Jungle Journalism

Well, it’s been quite some time since I’ve written here.

A couple of weeks ago the Media, Peace and Conflict class at UPeace went into the jungle up at the Costa Rica/Nicaragua border and literally bunkered down in the former party house of notorious Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza (mmm yum).  It was an intense and entirely enriching ordeal, probably my favourite week in fact since coming to the University.  By design, we knew very little going into the field training process, and were even led to believe that it was Nicaragua we were going to (our driver said “SORPRESA!  No van a Nicaragua!  Estamos in Costa Rica todavia!“).  Shortly after this and upon entering the national park Musliega were were accosted by “Nicaraguan” military armed with M-16s, who ransacked our bags for iPods, laptops, in one case panties, and snacks which they gobbled upon.  Knowing it was a sham for a number of reasons, I played along for those that did not, but told the “soldiers” that I didn’t know which car my backpack was in because I knew I’d need my audio-lecture iPod to sleep.

Before describing the week any further, let me link you to this page, which features journalistic accounts and pictures.

We were distributed in four groups of four-to-six people, representing the International Crisis Group NGO, the Colombian Commission of Jurists human rights NGO, Al Jazeera and El Espectador, an independent Colombian newspaper.  I belonged to the latter, and it was our task to simulate an online newspaper (done in blog form) with pictures and journalistic articles. Thirty members of the San Jose police force headed by Major Carlos Castro performed as actors in the violent conflict-ridden Tumaco municipality of Colombia which was simulated for our field training.

The first three days were mostly about training by members of the SJ police, including Radio training from Lieutenant Laura, First Aid training from paramedic Christian, and Navigation training from Major Castro himself.  The first two days were on the dull side of things, but Navigation training was quite intense in its conclusion; we were sent out into thick, thorny woods for about an hour to navigate our way to finding four signs.  My god, the ANTS.  My partner for this exercise was Suriya, and I thought she was overreacting when two minutes into the exercise she told me that some kind of ant bit her hand and it was paralyzed.  Moments later they were all over my arms and neck, sending fiery, glaring pain throughout my body.  I think I yelled something to the extent of “JESUS FUCK SHIT FUCK”.  On the way we encountered a few barbed wire fences, the passing of which we would later is apparently a critical skill for conflict journalists, and met a half-toothed woodsman who helped us find the second sign.  A few of us needed medicine for the ant-paralysis, and all of us were groaning at least a little afterward- good times!

The training began for real on Tuesday when Al Jazeera was captured for filming a FARC meeting without permission, with some of their members being stripped naked and jailed.  Our Colombian news team was diligent in following the days progression, with ended in an intense and Spanishly-challenging “conversation” between myself and the then-leader of the Colombian military Major Castro in which I negotiated for their release.  The best I could do was a provisional agreement on how we would publish the story, to be revised 4am the next morning; I have a hard time stepping down from challenges, even when I probably should have been acting like a pansy big-city journalist who needed his beauty rest!

The following day began in earnest at 8am with a 3km walk to an ostensibly ONG checkpoint, which our group quickly deduced was a FARC facade due to their carrying M-16s representing AK-47s and revolvers, which only the FARC uses.  This observation gave us a perhaps unfair advantage of almost 3 hours ahead of the other groups.  From the checkpoint we were escorted by a psychologically-adept FARC guard for another 3km or so.  At this point, I noticed a barbed wire fence on our left side was rather suspicious; the wooden stakes were recently carved, and not deeply set into the rock bed.  Our leader-of-the-day Soo agreed that it warranted investigation, and our trusty fifth member Chepito who had come the entire way with us led us through a riverbed and into the woods, while Abi confirmed the pup’s bearing with our compass.

Two notable incidents occurred on our hound-led trek.  We knew we were following a cattle trail, but were nonetheless surprised when Chepito started a four-cow stampede in a clearing, chasing the poor, bunny-eared brahmas in circles!  Shortly following this Chepito decided to cool off in a muddy puddle, to which I remarked “this isn’t going to be a good thing…”.  As though through telepathic link, Chepito locked eyes with me and charged, muddy water dripping from his fur.  My clearly disloyal group members and our guard broke into chuckles as I bolted away from the dog shouting “NO NO NO NO NO NO NO”, but realizing the inevitable I gave up and let the little bastard shower me in muddy water.

As the woods  grew thicker, Alvaro radioed us and hearing our progress, suggested that we were on the wrong track if we were in the woods.  Though Chepito and I wanted to carry on, we decided to head back to the riverbed.  After following it for a kilometer or two, we found a road and our bearings.  A couple of kilometers further we came upon a mock indigenous village of the Awa people which had just experienced a massacre.  (Anecdotal interjection: when we arrived the villagers ran screaming into a hut, followed closely by Chepito!  We heard them shout in Spanish which I think was to the effect of “why the hell is there a dog in here?!”).

More willing to talk to women, Soo and Steph interviewed the villagers inside the hut while Abi and I remained outside.  A “boy” (who was actually in his late twenties at least) indicated to us a discarded machete under the hut, and we found another nearby.  The observant Abi also saw what could have been either Galil or M-16 bullet casings outside the hut, and suggested to me that if we could find either pistol or revolver shells as well it could tell who had perpetrated the massacre.  Pretending as though I had dropped my camera (in fact I had misplaced it), I scoured the ground and indeed found revolver shells, confirming what the machetes had indicated; the FARC had likely committed the massacre.  This was further confirmed in the accounts of villagers we interviewed, who were expression great fear at the presence of our FARC guard and also of one villager wearing a dark blue shirt, who we gradually discovered was an infiltrator from another village who the FARC had hired to sess-out the area.  During this time, more FARC soldiers came to the camp along with the commander.

Evil genius that I am, I first convinced the commander that, while of course the FARC were the protectors of the village, they nonetheless carried guns which were scaring the people so much that they couldn’t give adequate account of how the evil government had killed their friends and families.  I asked Steph to draw the infiltrator away as he was (in real life, outside the simulation) clearly smitten with her, and with the commander’s orders and Abi’s cigarettes we distracted and drew away the rest of the guards.  For any aspiring conflict journalists that may be reading, always, ALWAYS carry cigarettes with you.  They are nothing short of magic.  Without the FARC guards to keep their tongues in check, the villagers told us that the FARC had come to spirit away the village’s children to be trained as child soldiers, and cut down with machetes and bullets any who resisted.  They told us that the FARC base was only a few kilometers away, and we were just about to disembark for it when Alvaro and the other groups showed up (we had been there for nearly three hours).

We had lunch with our friends and compiled our findings, and were told by Alvaro that this was the entirety of the exercise; no going to the FARC base just yet.  The other groups had to conduct their interviews in tandem in the space of an hour, and we then returned together in cars to the camp for some swimming in the beautiful nearby ocean.  On the way we were stopped as we encountered a gun fight between the ELN narcoguerrillas, Rastrojos mercenaries and the FARC, the latter of which won the day and control over the cocaine-traffic airplane landing strip we were driving over.

The next day we were approached by journalists from Al Jazeera to join them on a joint investigative mission to a FARC camp, the same one we had been told about the day before, which they were invited to on the condition that they bring us along.  We accepted, and along with one member of the International Crisis Group (ICG) we trekked (mistakenly) through some fairly death-defying terrain, where I rolled my ankle badly enough to pinch a nerve that would later cause my left leg to go numb.  We then traveled by boat to a remote coastline which led into FARC-controlled jungle.  I spoke on the way with a new actor, a friend of our human rights-expert companion Liz named Bob, as well as his son Coby.  We talked a lot about kite surfing and his living in remote Costa Rica, and his son told me all about the native animals (and some not-so-native ones).

Our leader Steph was separated from us for a time, which Abi taking over in her place, and we collaborated with Al Jazeera on how to proceed as we were sequestered apart from the others.  We were given the choice to either take individual forty minute interviews with the FARC or to have a joint conference for many hours; we four groups chose the former option, and we were the first to conduct our investigation.  A part of me cried at not being able to camp out on the gorgeous beach, but in retrospect it was the right decision.

In the camp, Steph began to interview commander Elena, who offered Abi a cigarette which was rejected, and Soo a beer which was accepted and shared with my grateful self.  Noticing other facets through which to gather information, Abi quietly excused us from the commander to split off for more interviews.  We first talked to the commander who we had met the day before at the Awa village; he told me that although the FARC had no care for international politics, the concerns of human rights groups over the use of child soldiers weighed heavily upon him.  Nonetheless he told me that it was the best place for them, as they were usually displaced and often rescued from the ranks of other armed groups such as the ELN.  He told me that the FARC fought for the people, for their families, and that the child soldiers only wanted to do the same.

From here we interviewed child soldiers at a nearby camp where they were being trained.  My first question for a thirteen year old boy (Coby) was if he understood why people fought, why war happened, and he did not have an answer.  He and the others told us that they fought with FARC to protect their families, that they had no idea what FARC was or even anacronized, and it was strongly indicated to us that they began using cocaine when they were eight years old.

After these interviews, I noticed “the gringo” (Bob) sitting beneath a tree, kept by a commander and a guard.  I asked Abi to give me a cigarette and his lighter, and he then distracted the commander by asking him to assist in more interviews of the child soldiers.  With the help of the cigarette, I convinced the gringo’s guard to take a walk and give us some privacy.  During this time, Soo took over for Steph with some new questions for Elena and Abi further interviewed the child soldier who spoke English.

The gringo revealed that the FARC was financed by cocaine sales.  The coca farmers gave the raw resource to the FARC in exchange for security from the ELN, and they then sold it to the gringo to be transported to the United States.  He indicated that a portion of the cocaine produced by the FARC was not sold to him, and probably used in the indoctrination process of child soldiers in the camp.  He also told me that it was not only the FARC using child soldiers, but that their military targets were also children.  “These rugrats fight other rugrats, they’re all fucking rugrats out here, man”.  Bob kindly indicated to me that if I kept asking him about what other groups he dealt with, he might have to kill me (!).

On the last day, our reactionary abilities were put to the test in a government façade spanning three penal districts.  We began interviewing internally displaced persons (IDPs), our sampling clearly selected for extreme support toward the government.  Of the five individuals we were able to speak with, four condemned the FARC, ELN and Rastrojos but had nothing but praise for the government, although the fifth told us she understood that the government was partly responsible for the violence which displaced her and would not let her leave.  We also discovered that the women were being used for cooking and cleaning services on the base, and suspiciously no men were included in the sampling.

We then conducted interviews with demobilized soldiers, who also were represented by a sampling wholly supportive of the government.  Our investigation uncovered that these men who had very recently been FARC fighters were now staunch supporters of the state regime, and believed that they were going to be returned to their families and live in new apartments; we learned that this was not the case, and that they would simply be moved to another institution.  Already in the military camp for one month, which is double the official legal time period, the demobilized soldiers were put to work in construction and public service.

Finally, we entered the prison to examine the base’s incarceration mechanisms.  In similar fashion to the other parts of the camp, we were put before a prisoner wholly satisfied with the conditions at the prison and government policies, a former ONG paramilitary.  Pressing our advantage of governmental permission, we spoke also with two other prisoners, one from the ELN and one from the FARC, both of whom were sick and reported very little food and water, no sunshine or outside activity and no medical attention.  Both these men also reported prison abuses including beatings.  With the permission of the commander we finished this series of interviews with a FARC leader who was being held privately, and who reported torture and human rights abuses as well.  For some reason, he decided to stab me in the neck with a fork.

After extracting all possible information from these three penal camps, we questioned a spokesman of Major Castro to answer for the inconsistencies and problems in the camp.  Simply and expectedly, we received only talking points consistent with government reports to date.  Holistically it was the most psychologically-demanding day, with four hours of almost entirely reactionary and improvisational interviewing.  As such, it was absolutely invaluable as training for conflict journalism.

At the end of the day, we celebrated with beer, music and laughs, learning later that we were supposed to be evacuated around 3am to be bused back to Ciudad Colon, but Alvaro judged that as a whole we were too intoxicated to manage it.  I was upset at hearing the news, I think it would have been a useful exercise; Alvaro says conflict journalists rank alongside Russian novelists in drinking tendencies.

We left for home the next morning at 5:30, made it back uneventfully, and I devoted the remainder of Saturday to recuperation.  Over the next few nights, I discovered that the stress of operating in a conflict zone is nothing compared to the stress of being back.  On the first morning I bolted upright at 6am fully expecting to see armed soldiers looming over me.  During the following night I leaped out of bed, rapidly dressed, and ran out the door of my apartment before realizing that I was no longer in the jungle barracks.  This happened not once that night, but twice.  The third night I had incurable insomnia, and it took several more days before I stopped feeling vaguely frustrated all the time.  I think this aftermath experience was valuable, and I have now a much better appreciation for the difficulties of soldiers and journalists returning home from conflict zones.

That’s about it… we did a week of debriefing and lessons in risk management in conflict zones, then presented our findings on Tuesday.  That afternoon we went to Alvaro’s place in Piedades where he served us way too much delicious food, and I drank way too much cabernet sauvignon.  Fortunately I had the foresight to realize that 3 bottles of wine and a case of beer would be profoundly insufficient for twenty aspiring conflict journalists, and went home first to pick up two magnums of Frontera.  It was an extremely emotional afternoon and evening, which thanks to the copious wine was not at all uncomfortable for me.  Many hugs and tentative goodbyes were given, concluding an indescribably amazing year with indescribably amazing people.

Love in Sumi, Helen, Amani, Mohammed, Rosebell, Katja, Soo, Jacob, Maria Victoria, Stephanie, Katelyn, Fabrice, Snow, Jaclyn, Abishek, Suriya, Anna, Kim, Ran, Gayle, Claudia, Liz and Alvaro.  Pura vida.

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Published in: on 30 April 2010 at 2:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

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