Travel writing: The Turkey’s Nest Tavern in Brooklyn

Located at the end of Bedford Avenue – a stretch of second hand clothing stores, trendy cafes and art galleries – is the Turkey’s Nest Tavern, a place to watch the blue collar Brooklyn of yore collide with the hipster heaven of today. An anachronism that makes perfect sense. A bar quite unlike any other in the world.

First, there is the décor. “Our House Wine is Jaggermister” reads one sign; “CPR kit located behind the bar” reads another. The men’s toilets are labeled Turkeys; the womens’, Turkettes. It’s no easy task to read them because, although the sun outside may be blazing, inside is as dark as a bat cave. A jukebox next to the door is wailing rock’n’roll tunes. At the far end of the bar, besides a wonky snooker table, sits a Buck Hunter gaming machine. No less than nine TV sets, perched high on the walls behind the serving counter, broadcast baseball and tennis and various other sports. No one is watching any of them.

I don’t blame them. For few sporting contests could fascinate like the cast of characters parading in and out of here. Turkey’s feels less like a bar than the set of social experiment dreamt up by a deranged psychologist. There are butch, leather-clad bikies and preppy boys with pink hats flipped backwards. There are orthodox jews in suits and wide brimmed hats; there are waifish gays in skinny jeans. Parked beside the bar is an elderly, balding, outspoken man of Polish descent. When a young woman – tattooed of course (we’re still in Brooklyn after all) – walks in with a dog on a leash he goes ballistic.

“Get a mop” he yells to the barman. “This dog’s gunna pee on the floor.”

“I am offended,” she replies, looking incredulous. “How could you say that. I look after my dog.”

A few minutes later the two are laughing and joking like all buddies.

But, perhaps, most memorable of all are the drinks. Ask for a beer and you won’t be handed a bottle or glass or a plastic cup. No: you will receive, for the sum of $4, a 32 ounce (900ml) Styrofoam cup filled with frothy beer. If you want to be classy you can grab a margarita for $6. Also served in an oversized Styrofoam cup.

The Turkey’s Nest Tavern is not a bar for the faint of hearted. Or faint of livered. But if you are willing to leave your pretensions at the door, a visit to this diviest of dive bars may leave you not just with a hangover but memories to last a lifetime.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Copenhagen climate change summit

Note: During the ill-fated Copenhagen climate change summit, I reported daily for crikey.com.au. As well as the analytical pieces below I also reported via blog postings, Twitter, YouTube and live blogging.

Bunkering down at Copenhagen as the bombshells rain down

The bombshells are raining down so hard and fast here at the Copenhagen climate change summit that somebody had better build a bunker.
The smoke hadn’t even settled on the “climate gate” email affair when news of a leaked secret draft Copenhagen Agreement written by the Danish Prime Minister and the spooky-sounding “circle of commitment” — a group including Kevin Rudd and the leaders of other industrialised nations — exploded at lunchtime on day two.
Suddenly the mushy day-one platitudes of co-operation and consensus were gone, as developing nations accused richer countries of sabotaging the UNFCC negotiating process and attempting to saddle the third world with the costs of tackling climate change.
The so-called “Danish text” is a “serious violation that threatens the success of the Copenhagen negotiating process”, said Sudan’s Lumumba Stanislas Dia Ping, who heads the G77 group.
“This is a very serious development; a very unhelpful development,” he said. “The principles that this text is based on are inhuman.”
The only problem is that many of the most frightening aspects of the “Danish text” appear to be imaginary. Props must be given to The Guardian for bringing the leaked secret draft to light, but not for quoting, without even the slightest scepticism, the claims of NGOs and developing country delegates pushing their own agendas.
Take one of The Guardian’s claims currently echoing through the blogosphere: “The draft hands effective control of climate change finance to the World Bank”. In fact, the text doesn’t even mention the World Bank. Rather, it advocates that a climate fund “under the guidance of”, “accountable to” and “elected by” the UNFCC Conference of Parties be set up to finance mitigation and adaptation in the developed world. An International Climate Financing Board, made up of developed and developing country representatives and led by the UNFCC secretariat, would also be set up.
The World Bank scare — talked up by NGOs such as Oxfam and Friends of the Earth — seems to come from one, rather vague line: “Support from the fund may be channeled by multilateral institutions or directly to national entities”. Hardly sounds like a transfer of power from the UN to the World Bank does it?
The claim that the agreement, if approved, would “not allow poor countries to emit more than 1.44 tonnes of carbon per person by 2050, while allowing rich countries to emit 2.67 tonnes” also has a bad smell about it. No such figures are contained in the draft itself, which proposes emissions cuts of 80% by 2050 for developed countries.
Writing up secret draft agreements without first consulting developing countries is certainly a bad look for COP15 Denmark, shattering its image of an honest broker seeking to build compromise.
And although it gives no detail on 2020 emissions targets, the “Danish text” is not the work of the devil that it is being sold as.
“Overall the text, if agreed, would provide a framework for an agreement that could lay the foundation for an ambitious global agreement,” says Erwin Jackson, of the Climate Institute.
As well as the 80% by 2050 emissions pledge, it also includes recognition that global temperature should not rise beyond two degrees and flags a mechanism for financing renewable energy uptake in the third world by shipping and environmental levies.
The Guardian got the story half-right: the “Danish text” is worrying, but for what it doesn’t say rather than what it does say.
Where are the genuinely ambitious emission pledges from the US and other developed nations? Obama’s promised 17% reduction on 2005 levels by 2020 represents a measly 4% on 1990 levels.
And if the world can finance trillion dollar bank bailouts why can’t it do the same to prevent African and Bangladeshi children dying from climate change-induced floods and droughts?
China, Brazil, India and South Africa are said to have developed their own draft agreement as a counter to the “Danish text” and the G-77 is planning to do the same. Stay tuned: this battle is only just beginning.

*

Taking tea with Prof Plimer and Lord Monckton at the other climate conference

As if the COP15 participants weren’t doing a good enough job already, the climate change sceptics have been out in force at Copenhagen working hard to undermine the climate change summit during its opening days.
While the COP15 is taking place in the drab Bella Centre, as big and as aesthetically pleasing as an airport terminal, the sceptics have held their “summit” in a small flat in Christianshavn — a clever choice for a group of unorthodox thinkers given it is home to a self-proclaimed autonomous community of squatters and hippies.
Upon arrival, a hand-written sign sticky-taped next to the front door directs you to the event, officially named the “Copenhagen Climate Change Challenge”. A colourful sticker on the ground reads “hurra global warming [sic]” and shows a red-headed Eskimo standing on a melting ice-cap with a seagull in one hand and an ice-cream in the other (don’t ask).
The walls of the tiny room where the 50-odd sceptics gather are almost invisible behind the mass of rococo artworks: squint and you could be in the Louvre. “We are certainly small in quantity, but what we lack in numbers we make up for in quality,” boasts Christopher Monckton, chairman of the event and former adviser to Margaret Thatcher.
Buoyed by the recent release of the stolen Climate-gate emails, the sceptics are in fine spirits — one of the gatherings says their struggle is the 21st century equivalent of Galileo’s attempts to disprove the Catholic Church’s claim that the Earth was the centre of the universe.
Australian Ian Plimer, geologist and author of Heaven and Earth, is one of the stars and despite initial doubts — “What is Crikey doing at an event like this?” — agrees to answer some questions on COP15 and the Senate’s rejection of the Rudd government’s ETS.Solar radiation and volcanic activity are possible culprits for global warming, Plimer argues. Carbon dioxide, on the other hand, is “… not a pollutant, it is plant food”.Attending the Copenhagen Climate Change Challenge is to enter a parallel universe, a 100% irony-neutral zone.
The East Anglia professors — “Let’s sue for fraud!” — are pilloried for manipulating evidence to prove their hypothesis. But no one bats an eyelid when UK lawyer and businessman Stewart Wheeler says: “Maybe what I am about to say is not completely accurate but it’ll make the point I hope.”
At the conclusion of Wheeler’s talk, chairman Christopher Monckton lauds him for speaking up for the “common man on the bus”. Then he remarks, no pun intended: “I know where your castle is.” Turns out Wheeler is a multimillionaire who had enough spare change lying around in 2001 to donate 5 million towards the Conservative Party election campaign.
The speakers pat themselves on their backs for their “evidence-based” and “apolitical” presentations. Yet politics, of a distinctly right-of-centre variety, dominates the conference. Several of the participants boast of their membership of the anti-European Union UK Independence Party.
Professor Plimer says that not only do Al Gore and algae sound alike: “They are both scum.”
The suggestion that mankind should be demonising water rather than co2, given that 300 Americans drown in their bathtubs each year, is greeted by the reply: “I’m sure the 300 are all Democrats.”
And as scepticism is the flavour of the alternative conference it’s perhaps also worth noting that organiser of the event, the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow think-tank, received $582,000 between 1998 and 2007 from ExxonMobil.

*

Consensus melts away at Hopelesshagen

To describe the pace of negotiations during the first four days of the Copenhagen climate summit as “glacial” is not just cliched; it is an insult to glaciers, especially given the rate at which they are melting around the North Pole.
 
As each minute goes by it becomes clearer just how delusional hopes that a legally-binding successor to the Kyoto Protocol could be negotiated here were.
No disrespect to the geopolitical superpower that is Tuvalu, but if an island nation with a population smaller than Broken Hill can suspend part of the talks for two days then something is amiss.

There is an endless stream of meetings (most closed to the public and the press), media conferences and protester stunts. But even the most fundamental issues are still being hotly contested.
Take the issue of global temperature rise. Around 100 nations in total – that is, half the COP15 participants – want to keep the increase to 1.5 degrees. These are mostly the poorest nations and those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change – vulnerable, in the case small island states like Tuvalu, meaning literally going under water if the most dire predictions eventuate.
“It is not possible to agree to a temperature increase of 1.5 degrees, ” Dessima Williams, Chair of the Association of Small Island States, said today. Lumumba Di-Aping, lead negotiator for the G77, says that a 2 degree temperature rise will “condemn Africa to death.”
But the chances of America, China and the European Union committing to 1.5 degrees are zero. So unless the Danes want to see see half of all UN countries refusing to sign the eventual Copenhagen agreement – which wouldn´t be the best look – some serious money is going to have be put on the table. An amount far bigger than the $10 billion so far suggested.
Then there is a question of what type of agreement will replace Kyoto – if there is one at all. The US, Australia, most industrialised countries favour a new pact in which the targets of all nations, developed and developing, are contained within a legally-binding and verified by the UN. Most poorer countries want Kyoto to continue with deep cuts for the rich and a new, less binding accord for them.
China says that it won´t open up its emission reduction efforts to public scrutiny unless it receives financial assistance from the West – something the US has already ruled out. India has gone even further by refusing to put its own target on any legally-binding agreement.
Then there are logistical problems: there are various different “tracks” running at Copenhagen, with names such as the AWG-LCA (Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-Term Cooperative Action) and the AWG- KP (Ad Hoc Working Group on further commitments under the Kyoto Protocol). The USA is involved in the first but not the second as it didn´t ratify Kyoto, making getting anything done even more complicated.
On the metro home, I overheard a Bangladeshi newspaper journalist chatting to a member of the Japanese negotiating team.
“In Copenhagen I have realised how little I know about this issue,” said the journalist.
“Don´t worry,” replied the man from Japan. “I´m in the negotiations and I don´t really understand what is going on. ”
At the opening of the talks conference President Connie Hedegaard said: “Copenhagen will be the city of the three C’s: ‘Cooperation,’ ‘Commitment’ and “Consensus”. Right now it´s just looking like the city of confusion.

*

Copenhagen: ‘Kyoto killer’ Rudd talks down hopes of strong outcome

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd touched down in snowy Copenhagen tonight, but the news awaiting him was anything but wonderful.
Only three days to go and the negotiations are moving as quickly as a grannie with a walking frame. The draft texts are still drowning in a sea of square brackets; some, such as the REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) draft, actually expanded today rather than narrowed down as would be hoped. The most controversial issues — which developing countries deserve financial assistance to tackle climate change and how much should they get? Should the Kyoto Protocol continue or not? Should developing countries such as China and India have their emissions reductions monitored and verified by the international community? — are still being furiously debated.
No wonder the PM was talking down the hopes of a strong outcome in Copenhagen upon his arrival.
“There’s absolutely no guarantee of success,” he told reporters in a Copenhagen hotel.
“I just believe in telling it like it is.”
Rudd’s initial message was that he is here to fight for Australia’s national interest, and will not commit us to do more than the rest of the world.
Expect Rudd to take a somewhat more multilateral, we’re all in this together, angle when he speaks at the heads of state welcoming ceremony on Thursday morning Copenhagen time.
And while Australia won a standing ovation at the Bali 2007 COP13 for ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, Rudd won’t be expecting the same this time around. Two years on and he is now being slammed as a “Kyoto killer” by developing nations.
“The message Kevin Rudd is giving to his people, his citizens, is a fabrication, it’s fiction,” Lumumba Di-Aping, the fiery lead negotiator of the G77 and China, said tonight.
“It does not relate to the facts because his actions are climate change scepticism in action.”
“Australia is committed to killing Kyoto,” he said.
This is a claim that climate change minister Penny Wong has consistently denied, saying that Australia is open to the idea of either a “one track” or “two track” outcome at Copenhagen. The first would see one treaty replace Kyoto, while the latter would see Kyoto continue, complemented by a new treaty bringing in the US, China and other emerging economies.
Also, one of Rudd’s pet projects, carbon capture and storage (aka clean coal) was dealt a blow today when a UNFCCC body decided that it should not yet be included in the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). This means Australia, which has lobbied forcefully to have clean coal included in the CDM, will not be able to generate tradable carbon-offset credits by financing the construction of carbon capture and storage projects. It will have to invest in renewable energy projects instead.
Last, but perhaps not least, Rudd was beaten by nose by UK PM Gordon Brown to be the first foreign leader to arrive at the summit. About 20 leaders are expected to hit Copenhagen on Wednesday morning and another 120, including Barack Obama, before the conference ends.

*

Copenhagen: one, big, brutal reality check

And so — after all the hype, the hope, the hysteria — this is how it ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.
The Copenhagen climate change summit fizzled out late Saturday afternoon as delegates, exhausted after a final 31-hour negotiating marathon, agreed only to “take note” of the Copenhagen Accord that Barack Obama had hailed as a “meaningful breakthrough”.
The watered-down accord — hastily cobbled together on the last day of the talks by leaders of 28 nations — saved the summit from complete collapse, but does not include any medium- or long-term emissions targets or a mandate to create a legally binding treaty in the future. Countries will now choose whether to opt into it or not.
In fact, the Copenhagen talks were so shambolic that many are now openly pondering whether the United Nations should be stripped of its role as the primary forum for co-ordinating global efforts to combat climate change.
“The Copenhagen conference demonstrated the highly unsatisfactory and inefficient method of UN conferences,” said Jo Leinen, head of the European Union’s Copenhagen delegation. “A deep reform of the decision-making process in the framework of the United Nations is an urgent necessity.”
As we saw in the drawn-out final day negotiations, at the UN climate change talks it takes only one nation — be it a tiny island state with a population smaller than that of an Australian suburb, or a genocidal regime such as Sudan — to block action, regardless of the views of the vast majority of nations.
Expect much debate over coming days as to whether global climate change policy should be handed over to a G-20-style body made up of the world’s biggest polluters.
The summit also closed without approving the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) pact, which had been the one ray of hope for a legally binding outcome during the talks. This means approval for REDD, a comprehensive plan to protect the world’s biologically rich tropical forests by paying poor nations to stop cutting down trees, will now be put off until COP16 in Mexico.
“It’s depressing,” said Kevin Conrad, executive director of the Coalition of Rainforest Nations, which includes many of the 40 tropical countries that would take part in the program. “It means I’ve got to spend another year … coming to meetings and talking about the same things.”
Hillary Clinton’s announcement that the US would contribute to a fund providing $100 billion dollars a year by 2020 to vulnerable countries was the summit’s most important concrete announcement. But the details are still fuzzy, with big questions remaining over how much each nation will commit and how much will come from the private sector.
The blame game is already well under way. Many NGOs and poorer nations are accusing developed countries of stalling progress at Copenhagen.
Indeed, the push by groups such as the European Union, United States, Japan and Russia to scrap the Kyoto Protocol was an enormous time-waster and fostered much bad feeling. It was foolishly naive to think that developing countries would give it up before a new legally-binding treaty is ready to go.
As UNFCC executive secretary Yvo de Boer, who has delighted journalists during the summit with his imaginative word pictures, said: “There is a saying in my language that if you only have one pair of shoes, don’t throw them away before you have new ones. So at the moment Kyoto is my shoes and I would like to keep them on until I know there are something better for me to have.”
But developing nations haven’t always distinguished themselves either. The G77 and China chief negotiator Lumumba Di-Aping seemed to be more concerned with headlines than consensus-building, insults raining forth from his mouth like bullets from an automatic machine gun. He certainly missed his target in the final negotiating session when he claimed that the Copenhagen Accord “is a solution based on the same very values, in our opinion, that channeled six million people in Europe into furnaces.”
Lost in his spiel was the fact that China and India — who sent ambassadors and diplomats to draft the accord, instead of heads of state — were among those keenest to water it down.

Copenhagen has offered the world a brutal reality check on the difficult road ahead in stopping runaway climate change. Perhaps, more than hope, that’s what we really needed anyway.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Toxic legacy of the F-111 bomber

When Phillip Moon joined the Royal Australian Air Force in 1970, he was a super-fit 17-year-old keen to follow in the footsteps of his father who served with the navy in Korea.

He wanted to defend his country, make some mates, see the world. He never imagined the air force would make his life a living hell.

Moon spent most of his career as a storeman and packer at the RAAF base in Amberley, 50km west of Brisbane, home to Australia’s fleet of F-111 strategic bombers.

During his time at Amberley he came in contact with more than 200 different chemical products, was doused almost daily in aviation fuel and supervised the burn-off of old drums of SR51 – a notoriously corrosive sealant – without gloves or other safety equipment. The stench of the burnt-off fumes was so strong it made many men vomit and gave them piercing migraines.

Today Moon, 56, suffers 30 serious health problems including asthma, diabetes and breathing difficulties. His liver is twice the size it should be. He has no sense of taste or smell, experiences anxiety attacks and stutters when stressed.

“I suffer short-term and long-term memory loss,” he says. “I can’t remember my childhood, just one or two little things. I can barely remember joining the air force.”

When prime minister Robert Menzies ordered 24 F-111s in 1963, Australians were told the bombers would revolutionise the nation’s defence capabilities. But today hundreds of F-111 workers and their families are suffering from cancer, leukemia and severe mental-health problems caused by exposure to toxic chemicals. Others have already died, some by committing suicide.

Many of those still alive have not received a cent in compensation. They say the F-111’s toxic legacy should be a national scandal.

Unlike in most other aircraft, the fuel tanks in the F-111 bomber did not contain internal bladders. This meant workers had to work inside the fuel tanks, stripping and resealing them with chemical sealants to prevent leaks. About 1300 people – including 100 civilians – were involved in the deseal/reseal program at Amberley between 1977 and 2000.

The chemicals they were exposed to included benzene, a known cause of leukemia and hematological cancer; chromium VI, known to cause pulmonary, lung and gastrointestinal cancer; and carbon black, which has been linked to lung and oesophagus cancer.

Former maintenance worker Barry Willis, 64, worked shifts of up to 11 hours inside the cramped tanks dressed only in his shirt, shorts and boots. At times the heat was unbearable; sometimes it was near freezing.

He says workplace health and safety was non-existent: open cans of chemical sealant were stored in the refrigerators where the men kept their lunch.

“I used to be so bad my skin would excrete a yellow substance all over my body into the white pillow sheets,” he says. “My wife couldn’t get the stains out of them.

“I’ve had skin irritation for 20 years. I still have headaches. I’ve had breathing difficulties. I had sexual problems; my testicles swelled up so big they looked like footballs. I’ve had growths all the way up my body: my toes, legs, crotch, underneath my arms.”

When he complained about his symptoms to the RAAF, Willis says he was sent to “quacks” who knew less about chemicals than he did. Others were sent to psychiatrists, psychologists or just told to go away.

Willis says he knows at least 35 former F-111 maintenance workers who have died in recent years, most from cancer or suicide.

After numerous complaints of memory loss, fatigue and skin problems, the deseal/reseal program was suspended in January 2000 and the Howard government launched a board of inquiry which criticised the RAAF for failing to take the workers’ health complaints seriously.

“If anybody is to be held accountable,” the inquiry said, “it is the air force itself.”

A rigorous four-year study of health outcomes, commissioned by the Australian Defence Force and undertaken by the University of Newcastle, found a 50 per cent increase in cancer among men who worked on the F-111 deseal/reseal program.

“The increase in cancer was a very strong result,” says John Attia, co-author of the Study of Health Outcomes in Aircraft Personnel. “That was the thing that really struck us.”

The study also found an almost two-fold increase in depression and anxiety, a 2.5-fold increase in sexual dysfunction and a two-fold increase in obstructive lung disease.

In response to the study, the Howard government announced a $21 million compensation package _ including one-off payments of up to $40,000. The payments were described by maintenance workers as woefully inadequate. Many said $40,000 wouldn’t cover their medical bills. Hundreds of RAAF workers and their families say they have been cheated out of restitution.

“I have not received any personal compensation from the government,” Willis says. “The Howard government did not accept compensation claimants unless they had deseal/reseal stamped into their personal records booklet.”

Moon, who also hasn’t received compensation, thinks it is “scandalous” that welders, general hands and storemen who worked at Amberley have been told they were not involved in the deseal/reseal process.

“How do they think they got the drums on to the planes?” he says.

Carolyne and Ross Olsen have been suing the commonwealth for six years. Ross worked on the deseal/reseal program from 1979 to 1981 and today suffers neuropathy – damage to the peripheral nervous system – rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis. He has lost all feeling below his mouth and has been taking chemotherapy drugs for 11 years to stop his body attacking itself.

“He’s got major problems with his short and long-term memory. Friends used to call him the walking dictionary because there wasn’t a work he didn’t know. Now he can’t even read a book,” Carolyne says. “The amount of stress it’s put on me has been horrendous. I’ve had to have counselling.”

After years of stalling, the Olsens were eventually offered $117,000 in compensation. This was cut to $87,000 when it was discovered Ross was on a Totally and Permanently Incapacitated pension. The Olsens were then told they would have to pay $208 a week. “That’s not compensation, it’s an insult,” Carolyne says.

But after years of suffering, F-111 workers and their families finally have cause for optimism. The Rudd Government has launched a parliamentary inquiry into the deseal/reseal program, delivering on an election commitment made by Alan Griffin, now Veterans Affairs Minister.

The parliamentary inquiry, chaired by Arch Bevis, has received 84 submissions from affected servicemen and defence organisations. The inquiry begins public hearings today in Canberra and will move to Brisbane next week.

“It provides an opportunity for the issue to be aired publicly and dealt with properly,” Griffin says. “I hope it provides closure for some people.”

But he warns that increased compensation cannot be guaranteed, even if recommended by the inquiry.

“Parliamentary inquiries can have a mind of their own,” he says. “We want to see what the recommendations are before we commit to implementing them.”

Bronwyn Bishop, Opposition spokeswoman on veterans’ affairs, tells The Australian that the parliamentary inquiry has bipartisan support.

“I think having this inquiry is a step in the right direction. I just hope it’s a fair dinkum inquiry looking for real answers, not just more rhetoric from the Government. This Government has a history of holding inquiry after inquiry.”

Ian Fraser, from the 340-strong desealers support group, says: “We want to see fair and reasonable compensation. So many people have received nothing while some have had quite good payouts. What I’m hoping for is a holistic response to the issue, not people being assessed on a case-by-case basis.”

Liz Agerbeek, founder of the F-111 spouse support group, says: “We’ve got our hopes up that we’ll see justice. This is a tragedy, the biggest industrial tragedy in military history. And it’s a moral issue: we believe we’ve been treated badly.”

She wants the Government to provide all F-111 workers with repatriation health cards and to commission a study into the health impacts on their wives and children, whom she says have suffered as much as the men.

“We were all impregnated with contaminated semen so we have these very rare cancers,” says Agerbeek, whose husband Rudi worked on the deseal/reseal program from 1976-79.

She knows some spouses whose children have been born with extra limbs.

“I have had cancer of the vulva. Others have lost bowels and bladders and their baby-making machinery. We’ve all had menopauses from hell. We also suffer from the same things as the men: depression, mood swings and skin problems.”

The 62-year-old says her marriage almost fell apart.

“I have three children with strange medical problems,” she says. Her eldest son has a motor-neurone condition similar to Asperger’s. Her daughter was born with partial retinas. Her youngest son has had serious heart problems since the age of eight.

“The kids have been so badly psychologically damaged by this,” she says. “I think about all those poor little kids with parents who are mentally stressed, financially stressed, and I shudder for their future.”

After finishing his day’s work at Amberley, Moon would hand wife Glenda his filthy, fuel-soaked clothes to put in the washing machine. “But the chemicals just stuck to the bowl,” he says. “All our clothes became contaminated.”

Soon, Glenda was covered in rashes and haemorrhaging so badly that, like many spouses, she needed a hysterectomy.

Today the Moons rarely leave their two-bedroom home in Bundaberg, Queensland. Phillip needs a walker to get around; Glenda’s psoriasis is so bad that driving the car makes her hands bleed. Some days they cry about the children they never had.

Phillip says a compensation payout under $5 million for those worst affected by chemical exposure would be insulting.

“We want to restart our lives,” he says. “We’re not living, we’re just existing.”

The defence sub-committee of the joint standing committee on foreign affairs, defence and trade is due to deliver its report on October 23.

NOTE: This story was published in The Australian newspaper on 21 July 2008. It was awarded the 2008 “Gold Ossie” for best story by an Australian Journalism Student in any medium by the Journalism Education Association. An online version of this story, with audio and images, be viewed here.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Price of Peace in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leonean journalist Edison Yongai fled from impending death in war torn Sierra Leone to find a new home in Australia. With a warrant on his life being taken out for exposing government corruption Yongai talks to Matthew Knott about his views on journalism, war and peace.

Edison Yongai was working at his desk when he heard a knock at the officer door and opened it. In front of him stood five plain-clothed policemen, their eyes dead cold. “Please come with us,” one of them said. “We’d like to ask you some questions.”

The previous morning, July 19 1996, Yongai was flying high. His independent newspaper The Point, had published an explosive story called “Corrupt Ministers”, about the new government of Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. “The reason why we set up The Point was that the people running the country were not telling the truth. The country was going backwards, everything was not normal; the economy was being destroyed by politicians. We thought it was time that we should stand up and speak.” He continues: “Sierra Leone has very good diamonds, some of the most valuable in the world. It has gold. It has cocoa and coffee. Bauxite. Aluminium Ore. And recently oil was discovered. We had all these things and yet the country was going backwards because of politicians.”

One minister, the “Corrupt Ministers” story claimed, had stolen materials meant for development projects to build his own house. Another sold a shipload of fertilizer earmarked for agricultural projects and pocketed the cash. Despite the country’s stagnant economy the government had splurged 30 billion leones (US $32 million) during its first 100 days in power.

Yongai stresses that these were not baseless allegations, but cold hard facts. “We had people within the government revealing secrets, giving us classified documents. These were authentic documents and I cross checked them.”

But the truth offered little protection. Yongai’s scoop became his nightmare.

He was interrogated by agents at the Criminal Investigations Department then dumped in the infamous Pademba Road, a “malevolent 60-year-old dungeon” according to Michael Wines of the New York Times.

“It is deplorable,” Yongai says. “One of the worst prisons in Africa.” He adds: “It was a built by the colonial powers and since then there has been no improvement. It’s always overcrowded and they don’t differentiate between one type of detainee or another. Everyone was boxed up together –murderers, rebels, thieves a tiny room. Many found it difficult to even straighten their legs when sitting down.”

Pademba Road was designed to hold 300 people, but today more than 1000 prisoners are routinely jammed into its filthy, mosquito-ridden cells. There are no toilets –only plastic buckets –and no protection from the freezing cold at night. “You’d rather go hungry than eat,” Yongai says. “The food was not well prepared because they knew it was for prisoners.” For breakfast he was given bread, for lunch a bowl of rice or soup with one flake of fish. That was all. In 2007 more than 20 Pademba Road inmates died from malnutrition, lack of hygiene or malaria.

Yongai was held in this festering hellhole without charge for four nights, mostly in solitary confinement. On the fifth day, he was taken to the court. “In my country there is hardly any distinction between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. They are all fused and the president can control the judges and magistrates at will,” Yongai explains. Since he was the first journalist arrested by the new government, no one knew how President Kabbah would act. Would the journalist be let free? Or would he be made an example of? Perhaps he would be charged with treason – an offence akin to murder and punishable by death in Sierra Leone. 

***

Edison Nyambeche Yongai was born in the tiny village of Nemesedu near the border of Sierra Leone and Guinea. His father was a powerful man, the chief of the village, with 13 wives and 30 children. His mother had eight children of her own – Edison being the eldest – who she supported by running a small shop. “Normally in African families it is the mother who has to take care of her children. The father is rarely there and is not expected to do much … everything is left in the hands of the mother.”

The Sierra Leone of Yongai’s childhood was a paradise compared to the barbarity and chaos that followed. “When we were growing up the country was peaceful; everything was all right because the colonialists had just left and the economy was good,” herecalls. He and his friends spent most their time in the tropical forest climbing trees and picking wild fruits or swimming unsupervised in deep, crocodile infested waters made murky brown by diamond mining.

But it was stories he loved most of all. After exhausting his grandmother’s collection he became desperate. He bribed elderly villagers with cigarettes or loose change from his mother’s shop to tell him a tale; at primary school, where there was nothing to read, he would steal books from rich children or exchange them for his lunch. In secondary school, thanks to a copious library, by the end of first year he had read all the classics – Don Quixote, Huckleberry Finn, Gulliver’s Travels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Treasure Island, The Merchant of Venice, and Twelfth Night.

At age 15 or 16 – he can’t remember exactly – Yongai wrote a short story called O Justice Where Are You? He still remembers the plot today.

A rich man, through careless driving, kills a young boy, the son of a poor hunter. The man is taken to court but walks free because of his riches. The enraged father takes his hunting gun to the city, determined to gain revenge on the man who killed his son. But he cannot pull the trigger. “I forgive you,” he tells the rich man. “I want to forget everything.”

Yongai sent his story to the Leonean Sun magazine and it was published. Yongai went on to study at university in Freetown and work as secondary school teacher untilone day in 1987 he got a call from the Sun’s editor Roland Martin. “At that age if you could write like that, my, by now you must have gained more power,” he said, offering Yongai a job at the Weekend Spark newspaper he was publishing. He worked there until 1999, when he left to start The Point with three other journalists.

Undeterred by the threat of imprisonment and the constant death threats he received Yongai continued to publish. Not only was there corruption to expose but the unthinkable horrors of the Sierra Leonean civil war that was raging between the government and the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Unlike other conflicts on the continent of Africa, the civil war in Sierra Leone was not fuelled by ethnic, tribal or religious tensions but by politics. On one side were a series of democratically elected but incompetent governments.

 On the other were the RUF rebels who had no clear ideology, but drew support from the poor villagers who resented Freetown’s rich ruling class. An estimated 60,000 people died during the 11 year conflict and more than two million people –two thirds of the population –were displaced.

“It’s very difficult for people to believe. Sometimes they just think you are telling them a fairytale. When you tell somebody a child of six months could have his hands chopped off with a machete they wouldn’t believe it. If you said somebody was laid on the ground and his throat was cut from here to here,” he says, touching one side of his neck and then the other, “they would not believe it.”

And yet it did happen.

Yongai can not say why his country’s plight was ignored for so long. Perhaps it was Sierra Leone’s tiny population of five million or the complex cast of characters involved, each as guilty as each other, or the fact so few foreigners were involved. But he knows one thing for sure: “Freetown has been the darkest city in the world. Sierra Leone has been the darkest country in the world.”

The RUF rebels had promised to oust the corrupt politicians and improve the lives of the people, but in fact were drugged-up killers hell-bent on destruction. Amputation was their mutilation method of choice. During the 1996 elections, child soldiers wielding knives and machetes chopped off the hands of any voters they found; they lopped off the fingers of university graduates; they sliced and diced parents who refused to hand over their children as soldiers or sex slaves. There are believed to be 6000 amputees in Sierra Leone today.

By the end of the millennium, Sierra Leone had become the most dangerous country in the world to work as a journalist, according to the International Federation of Journalists. From 1997 to 2000, 15 journalists were killed, 13 by RUF bandits. Criticising the government was almost as risky: six journalists were found guilty of treason between April 1998 and April 1999 and sentenced them to life imprisonment.

Yet Yongai stayed put, determined to expose both government corruption and rebel atrocities. “If you are a journalist I think you must always be able to sacrifice for what you believe in. If you love your country, love your people, you can’t just sit back and let everything explode.”

The chaos of the civil war climaxed on January 6, 1999 when the RUF attacked Freetown, their guns loaded and strapped to their chests. The government knew they were coming but told residents it was safe to stay. When the rebels marched into the city, government forces withdrew immediately. Yongai’s nephew heard some rebels outside his house saying there was a journalist inside. He had two options: remain where he was and risk summary execution by the rebels or make his way through the hellish streets to his wife, Abata, on the other side of the city.

He left the house. It was the most frightening moment of his life. “To go from my place to that place, oh man. There were so many dead bodies; the rebels were scattered everywhere just shooting people at random … People’s hands were cut off, people were shot, people were burnt alive.” “It was only by the guidance of God that I got through all that horror and arrived to my wife safely.” Meanwhile, the rebels had burnt down the house from which he fled and shot his nephew in the leg. They were after him. They eventually showed up at his wife’s house and ordered the women out. Yongai snuck out with them; luckily the rebels did not recognise his face. “One good thing about my operation as a journalist was that I did not expose myself too much … I should have been the number one target but they only knew my name so my life was spared.” The rebels looted the house and burnt it to the ground. “I didn’t escape with one piece of paper,” Yongai recalls, his eyes staring vacantly into the distance. “I had over 12 manuscripts, well prepared, of plays, poetry, novels, short stories. Everything was lost.” The Point was only five issues old when the police showed up at Yongai’s office. He was eventually charged with seditious libel – which carried a maximum sentence of three years – and released on bail. Before his scheduled hearing in October the charge was unofficially dropped thanks to the tireless lobbying by international journalist associations and human rights groups.

Not prepared to gamble with his life anymore, Yongai and Alberta fled to neighbouring Guinea where the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees granted them refugee status. In 2001, they came to Australia. Others were not so lucky: he knows 10 fellow journalists-in-exile still languishing in Guinean refugee camps, unable to return home for fear of revenge attacks.

Today Yongai and Alberta live in Regents Park, Sydney, with their two young children – eight-year old Shar, a budding poet, and one-year old daughter Sia. He is busier than ever, working as a volunteer coordinator for Mission Australia, presenting a weekly radio program on Sydney’s Radio Skid Row and editing the Aus-Africa newspaper. In November 2007 The War After the War, his first book since his manuscripts were burnt, was published by Tate Publishing.

Peace – for so long a speck on the horizon – is finally his to enjoy. “My family is here, my wife is here, my kids are comfortable. What we fight for is posterity; what we fight for is our kids, the little ones coming up because they are going to be in control tomorrow. If they had been in Sierra Leone the situation would have been different; their condition would have been deplorable by now.” “Yeah,” he nods, gazing at the tranquil street beyond his office window, “Australia feels like home.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Allergic to the 21st century

Margaret Humphries sat alone by the river, studying the gentle flow of the water. Her ears full of birdsong, her nostrils rich with the smell of oranges and mandarins. Laurel trees rustled in the breeze. It was another perfect day in paradise.

She had decided to kill herself.

 Float downstream and never come back.

For Humphries, then nearing 50, the farm she and her husband owned in the Matcham Valley, on the NSW Central Coast, had become a living hell.

It all started with her hands. After a day’s work in the field they looked like those of a burns victim. Blistered, red raw, skin peeling under the fingernails. Soon, her whole body was covered in pityriasis rosea – an incredibly itchy, measles-like rash. A diseased gall bladder made her urinate uncontrollably. Then there was the haemorrhaging. She was lucky to have two days free each month without periods. Everything she ate tasted like metal. On a diet of flat beans and chokos, she dropped to 52 kilos. Smells of any kind made her want to vomit. “I virtually became allergic to the planet,” she says.

Humphries, now 71, suffers from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity syndrome (also known as Environmental Illness or Total Allergy Sydnrome). It is one of the most controversial conditions in the medical world. So controversial, in fact, most doctors say it doesn’t exist. The most widely reported definition of MCS is that of Dr Mark Cullen, Professor of Medicine and Public Health at Yale University. He describes it as “a disorder characterised by the triggering of symptoms of different organ systems of an individual by exposure to environmental chemicals at concentrations below those usually considered toxic or harmful.”

In NSW, 2.9 per cent of the population has been diagnosed with chemical sensitivity, a figure that would probably soar with more recognition from the mainstream medical community. In California, where the Health Department has taken an interest in the syndrome, over six per cent of people have been diagnosed with MCS. Germany is the only country to formally recognise MCS as a medical condition.

Dr Robert Loblay, director of the allergy unit at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, says: “I don’t use the diagnostic label Multiple Chemical Sensitivity in my practice. It’s misleading and makes patients believe they’ve got a dreaded illness…it’s not too much to say it’s a disease caused by the doctor.”

Sufferers say MCS is not only real – it can kill. Margaret Humphries believes chemicals she used on the farm – including Roundup, Rulene (DDT) and 2,4-D, one of the active ingredients in Agent Orange – caused a toxic overload in her nervous system. In the late ‘80s, cancers were cut from her nose, leg and arm. X-rays of her breasts looked like slices of swiss cheese, so rife were they with cysts. The low point: being diagnosed with Lupus, a potentially fatal auto-immune disease.

“Eventually,” she says, fingering her short, charcoal coloured hair, “I had to walk away from my home, my husband, my friends, my lifestyle to live. To survive.” Her husband faced a dilemma: stay on the farm he loved or flee from modernity with his wife. He chose the farm. “I never blamed him; it wasn’t his fault,” she says. “It was the fault of the chemicals and the companies who made them.”

Today Humphries lives alone in a Chain Valley Bay NSW retirement village, surrounded by the decor of a bourgeois British grandmother. Pink carpets cover the floor; life sized ceramic dolls rest in the corners; glass vases overflow with purple flowers. The orthodox appearance is deceiving. Her home is completely chemical free. Foods with additives, colourings or preservatives are banned, as are artificial fragrances. Her clothes, lounge and bed are made from 100 per cent cotton. Anything treated with pesticides is avoided: the flowers are silk . Her hands burn at the touch of glossy paper or cheap ink; to read a book or magazine, she first hangs it on the clothesline to air for a few days.

For the chemically sensitive, venturing beyond their cocoon of safety is a major risk. When Humphries’ son in Nowra invited her to stay in his granny flat she said yes – unaware she was allergic to pine timber outgases. “I’d taken over the lease so here I was with a unit that I found impossible to live in,” she says. “One night I even took the cushions off a settee and tried to sleep on the bonnet of my car. Now this was in the middle of winter. It was so cold and uncomfortable and the cushions kept falling of the bonnet of the car.”

Philip Moon, 55, almost never leaves his Bundaberg home. If anyone wearing perfume comes too close, he can’t breathe; he faints if someone lights up a cigarette. He suffers 30 major health problems, including asthma, diabetes and irritable bowel syndrome. He and his wife Glenda haven’t taken a holiday for 11 years. “We don’t live, we just exist,” he says.

There is no hope on his white, round face. No music in his voice. Each sentence is a long sigh, like a tyre slowly deflating. “I’m sick and tired of being of being sick.”

During his 16 years as an Air Force storeman and packer, most at the RAAF base in Amberley, Moon handled over 200 different chemical products. After a day’s work, he was so drenched in aviation fuel he could hear it ‘slosh slosh’ in his shoes. “When it came to workplace health and safety, you might as well say there was nothing,” he says. “I had nothing but a T-shirt, shorts and steel capped boots.” Each night Glenda put his filthy fuel soaked clothes in the washing machine. “But the chemicals just stuck to the bowl,” he says. “All our clothes became contaminated.” Soon, Glenda was covered in rashes and haemorrhaging so badly she needed a hysterectomy.

Some days they still cry about the children they never had.

When Moon told the Air Force about the pain he was in – his sore throat, stinging eyes, and crushing migraines – they refused to let him see an occupational physician. Instead, they sent him to a psychologist.

It’s a tale familiar to most MCS sufferers. The physical pain, they say, is excruciating; but the disbelief, the ridicule, is soul shattering. Until recently, medical thought was dominated by theories that chemical sensitivity had its origins in stress, Pavlovian conditioning or misdiagnosis of an underlying mental illness. The Plastics and Chemicals Industries Association (PACIA), an Australian industry body, continues to argue there is no direct link between chemicals and MCS. In its submission to a 2005 South Australian parliamentary inquiry, PACIA said: ‘The most compelling evidence suggests that one or more psychological disorders best account for the various symptoms reported by individuals with a diagnosis of MCS.’ When Margaret Humphries suggested to her doctor that chemicals were making her sick, he replied: “If I told you there were pink elephants out there in the waiting room would you believe me?” This memory still makes her seethe. “How can it be in your mind that the skin is peeling off your hands; you can’t eat, you can’t walk?” she asks. “You’re just so sick and yet they think this is in your mind.”

Jonathan Wilson, of Queensborough Victoria, became sensitive to solvents he handled every day as a motor mechanic in the ‘80s. Hands covered in dermatitis; diarrhoea one day, constipation the next. An unshakable fatigue smothered him. He felt exhausted no matter how long he slept. When doctors declared him insane, Wilson, a Pentecostal, turned to the Church for guidance. The pastor ordered him to go to counselling and fix his attitude. When nothing changed, he was declared “demon possessed” and ex-communicated from the church. Chemical sensitivity made a turbulent marriage even worse. “My wife didn’t believe chemical sensitivity was an issue, she thought it was all in my head,” he says. For reasons unknown, overseas studies consistently find 80 to 90 per cent of MCS sufferers are women. When Wilson created the MCS Australia support group, he was flooded with calls from chemically sensitive women asking for advice. His wife, convinced he was having an affair, filed for divorce.

Today, Wilson, 41, is single and homeless. Working in a normal environment, he says, would make him violently sick, so he scrapes by on a disability support pension. For the time being, he’s sleeping on his parents’ couch in a retirement village 25 kilometres north-east of Melbourne. His parents do the best they can, but the rubber underlay of the carpet makes him dizzy; he splutters when he inhales residential smog. “One day can be very different to the next, depending on the direction of the wind,” he says.

Management has told him he has to be out by six weeks. He doesn’t know where to go next. Wilson wants to build Australia’s first MCS retreat – probably on a remote island – where sufferers can live and work in a chemical free environment. He is begging private investors and the Department of Housing for money to make it happen. “I have to be committed to it or I am going to be homeless for the rest of my life,” he says. “If this is all I accomplish in life I’ll be happy.”

Dr Mark Donohoe, president of the Natural Health Care Alliance and one of the few medical practitioners in Australia who diagnose MCS, is wary of such retreats. “The idea that all chemicals are evil and you have to make your home a fortress against the rest of the world can make people more disabled.” Clean air, food and water allow most MCS sufferes to lead a normal life, he says. Yoga and meditation are also beneficial. If these treatments don’t work, he says, patients may need to relocate – for example, from Sydney to Adelaide. Dr Donohoe admits no one has definitively proven how chemicals cause the constellation of symptoms reported by MCS sufferers. “Each of us has our own working hypothesis,” he says. He suspects MCS represents a subtle form of neurotoxic brain damage, citing brain scans showing significant changes in people suffering chemical sensitivities.

This claim is vigorously denied by Dr Robert Loblay, of RPAH. “The evidence [of MCS as a toxicological problem] inevitably turns out to be wrong, irrelevant or incorrectly interpreted. It never stacks up.” He believes most patients claiming chemical sensitivity actually suffer Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – a poorly understood disorder with no known cause. MCS symptoms are caused by an abnormal sensory response, he says, not toxic poisoning; for example, dramatic restrictions in a person’s diet can make them hypersensitive to smells of any kind. MCS patients are usually seeking damages payouts, Dr Loblay adds. “There is an incentive to make a diagnosis by some doctors who profit from the court action by providing opinions and giving evidence in court.”

Yet MCS sufferers rarely triumph in their battles for compensation. Jonathan Wilson says: “My [Workers Compensation] case fell in a heap because I used the words chemical sensitivity”. Two years ago, the Department of Veterans Affairs promised Philip Moon $50,000 for his chemical injuries after he threatened to sue. “We haven’t seen five cents,” he says. “All the BS that is thrown at us by the Department of Veteran Affairs is so scandalous. Honestly, we’d like to line them up against a wall and shoot each of them.” A pesticide company eventually agreed to give Margaret Humphries $25,000. Nearly all the money went to paying old Medicare bills.

She remarried a decade ago after falling in love with a retired sheep shearer. But the winds of fate again blew cruel. Her husband developed an agressive form of Alzheimer’s and became physically abusive. Driving to Dubbo, where her husband lives in a dementia centre, takes Humphries three hours there and back from Chain Valley Bay.

Some days, as she wanders through the mangrove corridors straddling Karignon Creek, a tributary of Lake Macquarie, she remembers her days on the farm.

The days she wanted to dive in and never resurface. Float downstream and never come back.

Only faith in God and love for her children – two sons live in Queensland, her daughter in Tasmania – stopped her from drowning. “I thought to myself, if today is better than yesterday then I must have better days ahead.” She repeats a mantra to herself each day: I am strong. I feel great. I’ll be free. “You have to fight to survive,” she says, as the clouds above glow amber, flaming up the murky purple sky of late afternoon. And the mangrove trees are murmuring.

I am strong. I feel great. I’ll be free.

Note: This piece was published in The Sun Herald newspaper on November 18 2007 under the title, “The Silent Suffering of the New Lepers”. It was awarded the 2008 Journalism Education Association award for Best Print Feauture by an Undergraduate Student and the 2008 UTS Gareth Ivory Memorial Prize for Feature Writing.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A soldier’s education

Corporal Matt Howard, a supply truck driver for the US Marine Corps during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, was zooming north towards Baghdad when he pulled up at a military checkpoint. On the side of the road he saw a blown up bus. Shards of steel and strips of rubber lay strewn all around; thick plumes of black smoke were spiralling into the air.

“What happened?” he asked one of the checkpoint officers. Only moments ago, he was told, they’d had to “take out” the vehicle when a man jumped out firing an AK-47. This story, other soldiers later told him, was bogus. There had been no man, no AK-47. Their lieutenant was just bored that day and wanted to shoot something. So he blew up a busload of innocent Iraqis.

“In Iraq you saw this testosterone filled bloodlust,” Howard says. “A lot of people just shot things for the sake of shooting things. Buses, vehicles, houses, whatever. Donkeys, camels…people.”

With his short scruffy blonde hair and semi rimless glasses, Matt Howard, 26, looks more like an earnest Arts student than a war veteran. He grew up an “anti- establishment” kid in leafy Foxborough, Massachusetts – distrustful of the government, fascinated by America’s failure to win the Vietnam War. “I had this naive assumption we had recognised it was a mistake that should never be repeated again.” At 20 he joined the Marines to earn money for college. He hoped to study history. “Instead I got to be a part of history,” he says wryly, “which is so much better.”

Howard spent many hours thinking about the “bloodlust” he saw in Iraq, tormented by a single question: why? Then he remembered the military training he received at Paris Island, South Carolina. Indoctrination, he calls it. Each morning at Boot camp, the recruits would chant out “kill, kill, kill” over and over. Iraqis were never referred to as people or civilians. They were called ‘targets’ or ‘the enemy’ or ‘hajjis’, a racial slur.

Most of the troops, Howard says, were excited about the prospect of war. Not him. He was sceptical about why the US wanted to invade Iraq; the evidence, he thought, looked pretty sketchy.

Matt Howard and the other Marines of the US 1st Tank Battalion began their journey to Baghdad on 20 March. As they crossed the Kuwait-Iraq border, they were given their first objective: secure the Ramalia oil fields, Iraq’s third largest. Operation Crown Jewel went off without a hitch.

The rest of the invasion was “a very chaotic clusterfuck.” His rifle didn’t work; his gas mask didn’t work; his truck’s heavy machine gun didn’t work. He wasn’t given body armour. Brand new tanks, worth US$3.5 million, broke down and had to be dragged to Bagdad by other tanks. He wasn’t given any drugs, didn’t sleep until day four. Many units ran out of food within the first week. “Here we are,” he thought, “US Marines, the best fighting force in world, and we can’t even fucking feed ourselves.”

 Luckily for Howard, the supply truck he was driving was filled with food: stacks of ready-to-eat meals for the troops and a giant crate stamped ‘humanitarian rations’. That first day in Iraq, he started handing out the food to starving Iraqi children. In a flash, his first sergeant showed up in a humvee and ordered him to stop.

 “We don’t want to give the Iraqis the wrong impression about why we’re here,” he said. “We’re the Marine Corps, not the Peace Corps. We fight people, we don’t feed people.”

“What do you want me to do with it?” Howard asked.

“Bury it with the trash.”

So he did.

Remembering that day four years on, his face still turns red with rage. “I thought it was bullshit. I thought, well why the hell are we here? What’s our true purpose in Iraq? I was really pissed off.”

 The trek across the Iraqi desert lasted 20 long days. Each morning the convoy’s tanks would enter a town, shoot it up, secure it, and then wave the trucks through. When commanders anticipated serious combat – like in Nasiriyah – they would declare the town a ‘weapons free zone’. Forget the rules of engagement; you could now shoot at anything that moved.

Howard drove his truck through Nasiriyah after fighting had ended. “It was a bloodbath, there were bodies everywhere.” Over 600 Nasiriyans – men, women, and children – lay dead on the streets; between 200 and 300 were innocent civilians.

Snipers were a constant threat, but the Marines mostly faced little resistance from Iraqis. The desert proved their fiercest foe. Temperatures soared above 50 degrees celsius. Dehydration and heat exhaustion ran rampant. Then there was the sandstorm – that cruel, capricious wall of dust that swept across the desert floor like a cloudy brown tsunami. It hit as they were nearing Basra, blinding them for three days. When it cleared, one of their tanks was missing. They found it floating in the Shatt Al-Arab River . Inside were six soldiers. Dead. Maddened by the storm, they’d picked up their rifles and blown their brains out.

When he reached Baghdad, Howard was ordered to take off his chemical suit. He was shocked, scared. “I thought the Republican Guard would be there waiting for us, armed to the teeth with anthrax and [toxic nerve agent] VX. “Looking back on it, they knew there was no threat and that it was okay to take them off.” Almost two years later – on 12 January 2005 – US inspectors gave up their search for Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Howard finished his first tour of Iraq in August 2003, his second in July 2004. It wasn’t until he got home that anger – at the war, at the President, at his friends and family for not giving him space, for always asking, ‘what next?’ – wrapped around him like a boa constrictor. Suffocated, he moved to Montreal, Canada. It was there he heard about Iraqi Veterans Against the War (IVAW) – a group of over 400 ex-servicemen demanding a complete and immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. Today, Howard is one of IVAW’s most prominent members, travelling to schools, universities and demonstrations to speak out against the war.

He’s lost touch with most of his friends from before the Corps; and studying history has lost its appeal. Someday, he wants to learn about Chinese medicine and holistic healing – “Helping people instead of killing people, you know what I mean?” He knows that kid from Foxborough– so hopeful, so naive – is gone forever, buried deep in the Iraqi desert,  just another casualty of a conflict with no end in sight.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Hello world!

Welcome to WordPress.com. This is your first post. Edit or delete it and start blogging!

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment