Thursday, 26 July 2007

Third World Journalist

I am walking on the roof of a hotel. I walk slowly on the roof of the hotel, I want to take photos of the offices of a newspaper that has been seized by the government. Exactly opposite are the offices and printing works of the 'Despertar Oaxaqueño' newspaper, the only publication which criticises the government which a few weeks ago sent in its heavies to occupy the installations. All along Libres street there are cars and unmarked police vans closing off any roads. Official assassins dressed in civvies, everyone knows who they are, are sat in the doorways of the newspaper and stood on street corners. Fellow journalists are still trapped inside the building, nobody is allowed to go in or out. It's not as though I am going to all this trouble of taking the photos to help my colleagues, as if, I'm not bothered about them, it was me who betrayed them. But it hasn't always been like this. There once was a time, now long gone, when I was interested in the truth, interested in winning a Pulitzer, being a respectable figure and all that bollocks that you dream about when you believe that life is perfect.
I want to take the photos because this thirst for justice is dehydrating me, because that bastard governor, Ulises Ruiz, deceived me just like he did everyone else in this bloody city. Crouching down I try to get closer to the edge of the wide roof, I adjust my 10 mega pixel Canon EOS 400D, I only have a few seconds to take the photos, if I'm lucky. The afternoon is hot, at this hour the sun is brightly reflected in the orange walls of Oaxaca, below the voices of the assassins can be heard, shouting and swearing, if they discover me this will be my last day. The repression came with the electoral fraud and with that twat with a moustache, Uribe coming to power. From that day on opponents are oppressed, for two months now there have been unmarked police vans full of agents dressed as civilians that hunt journalists, teachers, students or anyone who they think looks suspicious, dragging them into the truck and beating, torturing and disappearing them; they are known as 'the convoys of death'.
Now lying down on the edge of the roof I get up carefully although with difficulty due to my bulging stomach. I lift my head slightly so that my eyes can look round. Three assassins sat on some chairs and fizzy drinks crates, drinking Corona and playing cards. I will have to zoom in as much as possible in order to capture their faces, I recognise them, they are the ringleaders, the top dog of the ringleaders was a soldier and now does the dirtiest jobs, he is the darkest side of the police, if that were at all possible. The others have faces like hyenas, I make sure that I have silenced the shutter and that the flash is turned off, I take the lens cap off and thanks to a complicated abdominal move I lift my torso to take one photo, two photos, the faces are very clear except for one of the killers who has his back to me, but I've got the leader. One of them moves his face and I drop down on my back, noting at that moment my raggedy breathing. I lift myself up again, little by little, trying to listen in, they carry on talking amongst themselves, nobody turns to where I am, I put the lens cap on again and drag myself away from the edge of the roof, congratulating myself on the photos I've managed to take, I will send them to a newspaper in Mexico City and to foreign newspapers to see if they will finally realise what is going on here. I reach the door and go downstairs to the laundry room of the hotel, the workers there barely acknowledge me, I avoid the lobby even though there are no guests, how could there be with that battalion of scum stationed on the other side of the street. I hurry towards the back entrance and try to leave heading north up Constitucion street but they are already waiting for me. It's useless, they've caught me.
As soon as I poke my head out of the emergency exit I am pistol whipped. I immediately fall face forward feeling a sudden heat in my face and watching red blood dripping on the pavement. My camera goes flying, then they kick me in the ribs, back, face. I don't know how long this can last for, I can't feel my body and they drag me along by my arms, spitting on me and telling me that now I really am fucked. They throw me in the back of an unmarked police van. My head bounces off the metal floor. I don't know if it is the beating or if it is hellishly hot inside this metal box without windows. Someone tries to touch me and I curl up like a slug that has been covered in salt. This is how I should end, beaten and tortured by assassins of the government, what more did someone like me deserve. I open one eye because the other one won't respond, it feels swollen and sore, I see that there are more people with me in this cage. I try to stand up but someone says, "Best stay there, son". Outside there are laughs. A door is shut, someone starts the engine and someone else shouts, "now we're going to give you your freedom of speech you fuckers" whilst the van with us inside drives off.
I drag myself to one of the sides, towards a metal bar that is a seat. Next to me there is an ancient indigenous woman, opposite there are some kids that can't be more than 23, university students I reckon and a burly man of about fifty who is bleeding heavily. The van is going so fucking fast that we have to hang on to the steel bar so that we don't bounce off the metal walls, we can hear people outside, we're still in the city. Almost certainly they will take us directly to a prison if we are lucky or to the outskirts to one of the houses that they have in the middle of nowhere where they will torture us so that we give them names, information, whatever they want us to tell them.
We come to what seems to be a straight, flat road and I think that we are on the PanAmerican highway on the way out of the city. The university students cry to themselves imagining what will happen to them, the man is unconscious, only his breath can be heard, struggling in and out trying to get past the scabs of blood. The old woman next to me is the oldest woman that I have ever seen. As wrinkled as an elephant, with skin hanging from her arms and strong, thin legs with varicose veins popping out. She hardly blinks at all, I attribute this to the fact that being so old, a terrible death must seem like just another way to die for her.
The old woman slowly takes out a seashell from her sweater, she puts it to her ear and says to me, or so I believe because she doesn't look at me, she just utters "you cannot write your book because you are constipated". The situation is so extreme that such an absurd phrase does not seem so odd to me and I answer, "yes, it's been a few weeks since I have gone to the toilet", I reckon this is because of my erratic diet of fast food and alcohol. My stomach has grown, I noticed it when I tried to put on my Levis the other day and I couldn't do up the top button, I thought I should give the beer a miss and start drinking more mezcal instead. The old woman carries on talking as though she were receiving a transmission through the seashell which she keeps glued to her enormous wrinkly left ear, "when you were a small boy, they told you that you were worthless but they didn't hit you". "And you think that it is their fault, you feel perfect, and you believe that the shitty fucking life you lead is your parents' and everyone else's fault" she added. "Now, you listen to me," I manage to blurt out before she turns to face me and shows me the most fierce and compassionate eyes I have ever seen; I am speechless. There is nothing that I could reproach this old woman for, my life has already turned to shite, she is right.
Just then we are all thrown forward by a sudden braking. The drivers' doors open and shouting they open the metal bolt on the back door where we are and roughly drag us out threatening us with assault rifles, only the old woman remains in the van, watching me as I am dragged out by my feet. They push us into a darkened room, the windows are covered up with tabloid newspapers depicting horrific crime and accident scenes and the policemen smile at us and say to us as they are leaving the room, "we'll be right back for you lot".
We are hunched up in the corners of the room, the two kids in one corner, freely shedding tears, I'm in another corner, holding on to my head and trying to block my ears so I can't hear the screams of pain coming from outside. Then at the moment we hear the policemen shouting and running, the doors of the police van opening and closing, the engine revving up and then, nothing. For ten minutes we are frozen with panic until I get up and put my ear against the door; there is not a sound. I push the door which is obviously barred, the kids get up thinking the same as me. We look at each other and without saying a word we begin to kick the door, stepping backwards and kicking with all our might, all three of us are burning up with heat, anger, hate and desperation to get out. One of the hinges gives way and through the bottom corner of the door we can lean out and we can see no trace of any of the supposedly undercover cops, just a pool of blood on the earth floor and the body of a man hanging from a hook. We pull at the door until the gap is bigger and we can get out. We are in a tumbledown house, not even a tree nearby; they have all been chopped down. An old rusty car, .45 and 9mm squad cartridges lying on the red sand and the sound of cars in the distance, the main road can't be far away. The university students start running towards the supposed main road. Nothing can be seen in any direction, I run round to the back of the house, I have a terrible pain in my torso; I think they have broken my rib. No matter how far I walk when I turn to look back I can still see the house and at any moment I expect to see the police van appear and the assassins coming to get us after seeing that we have escaped. All around is flat so even if I were miles away they could still pick me out with their binoculars. I can see dust rising in the distance getting closer to where the house is whilst I force myself to keep going in the opposite direction. In the distance I hear gunshots and then I throw myself down into some bushes because I can't go one step further. The only sounds I can hear are my breath, the crickets and the mosquitoes that are eating me alive. I pray; not for salvation but for the people that I betrayed and lied to in my life and for those that could care about me at this moment. I couldn't even publish the photos that could tell a bit of the truth. I'm rotting in the middle of nowhere. As soon as dawn starts breaking I realise that I have to keep going, they will probably hunt me down with their AR-15 rifles. I walk and walk with no village in sight, not even a road, there are no animals, just cacti, the sun burning from high in the sky, I try to lift my face up and at that moment I think I see a man with a hat and I lose consciousness.
The man doesn't speak Spanish, only the indigenous language Mixe, but he gives me water and understands that I am running from something, everyone knows that this is only the beginning. I walk in the straight line that the man points out with his arm and two days later I arrive at a village a few miles from Oaxaca city. In the village they let me make a call and ask for money from a friend in Mexico City. As soon as the money that my mate has wired me arrives I buy a bus ticket and get out of there.
For the past two years I have been working for a newspaper in Mexico City. From time to time they publish my photos, always for the tabloid crime pages, they have not approved anything I have written about what is happening in Oaxaca, it's not in line with their policy. Instead it's about knowing when and where accidents happen and getting there as quickly as possible to capture the images, the gorier the better. It's been a while since I've felt close to the place, every day I read up on what is happening there, the disappeared and the dead. I haven't wanted to get emotionally involved, trying to ignore the anger and bitterness. I haven't wanted to return, I haven't wanted to let it in, until today when in the post I received a photo of the old woman.