07 July 2016

Care to walk along the highway of death?

It is known locally as El Camino de la Muerte, that’s Spanish for ‘Road of Death’.  It is a 43 mile road from La Paz to Coroico, 35 miles northeast of La Paz in the Yungas region of Bolivia. It is also called the Yungas Road.   It has been christened as the World’s Most Dangerous Road and it is estimated that 200-300 travellers are killed annually.  Built in the 1930s, during the Chaco War by Paraguayan prisoners it is one of the few routes connecting the Amazon rainforest region to the capital city of Bolivia and is marked by extreme drop-offs, single-lane width and lack of guardrails, muddy roads and loose rocks from the hillside above, with rain and fog often making for low visibility. 

The road was built by humans of course.  The drivers who err and send vehicles down steep precipices and die along with dozens of passengers are also human.  However, the intent is neither suicide nor murder.  Some situations/conditions are made for accidents, some less so, and this Road of Death belong to the former category.  There is tragedy pregnant in the air, one feels, even just looking at images on the internet.  And yet, the tinge of innocence in the most human flaws associated with this avenue of life-end is unmistakable.  Forgivable.

And then there are other roads.  Other human interventions; deliberate and devoid of such innocence where accident is not waiting to happen but massacre is orchestrated with dispassion.  Unforgivable. 

The internet informs that an alternative, much safer road, connecting La Paz to Coroico has been completed.  Soon, hopefully, this Road of Death will be abandoned, the natural process of erasure will get activated and what remains will be photographs on the internet.  Not so easy is the evacuation of other roads. 

I am thinking of the roads, well paths would be the better word, of My Lai and MY Khe where a unit of the US Army, Charlie Company, massacred more than 500 Vietnamese civilians (the majority being women, children including infants and elderly) in cold blood.  It all happened within 3 hours on March 16, 1968.  The soldiers had been sent to ‘search and destroy’ suspected communist fighters.  Not a single shot was fired at the soldiers of Charlie Company.  The 48th Viet Cong Battalion, the intended target, was nowhere to be seen.  Charlie Company opened a path. To death.  Human-made. 

There are other ‘roads’; those that did not have names then and are unknown today. Roads in Vietnam.  Paths, perhaps, things that helped a villager get from A to B.  I am thinking of Agent Orange, a codename for a herbicide capable of defoliating trees and shrubbery in dense terrain where the enemy was suspected to be hiding.  It was one of a set called ‘Rainbow Herbicides’, ironically.  Between 1965 and 1970, close to 12,000,000  gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed in Vietnam, eastern Laos and parts of Cambodia by the US military to defoliate rural/forested land, depriving guerrillas of food and cover, and as part of a general policy of ‘forced draft urbanization, by destroying the ability of peasants to support themselves in the countryside.  Approximately 4.8 million Vietnamese people were exposed to Agent Orange, resulting in 400,000 deaths and disabilities, and 500,000 children born with birth defects.  Another highway.  Of and to death.   Man-made. 

Let’s get close to today now. We have another highway.  It has a name.  Highway 80.  It is a six-lane road that runs from Kuwait City to the border towns of Abdali (Kuwait) and Safwan and then on to Basra.  On the night of February 26, 1991, US aircraft and ground forces attacked retreating Iraqi military personnel, after US Marine aircraft block the road with anti-tank mines and bombed the read of the massive vehicle column. Casualty figures, depending on source, range from 200 to tens of thousands.  The Iraqis were no saints of course, but there’s something utterly distasteful in the sanctimony that US officials regularly shower on the rest of the world.  These were, let me repeat, retreating military personnel.  No effort was expended in securing a mass surrender. 

How can I forget the lost highways and other avenues lined with trees and carrying memories of journey and heart, love and abandonment, in Nagasaki and Hiroshima?  What is it about bombing that makes it ‘ok’ whereas point-blank shooting unpardonable (and that too, only if perpetrated by those who do not belong to the Blue-Eyed-Boy Club of the UN)?  Such nuances do not provide relief for victim (dead) and survivor (deformed, decapitated and distraught).   

There are roads, then, ladies and gentlemen.  They are made of and for journeys.  Necessary journeys where one decides ‘I shall got o B’ and sets off from A and unless fate strikes in unpredictable ways, reaches B safely.  And unnecessary ones, planned by others for their purposes and all leading to death.  That’s Assassination Avenue, friends. 

On July 24, 1984, a bus veered off the Yungas Road and into the canyon, killing some 100 passengers.  The road didn’t plan to kill them. Neither did the driver.  Accident.  A death is a death, after the fact.  And yet, there’s something rainbow-like about these deaths.  The reason perhaps is that such tragedies have the ‘human error’ stamp.  Then there are others.  They are not tragedies.  No, not ‘accidents’.  Crimes against humanity. Un-investigated.  Forgettable?   

Time passes, we move on.  We must not forget, though; not least of all when we are rapped on our collective knuckles because some interested party dressed conjecture as fact and because the knuckled-rapper is either handicapped by ignorance or empowered by the privilege to be selectively naïve and blind.

Did I hear someone in Washington DC talk about war crimes?  Military excesses?  No, I don’t think I did.  Must be a middle aged Vietnamese woman from a village that Charlie Company named ‘Pinkville’, a village whose residents were evacuated (by way of death) by these same Good Samaritans.  Or was that an echo doing the rounds from decade to decade, continent to continent, war to war, from Nagasaki and Hiroshima, through Abu Ghraib, dissolving in a rainbow shower called Agent Orange and gathering as scream and silence along Highway 81?  I am not sure. 
But I am sure that a man called Ban Ki-moon will enlighten me, after telling me who was responsible for the murder of Patrice Lumumba the first Prime Minister of the Congo, the country he visited the other day to take part in celebrations to mark its 50th anniversary of Independence.  And after relating to me the fascinating story of King Leopold II of Belgium and the avenues of death he constructed for some 10 million people.  After completing the maps of Palestinian Tragedy.   

This was first published in July 2010 in the 'Daily News'.  
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. Email: malindansenevi@gmail.com. Twitter: malindasene.


Anonymous said...

Good article Malinda. Keep it up!