Mothers in a war
Letters to the editor


Rationally expected

Let a stockmarket enter a graveyard spiral and officials quickly appear on television declaring it nothing more than a “correction.” This would have been an apt description of the experience of the world’s equity markets this past week. If anything, the indices did not fall enough and rallied too quickly. Chief of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, Mr Alan Greenspan, had moped for months about Wall Street’s irrational exuberance. He got what he wanted: a mild deflating of the bubble. He probably would have liked a little more hot air released. Compared to 1987’s “black Monday,” when the Dow Jones index fell 22.6 per cent, Friday’s tumble only cast a pall. The average fell 5.6 per cent.

India has been unduly alarmed at the sight of the Bombay sensitive index sharing the misfortunes of the National Association Securities’ Dealers Automated Quotes. First, the correlation is not as strong as it seems. Studies show that the past few weeks have been the exception rather than the rule. Second, the link reflects the strong presence of foreign institutional investors in India. Because of their superior research and resources they tend to be market bellwethers in Dalal Street. Third, the Bombay stock exchange and NASDAQ share a common future because information technology stocks play an important role in both. And it was clear the prices for such stocks had reached absurd heights. The dotcoms had been speeding along a precipice. A fall was inevitable.

Dissecting the primary victims of the stockmarket shakeout heightens the feeling this was all too the good. Whether in the United States or London or Mumbai, the companies that suffered the most were small dotcoms with untested ideas and nonexistent business models. The big infotech firms like Microsoft and Cisco sailed through with minimal damage. Even internet companies with a semblance of a future vision saw their stock fall — from extremely overvalued to slightly overvalued. Mr G. Deshpande’s Sycamore Networks fell 74 per cent from its peak. His company is still wealthy, just a little more realistically so.

In other words, the stock markets functioned the way the textbooks say they should. They reacted in the rational expectation of regulatory action when US inflation indicators seemed to point to higher interest rates. The markets reacted so well that they have made Mr Greenspan’s action redundant before he has had a chance to give it serious thought. And the primary losers were fly by night companies and get rich quick speculators.

The real fear had been that the stockmarket bubble would implode into a financial black hole. That the collapse of US stock prices would trigger a reversal of the bursting consumer confidence that has made the US economy a record break ing growth engine. This has not happened. The US economy may expand less headily this year, but its growth will be more stable and sustainable than before. Fledgling recoveries in Europe and Japan have been unmoved by the blood spilt on the trading floor. Venture capital still pours into Bangalore and Palo Alto. Infotech still rules the roost. The new economy has only strengthened its credentials by seeing off the first loss of investors’ nerve.

India’s financial markets have also had a mild lesson in what it means to be part of the real thing. Much of the world has long gotten used to equity gyrations that begin in New Zealand or New York City and end up in their backyards. India should do so as well. The benefits of having access to global capital — cheap funds, on tap, and available in all shapes and sizes — are far too great for India to close any doors. However, New Delhi needs to do more about vestigial practises that make India’s bourses overly susceptible to global ups and downs — the lack of rolling settlements and the continued existence of badla trading. The best way to ride out global financial storms is to adapt global financial standards.    

About a month after my son Billy was born, I took a walk on London’s Hampstead Heath. It was January 1998. We were alone. Me, an ecstatic mother in my new camelhair coat, and a small boy in a green bouncy pram. I took the path through the trees far from the dog walkers and sniffed the sweet smell of wet, rotting leaves. Then, through the wood, came a man with his shoulders rounded up to his ears. He had a black V-neck pullover. No shirt. He wasn’t wearing a coat. Although we seemed to be the only souls on that charcoal day, he walked past us. He never looked up.

In all my years of foreign reporting — feeling the pop of a bullet by my ear in Timor or lying under a tree trunk in Chechnya looking up at the iron belly of Russian gunship — nothing compares with the terror of feeling someone is going to hurt your baby.

When I met Vjolica Berisha in a sunny garden in Kosovo on June 15 last year, she brought me back to that day in the Hampstead trees. Our circumstances could not be further apart. I feel uncomfortable even writing about them on the same page. But until that wet day in the woods, I don’t think I had begun to understand the real pain of war. Then I understood that war was not just about blood, bullets or bones, but about the pure, terrible fear of being unable to protect your child.

I went into Kosovo a few hours behind the German North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops. We moved in with a family in Prizren who fed us meatballs in spicy tomato sauce and fresh mango — as though we had personally liberated Kosovo.

Suva Reka was a small town on the road to somewhere else. But for Vjolica Berisha it was the place where she was born, grew up, married and became the mother of three children. In the burnt-out shopping precinct past the Beni Tours travel shop, there is a coffee shop with blue barstools. Here she saw her children murdered. In my mind I still have a picture of a woman trying to hide her toddler son between her legs, then feeling the bullet thud into his body.

The morning I walked into the coffee house the white pillars were still splattered in blood. There was blood on the radiators, blood from whoever was hiding behind the cappuccino machine. The lilac tablecloths were still strewn across the floor where they had been pulled to the ground.

More than 50 people were in here, mainly women and children. I looked across the blackened floor and imagined them lying here — mothers trying to cover the bodies of their children. A local man wandered up. There were two survivors, he said. It took a while to find Vjolica Berisha. She told the story without emotion. “It is so hard to explain the sound a child makes when it is dying,” she said. “You can’t imagine it — it’s not a scream exactly...”

She described how the group of mothers and children had hidden in the coffee shop after being chased by two armed men. “I saw my daughter, Dalphina. We were looking at each other across the bodies and she was moving her lips as though she was saying something to me. I heard Majoinda (Vjolica’s niece) calling out to her mother, “Mummy what are we going to do?” Then someone threw a hand grenade in on top of her. I saw Alton, my sister’s boy, looking across the room for her, then he made a noise like ‘oouf’ and he died.”

Fifty three people, most of them women and children, died in the coffee shop that morning, the day after Nato planes began their war against Serbia. Vjolica pretended to be dead when her body was lifted with the others onto a truck that arrived after the shooting. She was tossed on top of her own mother’s dead body.

As the truck took off she looked across at her sister, Shyreta, who still had her dead two-year-old baby cradled in her arms. “It was like she couldn’t bear to put him down. She was holding on to him until the very last minute. Shyreta saw I was alive as well and said, ‘I am going to jump. If I die jumping it doesn’t matter because I am dead already inside’.”

None of her four children had survived. Vjolica remembers watching her sister gently lay down the body of her baby — a small corpse in a pile of grown-up blood. Then they jumped.

That is the image that haunts me most from 10 years in this job: a mother clinging for those last seconds to the body of her two-year-old. The agony of watching your child die and not being able to protect it.

On Hampstead Heath that January day, I kept walking along the muddy path, without turning my head to see where the man with no eyes was. At a bend I yanked Billy’s pram behind a tree and watched the man in the black sweater. Through what was left of the winter leaves, I saw him stop. His head up now like a gun dog, scanning, turning, then creeping after us. Slow, deliberate, alert.

I pulled Billy’s pram so tight that the shining chrome of the polished handle was buried in my stomach. Then I heard a voice rasping in my head. I was rehearsing a primeval scream and a message for the man who was coming for my baby. My legs were weak. But I felt a dazzling strength in my body that was completely new to me. I knew that if he touched my child, I would rip his head off with my teeth. For the first time in my life I understood real terror at being unable to protect my child.

Suddenly the creeping man stopped. He was about three metres from our tree. He turned around again and walked away. I waited, and then ran.

I am not comparing a hairy experience on Hampstead Heath with the violent loss of a child. But without my own brief, visceral moment of fear, I could not begin to understand what those Kosovan women have been through. I have been writing about wars for 10 years now. When Billy arrived three years ago, I never thought of packing it in. Of course, the logistics of leaving my son for three weeks at a time had to be organized. But most of the time I was happy to go. My thumb pressing on the reclining seat on the plane, head back — gin and tonic in front of me. Freedom. The old life, the old adventures, the old friends. Depending on how busy I was, the yearning for him did not start for a week or so. I’ve learned to slice out all thoughts of him the second they sneak up on me.

For much of the time now I’m a 37- year-old mother concerned with the usual things: staying under 70 kilogrammes, loving a three-year-old boy. I swim a bit, gym a bit, smoke a bit. Then for half of the year I go to places where people are killing each other — and where they often hate foreign journalists. It was a busy year for me, 1999: Kosovo, East Timor, then Chechnya. In time I had found ways to forget life as a mother when on assignment. But on my first trip, just six months after Billy was born, I understood that motherhood had changed the way I would look at war for ever.

In Cambodia’s S21 Prison, where the Pol Pot regime executed the higher cadres and their children, the condemned were photographed before execution. Staring out from the wall of the prison museum that still smelled of their blood was a young woman with her baby stretched out on the metal bed beside her. She had the number 320 pinned to her collar and she looked into the camera with what seemed like powerless acceptance of what was going to happen to her and her baby.

Upstairs, somewhere in the dusty archives, were the folders of the condemned. I spend four days searching for something about her. It was an obsession. I was driven through file after dusty file, maddened by the look on her face and her naked child beside her on the iron frame of the prison bed. I was trying to imagine her mind — knowing that, in a day or two, someone would take her baby from her and smash his head open on the trees of the killing field outside Phnom Penh. They never wasted bullets on children.

In the leukaemia ward of the Saddam Hussein’s Children’s Ward in Baghdad, I felt the same madness. Two parents stooped over their 13-year-old son who would die tomorrow. The drugs he needed were forbidden under sanctions. Imagine watching your child die because some politicians in France, Britain and the United States can’t think of a better way of getting rid of Hussein. I had sometimes felt anger in my previous trips to Baghdad, but after Billy it was different.

Some time during my assignment to Kosovo, my second child died in my womb. I thought of Shyreta and her four dead children, of those final seconds when she held the body of her smallest one.

That’s the thing about this war business. For me, it sharpens the simple moments of joy. Watching my child discovering the children’s section of the Ormeau Road library in Belfast. There’s the shock of so many books, the shining, uncontrollable moment when he simply can’t bear to decide where to start, his eyes running frantically from Postman Pat to Rupert the Bear. The joy of being alive on an icy Belfast day by the River Lagan, and still having a child to hold.

The Guardian    


Gracious restraint

Sir — Both Bill Clinton and Robin Cook on their recent visits to the subcontinent did not mince words in condemning Pakistan, the commonwealth council is debating a proposal to ban it and the nonaligned movement has censured its military regime — India has lately won a number of minor diplomatic battles against its foe. But victory will only go to the one who knows where to draw the line. The recent threat to ban Pakistan from playing cricket with commonwealth countries unless Pervez Musharraf holds elections is carrying a good thing a little too far. India will gain nothing from putting Musharraf’s back against the wall. It would be better to be gracious and not kick one who is already down.

Yours faithfully,
S.K. Gupta,

Drink to the lees

Sir — It has been reported that drinking among teenagers is reaching alarming proportions. Adolescence, free mixing of boys and girls and the free flow of beer, often in the presence of elders, have started a rot which would be very difficult to stem. A child taught by elders that everything should be tried once cannot find anything wrong in his first swig or first drag. Unfortunately, unlike times when trying out was a fad, notably in the hippie years, the present times are qualitatively different. Once the inhibition is broken with the first try, present day levels of stress, because of peer pressure, cut-throat competition and breakdown of social institutions, lead to more tries till such things become an addiction.

That even in all girls parties parents permit beer, gin, champagne and wine (the last three supposedly ladies’ drinks), is hardly a good sign of the times. Youngsters feel that since it is done in the presence of elders there is nothing wrong.

A young mind struggling to cope with social pressures and adolescence cannot have the maturity to assess and handle such dangerous stuff. We should decry the use of alcoholic drinks as social lubricants. Schools should take up intensive campaigns to educate youngsters that these stuffs do not deserve to be tried even once.

Yours faithfully,
Sujeet Mishra,

Sir — It is a sorry and embarrassing state of affairs that teenagers these days are taking to smoking as a fashion. This does not augur well at all for society since these teenagers are the future of the country. I think the media has a big role to play in weaning away the nation’s future citizens from this evil addiction. Else, the present generation must play mute spectators to the wasting away of the younger generation.

Yours faithfully,
B. Bhattacharya,

Figure out

Sir — The news report, “Coal mines thrown open in Indira socialism shutdown” (April 7) mentions that “Coal India...has estimated the country’s coal reserves at 208,751 million tonnes.” But the responsibility of preparing a national inventory of Indian coal is vested by the government of India on the Geological Survey of India. Accordingly, on January 1 every year, the GSI compiles and circulates an updated inventory to all concerned. This inventory is also printed in the News, (coal wing), GSI, in its July issue annually.

According to the latest inventory, as on January 1, 2000, the latest geological reserves of coal stand at 211,590 million tonnes. The figure published in the report pertains to last year’s inventory, published in the July, 1999 issue of News, (coal wing).

Yours faithfully,
R.N. Mishra,
deputy director general, coal wing, Geological Survey of India
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