Marking 5 years
I like milestones. They provide a satisfying sense of accomplishment and achievement whilst ensuring the preservation of a little focus and direction.
This post is a celebration of one such milestone. April 9th, 2016 marked exactly 5 years since I first posted on this blog. It’s a pleasant feeling to know that despite the many twists and turns, the sporadic uprooting, the hellos and the goodbyes, and the often unplanned wanderings, I have still found time to regularly (well, kind of regularly) update and commit part of my energy and heart to this little project.
A project that began with the somewhat vague aim of recording my ramblings has now grown into a means by which to document a multitude of experiences that came along the way.
What this milestone also represents is that it is now a little over five years since I arrived in Bangladesh. When I think back to that time (March 2011), I really had no idea I would remain so long in this country, but I don’t regret it one bit. I arrived on a short term contract with a cautious ambition to perhaps extend that to a year. Five years on I’m still here aside from a one year sabbatical (of sorts) in Guyana.
Bangladesh has been good to me, and I am very grateful for that. I can’t really believe how quickly the five years have flown by, but in that time I’ve been lucky enough to explore this country a little and also travel to Nepal, India, Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Laos, Bhutan, Thailand, and even back to Rwanda a couple of times.
Most importantly though I have been lucky enough to work in a job that has inspired me to grow and learn. I’ve been surrounded by some fantastic colleagues right from the start, and they have been a source of constant knowledge whilst encouraging me to change and develop my outlook on many, many things.
I have of course also been privileged to teach and work with students who have taught me far more than I have them.
As always with these short posts that mark a milestone, I prefer to let images tell the story, so here are a few which I think sum up just why that tentative first few months turned into five years and provided me with so many amazing adventures under this one sun.
All images © John Stanlake
A new project
So I’d like to take the opportunity to use this somewhat older (hmmm, let’s say more ‘mature’) platform of communication to tell you about a new project I’ve started working on.
I say I, but it is in fact ‘we’ – my good friend Rich and I. We know each other from our days in Prague when we both completed the same TEFL course (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) and have remained good friends ever since.
Rich still lives and works in the Czech Republic in a town called Podebrady, and he came up with the idea of creating a Vlog (video log) in which we both contribute regular videos offering a little glimpse into our individual experiences in the Czech Republic and Bangladesh respectively.
The slight twist is that in doing so, we will set each other various challenges. We will also seek input from our viewers (who will hopefully exist!) and ask for suggestions for challenges they would like to see us complete, hence the name of the vlog – You Set The Scenes. Also, crucially, whoever receives the most thumbs up on youtube for their video wins the challenge.
*The name of the vlog is also a little nod to one of my favourite songs by one of my favourite bands.*
The main aims of this new project are as follows:
- For Rich and I to keep in touch!
- To hopefully offer viewers a little glimpse into what our lives are like as expats.
- To offer a positive look into the culture and environment of both Bangladesh and the Czech Republic.
- To motivate Rich and I to explore our locations further and hopefully create a richer personal understanding of our surroundings.
- To do things we may not have previously considered, which will no doubt at some points make us appear awkward and uncomfortable…perhaps much to the amusement of our viewers (again, if we have any)!
So that’s it really. I’m sure it will be a challenge at times, but also worthwhile, rewarding and fun. We both love exploring and getting away from the ‘tourist track’ and hope that this new vlog will reflect that.
Check out the trailer…
Our first challenge was to learn and recite a tongue twister in the native language of our countries. So I learned a tongue twister in Bangla, and Rich learned one in Czech. You can see how we got on below.
We hope you enjoy our future videos, and please comment below with any suggestions you would like us to try!
Travelling – it’s all about the journey. All about the spectacular places you see, the food you eat, the fear and excitement of the unknown and the cultures and customs you experience and are often invited into. You click frantically in a desperate attempt to capture as many memories as possible, and if you’re like me, you try to keep notes and write about the unique, random and sometimes bizarre moments that will no doubt occur at regular points throughout the journey.
However, during my most recent trip to Rwanda and the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) it dawned on me that one of the most important aspects of my travels and time abroad has been the people I’ve met, and crucially, the things I’ve learned from each and every one of these people. I have come to realise this cannot be underestimated or overlooked in regards to its value, relevance and impact.
International travelers inspire. Their sense of adventure and courage in the face of the unknown is at times baffling, but more often than not, totally energizing. They are often brave, curious, open, and unafraid to try new things, unburdened by logistics, and often equipped with a sharp and equally patient sense of humour. Those who travel live for the moment and instead of asking “Why?” the question is usually “Why not?”
Some may remark it is an irresponsible and risky existence, but I would say the outcomes of these risks are moments that will stay etched in the memory for a lifetime. From my personal experiences during my explorations I have encountered all manner of personalities, and this has undoubtedly been paramount to my own personal growth. It has inspired me to do things I had probably never before considered.
I have become more open and confident in meeting new people and more eager to strike up a conversation. My willingness to try new things has known far fewer bounds in recent years, and whilst I try my very best to be as careful and respectful as possible, I think the dive into the unknown is a truly formative experience.
At various points on my recent trip, I interacted and spent time with a group of people who truly emphasized the diversity and collective adventurous spirit of the international worker and traveller.
Firstly I reunited with three good friends who have all carved out their own individually international paths in recent years. Inga (from Norway) volunteered with me in Rwanda in 2010 and since then has gone on to spend an extended period teaching at an international school in Kigali. She has also spent time teaching in refugee camps in Lebanon (predominantly home to Syrian refugees) and is now about to begin a PhD at Oxford University researching education in refugee camps, which will once again take her to camps in East Africa and the Middle East.
Kirsty (from Canada) is a web designer and online entrepreneur currently based in Rwanda and responsible for this great website www.livinginkigali.com. She also travels extensively and a major part of this is dedicated to her work with disaster relief projects. In the past few years she has been to Haiti, Bangladesh, Malawi and most recently, Nepal as a volunteer for an organisation which sends volunteers to assist with work after major disasters (www.hands.org).
Finally Kim (from the US) is also a former fellow volunteer in Rwanda. Since our work together in 2010 she has lived in Bogota, Colombia and Dar es Salam, Tanzania and travelled a great deal during this time. It is safe to say that Kim has experienced some of the very real challenges of life in major international capital cities and has been a constant and reliable source of knowledge and advice during the past few years.
So, as you can imagine, the stories and experiences shared when we all came together were humorous, intriguing, eye-opening, but most importantly they provided a very real insight into a wide variety of life experiences and challenges.
We all signed up to hike Mount Nyiragongo in The DRC and personally I was a little reluctant when the volcano hike was in the planning stages due to cost and risk. Eastern DRC is an area rife with extremely dangerous rebel groups that reside in the dense forests and often unleash brutal and devastating attacks on surrounding towns and villages. It is the reason why there are large numbers of UN peacekeepers based in nearby Goma.
In addition to that Nyiragongo is an active volcano, which last erupted in 2002 leaving the town of Goma covered and destroyed by lava. The people are still rebuilding their homes and lives today. However, with a bit of peer pressure and that adventurous spirit, I was persuaded to sign up for the hike. Why not?!
Also in our group for the volcano climb was Johnny from Ireland. Now if you want to hear stories about international adventures, Johnny is your man. He is currently on an 8 year mission to visit every country in the world. At the time of meeting him he was up to about 145 countries. How does he fund this you may ask? Well, a few years ago he was in a 9-5 office job which he disliked. So, he set up a travel blog/website and once this gained interest and popularity, it quickly attracted advertisers and he realised this was a liberating and exciting way to earn money. He recently celebrated breaking the $1 million mark for income generated by his online work. This is one of his websites; http://onestep4ward.com/.
The hike was tough, but chatting with Johnny and hearing his many stories from almost any country you can think of helped pass the time and keep our minds off the sometimes gruelling ascent and knee-jerking descent.
At our hotel in Goma before beginning the hike we met Finbarr O’Reilly, an international correspondent and photographer, who was based in Africa when Mount Nyiragongo erupted in January 2002 and arrived on the scene the very next day. He has been visiting and working in the DRC ever since. He has also spent time working in Afghanistan, Darfur, Niger, Somalia, Libya and many other ‘hotspots’ which have exposed to him to some of the most emotionally challenging scenes you can imagine. This is his photography website http://www.finbarr-oreilly.com/.
We also shared a ride with Finbarr back from Goma to Kigali and in the car with us that day was Paul. Paul’s job is to work in conjunction with the US State Department organising hip hop workshops around the world. The overarching mission of the project is to promote diplomacy, reconciliation and trauma relief amongst young people who have been affected by various challenges often due to war and conflict.
It was fascinating hearing about such a program and how it has achieved such positive results in a diverse set of countries to date. Paul has facilitated these all over the world and it was really very cool to hear about such novel and unique methods of providing assistance and support to young people across the world.
So, in the space of just a few short days I was able to speak with, and more importantly, draw inspiration from a fascinating collection of people. Our volcano hike group was truly international and this is what I love.
Of course, this is not solely reflected in this one specific trip. It has been the case everywhere I’ve travelled/lived, and it is one of the reasons the travel bug gets you. You never know for sure who you are going to meet, where they will be from or what their background is. The one thing you can almost guarantee though is that whoever you cross paths with at that particular time will have a new story to tell, a new place to recommend and an ability to open your eyes to a new perspective that you may not have considered previously. And that I have found is priceless.
A statistical and image-based reflection on a week in west Bangladesh
After nine straight weeks of teaching, the question was how to fill nine days of vacation. On this occasion I decided to remain in Bangladesh and take the opportunity to explore this country a little further, and having never ventured due west before, that is where I went. The division of Khulna to be precise, which borders India and comprises a number of districts, including Jessore and Khulna.
Travelling individually has always felt a little daunting to me, so the prospect of spending the duration of the break navigating an unfamiliar area of Bangladesh alone provoked mixed emotions. Nevertheless, I survived, and I’m here to report in. I’ll spare the mundane play by play account of what happened and instead present an array of telling statistics. Prior to leaving Chittagong I decided I’d take a pad and pen with me on the trip and keep a tally of the inevitable and the unexpected in equal measure.
So, here it is, the story of my week in Jessore and Khulna in numbers, beginning with the most important and reflective of all…
46 – Cups of tea consumed
20 – Cups of tea I paid for
26 – Cups of tea bought for me by ever hospitable locals
10 – Invites to homes
4 – Invites accepted
659 – Photos taken (see a select set here – Jessore & Khulna)
6 – Modes of transport used during the trip
37 – Times my unmarried status evoked confused frowns
21 – Times it was suggested I marry in Bangladesh
4 – Business cards received
27 – Business cards distributed
3 – Occasions in which I was asked if I came from Japan
24 – Jibes received regarding England’s woeful Cricket World Cup campaign
12 – Times I was asked to reveal my salary
6 – 15th century mosques visited
7 – Hindu temples visited
Here is a list of events which occurred just once, but I deemed worthy enough to scribble down in my notepad…
- Requested to convert to Islam for marriage purposes
- Military border parades witnessed
- Squeezed into a body-hugging Bangladesh cricket shirt and told, “It fits perfectly boss!”
- Asked if Iranian
- Told to cancel my hotel booking and sleep in the home of a man I had met just 30 minutes previously
- After briefly chatting with a man I met earlier in the day, he then text to inform me he was knocking on my hotel room door and requested I open said door…
- ‘Adventure Parks’ visited that made me want to scream “WHY??!!” at the person who recommended it and assured me it was “very beautiful…”
- Told I was lying about my age as I couldn’t possibly be as young as I was claiming
- Told a man he was the least friendliest person I had ever met in Bangladesh after he spent a good five minutes ridiculing my intelligence for not carrying my passport and stating that as the British were “Kings” I am practically a disgrace to the great nation of Britain
And finally, a list of occurrences that initially I had firm intentions of meticulously tracking. Yet, as the hours and days passed, I soon realised it would be impossible to keep an accurate record due to the sheer volume. So, in the end they became uncountable, but no less significant…
- Asked the question, “Your country?”
- Confused questions with suspicious facial expressions regarding my reason for being in Jessore/Khulna/Bangladesh
- Enthusiastically praised for my comprehensive Bangla language proficiency
- Robustly chastised for my low level of Bangla language proficiency
- Pondered the meaning of life
- Wondered if rural Bangladesh is the most beautiful place on earth
- Wondered why my bus driver was trying to overtake three other buses up ahead
- Wondered how that 93rd passenger was going to find a space to squeeze into on the already cramped bus, but soon realising there was space for passengers 94, 95 and 96.
So that concludes a brief look at my week in the west. It was fascinating, eye-opening, and at times a little testing. However, it was completely worth it, and evidence once again of why I often question why more tourists don’t come and explore this golden land.
Selfishly I’m glad they don’t though, because there were times on the trip as I sat on the back of a wagon and we meandered our way down a silent, tree-lined country road in the early evening, just as the sun began to set, that I thought to myself, “I’m totally at peace right now.”
The Running Game
I’ve written this blog in my head on many occasions in the past couple of weeks. Of course, now that I sit down to document all of those words that seemed to come so effortlessly at the time, they have retreated to a dark, cob-webbed, inhospitable corner of my brain, joining other subjects such as GCSE Science, how to iron a shirt effectively, and anything related to Plymouth Argyle success stories.
Anyway, for the previous two months now I’ve been running…quite a bit. The motivation for which came from multiple prompts, but in short it is down to a combined drive to lose weight, and to develop a healthier body and mind…..blah, blah, blah, etc, etc. Thus, in this blog post I’d like to share my insights on the mental torment, but ultimate joy that running brings, and the intricate battles that can leave you teetering on the edge of abject failure, or a warm sense of achievement. The reason I’ve written this post in my head so many times is due to the fact as I go round and round the park, lap after lap, I try to divert my thoughts towards anything but the run.
Now, I know what you are thinking – this new regime merely represents a temporary new year’s resolution-style commitment, which begins with an all guns blazing Mo Farah-esque dedication to pounding the pavement, and ends as quickly as it started with the disgraced sight of me sobbing into my Banks beer and whining about how I’ll never get fit!
However, so far after a few weeks of avoiding alcohol as much as possible (like Prince Harry avoiding the paparazzi at a costume party) and a dedicated program of running at least four times a week, I am currently beginning to reap the rewards, albeit slowly. I started modestly, managing just two laps of the nearby National Park here in Georgetown, and they weren’t easy laps. In the unrelenting Guyana climate it felt as if the heat was singeing my lungs and the ground gripping and clinging to my ankles. It is one mile from my house to the park, and each lap is also a mile in total. So, at that stage I was struggling to complete three miles.
Initially I began by running in the mornings at 5.45am, but that plan soon failed due to the fact I struggle to function without a cup of tea. I moved the runs to the early evenings and a couple of weeks ago, as the sun began to set over the park, and the guards prepared to lock the gates for the evening, I completed my seventh lap and mile eight of the run. Whilst taking great satisfaction in that moment, I think what pleased me more was the fact I didn’t collapse into a heap as soon as I exited the gate, but realised there was still some energy in the lungs.
I have run a little in the past, completing several half marathons, but I think this current period is the most consistently I’ve ever committed to it. Also, my previous running experiences took place in the UK, and running in the humidity and heat of Guyana presents a new challenge.
I’ve been reminded in recent weeks that the mental battle is far greater than the physical. So many factors unite to convince your brain that running is the most ludicrous idea in the world, and you are far better sitting in a chair, drinking tea, and reading a book. Conquering the urge to shut down and do nothing, as opposed to running has been a challenge at times.
During the working day my attitude to the impending post-work run fluctuates more erratically than Zimbabwean inflation. One moment I can’t wait to free myself from the computer screen, plug in the iPod and enjoy the early evening sun, and the next minute my legs feel like lead, and I convince myself I haven’t taken in enough fluids that day and if I run I’ll collapse in a heap and melt. I have found though that there are two main factors which have helped me edge the battle so far;
1. The Running Playlist
In recent weeks I have been reminded of the magnitude of the perfect running playlist. The monotony of each lap would be too much without music. Getting your playlist right can propel you, but getting it ever so slightly wrong is a jogging calamity. I haven’t yet quite perfected it. I’m often close, but there are always one or two rogue tunes that simply don’t work on a running playlist and thus completely upset the applecart (the applecart carrying my mental strength).
Presently one particular song causes a confusing mix of humour, suppressed rage, minor insanity, strained vigour, and sporadic muscle spasms (but not necessarily in that order). It’s also a song that proved to me once and for all that I’m a little odd. I’ll verify this (not that I need to I hear you cry) by revealing here and now that about fifteen minutes into my running playlist comes ‘Zorba the Greek’ performed by the ‘Flying Dutchman’ – Andre Rieu. That’s right, quite possibly the worst song that could ever appear on a running playlist, it’s ridiculous. The song is wonderful of course…if you’re sat in a little Greek taverna supping red wine and eating moussaka. However, when you’re desperately attempting to establish some flow and rhythm in the early stages of a run it’s a complete nightmare! The fact is though I can’t delete it; because you see, what I have noticed is despite it completely ruining my stride and breathing, it makes me smile, pure and simple. At a make or break point when I’m usually on the cusp of succumbing to the heat and a complete lack of willpower, it pushes me on by actually making me take the run a little less seriously and diverting my thoughts away from the struggle.
Other songs interspersed on my running playlist, which also perform this task (but also confirm my weirdness) include ‘Ra Ra Rasputin’ by Boney M, ‘Come on Eileen’ by Dexys Midnight Runners, ‘What is Love’ by Haddaway, ‘Delilah’ by Tom Jones, and ‘Surfin’ USA’ by the Beach Boys. I should be chronically embarrassed by all this, but sometimes I think you get to a point in your life when it’s too late for that…especially when the whiteness of my legs is a far more obvious and immediate embarrassment when running in the park here. I’m officially the man who cannot tan.
2. Fellow Runners
I hadn’t realised how important it is to have fellow pavement pounders around me when I run. There was a day a few weeks back here in Georgetown when the heavens opened and the wind whipped in over the seawall into the park. I decided to run anyway given that it at last seemed the perfect temperature for exercise. Upon arrival I found the park to be empty, not a single soul visible. I scoffed a little at the fair-weather attitude of the other park-goers and felt a little smug that I was there, laughing in the face of the wind and rain. Two laps in and the laughter had gone, the smugness had slinked away through the gate, and I was struggling severely with motivation. I soon realised that it was because I was not surrounded by other runners. I had no inspiration, no one to compete against, and essentially no one to drive me on. Not even Zorba the Greek or Boney M could propel me this time.
I struggled through the run and that evening I thought about just why it had been such a battle in the empty park. It may sound ridiculous, but I concluded that in the previous weeks I had gained a very certain familiarity with not just the park, but even more crucially its regular visitors. Running lap after lap is a monotonous and sterile exercise. However, the faces you pass make it interesting. They become familiar, and thus, reassuring. You begin to reason that surely if other people are doing this it must be logical.
Then there’s the facial expressions and gestures which become commonplace. There are several fellow runners who over the course of the past few weeks have developed from complete strangers to several different stages of relationship (in this order),
2. Timid grinners
3. Broad smilers
4. Timid grin head nodders
5. Broad smile head nodders
6. Broad smile, head nod and eye rollers (in a manner which evokes the emotion ‘here we are again!’)
7. Tennis invites (the other day a man invited me to play tennis with him!)
During one run I was stopped mid lap and asked if I wanted to join a group of people for a beer and some freshly baked fish, and another day I was stopped by a very friendly and interesting American chap who completely ruined my run, but had some great tales about his life in Africa. I’ve even on a couple of occasions seen fellow runners outside of the park going about their normal lives, and we’ve struck up conversation. It always begins with confused looks at each other and then it clicks – we know each other from the park. I had wondered if one day I’d meet my future wife during one of my runs, but soon reminded of the whiteness of my legs, I let this ambition fade!
Despite running very regularly for almost 3 months now, it still presents an up and down journey of mental torment. Some days the run flows by in a breeze, other days I vow never to go again. One day I don’t think I ate enough and literally thought I was going mad as I felt light-headed and almost as if I wasn’t quite there mentally! However, on most occasions now I am able to transform the endless monotony of the continuous laps into an almost peaceful content monotony. It does also help a great deal that the park is a picturesque location, as hopefully the accompanying photos testify.
I always walk home from the park to warm down and it’s at these moments I feel at my most positive at any point during the day, which does prove (to me at least) that exercise can have such a decisive effect on your mental wellbeing.
The title of this blog post is a song by Kula Shaker, which incidentally is not on my playlist, but I feel it sums up my relationship with running perfectly.
It’s funny who you meet sometimes, and the places you meet them. For example, the time I was a little lost walking across the Nottingham University campus having only arrived a few days previously. As a naive 18 year old I was bewildered, disorientated, homesick, intimidated, and most probably hung over from the previous night’s ‘Freshers Week’ mayhem. I remember looking up, and in the distance I noticed a shirt….a football shirt. It was undeniably distinctive and visible a mile off due to the fact it was…well….neon tangerine. Yes, the mere mention of this colour probably fills any Plymouth Argyle football supporter with a mix of pride, joy, embarrassment, and regret. Pride and joy for the fact it marked a period of great triumph on the pitch. Embarrassment and regret mainly because of the ‘colour’ and the fact many of us parted with hard-earned cash to purchase one of these monstrosities. Anyway, the important detail is that upon seeing the shirt I realised there was another one of us. Another Argyle fan who’d flown the nest and left Devon (or Cornwall of course), with a heavy heart no doubt, in search of pastures new, chasing a dream. As such we shared a deep connection, and this person, whoever they were, would have to help me. After all, both of us were far from home and in a world where Plymouth Argyle fans would likely be ridiculed and shunned. I approached the owner of said garish shirt and to cut a long, boring story slightly short, we spent the next three years travelling the length and breadth of England together with a small troop of other Nottingham-based members of the Green Army following our beloved team. Happy days.
The subject matter of that brief, personal narrative is fairly irrelevant in terms of what I’m going to talk about in this update. However, it was a short, anecdotal observation symbolising the often chance encounters we experience. I’d actually like to tackle the serious subject I’d planned to cover last time, before beard absurdity got in the way. It’s another, rather different, but meaningful chance encounter, which in some ways brought together my experiences in both Rwanda and Bangladesh in an intriguing manner. The subject of this update is Retired Major Ezaz Afzal from the Bangladeshi Army (pictured below). Major Ezaz is currently the Deputy Director of Security at my university; his task being to keep all staff and students safe and secure both on and off campus as far as possible. However, prior to this he led a fascinating life in the military. In the early to mid 1990s, Major Ezaz witnessed two devastating conflicts, both of which became infamous for incomprehensible crimes against humanity, and genocide.
With over 10,000 soldiers, Bangladesh is actually one of the top providers of troops to the UN. Bangladeshi soldiers have served, and continue to serve, as peacekeepers in a whole host of different countries and missions. I first came to hear of Major Ezaz’s experiences in the UN during a presentation he gave at the university about his time as a peacekeeper in Bosnia. He gave an intriguing and frank insight into his experiences there, but my ears pricked when he revealed to his audience that directly prior to the Balkans he’d seen active service in Rwanda. I met many different people during my year in that same country, but I rarely, if ever, got the chance to speak to anyone directly about what it was like to be there in ’94. It just never seemed like an appropriate question to ask, unless it was brought up in conversation. So, I saw this as an opportunity. UNAMIR (United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda) was extremely controversial. Slammed for its ineffectiveness to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Rwandans, and infamous for its eventual withdrawal and abandonment at the height of the killing, I was anxious to hear the Major’s take on things and to get an idea of just what it was like to be there, witness to such unimaginable horror.
Major Ezaz is a very warm and affable guy. He welcomed me into his office and we exchanged some of the Kinyarwandan words we both remember. Perhaps as strange as this may seem, he clearly has a lot of fond memories of his time in Rwanda and reminisces with great passion and exuberance. His unit arrived in January 1994, and for the Major it was his first UN mission. At this point genocide was certainly not a widely acknowledged possibility, and the UN’s assignment was generally expected to be both straightforward in execution and short in duration. There was however undoubtedly great tension and instances of sporadic violence, and as the country prepared for the upcoming presidential election in May of that year, the role of the peacekeepers was to help facilitate this, and to aid the continuing peace process. Major Ezaz and his troops’ place of duty was at the parliament building in Kigali, where their task was to provide protection to the opposition party representatives from the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front). Their leader at the time was one Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s current President. The Major told me that during this period he and his fellow soldiers led a fairly ‘normal’ life (for a UN Peacekeeper). When on duty they would carry out routine security tasks, and once their work was done for the day they’d enjoy the local beers and nightlife, and this is how it went on for the first three months of his time in East Africa.
Major Ezaz in happier times with locals. This photo conjures a whole host of different questions in my mind as I look into the eyes of each person – young and old – wondering just how the genocide may have affected each and every one of them?
At this point he admitted to feeling very little danger and enjoying a good relationship with the Rwandan people he was working with. However, in the early evening of April 6th 1994 this all changed dramatically. Major Ezaz told me it had been a normal day like any other, and he’d just finished dinner when the news came through that President Habyarimana’s plane had been downed near the airport as it came into land, killing everyone on board, including the Rwandan president and the president of neighbouring Burundi. Rwanda transitioned almost instantly from relative calm to frenzied chaos (albeit organised chaos), and it would remain this way for months to follow. The Major said it all came as a big surprise to him and many of his fellow UN soldiers. They had no idea that the subsequent events had been planned for several years. Within one hour they heard reports of the killings that had started all across the city, and the night sky was filled with the sound of gunfire and explosions. The Major’s location changed from the parliament building to the national stadium where many of the UN troops were based. His experience in Rwanda was about to change completely.
On the morning of April 7th he made his way to the parliament building, much like any other day in Rwanda. However, there was something different about the route taken on this day. It hadn’t changed at all, it was just the road was more congested than usual, not with vehicles, but with dead bodies. For the first time in our conversation Major Ezaz’s tone dropped, and he was now talking about an entirely different Rwanda to the one he’d spent the previous ten minutes referring to with such affection. On reaching the Parliament he was told to turn straight back and return to his permanent base at the stadium. Even in this short time the piles of bodies had mounted. At this point I attempted to press my ‘interviewee’ into describing just how he felt upon being confronted with these sights. His response was not a surprise, yet I’m not sure what else you can say but, “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.” Who would? I imagine even as a UN soldier you never really expect to witness such wanton destruction, violence, and inhumanity.
From this point, just hours after the death of the President, Rwanda became a country of violence and death. I was told about the drunken soldiers and militia looting and raping at will. Routine journeys that had once taken an hour now took five as you negotiated your way through the relentless roadblocks. Roadblocks manned by crazed characters working on a cocktail of alcohol, drugs and sheer adrenaline, all fuelled by the hate radio that pumped out warnings of ‘cockroaches’ (Tutsis and Tutsi sympathisers) in your midst and the rewards you’d receive if you helped in the mission to exterminate them once and for all. It’s all incredibly chilling. I asked the Major if he had been scared when approaching these roadblocks. A fairly stupid question I admit, but his response was telling nonetheless. A resounding “YES,” as he described the fact they were controlled by young boys, almost always armed, and always drunk or high with absolutely no discipline. There was little telling what they might do, like a grenade with no pin, the blue helmet of the UN was little deterrent, and there was a reason for this.
Major Ezaz pictured in the National Stadium (Amahoro Stadium), Kigali, 1994
It was fascinating, if not a little unreal to hear Major Ezaz talk about these situations personally. Situations I’d read about in books, but never recalled to me by someone witness to such mayhem. I asked him to describe the most intimidating encounter he faced during his service in Rwanda. He mentioned several, but the one which stood out most personally was a standoff involving himself, some of his men, a small group of Belgian soldiers, and a deep crowd of Interahamwe (Hutu militia). The activities which preceded the encounter were symbolic. Earlier in the day ten Belgian peacekeepers had been ambushed, shot, and hacked into pieces by the militia. Their blue UN helmets tossed around like prize trophies. The UN mission didn’t have a mandate to stop the killing of Rwandans. They could only fire if fired upon, and the genocide perpetrators knew this. However, the brutal murder of the ten Belgian soldiers was a clear message from the Hutu power movement directly to the UN and the outside world – leave, you can’t stop this, we’re in control now. With ten of their own soldiers now dead, killed in such a brutal fashion, the UN was faced with the dilemma of respond with increased force, or leave. Tragically for hundreds of thousands of Rwandans, the UN chose option two. It wasn’t long after that the world peacekeeping force gave in to the militias and decided the risk was too great and the Rwandan people not worth saving.
Major Ezaz told me that some hours after the ten Belgians were killed, another group of twenty-five soldiers of the same nationality found themselves in a precarious and life-threatening situation as they became stranded between their base and a frenzied mob. Vastly outnumbered and most certainly in great danger, the soldiers needed instant and decisive assistance. I was told by the Major that this was both his proudest yet most heart stopping moment in Rwanda. His men somehow managed to hold off the mob and direct the Belgians to the safety of their base, using very little force, but a significant amount of courage and composure, and only after considerable tension and provocation by the crazed young militiamen. The unpredictability of the Hutu militias and their increasing ambition and fearless confidence played a very definite role in the UN’s reluctance to stay and commit soldiers who would potentially end up meeting the same fate as the ten Belgians.
During our conversation Major Ezaz reminisced about another tragic situation which left him with two distinct emotions; one of sheer horror, and the other enormous pride. It occurred at his base in the national stadium. Shortly after the start of the killing he described how Tutsis began to arrive in great numbers in search of shelter and protection from the barbaric killing mobs that had overrun the city. Many Tutsis were now essentially refugees in their own birthplace. The UN was at least able to provide a very basic safe haven to those ‘lucky’ enough to make it there. However, it was unable to prevent shells fired from outside the stadium walls causing devastation wherever they fell. Unfortunately the Major saw this with his own eyes one day as a shell exploded amongst a group of people in the refugee area of the stadium. Fourteen people were killed in this one strike alone, and according to Major Ezaz these types of attacks were not uncommon. He described how he and his troops rushed to the scene to find complete devastation. However, amongst the horror eight lives were saved by the work of the Bangladeshi army medics. Speaking in obvious earnest, he expressed the pride he felt for his men in this situation. He spoke of the genuine fear of contracting HIV as there was often little time to think before diving into catastrophes and responding decisively and proactively to scenarios similar to that above.
Below is another photo which fills me with intense sadness and intrigue. It shows Major Ezaz and a UN colleague distributing food to Tutsi refugees sheltering in the stadium. I can’t help wondering what happened to these people after the UN withdrew. This image is stuck in time with an answer I’ll never discover.
I won’t lie. I was hoping to hear deep, personal stories from my interviewee. I wanted to hear him describe how he felt and what he saw when he closed his eyes on those rare occasions he was able to catch some sleep between the shells and the mass influx of desperate refugees. In reality however, this was purely a selfish desire on my part. As I mentioned before, I’m intrigued to get a sense of just what it was like to be in Rwanda in ’94. A Rwanda in absolute stark contrast to the one I fell in love with sixteen years after the Major’s experience. However, it’s none of my business, and as such I didn’t press too hard, even though I desperately wanted him to describe the emotions he felt each day as more and more people arrived at the stadium, their eyes filled with fear, their final, despairing hopes resting in the hands of the UN – the international ‘peace keeping force’ whose very role is to protect innocent people from the irrational brutality of genocide. The problem was the UN didn’t want to admit to it being genocide. Admitting the action of genocide would’ve meant acknowledging a very real duty of responsibility to end it. Thus, on the 25th April, 1994, 18 days after the killing began (and 82 days before it was eventually stopped by the RPF) Major Ezaz and his battalion left on a plane to Nairobi, Kenya. As shells fell around the airport, and machetes continued to be wielded in hate down below, Major Ezaz said goodbye to a UN mission that had begun with a quiet confidence and ended in tatters, and a country that had provided glimpses of joy and warmth, but overwhelming images of abject suffering and cruelty. He has never been back.
When I asked the Major the obvious question of how he felt at this point, as he watched the green hills drift into the distance below, he provided a suitably obvious, but simple answer….sad. However, he told me very honestly that remaining in Rwanda would’ve evoked an even greater torment in his heart as it would’ve meant standing by and bearing witness to yet more murder, rape and mindless cruelty, with no mandate to stop it. This confession and acknowledgement of both the futility and ineffectiveness of the UN mission to prevent the genocide, even at this stage, was both telling and soul-destroying. I asked where he feels the blame lies, and he pointed to the UN as a whole and also, a little surprisingly for me, General Romeo Dallaire. Dallaire was the Canadian Force Commander of UNAMIR and therefore in charge of the entire UN mission in Rwanda. Major Ezaz met Dallaire on a number of occasions and told me how he just couldn’t understand, even to this day why his Force Commander, as the highest ranked UN military representative in Rwanda at that time, didn’t take the risk by disobeying his superiors back in the US and engage in a more forceful approach to ending the killing. It’s an agonising question that has haunted Romeo Dallaire ever since 1994, and if you feel inclined to read more about this I would point you to Dallaire’s personal account of his experiences during the genocide, entitled ‘Shake Hands with the Devil.’ It’s a fascinating read, which provides thorough explanation and analysis into just why his hands were so frustratingly tied by UN hierarchy, based thousands of miles away from Rwanda, who appeared to have had little knowledge or interest in the suffering of the Rwandan people. After reading this book I came away feeling nothing but deep, sympathetic admiration for Dallaire, and therefore a little disappointed to hear my interviewee’s critical personal judgement of the same man. However, Major Ezaz has the experience of being there in ‘94, witness to it all, whereas I was merely a ten year old boy, obsessed with football and unable to point to Africa on a map, let alone Rwanda.
In May 1994, two months after his arrival back in Bangladesh, Major Ezaz was deployed to Bosnia, forced to witness yet another war, and yet another example of man’s inhumanity towards man. Genocide was once again on the agenda, and in a depressing parallel to Rwanda, the UN’s mandate fell well short of actually protecting civilians. Following this, in 1999, he found himself back on the continent of Africa, again with the UN, on a mission to aid Liberia’s recovery from their own brutal civil war. I braced myself for another candid testimony from the frontline. However, our time was up, and so I’ll have to make a future visit to the Major’s office and enjoy a cup of tea with him as he regales me once again with further tales of a very different life to that of an AUW Deputy Director of Security.
Major Ezaz pictured below in Bosnia, 1995
I’d like to express my sincere thanks to Major Ezaz for taking the time to speak to me about his experiences, and for also allowing me to include some of his own personal photographs.