I was there just a year ago, exactly this month, staring at the snowy top of Nanga Parbat and feeling sick because of the altitude and bumpy ride. A local girl that was sitting next to me on the bus pointed at the mountain in the light of morning sun: “Welcome to Gilgit-Baltistan!” My extended journey through Iran and across the Pakistani border, and then up northwards to China still remains one of the freshest memories of my nomadic life. Because, you know, the air there is fresh and freezing at night.
I mourn that probably in the nearest couple of months or years no foreign foot will step on that mountain road, to watch the local villagers in Gilgit play cricket as the sun sets down behind the orange mountain ranges. The Taliban made their point quite clear this past month when they shot 10 trekkers in cold blood.
A friend of mine once said that world needs a revolution. I think world needs an earthquake. A natural and inevitable catastrophe that no government can fight, no nuke can resolve. Something that will play the role of our common enemy, because it is commonly known that people tend to bond biggest friendships against a common enemy.
‘The Watchmen‘ is one of my favourite graphic novels of all times. Not just because it is a story about superheroes, and a very cynical one, but because it really makes sense from the evil point of view. Trying not to spoil it for you if case you never watched or read the story, I just explain that action takes place in times of Cold War and the nuclear threat paranoia goes so far that someone decides to terrorise both sides of the War with a third menace in order to bring them to coalition and peace. A planned terrorist attack kills millions of people but puts an end to the constant threat of USSR and the US bombing the shit out of the planet.
One of my most treasured and inspiring authors of all time, Elif Shafak, says the following in her TED talk:
In my mid-twenties, I moved to Istanbul, the city I adore. I lived in a very vibrant, diverse neighborhood where I wrote several of my novels. I was in Istanbul when the earthquake hit in 1999. When I ran out of the building at three in the morning, I saw something that stopped me in my tracks. There was the local grocer there – a grumpy, old man who didn ́t sell alcohol and didn ́t speak to marginals. He was sitting next to a transvestite with a long black wig and mascara running down her cheeks. I watched the man open a pack of cigarettes with trembling hands and offer one to her. And that is the image of the night of the earthquake in my mind today – a conservative grocer and a crying transvestite smoking together on the sidewalk. In the face of death and destruction our mundane differences evaporated, and we all became one even if for a few hours.
In the face of death and imminent destruction all we have left is each other. And I am speaking of an earthquake metaphorically of course, but it might come in any shape.
A few weeks ago I visited Rwanda, a small country in East Africa, of a very unremarkable shape yet tumultuous history. The imprint of events that happened in 1994 is still fresh in the minds of people. Every house I walked in had a story to tell about the genocide, and every family lost somebody 20 years ago, in one way or another.
‘I was fourteen in 1994, and me and my sister lived with our aunt and uncle. Our parents left home and never returned. There was a lot more going on – more than you read in contemporary press or in history books. But I don’t want to talk about it,’ told me my CS host.
‘I was 2 years old and obviously do not remember anything, but my aunt carried me on her back into hiding and we survived. My other aunt and her 3-year-old son didn’t,’ I heard a story from another amazing CS host who now runs a small art gallery in Kigali.
Nowadays asking about one’s ethnicity is prohibited. The thing is, Rwanda is the most safe, peaceful and fast-growing country in East Africa, and Kigali was the first city that didn’t creep me out at night hours. Violence is almost unheard of here. Not just because it is severely punished by law, but also because back then in 1994 something just clicked in people’s heads. When such thing as a genocide happens, one morning you wake up and it hits you: “Dammit! I just massacred all my neighbours!” Realising that and being one of the surviving neighbours, you decide to stop carrying your machete forever.
But you shouldn’t think that the people who survived a civil massacre got over it by keeping quiet and never talking about this anymore. On the contrary, they are forced to talk. Every last Saturday of the month there is an event called umuganda – when on this particular day from early morning until 12pm nobody works or drives around, because this time must be spent on helping your own community. You can help your nearby school to clean up the yard or repair the roof, build a toilet cabin with your neighbour, babysit somebody’s children. I happened to be in the streets that early morning and it was idyllically quiet and peaceful. After 12pm towns and villages start to gather in small neighbourhood groups to talk. Just like this – talk, about anything, be it politics (to a certain extent), events of the week, history. The government introduced this day to commemorate the genocide and strengthen the community feeling around the country, and I can’t say that they failed.
And then I ask myself: does it really take a tragedy for the nation to appreciate peace?