Andre Vltchek. D.R.
It is late at night and you cannot sleep. Ebrie Lagoon is right behind the window of your hotel, but it is hardly visible at this hour. You are in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, West Africa.
You are here because you were informed that the President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, also known at ‘Chocolate King’, has been getting his cocoa from the fields of this country. You are also convinced by several of your sources, based all over the world, that his confectionary empire,Roshen, is receiving its basic product from some of the most terrible plantations in Côte d’Ivoire that are still using child labor. You decided to come here, to investigate…
You feel sick, really unwell. You caught some intestinal virus, some terrible infection, while staying for a month in the Indonesian city of Surabaya. There was no time to cure it, or even properly diagnose it. You had to go and work in Jordan, on the Syrian border, between your engagements in Indonesia and Africa.
During nights like this, you feel alone. Totally alone… After each of your books that goes to print, after each film, or essay from some battlefield or other dreadful part of the world, you get many emails; readers are thanking you and encouraging you to write… to write more and more. You are grateful for each letter of support… But you actually cannot increase volume of your writing.
There is no one behind you – no government, no organization and no institution. You are ‘senior fellow’ at a respectable institute, but it really does nothing for you… it does not even ask you how are you doing, or whether you are alive. They have your name there, on their website, because it is convenient, good for them… That’s all.
You know that if your stomach gets worse, you are on your own. You know that if you are going to be arrested or even “disappeared”; you are on your own.
In Surabaya, sick and broken, you were alone. Nobody even cooked and delivered a simple and honest chicken soup to you; nobody stayed by your bed in the evening. You were discouraged to call, to Skype, locally… Your presence there was inconvenient.
You were encouraged by everybody to write. To write more and more… The tone of emails has been suggesting that it is your obligation… You accepted it… Fine… Yes. As an internationalist and fighter, you accepted.
There was a massacre of animals in Surabaya… You were sick. But you went. You covered the story. For free; an entire week of voluntary work… You connected the genocide of local animals, with three genocides that Indonesia has committed against its people, since the 1965 coup. One reader was so impressed that he offered financial support. You thanked him, not really expecting anything. He kept asking you for banking details. You provided them. One week later he informed you that he had instead sent support to some well-funded animal-rights group, as it was easier to transfer funds to them.
While based for that terrible month in Surabaya, you also went back and forth to Thailand and the Philippines, in order to cover events there. After each journey you calculated how to make it through the next month or two, as what you had been producing was funded, from, only what you earned from you work, your several books and countless documentary films.
You are not complaining, not at all. But you want those who keep writing to you… those who keep asking how to be like you, how to be tough and brave like you… you want them to know how it really is. How it is at night… All about loneliness, all about sadness… You want them to think twice, before they embark on the same road.
Ok, so it is myself I am talking about, right? We all know that… So I better switch the grammar.
I even paid a salary. Not high, but by local, Surabaya standards – substantial. I wanted to make sure, I hoped that my interviews, those I conducted in Ukraine, Okinawa and the Philippines, would be trimmed and uploaded on YouTube at least. People were dying, and countries ruined by Western imperialism… I was going all around, documenting the struggle and disasters.
But nothing, absolutely no interview, was edited and uploaded. The editor was too busy with her little world and personal issues.
My Japanese editor was also too busy with some local feature film, and the film – debate – between Noam Chomsky and I – had already got delayed by two years. While the book (“On Western Terrorism, from Hiroshima to Drone Warfare”) is available through Pluto, London, the film is far from being finished, and I was told that it might actually never be. In 2012, I travelled to war zones to get the footage, again with no outside funding, to illustrate with images, what Noam and I were expressing verbally. I was shot at in El Salvador, a military plane I was on board of, almost crashed in Bolivia. I spent all my savings… The editor kept telling me, that he knows the importance of this discussion, between Noam and I. He insisted on becoming a co-director. But the film was never completed. Just like that: no explanation given whatsoever, except that he is ‘lately very busy’.
“Rwanda Gambit”, a film about how the West twisted the entire narrative regarding the Rwanda genocide, and then used both Rwandan and Ugandan fascist regimes to plunder The Democratic Republic of Congo, has been rotting at Press TV, totally delayed, as they keep losing the copy somewhere between their London and Teheran offices. 10 million people died so far, the contract is signed, but there seems to be no urgency to air it.
And the television station that is very dear to me (the reason why I do not want to name it here), postponed work on my Okinawa film (about the US air force bases, that can easily trigger WWIII), because of the World Cup.
This essay is not intended to sound like some desperate lament. But it is an honest and sad account, which is trying to demonstrate to readers, that those few of us who are still fighting and bringing to the world detailed investigative pieces that are highly critical of the Empire, are actually totally on our own and almost extinct. I met a few others, recently, and the conclusion is very straightforward: we are all walking on a tightrope, with no security and no protection. Much of our work is not remunerated, anymore. If we fall, then we fall. It is ‘our problem’. Many already have. Most of us have.
Often, the regime does not even bother to take us down. We are sitting ducks. We are exposed. We can be ‘taken care of’ at any moment.
All we get is a steady flow of supportive emails. And plenty of insults, of course…
What I am trying to say is that it is often quite scary at night.
Most of us carry all this, locked inside our hearts. I do. It is bit embarrassing to write about it, openly. But I receive hundreds of emails a month, often asking me ‘how do I do it’, and ‘where I get strength’. So, once every few years, I decide to share with my readers, how it really feels, and what is going on deep inside.
Back to what I wrote earlier: it is late at night and you cannot sleep. I am sure something similar used to happen to Ryszard Kapuscinski, as he was on his own in Africa and Central America. I bet Wilfred Burchett went through something similar during the Korean War or while he passed through those dark railroad tunnels, as he approached the devastated city of Hiroshima.
Nights are the worst. Because that is when it all hits you and, no matter whose fault it is, you feel concerned, guilty and often extremely frustrated.
It is not really about you… It is about the films and books, and about all that work that you have done but others refused to polish and bring to the world. It is all about the urgency, because you know that you did something that can easily save many lives, but those you work with are too lazy or too selfish to spend few days doing their job, actually just doing what they are paid to do, anyway… and they are paid from your meager book and film royalties, because that is all that you have… these books and films are results of your sweat and blood, and often of unimaginable risks that you take.
Of course when it comes to a technical piece of work, you do not work with the best. You cannot afford the best… You work with those who wrote to you, stuff like “we admire your work and we want to fight for humanity, along your side…” They come and have some thrills, you trust them… again and again the same game… You want to trust and so you trust… you even begin paying them something, regularly… Then, when they get enough of your world – when they ‘have already experienced a bit fun of being part-time revolutionaries’ – they leave you, unceremoniously.
And you are alone, with the footage and with the work that was supposed to be distributed… work that was supposed to help the world… help people in different countries, to survive.
You do not ask much, anymore… One interview may take a day to edit, if one is dedicated. You stopped asking much from people, a long time ago. And you stopped, altogether, asking for anything at all for yourself.
“Please, please do not leave this work unfinished”, you beg. You never beg anybody for anything, except when it comes to work that could save human lives.
At night, you are scared: “what if it happens again? What if interviews do not get edited… what if films do not get finished… what if, what if…” And it happens like that… It always happens exactly as it happens in your worst nightmares.
And all you dream about, every night is that someone says, kindly: “I will come… You just rest on the couch, not far from me, so you can hear clicking of my keyboard… get some sleep… you fought enough. Now just rest… I will edit those few things for you; for the humanity… It will take just a few days.”
It is night again. The Ivorian authorities have detained me for several hours, every day. There was some visa screw up… An Internet site said I do not need a visa, another site said I could get one on arrival. Others: French and Americans, were in the same shoes, but after being arrested and threatened with deportation, were soon released.
My local contact is snitching, reporting on me, he is informing on me both to the US embassy and to the local authorities. Like most of the local elites, he is doing it to make his name known to the real rulers of Côte d’Ivoire: those who sit inside the French and the US embassies… and also because he loves to feel important.
The local police does all it can to slow me down. In order to be issued a visa (they insist it has to be a biometric one, so high-tech that even my thick passport has nothing similar glued into it), I have to fill out papers, to be intimidated and harassed by an aggressive female officer, then photographed and fingerprinted.
That’s fine, except that the fingerprinting machine and their cameras do not work. Naturally they do not work, as I notice that the plugs to the computer are pulled out. They make me stand for ten minutes each time, maybe 20 times, in front of the camera, in a booth. They scream at me. Then they ‘fingerprint me’… For hours… “Your fingers are not good…”
I was fingerprinted in the last 2 weeks in Jordan and Thailand, as well as Kenya: no problem.
“You are in trouble! You go to hospital. Go to a dermatologist and get a certificate that your fingers are no good!”
But they are good.
They grab almost 100 dollars in local currency for the visa but do not give me my passport back.
My contacts inform the US embassy. The embassy sends a car together with their local officer. I demand that I am fingerprinted in front of him. The police refuses: “We already locked the system for your case”, which is obviously a literal translation from French. The embassy official is clearly on their side: “We have to respect and follow local procedure”. It all drags on for days.
Every day I sneak out and drive to plantations, interviewing people and conducting my research, in this horrid neo-colony of the West, in this police state.
I photograph an enormous French military base “43 Bima”. I go to several slums and work there. I talk to the people who are brought to Abidjan from the provinces, mainly children injured on cocoa plantations. The picture is becoming clear.
“They love French people here,” I am told.
“Because the new President… he was supported by the French… So now he is pumping pro-Western propaganda to the country…”
I finally give up and go to a dermatologist. It takes the entire half of a day. State clinics are horrid; I am told people die there. The private one is just semi-horrible. I am first made to pay the equivalent of US$60, the monthly salary of the majority. That does not include the ‘services’. Water and electricity – all has been privatized: all belongs to the French, the former colonizers – de facto present-day colonizers.
Just as in Senegal, the supermarkets are full of French food; at between 2 and 4 times Parisian prices, with salaries about 30 times lower than in Paris.
“What happens if you get sick and can’t pay this clinic?” I ask a lady who is sat next to me.
“You die”, she says.
I wait, for about one hour. Then I am led to an office of an ageing and noble looking lady-doctor. I explain everything to her. She listens carefully.
“I do not even have to look at your fingers, right?”
“No”, I reply. “This is all because I write against imperialism.”
“Imperialism”, she replies, with sad expression on her face. “Imperialism, neo-colonialism… You know, here everything is hopeless, because the minds of our people have been colonized. They are serving the West, not their own country…”
She wrote me a paper, stamped it several times, and signed it. It said that my fingers are not good enough to be fingerprinted. She refused to take money. “I am sorry, this is the least I can do.”
My driver and I left. We dived into his old Peugeot, but before departing, we saw the doctor running down the stairs, at her age…
“I am so sorry”, she said. “The clinic told me that I have to charge you another 60 dollars. For the paper.”
We drove to police headquarters, where the same vulgar and monstrous woman began smiling sadistically, even before opening an envelope.
“I don’t think we can give you your passport… Maybe not today, anyway… The letter has to be certified.”
There are assignments when everything goes wrong; everything fails. The place is just totally hopeless, totally sold out.
As I said, in Côte d’Ivoire, my local contacts snitched on me, delivered me to the authorities. My London-based and Ghana-based contacts that were supposed to be arranging details of this work (and thanking me in advance for helping their country) did, eventually, absolutely nothing.
At one point I had only two options: to abort my mission, which was to expose the cocoa trade and its connection to neo-colonialism, or to start from scratch, from the very beginning, alone. As always, I had chosen the latter.
First I made eye contact with a young receptionist at my Pullman Hotel, the only one who was not mean to me, at least so far. I dragged her to a cafe and just trusting my instinct, told her everything: what happened to me, as well as what I was trying to achieve here. “I need a car”, I concluded.
“I will get you a good one”, she said. “I will also get you a great driver… This is so cool… what you are doing.”
It was not cheap but it was worth it. She got me the son of a plantation owner all the way from the Liberian border. He knew all about cocoa. He knew all about child labor… He spoke English. He was an honest Muslim man, happy to exchange ideas about the world. Ten minutes later, we hit the road. This is where the things turned around.
Then I was totally alone in this world – just my driver/translator and me. Nobody knew where I was going.
Soon, I was facing machetes, local workers, as well as bizarre wooden sticks with razor-sharp blades on their end, razors that are causing so many terrible injuries on the cocoa plantations. Soon I will taste the sweetness of cocoa fruits and see tears on the faces of people who would be sharing their stories with me…
As most of the time, I will be unprotected and alone. But as they say in Chile: ‘It is better to be alone than badly accompanied’.
I got enough information to write several essays on the topic. I also managed to get away, to survive.
While in the Ivory Coast, my latest book “Fighting Against Western Imperialism” had been published.
I am writing this on board Ethiopian Airlines, taking me from Abidjan to Accra and further, to Addis Ababa.
I am crossing the African continent – from West to East. I am glad that I am. And I am glad that I am alive.
I am happy that I am doing exactly what I am doing. I would never trade my life with anyone else.
But then a night will come once again, and with her, a recollection of so many broken hopes and dreams, and promises. And desire; longing, for something permanent and solid. For something that every fighter, every revolutionary desperately needs – a home base and unconditional support.
Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. His discussion with Noam Chomsky On Western Terrorism is now going to print. His critically acclaimed political novel Point of No Return is now re-edited and available. Oceania is his book on Western imperialism in the South Pacific. His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and the market-fundamentalist model is called “Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear”. He has just completed the feature documentary, “Rwanda Gambit” about Rwandan history and the plunder of DR Congo. After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website or his Twitter.