Friday, 25 October 2013

Floods of Tears

“Water is Life” is the title of an album by Tinarawen desert dwelling Touareg supergroup,it is also a saying in Somalia, another parched land.
On the other hand Fela Kuti wrote a song called "Water no get enemy" and those are the words that apply to the angry torrent 200 feet below me at the bottom of the near vertical sides of a rocky valley.
The water equivalent of lightning, this river knows no opposition, it is a force as strong as an element can ever be, surging relentlessly on, it certainly has no enemy nor charm nor beauty, just untamed power. There is a fury here, as if the water is livid at being held in a frozen state as a glacier for hundreds of years and is now free to vent, psychopathic in its urgency to escape.

Rupesh from the Indian organization Pragya tells me this is calm since the rains have stopped and is nothing to what it had been just the week before.
I love rivers but actually fear this one. Normally I will do all I can to get down to water level and dip in it but there is no approaching this tempest. I want to leave it well alone.

 We are upstream from Rudraprayag in Uttarakand in northern India - the scene of terrible flooding in  June 2013, I am here to film the work that Rupesh and his colleagues from Pragya have achieved to try and remedy some of the human and physical losses that occurred - no small job it was a total cataclysm.

It's a 6 hour drive from Deradhun up the valley that channels the sacred river Ganges out of the Himalayas and eastwards across the plains of India where it acts as a font, grave and dustbin until it secretes its poisonous self through a delta into the bay of Bengal .
We are following an ancient route up to the Himalayas, scattered along it are temples and sites of pilgrimage all part of a trail that ends in one of Hinduism’s holiest of shrines; Kedarnathji, dedicated to Shiva the destroyer up above the winter snowline.
For thousands of years Hindus have made this journey as part of the Charta Dham a route round four holy shrines devoted to the three major denominations of Hinduism. The people that live along the route make a living from the pilgrims as guides, porters and by running rest houses. 
In the past many pilgrims started their journey knowing they would not return, it was is like a final trek to start the next cycle of life. They may well die en route and it was fine with them and had
said goodbye to their families already. How perfect, how economical. Imagine starting a company offering a pilgrimage and funeral service in the UK. Canterbury to Santiago de Compostela, full board, shoe repairs, funeral with the wake thrown in. I would like to think I would go that way rather than slowly running out of life amongst strangers, handing my life’s savings onto some leeches that own an old people’s home. I’d rather the opportunity of an honourable self effacing death under my own terms. It is odd how we concentrate on the right to life but not death

Three hours up the valley we reach
Depraprayag - where the Bhgirathi and Alaknanda tribrutaries meet to form the Ganges, it is a special place. Two  deep and narrow v shaped valleys converge below huge mountains.We crossed a cable footbridge with cows sat mid way seemingly chewing the view and descended through an ancient village with steep and tight alleys  down to  a spit of land with a river either side I sense a  breeze blowing on my face and my back as I look downstream. One river is a milky green the other an opaque blue they meet but stay separate for a distance making a line in the middle of the new watercourse like a nervous couple on the first night of an arranged marriage.
There is a temple to Shiva there and two caves on the shore one for each river one representing the moon the other the sun. I repeat a blessing made to me by a holy man and get given some marigold petals to cast into the water whilst praying for those that I love. It makes sense to me but that’s a lot of flowers mind.

Later we pass a large solitary plinth sitting in the middle of the channel. Rupesh tells me that this is where a shrine to the God that looks over all the shrines from the Chota Char Dham stood.
It was decided to move it somewhere more accessible and locals say that the day it was moved on June 13th 2013 was when the torrential rain started. The rain was unlike any that anyone had known and lasted for 3 days as a deluge. Monsoon rain is more water than air;cups of water being thrown every second by a stadium of supporters onto one spot.
So water came from the sky, down the slopes and along the river itself making a flash flood sweeping down the valley washing away anything that stood in its way.  A Himalayan Tsunami it was called. The small makeshift shelters and restaurants that lined the paths to the shrines and villages were wiped away and most terribly the people in them. The water level rose and cut off settlements and then submerged them .Entire sides of mountains slipped down to bury what and whoever was below. The devastation was complete. What would take humans years to do was finished in moments.

This was just the start, the horror that followed was an international rescue operation that was hindered by further appalling weather and an inability to get to the areas needing emergency help. Roads, bridges and dams were gone, relief teams could not get through, the area was completely cut off, marooned.
I remember seeing news reports and images, another humanitarian disaster with ruined lives and homes, misery and horror.  People I could never meet, in a situation I am lucky enough unlikely to find myself in. The sympathy I felt was real but not really connected, instinctive compassion, care by proxy, part of the reason why we watch the news and part of being human I guess.
The story was in the headlines for a week or so, helicopters crashed and relief workers were killed, tragedy upon horror upon despair. The relief and emergencies community rallied while the rest of us reeled. As with most disasters the public eye soon turned in its satellite dish socket to focus on another issue like a civil war somewhere hot or another MP committing buggery whilst denying it. Life on Earth.

5 months later and I am heading into this same area to look at the work Pragya has done to help communities that have lost so much that they no longer function properly. They were quick to attend the scene as they had workers in that area as they concentrate on helping the marginalised people of the high Himalayas. They are organised, efficient and most importantly have a local base.
We drive up roads that have had bites taken out of them like an apple, perfect tarmac with a piece missing, a vertical drop of 100 ft where the road has just fallen away. A few stones are placed by them to mark the drop. Elsewhere the entire side of the mountain has slipped away and a passage has had to be hewn out of the hill again. There is only enough room for one vehicle to pass at a time which of course seriously challenges Indian driver's ability to give way. We have to wait several times whilst there is a face off between buses, only resolved by someone having to reverse back with imminent death on one side.
The Himalayas are a young mountain range and in a constant state of flux and this area is vulnerable to landslides and earth tremors. In places as quickly as the road is rebuilt the loose rubble and shale soil gives way again. It is similar to a child making channels and sand castles on the beach that constantly collapse.

Where repairs are being made are low rusty corrugated shacks that are home to families of migrant workers from Nepal or the poorer states of India. Perched on the edge of cliffs looking out over wondrous views of the valley and up to the high Himalayas they are still desperate places to live. With just a door to admit light they offer nothing more than a shelter from the road. Completely unserviced by the necessities for a normal life, whole communities live up here without water, sanitation, schools or transport. The monkeys that live around them lead a better life than these souls, at least they are free and not encumbered by dreams and a desire for a different life, the kind of life that passes them by in cars and buses on the road they are mending. Children no more than 6 or 7 staggering with sacks of stones that their older siblings or mothers have broken up with hammers. Older children with pick axes and sledge hammers doing adult work prizing rocks out of the hillside to be put into metal cages used to shore up the slope or splitting them with steel rods. Infants without toys and a very short childhood play with mud and sticks on the edge of perilous drops oblivious to the danger and the dust from passing trucks and buses.
The workers are paid about a dollar a day which is less than a  local receives, pure and honest discrimination in the world's so called largest democracy. I am conscious of what I buy and who made it where, but this is child labour on a different scale and being used to rebuild a damaged country.
Nowhere in Europe or America would such conditions be tolerated, but this is a country where it can even get worse than this.
Pragya are aware of the problem and have a mobile health and education unit that visit these makeshift camps. They do what they can but these people need the work and the country needs their work. These people are not registered and do not exist on paper so it is not known how many were killed in the floods.  The government estimates deaths in the region are at about 5500 but Pragya puts it nearer 8000 if you include migrant workers

Everybody I meet who lives in the flood stricken area has suffered a tragedy; lost a family member, their house or livelihood, often all 3.

As roads were rebuilt there was a rush of people to come to the towns and villages looking for their kin and local resources were further stretched and chaos intensified.I hear one story of a group of Sikhs who after finding themselves cut off and unable to move forwards or backwards took their 4 wheel drive to bits and over three days carried over a mountain and reassembled it “Fitzcarraldo” style

On the walls of houses and shops in the villages we pass through are badly photocopied images of lost children and relatives. Smiling faces from marriages or graduations, a captured moment taken in another time with no thought that their images may end up on a wall as the last hope for a grieving family. The saddest smiles I’ve ever seen.

I speak to Pratap a local man who is employed with Pragya he told me he had lost his brother and another fellow worker had lost both his parents and siblings. Both had run to higher ground as the rising waters began to flow through the market place where they had their restaurant business. From the hill above, those that had made it there watched the entire market place and everybody in it swept away and the land where it stood crumble into the abyss below.
As night fell, he climbed up high to escape the rising water.  
And for three days he and hundreds of others wandered terrified around the mountainsides, living off plants whilst trying to get to villages and find their families. Two boys I met said the only reason they had survived was because they had seen Bear Grylls programmes on TV, I must let him know and that alone is worth my TV license fee.
All roads, bridges and paths were gone and there was simply no place to go until the water subsided. As it did it revealed the extent of the tsunami’s damage.
For many anything from their former lives had been erased and where their houses once stood was now air, the land was gone. Even after 5 months the ground is still sliding down the hill and houses are splitting in two and valuable farmland crumbling away. If you survived the flood you were lucky but still not out of danger.If you lost your entire house the government gave you about £2000 but if you only partially lost it you got nothing .

Rupesh and Pratap take me up to where some families have been forced to resettle at the too of a mountain because their houses are collapsing. Pratap says it's a bit of a walk which concerns Rupeesh he says a bit of a walk for the locals means a long walk for us.
It was.

We left the roaring river below us and climbed a 2 km slog up a mountain side, we passed small picturesque coloured houses with roofs made of thick brown slate. They had terraced farmland laid out before them with spectacular views of the village of Kalimath in the valley below and the snow peaked mountains above. Under a clear blue sky lemon, lime and peach trees offered some shade and in amongst the dense greenery wild marijuana leaves waved at me. In Europe these places  would be exclusive holiday cottages and I simply wanted to just stop there for a month or so. But up close all the houses were broken. Large cracks left walls at unlikely angles, roofs had collapsed and the land was riven by fissures. These were the homes that the families we were going to see had to leave to move up the mountain.

Carrying my camera kit between us the walk became increasingly tougher. I always think life is like walking up a hill: the older you get the harder it gets but the view gets better.
I was beginning to think I was getting old in fact I was no longer sure what I was thinking as my heartbeat was drowning my thoughts. How would the elderly manage this though?
As I pulled myself by a tree root over another false summit I was greeted by a gummy grin from an old lady. Her age made her beautiful, in the same way time gives beauty and value to an antique piece of furniture. Perfectly old and not trying to be anything else. She was as natural as the scenery. 
With some bemusement and curiosity she let me pass and then proceeded to set a pace from behind that I could hardly maintain When I stopped so did she, refusing maybe out of modesty to go ahead or simply testing my fitness. 
My memory fails me for much of the latter part of that ascent all I remember is flash frames of a path, tree roots, rocks, lichen and my own feet and a gummy grin set against a backdrop of such beauty it made me insignificant.

Unbelievably at the top there was a group of guys from Pragya making some prefab toilets every element of which including bags of cement had been carried up there.
There should be an Olympic event for carrying things up impossible slopes, so much more impressive than bowls or polo. 

This was the only place that these people could move to. They are living in tents and canvas awnings with no agricultural land or means of income since the temples are closed and they will receive no money from the government for the loss of their old houses .
Mothers and children sit inside shelters around a cooking pot on a fire, the smoke filling the space, tormenting my aching lungs.
Their future is bleak, just a view down on a world that has no place for them. I am completely distracted by the location and the wonder of the situation but of course it means nothing to them, I am seeing a vision that we as westerners long for and spend a lot of money to gaze at for a short while. Then I will return with my useless camera and equipment to my civilised life where wheelchair users are mugged for their pension and my monthly mobile bill is more than these men could possible earn in a year, leaving these unfortunates that fate has singled out, to suffer a winter that is coming. The snow line will come down to a few hundred metres above them and no one knows if they can survive the winter.
It’s true climbing hills can put a strain on your heart.
Don’t waste your good luck on gambling and bingo, save your good luck for the lottery that is life.

Two days later back down roads that are barely passable, with the constant threat of landslides and collapses, I see schools that are first floor deep in silt and, broken dams. and bare hillsides where there once were villages. Destruction spread down the valley left behind by the floods like  revelers leaving rubbish after a festival.

Gradually we come across signs of modern life, white water rafting camps line the banks of a still youthful Ganges, settlements with guest houses and yoga retreats, ashrams and temples. Wide eyed westerners seem to sleep walk through Rishikesh made famous by the Beatles, a town spread across both side of the Ganges and joined by another chain footbridge. Gone are the posters with photos of lost souls, they have been replaced with adverts for enlightenment, ayerverdic treatments and meditation retreats.  A western couple knock me with the handlebars of their Royal Enfield motorbike, not looking back or apologizing, too busy living the dream and pursuing a higher path.
I appear to be the only Caucasian who hasn't adopted a semi holyman dress code, and isn't warring a bindi or some Hindi accouterment. All the Indians here on en route to a pilgrimage are smiling happy and carefree, taking photos in front of shrines and bathing in the water, uninhibited and openly excited. I hardly catch a westerners eye and see no smiles as I pass them I can’t figure out why, is the path to enlightenment and self discovery that painful? They are so fortunate to be here, to dip in to a culture, commune  and then jet off home again. It is a rare privilege to taste another life,let alone change your own.


One of India’s biggest attractions and exports is spiritual enlightenment, westerners throng here to re-charge their souls or find themselves whilst most the people I have just left further up the valley in Kalimath would do anything just to make a living. I reckon the best thing is the displaced families set up a few stalls alongside the therapy dealers, karma merchants and trinket sellers and in Rishikesh and offer a know yourself service.
You walk through a silk drape into an candle lit room with the low murmur of praises being offered. Sweet incense fills the air, and a holy man dabs a turmeric Tilaka on your forehead. You sit in a lotus position before an altar, the sound of bells chime lightly as a richly embroidered drape is gently parted to reveal a mirror with a small motif engraved on it as your face gets larger as you peer at it you read the motif it says   KNOW YOUR LUCK"

It is full moon and I am due for my dip - how lucky am I that I'm by the Ganges - the holiest of rivers. I ask if we can stop so I can go down to the river and make my puja. We pull over above a sandy bank and I climb down to the fast flowing but calm river. It is the same watercourse that 90 km up stream was so frightening and 5 months ago killed 8000 people but now is just a manifestation of a latent power, a symbol of things being greater than the self and more eternal than my soul, thanking my luck I submerged myself in the element that gives life and brings death.

Sent on the move

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Name and Shame


I'm filming a wheelbarrow full of intricately stacked bananas. They glide by me at a busy market interchange in the middle of Hargeisa in Somaliland. Filling the frame of my camera it passes like a yellow ocean liner through the sea of people, stalls and money changers an inanimate object in a very animated world. I've asked about and people are cool with me filming Then for the first time since I’ve been in Hargeisa I hear an aggressive tone in a voice that shouts:

Hey whiteman don't point that camera at me , what you doing ? That’s illegal you know”.

I look over to see a guy in a 4x4 addressing me.

Don’t worry I'm not filming you .”

He seemed not to hear me and continues  to rant about not pointing the camera at him.  I obliged by turning my back on him and filming the money changers who were more than happy to show off their activities, blocks of cash like piles of bricks , hundreds of thousands of Somaliland Shillings ,Dollars and Euros all left out on the street overnight. A testament to the country’s security or Sharia law I’m not sure which.

Back in the car my colleague Ali says to me not to worry about these guys as they are diaspora and they are often rude. He apologises for them.

”These people come back from the UK and abroad and they think they are something special because they have money and have been living away.

It's unusual to hear Ali speaking harshly of anyone and he continues

 “They’re in noman’s land neither here nor there, culture-less. They haven't assimilated abroad and they don’t try to fit in here, they're trouble.”

The 4x4 pulls up next to me in the car. The guy has obviously clocked that I'm with some locals and says:
“Sorry about that mate what are you filming for ?
“I’m making a film trying to show what a cool friendly place Somaliland is” I answer
Really ?”
“Yeah, it’s great here. You're living abroad aren't you?”
“ London”
he says
“How'd you know ?”
“Because  you're the first person with an aggressive  attitude I've met since I got here “.
His face registered surprise
“Spread the love brother”
“I am spreading the love man”
he says smiling
“The guns are in the back” and he drove off.

We all knew he was joking but it was not funny to Ali and Abdi who are suffering as a direct result of everybody thinking Somalilanders are gun totting extremists and those two are far from being like that.
They work with DAN: Disability Action Network, dedicated to giving equal right to all people with Physical disabilities. With one of the highest rates of landmines and unexploded bombs and a non existence road safety campaign Somaliland has to deal with hundreds of children that need amputations of limbs every year.

There is something deeply disturbing to see a perfect little seven year old girl sit down in a clinic and lift up her skirt and take of a prosthetic limb. The stub below her knee is smooth and rounded and she rubs it gently. It’s skin and certainly part of a body just appears defiled it is  especially sad as she lost it needlessly.

Through the funding of the STARS Foundation DAN now makes prosthetic limbs, wheelchairs, crutches and offers physiotherapy support to similar children. They also help the mothers of children with cerebral palsy cope and coax movement out of their young ones. It is a tough life having to look after a child with special needs anywhere in the world, in Somaliland without health care and a support network  it is even harder. Mostly the care of children with disabilities comes down to Mothers and eldest daughters.

I am despairing of men when I meet one Mother who is unable to walk unassisted and was once a beneficiary of DAN, she is there with her ten children and one of them has cerebral palsy. She has not seen the husband in years and just has to cope trying to make enough money sewing. How can he sleep at night ? It’s not as if he can get pissed and forget what he has done.

Men, man up and deal with what we’re dealt if you don’t you’re still a boy.

If ever there was country that needed to rebrand itself it must be Somaliland. Just the mention of an intention of going there caused family rows over fears for safety.  Stories of pirates, memories of warlords and the fact that there are bounties on White folks' heads ensures that few people come here from Europe unless paid.

But Somaliland is not Somalia they are vey different places . Once British Somaliland it joined with Italian Somaliland to become Somalia after independence in 1960.For a few years it was seen as a model democracy by the west, eager to make things look right after the colonial era. But this was not a sublime marriage and when president Siad Barre led a military coup in 1969 things began to break down. He imposed “scientific communism “ and an extreme  authoritarian rule. Old British Somaliland began to feel marginalized and the new country’s stability started to rock.The Somaliland National Movement was formed and discent boiled over into civil war which at one point had the Siad Barres  forces surround Hargeisa and flatten it. Most citizens had escaped to Ethiopia or abroad if they could afford it.But many that stayed died.

The war finished in 1991 with hundreds of thousands dead but a newly declared state of Somaliland in existence. To this day the world powers have refused to acknowledge Somaliland as a sovereign State even though they were at war for 4 years and in Scotland you get to vote about it.
Doesn’t seem right and it would make such a  difference to this country. All the agencies are here doing their bit but it’s pointless when the world is in denial about a country’s existence. It’s actually a waste of money and as usual the local currency is nowhere near as useful as the dollar.

There are a couple of things that I do have trouble with though, no alcohol is allowed in the country and all women have to cover their heads, as far as I am concerned that is abuse of human rights.

Beer is part of British culture and to force people to wear things is the same as forcing them to take them off.

It seems hypocritical to hermetically seal off your culture but accept outside help, to live by such old fashioned standards and cherry pick what new ones you want and it is simply wrong to prevent evolution of a people and its society. Somehow all the visiting agencies ignore this and abide by these archaic standards. Though it is amusing seeing the usually non-head wearing community trying to deal with keeping it on whilst eating their cornflakes at breakfast and as the wind whips up in the late afternoon.
Additionally bar a few they look daft. You might as well give them flippers, a snorkel and mask.
I meet one female American mayor from Florida with a token scarf wrapped round her head who is there to teach good governance. She is so proud to help out and can’t wait to tell all the people back home about what she has been doing (whilst securing re-election). Then she told me she hadn’t been out the hotel for 2 weeks!

The course is run by. a Serb and staffed by Americans, draw you own conclusions.
The hotel was great though and staffed by intelligent inquisitive, welcoming men and women, though the women did only cleaning, I didn’t see one in a managerial role. The security was tight, so tight that the concrete filled barrels forming the chicane at the entrance to the hotel had paint marks left by the 4x4 that had scraped through. Each time I entered the hotel my bags and body were searched.

The city of Hargeisa is a new town and as a result there is very little that stands out in it as being remarkable. A tank commemorates the war and the jet that took off at Hargeisa airport to drop bombs on Hargeisa town is mounted nearby as a reminder. People gather there to have their photographs taken.
The city is expanding in every direction over the dry brown hills and there are surely no planning permissions or even a town planner in the country. It continues unchecked like lichen on rock.

I walk with Ali and Abdikarim along the ridge above the city it spreads like grey Lego over a couple of rises as far as I can see. It was from here that president Siad Barre blew up his own people. The land behind me stretches off into deep country, dark  broken volcanic rock and hard yellow dust. Little grows apart from cactus and spikey scrub plants with small purple flowers protected by the thorns. Beyond my horizon lays more of the same, outwards in all directions from Hargeisa. Yet still people live, commune and survive out there in a harsh and uncompromising existence and have done for centuries. They will be there still after we’ve burnt out, blown up or faded away.
Herds of camel cruise by all heavily branded and destined for slaughter, their final destination is some plate. Their gait somehow appears arthritic and not fit to take them the vast distances they travel. I am amazed each one could cost $600 and they’re eaten, the hotel sells Camel sandwiches.

As we drive through the city outskirts everything is draped with plastic bags, and rubbish, there seems to be no waste collection here or maybe the efforts to clear up are just not strong enough to fight the rubbish that is being dumped. I see trees that are draped in plastic bags,they look decorated or it as even they have to cover up.

 So much is broken, or bent or falling down, out of kilter, dirty or unfinished. Many things appear temporary or makeshift, poverty and history are conspiring to keep smart and new at bay. 
This place keeps its beauty hidden.
The brightest building is the Ministry of the Exterior which has strings of coloured lights that are illuminated at night, it looks like a nightclub
But the people in the city are so happy and positive. Through the veil many women’s eyes give me smiles and old men want to talk to me, some using their english from previous times and others just to shake my hand and hold on to it talking at me in a language I cannot comprehend.
Children shout “How are you” and follow me down the street. Complete strangers offer me lifts up the road and policewomen with caps with a built in headscarf smile and offer greetings. Wonderfully I see two policemen sauntering down the road hand in hand whilst outside the President’s house security guards sit back in chairs texting and reading papers.

All the big new houses many of which are empty belong to Somalilanders that live abroad, the diaspora, they buy up land and build and come and visit once or twice a year, Ali drives me through one area that’s called half London.People are worry  he says, about what will happen if these people with money that are coming back start buying influence.A new power base will develop and government will tilt towards a more corrupt and easily bought group of fogies. I can see it happen and trouble will start all over again, the people  here are as fixed in their ways as the land itself and they will not stand for anything they don’t want. History has proved that.

The first thing Somaliland needs to do is change its name. Distinguish itself from Somalia I talk with Ali about this and joke with the Hotel Management saying you have to change your name, all laugh and agree but nobody can agree on what to change it to. 

Later as I pass along the  road that runs down the hill from the hotel into town, past shops and coffee houses I respond to the various greetings and waves and smiles and it suddenly becomes clear.
The name of this country should be changed to Smileyland !