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FOURTH ESTATE London

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For Jessica, who had to wait her turn

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Nothing that mankind has accomplished to this date


equals the replacement of war by court rulings, based on
international law.
Andrew Carnegie,
US steel magnate and philanthropist,
August 1913

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If you fly often, this may have happened to you. Youre stuck
in Economy, folded awkwardly against a window, legs twined
like pipe-cleaners, half awake. Its dark outside, the window
blind has been pulled down, and youre where you hate being:
five miles high, defying the laws of gravity and plain common
sense. The slight ache in your feet, which have been pressing
upwards into the bottom of the seat in front (someone, after
all, has to do the hard work of keeping this machine aloft),
confirms this fact. You are bitterly aware that the atmosphere
inside the plane has turned into one troubled communal fart.
And then, quite suddenly, it happens. With no real warning
perhaps a brief bumpiness you assume to be high-altitude turbulence the plane makes impact. For a moment, you know that
you are dying, because this mid-air collision, so high above the
Earth, will leave no survivors, no body parts even. You convulse
in your seat. You gasp aloud and your neighbour gives you a
worried glance. And then your brain executes a massive feat of
intellectual recalibration. You flick up the blind with a trembling
hand. Thats the ground outside the window zipping past you
terrifyingly fast, its true, but in a controlled and orderly manner.
This is a landing, you idiot. Sleeping, you missed the change in
engine tone, the dipping of the nose, the minutes of what feel
like freefall, the clunk of landing gear descending.
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Landing in mid-air. A sobering exercise in shattered assumptions, the shock realisation of ludicrously false premises. When
I look back on my time in Lira, it often seems like a version
of that heart-stopping mid-flight experience, extended over the
space of a year. Well, what can I say? Some people are just a
bit slow to catch on.

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1
14 November 2005
By two a.m. the glare was really beginning to bother me.
African airports dont, on the whole, go in for soft lighting,
and Lira International was no exception. I didnt need a mirror
to know what I looked like in the greenish-white light given
off by the fluorescent strip running the length of the ceiling:
baggy-eyed, sallow, prematurely old.
I lay on the stiff acrylic carpet, my bag under one ear as a
makeshift pillow, hands between my knees, pretending to ignore
my guard. He was actually in the next room, but the door
had been propped open, and since most of the wall separating
the two rooms was glass, he could see me without leaving his
desk, where he sat reading a newspaper, occasionally sipping
a glass of dark tea.
Earlier, I had gone through the outrage, shocked innocence
and I-demand-an-explanation routine that seems de rigueur
when a young white woman is suddenly, mysteriously, diverted
from a path leading to a boarding gate, the trundle across the
tarmac in the warm night air and then, aah, the microcosm
of Western civilisation that is the modern aircraft, a little bubble
of agreed conventions and soothing yogic rituals. Id declaimed
at considerable length on my key role in the Legal Office of
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the President. Id dropped my bosss name, demanded to speak


to the presidential adviser and brandished my files, to emphasise how vital it was that I reach The Hague in time for the
announcement of a historic ruling that would shape his countrys future.
Green Eyes, as I had mentally tagged him like any good
lawyer, Id asked for his name but hed only grunted hadnt
turned a hair. The absence of reaction, in fact, was the most
terrifying thing about the whole affair. An insincere apology,
an attempt at intimidation, anything would have been better
than the total lack of expression hed shown as he had turned
on me his light, limpid gaze so disconcerting in this country
of dark brown eyes and said, No flight for you tonight.
He had taken me to identify my luggage so it could be
removed from the pile. He had led me to Immigration to have
my passports exit stamp crossed. He had walked me to the
kiosk where Id paid my airport tax to get the dollars returned.
Each of these small transactions had been conducted in silence
by the officials who had processed me twenty minutes earlier,
this time without the friendly smiles. They knew now I was
toxic, leprous. Then Green Eyes had brought me upstairs to
this room, where the only furniture was a desk, pushed against
the wall, and a plastic chair, and indicated I wait.
My first reaction had been to get out my mobile and start
composing a text to Winston. I was just typing detained at
when Green Eyes held out his hand. I handed it over, unzipped
my shoulder bag and took out my laptop as if to start it up.
He held out his hand again, this time more brusquely, and I
passed over my weathered Dell. No computer. No mobile,
said Green Eyes. All is forbidden.
Over the next hour and a half, Id watched through the glass
as the other passengers on the flight went through the routine
I, too, had been planning: the pointless trawl of the airport
shop in search of suitable presents (biography of Julius Nyerere,
anyone? Copy of the Ministry of Healths five-year plan?), a
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beer at the bar, cigarette on the terrace, the cluster at the


boarding gate, a final cursory search before disappearing
through the doors.
A few threw curious, embarrassed glances in my direction.
Wasnt that the deputy director of UNHCR, the UN refugee
agency? Id certainly met that blond young man Norwegian
Embassy? Danish? One of the Scandies, in any case at some
party. But I did not call out. All is forbidden had somehow
done its work. I was already aware of a film between me and
my fellow expatriates, the gelatinous membrane that separates
the innocent from the compromised. A strange shame held me
back, the conviction that they would have walked on past me
as I mouthed my silent appeal.
Come, said Green Eyes. I followed his beckoning finger
out of the room, past the caf-bar, now closing, and across to
the terrace, which looked out over one of the least-used runways
in Africa. Green Eyes pointed to where the Alitalia flight was
turning on the tarmac, testing its flaps. I knew exactly what
the atmosphere would be like on board. Some destinations
specialise in jolly flights, others come tinged with relief, a few
drenched in heartbreak. Flights from Lira always seemed
infused with a certain grim pragmatism. No one aboard would
be ending a wonderful holiday or laden with souvenirs. The
airport was not the chosen port of departure for fleeing locals:
too visible, too monitored. The expatriates, banking generous
salaries for what was judged a hardship posting, would be
heading off for briefings back at Headquarters, short breaks
with semi-estranged wives and children parked at boarding-school. They would be back all too soon.
The plane hurtled past the terminal building. Heading out
across the plateau, it wheeled until its nose pointed north-west.
I could almost hear the clink of the mini-bar bottles as the air
stewards handed out the required anaesthetics, tucking a few
extras into seatbacks. A few minutes later, it was no more than
a winking light in the careless splatter of stars that was the
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Lira night sky. Green Eyes savoured my expression, his point


made. I was on my own.
Come, he said again. We walked back to my holding area,
where my turquoise case crouched, like a giant scarab beetle.
Funny how you can come to hate an inanimate object. In one
of those side pockets nestled the passports, cash and academic
certificates that I assumed lay at the root of this whole sorry
affair. Someone, it was clear, had blabbed. I could guess who
that might be.
For a while, I sat in the plastic chair. After an hour, buttocks
numb, I moved to the floor, draping myself strategically over
the case a girl needs a pillow, no? I put my coat over my
head to shield my eyes from the light and under that screen,
my hands got working. At the very least, I needed to separate
the money an aromatic wodge of hundred-dollar bills from
the rest. I could claim personal ownership of the cash, even if
that meant admitting to breaking currency regulations. The
passports and certificates were another matter. Maybe there
was somewhere in the airport I could dump the incriminating
evidence. With infinite slowness, I opened the zipper into the
bags side-pocket, closed my hands on the documents and
slipped them up the sleeve of my sweater.
When I removed the coat from my head, Green Eyes was
staring at me. Had he noticed the wriggling? I need to go to
the Ladies, I said.
Come.
I followed him down the corridor. Three sinks, dripping
taps, the smell of bleach, more bad lighting and a wall-to-wall
mirror, which confirmed that, yes, I did indeed resemble a
warmed-up corpse. Disconcertingly, Green Eyes did not make
his excuses. I entered one of the cubicles, locked the door, sat
down without dropping my trousers. Think! Where could I
stow the documents? Down the drain? That would cause a
flood. How about the cistern, Al Pacino-style? If Green Eyes
had not followed me in, maybe. But he would certainly hear
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the scraping as I lifted the heavy porcelain lid. As for the


Papillon solution, no orifice was going to accommodate two
passports. Id run out of ideas. I transferred the papers from
my sleeve to my knickers and flushed the toilet. Then I walked
past Green Eyes with my face set. Hollywood had failed me,
as it tends to. If he wanted to find my cache, he would.
I resumed my previous position slouched over my bag. Green
Eyes was playing it cool, so I would match him for insouciance.
I would simply fall asleep from sheer boredom. But, of course,
too many internal voices were clamouring to be heard. One
was near-hysterical, something approaching a banshee shriek:
Oh, how could you? How could you how could you do this
to your parents? And what about Winston? After all hes done?
You stupid, stupid, stupid cunt.
I began composing a speech, my last presentation. I fully
realise the mortifying position I have placed you in, and I can
only apologise for that, it began. Not only do I expect you
to disassociate yourself from me, I demand it. I betrayed you
personally and put the case at risk, both unforgivable acts. I
have surrendered any claim to professionalism. No one else
should pay the price for my rashness.
The other voice was quieter, grimly realistic: So, lets think
this through. To anticipate is to be strengthened. This is a
pretty serious offence. Winston will fight for you, you know
that, whatever you tell him. The embassy might try to help,
but that could just make things worse. The one thing going
for you is your skin colour. No government wants the Amnesty
International press releases, the Human Rights Watch reports
that go with torturing or executing people like you. Even this
government. So were probably talking, if youre lucky, a few
years in a container on the coast. Can you handle that? Hottest
place on earth. No privacy. Malaria. Cholera.
A girding of the loins. And the answer that came back was
a slight surprise: Yes. Yes, I think I can.
But then an image came to mind, of a rough sketch Id
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spotted on Winstons desk, drawn by a young man who had


compensated for his limited artistic ability with a certain
graphic brio. It showed someone lying on their stomach, back
arched, knees bent, hands reaching behind to seize toes. In
yoga, something similar is known as the Bow Pose, a good
way of stretching the spine. In the enemy prisoner-of-war camp
into which that youngster had had the misfortune to fall it
was known as the helicopter p
osition. The
accompanying
text, written by a doctor from the Red Cross, helpfully
explained that the same technique was used in Iran, where it
was called the chicken kebab, and in Latin America, where
it was dubbed the parrots perch. It became intensely painful
after a few minutes, the doctor wrote, and, if sustained, could
cause deformed bones, deep sores and, in a few recorded cases,
pulmonary embolism.
The doctors name, I remember, was Boronski. A Pole? I
could remember the photos paper-clipped to the drawing,
showing the welts and scars. The ugly Polaroids flashed across
my minds eye, like lurid prompt cards. If the other side used
that technique, you could be sure our boys did, too. And how
about rape? Maybe I could handle it once, but repeatedly?
Day in, day out? What would that be like? I remembered a
newspaper article about a hospital in eastern Congo that treated
male soldiers raped so often theyd had to use sanitary pads.
But, hang on, this wasnt Congo. What had Winston once said,
explaining why it was important never to shout in the office?
This is a society where nothing is seen as more shaming than
a loss of self-control. But now we were back to Winston again,
and how he would react, my parents and their feelings, that
tidal wave of mortification.
I briefly tried the line of argument that had powered me so
effectively through the last few years. The one that ran:
Without Jake, there is nothing left to lose. There is nothing
at stake. But despair no longer consoled. My anxiety scurried
like a gerbil on a wheel. The passports had long ago shifted
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from pleasantly cool to clammily sticky against my skin. I tried


some deep breathing, but my heart wouldnt stop pounding,
and my mouth was so dry that my lips kept sticking to my
gums. At intervals, I lowered the coat off my face to ask Green
Eyes for water, and once in a while, he ordered a colleague to
fetch me a plastic beaker.
At a certain point, though, the adrenalin runs out. And then
you find the peace of acceptance, the passivity of the internee.
By the time I noticed that dawn was about to break, golden
shards of light piercing the long grasses at the far end of the
runway, I felt Valium-calm and as ancient as the landscape.
There was nothing they could do to me now that would frighten
or surprise me. I had done their work for them. I had dismantled myself.
There came a changing of the guard. The morning shift
arrived, a shorter, older official taking over from Green Eyes,
who gave me a knowing, strangely intimate look as he headed
out the door. There was a woman with him, small and busty
in a tightly fitting uniform, carefully made-up. Hello, sister,
she said coldly, and gestured to me to follow. And in this
country where, as I had once explained in an email to my
British friend Sarah, no one ever allowed you to carry anything
(My arms are atrophying), Whitey was this time left to lug
her own bag. The new dispensation.
I knew what to expect now. Id be led to a car so nondescript it could only belong to the secret police. Id be taken to
an equally anonymous room and there my luggage and clothing
would finally be properly searched, the passports and cash
immediately discovered. I would be professionally interrogated,
my story picked over until, inevitably, it fell apart. And then
I would be asked to sign something, and I would be taken to
a real cell, with bars, cockroaches and an open toilet, not the
soft-focus version of internment Id been treated to up till now.
Instead, the two walked me out of the deserted airport to
the taxi rank. I noticed a woman, swathed like a mummy in
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white cotton, sitting on the concrete kerb. A little boy lay


across her lap, fast asleep, saliva crusting his lips. The female
officer rapped on the window of the only cab waiting and
what had looked like a bundle of linen stirred and straightened,
morphing into a bleary old driver, who automatically pulled
the seat forward and groped for his keys.
The male officer turned to me. You will pick up your passport from the Ministry of Immigration, Room 805.
Oh, sweet Jesus, they were letting me go. Suddenly I rediscovered my lost outrage. What was this all about?
Room 805. Ministry of Immigration. This afternoon.
Indifferent, they turned and headed back towards the terminal.
Louder now. Whats been going on here?
The woman officer swivelled and looked back at me. She
had a half-smile on her face, and I noticed that her eyebrows
had been plucked entirely away, then redrawn in black pencil.
We had an information about you.
I scrabbled at the taxis door handle, my hands suddenly
shaking so violently I could hardly open it. I gabbled instructions and we headed downtown. Lira was beginning to stir.
In a night-chilled courtyard, a first dog barked. The bark was
taken up by the dog next door, and their joint yelping relayed
from one neighbourhood to another, a widening chorus of
syncopated alarm spreading to wake the reluctant, befuddled
city.
I sat huddled in the corner of the taxi, trying to control a
juddering that had now spread to my legs. One thought
occurred. After all those months of velvet-glove treatment, Id
finally been paid the ultimate compliment. Paula Shackleton
had been treated like a local.

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