Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Syria: Propaganda, Prognosis and Prospects

A few days ago, the NATO/Al Qaeda Alliance[1] (hereinafter referred to as NAQA for reasons of convenience) launched what it declared would be a knock-out blow against the government of Syria.

It began with a suicide attack which killed four of the Syrian government’s top officials, and was followed up by something called Operation Damascus Volcano, in which the Al Qaeda portion of NAQA launched an “assault” on the Syrian capital, and allegedly overran huge parts of it. If one was to believe the breathless reports in the “international” media, the “hated” “regime” of President Bashar al-Assad was about to fall. Assad himself, as the tale went, had already fled to the port of Latakia.

It was all propaganda, of course, as rapidly became clear over the next few days, as the Syrian military annihilated some of the NAQA gangs and drove the rest out, rapidly regaining control over the city. The gangs which had been forced out went on to attack the largest Syrian city, Aleppo to the north, and as of this writing are being destroyed there in turn, to the fury of the Empire[2]

Syrian Army soldiers put up their national flag after driving out NAQA.

 These battles have a significance out of all proportion to their actual military impact, and that is what we’ll talk about in the course of this article.

Even though the Syrian government has apparently successfully survived this round, it would be naive to think that it’s out of the woods. The Empire will keep on trying to overthrow Assad, by using the Al Qaeda component of NAQA above all else. Since these Islamic Holy Warriors are basically jihadist cannon fodder, they can be easily replaced - kill a thousand and another thousand will come, as they are coming from all over; Britain[3] to Bangladesh, Chechnya to Pakistan. There’s an inexhaustible supply of jihadists available, and as long as they are fighting the common enemy, the Empire is more than happy to have them on its side.

NAQA terrorists of the "Free Syrian Army"

 Therefore, at first sight, even if it wins a succession of military victories, however overwhelming, in the long term Assad's government is unlikely to survive. It’s, after all, not easy to arm, train, clothe and feed a regular army in the middle of a major civil war/terrorist campaign (however you want to term it) in order to replace losses and maintain sufficient superiority over enemy numbers in order to keep winning victories. However, as always, first sight impressions don’t necessarily tell the whole tale. Assad still has several cards to play.  

One important factor is the role of Russia and China. It’s more than obvious that if it weren’t for the principled stand taken by these two countries, Syria would have been under round the clock Libya-style NAQA air bombing right now (though with somewhat more trepidation than in Libya, as we’ll discuss).  Russia and China, however, need to go beyond words and step up real economic and military support, with weapons and logistics. Just blocking the NATO air forces isn’t going to do the job if NAQA continues to arm, train and finance the Al Qaeda gangs on the ground.

If, though, there's adequate Russian and Chinese military and economic (not just political and diplomatic) support, Assad can continue to hold on to the major power centres and the non Sunni areas. Despite the impression given by the usual Imperial propaganda, Assad is far from being “universally hated.”[4] The Syrian minorities – the Christians, Alawites, Druze, and Shiites are on his side along with a large section of the Sunni Arabs as well. Even the Kurds have declined to join in against him, and after he gave them autonomy, it’s the Empire’s NATO tool, Turkey, which is threatening them with invasion[5].

Therefore, despite all the recent talk of an “endgame” in Syria, it’s far from over.

The second factor is exploiting the way the Empire conducts wars these days. In order, in fact, to understand the current course of events in Syria, it’s vital to comprehend the modern Imperial way of waging war.

Ever since Kosovo, (with one exception) this is how the Empire does war: it begins by selecting a country for “regime change.” It then picks out a "rebel" group, promotes it as "freedom fighters", arms and trains it, and then uses it to launch attacks on the government of the target nation - attacks the government has no choice but to counter with armed force. These attacks are typically carried out inside cities, which are now the preferred guerrilla battleground, just as the forests once used to be. The idea is to compel the government to strike back in these urban jungles of concrete, with inevitable civilian casualties. 

NAQA urban guerrillas

 And in case there are no civilian casualties, massacres or “impending massacres” are invented and/or arranged and blamed on the government forces. We saw this in Kosovo, we saw this in Libya (remember the tales of massacres about to happen in Benghazi unless NATO stepped in). We’ve seen it in Syria, for example in Houla, where NAQA carried out a massacre[6] and blamed it on the government; and at Tremseh, where terrorist gangs were destroyed by the army[7] but it was passed off as a “civilian massacre” until the truth reluctantly leaked out.  

Once these government counter-assaults take place, they are then cited by the Empire's propaganda-mongers as a "humanitarian crisis" which requires armed intervention. This armed intervention means relatively risk-free massed air attacks against the government forces, which have been drawn into action by the tame terrorists and are therefore concentrated into easily bombarded target areas. If these government forces stay in concentration against the terrorists, they can be destroyed from the air; if they disperse, they can be overwhelmed by the terrorists. Either way, the terrorists then have a free run into the capital.

This has been the technique used in Kosovo in 1999, in Afghanistan in 2001, in Somalia in 2006-7, in Libya last year and it’s now planned for Syria. The only time it wasn't used was against Iraq in 2003. There were two reasons: first, the only "rebels" the Empire could procure were Ahmed Chalabi's ragtag faction, which was so pathetic that it had no presence in Iraq at all and had to be flown in after the invasion. More importantly, the Bush regime had no intention of sharing the glory of being the "liberators" of Iraq with anybody.

This is also the technique planned for Iran, as it happens - that's why the Empire is backing the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, a terrorist group which even the Empire itself calls a terror group. It openly hosted them in camps in Iraq, its leaders are feted in Washington, and top members of the Imperial government are trying hard[8] to have it declared a non-terrorist group.

You'll note that the neo-imperial way of combat has some requirements:

1. There has to be a reasonably powerful terrorist group on the ground. If one can't be found, it has to be created, by creative recruitment and throwing money around to trigger defections. If one can't be created, one has to be imported, if necessary under a new name. Al Qaeda, as I said, is a ready resource for this.

2. The second requirement is that the targeted nation's armed forces (especially air defence) can't be too strong; if they are, then aerial intervention becomes too costly and after Iraq the Empire is no longer very keen to be seen carrying out imperial aggressions alone, without the participation of its European vassals. Therefore, an important part of the technique is to try and choke off military supplies, like NATO is attempting to do to Syria. You'll notice that NATO gets hysterical at the notion of air defence equipment being sent to Syria from Russia, even though these can't be used to "attack civilians". If one is to take NATO’s concern for civilians seriously, one can’t find a reasonable explanation for this reaction.

3. A dedicated propaganda campaign. This is very important, but easy to arrange, such imperial organs as the BBC and CNN are ready to hand. This propaganda isn’t aimed at the right wing, who are in any case either reflexively happy to go to war or in favour of allowing the foreigners to fight it out amongst themselves; it’s aimed at  the centre and the so-called “left”, which in most lexicons ought to be called centre-right (what I call the faux-liberal class).

In these propaganda endeavours, Al Jazeera will play a propaganda role on the Empire’s side. This channel is now stamped PROPERTY OF THE EMIR OF QATAR, and Qatar is the primary Imperial tool in the Arab world today; it was Qatar which armed the terrorists in Libya and is arming them in Syria now, with the Empire’s blessings. But most people only remember the Al Jazeera of 2003, and think it’s the same courageous channel of the Iraq invasion days, so it has a credibility it ceased to deserve years ago.

The propaganda campaign can get almost absurdly crude at times, as in this photoshopped image from an Austrian paper[9].

Under headlines saying (in German), ASSAD’S ARMY ROLLS WITH TANKS TO “MOTHER OF ALL BATTLES” and US WARNS OF REGIME MASSACRE IN ALEPPO, it shows a couple with a child walking past ruined buildings. Even from the proportions, the photo looks more than a little unconvincing; and, of course, it’s simply copied and pasted from a far less warlike scene, as the original picture below it shows. (Actually, it wasn’t even Aleppo in the background of the picture; those ruins are from Homs) [10].

Alternatively, like the BBC did, decade-old photos from elsewhere can be passed off as coming out of Syria, today[11]. This is the latest in a long line of convenient “mistakes” by the BBC, which should rename itself the British Bullshit Corporation.


Other propaganda is directed towards putting a spin on real news. One typical way is to keep reporting battles which ended (in a government victory) days ago as though they are going on right at the moment. This is why, days after the Al Qaeda terrorist gangs had been cleared out of Damascus, you still kept coming across news items which claimed fighting was going on right at the moment, citing unnamed “activists”, of course. Another is, when the truth can’t be hidden any longer, to carefully tilt the way it’s to be exposed. For instance, this is what I had to say elsewhere on the internet about an article in the British Telegraph titled Assad Regime Retakes Control of Damascus Suburbs:[12]

“What I love about this article is that it's such a perfect illustration of the NATO lie machine in action when it has to reluctantly admit facts. Since it can no longer pretend that the legitimate government of Syria is about to roll over and surrender, and it has to admit the terrorists are on the run, it complains that the Syrian army is "brutally" crushing the "rebels". Yeah, if you attack the capital of a sovereign state and it blows you away, you're the "good guys" and they're the "brutal evildoers" - if you're on the right side of the neo-neocon Western imperialist machine.
    “Just read over the article, about how the poor "rebels" (Al Qaeda terrorists) armed only with AK47s and a few rockets are being blown away with tank shells, and you can almost see the subtext: arm the poor defenceless rebels, send troops and planes to their aid! Even the reluctantly admitted fact that they "executed" (murdered) five captured soldiers was virtually because they were "forced" to.
   “The propaganda extends even to the title, which is, you'll notice, "Assad Regime Retakes Control of Damascus Suburbs", not "Syrian Government Forces Retake Control..." You're being told right at the outset whom you should take the "bad guys" to be.
   “I'd thought the British lie machine was more subtle, but I guess American influence in propaganda is rubbing off on them.”

Even otherwise respected journalists like Robert Fisk [13] have been co-opted into this campaign. Fisk, once a courageous reporter of the Zionist oppression of Palestinians, falls into the trap of condemning the Syrian and Russian governments by repeating the unproven claims of civilian massacres, which are, of course, based on the accounts of those same unnamed “activists” who – when unmasked – have invariably turned out to be NAQA tools [14][15] originating from the Imperial colony of Britain.

You’ll have noticed that these propaganda sources are invariably European. There’s a reason for that: the Empire wants the European vassals to take the lead in attacking Syria. The Nobel Peace Prizident has little appetite for unilateral action a la his predecessor.

4. Then there's the need for a friendly vassal nation on the border of the target country, to host bases for arming and training terrorists and airports close enough to launch air raids. Against Kosovo, Albania was the base; against Afghanistan, Pakistan was; Tunisia, Egypt etc served the purpose against Libya and Turkey is doing the job against Syria. Against Iran, Iraq was planned as the base of operations until the Maliki government began cosying up to Tehran; and now that Iraq’s refused to join the anti-Syrian coalition, Al Qaeda immediately began carrying out full scale attacks in Baghdad and elsewhere. Wonder why?

Keeping in mind the Imperial way of war, then, what are Assad’s options?

He has to try and disrupt the enemy’s plans as much as possible by messing up the four requirements I mentioned. These four require different strategies, and all can’t be managed at the same level.

First, Assad’s not got a hope in the propaganda war, since NAQA will simply claim whatever he says is a lie, and it controls the “international media”. Even so, as a general rule, the Empire’s terrified of the truth leaking out. This is why it attacked TV stations in Belgrade and Tripoli. This is why it keeps blocking the Syrian news agency website, SANA.  This is why its Al Qaeda allies also attacked a private TV station in Syria which was pro-Assad, without a peep of protest from the countries of NATO. But, on a whole, only those people who have functioning brains will remain unconvinced by NAQA propaganda; and how many of them are there?

Then, in the murky little episode in June[16] where a Turkish RF4E jet was downed, Assad would seem to have already proved his air defences are strong enough to make it costly for NATO murdermongers to attack. It’s not a coincidence that immediately afterwards, the Empire’s focus switched from “no fly zones” to openly providing training and material support to the Al Qaeda units on the ground. NAQA seems to have decided that at least at this stage of the war a Libya style aerial campaign would not be a great idea.

Therefore, Assad has to concentrate on knocking out the Empire’s proxies on the ground, by which, of course, I mean the Al Qaeda component of NAQA. The other gangs exist but are mostly irrelevant; in these situations it’s always the jihadists who do the actual fighting. And from recent events, it would seem that this is what he’s decided to do.

Now, to the militarily illiterate people who form the chattering classes whose opinion’s targeted by the propagandists I mentioned earlier, Assad is on the ropes[17]. The way Damascus Volcano was projected, it seemed as though the NAQA ground forces took Damascus by storm like a conquering army, but of course it wasn’t like that. Damascus and Aleppo were infiltrated [18] by small terrorist groups, which gathered until a critical mass was concentrated, and once the suicide bombing (significantly, the western lie-media stopped calling it a “suicide bombing” almost immediately and started calling it an “explosion” as though it was some kind of accident) took place, the terrorist gangs launched attacks on police stations and small, isolated army units. In street-fighting terms, it’s called a “sucker punch” – a blow landed when the opponent isn’t looking.

The problem with such “sucker punches”, of course, is that even if they knock the opponent down, they are only effective if the opponent stays down. If he gets right back up, then one’s in trouble unless one has a big brother standing by to help. And, because of Russia and China in the UN and the shooting down of the Turkish plane, there was no NATO big brother standing by to help. And once the Syrian government struck back, the NAQA gangs were out in the open, marked down for speedy destruction.

 There’s an analogy: the Tet Offensive in Vietnam in 1968[19], when Viet Cong guerrillas infiltrated and attacked multiple towns, capturing Hue and entering the compound of the US embassy in Saigon. That turned out to be another failed knock out blow, and cost the Viet Cong so badly that the rest of the war was essentially carried on by regular North Vietnamese People’s Army units, not guerrillas. Like the Damascus Volcano, once the other side reacted, the actual military result of the Tet Offensive was to bring lightly armed guerrillas into the open, where they could be speedily destroyed by regular forces whose firepower they were incapable of matching.

Therefore, Assad’s best option is to allow Al Qaeda gangs to make massed attacks, draw them into kill boxes like Aleppo, and destroy them as completely as possible. These attacks can actually be used as a way of winning defensive victories. Assad can’t win offensive victories since he can’t carry the war into Turkey or Al Qaeda controlled western Iraq, and if he assaults Al Qaeda gangs in the Syrian countryside they’ll just disperse and regroup to attack his stretched out forces. So his best strategy consists of concentrating around major cities, and waiting for NAQA to launch these massed attacks, and destroy them as they come.

This won’t allow him to win the war, but it will serve to prolong the conflict as long as possible. Now, as we’ve seen in Libya, even before the terrorist/NATO alliance captured Tripoli, the terrorists were already fighting among themselves. If Assad can keep fighting long enough, the various terrorist factions will inevitably disintegrate into mutually warring groups. At that time, Assad can try to win some of them over to his side. The Russians used this to great effect in Chechnya, where during the 1999 war, many of the militias which had opposed them in 1995 now fought on their side. Even if Assad fails to actually persuade any groups to come over, the suspicion that some of their number will defect will raise divisions and infighting between the terrorist gangs.

Also, let’s remember that the Empire and NAQA don’t have endless time; they’re operating on political and economic compulsions of their own, such as the need to run pipelines across northern Syria from Kurdish areas of Iraq[20]. Turkey can’t keep hosting Al Qaeda gangs endlessly either without imploding into violence itself, and its own Kurdish rebels are again getting active already. And it may well be that the Zionist entity may finally decide to invade Syria, which will immediately force the terror gangs to unite against them. They can’t wait for Assad to lose a grinding battle of attrition, which means they will have to push things too, and there will be more Damascus Volcano-like attempts which will allow the Syrian government to exterminate more massed groups of terrorists. NAQA is getting more desperate by the day.[21]   

I predict another major attempt to create a “knock out blow” soon, while the world’s attention is diverted to the Olympics being held in the Empire’s British colony. The most likely will be an attempt to assassinate Assad himself, or his family, as Imperial War Minister Leon Panetta has threatened[22] . It will probably not succeed, because after the suicide bombing, Assad’s security will be much more stringent.

But that doesn’t mean NAQA won’t try.

"Defeated" Syrian Army troops in Damascus after defeating NAQA


Monday, 30 July 2012

The True Story of Noah's Ark

And so it was that YHWH grew wroth at the state of mankind, and came unto Noah, to order him to build an Ark, so that not all would perish, but the righteous would live through the coming Flood.

And, lo, Noah was sleeping, and wasn’t exactly happy to be disturbed.

But still, he rose, yea, verily, though grumbling and wiping his eyes, because everyone, even he, knew what a cantankerous old bastard YHWH could be when He was riled.

And YHWH looked at Noah and asked, simply, “Hungover again? Noah, Noah, didn’t I tell you you’re hitting the bottle kind of hard? Didn’t I ask you to join Alcoholics Anonymous?”

And Noah hung his head. “Lord,” he responded, “most solemnly do I say unto You, that though the flesh is weak, the spirit is indeed willing; willing to be drunk, that is.”

So YHWH shook His head in exasperation. “Well,” He said, “make sure that you lay off the rotgut whisky, because I am come unto you to say that I am annoyed with the state of affairs in the world, and am determined to wipe it all away and start over. Soon will begin forty days and nights of rain, and then –”

“I see,” Noah said, scratching his head. “And so? What do you want me to do?”

“Build an Ark,” YHWH intoned solemnly, “And put in it all the animals of the world, two by two, and the fowl of the air by sevens; for, verily, I shall wipe the earth clean of all life.”

“Why me?” Noah asked, plaintively. “Why should I have to...you’ll drown me otherwise if I don’t? All right,” he said. “I’ll do it, I’ll do it.”

“Here are the specifications,” YHWH said, handing over a couple of stone tablets. “Make sure it’s done,” He ordered, and vanished in a grumble of thunder.

And, verily, Noah tried mightily, yet it was not done.

Then came YHWH back to Noah. “I see the Ark I ordered thee to build is not complete. Why not? After all, it is not as though I have not told thee what is about to happen”

“Yeah, well, Lord,” Noah said. “There are problems. You said you’d wipe the world clean of all life?”

“It is My prerogative,” YHWH replied loftily. “I made everything, caused it to come into being, so I can destroy it all if I choose. Why, do you dare challenge Me?”

“No, no, Lord,” Noah said. “I’ve done my best. I’ve gathered all the materials, I’ve employed illegal immigrants as sweatshop labour, I’ve even laid off the booze, and, Lord,” he whined, “you have no idea what kind of withdrawal symptoms I’ve gone through. But, Lord –“


“You said You’d drown the world with forty days and nights of rain? Uh, Lord, do You actually believe that the world can be drowned by that little rainfall? Have You even seen a globe? And then, where’s the rain going to come from, evaporation from the sea? And then when it rains, the water is all going to go back to the sea, right, Lord? So how...”

“All right, all right,” YHWH snapped. “I’ll think of something else, a meteor strike or something. But you get that Ark built, pronto.”

“I’ll do it,” Noah promised.

And he did not do it.

“What now?” YHWH asked, frowning terribly and causing a thunderstorm in Badonkadonkistan so powerful that the rebels there immediately surrendered to the government. “What’s wrong now?”

“Well, Lord,” Noah replied contritely, “let me get this clear. You said that You’re going to destroy all life except what I’d be taking in the Ark? All?

“What are you, deaf? When I say something I mean what I say.”

“And only the life I take in the Ark will be saved? Sorry, but I have to get it absolutely clear.”

“Well, is it clear now?”

“In that case, Lord,” Noah said, “what do I do about the fishes and other water animals? What about the plankton, Lord? How much space do I have to spare to accommodate the whales?

“Uh...” There was a brief pause. “Well, all right, you can forget about them. They can just stay in the water. I won’t kill them. Anything else?”

“You bet there’s something else, Lord. How about the plants?”


“Yeah, Lord, plants. You do know plants are alive?” Noah didn’t even pause to draw breath. “Bristlecone pines, giant sequoias, dwarf moss, not to mention the damned fungi. How about the mushrooms, huh, Lord? You’re planning to save the world without plants breathing in carbon dioxide and putting out oxygen? How’s that supposed to work?”

“All right, you take the seeds. Take seeds of everything. Happy now?”

“I’ve not yet even started,” Noah raged. “You do know about parasites? About disease?”


“Yea, verily,” Noah said, “we have a list of parasites. I mean, we’ve got tapeworms, roundworms, hookworms, whipworms, flukes and more; we’ve got plasmodium to give us malaria, filarial worms to give us elephantiasis, entamoeba to give us dysentery, and others. Look here, Lord.” He picked up a thick book. “That’s just an index of parasites. Want to read it for Yourself, Lord?”

“I can’t read,” YHWH mumbled. “Never managed to find the time to learn.”

“I should’ve known. And then we have lice and fleas and ticks. Well, my wife has plenty of lice, and I suspect that there won’t be a shortage of fleas among the animals, but, Lord, seriously, what the hell do you intend me to do about these diseases and parasites? You expect me to carry malaria and sleeping sickness and typhoid in my body, huh? I’m a Jew, in case You forgot, so I can’t even have pork, and so how do You expect me to carry a pork tapeworm in my intestines?

“And then what happens once You let us get off the Ark? We’re supposed to repopulate the earth, right? Well, if my wife, and I, and our sons and daughters-in-law are to do that, we’ve to screw ourselves silly. But how the hell are we expected to manage that if we’re loaded down with syphilis and gonorrhoea and H-sodding-IV, Lord? Care to give me an answer?

“And then there are the viruses. Rabies, for instance. You want me to carry rabid animals along with me, Lord? How long d’You think any of us would last?”

“That’s not My prob-“

“No, it’s my problem. I did my best, I brought together what I could, tissue cultures and the like. But, You know what? I couldn’t get them all.

“Smallpox, for instance. Only two places in the world have it now, labs in America and Russia. You want me to go waltzing over to these labs and demand some smallpox viruses? What do You think they’d do to me?” Bursting into tears, Noah pointed at a bottle of whisky sitting on the table. “I’ve been driven to the verge of hitting the booze, Lord, to drown my sorrows in drink, and I can’t even do that. You won’t let me!”

“OK, OK,” YHWH said. “Don’t worry about the parasites and diseases. Once you’ve repopulated the earth, they’ll just evolve again and...”

There was a long silence.

“Oops,” YHWH said.

“I should learn to keep My big mouth shut,” YHWH said.

“All right,” YHWH said. “Forget the whole damned thing. I won’t drown the world after all.”

“And what about the annoyance You had with the people?” Noah demanded belligerently. “You’ll forget the annoyance too? Huh? Or in a few days, will You get angry again and then blow Your top all over again, and we’ll go through this whole rigmarole one more time? What?”

“Move over, Noah,” YHWH said at last. With a weary sigh, He sat down next to Noah and reached for the whisky.

“What was that you were saying about drowning your sorrows in drink?” He asked.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012

Raghead 30/7/2012

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Left Behind

This morning when I went down to the riverbank, the flood had receded and the water was calm again. But when I looked down into it, the river was muddy and turbid, still loaded with the debris washed down from upstream, the red mud of the distant hills.

After the months of rain, the huts needed repair, their mud walls softened and the thatch roofs weakened by water and insects. Usually the men would have been at the work, their backs glistening with sweat in the sun, as they tore down the huts and built them back up again. But this year, of course, there were not many men left, and so it was up to us women to do what we could.

The sun had already risen, and it was hot by the riverside, the smooth mud left by the receding water beginning to smell, little insects dipping and zooming over it. I couldn’t tarry long here, because I had to go back up to the hut to look after my daughter, who was not yet a year old; and my father-in-law, who lay ill abed. There was nobody else to help, for my mother-in-law had gone to be with the ancestors years ago. And when all that was over, I would have to do what I could to mend the hut.

I sighed a little, wiping the beads of sweat off my brow. I’d have to go up soon, to the hut, and after that the rest of the day would go in toil, until the evening came and I might be able to rest a little. It was the same every day now, and each day I seemed to fall further behind.

Squatting by the river, I scooped up a little of the water and splashed it over my face and neck. It was muddy and streaked my fingernails, but it felt good, cooler than I’d expected, refreshing me with its touch. But once I’d reluctantly climbed to my feet, the air was hot and muggy already, and the sweat broke out again.

Before I left to walk up to the village, I peered down the river, as I’d done every day for over a year now, to see if the boat were coming back. I knew well enough it wouldn’t, of course, by now, but I could not stop myself. It had become almost second nature.

We’d grown up together, he and I, and known each other from the time we’d been babies. And we’d played together with the others of our age-group, running naked among the legs of the adults, who were always busy and would scarcely bother taking notice of us except to snap in irritation if we got tangled up in their baskets or smeared mud on their bright clothes. We didn’t care about that, we kids, because we had all the world to play in and all the time in the world.

For a moment, I could almost persuade myself that the past year had never happened, that it was the same as when I’d been a girl, and I’d run along this bit of the bank with the other children of my age. He’d been among them too, and we’d laughed and wrestled and fought as children did. I could remember so clearly the times we’d pushed each other into the water, and any adults standing around would yell that the crocodiles would come if we didn’t stop fooling around.  

We’d always known we’d marry, of course; our parents had betrothed us while we were still infants in arms. But we’d been extremely fortunate in that we’d always got along – I’ve seen so many others in our position where there had been so much friction and mutual loathing that the marriage had finally had to be abandoned, and that always led to bad blood between the parents’ clans. But maybe – seeing what happened later – that would have been for the best. I didn’t know, couldn’t say.

I walked a little further into the river and moved my feet around, rubbing them in the water to wash some of the mud off. If I craned my neck, I could see the broken stretch of riverbank where the hut had stood where we’d lived after we married. The flood had carried away the entire piece of the bank, and if the hut had still been standing it would have gone too.

Sudden tears stung my eyes as I thought of the precious few months we’d had in the hut, after we’d married. We’d not thought we were happy – life had been the usual struggle, living from day to day. But thinking back now, it had been a happy time; as happy as a life like ours can get, anyway.

I watched a couple of children race each other along the bank. Two years more, and my daughter would be running with them, her tiny fat legs stumbling to keep up, and if she muddled my dress I’d no doubt snap at her too. She would be a beauty, my daughter – I could see it in the lines of the fine bones under her skin, in the set of her eyes. I wish he could have known her, but he hadn’t even known I was pregnant. We didn’t even have that long together.

I still feel guilty that I wasn’t there the day it happened. I’d gone with most of the other women to the new fields where we were clearing the brush to plant cassava, and it was only when we noticed smoke staining the sky in the direction of the village that we’d realised something was wrong.

It was all over before we rushed back, the huts in flames, the survivors hiding in the forest. My father-in-law had been among them. He’d told me that the raiders had come by the river, and struck hard and suddenly, achieving complete surprise. They hadn’t been out to maim or kill, that was not their way. What they wanted was captives.

I still remember how the smoke from the burning huts stung my eyes and burnt my throat, as I held my father-in-law as he coughed, and how he wept as he told of what had happened, about how the raiders had tied up their prisoners, thrown them like sacks of produce in their boats, and rowed off down the river. The last boat had held my husband, who’d still been struggling until one of the raiders hit him on the head with an oar.

“What will they do with them?” I’d asked, dread tightening my throat. “Will they kill them?”

“No,” my father-in-law had replied. “They will sell them to the pink men down on the coast.”

I drew a shuddering breath when I thought of the pink men. I’d seen them a couple of times when I’d gone to the market town, large and noisy, their pink skin making them look as though they’d been flayed. One had looked me up and down, his eyes the colour of a faded sky, as if he was stripping away my clothes and leaving me as naked as a baby. I’d been close enough to be able to smell him, too. He stank, of old sweat and something else, an odour my husband had later told me was tobacco.

“What will the pink men do?” I’d asked my father-in-law then.

“I don’t know...they say the pink men put them in big boats and take them away across the oceans. What they do with them there, nobody knows. Not one of those they took has ever come back.”

Sometimes I wish the pink men had taken me instead. My husband would have been able to better take care of my father-in-law, and do the work I had to do alone, now. But then what would have happened to my daughter?

Maybe, I thought, taking one last look down the river, the boats would come back, and bring him back to me. I knew it would never happen, but I couldn’t stop doing it. I don’t think I shall ever stop, not if I live to be an old woman. And I can never stop fearing that the boats will be back, but to take others, like my daughter. What can I do if they come? Nothing.

I can't even cry in front of my father-in-law and daughter, I thought, because I'm the only link holding us together. I don't even have the luxury of showing how weak, how inadequate, I feel. But that's the lot of women. We endure.

Maybe, I thought, we should all move away, the whole village, those of us who remain. But where can we go,  how far must we move, before we can be safe? Is any place far enough?

I watched the children run, and smiled despite the tears burning my eyes. They were old enough to remember what had happened, last year, but obviously, in the way of children, had chosen to move on. That’s the way of children.

I wish we adults could do the same.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012

Victor Charlie: For Charlie Ehlen

With your background, Charlie, I'm sure you'll have something to say about this one. I wrote it in 2010 and it was published in Subversify Magazine.


It had just turned dawn when Minh came out of the tunnel. The rain that had been falling all night had finally stopped, but the water was still dripping off the trees and the soil was muddy and so soft that his feet sank in almost up to the ankles. Minh took off his hat and wiped his face with the rainwater, letting it trickle into his eyes. He had not slept well, and the water cooled his burning eyes and forehead.
   Around him the trees crowded like sentinels, and Minh always felt very small here in the forest. He felt that the forest resented him, personally, and that the trees sneered at him from all sides, like malign entities. Of course he would never admit it to anyone, not even to the other two members of his cell. If he did, they would merely laugh at him.
   He was only sixteen years old, with a mop of black hair and prominent cheekbones. His lips were slightly too small, so that he always looked as though he was smiling, In three years he had been a schoolboy, this had got him into trouble with the teachers more than once. But that was a long time ago.
   He walked down to the stream and plunged his arms into the muddy brown water, rubbing it over his head and face. His black pajamas were sticking to his body with a mix of rainwater, sweat and the mud of the tunnel, and he considered washing them in the river water, but there was no time today for that.
   Across the muddy river, three egrets were pecking at the soil, probing busily for food. Minh watched them for a little bit, until there was a rustling to his right and Dung appeared. Dung was older, tougher and the leader of Minh’s cell. He stared at the boy with barely concealed disgust.
   “Birds,” he said. “You watch birds. And we are supposed to be fighting.”
   Minh shrugged. He had no particular desire to say anything, knowing that Dung would more likely than not ridicule him. Wiping his face on his checked scarf, he turned to go up to the tunnel.
   “The Americans will come today,” Dung shouted up at him, “and you’ll still be watching birds.”
   Minh said nothing. He felt intimidated by the others, because they were older than he, and because they had seen real combat. They had even fought the Americans.
   He stooped low to enter the tunnel. Although he was small even for his people, the tunnel was constricted for him, and in the darkness he had to be careful not to bump his head on one of the supporting beams. He went down into the connecting tunnel and up again into the third tunnel, where the arms were. His carbine was there, carefully wrapped in sacking, and he took it out and cleaned and oiled it. There was the light of a kerosene lamp, but he could have done it in the dark, blindfolded. He had done it before.
   On the other side of the little room, near the sacks of rice, Thanh sat, carefully priming grenades. The grenades were American, bought from the South Vietnamese soldiers on the black market. Minh thought Thanh was very pretty, and it made him extremely shy with her and blush when they were together. That was why he tried not to look at her or talk to her any more than he had to. He had a sneaking suspicion that Thanh knew exactly what was going through his mind and that it amused her mightily, but, of course, he could never ask her about it.
   There was a scuffling noise in the passage and Dung entered, his hair wet and dripping. He looked around quickly. “A runner has just come from the village committee,” he said. “The Americans landed by helicopter on the other side of the river. Didn’t I tell you?” He slotted a magazine into his AK 47, the only automatic weapon the tiny village militia possessed. “We have to delay them as much as possible.”
   Minh looked down at the SKS carbine. He dared not look up because he knew well enough that both the other guerrillas would be watching him. Mechanically, he made the weapon ready and got up. “Now?” he asked.
   Dung and Thanh glanced at each other. “When else?”

They went down the slope in single file, quickly and carefully. Twice, Dung knelt to disengage spider-strand-thin trip wires connected to landmines, and after they had passed, he wired them up again. These mines were of great value. If the wire was pulled, they would bounce up from the ground and explode at waist height. One could slice an American leg off at the hip.
   Minh walked along behind Thanh, looking at the ground. He had a metallic taste in his mouth, and wondered if it was fear. More and more, with every step, he was sure that he was afraid, but he could not say of what. Perhaps it was fear of combat, but a lovely girl like Thanh was already a hardened veteran, and as for Dung – he looked quickly up, under his eyebrows, at Dung. It was common knowledge that Dung was due to be sent to join a main-force regiment, a big step up from a part-time village guerrilla. Dung would never be afraid, whatever happened. Certainly he would not be afraid of a fight.
   No, he thought, what he was probably afraid of was screwing up somehow. He knew well enough that he had no combat experience; not real combat experience. On two occasions he had accompanied raiding parties that had gone out at night to the American bases down in the valley, and both times he had fired off several bullets in the darkness at random, in the general direction of the American perimeter, but that was it.   He had never even seen one of the Americans he was supposed to be fighting.
   Minh had not wanted to join the National Liberation Front, not really. But there had been little choice. The village had nothing any more, no functional school since the teachers had left, no chance at an education, nothing. The Front at least offered some hope, the other boys had said, and they had joined, one after the other, when the village defence committee had been formed. But Minh had not joined.
   Not, that is, until –
   Dung held up a hand suddenly, and then pointed. They were at the crest of a low hill. Before them the forest petered out, and they could see quite a long distance, down to the valley and the broad rice paddies. Still quite far away, Minh could see a string of tiny dots. One had to look carefully before one could be sure they were even moving, but, unmistakably, they were coming this way.
   It was the Enemy.

Minh lay in the hollow beneath the old fallen tree, waiting.
   From here he could see down the slope of the hill, all the way down to the paddy fields below. The paddy fields were flooded and ready for planting, but no figures were bent over, busily working, the war had seen to that.
   To his right, somewhere up the hill, were Thanh, and beyond her, Dung. The cell leader had already gone partway down the hill, right down to the edge of the forest, and planted a couple of mines. Now he waited, like the others, and watched.
   Minh tried to keep absolutely still, as he had been taught in training. He watched a tiny orange centipede run up his arm, over it, and down to the ground again. The centipede had its own affairs, and knew nothing of the fighting. The centipede was lucky, he decided. Then he thought that someone could crush it beneath his foot without even noticing, and he wondered if it was lucky at all.
   He still remembered the time he had gone down to the city with his father. They had never reached the city, because the road had been blocked just beyond a village where they had stayed overnight, where his parents had relatives. And so they had turned back, planning to stay in the village till the road was opened again. But they had never reached the village either.
   Minh could still remember the sight of the American planes, like tiny silver arrows that had fallen out of the layer of cloud, and the napalm canisters that had tumbled from under their wings like eggs. The eggs had slanted downwards towards the thatched roofs of the village and blossomed like great yellow and orange flowers, and even though Minh’s father had grabbed him and pulled him into the drainage ditch at the side of the road, Minh had been able to see the smoke rising into the sky, and above the roaring of the aeroplane engines he had been able to hear the screaming.
   Two days later, he had joined the village defence militia, and become part of what the Saigon puppet government derisively called the Viet Cong. Not even his mother had objected.
   Minh shook his head and tried to concentrate. There was a humped black rock, just short of the paddy fields. Minh thought it looked like the back of a water buffalo. He had herded water buffalo as a child, and even now, he took them out when he was back in the village. He had one particular favorite, a great black bull, docile and friendly for all his immense size, called Dai. He wondered what Dai would do if something happened to him. Who would take care of Dai and who would graze him?
   From there his thoughts drifted off to the village, and the tall black rock that stood behind it. Legend said that the village had its own guardian spirit which lived in the rock, and if the village was in danger, the spirit would defend it. The National Liberation Front, of course, discouraged such superstitious beliefs, but after watching the American planes bombing his uncle’s hamlet, Minh thought that in the event, the village would need all the help it could get, from whichever source.
   It was oppressively hot, and Minh’s eyes began to sting from the sweat dripping down his face. Carefully, he reached up and wiped his brow. His hand was still at his forehead when, from behind a tree not far away, a man stepped out into the open.
   He was very big, and looked even bigger with the equipment he wore, helmet and backpack and bandolier full of magazines. Minh stared at him, his heart hammering. It was the first time he had seen an American close up, and the enemy soldier looked even bigger, even stronger and even more intimidating than he had expected. Also, he had no idea how the man had come up the hill without his seeing him. All that was alarming enough, but most alarming of all was that the soldier was black. He had no idea about black men. He had never even been told if a black man could be shot in the same manner as a white man or a Vietnamese.
   Minh carefully put his hand back down and pressed the carbine’s butt against his cheek. Through the rifle sights the American soldier’s face jumped into focus. He was close enough that Minh could see his eyes, swiveling from right to left, and sweat running down from under the green helmet. Then it was that Minh realised that the enemy soldier was afraid too, and with the realisation he felt a little calmer.
   He took up the slack of the trigger, and squeezed gently, aiming at the exact centre of the black soldier’s face. The rifle kicked hard against his shoulder, and he blinked reflexively from the bang. When he looked again the American had vanished, as though he had never been. From up the hill he heard Thanh firing too, her carbine cracking, and then a long continuous rattle as the Americans opened up with a machine gun from down the slope. Someone was screaming wordlessly, and then he heard the unmistakable sound of Dung’s AK firing. There was a tremendous explosion and things went whistling through the branches overhead. Shredded leaves and twigs rained down on Minh’s legs, but he still could find nothing to shoot at.
   Something smashed into the fallen tree above Minh’s head, and he felt the tree move. For one moment it felt as though it would roll backwards and crush his back and hips beneath its weight, but it settled back into place again. Another terrific blast, so close that it jolted through the ground and hit his chest, driving the breath out of his body. And still he could find nothing to shoot at.
   The screaming was now thin and high and continuous, stopping only to draw shuddering breath. All the shooting seemed to be coming from the enemy side now. Minh had no idea what had happened to Thanh and Dung. He wanted to get out from under the log and crawl back away from the shooting, but with the machine gun sweeping the trees he was safer where he was. Thinking he saw movement somewhere down near the buffalo rock in the paddy, he fired a couple of shots. The noise was so great that he could not hear his own carbine.
   Suddenly everything was silent. The shooting had stopped. Even the screaming had died down into a moan, and then even that stopped. Minh lay where he was, and from the corner of his eye he thought he could see men moving in the jungle around him, and he thought he could hear foreign voices. He lay very still and hoped he would not be seen.
   A long time afterwards, he was sure they had missed him. He then crawled out from under his log and stood up. His clothes were soaked and muddy, and he thought he had urinated in his trousers, but there was no way to be sure. It no longer mattered anyway. He looked around and – crouched over and stiff – moved up the slope to where the other two were.
   He found Thanh first, or what was left of Thanh. He did not look at her long. The sight of what had happened to her made his stomach churn. Just beyond her, Dung’s corpse was still hanging from a tree where an explosion had thrown it. His eyes stared at Minh, accusingly. How had he, the cell leader’s dead eyes asked, allowed the Americans to get so close?
   Minh shook his head. His ears still rang from the shooting, but his hearing was finally returning to normal. He slung his gun over his shoulder and began trudging up the hill towards the village. He saw the booby traps Dung had placed, the tripwires still undisturbed, and gave them a wide berth, automatically moving off the trail and back again. The sweat dripped down his face and the gun on his shoulder weighed him down.
   He walked all the way up to the tunnel. The Americans had passed this way, he saw, because the marks of their boots were deeply imprinted in the soil, the earth crumbling between the treads. When he reached the tunnel, however, there was no sign that anyone had been there, so he ducked inside. He crawled back into the second room, where Thanh had been priming grenades, and sat down to rest. The grenades were still there, and he picked one up, turning it over in his hand over and over again.
   He had been there a while when he heard the noises outside. The Americans were here at last, then, at the entrance of the tunnel. He moved to the back of the room. There was a trapdoor there, which led to a communicating tunnel that in turn led to a hidden exit in the forest. He crawled into the tunnel and to the end of it, hearing the Americans coming down the tunnel, slowly and noisily in the darkness. They were too large for the tunnels, and there was plenty of time for him to escape and hide in the forest.

   Then he thought again of the imprints of the American boots in the soil outside, and he saw the silver dots diving through the clouds, napalm dropping from them like fire from heaven. He thought about how Dung’s eyes had looked at him. And then he thought of Thanh as he had last seen her, naked and disemboweled. He thought of them and listened to the Americans crawling down the tunnel. And then he chambered a round and waited, crouching in the darkness, for the enemy to come to him.
   The tunnel was dark and narrow, and inside the earth, the earth, above which all the things grew, and where the wind blew and the rain fell, the earth, where all the good things were.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2010/12