Thursday, May 03, 2007

When Shrapnel Takes You Down Memory Lane

Ah yes,.. grenades. Or any kind of bomb, for that matter, is something to be concerned about when you live in an area that has been under civil war for three decades. Much like the land mine problems in many Eastern European countries, here too, you must be aware of explosives that are left over from the strife.

There was a tragically sad story yesterday about a group of teenagers who found a bomb encased in concrete. Not knowing what it was, thinking it was a ball because it was round, they brought it home and then used a hammer to extract the ‘ball.’ One of the boys died at the scene. There have been several incidences of villagers finding unexploded mortars and home made IEDs around the area. I’ve taken some time to explain to the boys what grenades and other explosives look like and hopefully teach them to be cautious when playing in the fields around the house. I tend to think we are okay since we live in such a heavily populated area, but you can never be too safe.

What a childhood, eh? But, honestly, I had quite the exciting teenage years while living in Monrovia, Liberia. I’m the only person I know who had an excuse note explaining I missed school due to a coup attempt and couldn’t get back in town.

I remember being up in the mountains with friends – my father’s boss and his wife and daughter who was my age (my dad was an Army Major and the Military Attache for Liberia when we were there for two years.) After a fun day hanging out with a family that boasted a leopard and a chimp as pets, we woke up early the next morning to the news that six Liberians had been executed in the town and the insurgents were headed into Monrovia. Our families were dispatched from the town in a little plane. An airport security guard had been shot earlier that morning and the pool of blood was still on the tarmac. I remember my friend and I keeping my little brother busy singing songs and saying nursery rhymes after he asked ‘what that red stuff was over there.’

The most fearful part of the whole episode was leaving our fathers behind – being US Military, they had a job to do, and while we were safely flown out of town, our fathers had to stay behind and drive, take care of business and drive the vehicles back. My mom, at least on the outside, was a tower of strength and self assurance. I was terrified and don’t know to this day if I can be that brave ever in front of my children. (there are a lot of brave things my mother has done that I can never live up to, like having a baby in Saudi Arabia. I always fly back to the good ol’ US of A to birth my babies! I always think of a work friend of mine who had a baby in a dirt hut in Nigeria for God’s sake. What faith. I’m such a wimp.)

I think back to September 11 and how terrifying that was. I was in the states with a toddler, a preschooler and a month old baby and my husband was in Luxor, Egypt. I had no idea when I’d see him again, nor what country we would live in after we reconnected.

What affected me the most about that event and still makes me weep is that before that, no matter where in the world I lived, I felt I could always go back to the US and feel safe. To have that awful event happen is kind of like being in an earthquake – there is no where to go. You feel there is no place safe.

So, after living my formative years knowing about the existence of bullet proof car windows and brief cases, safe rooms and evacuation plans, that assassins are real and people do horrible, horrible things to one another, maybe that’s why I continue to live the life I do. Although honestly, if I’d wanted to live a peaceful life in a country like Switzerland I should have married a banker or become one myself.

So, living in these interesting areas we have chosen to live (Rob and I have lived in Egypt, the Philippines and now Indonesia) means listening to various Department of Defense security briefings. Always interesting, but it is stressful to live your life on orange alert.

I knew I needed a break one day in the Philippines. We lived on a camp five hours out of Manila, again in the middle of the Godforsaken jungle. The camp was set up at the site of the earth fill dam Rob’s company was building. The nearest town was 20 minutes away. We attended church there, one of two families who were not Filipino in this huge building that had to seat at least 1000. The priest was very generous, because he would type his homily in English and dispatch an Altar boy to come find us every Sunday (the Mass was in Tagalog, but we could follow along with the good ‘ol Catholic Sunday missal).

We came out of church one morning finding the car without a driver and unlocked. I threw my arms up in front of the family and told them to stop. Then, I circled the car slowly, looking under, on and around for anything unusual or out of place. Rob asked me what I was doing. I told him I was checking for explosives. He rolled his eyes and told me to get in the car. Thank goodness home leave was coming up soon.

Maybe I’m a drama queen, but I’m used to varying my route, noticing who is in the neighborhood, and always knowing where the family is.

Watching Hotel Rwanda last year was one of the hardest things I’ve done. It brought up a lot of feelings of sadness and although I certainly never witnessed anything as tragic as that genocide, living in that continent is sure to make you aware of peoples' suffering at a visceral level.

Liberia was a hard place to live, even if I was a coddled Westerner and a teenager thankfully unaware of everything going on. But I had one friend gang raped on the beach we swam on near my house (group of drugged out Nigerians); one friend knifed at another beach and medovaced out of the country (her father I was to learn later was the head of CIA operations in the country); one Lebanese friend who was married in an arranged marriage at the tender age of 16; (she was happy, but what an eye opening education for me!). I remember the countless beggars in the main city, many missing limbs, scooting around on skateboards. I remember our ‘houseboy’ Isaac taking his very sick little baby to the ‘witchdoctor’ to get cured (I think again my mom intervened and brought him to an actual hospital). Just the fact that we employed this man so he could feed his family is sad. Whatever happened to him after we left?

I remember friends I went to school with who had lost their fathers and uncles on ‘Redemption Beach’ in 1980 during that horrible, horrible coup. I still wonder what happened to those people after we left and the country was once again through into civil war. I remember Nigerian friends who had fled the civil war in their home country to find a new life in Liberia, only to be caught in yet another war. And the same for all the Lebanese merchants who fled Lebanon and opened shops in Liberia just to loose them again when crazed militants torched them and stole everything they had earned.

Anyway, I’d mentioned grenades before I started this trip down memory lane. Here in Banda, besides uncovering old explosives left behind after all the fighting, they are starting to have more and more political activity that is involving grenades. (And thanks again to USAID for the information and recommendations.) There is no need for us to be alarmed at this point, since the targets seem to be carefully chosen ‘political’ targets and not the reconstruction community.

So here again, taken from USAID, possibly a very good entry in the next “What To Do in The Worst Possible Scenario” Book, or whatever it’s called:

Grenades come in many unpleasant varieties. White phosphorus grenades are at one end of the spectrum and at the other is the more common fragmentation grenade. The reality of fragmentation grenade explosions is very different from the movies. Bodies do not fly through the air, buildings do not sag and collapse, there is no ‘fiery’ explosion. Just a ‘crump’ sound and a large swirl of hot air and surface debris. Unless you are within close range they are not especially ‘dramatic’. A fragmentation grenade thrown at the outside of a building will only cause superficial damage. They are not designed to be used against ‘hard targets’ i.e. buildings, but ‘soft targets’ i.e. human beings.

The two parts of a fragmentation grenade explosion are:

The Blast – this will disorient and incapacitate you. Clothes and eardrums are likely to be shredded.
Shrapnel – This will would and kill you. The two types of shrapnel associated with most fragmentation grenade explosions are:
Big bits. The most dangerous bits of a grenade explosion are the pieces of outer casing. These are designed to be split open and propelled outwards by the initial blast. As they are large and jagged pieces of metal hurtling at high speed they will pit buildings and maim or kill people.
Small Bits. In addition, fragmentation grenades may e ‘packed with filler’ shrapnel. These smaller pieces of shrapnel may kill but are primarily designed to wound. In addition, small pieces of ‘collateral shrapnel’ from the explosion surface may cause injury.

Clearly, if you are unfortunately enough to be I the immediate blast or shrapnel area of an exploding grenade, you may suffer major damage. Variables that will affect your chances of surviving a grenade explosion are whether or not you are in an enclosed space, whether it was a hard or soft surface explosion or air burst, and the type and explosive charge of the grenade. In addition, all these variables will change the ‘kill’ zone of the explosion. For most grenades, the ‘kill’ zone is 3 meters and many people survive within a meter of an explosion if they are on the ground. So, if a grenade lands at your feet, do a John Wayne and try to pick it up and throw it or kick it away.

If you have time to even consider that, you also have time to throw yourself on the ground on your belly away from the grenade with the soles of your feet at the grenade, feet together.

So, while I don’t tend to panic too much when my husband calls me from hiding under the desk in a colleague’s office because there are angry villages storming his office, or a written death threat against him is delivered, or the police are requesting him to report and testify in a contractor case, I’m also a realist that although the majority of the people on this earth are good, there are a few who are not.

Before I get everyone in a panic, that’s why we don’t live in Egypt at the moment and why we left the Philippines when we did. While we have a little bit of craziness in our souls, we aren’t completely crazy and are sure to protect our family.

At the same time, I’m proud of my family and the work that we’ve been able to do, whether it be creating sewer systems for villages that didn’t have any, electricity to those who didn’t have it before (okay, I’m a republican and this is my take on it, everyone I’m sure has a different viewpoint) and houses to those who have lost absolutely everything in a terrible natural disaster.

That said, I can’t wait to get the Beemer out of mini storage, go through the Starbucks drive through and find out who wins American Idol.


Teri said...

"At the same time, I’m proud of my family and the work that we’ve been able to do,"

I'm proud to know your family, even just a little. But also glad you have that car and that connection to this Starbucks-and-American-Idol nation because then the rest of us here benefit from knowing you - (and from reading your blog entries, the latest of which was the first that brought tears to my eyes rather than making me laugh).

mom2threepks said...

Oh Karen....
I want to weep and cheer and sing the national anthem all at the same time. Weep for the injustice of this world and the sadness and horror that you have seen and cheer that you are doing something about it and sing the national anthem because I am proud to know you are there. Man oh man the stories you will have to tell your grandchildren. You are in my prayers.