Tag Archives: 9-11

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The Rainy Season: “give me money and I will teach your student”

An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot

Ask Uncle Google for “Korean Peninsula at night” and you get eerie satellite images that show South Korea all lit up while North Korea sits in the dark, literally. Jakarta has that same feel. Central Jakarta is lit up and vibrant, but the third ring is dark and even the air feels thick, heavy and desperate.

Indira warned, “This place is not safe.”

I thought, in general or only—

“For everyone. Muslims also,” she said, apparently reading my mind.

“Any radicalized madrasahs?”

“A few.”

“Wallach’s driver should be picking him up right now. It’s not too late. Make a phone call. Get him dropped off.”

“Oh come on Mr. Strange, how do you know I am not doing that to you?”

I glimpsed the Monas in the distance. It was built to memorialize a hard-fought war for independence, but here on a decaying street littered with rubbish it seemed impossibly far away. On this street the people were still at war.

The motorbike hit a pothole and we nearly found out who was right. God or Allah.

“Sorry,” Indira said. “Up ahead. You see green wall?”

“Yes.”

“We stop here.”

It was a T-intersection. Turn right, left, or crash into a green cinder block wall that was maybe ten meters across and two meters high. A roll of razor wire was strung along the top. Alleys ran at obtuse angles from either side of the wall. Indira jumped the curb and drove into the alley on our right. The wall continued on our left, running deeper. On the right side of the alley was a decrepit graffiti-rich building. Up ahead a steel barricade on wheels was ensconced into the wall. A gate, I guess. Indira killed the engine and called out in Bahasa. I heard movement on the other side of the wall, and then someone wrestled free a chain and very quickly the gate rolled open.

“Hurry,” Indira said. “Go inside.”

A young girl had opened the gate. I climbed off the motorbike and brushed past her. Indira pushed the motorbike inside and then the girl rolled the gate shut just as quickly as she had opened it.

It took a moment to process everything.

In truth, I hadn’t expected much … but some sort of building, surely. Instead I found something akin to a campsite. Or flea market stalls. In the center of the compound was a rectangular pavilion-type structure. It had a few columns made from cinder blocks. The four corners were supported with wooden posts. The roof was aluminum. It was built low and flat. The pavilion was partitioned horizontally and vertically with plastic sheeting to create stalls that might have been four meters deep and five meters across. Inside the stalls were people.

Families.

They used car batteries for electricity and fire pits for cooking. They sat on benches made from cinder blocks and two-by-fours. Clothes were strung on lines. Trash was strewn about. No sign of plumbing.

The young girl stared at me.

I thought she might be eleven or twelve years old. She wore shorts, tee shirt and sandals. Her hair was long and simple. I gave half-a-smile and said, “Hello.”

The girl took a step back. Afraid, I thought.

Indira said, “Her name is Rose. She never see foreigner before.”

This time I smiled with effort. “Hello, Rose.”

Rose bowed slightly and then ran off.

Indira said, “Follow her.”

The pavilion ran north to south and was partitioned lengthwise straight down the middle, with four stalls facing outward to the east, butted against four stalls facing outward to the west. A well-worn path made an oval track around the whole structure.

Rose went right, and we followed.

At the top of the oval a mother was outside bathing with her kids. They used ladles and urns and were unashamed to be naked. But I felt ashamed. On the west side of the pavilion was a small courtyard area. Maybe courtyard is the wrong word though. A fire burned in a steel drum. A few men sat around it, smoking cigarettes. A few tarps were secured to wooden posts and people slept beneath them. A step down from the stalls, as if such a thing was even possible. In the same area a handful of kids chased after a soccer ball. They saw me and were startled. Maybe they’d never seen a foreigner either.

Rose darted into one of the stalls.

It had a tarp draped from the roof for privacy. I could hear excited voices, but all I could see were furtive shadows against the tarp. A small group of men and children gathered around us. The men were just curious, I hoped.

“Is there a plan?” I asked, because I had no clue what was going on.

“We already talk plan. I give you to radicals,” Indira said, straight-faced. Then she smiled and added, “Trust me. You will see the plan. Okay?”

The tarp opened like a tent and a woman emerged from the stall. Unlike the men that had gathered around us, this woman had put considerable effort into her appearance. As if she’d been expecting company. She wore a modest dress and a hijab. Petite, attractive, maybe early forties. She smiled demurely and it felt familiar somehow. She folded her hands together and bowed, and then she embraced Indira. But Indira was much, much taller, and the woman had to stand on her toes.

Suddenly, everything clicked.

“Indira?”

Indira turned to me with a grim smile.

“Maya’s sister is named Rose.”

Indira nodded. “We go inside now.”

I used the word stall, but in fact this was Maya’s home. Maybe two hundred square feet, with a tin roof overhead and a tattered rug to cover the dirt floor below. “Is Maya here?” I asked.

Indira shook her head. “She stay my home.”

Tian and Faye were Maya’s parents. I shook hands with Tian. He was wiry, with coarse hands and dark skin from long days laboring outside. Rose was Maya’s only sibling. A family friend was here as well. Her name was Istira. Fortyish, I thought. Modestly dressed with a white hijab … but she was also pensive, and stressed. The adults sat on the rug and Rose served us tea.

“Terima kasih,” I said, to a chorus of oohs and aahs, as if an American learning exactly one expression of gratitude in a foreign culture was an impressive feat. Rose didn’t offer to serve any food. I was grateful for that as well. I didn’t want to take from people who had so little.

A radio blared from an adjacent stall. K-Pop. Weird, that I could understand the chorus. Kajima, kajima. Don’t go, don’t go. Weirder, that it was playing on a radio station in Jakarta. A lifetime ago I’d gone to see a Korean pop concert. I hadn’t understood a thing, and not just lyric-wise. The gyrating, rave-ish nature of it all had been lost to me. But now I longed to be in that time and place again, when the rapidly growing fascination with upbeat nonsensical millennials had been the greatest threat to American culture.

On the floor, I sat facing in, not out—and I felt anxious, exposed. A thin tarp was all that separated me from the curious onlookers who still hovered three steps away, but there was nothing I could do about it.

We sipped tea and made light conversation with Indira translating. It was interrupted when someone in the stall opposite Maya’s took a hellacious piss. He made tall arcs that hissed back and forth, beating hot contrails into the plastic that split the pavilion lengthwise. It left a pool of urine that seeped into Maya’s home.

Nothing I could do about that, either.

Istira held out a framed picture.

Indira said, “She would like you to look. Then she will tell you a story. I will translate for you after she finish.”

I nodded at Istira. “Sure.” I took the photo and listened as Istira told her story in Bahasa. I’d seen a thousand same-but-different photos. You have too. Your own, or your kids. Probably both. I found Maya pretty quick. That shy smile hadn’t changed. She was in the front row, because the back row is always for the tall kids. The photo was dated September 2003. Maya would have been thirteen back then. The teacher had been a very young woman. Mid-twenties, I thought. Like Chyka. I counted forty-three students, and I knew one of them had belonged to Istira. Some things are easily understood no matter the language.

Grief, for example.

Istira trembled as she spoke. I listened carefully. The words were lost to me, but I understood the pain. Istira took the frame again, and then showed me her daughter. Second row, third from the left. A tiny smirk, a bit confident, like she knew something no one else did. A beautiful girl, really. Istira finally grew quiet, and then Indira began to translate.

Istira’s daughter was Danisa and she had been missing since November 2003. But the story of how she went missing begins in 1997, with the crippling financial crisis that hit Asia—the same crisis that had led U.S. based flag carriers to discontinue flights to Seoul and made my first overseas assignment a no-joke GSL. Indonesia, Korea and Thailand had been the hardest hit countries. The Indonesian currency was in free fall as world markets dumped rupiah for U.S. dollars.

Until the crisis, one dollar bought 2,600 rupiah. In only a few weeks that same dollar bought 14,000 rupiah. Or said differently, 2,600 rupiah had been the equivalent of one American dollar—but now it was worth nineteen cents.

In real terms, everyone in Indonesia was getting poorer. And the crisis was exacerbated by the fact Indonesian companies with foreign debt had to repay loans using American dollars. Imagine if all your debt increased five-fold overnight. Essentially that’s what happened to Indonesian companies, but it was the people already living in poverty that suffered the most. In an effort to stabilize the rupiah, won and baht, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) issued $35 billion in “financial support … for adjustment and reform programs in Indonesia, Korea, and Thailand.” Another $85 billion was pledged from “multilateral and bilateral sources.” All total, nearly $40 billion went to Indonesia—but in less than a year the rupiah lost sixty-five percent of its value.

The Indonesian Bank governor lost his job, and President Suharto was forced from office. Suharto’s home had been one of the first stops on tonight’s itinerary. Apparently it hadn’t been random.

Emergency stores of food—including rice—were delivered to Jakarta and distributed throughout the country. But with IMF and foreign aid came mandated reforms and oversight administered by western officials from predominately “Christian” nations. For a Muslim populace already in political and societal upheaval, to label such oversight as “unpopular” is a vast understatement. A multitude of crises—inflation, failing banks, food shortages, catastrophic unemployment—made Jakarta a breeding ground for extremism and ripe for recruiting young jihadists.

Terrorist bombs hit Central Jakarta three times in 1998 and early 1999. A shopping center and the Istiqlal Mosque were among the targets. Then in August 2000, a terrorist bomb killed two people outside the official residence of the Philippines ambassador. Only six weeks later, fifteen people were killed when the Jakarta Stock Exchange was hit by a car bomb. Most of the dead were Indonesian chauffeurs waiting to drive their bosses home for the night.

Then came al-Qaeda.

That same year a coordinated attack against churches in Jakarta, Bandung and other cities left eighteen people dead on Christmas Eve.

In October 2002, Jemaah Islamiyah—a radical group affiliated with al-Qaeda—killed more than two hundred tourists in Bali, including seven Americans.

The JW Marriott was hit for the first time in 2003.

The list goes on and on. Self-detonating radicals. Car bombs. IEDs. Bombs at concerts, hotels, nightclubs, markets, shopping centers.

“The big one was of course your country,” Indira said. “I will not lie to you. I told you a man come to the mosque to celebrate what happen. It is true, my father ran him away. My father forbid the man to return. But it is also true the man was not alone. I am very sorry to say it, but I will not lie. Many people were happy to see your country suffer. I tell you what I think. I am strong Muslim. But the men who do this Nine-Eleven are in hell. They will never see paradise. And the men who take our innocent children in the name of jihad? There is a special hell just for them. I hope they will burn in it forever.”

“Is that what happened to Danisa?”

Indira nodded angrily. “Yes. She was taken. Danisa was Maya’s best friend since early years in private school. It was not the best school, but it also was not the worst. Then the money crisis and IMF make everything change and people could no longer afford private schools. Danisa and Maya had to go to public school. It had only one teacher for every seventy students. Can you believe it? Sadly it is true. How will they teach? How will the student learn? You know what the teacher tell the parents? ‘I cannot teach everyone. Would you like your student to learn something? Then give me money and I will teach your student.’ She do this because the teacher salary is nothing. The teacher is also poor. But the parents cannot pay. If the parents had money they would not send student to this school in first place. Many students just quit school because there is no reason to go. But Danisa and Maya go school every day.”

“Until they were thirteen.”

Indira nodded. “Then the imam come.”

“Imam? From where?”

“Hell,” Indira hissed.

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The Rainy Season: “a ticket to Afghanistan”

An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot:

In the days after 9/11 the home economics teacher at my military school in Korea had students baking cookies for snipers. That probably sounds strange. It felt surreal. Our small army post had brought in snipers from Seoul and placed them on the roofs of our housing units and school buildings. Just one of the many things I hadn’t prepared for in college. We also had military police riding school buses and patrolling our hallways. They carried M-16s loaded with live rounds. The MPs got a lot of cookies, too. Most of the classroom windows had to be covered with dark-colored bulletin board paper. Our military post was surrounded by a vertical city of three-and-a-half million people. We didn’t want student silhouettes lighting up the scopes for any Johnny Jihad snipers that might have found a perch high above our perimeter wall. Students weren’t allowed outside for recess either. Instead of the playground our students used the library and cafeteria—though not for reading and eating. Sometimes we’d march students up and down the stairwells just to burn off excess energy. Or to give mental health breaks to workers in the library and cafeteria. We also had to cancel after school sports and extra-curricular events.

My principal obviously wasn’t going to China.

Not anytime soon.

We had constant briefings from the military command. We were told to blend in and be vigilant, but no one told us how to do those things. Somewhere in Washington D.C. a PowerPoint was being tweaked. But we hadn’t seen it yet. Meanwhile, the media said “live your lives or the terrorists win” and most of us were on board with that. But we were also on board with the snipers hanging with us for a while. If that was a contradiction then so be it.

The military went to war for our country.

So did military spouses. So did military brats.

My principal had been with the Department of Defense for three decades. His name was Ray and he was a tall, imposing figure. His tendency to be abrupt was often mistaken for impatience. In fact he just didn’t like wasting time. There really is a difference. He was honest, quick and decisive when settling routine matters but he was deliberate and uncannily intuitive when counseling teachers or students. Ray had been an airman before he was an educator, and now he was leading military students and teachers in a crisis unlike any that our school system had ever faced.

“We have to be normal for our kids,” Ray said. “Nothing else will be. Not for a long time. They need homework, quizzes, essays and tests. They need structure and assurances. It’s not going to be easy. I don’t care. We’re going to do it anyway. We’re going to help each other. And we’re going to be successful.”

It was tense, and stressful—but we did our best. Not just for our students and the soldiers stationed in Korea with us, but for our country and military at large, our families and friends back in the states, and with heavy hearts we did our jobs in honor of our colleagues in New York and D.C. and western Pennsylvania who persevered daily in classrooms with circumstances far worse than ours. We did our best to move forward and be normal so our way of life could get back on its feet and give the finger to a group of radical terrorists. As athletic director, I thought moving forward and being normal meant our athletic teams should be competing. But it was a decision for the military command and for sure no one was going to ask for my opinion.

I began every day by asking Ray, “Any news on sports?”

He would answer, “Nothing.”

Wash. Rinse. Repeat. That’s how it felt.

Then one Monday morning I asked, “Anything?”

Ray looked up from his desk and said a single word. “Shanghai.”

“What about Shanghai?”

“I don’t want to go.”

“Okay.”

Ray said, “I’m sending you instead.”

“To Shanghai?”

“You’re in here every day begging for something to do.”

“With sports.”

“I spoke with the superintendent. Sports and extra-curricular activities are going to resume next week.”

“Finally—”

He waved his hand to cut me off. “First you have to go to Seoul for updated force protection training. Then you have to brief our coaches and athletes on new procedures. Then sports can start up again.”

“Great—”

He waved again. “They’re faxing travel orders for you to fly to Seoul.”

“Okay—”

“After Seoul you’re going to Shanghai.”

“But—”

“I don’t want to go,” he said again. “I could feed you a line and say it’s an honor the superintendent chose to send you in my place. I won’t. He didn’t. I told him you would go because I thought it would force him to cancel Shanghai. But he agreed, so now you’re stuck. The good news is you’ll be back in time to get sports going again.”

“What am I going to do in Shanghai?”

He shrugged. “Buy some whiskey in duty-free.”

“I don’t drink.”

“It’s not for you.”

“Yeah. I know.”

“Buy a suit. Wear it. Leave your hat at home. Smile. Nod. Give him whiskey and bow a lot.”

“Him” was the Chinese principal. He’d given Ray some expensive alcohol back in May. Ray gave me a few other particulars and I spent the rest of Monday teaching and adjusting lessons plans for my substitute. I arrived in Seoul on Tuesday evening and got a room at the Dragon Hill Lodge on Yongsan Army Garrison. The security briefing took place Wednesday morning at the DoDDS-Korea District Office, which was on the same post and within easy walking distance from the Dragon Hill.

Every DoDDS athletic director on the peninsula was in attendance.

The district safety and security officer gave the briefing. The SSO was a guy named Harkins. He was early forties with a high-ranking civilian position and a generous salary. Harkins was tall and wide, but fit. He had a high-and-tight military cut and no doubt his personal one-step plan for increased safety and security was to spend more time in the gym. I’d been in a few briefings with Harkins. He’d always been an outgoing, no-nonsense guy. But this morning his eyes were puffy and tired and his affect resembled a defeated warrior.

I gave a concerned look to a few colleagues and got a few shrugs in reply. The bottom line is we were all tired and stressed. None of us had a clue what would transpire over the next few months. Why should the SSO be any different?

Harkins said, “I have a PowerPoint. I’m not going to use it.”

Which would have been welcome news in different circumstances.

“I was a soldier. I fought in Desert Storm. We lost good soldiers, marines, airmen. But this war is different.” Harkins was really struggling. He paused a beat, and when he continued it was with an emotional plea. “Let’s not lose any of our kids. We can’t lose any of our kids.”

I understood why Harkins hadn’t used the PowerPoint.

This wasn’t “updated force protection training.” The only thing that had changed post-9/11 was Harkins had been much more insistent this time. Like cleaning up after lunch. Ultimatums on top of earlier ultimatums. Apparently our new plan was, “From now on you need to listen when we talk about safety and security because this time we really mean it.”

I shouldn’t be cynical.

It was a difficult time for everyone. Maybe it was even more difficult for Harkins. He was a tough, ex-soldier whose country was going to war—only he’d been tasked to fight with something other than bullets. Ground Zero was still burning. What Harkins really wanted was a ticket to Afghanistan.