Click a shutter, change the world

Just want to let all (three) of the readers know – my fall break post will be put up sooner or later – I promise. It may not be overly expansive, but there will be at least 500 words or so about what I did at the end of October (jeez, about a month ago) up soon.

On to newer things, then.

On November 12th, a Czech photographer named Jan Sibik spoke to my travel writing class and showed us some pictures of the places he’s been. Now, considering he’s the preeminent war and tragedy photographer for Reflex (the Czech Republic’s version of Time), he’s pretty much seen it all.

The first place he told us about was North Korea, which he’s had the privelege of visiting not once but twice. What he said was incredible.

-Even in Pyongyang, electricity only works a couple hours a day. Each household is only allowed two lightbulbs, both of which must use less than 100 watts a day.

-All cell phones are collected by the police at the airport upon entering the country, even though there’s no cellular network in the country – the North Koreans are kept in the dark about what cell phones are by the government.

-Every visitor to the country is required to bring a gift to the Museum of Gifts in celebration of the nation’s former dictator Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il. North Koreans often line up for hours to visit the museum just to see the acres of tribute laid there.

-Also, every visitor is required to lay flowers at a 225-foot statue of Kim Il-sung outside the national Communist headquarters.

-To own a radio in North Korea bestows a level of prestige similar to owning a private jet in America. The only way to get a radio is through 15 years of hard work for the Communist Party, at which point you are allowed to purchase a very tiny radio limited to three or four North Korean stations.

Next, he told us about his trips to Iraq. He visited the country not long after the U.S. invasion, in April 2003. To get into the country, he had to lie to a car rental agency in Kuwait about his plans then swap the plates on his SUV at the Iraqi border – then drive 800 km to Baghdad.

A feat, he said, that couldn’t be done today. Back then, Iraq was relatively ‘safe;’ today no foreigner would last a day outside without armed protection.

Four years ago, he said, Iraqis were welcoming in American troops “with open arms,” but after several years of the craptacular mismanagement of their country has left them bitter and angry. More and more of them are willing to kill themselves for their faith every day, he said.

Third on the list was Afghanistan. Sibik said the mission in the ‘stan was doing much more good for the people than the U.S.’s involvement in Iraq. Before the American invasion, many refugees slept in holes in the ground because they didn’t have houses anymore – and after 25 years of war, they didn’t see any purpose in rebuilding anymore.

But not everything America had done was for the best, he said, and any trouble usually boiled down to cultural differences the troops weren’t made aware of. He told a quick anecdote: after a wedding, the Afghanis celebrated (as is their custom) by firing large quantities of bullets into the air. However, an American helicopter was flying by this wedding reception and thought the Afghanis were attacking them – so they opened up with their weapons and killed 40 wedding goers.

Finally, he talked about Liberia. To hear him speak of it, the country is Lord of the Flies meets Thunderdome. Liberia has the second-highest concentration of diamonds in Africa, and is controlled by child armies – few older than 25, most much younger. These boy soldiers rule over the country through sheer terror.

For example, Sibik told us about one shop in Monrovia where the owner decided to stand up to the child soldiers. Normally, the children just walk into any store and take what they want, but in this case, the shop’s owner told them they had to pay for it.

So they shot him, stripped his body down to his underwear and dragged the corpse into the street.

Where it still lay several days later, when Sibik snapped a picture of it.

He showed us pictures of dead bodies being tossed into mass graves – the hospitals have to bury 60 to 70 people a day, and have nowhere else to put them.

He showed us pictures of people walking down the street past rotting bodies, their heads flayed, skulls blood-stained and bare.

He showed us pictures of men and boys, adults and children with limbs sliced from their bodies. In one image, a man held his 2-year-old daughter in his one remaining arm. She, too, was missing a limb from a machete’s bite.

Trash and human remains fill the streets, blood fills the gutters. I saw the pictures with my own eyes. I will never forget them.

People there sometimes drag the dead bodies of children in front of the American embassy in a vain cry for help from the U.S.A. Sibik said the boy soldiers there love America so much, 100 U.S. soldiers could probably make them lay down their arms through sheer respect. 100 soldiers.

He may well be overly optimistic. It might take 10,000, or 100,000 soldiers to set Liberia right. It’s not my place to decide, and to be frank, I’m glad the responsibility isn’t on me. To order hundreds of thousands of people to attack another country and kill people is something I don’t ever want to have to do.

But there must be some way of making things right in places like Liberia, Iraq, Afghanistan and North Korea.

I think that’s the ultimate reason I want to be a journalist. Because whether it’s the subjugation of an entire nation’s population or the story of a homeless veteran who doesn’t know where he’s getting his next meal, the best way to make change for the better in this world is to throw the will of the people into it. And to do that, they have to hear about it. They have to sympathize for those in need and be stirred to make things better.

That’s what I want to do.

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