I was sitting in the Starbucks in Mandeville, LA, the other night trying to surf the internet and clawing through the wrecked partitions of my old slow computer trying to fix them, when a man at the next table heard my frustrated grunts of outrage and offered to help. I explained to him that I had tried to do something which I didn’t know how to do, and had screwed it up so that it crashed sometimes when I was in the middle of trying to do something. It makes strange sounds. I’d installed a new Norton Systems Works and had sat through a whole day of diagnostics and scans and purges only to learn afterward that the computer still suffered virus infections. With my permission he went into my hard drive and in a very few minutes had this old computer running like a Porsche. For that I bought him a latte and forgot my work and talked with him. He was Pakistani, about 45 years old, and a businessman in Islamabad and Karachi. I don’t know what kind of business. He told me that he was visiting family in New Orleans and in nearby Slidell, who had lived in the area for about 10 years. But his home was Islamabad. He was Pashtun. I won’t say his name. He said that Pastuns are the majority in Afghanistan and 15% of Pakistan’s population as well.
We talked about the Afghanistan War and he saw clearly that I am against it. I treat all war with scorn, and it soon became apparent to him that my feelings about it are real. He trusted me after only a short while and at my urging told me some things about the country where he lives and about the war now getting bigger in the western part of Pakistan known as the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) and the NorthwestFrontierProvinces. He said that his family had lived in North Waziristan until last summer, when they had moved to Islamabad to get away from the widening war, because some of their neighbors had been killed by a missile while eating their evening meal. I went to my van and got a small tape recorder, and this is one of the things he told me, verbatum:
“The truth as I know it is you Americans are selfish, egotistical and uneducated people. Most of you seem to have no real feelings. You substitute sentimentality for feelings. You especially have no feelings for poor, foreign people. You treat poverty as if it was a crime or a personal affront, and you criminalize the poor. Listen to you all now agreeing that your war of vengeance in Afghanistan is “a good war,” and “a war I can support.” Yes, I saw you say it in your chat rooms and heard it said on the street. You have no understanding or you don’t care about the terrible suffering caused by your war. Do you know that hundreds of thousands of people have been driven by your CIA from their homes with bombing and rocket attacks from Predator drones operated from distant bases, even from as far away as WashingtonDC? Is there a little bit of sympathy among you rich Americans for these poor, wounded people, who now must face the winter from the high Himalayas in tents or in the open? What was their crime? To be born Muslim? To be born Pashtun? Do you know that the Pashtun people have been living in what you call the border area of Pakistan-Afghanistan for 13,000 years? Do you even know that it has always been called Pastunistan? Do you care that some of the homes you bombed and destroyed were hundreds of years old? Do you understand or care that they have lost their farms and orchards, their equipment and tools, their personal property and cherished possessions from their ancestors? Their families are killed and destroyed family life. Their animals is rotting in the fields, torn apart by bullets and shrapnel from weapons made in your country, which made great profits to your businessmen. Your United States Government supported by people, not like you, gave billions of dollars to the corrupt dictator PervezMusharaff, but it could not persuade him to bomb and kill even his own people. Now your new President Obama says that he will chase Taliban militants and al Qaeda people into Pakistan, and in fact it has been being done since August. Many, many people are now living in tents in Peshawar and Quetta and other places. Do you know or care that your own CIA trained the Frontier Corps of Pakistan to train Taliban to fight Russians? Do you know that these people are intermarried with Afghanistan people and have been so for hundreds of years? Do you know there are nearly 1,000 tribes living along that border? Now you say that you will pursue people who are fighting you in Afghanistan into a sovereign nation—Pakistan—which we have 50 atom bombs. Do you realize the implications of this? The Pakistan people are enraged by these attacks on our homeland. You say that you want to bring democracy to Pakistan. Do you think that this heartless killing of these people will make them love your democracy? Can’t you see that this is not the way to win minds and hearts of people you need to help you fight terrorism? Can you not see there is no difference between you, making terror with bombs from the sky, and the terrorists who fight you with car bombs and people with bombs strapped to their selves? You American people are weak in your mighty power. You understand nothing of the terror you make, and nothing of the consequences of your heartless acts. Remember that you also sent your warriors across the Vietnam border to same way chase your enemies into Cambodia, and you called them sanctuaries like today you call them, but it did not win you the war. In fact, it caused the deaths of millions of Cambodians and you lost the war. Do you think that the world did not know this, or that people around the earth have forgotten it? Do you still wonder why people hate you and your government? Do you wonder why it is not safe for an American to go to many parts of the world? Do you still wonder why some people attacked your WorldTradeCenter and made it fall over? Muslim people do not like al Qaeda but you do not understand this. Your government policy of making war is making al Qaeda popular. Everybody except the very rich Pakistan people hate America for this. Can you understand this? You Americans must see that war is not the right way. You must make friends with Muslim people, if you will win your war against the people who attacked New York trade center and Washington Pentagon. American people must learn to feel for poor wounded people and understand they are not all criminals. They are only poor and don’t want to live like you. In fact there are very few criminals in my country compared to yours. Our people are very religious and love Allah. Your people say they love your God too, but we see this is false. You love money and power, and you are afraid to lose it. That is why you act in such cowardly ways against our people. It is because you have so much fear. You are afraid of so many things. You cannot be the leaders of the world, because real leaders have no fear. To us, American is godless. But you will see someday that God will make you pay back for these crimes. What will American people do then? You will be poor and nobody will feel sorry for you. Already you are poor. Your economy is bad, and it is because you have spent so much money making war on poor people.”
Starbucks closed at 10:30 and we were still talking. After awhile we shook hands. He got in a rented car and told me, “God be with you Mike.” He wanted me to record what he said and to tell you about it.
It reminded me of the time in 1986 when I was walking around Bocana de Paiwas in the middle of Nicaragua waiting for a priest to return from his travels to tell me about the efforts being made to provide for the people of that small rocky town, who had been hit numerous times by Ronald Reagan’s Contras, which he called “freedom fighters," and the Nicaraguans called murderers and torturers. I met many people in Bocana who had lost relatives and friends to torture and killing attacks which happened regularly. When I arrived there was no electricity because Contra had cut the wires into the town, which supported the Sandinista government.
I was walking by myself on a steep stony street with a Nikon hanging from my neck, when an old man summoned me with gestures to come into his small shack which had a torn dirty curtain for a door. He was about my age—46 then—and had a belly as flat as a nine-year old. I could see his ribs through a thin white cotton shirt. I went in and he motioned me to a broken chair leaning against a wall. My Spanish was not so good then, but he knew a little English, and I knew enough Spanish to understand nearly everything he said. But before he started talking he reached beneath a cloth curtain over a little shelf and extracted a plate of beans and tried to hand it to me. I saw that it was his only food and refused it. He continued to offer it until I politely but emphatically refused.
Then he sat on a wooden box a mere foot from me and his knees touched my knees while he talked. This is the gist of what he said:
“Why? Why? Why this war? What did we do? We are very poor people. You can see we are poor people. Other Nicaragua people have come here and killed us. One man had his head severed after watching contra rape and kill his sister. His head was stuck on a stick and put on the road to scare people. Her father protested and they tied his hands and threw him in the BocanaRiver. Then they stole his few cows for food. Why? Why this war?”
I thought I knew the answer, but I couldn’t explain except to say that El Presidente Reagan was “un monstro,” a monster. That they all were monsters.
“When you go back to America tell them that we are only poor people.” He told me that several times, and I promised I would. I’ve kept that promise for 21 years.
I had my pocket picked later on that trip which had lasted two months and had to borrow money from a Swedish woman to get back to the States. I flew to Mexico City and took a 24-hour bus ride to Laredo. The bus smelled badly because there were infants and diapers, but it was quiet and I spent the night looking at a full moon in the east and thinking about Nicaragua and a woman I’d lost. I had heard machine gun fire and mortar fire while hitchhiking through the countryside, and once a six-by (military truck) full of Sandinista soldiers had picked me up and given me a ride for about 20 miles, laughing and talking with me all the way. One handed me his AK-47 automatic rifle and let me examine it. They would not let me go with them to where they were going, and I’d walked the last 10 miles to my destination because there was no traffic. On the quiet bus ride to Texas, I felt the intense pain of losing my woman and the growing fury of having seen what I had seen at the same time, each competing for attention in my brain that was nearly numb from personal loss and general horror.
When I arrived at the border, a US Customs agent had boarded and announced loudly: “This fucking bus smells like goddamned fucking shit!” I realized that I had not heard one person curse during the whole two months in Nicaragua. I thought, “I’m home.”
Then he destroyed my Brother electronic typewriter after seeing the stamp on my passport from Sandinista Nicaragua. I took a bus to Lake Charles, LA, to meet an old friend. All the way I looked at billion-dollar highways and five million-dollar ranches, twenty-million dollar shopping centers and $50,000 cars, $100,000 tractor-trailers, and the sour, unsmiling faces of nearly everyone I saw. I heard a lot of curse words on that Greyhound bus.