Up in Arms
June 1, 2010
For the last few months I have been involved in writing a children’s book and have neglected this blog. This is also partly due to the fact that we are moving to Canada in two months and there is so much to do before leaving.
One of those things has been to enjoy spending times with the people who make this place what it is. This village is not the cliche from “A Year in Provence”, but rather a rich mix of people, from all over the world, bound by their ties to this magical place.
Most of the stories I have written have been a way of celebrating characters who would otherwise go unnoticed. I wanted other people to see that beneath a shy, or prickly exterior, often lives a beautiful soul. One I have come to know and would like the world to know about. These people never sing their own praises.
I have been wondering lately, if there is anyone I know who is just the opposite? I decided, as an experiment, to go looking for an outwardly amiable, blight on humanity. So I went to one of the local cafes – the one frequented with the paint and plaster-splattered and camouflage wearing hard men who seemed a little of disdainful of me sitting in a quiet corner with my notebook and blank expression.
They say that what you think about, so you attract. A universal truth. And so I sat and sipped at my coffee waiting to see what the universe would send my way. It didn’t take long. A man I have always disliked despite his being friendly enough, approached my table and asked if he could join me. Who am I to argue with the laws of the universe.
I felt a bit mean obliging him. He had no idea that the only reason I would share a table with him was because of my project to find someone despicable.
I justified my decision by thinking if people take the path he has taken in life they deserve anything that comes at them.
You see, Pascal is an arms dealer.
I met him some years ago because he had lived in some of the same places in Africa that I had.
I took an instant dislike to him, despite our geographical bonds.
He looks like any number of European mercenaries who insinuate themselves into Africa for 20 pieces of silver. I am sure you have all seen them – a story a few pages in to the newspaper about a bungled coup. There is usually a stringy-haired white man in handcuffs surrounded by grim-faced African policemen.
Very often they don’t languish in African prisons for long, unlike their local sidekicks. It is all a big game. A greedy, dangerous game.
Within days of learning that I was from Zimbabwe he sidled up to me one day in the middle of the village:
“You don’t know anyone in Zimbabwe who would be interested in buying weapons do you?”
“Of course I do”, I replied, as calmly as my hectic heart rate would allow.
“Just read any Zimbabwean newspaper.”
He glanced left and right, took a drag on his ever-present cigarette and went on,
“It is just that my guy has been polished off. Pity.”
“I am kicking myself because I may have missed the boat on the Congo conflict.”
“I have worked for Amnesty International”, I said, incredulously.
“I know, I know, but everyone needs money and of course I would pay you.”
“Over my dead body” was my uninspired reply.
I have since come up with many cutting retorts but at the time was so dumbfounded, he was able to wander off with a shrug after having thrust a grubby card at me.
“In case you change your mind..” he said, in all seriousness.
Every time I have run into this man in the village he has been cheerful and friendly. He has asked me questions like,
“And how are things in Africa?” with a wry smile,
and I answer
“No better for the likes of you.”
“How do you sleep at night?”
The man has no conscience.
Over the years he has become a source of fascination to me. I gave his name to a friend whose job in life is to track arms deals and make sure they are legal.
“Arms dealing is not illegal unfortunately, but there are strict codes of conduct and that is where I come in” he explains.
His job is to make it as difficult as possible for these peddlers in misery and death.
I had Pascal traced on the database and sure enough he was there, in a far more minor role than he made out, but there nonetheless.
On a trip to Niger once I was worried about finding last-minute accommodation for a conference I was attending.
Given that Niger is one of the poorest countries on the planet and wracked with internal strife between warring factions, it suddenly occurred to me that Pascal would be a frequent visitor.
The next time I saw him I asked him and sure enough, he recommended a place on the edge of the Sahara where I could stay relatively inexpensively.
“Why don’t you just give me your itinerary for the next few months and I can tell some of my humanitarian worker friends to follow you around with a mop and bucket”.
He smiled and offered to pay for my drink.
I did stay in the scruffy motel of his choice and he was right about one thing: it was a lot cheaper than anywhere else.
A Central African jurist, Gabriel, befriended me and saved me from expiring of heat exhaustion, (48 C), food poisoning and overly friendly locals. I did comment to the waiter one morning in the dining room about how few clients seemed to have breakfast. There was only ever Gabriel and I.
“That is because people usually come here for a couple of hours” he said, matter-of-factly.
Since this happened Pascal is down on his luck. I don’t see him roaring around in a 4 x 4. He seems to wear less bling and his teeth are in need of attention. Relations are strained with his lovely wife and he seems to survive thanks to the generosity of the State. He has no money. He has traded his soul and has still ended up bankrupt in more ways than just morally.
He sits opposite me as I gear up to pounce. I file through the arsenal of snide comments I have in store. I think of how I can expose him in this blog. Somehow though, I don’t.
“You have the table,” I say,
“I was leaving anyway.”
A few days later I hear that his wife, someone who has flitted around the world and lived in luxury, is now looking for work as a cleaner. This deeply saddens me. I really do not believe she understood or condoned his actions.
Not long after this I speak to his charming daughter. She is back in the village after a temporary absence.
“Welcome back”, I say – “I thought you were at university?”
“I was” she says,
“I was studying History of Art and loving it but my father is in great difficulty and can’t afford it any more”.
“I’m sorry”, I say.
She shrugs but it is a shrug that is more of a sigh.
And I am sorry. That his victims have not been limited to the faceless poor in Africa. That was vile enough on its own.
I see though that he is not a happy man. He has been cavalier with other people’s lives and he has been cavalier with his own. It is just a sorry, woeful tale of cyclical unhappiness.
Today I met a couple in the village.
I ask what they do and the husband says,
“I work in the defence industry”.
“Here we go,” I think, hackles rising.
“Mobile clinics to be sent to Third world countries
“It is all about giving back”.
“Don’t know why this is classified as a defence industry but there we have it – can I pay for your drink.”
“Thank you,” I say.
Feeling knocked down to size.
I don’t understand. I don’t have the answers.