The War Nerd: Escape From East Timor (Part One)
BITOLA, MACEDONIA — Indonesia just executed two Australians by firing squad, putting a bit of a chill into bilateral relations.
For me, this is great news. Until now, I had been led to believe that the tension between Indonesia and Australia was my fault. I wrote an article for Pando a few weeks ago, describing my visit to a remote Timorese Army base and giving a quick sketch of the horrors inflicted by the Indonesian Army (TNI) on East Timor.
It seemed to me like a harmless bit of writing. But then, that’s probably what should go on my tombstone, if I can ever afford one: “It seemed harmless to me!”
Others, including my wife’s employers in Timor, begged to differ. According to them, my article had singlehandedly ruined ties between Jakarta and Canberra. Oh, and Wellington also. I have reach apparently.
Katherine’s bosses accused me of outraging the tender feelings of TNI, which is roughly like being accused of having disturbed Count Dracula’s beauty sleep with noisy daytime chatter outside his crypt. I had also hurt the feelings of just about everyone who matters in Timor’s Lilliputian expat community, from Aussie barflies to Timorese collaborators in the genocide. All these model citizens were apparently weeping bitter tears over one damned War Nerd article.
It was ridiculous. But you know, it’s easy to say that now that we’re safely out of Timor, thanks to a timely extraction flight, paid for by PandoDaily. At the time, I believed all that nonsense and wanted to kill myself. I would have groveled before my accusers if my editors from Pando, Paul Carr, Mark Ames, and Sarah Lacy, hadn’t slapped me awake.
You have to understand, this wasn’t the first time my articles had gotten us booted from a place we’d hoped to stay for a long, happy, uneventful time. We’ve been bouncing from country to country, encouraged to leave time after time, just because of my articles. In fact, the reason we went to Timor from Kuwait is that I’d been found non grata in Kuwait. This is what they call notoriety, which is sort of like being famous, only without the good parts.
And these expulsions seem to be coming faster and faster. We lasted a mere three months in Timor . . . and I wasn’t even working there for more than a week. And before that, in Kuwait, I was fired on arrival, without even getting a chance to mess up.
This sort of record does something to one’s self-esteem, if one happened to possess any. You start to understand why they threw Jonah off the boat. You start to agree with them. You start to remember with new understanding why the pre-Contact Fijians, normally very hospitable, met shipwreck victims with war clubs, meat-forks, and a bonfire.
Fijians considered shipwreck victims edible because they “came ashore with salt water in their eyes.” Pre-seasoned, you might say. We hit Timor in that condition. Although I don’t know if “we” is the proper pronoun. Katherine had no trouble in Timor. She never had any problems. It’s always me, these War Nerd articles of mine, that get us in trouble.
In Kuwait, one of the American “reverts” (Muslim converts) had googled me…and that’s really all you need to know. These War Nerd articles seem like simple common sense to me, a little rough humor, maybe, but the whole world seems to be allergic to them.
So, after this “revert” American smiled very unconvincingly at me—her name was Sherri, and she looked like Colin Powell in an abaya, if that gives you any idea of what I mean by “unconvincingly”—and told me I’d have to do a “demonstration class” before they could let me work on the fragile minds of the Kuwaiti officer corps. She then handed me over to “Doctor Abdullah,” a Mauritian dwarf, who led me down a corridor, smiling even less convincingly, and decanted me into a room which contained, not the expected handful of Kuwaiti officers eager to learn English idioms, but the base’s second-in-command, Captain Zayid, sitting at a desk with a lot of flags behind it.
Beside Captain Zayid was my fellow American, Sherri. Her crinkly smile was gone. No more pretending. As Captain Zayid motioned me to the hot seat in front of his desk, Doctor Abdullah zipped past me on his crafty little legs and sidled in next to Sherri. The two of them formed an admirable composite of the evil vizier of legend, seated at the sovereign’s right hand.
Behind me were two more Kuwaiti officers with lots of senior-looking braid on their tunics. Captain Zayid scowled and began, “You are a writer?”
“So…Kuwait is a relatively…free…country, but there are exceptions…”
I was one of the exceptions. I swear to god, if you set me down in a Quaker colony they’d be weaving nooses in a week.
The door opened again and another officer came in, sat down behind me. He had a lot of braid too.
Doctor Abdullah the evil vizier-midget piped up: “You said that the Hindus are good and the Muslims are bad!”
I honestly had no idea what the little freak was talking about. His rage was impressive, though, and rage always overawes me. I can never feel that righteous; all my thoughts are bad and wrong. When I hear pure righteous rage, it tends to convince me.
So, in a weirdly Dostoevskian moment, I was both totally unaware of what the Hell he was talking about, and convinced that he had me dead to rights, with God on his side.
He waved some printouts at me. One of the men behind me said something about “War Nerd,” and I finally had some idea of what universe we were in. But it wasn’t ’til the next day, lying in bed trying to make sense of what had happened, that I realized Doctor Abdullah and Sherri the Revert had printed out an old War Nerd column I did from the very early post-9/11 era, when I was writing in full character as Gary Brecher, an under-employed data-entry clerk in Fresno. Tasked with writing about the current round of India-Pakistan playground woofing on the Kashmir front, I’d tried to imagine what a guy like Brecher—and I grew up with hordes of ’em —would have thought, and it seemed pretty obvious he’d have sneered at the whole elaborate bluff, always ending in no war at all, or in a ridiculous little skirmish at most.
Somehow, the Sherri/Adbullah brain trust had taken that old article and derived from Gary’s redneck contempt for the whole Indo/Pak pantomime an unforgivable pro-Hindu, anti-Muslim (which is to say, pro-India, anti-Pakistan) slant. Apparently it’s my fault that Pakistan lost every war it fought with India.
But in real time, with that ferocious little man waving a sheaf of paper at me, I had no idea at all what was going on, except that righteous rage had found me out again.
It went on for quite a long time, but after the first few rants, I kind of lost track. All that stays with me is Sherri’s little Mona Lisa smile in that abaya, and Doctor Abdullah’s crazy red eyes. All through it, Captain Zayid, the silent emir, sat in his chair, waiting for us to finish. Then he said, “So…we will let you know. For now, you will not be teaching.”
The go-between from the hiring agency, Mishaal, debriefed me, by way of horror. He kept saying over and over, “This has never happened before.” He meant, to him. It had already happened to me, lots of times. It felt all too familiar.
Mishaal was in a weak position. His company was just a contractor to the wealthy fiction known as “The Kuwaiti Armed Forces.” If the hobbyists comprising Kuwait’s officer corps turned against his company, they had nothing. And Mishaal was a Christian. There’s a cringe that goes with that in the Peninsula, protective, ambitious, sly, nervous.
No one knew what I was supposed to do. Take the bus to work? Stay home? I got on the damned bus next morning anyway, on the off chance.
When we got to the base, Mishaal took me aside and broke it to me in a suave, sensitive manner: “Ah, you don’t need to come to work anymore. You should go sightseeing.”
I went outside, to the smokers’ ghetto, walked out onto the dry field and looked at the ants. They have two kinds of ants in Kuwait, big and slow and small and fast. They were skittering around ignoring each other. Teachers came out on the porch and smoked, probably talking about me. It all felt very familiar. I know that drill.
I went sightseeing, as it were, for the next fifteen months. There are no sights in Kuwait. Kuwait is what the planet will look like in a thousand years. Makes you glad you won’t be around to see it. Dead, all dead. The Gulf is like a sewage-treatment pond without the treatment; the dust-fields have no life but cars, plastic bags, stray cats, and pigeons—oh, and two kinds of ants of course. And by the way, if you like cats, go to Kuwait; you’ll be cured. There was one that used to lie against the door to the basement gym, to get as much of the AC as it could. It was always slow to get out of the way, and you tried not to look at it because there were worms dangling from its snout.
It’ll be a great planet for the worms, a thousand years from now. And the flies, and the cats. The rest—not so good.
So when Katherine got a nibble on this job in Timor, where the planet is supposedly still alive, I was the cheerleader. The maps said there’s a fringing reef all around Timor, right offshore. Walk into the water and you’re over a coral city. Hell, we might be the last humans to see such a thing. We had to go. Besides, they might not have heard of me in Timor; I might be employable in a place as desperate and remote as that, just coming out of a war with the monstrous Indonesian Army. They might be too distracted to google me.
We left Kuwait on Christmas, in the cool of winter. We had to be in Timor before New Year, according to Tony, the Aussie who did Katherine’s Skype interview. I asked her what Tony sounded like; “Oh, blokey,” she said. Blokes…you have to live in Australasia for a while to get the whiff of that. They’re a mixed lot, blokes, but on the whole, it’s not a good sign.
Katherine’s Kuwait employer had promised up and down, over and over, that his employees would get their December pay in time for their kaffir holidays. We were going to use her December pay for our traveling money.
So of course it didn’t show up at the airport ATMs. Not in Dubai, not in Singapore, and not in Bali, our last stop before Timor. So it was a long, scared flight, with no cash in hand and the Visa maxed out. We hit the little airport in Dili, the capital and only real city in Timor, with exactly zero dollars.
We’d told Tony when our flight would arrive, but there had been no response. The job could turn out to be a complete fiction. They often are, these ESL scams.
We came ashore in Timor with salt water in our eyes, in other words. Terrified out of our minds. The Visa had failed the last five times we’d tried it. No way it would work here, at the end of the world.
The Dili Airport is a grotesque assemblage under any circumstances, never mind broke and scared. It was built to look like the tall thatched huts of traditional Timor villages, but with UN plastics instead of thatch. It looks demonic, that witch’s-hat point wobbling in the heat.
The heat is the main fact about Timor. Kuwait, Saudi… that’s not heat. Bangkok? Warm, yes, but not hot. KL, maybe; KL is the only place that even begins to match Dili for real, sweaty, swarmy, suffocating, humid heat. You get off that little Indonesian commuter jet and go down the ramp into something that makes saunas seem breezy-cool.
Dili Airport, with terrifying thatched hut mimicry and Ebola poster
And the first thing you see is a big, hand-written sign, “PAY VISA FEE.” Which we couldn’t.
Terror is goofy, if it has time. I had time to get very goofy, because Katherine volunteered to find an ATM while I minded the baggage. I shied from the Visa-Fee counters as far as I could. It’s a tiny, ramshackle place, the Dili airport, lax security, plenty of shying-room. Timorese guys, all of them looking short, wiry, dark, and hard as Honduran welterweight contenders, stared at me as I perched on the side of a non-functioning baggage X-ray. I knew that ATM wouldn’t work. None of them did, not the best and brightest at the shiny Bali airport. There probably wouldn’t even be an ATM here, and if there was, obviously it wouldn’t work, and we were doomed.
A Timorese guy said something to me and I nodded, smiling like an idiot, hysterically deaf. He went away. This is the end. No more squirming. Can’t even pay the visa fee. We’re finished.
Katherine came back. I couldn’t read doom on her face. She held out a hand with five $20 bills in it. “It worked!”
We tried every damn ATM in Dili, over the next three months, and not one of them would take our Visa. I still have no idea why that one at the airport gave us a hundred dollars. We went back to it later and it wouldn’t give us a dime. In fact, we had to borrow money from Katherine’s boss to get through the first month in Timor. That was fatal, like bleeding in shark waters. The one-off generosity of the airport ATM seemed like a horrible miracle to keep the story going, like the quarters a wanking demon might put in an old-time porn machine at a sex shop. Keep us in the game, get another episode going.
But at the time I just giggled in shock at the sight of those twenties. You have no idea how beautiful a $20 bill can be ‘til you’ve gotten off a plane with zero cash, and a sign about visa fees is staring at you.
We paid our fees and walked through. The metal detectors were off, the guards waved us through—once you’re outside the so-called West, there’s no security. And we were out, free, in Timor…and there was a fat white man who looked like he was expecting someone.
That was Tony, our connection. I was overjoyed to see him, the first and last time I experienced that reaction.
Tony took us in his stride, in that blokey way we both know, got us into a Hyundai SUV with the windows up, and took off. He said the AC was on, but it wasn’t. That was Tony, if only I’d realized it, driving us through the hottest town on the planet in an SUV with the windows up, insisting that the AC was on while he poured sweat.
He was frank about it. “People ask me, ‘Do you ever stop sweating?’ I say ‘Yuh, when I leave Asia.’” He was angry about being fat, you could feel that, but as is often the case, that was one of the best things about Tony. Fat was the least of his faults.
I kept thinking, would Katherine lose her job if I OPENED A FUCKING WINDOW? I thought she might, so we kept them shut. We were trying so hard. That’s what kills me, how hard we tried.
Tony gave us the tour. He hated everything. We were both being positive: “Oh wow, there’s a guy selling fresh fish, right off the beach!”
Tony: “Yuh, you don’t wanna buy’em though because they flush the poo right out to the sea there. Besides, these people don’t know shit about catching fish so half the time you’re eating frozen. They don’t know what they’re doing.”
A van cut us off. “These microlets, they call’em, they can’t drive, it’s worth your life to get on one of’em, half these people came right out of the bush, no bloody idea…”
He had stories, rugby stories. Tony Abbott was on his team once. A wanker. A lot of wankers in Tony’s world. Most of the wankers seemed to be American. Tony was trying to soft-pedal it, but he clearly hated Americans (I mean more than is reasonable). It was hard to listen, because there was no air, just sweat. He had a bad word for every passing sight, even the hotel he was taking us to: “Here we are, Dili Beach Hotel, that’s where you’ll be, it’s sort of a ridiculously Australian place, but you can get a beer up there on the veranda, you can find me there most afternoons…”
The sea was just across the road. There was a fringing reef shown right off the beach, all around the island. We were hoping to snorkel right outside the hotel. But Tony cleared that up for us: “Nah, ya don’t wanna go in the water, it’s all poo, right down from the sewers.”
Which was true, as it turned out. Dili Beach Hotel backs onto a massive open sewer that pours right into the ocean. The reef is dead, long dead. The locals gather the chunks of bleached coral to sell as decorative rock to the NGO elite.
You see that elite going by now and then on the sweaty, crowded streets of Dili. First you hear the sirens, then a motorcycle escort bullies its way through the crowd of scooters and minibuses, followed by a couple of SUVs with the shaded windows up. Somewhere in those air-conditioned interiors are two or three employees of the UN or the Australian Federal Government, planning new do-goodery to be inflicted on the already prostrate people of Timor.
Dili has a two-tier economy, with the NGO/Australian/NZ elite living in gated compounds tucked discreetly away in the maze of slum shacks. You never really see them until they need to bull their way through traffic, to or from the airport. Or at the Dili Beach Hotel when there’s a big game on.
All I wanted was to get in on a little of that sweet expat cash. Katherine’s job teaching Timorese Army officers at a base an hour outside Dili was off-limits to me. That had been conveyed to me very clearly.
Tony, doing his fat-henchman routine, had told us about Mark, the boss, when he picked us up at the airport. It was Mark’s SUV he was driving when he picked us up. Mark himself was busy. Mark, Tony told us, was always busy: “Mark only has two speeds, on and off.” Tony loved his boss, as a henchman must.
Mark called me about a month after we arrived. It seemed there might be a job for me after all. Not teaching at the base; that was absolutely off limits. I still wonder if there’s some sort of website for bosses in the army-officer TESOL biz, with a black list of those who must not be hired under any circumstances. If there is, I know whose name leads the list. Which is not fair, damn it, because given a chance, I’m a good employee, pure American lower-middle class submissiveness.
In fact, that was the attitude I tried to show to Mark, the big boss, when I was called into The Presence. LELI, the TESOL school he runs, is about a block inland from the Dili Beach Hotel, on a slum street with a surplus of stray dogs and feral children. In the midst of this tropical squalor, I swear to God, is a suave façade adorned with this tag, in large print: “’The limits of my language are the limits of my world.’ Wittgenstein.” I had one of those canine reactions to the sign, a low growl inside my head. I don’t get along well with people who like Wittgenstein. Somehow he became an honorary Englishman and Nietzsche, the better mind, was consigned to cartoon villainy.
To emphasize the limits of LELI’s language, a guard sits at all times just inside the invisible line separating LELI from the street. Let’s not kid around here, though; if you’re pale, you’re in. Or would be, most of the time. Me, I was going to have to audition. Hence the sweating.
Mark ushered me into his office with a sepulchrous, “Hello John, come iiiiinnn….” He looked like a genteel ghoul, a plummy cadaver with hollow eyes, but it was his voice that made the big impression. I can imitate that voice; you should hear me, in fact. I am, if I do say so, a riot. But describing it is more difficult. Imagine Boris Karloff playing a vicar. Or Alan Rickman as the terrorist CEO in “Die Hard.” That’s the best I can do. Plummy, sinister, yet ridiculously pretentious, all at once.
I still don’t even know where it came from, that voice. It sounded upper-class British to me, but there were a half-dozen actual Brits teaching at that school who swore that Juba sounded Australian to them.
Mark frowned. “Ah, now, we had planned to offer you an opportunity to teach for World Vision, a…Christian outfit…” The frown deepened to real distaste. “But, ah, they have not responded in a timely manner, and so we’ve had to tell them we can’t proceed.” The frown was intense now, like Alan Rickman learning that Bruce Willis had dispatched another of his East German henchmen.
“So, ah, we have elected to offer you another position, this one at the F-FDTL base in Baucau. Are you familiar with Baucau?”
I shook my head. “It’s an interesting place, I think you’ll find. Somewhat remote…” what I see now was the look of a monitor lizard staring down into a nest full of eggs. Yeah, I was groveling; my pride got left behind somewhere several countries back.
He nodded. “Good.”
I felt I should say something to sound like a savvy applicant, so I asked, “Is there any topic I shouldn’t discuss there?” See, I do kinda know there’s a tact problem here.
He frowned. “Well, you probably shouldn’t comment on the Catholic Church in the negative way that I might like to do. The Timorese are still absurdly attached to it.” I nodded to beat the band here. Peter at Gethsemene had nothing on me, not where there’s a paycheck involved, but I was getting that Rodney Dangerfield collar-pull feeling: Igor the henchman hated Americans and his Dr. Frankenstein boss hated Catholics. I felt that a bead was slowly being drawn on my forehead.
Mark seemed to feel the interview was over. I had had my five minutes in The Presence and was now a minion in good standing. He handed me a USB stick. “You’ll be picked up Sunday evening. Here’s the listening component of the course, and I’m sure there’ll be, oh, markers, a projector and so on at the base.”
Well, there wasn’t, of course. The base was a four-hour 4WD drive from Dili, and at the end of that long bounce, there was nowhere to stay. That’s why I ended up stuck in a steel container—long story—and would still be inside it if they hadn’t pried the window-screen off to let me climb out. Very undignified at my age, but infinitely preferable to spending eternity inside something that would have been considered a bit snug in a submarine. Here’s the Facebook post I wrote about it:
My compartment in Baucau
This is the steel cubicle I crawled into after the first day on Timorese Komponente (Base), Baucau. The steel boxes seemed appealingly safe, with tight-fitting steel door raised three inches off the floor to make entrance harder for crawling visitors. There was mold on the ceiling but the little AC unit worked in this cubicle, unlike the others. AC > allergies, even though it came on with a bomb-like roar every time I drifted off.
But it was too good to last. The door got cranky, and I shut it hard on the second day. It shut for good. Forever. I tried to get out, slammed my shoulder against it. The lock turned freely, totally broken. The fit was almost airtight. I hammered and yelled ‘til the caretaker shouted in reply. She speaks fluent something, not Tetun or Portuguese, her own idiolect, and takes it for well-meant Esperanto, a universal angelic tongue. (The crucifix is her doing.) I tried to explain, by way of yelling--my own universal language--that I was locked in. She burbled that pious Ur-tongue back at me. This went on for some time.
I'd already been having what first-world problematics call "suicidal ideations" since arrival on base, and this seemed to clinch it. "Now would be a good opportunity," as Lowell's Puritan anhedonists would have said. But she was at the barred window now, burbling towards something, saying "I can-can..." It struck me forcibly that I couldn't-couldn't, until I saw she was pointing toward the key. Passing the key though a nice tarantula-sized hole in the window mesh, I let her try it 20 or 50 times, knowing with something like happiness--close as the context allowed--that she'd fail. That door was locked forever, closed as an old-Catholic marriage. Til death at the very least, and some time after.
She came back to the window, burbling the revelation that the key ("can-can") did not work. I pointed hopefully to the fire extinguisher on the wall, making smashing gestures. I didn't think it would work, I just wanted very badly to smash it. She looked shocked and a little disappointed in me. It's amazing how, even now, as a supposedly disillusioned old man, that stuff works on me. It might as well be my First Communion, which I celebrated with anxiety diarrhea. The main epiphany of these past few months is that no matter how bitterly I talk, I am nothing but a Good Boy and I will die in that wretched state. I sat down instantly, ashamed, trying to be good. I will be good, and wait, and pee on the floor if necessary. No, in that water bottle. I can transfer the good water to one bottle and pee in the other, and wait patiently.
My favorite line, from Mass: "As we wait in joyful hope..." Not joyful, God knows, but waiting, a long time. A half hour of crowbars (failed; see scratches on door) and then screwdrivers. No luck.
They switched to working on the window screen; Honorio, her husband, unscrewed the whole frame of the bars, and I de-groined myself climbing out one leg at a time, to fall onto the flower bed, walk back in, and give that door a good hard left hook. Which hurt; me, not the door. I fought the door and the door won.
And that was the end of my lunch hour and it was time to teach again.
It was a Hell week, but after returning to Dili and Katherine for the weekend, I fully intended to go back for the second week. I hated the very thought of going back to Baucau, but I was going to do it. In fact, I was in a taxi on my way to the slum where the buses to Baucau depart, when I got a call that the second week of teaching was cancelled due to insurrection. There’d been an attack on a police station a few miles from Baucau, part of the long-running feud between ex-rebel factions, and it wouldn’t do to have foreign instructors catching a stray bullet.
The bus I almost had to take back to Baucau. Thank you Mauk Maruk!
I wasn’t scared of getting shot. Never have been. I’m scared of other things, mainly the P-words: people and poverty.
So the rebel attack near Baucau seemed like a divinely ordained reprieve. I decided not to go back. I called Mark Juba and burbled the decision to him in a groveling rush: “Hi Mark I’m just calling to let you know I don’t think I can go back to Baucau for the second week there’s so much uncertainty about when it will resume and there are no materials in the classroom and the army wants me to stay in this house that had dog shit on the floor and furniture in crates and no screens on the window so either I open them and get malaria or die of the heat and y’know the dogshit on the floor was really runny like diarrhea and it was just a little too much for me and there were nine students the first day and thirty-seven the second day and there are no microphones so I can’t do the listening component I tried saying them out loud but there was one that was supposed to be from Keira Knightly and I really couldn’t do the voice properly and I almost got stuck in a steelbox also and there’s no transport except for microlets and Tony told me they’re lethal and anyway I’m really really sorry…sorry and I just wanted to let you know.”
There was a terrifying, “Mmmmm.” from Mark. It was not a happy “Mmmmm.” I had let him down.
So I burbled, “But I just want to let you know also that you don’t have to pay me for the week I did there I know it’s supposed to be six hundred per week but never mind that I don’t want to be paid.”
There was another “Mmmmm?” with a question mark. Much warmer. I felt that I’d been patted on the head via telephone.
Well, what can I say? One of nature’s victims. Actually, we lost quite a lot of money on the Baucau job because half my stuff is still there in that steel box: backpack, shoes, Kindle.
I had to try to make money with writing instead so I wrote an article about the road to Baucau. I knew it wouldn’t be a good idea to talk too much about my slapstick adventures on-base, so I stuck to the grim landscape I’d seen on the long trips from Dili to Baucau and back, with a little historical context for readers who weren’t too familiar with Timor’s godawful recent history.
It honestly never occurred to me that anything in that article could bother anyone. You can read it yourself; would you have known it’d cause trouble? The only people I intentionally offended in it were the Indonesian army elite, and for God’s sake, how can you offend monsters like that? Godzilla sobbing into a hankie because somebody yelled at him; it’s not a side of monstrosity you hear about much.
But somebody was offended. You think I should’ve known? Maybe, but I really didn’t. I really thought it was a harmless article. I’ve done things that were damned well meant to offend people, but this wasn’t one of them.
It’s happened before though, this surprise. It’s a lifelong blind spot, always coming down to that proverb, “You can’t run with the fox and hunt with the hounds.” Why not? I always wondered, why can’t you? I want to run with the fox, hunt with the hounds, film it for the BBC, protest with PETA, sneer with the squires, and shrug with the slobs. Doesn’t everybody?
Apparently not. I was already working on my next article when Katherine came home from work, looking gray and sick. She keeps it to herself; most people can’t tell when she’s hurting.
“What happened? What happened?”
“Let me get some water. I’m sweating like a pig.”
She always insisted on walking home in the afternoon heat.
It took a while to get the story. She was shaky, hurt and shocked. Neither of us had seen this one coming. Finally, she told me what happened.
“They called me in…”
“Who? Who did?”
Yeah? What’d he say?”
“Nothing, just, ‘Mark wants to see you, just pop in to his office.’”
“Oh God. What was it? Your passport?”
They’d been keeping Katherine’s passport for almost two months. That wouldn’t be too bad, some passport complication….
Katherine’s hands were shaking as she held the glass of water. “I should’ve known! Tony was polite for once. He actually said, ‘Let’s just see if Mark is in.’ He was smiling. I should’ve known.”
It took her a while to describe the whole interrogation. You can’t recall these things all in one go; you debrief in bursts, as much as you can handle, then a little pacing, groaning, messing with things in the kitchen just to be doing something.
Mark was waiting for them. As soon as Katherine came in, he motioned her to the hot seat—our seat, as I think of it. Tony took the classic henchman position, slightly out of the way.
Mark stood up, grabbed a print-out off his desk, slapped it down in front of Katherine and said: “What can you tell me about this?”
When she told me that part, I groaned. I mean more loudly than usual. I knew exactly what that sheaf of papers was.
But at the time, Katherine didn’t, she leaned forward, recognized something I’d read to her and said, “Oh, that’s John’s article!”
Mark stared Katherine down, but she still didn’t understand what was going on.
“Have you read it?” He asked quietly.
“Of course! I always read what he writes. It’s one of the perks.”
Then – dash – and I can imagine his plummy Alan Rickman voice getting even Rickmanier, more Karloffian, “I see. And you thought it was...” he paused as if to suppress overwhelming emotion, “appropriate given where you work and the sensitive nature of any military base in the world.”
Katherine’s reply, clearly the best under the circumstances was, “Um…yes?”
“You didn’t object at all? You didn’t try to stop him from publishing it?”
“No! It’s John’s writing. I don’t tell him what he can and can’t write or publish.”
At this point, Katherine said, Mark’s face got very weird. “His eyes popped out, and a vein on his forehead started pulsing. I didn’t think people could do that!”
Mark invited Katherine to consider his feelings. “I just think…that one of you might have thought for one second before publishing this about who it might affect. How do you think I felt when out of the blue the Australian ambassador called me up to ask about this—shocking, derogatory—article, which I knew nothing about? What was I supposed to say when he asks me why I have employed the spouse of this author? Especially employed her to work on the very jewel in the crown of the Australian defense force mission in East Timor? I didn’t know how to answer that. Do you?”
Apparently, Mark Juba, a grown man, actually used the phrase “the jewel in the crown.” And I’m the bad guy! To me, that is a language crime that dwarfs anything I’ve ever done in my life. But I’m not running this show.
He went on in this vein for some time. The last phrase he used was "biting the hand that feeds you." That’s what poverty is; it means sooner or later you will hear the phrase "biting the hand that feeds you" and that alone is reason enough to get rich now, by whatever means necessary. Don’t ever be in a position to hear the phrase "biting the hand that feeds you" from Katherine as her hand holding a water glass is still shaking.
But even in the worst moments there are comic touches. Mark apparently finished with: "And Tony agrees with me 100%." At which point Tony’s sweaty head bobbed in confirmation.
There’s a shock: Tony and Mark were in complete agreement.
I caved. No use lying; I groaned, I howled—it was all coming back to me, all the previous interviews with one of my articles waved around in my face or Katherine’s face; I caved. Neither of us slept very much that night and I forced myself to call Mark Juba the next morning.
And I caved. I groveled. I caved. There’s a predator for everybody in this world, and plummy guilt-inflicting works on me. He went on and on in that horrible Rickman elegiac tone about how I’d hurt people’s feelings, so many people’s feelings, so hurt, so terribly hurt. Even the guy who first drove me to Baucau was hurt. Everybody was hurt, especially his in-laws. In fact, it was odd how he kept talking about his in-laws and his wife. They were Timorese. I’d guessed vaguely that local connections had probably helped Juba establish his business, but there was something about his reaction as he went on and on to me in this phone conversation that started to make me think that it wasn’t the Australian Embassy that was upset, or even the tender sensibilities of TNI, but Juba’s in-laws.
At the time, though, it was only a vague impression. My main job in that phone call was to promise absolutely anything as long as he’d leave us alone and not fire Katherine. I know this doesn’t sound very heroic, but you can be heroic the first time, maybe the second time. The fourth or fifth time, believe me, you won’t be heroic.
He wanted the article taken down; I agreed. He wanted me to print a retraction; I agreed, even though I didn’t know what I was supposed to retract. What? I didn’t go to Baucau? TNI didn’t massacre a bunch of people? I didn’t see a bunch of burned-out houses?
So I wrote to Paul Carr and Mark Ames at Pando in this degraded state. The first line of my email was “Canberra and Wellington both want my bald head on a stick.” And it went on at full shriek for some time. I asked them to take down the article and let me write whatever grovel was required.
They refused. It still hurts me, imagining what they must have thought of me, but… well, anyway. They refused.
And that was when the stalking began.
Mark Juba was not used to being crossed. And my way of crossing people is, admittedly, somewhat confusing, consisting as it does of immediate concession followed by hiding in the deepest hole I can find. He started phoning. Oh how he phoned. But one thing I’ve noticed about cellphones is that you can turn them off. It’s not like there were a lot of other people trying to phone me. No one, to be specific. Then he started to send emails. He noticed, he said, that the article had not been changed. I had noticed that too. I was hoping he would go away if I failed to reply to his emails. That happens sometimes. But I was underestimating my Juba. Something was driving him, something I didn’t fully understand at the time. He was in a serious rage, but it didn’t seem like his own. He was conveying the rage of someone bigger and scarier than he was.
Finally, having been let down by electronic media, he resorted to older methods: he cornered us in a van. A van with blacked-out windows, no less. We were coming back from lunch, lunch at a Chinese restaurant, which somehow makes it worse because if lunch at a Chinese restaurant isn’t sacred then what is? We were walking back across an almost empty parking lot with the concrete shimmering in the heat, when Katherine said, "Uh oh!”
I yipped: “What? What? What? What?”
We were both in combat mode, well aware that something was going to happen.
She said under her breath, “That looks like the LELI van.”
To be continued...
[Illustration by Brad Jonas for NSFWCORP/Pando]