Friday, August 28, 2009
Into The Heart of Darkness (Pt. 1 of 3)
The following are actual events that unfolded during my assignment in Pakistan last week. The stories are true. The people are real. The fear is un-imaginable. But for the safety and well-being of those who accompanied me--and those who continue to risk their lives everyday in Pakistan, I cannot share with you my exact locations, disclose real names, nor write in detail the reason why my camera lead me to Pakistan. But what I will share with you are my emotions, my feelings, and my thoughts. I will walk you thru step-by-step--and take you, Into The Heart of Darkness.
When I accepted the assignment last month, I was in the midst of filming in Samoa. A message came through via email that read: 'I have an assignment for you. Are you interested?' And that was it. Simple and sweet, right to the point. I like that. Because sometimes in life, you just know when something is calling--and if you're true to yourself, you answer it. This was one of those moments.
When I got home from Samoa, I immediately began packing again. I didn't tell my mother where I'd be going. Looking her straight in the eye, I told her I might be in India, somewhere safe, of course. Looking away, I felt the veins in my heart twist and turn as it weaved its way through a mesh of lies I had fabricated. I wanted to tell her the truth. But if I did, she'd never approve of me going. No one would.
There were a select few that knew about the mission, the bits and pieces of an elaborate-covert operation: some co-workers, my best friends Steve and Zak, and people who either didn't know my family or weren't anywhere close to their proximity. I was cautious. And even for those whom I had told, they had no idea exactly where I'd be, who I'll be with, or for how long I'd be away. I've never been good at keeping secrets. It always felt better to me when I spilled the truth, the intricate details of life's little vignettes.
But quickly, I realized that this mission wasn't just about keeping secrets or holding back information from those you love, it meant more than that--more than just telling lies--because in the end, I might not get the chance to ever tell the truth. The thought of me dying or coming home critically injured crossed my mind on a daily basis. On some occasions, while I packed, I envisioned my funeral, my mother crying, my brother carrying my casket. It's gruesome, I know, but when you prepare to go into a war zone, you prepare for the worse. You're no longer just a citizen of the free world--you become nothing more than a living, breathing dead man waiting for your turn.
At night, I wrote farewell letters. Stuffed them in envelopes, but never sealed. I wrote to my parents, my best friends, my employer, and even you--my readers. If something were to happen to me, I wanted to leave everyone with a final message, something that you'd remember me for. But in the end, before leaving, I never gave them away. Something told me I'd jinx myself. And as for this blog, I simply gave my good friend Dan an empty envelope with my user name and password written inside--that way, he'd be able to let you know that I won't be posting. I knew he'd find the right words (and photo) if he had to.
0300 at 35,000 ft
I awoke at 3am. Looking out my window, I saw clouds, a few stars and the moon hovering over the horizon. To my right, was Ed, my producer/director, fast asleep. I don't know how he did it. For Ed, this assignment was his first in a hostile zone. Earlier, he told me he was excited to see the country, meet the people and experience the culture. I smiled and turned away.
There's something about Ed that I envy. The way he can view the world without fear, how he's able to look beyond danger, to see what I cannot see--the world for all it's beauty, without having to be scared. Don't get me wrong, Ed is by no means the epitome of a thrill seeker, not a jock by any standards. If you were to meet him on the street, he'd probably show you pictures of his family, the two daughters he married this summer, and a snapshot of him and his wife. He's the kinda guy you'd find at Costco on a Sunday afternoon looking for motor oil, the kind that can care less if Michael Jackson came back from the dead. He's a simple man with the smile of a ten year old.
And as I envy his spirit, I can't help but feel remorse for the same spirit I've lost, the innocence that I too once had. But after being in Afghanistan two times before, I've accepted the notion that I will no longer be able to view the world the same way again. I've seen more pain and suffering than most will ever see in a life time. I'll never be able to have what Ed has.
As we flew over continents, Ed and I verbally ran through scenarios in preparation. I taught him how to listen for the direction of incoming bullets, how to properly fall to the ground, what to look for when approaching check-points, where to run to if we got ambushed, and most importantly, what to do if we got kidnapped. He listened closely, asked questions--and just when I thought I had covered it all, we simply found more scenarios to play out. The fear was palpable. But some how, Ed was able to fall asleep half an hour later. The roar of the plane's engine echoed in my proverbial mind as I tossed and turned in my seat.
Getting In/Getting Out
Our mission in Pakistan was simple: go in covertly as tourists, not journalists. We were to get our shots and get out. But going in as tourists with professional camera equipment was like trying to mix oil and water.
Before leaving the plane, Ed and I checked ourselves over, made sure we looked like tourists. Our carry-on luggage was a simple backpack. My camera was stored in a roller that resembled that of an old man's suit case. So together, we walked carefully off the plane, headed towards the immigration line and patiently waited for our turn. My heart skipped a beat.
Standing there, my eyes started to canvas the room. I noticed bags being left unattended, young men walking with AK-47's--their fingers on the trigger, safety-lock in the off position. Looking left, I noticed two ladies kneeling on the hard granite floor, praying in the direction of Mecca. Behind me, an old man stood silently with his passport in hand. Amazingly, after only twenty minutes of waiting, Ed and I cleared customs. Our disguise had worked. Weirdly, the whole ordeal felt too good to be true. Not a single question was asked. All we did was stood there and waited. It was as if some secret clearance was granted to us before we had even arrived--as if someone was covertly working for us behind the scenes.
As we left the terminal, darkness had set in. The moon lit our way. Suddenly, we were quickly greeted by a man whom we only know as Mr. Nickel, a code name that he went by. We were ushered into a dark green Toyota Landcruiser. There was no small talk, no mingling or smiles. They took our bags, stuffed them in the trunk and slammed the door. Within seconds, Ed and I were enclosed in an elaborate protective circle.
Looking out the window, I saw Mr. Nickel shaking hands with men dressed in military fatigues. A few handshakes later, he entered the vehicle, took the front passenger seat and told the driver to GO.
It was then when I realized that this was the point of no return...
Please Standby for Part Two.