Sunday, October 04, 2009

Shadows and Waves

As I write this I’m being transported out of Ground Zero by a military aircraft. My assignment has not been completed but the authorities say there’s a likely second wave so they pulled me out.

Looking out the small window to my left, I could see what I left behind - the rotting carcass of a peaceful fishing town, now too weak to stand on its own, brought to its trembling knees by a force of nature. All around buildings lay flattened, some with its inhabitants still sleeping within. The local market - once bustling with life, lay adrift atop the resultant lake - becoming a part of the sickeningly beautiful picture I had been sent to capture. In my diary I had a picture of the town before it all happened, and looking at it reminded me of much happier times for its citizens

Birds flew past, streaking the surface of the underwater cemetery and picking up whatever scraps they could find. As they settle on the tops of the fallen houses, they blink slowly, surveying the area for more hints of food.

Otherwise the place was silent, as it was before the floods hit.

The storm had come suddenly. It was the beginning of the monsoon, so heavy rains were expected and no one thought otherwise. The town had been sleeping, it’s streets silent and filled only with the occasional echo of the neighborhood pet calling out. The slight creaking of the wooden houses as the strong monsoon winds blew were the only warning they got. Before long, the waters came, bursting the river banks and collapsing onto the town, erasing it in a blur of waves.

Twenty four hours later, the waters had subsided and they’ve decided to send me in for next month’s cover story. I had three hours to pack and I was to be ferried there via transport chopper. It was a six-hour flight, and I remembered wanting to throw up when I landed.

My name is Victor Green, and I have been sent here to take pictures. In my pictures I am to tell the tale of the survivors. When the call came in I heard my editor tell me: “Vic, here’s a chance for you to make it up to me for that screwed up job you gave me last time.”

I had no interest in profiling the plights of a recently unfortunate, but it paid the bills so I wrestled my better judgment into accepting the bribe.

Unfeeling bastard that he is, my editor sure has a way of making people do things his way. The moment I landed I was greeted by national security, who assigned me a jeep and personal guard. I was told the situation was abyssal, and that I shouldn’t go anywhere without Salib (my bodyguard).

Desperation had forced the hands of the locals. Ghosts haunt the waters, but the living tore the remains of their town up in search for salvation, blanketing their former homes in a shawl of destitute and pity.

So many times I asked the driver to stop because I wanted to snap a few pictures. I would get off the jeep, followed by Salib, and then take my places as Big Brother in the sorry lives of the survivors.

They shouted, they cried; people whom I had no need to know were lining up to tell me their stories. Through their helpless gazes I would tell their tale - a pregnant mother stood next to the well, attempting to either draw water or throw herself down ; a teenager and her sibling, clearing the rubble from their homes while calling out for their mother; a-deranged old woman grabbing stones and throwing them at us, yelling in her native tongue.

For every survivor there were 20 more dead. As we drove past the mass burial site I got off again, this time to take a few pictures of the people who perished. On the faces you see a myriad of expression - some resigned, some afraid, some nothing at all - all of them frozen in their last breath, falling victim now to the intrusion by my camera.

It was on the third day when I finally took notice of Johari. He was a frail old man, face beaten and worn from a life out at sea long before the flash floods destroyed his town and home. Barefoot he stood at a corner of the street, his eyes locked onto an empty pool of water I can only assume was his home.

For three days I saw him doing the same thing, muttering something at the murky depths.

I got off, changing my telephotos to portrait-snappers. I waved for an interpreter and got Johari talking.

“My wife always told me the river will kill us one day,” was his first sentence.

Like the cruel waters four nights go, Johari’s emotions and story crashed out of his hollow being. He was vivid despite being tired, a spark of color emerging from his broken vision of a life once lived.

It turns out the flood didn’t kill all his family members. The river and its waters had started that project a few years ago when he lost his grandson to them. He told me about the time he went looking for the little boy and all he could find was a plastic bucket floating in the water.

Next were his son and daughter-in-law, who were seasoned fishermen. He told me they should be glad they could see their son again. His wife fell to the flood.

So he stood, not asking for their lives back, but questioning the sparing of his. With his silent sob, tears trickled down the sides of his wrinkly face, drawing the clear line between reason and fate.

The interpreter told me Johari was singing a song about his family -

“Am I wrong to miss you, as the seasons pass?
So long ago it seemed, when I saw you last.

Is it wrong to need you, like flowers need the rain?
Where once I saw your brilliant smile, now I just feel pain.

Is it wrong to call your name, out towards the shadows deep
Beneath the waves where we once play, now you forever sleep.

Let me sin by wanting you, and needing you even more,
For here I stand alone and sad, upon the silent shores.”

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