In praise of a life unordinary


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Category: Profiles Date: 24 Sep 98

“It appears that we the human race are brave enough to kill other people, but lack the courage as Chagall puts it, to “make a revolution in our own inner lives, and to live with simplicity and purity.””

By Ira Mathur, in London


“Despite the troubles of our world I have kept the inner life in which I have been raised, and man’s hope in love. In our life there is a single colour, as on an artist’s palette which provides the meaning of life and art. It is the colour of love. Basically we are all alike. And we’re probably nostalgic, not for what we would like to know of things outside ourselves, but for our own dreams, our own impulse toward a revolution in our inner life, which is the discovery of purity, of simplicity, of naturalness, such as the faces of children and the voice of the one whom we have the habit of calling Divinity.” - Marc Chagall


These are the words I stood copying furiously in my diary from the wall at the Royal Academy of Art on a sunny Sunday morning. I was embarrassed, feeling like a naive schoolgirl writing the introduction to a collection of work rather than viewing it, which I had paid to do.


From the corner of my eye I then became aware of a young woman scrambling in her backpack for paper and pen. She too began copying.  We were then joined by a middle-aged, gaunt man who read the introduction, looked at us, whipped a pen out of his shirt pocket and began writing on the programme


I thought of how amused this famous artist must be that we preferred his words to his palette. Here in London, I am surprised at how I gush about Trinidad and Tobago.  I am profuse as I spout about the drive to Maracas, the dense foliage, the many birds, burnt orange sunsets, the inky sea at night reflecting the lights on the land and the moon. But as my sentences peter out I sometimes get a niggle of doubt, feel like a bit of a fraud.


It is tiring being part of a people who, although dynamic and creative, still haven’t been able to figure out who we are, or where our allegiances lie, or what it means to be West Indian. It seems that we haven’t considered all the options open to us. I don’t think, initially, it was our fault. Still, with many persons living below the poverty line, our focus on economic goals is understandable.


But this focus has blinded us to other measures of success. There is very little discussion in Trinidad and Tobago about any quality-of-life measures and in their absence many of us, from every religious and socio-economic background, have fallen for the idea that money equals happiness.


I am not a purist and don’t knock the freedom, possibility and happiness money can bring. But the niggle appears when there is little else but that. Most of us, at some quiet time, have faced the fact that there is only so much food you can eat, cars you can drive, clothes you can wear, and stopped for a second and looked around. But, in the absence of role models and opportunities for change, have returned to our lives, just a little emptier inside.


This seems to be the biggest difference between London and Trinidad. I write this at the Freedom Forum, a building in Marble Arch where journalists can use free e-mail, computer and phone facilities. To my right sits a Turkish woman, modestly dressed in a headscarf, to my left a Parisian woman. Behind me, eagerly switching channels for news on Clinton’s trial by television, is a Greek journalist. I live in a house with two Canadian women.  They are in their early 30s. And they fascinate me because they have not bought into the money equals happiness equation.


The most remarkable among them is Jane, a Canadian who comes from a traditional Catholic Croatian family which immigrated to Canada in the ‘60s.  At 27, Jane was engaged to be married and working as a financial reporter in Canada.  Some impulse in her made her call off the wedding and become a war reporter. I was fascinated by the way she had completely side-stepped the stuff most women fall for - convention, material comfort, security, children. “I have never been materialistically driven. Only ideas driven. Since I was a teenager I asked the questions: Why are people starving in Africa? Why is there a cold war, why do people kill? Why are certain countries doomed to have long wars? “The kind of guy I was going to marry didn’t want his wife going to famine and poverty stricken Sudan. I knew that I wouldn’t be happy with the path of my girlfriends, getting married, having children, a mortgage and a BMW.”


Jane took her video camera and a backpack and went off to witness the collapse of the Balkans. First stop Albania; second Cosova to record ethnic cleansing. By 1990 she was in the Soviet Union where she covered the Soviet coup. As a young female war reporter, Jane had to work three times as hard as men to get her stories sold, and get past editors who didn’t believe a woman could have footage they wanted. She did. She was in Bosnia between ‘92-’95 and brought back footage of mass graves. She began to differentiate between fresh and old graves. She saw people’s legs sticking out of the ground, visible torture marks and slit throats. She saw dead babies with their comforters still in their mouths, and pensioners still clutching their sticks.


She went shopping for fruit and vegetables in markets in the morning that, by afternoon, would be covered with corpses. She was there in Sarajevo and filmed Bosnian General Ratko Madic order killings. She visited Prijedor, where 40,000 Muslim families used to live, but lay butchered in graves. Jane didn’t just do bang, bang stories. She looked at the human side, visiting hospitals, talking to wounded children. She took calculated risks, got military accreditation and went in with her camera with a militia and a battle plan, lived rough with soldiers, didn’t have a bath for a week, and withstood shelling, keeping the camera steady all along.


I am fascinated at her account, unable to stop her talking now. But desperately wanting to ask her why she chose this path. She continues, “I filed the Serbs, Croats and Muslims. Objectivity means giving all sides a hearing. I got in s*** at times because I speak Serbo-Croat, and was accused of being a spy and detained. 

“I covered the wars in Sudan, Afghanistan, Algeria and Yugoslavia. In Ethiopia where I was covering human rights violations and the AIDS epidemic I was viewed as a threat to state security. I was deported.

“At the airport, eight members of the security forces confiscated my tapes, kicked me around, smashed my camera, and made me take my clothes off. I thought ‘game over’. With eight guns pointed to my head I thought I would be gang raped and killed. I got cold and firm, and asked them for their ID. What saved me was that I am a Canadian citizen.

“Then I get back to London and there are Christmas parties going on. But I didn’t cry then. I cried later in my flat in London.

“I have terrifying dreams and having seen massacres in Algeria, woke up grasping my throat. I am terrified of landmines. There are about five million landmines in Yugoslavia. I was in an aid convoy in Jablanica and a friend of mine died, and many people were injured. As a journalist I need my legs. I keep having this recurring dream where I am trying to pick up my legs.”


I interject. Questions tumble over one another. Isn’t she afraid of death? Why is she putting her life on the line?

“I was brought up in a strict Roman Catholic family where I was told nothing about real life. At 14 I thought I was bleeding to death. I was part of the society that was brainwashed into believing that if you buy this car, or live in this part of town you would be happy. But I refuse to be brainwashed. As we speak there are 30 wars on in this world. In the entire history of civilisation, there have been only 27 years of peace.

“I am not Mother Theresa but I have to give something back. I have to. I hate shoving my camera into the faces of starving children with flies on their face, but it brings in aid. I always knew there was a whole world out there in which I had to do my bit.”


But it was not enough. I wondered how life could be so vast and yet simple and pure for this woman. I asked her again. There was obviously something in her that made her risk her life, torment her nights, often leave her lonely, and without a companion. I got the answer.

“Fear is the biggest killer. I have one fear. That of being ordinary, predictable. I’ve seen so many people waste their lives because they are afraid. An elderly female war correspondent who died last year once told me she leapt before she thought. I also jump before I think. It makes me alive.”


As I write I listen to the Clinton testimony. It is the agonising humiliation, a witch-hunt from a blood-thirsty society. There are many ways to skin a man. Jane believes after all the massacres she has witnessed that all men have a war gene, that human kind is genocidal. 


It appears that we the human race are brave enough to kill other people, but lack the courage, as Chagall puts it, to “make a revolution in our own inner lives, and to live with simplicity and purity.”


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur