The things I've seen

Published in frankie 26 (November/December 2008)

Tom Chard

When Tom Chard arrived in Burma in September 2007 he had no idea he was stepping into a situation that was set to explode. For the previous month local monks had been staging peaceful demonstrations in the streets of Rangoon and Mandalay, calling for democracy and protesting against the rising cost of petrol that was crippling the nation's poor.

"I heard there were some monks who were walking the streets and complaining about the price of fuel and that's the only thing you'd hear in Thailand," says Tom, who had been living in South East Asia for the previous eight years. "But when you go there and you see hundreds of thousands of people walking down the street chanting and singing and clapping hands with joy at all these monks having the guts to protest - no, I didn't know that was happening."

On Tom's second day in Rangoon all registered foreign journalists were expelled from the country and a 9pm curfew was put in place. The military also cut all access to the internet. Tom went out to watch the protests and talk to the locals. He met some backpackers who lent him a professional camera and went to Rangoon's largest temple, the Schwedagon Pagoda, to take photos of the demonstrations. Then, the junta's forces started attacking the protestors.

"I saw a Japanese guy get shot right in front of me, about four metres from where I stood," Tom says. (The man was journalist Kenji Nagai.) "I had a camera in my hands and could very easily have been mistaken for a journalist, so I ran. They were littering the place with bullets." When the adrenalin wore off, Tom returned to try and get more photos. "The troops were marching around, beating people with the backs of their rifles. One of them saw that I had a camera and shot at me, and it went past my ear. It was like being slapped in the side of the head with a cricket bat."

Tom escaped and went and found his backpacker friends. When he returned to his hotel he found his room had been raided. The next morning the frightened staff told him he wasn't safe and that he should go. Tom took a bus to Mandalay and from there sought refuge in a monastery in the hills. "I went up there and waited about 10 days until I thought that things had blown over. No telephone, no internet, no contact with the outside world."

When Tom got back to Rangoon there was an awful smell hanging over the city. He asked around and met someone who claimed to have been at a funeral where truckloads of protestors were burned alive in a crematorium. "They were breaking their legs and burning them alive, this guy said. And the smell - I have no sense of smell, but I could taste what tasted like burning flesh. And it was an open secret. They do these horrific things in Burma, and they're open secrets. It never officially happened, but they want everyone to know that it fucking well did, and it could happen to you if you step out of line."

The clashes continued for several more weeks, during which Tom saw and heard more horrors dished out by the junta. "To see people shot and to be shot at for protesting peacefully, to see pools of blood, to see people beaten on the head with butts of rifles, to see the fright in the monks' eyes, to these people rounded up and tortured, beaten, killed - it was just gutting. I don't think I've ever seen anything as evil as the Burmese junta.

"People say don't ask the Burmese about politics, but everywhere you go people pull you aside and say please help us, we are in so much pain. The people were saying, 'Why does America come and get Saddam, why don't they come and help us?'. Now that's surreal, when people ask to be invaded."

Naomi Kemmerer

In 2002, while digging a septic tank in a remote village in Nepal, Naomi Kemmerer and two of her new friends were struck by the urge to write a book. The three volunteers had spent six weeks in the village and, despite their lack of experience, decided a book would be the perfect project.

"Within about 10 days we'd cashed in all our savings and extended our plane tickets, bought dictaphones and got film shipped from Australia, and found someone to translate for us and a family to let us live with them," Naomi remembers.

The girls settled in and started conducting their first interviews with residents from the peaceful little farming community. Then one day, after a few weeks in the village, everything suddenly changed.

"We were walking up the main street, which has only five or six shops, and we saw a group of young boys that we didn't recognise with machine guns strapped to their chests and backs." As the afternoon progressed, their numbers swelled to more than a thousand, outnumbering the villagers. Naomi asked around to find out what was going on, and discovered that of all the villages in all of Nepal, Maoist rebels had chosen that one to hold their top secret annual conference.

At the time Nepal was deep in civil war, with constant conflict between government forces and the Maoist guerrillas. Thousands of civilians had lost their lives. "I met plenty of people who had spoken up against the Maoists and had their houses burned down or who had been shot," Naomi says. "Mostly, I heard of people who had unfortunately already died."

It didn't take the leaders long to work out that there were three Australian girls in town, laden with cameras and recording equipment. "The Maoists became incredibly paranoid because they thought we were Western journalists. The word came back through the village that the leaders were asking to talk to us and demanding that we leave the village. The three of us girls had a think about it and we realised the Maoists were very unlikely to kill us, but that if we left they were most likely to take revenge out on the family whose house we were living in."

The girls bravely decided to stay and wrote a letter to the party leaders explaining why they were in the village. The Maoists responded by demanding they hand over their passports; the girls refused. Two days of negotiating via translated letters culminated in a meeting with one of the leaders. "We tried to go there looking as dopey and dumb and non-threatening as possible." The Maoists agreed to allow them to stay, on the condition that they keep away from the party's side of the village for the four-day meeting. "If they saw us, then our lives and the lives of the people that we were staying with were at risk."

Despite appeasing the leaders, the girls knew they were still in danger. The village was swamped with teenage boys "armed to the teeth and drinking all day", and the girls had no idea whether the militants were aware of the arrangement. At night they could hear the boys cavorting outside. "As the days went on, we started getting increasingly paranoid about who was watching us and what they were going to do. We ended up putting blankets all along the windows because we were worried that someone would shoot us."

Visits to the outside toilet were conducted as a group; their host armed them with 12-inch kitchen knives for the ordeal. "It became so scary that it was absurd. While one of us peed, the other two would stand there thinking, I wouldn't even know what to do with this if someone came at me with machete or a machine gun or a grenade.

"But what scared us the most was seeing how fearful the family was for their own lives. The thing that none of us wanted on our conscience was that we Australians could escape and these guys had no choice. For all the fear and paranoia and sleeping with one eye open, the worst feeling was that the family could lose their lives for nothing more than letting us sleep in their house."

Polly Brennan

Foreign aid worker Polly Brennan always carries a torch for emergencies. But in the moments after a bomb killed 22 people at the UN's Iraq headquarters at the Canal Hotel, she couldn't get her trusty Maglite to work.

"I thought it was because of the slipping, because the torch was covered in blood," Polly says, "but later it looked as if the battery had burst. Landmines and unexploded ordnance is my thing - I don't know what happens to a battery in a blast, but that was the state of it."

It was August 19th 2003 and Polly was UNICEF's Landmines Coordinator, in Baghdad for a press conference. Iraq was familiar territory - Polly's first visit was with CARE Australia in 1994, as a replacement for murdered aid worker Stuart Cameron. (Her job interview included the question, "Have you ever been held at gunpoint?") When CARE moved out of Iraq, Polly joined the Mines Advisory Group, where she became an expert in mine action and education. Several years in Iraq, stints in Pakistan and Afghanistan and being in New York for 9/11 had made her no stranger to "things that go bang".

Polly remembers the day of the bombing being full of "lots and lots of meetings", after which she and her two companions decided to pay a visit to the Canal Hotel to get more work done before curfew. Outside the building Polly ran into a friend, Jill, from a past visit to Iraq - they had a cigarette and a chat and decided to catch up later. Polly went inside, and a few minutes later a suicide bomber drove a truck full of old munitions into the back of the building.

"I felt this huge blow to my head," Polly says. "Like when you bang your head on the kitchen cupboard. It was like that, but much harder - the most powerful blow I've ever felt. And then I was airborne." She was flung several fee across the office she was standing in. "And somewhere during the trajectory, in the split seconds between being hit by the blast and landing, I realised it was a bomb."

Landing knocked the wind out of her. "I felt blood trickling down my face, and I thought I was in that little gap after you die where there's enough oxygen in your blood stream for you to be conscious of your own death." Then she started to breathe again, and realised she was injured - her arm was ripped open and she had fragments embedded in her face. She looked around the room and saw that everyone was tensed, "like runners on the blocks in a race", anticipating a second blast.

The room started to fill with cordite and concrete dust, making it difficult to breathe, so everyone began making their way out. "I got to the door of the office and everything looked different," Polly remembers. "People were coming out of a cloud, this white haze. They were covered in dust and looked really ghostly, spectral. Their eyes were glazed like zombies." Polly noticed that one of her friends was bleeding from both arms - "It was pumping, it looked like arterial blood" - so she stopped to apply tourniquets.

They emerged from the rubble and found a first-aid tent, which was full of the bleeding and injured and "a bunch of completely overwhelmed Swedish medics". Waiting for evacuation to a field hospital, Polly busied herself trying to identify bodies.

Polly's friend Jill was still outside when the truck hit. She was killed. But after seeing so many deaths and injuries in her line of work, for Polly it was just a fact of life. "I was very cynical. It wasn't a shock to me, but it becomes a cumulative weight."

Currently out of the field while she writes a book about her experiences, Polly says she is both burnt out by and lured back to aid work. "I'm good at working in emergencies. I like it. But it's a pretty draining thing to do and you can't really keep it up forever.

"I don't think I was reckless [when I started as an aid worker], but I feel very much now as if I've used all of my nine lives. I have vague worries about things like crossing the road and being squashed by a bus. I have a conviction that I've run out of luck, and Baghdad was the turning point."