’ll have to cope.