Montréal fireworks are not always a pleasure of mine

[MONTRÉAL] I sit in my living room reading David Eggers’ What is the What, a fictionalized biography about Valentino Achak Deng, one of the Lost Boys from Sudan’s 21-year civil war. The war ended tenuously in 2005 with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the Sudanese army in the north and the south’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army. It is 22h00 on a summer Montréal night. The city’s otherwise monotonous hum is punctuated with bombardments: fireworks blast out of view from my place on my living room sofa.

I’m approaching chapter ten in the 535-page novel and only months into the war as it completely transforms the life of the story’s protagonist: Achak. The last sentence of chapter nine reads, “I continued to run.” The seven-year-old Achak had been on the run–much of it alone–for days and nights through darkness; always escaping the horsemen, the murahaleen, the Baggara raiders. At one point, he watches from a hiding place in his village church as his best friend, Moses, is chased by a horseman bearing down on the child “now with a sword raised high over his head.” Achak could only turn away and “dig [him]self into the earth under the church… There were none of [his] people visible; all had run or were dead.”

The novel’s parallel narratives jump back and forth between Achak’s life as a child in Sudan and his time in the United States. Eggers begins the story with Achak–a recently arrived refugee in the American city of Atlanta, Georgia–opening the door to a unknown woman in search of a phone, stating that her “car broke down on the street.” This chance encounter is the beginning of a robbery of Achak’s appartment with him, or “Africa” as his assailants call him, held prisoner, bound and gagged on the living room floor.

With tape across his mouth and in fear of further reprisals, Achak addresses his robbers in imaginary confrontations, describing his past and of his assailants’ unknowing: their incomprehension of what he has gone through before his misadventure with them. Achak gains courage each time he contemplates his past and his ability to survive where others haven’t. It’s during these moments of recollection that he recounts the loss of his boyhood innocence as the civil war vaulted into his life without warning, tearing him away from all that was familiar.

The 40 minutes of fireworks continually pull me away from Achak’s eastward walk toward refuge in Ethiopia. Without having visual access to the fireworks, I remember a radio show I once produced for CKUT 90.3fm the week following the invasion of Iraq and the bombing of Bagdad. I tried to comprehend what it might be like in Montréal, if the same targets were bombarded in my own city. Just as Achak helps me imagine his war in Sudan, the blasts outside remind me of what war might be sound like here as a civilian unaware of military strategy, uncertain of the bombing campaign’s duration nor its intensity. Vulnerable to the blasts and the destruction.

The United States began bombing Bagdad with its “shock and awe” on March 21, 2003 with more than 3000 bombs, including 320, 1000-pound (450-kilogram) cruise missiles launched from Persian Gulf-based USS Kitty Hawk. How did the blasts outside my window compare with those in Bagdad that night? How much more deafeningly did the bombs fall on Bagdad? How much did the ground rumble and how much brighter were the blasts? In Montréal, we admire the explosions while in Bagdad the population feared them, hid from them, died under their rubble.

The fireworks eventually reached their crescendo finale with a pulsation of blasts and massive sonic booms. Chester hid like the dog he is deep under my desk, shivering with fear. The citizens of Bagdad must have felt like dogs five years ago when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld defended the US military’s bombing campaign by saying that the intensity could not be compared with the Nazi blitzkrieg during WWII. “The weapons that are being used today have a degree of precision that no one ever dreamt of in a prior conflict,” Rumsfeld said without comparing the number of bombs dropped nor the attainment of their targets, which included military installations, radio and television stations and their towers, government buildings and official palaces, among other targets.

What if Montréal received USA’s bombs instad of Bagdad? Which buildings would be targeted? Whose lives would be ended by near misses while living next door to the targets? There are dozens of military infrastructure in downtowm Montréal. The little yellow-bricked castle of Les Fusilliers Mont-Royal on Roy street just west of rue St-Denis is immediately across the street from an elementary school in the heart of a residential neighbourhood. The Blackwatch are based in an armoury on de Bleury street near de Maisonneuve. CKUT radio on University street at des Pins; CJAD on Ste-Catherine street at the corner of Fort street; Radio Centre-Ville on St-Laurent and Fairmount; CBC tower on René-Lévesque or the TVA building on de Maisonneuve. The are all in residential neighbourhoods and all would have been targeted that night! How many of the cruise missiles would have missed their intended targets, instead slamming into people’s living rooms? How many fireballs and plumes of smoke would rise from Montréal neighbourhoods? How many corpses would be trapped under the rubble as “collatoral dammage” without any reference to the life that once inhabited them?

The fireworks seemed less entertaining to me as they once had. David Egger’s writing about Achak’s war fuelled my imagination. The fireworks added enough audio accompaniment to bring me to a place where I have no real experience: a war zone. It is easy to be indifferent or apathetic to war while comfortably reading in a spacious living room. But it is not acceptable. I am no longer able to sit it out. I need to submerge myself in the subject.

Southern Sudan seems the next logical destination for me, particularly since I have a friend working their with the United Nations. The city of Juba in southern Sudan will be my first destination to seek out an understanding of war.

I will get close to it by interviewing people like Achak Deng or soldiers from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. By capturing footage of the recovery since the end of Sudan’s civil war three years ago. By writing about it and researching ideas in preparation of an eventual documentary film. I will share my preparation for the trip, my journey to and from Sudan, as well as the weeks I spend in the country through this blog. Expect text, audio recordings and video footage. My estimated time of departure is end of October 2008. Stay tuned!

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