High and Low – To and Fro

2019/11/24

Latest posts now on: “Erwin’s Meanders”

Filed under: Thoughts&Journeys — tramp11 @ 16:07

Go to Erwin’s Meanders  or  http://erwinlux.wordpress.com

2019/11/03

English

Filed under: Thoughts&Journeys — tramp11 @ 15:02

Saturday 2nd November 2019:

Today I want to write about my languages, and how English became the most important one to me.

Like most Luxembourgers I grew up speaking Luxembourgish as my native tongue. It was and still is the language – or dialect for those who regard it as such due to its limited vocabulary – that we use in speaking to our parents, siblings and most commonly in local society as a whole.

I never learnt Luxembourgish in school because it was not officially considered an important literary language at the time. We learned to read and write first in German, then in French, the latter being the main official language in this country. I didn’t know any English until I was about 15, when my younger brother, who had started learning it earlier, persuaded me that it was a useful and interesting language. I began to take an English evening course offered by our hometown for a small fee — just an hour or so a week.

The following year, when I was 16, I switched schools and started studying English more seriously – a few hours a week. I liked it because it seemed relatively easy as it had a lot in common with German and French, and also with Luxembourgish, and in my view it was somehow more logical, more compact and more direct than those languages.

My parents knew hardly any English at all. Only my mother had learned some in school but never used it.

Most of what I wrote in my teenage years was in German, which is closest to my native Luxembourgish. While I thought I could write well in German I gradually came to feel that writing in English gave me more satisfaction even though it was harder. In later years I wrote in German, and occasionally in French, only when I corresponded from abroad with my parents and siblings, or some friends who didn’t know English.

Since the mid-1970s the vast majority of all I have written, perhaps over 90 percent, is in English.

When I joined the editorial staff of the just-founded New York City daily newspaper The News World at the end of 1976 I got my first chance to write articles in English for publication. My very first story appeared in the newspaper in March 1977.

Of all the editorial staff of the paper I was most likely the least educated, as I had never finished any schools except elementary. So it was a matter of great pride to me when my editors accepted my articles and then made fewer and fewer changes in them as my English improved.

I learned a few words in other languages during my time in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Far East. Today I can still count in Arabic, Greek and Japanese but I cannot converse in those languages. I made rather half-hearted attempts to learn Greek and Japanese on my own but gave up when I felt they were too difficult and not really worth-while for me to know.

One reason I felt this way was that I believed I still had a lot of work to do improving my English, which had by then become my bread and butter. I still believe this, and I find new or forgotten English words in my reading and in my dictionary almost every day.

2019/10/07

On my first Far East trip and on God

Filed under: Thoughts&Journeys — tramp11 @ 12:15
Si Khiu refugee camp Thailand December 1979

At Si Khiu refugee camp, Thailand, December 1979 with Japanese doctors and nurses

Diary Sunday 6 October 2019:

Forty years ago today (6 October 1979) I set off on my first journey to the Far East.

The trip, lasting about 4 months, took me by train from Luxembourg (where I had returned from New York just 3 months earlier after 52 months – 4 years 4 months in the USA) to Liège, Belgium, then to Moscow in what was then the USSR, – Soviet Union – then from Moscow across southern Siberia to Nakhodka on the Soviet Far East coast, then from Nakhodka on a Soviet passenger ship [SS Baikal] to Japan through the remnant of Supertyphoon Tip in the Pacific, to Yokohama, Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Itoh (on Izu Peninsula) and Chiba for 2 weeks, then on an Air India Boeing 707 through stormy weather via Hong Kong (Kaitak Airport) to Bangkok (Don Muang Airport), my final destination.

The train and boat rides across Siberia, the Sea of Japan, Tsugaru Strait (between Honshu and Hokkaido) and down the Pacific side of Honshu through very heavy seas to Yokohama took exactly 14 days — 2 full weeks.

In Thailand I traveled twice to Si Khiu near Nakhon Ratchasima to bring supplies to a refugee camp, also visited Thonburi across the river from Bangkok and Bang Pa In just north of the city, and went twice by bus and train for a few days to Georgetown on Penang Island, Malaysia to renew my Thai stay permit. I did not have enough money for tourism there.

After about 3 months I was invited to return to my work in New York (for The News World daily newspaper), and since I was fed up with Bangkok anyway I gladly accepted. At the beginning of February 1980 I flew in a TAROM (Romania) Airlines Boeing 707 via Abu Dhabi or Dubai or Manama (Bahrain — I forget which of the three) to Bucharest Otopeni Airport and then on a Tupolev 154 to Frankfurt, and from there by train to Luxembourg, where I stayed about 2 weeks before traveling by car to England, London, Nottingham and Mansfield for a few days, and flying from London directly back to New York.

It was a very memorable journey, and I was most impressed with Japan.

————–

On God: 

Not long ago I went to an African evangelical Christian service and was struck by how much the believers there praised God. To most religious people, especially those of the monotheistic faiths, this would seem quite normal. Many seem to believe that our lives here on earth and in the hereafter have meaning only insofar as we can serve and glorify God. From my experiences with Muslims and Christians, and Jews to a lesser extent, I know that praising God and thanking Him (/Her…) for our existence and for saving us or at least offering us salvation is one of the most important elements of worship (this term itself says it all).

The implication is that we live at His pleasure and have to offer Him devotion and praise. This is the most extreme in Islam, where God’s name is invoked for just about anything, as if believers had to be afraid to be punished for not praising God enough.

I have often wondered what this reveals about the personality, the psychology of the postulated and adulated God. Why would God, who is supposedly almighty, all-knowing and eternal, need to receive so much praise and glorification? Doesn’t that seem extremely narcissistic?

In Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church we believed that God was suffering, grieving for fallen humankind, which was mostly in thrall to His adversary Satan — whom God Himself also originally created as a good angel, Lucifer. We believed God could not interfere directly with humankind’s responsibility to recognize our fault and return to Him. This was because God had to follow the Principles which He Himself had laid down in creating the Universe and us.

But we also believed God was ultimately almighty and would certainly succeed in His effort to bring humanity back. His will to do that was paramount and unchanging. This was because we were to be God’s children, whom He originally created for love, a love that is supposedly the greatest force in the Universe.

So if we wanted to return to God we had to repent and do penance (pay indemnity as we called it in the church), and to love God by doing His will. God was our original parent, we believed, and He created the Universe for us. But this God was not only a pitiful suffering God. He was also an angry, even vengeful God, as Rev. Moon implied many times in his speeches to us members of his church, and as is told in many passages of the Bible and the Qur’an as well as in some of Jesus’ parables.

God was suffering because we had fallen away from Him and spurned His love, and we continued to either ignore or oppose His efforts to win us back. And we had to pay a ransom to this imaginary Satan, and repent in order to alleviate God’s anger (I think this is the underlying reason for the need of repentance).

Over time all these ideas lost every vestige of sense and meaning to me. This God was either a conceited narcissist or a pathetic yet vengeful character whom I simply could not love or praise. Believers of monotheistic faiths could not convince me that there is such a God. I have come to think this God is really a delusion.

We are not children of a God — we are God, in a way. We are infinitesimally tiny parts of God, yet God develops and changes through us. As individuals we are just sparks in time that leave a residue in God’s Universal Memory when we fade away. But as humankind we represent a substantial part of God.
***

2019/09/19

Thoughts on the 18th anniversary of 9/11, and more…

Filed under: Thoughts&Journeys — tramp11 @ 15:13
0-Thailand article 1977 TNW NYC-c

One of my early articles in The News World under my pseudonym Aaron Stevenson

Diary Thursday 12 September 2019 [continued on 20 September]:

Yesterday was the 18th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City, when 2 towers and one large building collapsed, killing around 3,000 people. As usual, the anniversary (9/11) was marked around the world with ceremonies in which people expressed their support of the great USA.

I want to take stock of my feelings for that USA, which I long regarded as a second homeland.

My father always professed to hate the USA — though by no means all of her people or even the culture. He watched plenty of American movies, for example. He used to say the US were dominated by “Jews,” who were an ethnocentric tribe of money-grubbing Shylocks, in his mind.

His view of “Jews” was colored by his involvement with Nazis in World War II, when he was a mechanic in the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe, in which he had enlisted because he loved airplanes and had hopes of becoming a fighter pilot [he was not accepted for that special training as he was past their age limit of 28 at the time].

I don’t think he ever knew any real Jews. They were mostly just caricatures in his mind, I think. So, to him they were all one kind, all the same, with the same Shylock-type attitude.

I don’t know now if my father’s feelings about the Jews and the USA influenced us his 6 children in any way. Perhaps the only one really affected by this is my brother Gilbert — but in an opposite way. Among all of us Gilbert was the one most in opposition to my father’s ideas and visceral impulses. So Gilbert has become a very ardent supporter of the USA and Israel, and the Jewish people in general — whom he almost completely identifies with Zionism.

So what about me? I don’t think my father’s expressed feelings about the USA and the “Jews” affected me very much. Like most kids my age I was fascinated by many aspects of American culture and by the USA as a whole.

The assassination of President Kennedy and the mystery surrounding it affected me, though. I was close to 13 years old (12 y. 9 mo.) when it happened in November 1963 (actually, the day before Gilbert’s 11th birthday). I remember staring at the large black and white pictures in the German magazine “Stern,” which my father used to read. I found it hard to believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was shot dead by Ruby right after he was nabbed by the police. Somehow the assassination itself and the aftermath, followed a few years later by the murders of Martin Luther King and Kennedy’s brother Robert, seemed totally sinister, evil — and in my mind a cloud descended on the rosy image I had of the USA.

When I saw pictures and film of what the US were doing in Vietnam I even joined a protest march to the American Embassy in Luxembourg City once; I think that was in the winter of 1968-69. However, this did not mean I hated the American people or the culture. Around the same time I met Ben Barker in Clervaux (Luxembourg), my first American friend. He was a middle-aged itinerant evangelical preacher and puppeteer, on a bicycle tour of Europe. We corresponded for a few years after that, though I never saw him again.

In school, where I started learning English from the age of 16 (February 1967 — in the Lycée de Garçons/Esch-Alzette), I tried to speak the language with what I thought was an American accent — to the displeasure of my teacher, who spoke the purest Oxford English.

Also, in 1968 or 1969, I applied for a scholarship offered by the American Field Service that would have allowed me to study for one year at a high school in the USA. I wrote an essay for them — I think it was about American-Luxembourg relations — and was accepted. The only problem was that my parents had to pay for my air ticket to the US and give me some money for expenses, as I did not have any except in a special savings account that could not be debited until I was 21 (1972) [I had already earned a small salary in 1966-67 when I worked as an apprentice fitter in the ARBED Belval steel mill for about 6 months — but that money mostly went into the savings account]. My parents could not afford to pay, so I had to cancel my application for the AFS scholarship.

By 1972 I was desperate to get away from Luxembourg, so I got my first visa for the USA from the same Embassy I had marched against a few years earlier. In my correspondence with my friend Ben Barker during those years I had learned quite a bit about America but we had a mild dispute about the US bombing of North Vietnam, which he supported but I abhorred. He wrote from different places as he moved often — from Maryland, Virginia, Rhode Island, etc. He always wanted me to read the Bible and accept Jesus as my personal Savior. I still have 5 of the letters Ben wrote me, from 1969 and 1970.

In 1972 I also went to Brussels to visit the Canadian and South African Embassies and to ask what I needed to do to immigrate to either of those countries. The Canadians said I first had to find a job in Canada, and for the South Africans it was more or less the same — though they told me my qualifications were insufficient.

Between 1975 and 1982 I spent a total of just over 6 years in the USA, mostly working with the Unification Movement (Korea’s Sun Myung Moon) and its offshoot companies, especially the daily newspaper The News World in New York City, which we launched at the end of 1976.

I never returned to the US after 1982 but worked for ABMC, a US Government agency, from 1992 until my retirement in 2016. ABMC (American Battle Monuments Commission) maintains the (WWII) Luxembourg American Cemetery where I was custodian-guide and associate those 24 years.

In my time in the US and later in the cemetery I got to know many Americans and learned a lot more about the USA.

In the Unification (“Moon”) Movement in America we were very patriotic, very positive about the country and its role in the world. This was, of course, reflected in our newspaper. I edited and wrote many articles with a strong pro-American, conservative bias in those days, because like most “Moonies” I believed the US was the most important country, without which the world could not be saved from evil communism and socialism.

I shook off the unease and even horror I had felt earlier about what the US had done to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The USA had withdrawn from that region and now those countries had fallen to communism.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s I had been curious about the Soviet Union, and my father always viewed the Russians positively as a counterweight to the USA. I sometimes read a pro-Soviet magazine in German, Sowjetunion Heute, and found it quite interesting although I was not attracted to Russia nearly as much as I was to the USA. At one point in 1971 I visited the Soviet (USSR) Embassy in Luxembourg-Beggen to sign a book of condolences for the 3 cosmonauts killed in space during the Soyuz-11 mission. I received a free lifetime subscription to Sowjetunion Heute, which my father went on to keep after I left Luxembourg.

In October 1979 I crossed the Soviet Union by train on my way to Japan. The country appeared rather shabby to me, almost like a Third World nation, not at all like a great superpower that threatened the west. A few months later when I was living in Bangkok I heard and read about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (a country I had visited in March 1972 on a very memorable trip). I was shocked. I hadn’t followed events leading up to the invasion — at least not closely. In the newspaper in New York during 1978 and 1979 the Iranian Revolution dominated the headlines and our attention. Afghanistan seemed a sideshow. Now the Soviets, the “evil communist empire,” had broken out of their underbelly and seemed poised to march to the shores of the Arabian Sea.

Later, during the 1980s when I worked for the Middle East Times, I wrote many articles about Afghanistan and traveled to some of its eastern border areas three times with mujehideen from Pakistan. All 3 times I came under artillery fire from Afghan and Soviet forces. My articles were, of course, biased against the Soviets and their Afghan allies/”puppets.” I was still very pro-American, keeping the mindset I had acquired during my time in the USA.

Yet I began to have some doubts. Actually it had already started when I was still in New York working for The News World. The first stirring of my doubts about what we were doing began when I was asked to write our top story of the day, under a banner headline, hailing the military coup d’état in La Paz / Bolivia led by General Luis Garcia Meza Tejada in July 1980.

At the time our company published a right-leaning, anti-communist Spanish newspaper, Noticias Del Mundo, whose offices were located one floor above our newsroom in our building — the former headquarters (until ca. 1940) of the famous Tiffany & Co., at 401 Fifth Avenue (37th Street entrance).

The editor-in-chief of Noticias Del Mundo was an Argentinian journalist named Rodriguez Carmona, who I believe had ties to his country’s intelligence service under the bloodthirsty dictatorship of Gen. Jorge Videla. Rodriguez Carmona provided the information based on which I was to write my article. I was reluctant because I had doubts about the character of the coup plotters in Bolivia. In the end I wrote the story as suggested by my editor, Robert Morton, and it was published at the top of our front page under my pseudonym byline (in the paper, whenever I was in New York City, I always wrote under the name Aaron Stevenson, which was chosen for me in early 1977 when my first story appeared, due to concerns about my status as an illegal alien; when I worked for the paper out of Washington DC in June 1979, for some reason, my real name Erwin Franzen was used with my stories).

I was not happy about that story on the coup and it became one of the reasons I quit my job temporarily a month later (late August 1980) and returned to Luxembourg for 4 months until I got fed up there again and came back to New York and The News World at the beginning of 1981.

Bo Hi Pak, our publisher and our founder Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s interpreter, and my editor Morton and most of our staff welcomed the Garcia Meza coup because it kept Hernan Siles Zuazo from gaining power as he would have in fair elections. We regarded Siles Zuazo as a dangerous leftist. Pak and some of our members went to Bolivia and were well received by the coup leaders. They were enthusiastic about the prospect of being allowed and even encouraged to teach Victory Over Communism (our anti-communist doctrine) in schools there and to establish chapters of CAUSA International — our church’s new anti-communist political organization, which focused mainly on Latin America and Hispanics in the USA.

From the beginning it was clear that the Bolivian coup was backed by Videla’s dictatorship in Argentina, and some of our people were happy about that because they were regarded as staunch anti-communists.

Soon, however, it also became clear that those nice, friendly anti-communists were torturing and massacring opponents and even anyone who could be labeled a leftist or human rights activist. The coup leaders also enjoyed active support from some Nazis such as Klaus Barbie, the “butcher of Lyon” in World War II, who was responsible for the murder of thousands of Jews.

Garcia Meza and his henchmen were also deeply involved in cocaine trafficking. When Ronald Reagan became President early in 1981 his administration learned from the FBI about the Garcia Meza regime’s involvement in drug trafficking, and quickly began to distance itself from them. Articles about this drug business appeared in American newspapers, and soon La Paz became isolated.

We also ended up having to distance ourselves from them. But the episode taught me that our stance of almost blindly supporting anyone who professed anti-communism was at least very naive if not outright dangerous.

I began to have doubts about US support for dictatorships like that of Pinochet in Chile and Videla in Argentina. Jimmy Carter had emphasized human rights and tried to push some US allies to improve their record in that area. Under Reagan, however, human rights violators were only criticized and punished if they were leftist or communist, or did not submit to US pressure. Our members whole-heartedly agreed with this idea, and I tend to believe a majority of them still do even to this day.

CONTINUED on Friday 20 September 2019:

During the 1990s I was somewhat ambivalent about America’s role in the world. The Soviet Union had collapsed and it seemed the US now regarded itself as the ultimate power in the world. A first glimpse of this emerging reality was, in my view, afforded by the 1991 Gulf War.

While it is true that the GHW Bush administration consulted with Soviet leader Gorbachev at the time, it was clear the US was in the driver’s seat. There was already no doubt in anyone’s mind that the USSR was crumbling, dying. And China was still mostly a Third World country, though, like India, equipped with some nuclear arms.

I certainly didn’t like Saddam Hussein but I felt the crisis in the Gulf when he invaded Kuwait should be resolved by diplomacy, not war. When the US built a coalition of military forces to attack Iraq I did not like it because I felt it was not necessary and could lead to great disaster. I remember Bush sought advice and support from evangelist Billy Graham before he launched the assault. I did not like that at all. It seemed like a Christian leader gave his blessing to a war of choice, not a defense of the United States. The US was not threatened by Iraq, and everybody knew that country would not stand a chance fighting America — with or without a coalition of other powers.

Then the inevitable happened. Iraq was devastated, leading to vastly more death and destruction than it caused in invading Kuwait. Then there was the so-called “highway of death,” what US airmen called a “Turkey shoot.” American bombers totally butchered hundreds or thousands of Iraqi soldiers who were retreating from Kuwait. That was absolute, wanton mass murder and a war crime in my book. Yet I gave the United States the benefit of the doubt.

It took many more years before I finally changed my mind. When Clinton later bombed Serbia in 1999 I thought he and NATO were fully justified because of what I had heard and read about what the Serbs had allegedly done to Bosnia and Kosovo. I would change my mind about that only much later when I learned more about what happened from non-western points of view.

In the cemetery where I worked we always held ceremonies to mark Memorial Day and Veterans Day, and often on other occasions as well, such as the anniversary of the liberation of Luxembourg (10 Sep. 1944) and the start of the Battle of the Bulge (16 Dec. 1944). We always had American general officers or top diplomats speaking at these events. Invariably they would equate what American military forces were doing around the world at this time with what the GIs did in World War II — defending the US and Europe against the forces of evil.

They also always portrayed the deceased soldiers as heroes who died on the battlefield for a great cause. One word that I missed in most of their speeches was peace. I also missed it in our agency ABMC’s publications and in the instructions given us for guided tours of the cemetery. Our motto became: “Time will not dim the glory of their deeds,” taken from a statement by Gen. John Pershing, the founder. The emphasis was always on “glory.” The soldiers rested “in honored glory.” Their deeds in war were “glorious.” So that meant in a way war was good, because it brought glory to those who won, who defeated their enemies, anyway.

But I took very many family members and close friends or war comrades to the graves of their loved and cherished ones over the years. The family members and buddies clearly felt sorrow over the loss of those young men (and one woman, among over 5,000 dead), not glory. They did not say they were happy that their loved ones rested in “glory.” I think they mostly wished for peace, that almost forbidden word / idea. Most said they hoped there would never be another war like World War II, no conflict in Europe or — God forbid — in America.

I felt there was a major change after 9/11, a hardening of the attitudes of many Americans towards people of other cultures such as Muslims. There was also a big change in our agency, ABMC. Whereas in the 1990s we had struggled financially and our mission was not considered especially important, after 2001 the US Congress greatly increased our budget, and our work was given a major impetus. But the idea of peace was buried ever so deep, it seems to me. America was at war and had to continue in this state indefinitely. So those who had fought in the world wars of the 20th century were honored even more than before, because they had made America not only great but the greatest of all the major powers of history.

I read several books and a lot of articles on the Internet that gave me insight into unsavory aspects of American history, and foreign and military policy, of which I had hitherto known very little. In recent years I have become almost totally disillusioned with the USA as I have observed how they strive to put a stranglehold on the whole planet with their enormous military and economic power and their gigantic intelligence apparatus, which they use to destroy, to coerce, to lie and to cheat others.

In my opinion the US use by far the largest proportion of their power and their wealth to dominate or crush other countries, and only a comparatively puny share to help and support those in need. I believe Russia and China and Iran, and other potential rivals or foes of the US build up their own military forces and intelligence capabilities as much as they do because they feel rightfully threatened by the US.

2019/03/05

Escape from God …?

Filed under: Thoughts&Journeys — tramp11 @ 16:18

Excerpts adapted from recent diary entries (important clarification inserted in bold below on 13 April 2019):
On the Run from God… (provisional title of the memoirs I am writing).

My grandmother used to tell a story about me when I stayed with her once as a very small boy. She said I had been outside their house in the sun for a short while one day when I suddenly came running inside exclaiming: “The sun is moving! The sun is moving!”
When she and my grandfather looked at me I said I saw how the shadows of the houses moved.
My grandmother, who was a good Catholic, said: “The sun does not move but God holds our earth in his hand and moves it around the sun.”
“Can we see how God does this?” I asked, and she told me God cannot be seen.
Then, according to her story, I retorted: “How can God move our earth if we cannot see him? I cannot believe this.”
For some reason my answer impressed my grandmother so much that she regarded me as a very bright kid.
Perhaps ever since that time I have tried to find this invisible God.
I was raised a Catholic and took my religion seriously until doubts became too strong in my teenage years.
In my early twenties while traveling in the Middle East I officially became a Muslim in Damascus, Syria and performed the Haj (pilgrimage) to Mecca and Medina with some friends. Having forsaken Catholicism I was yet unable to become inspired by Islam and never delved into it.
Then two years later, at age 24, I met the Unification Church of the Korean Rev. Sun Myung Moon in the United States. I became more inspired than I had ever been before and thought I had really, finally, found God.
The Divine Principle, the teaching of Rev. Moon, and the mostly friendly and loving yet also very competent members of this movement convinced me for a time that God worked through them to create a better world. I always had doubts, of course, about God, about Moon, about the teachings and also about my fellow acolytes. But I felt nonetheless that this movement was the best hope for a humankind I considered debauched and bound for self-destruction.

…. About the title of my book “On the Run from God”: the God from whom I am running away, trying to escape, is a myth – in my view. It is an extremely powerful myth that holds most of humankind in thrall, in bondage. To me it is a God that cannot exist but is nonetheless real to most of my fellow humans.

…. I don’t believe in such a God. I thought I did many years ago, and clung to an illusion of such a belief for many years. But gradually, between 1994 and 1998, I came to realize that my belief itself was unreal – it wasn’t me. I did not really, deeply believe in such a God. I never did. I only wanted such a God to exist, because I accepted other people’s contention that it was good, right, just.
Starting in 1994 I applied Occam’s Razor to the entire concept of that God. Over the next several years I came to understand that I could never really believe in such a God and that such a God really could not exist. It did not make any sense at all anymore.

Today I remember that it was comforting to believe there was an almighty father/mother who had created us and who was good, benevolent, gracious, compassionate, and who always supported us when we did our best to be good too.
It was comforting to feel we were the children of this God, and that together with our Heavenly Father/Mother we could right this world, rid it of all evil. I, too, clung to this belief. I always had doubts, which I had to find ways to overcome. I imagine everybody wrestles with such doubts at times.
Then we have to dig deep into ourselves and pray, and our hearts tell us how bleak and terrible the world would be without such a God. And we repent. Then we feel good. We feel this God’s warm embrace. It seems God likes it most when we repent. That is what binds us to this God – repentance. And it always makes us come back for more of this warm embrace that we feel after we repent. I felt like that too, many, many times.
However, this warm embrace is gone when I return to reality, when the prayer is over. Very quickly afterwards there is nothing left but a memory of the embrace that fades fast when confronted by the reality around me and the realization that nothing has changed as a result of the prayer. Everything is still broken, shattered. The world is still beautiful in one sense and a horrible mess in another.
I do believe it is up to us to right this world. I do believe I should do my best to be good and do good. Simply because I am horrified by the bad I see within myself and around me, and because I love the beauty and the goodness that I also see everywhere.

In my view now there is a real God hidden behind the mythical, false God described by the monotheistic religions. The real God must have inspired the myth but is quite different from the way He/She/It is described. Over the last 20+ years I have been trying to understand that real God, and I am still searching….

I believe I, we, all, everything, are parts of this real God. God is all there is. God, originally, is not good or bad. Yet He/She/It encompasses all the good and all the bad, all the beauty and all the ugliness as we understand them.

God as universal consciousness divided Him/Her/Itself into innumerable parts, each clinging to a physical entity – a projection that made the separation from other parts of universal consciousness real. Many parts were joined together in larger physical entities. Each of us humans is composed of many parts joined together. Our individual consciousness arises out of the many parts joined together to form one mind and one body.
Our individual, separate consciousness cannot continue to function once the body that holds it decays. It’s like water in a cup. When the cup breaks the water flows in all directions until eventually it returns to the ocean. The ocean is universal consciousness, God. But the water has memory. There is universal memory, which in my mind determines time itself. There is also entropy, which I think degrades the memory to some extent. I don’t know, of course. These are just stray thoughts of mine.
God created everything by dividing Him/Her/Itself and then pushing everything to evolve in various directions. I believe we humans, collectively, are a spearhead of this evolution of God. There may very well be others, other spearheads – meaning the most highly developed, separate forms of consciousness. This evolution continues, of course. God’s – and our – understanding of good and bad evolved from the interaction of the separate consciousnesses into which God had divided Itself, especially us humans (spearhead/s).
I believe God, as the sum or the ocean of universal consciousness, retains an identity, a personality clinging to the physical universe as a whole and in particular to the spearhead/s of evolution (really God’s own evolution) – us humans (and perhaps other such spearheads – advance guards – in other parts of the universe). So this God inspired all the so-called holy scriptures (at least those who conceived them) and prophets, etc. God inspired those who produced what became the Torah, the Bible, the Vedas, the Avesta, the Quran and many others. But God’s own personality evolved and continues to evolve – through the spearhead/s, through us.
That is my belief now, after struggling for many years to formulate an understanding that would explain my doubts and allow me to separate from the teachings of Rev. Moon to which I had clung almost desperately for so long.

2018/03/03

My current idea of God in a nutshell

Filed under: Thoughts&Journeys — tramp11 @ 10:38

I believe God is everything and everything is God. God is universal consciousness, universal memory.

We humans, collectively, are a spearhead of the evolution of universal consciousness, and each one of us is a facet of God’s character. There may or may not be other such spearheads in other parts of the universe.

Time is the accumulation of memories in universal consciousness. Time appears to flow in one direction because memories cannot be erased from universal consciousness.

I do not believe we as individual human beings are eternal in any way except that we continue existing as memories in universal consciousness. Upon final separation from our physical bodies our individual spirit or consciousness dissolves back into the whole from which it came and of which it always remained a part.

It can be said that God grows through us, changes and learns through us — until we may be superseded by a higher intelligence. God is not good or evil in itself but through us God is both. God cannot change our world except through us… 

2018/02/09

How I met the Unification Movement — part 1

Filed under: Thoughts&Journeys — tramp11 @ 14:52

INTRODUCTION

Like many people throughout history I have been on a quest: a search for an understanding of ultimate reality. This has been the fundamental theme of my life. After a long, meandering journey I have found an explanation that satisfies me but is difficult to use as a guide in my life. Along the way I have come across some other philosophies of life and learned very much from them. One in particular served me as a guide for many years and set my life on a course which I can and will no longer change: the Divine Principle as taught by the late Korean religious leader Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

I no longer believe in the Divine Principle and Rev. Moon, who proclaimed himself with his wife Hak Ja Han as the “True Parents” of humankind, essentially the one and only Messiah. In fact I no longer believe even in the God postulated by the monotheistic religions. My idea of “God” is quite different, closer to the reality I perceive and understand. But I am no longer alone and free to pursue my quest wherever it may lead me. I have a family and a responsibility that I cannot and will not shirk. My family was begun by Rev. Moon and is inseparable from him and the movement he founded.

Here, then, is the story of my meanders.

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Chapter 1

New York City, Thursday, 6 March 1975. After a long flight over the icy wastes of Iceland and Labrador, this was Manhattan, a different world. It was after dark, on 42nd Street near Grand Central station, when I encountered what to me was a foreboding of Doomsday. The tall, dark buildings, the impression of decay given by the city’s famous potholes, and the steam rising here and there from pipes running under the streets reminded me of a haunting image I had in my mind of the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, which I expected to occur within a few years’ time.

It was a relatively warm night for this time of the year in New York. As I walked with my backpack on my back, I noticed a young man standing on the sidewalk in front of a small blackboard, alternately drawing and gesticulating rather wildly while he gave what seemed to be a lecture at the top of his voice. The funny thing was, there was no one listening.

Another young man stood a few meters away, apparently waiting for something or somebody, but he seemed to pay no attention to the first one. I looked at the blackboard but the figures the lecturer had drawn meant nothing to me. I caught the words “Last Days” in the stream of his talk, and then something about the Bible and a “Divine Principle.”

Tired as I was after the long flight, the man’s lecture seemed too arcane for me to be able to figure out what he was talking about even though his mention of the “Last Days” had intrigued me. Also, I was hoping to catch a train to Montreal rather than having to spend the night in New York. So I asked the bystander where I could find out about trains to Canada. “Sorry mate, I can’t help you there,” he said with an accent that didn’t sound American. He turned out to be an Australian who knew little more about New York than I did.

As I walked on, down Park Avenue, then over to Fifth Avenue and back up towards 42nd Street, I saw more young people giving lectures in front of blackboards set up on the sidewalks. Some of them had an audience, others did not. They all seemed to preach the same message and draw the same figures.

One of the city’s yellowcabs stopped at the curb in front of me and two well-dressed young women got out, one black, the other oriental. Both came right up to me and introduced themselves: Barbara from Guyana and Tamie from Japan. They asked me if I needed some help. I told them I was from Luxembourg and asked where I could catch a train to Montreal. Barbara said I had to go to “Penn Station” below Madison Square Garden. She told me they would take me there but could not because they had an appointment in the building in front of which we were standing.

She explained that they had to attend an important lecture about a new revelation about God and a new understanding of the Bible, and she invited me to attend if I was interested. I said I might be interested but first I had to find out about trains to Montreal, as I was hoping to catch one that same night. Barbara gave me directions to Madison Square Garden and both girls handed me their business cards, suggesting that I call them if I needed any further help.

I walked slowly down Fifth Avenue, lost in thought. Yes, this big city really conjured up the feeling that it was doomed, and the entire civilization that created it was doomed. It would all be annihilated in the nuclear war that I saw coming within a few years’ time. That holocaust had to happen — and I actually wished for it to occur. Because I felt that something was fundamentally wrong with this civilization. More than that, something, was fundamentally wrong with humankind.

In my view, the earth and in fact the entire universe was a harmonious whole, like a gigantic organism within which every part played a certain role and all parts were complementary to each other. Only man did not fit into this harmonious whole. Man was like a malignant cancer that, though originating from the whole, spread uncontrollably and destroyed other parts of the organism. Man alone was going against the purpose and design of the universe, and modern human civilization represented a cancer that had grown to such proportions that it threatened to overwhelm an entire planet. It had to be destroyed. Actually, because of its inherent contradictions, it was bound to destroy itself.

But I believed there could be, there had to be, a new beginning — because the universe had brought forth humankind and it was thus meant to exist, but it clearly had somehow gone wrong. Modern civilization would be destroyed but there would be survivors in different places. Those people would have to live in nature and start anew, but they would have to avoid the original mistake that made man go in the wrong direction.

I felt that those survivors had to become completely one with nature, one with the spirit of the whole, the essence of the universe. And they should never ask the question “why?” To me, this was the root of all the problems. We had to attune our hearts and minds to the harmonious whole of the universe without ever asking why things were the way they were and why we were what we were. Asking “why?” somehow meant that we separated ourselves mentally from the whole — and that was what caused humankind to go astray.

Our ancestors in Stone Age had made this mistake, and the survivors of the expected nuclear holocaust would have to go back to Stone Age to try again. I was on my way to Stone Age. I was planning to go to a remote area in the wilds of British Columbia and to try to live in nature on my own, ridding myself gradually of all the implements of civilization that I carried with me to help me get over the initial shock.

I felt that if I could survive like this for a year or so, then I was ready to become one of the survivors of the nuclear war to come — and perhaps even a leader of a new humankind. I was 24 years old and I believed the nuclear war would come in 1979, which was four years away. After spending at least a year in British Columbia, I wanted to make my way down to Patagonia, where I would wait for the holocaust to begin. The reason why I had chosen Patagonia was that I felt there would be less nuclear fallout over the southern hemisphere because most worth-while targets for nuclear strikes were in the north.

In front of Madison Square Garden I saw two blackboards like the ones I had encountered before. Several people were standing around either listening to two preachers who were lecturing about the Last Days or talking to others.

I watched the scene for a moment and then looked for the passage to the train station below the building. Just as I started moving toward the entrance an Oriental lady in her 30s approached me and asked if I was interested in science or religion. I said I was interested in both. She gave me a flyer and told me the people lecturing about the Last Days were speaking about a new revelation that could bring science and religion together for the sake of world peace.

The idea sounded good to me, and when she told me a little more about it I realized it must be the same revelation the Guyanese lady Barbara had mentioned a little earlier. I asked where she was from and it turned out she was Japanese, and her name was Noriko. I gave her my name and told her I had just arrived from my country Luxembourg but wanted to take a train to Montreal that evening or early next morning.

She said she hoped I could find the time to listen to a special lecture about the new revelation, which she called the Divine Principle, before I took off for Montreal. The lecture was going to be held in a building across Fifth Avenue from the New York Public Library, exactly the place where I had met Barbara and Tamie earlier.

I said I was interested but I needed to get information about trains to Montreal and to buy a ticket first. Noriko called a tall young man standing nearby and asked him if he could show me where to find what I wanted. The man introduced himself as Bill. He took me down to Penn Station, where I bought a train ticket to Montreal.

A little later Bill disappeared briefly and then returned driving a big Dodge van. Noriko and I got in and we drove to the building near the library on 5th Avenue, picking up a few other people along the way.

I don’t remember any detail but we entered a hall full of people, with a man in front who had just begun to give a lecture. From time to time he drew figures and symbols on a large board facing the crowd.

He explained about how God’s nature is reflected in everything through the dualities of internal character and external form, and positive and negative charges or male and female genders.

He said God was like a parent to us humans, whom He created in order to share his love. But, as told in the Bible, when the first humans fell away from their Parent He had to let them go their own way because He did not want to interfere with their freedom of choice. In order to win them back to His side He guided leaders He chose among them to set conditions that would ultimately prepare the way for a Messiah, a person who perfectly embodied God’s love.

This Messiah would have to find a perfect bride together with whom he would become the “True Parents” in reflection of God’s dual nature and lead humankind back to Him. The Messiah was Jesus Christ, but the people did not follow him, so he could not find a bride and had to sacrifice his life to become a spiritual guide and inspiration to the world.

Jesus’s followers the Christians then became the people through whom God worked to fulfill His providence to bring a Messiah who could become the “True Parents” of humankind. The Last Days prophesied in the Bible was the time when a new Messiah would appear with a new understanding of God’s truth, and this time was upon us. …. 

I remember seeing many pictures on the walls of the man I later learned was Rev. Sun Myung Moon of Korea, the man who had discovered the Divine Principle, and I couldn’t help feeling even then that perhaps he was the one the people here believed to be the new messiah.

At the end of the lecture the speaker suggested there was much more to the Divine Principle than what he had just explained. He invited anyone interested in learning more about it to attend a weekend workshop in a beautiful place in the countryside on the Hudson River north of New York City.

Over snacks and drinks after the talk Noriko introduced me to a few of her friends who were all members of the Unification Church, the movement founded by Rev. Moon. Some of them asked me how I liked the ideas presented by the speaker, whom they named Mr. Barry. I said I thought they were quite interesting because they seemed to indicate a possibility to reconcile the Bible with modern science. Also, I liked the proposition that Jesus’ death on the cross was not God’s original plan.

When Noriko suggested I attend the workshop Barry had mentioned I told her there was a problem: I was allowed to stay in the United States only until the next day, 7th March. This was because the immigration official at J.F. Kennedy Airport who checked my papers stamped that date on the I-94 card that he stapled into my passport. He had asked me how long I was planning to stay in the US and I said I wanted to take a train to Canada either that evening or the following day.

When I showed her the form in my passport Noriko went to talk to Barry and others about it. Barry later came up to me and said my stay permit could easily be extended. He seemed quite confident about it, so I decided there was no need to worry and I could spend the next weekend in the retreat upstate on the Hudson, which he had called Barrytown.

I was told a bus would take people to Barrytown the next evening, so I thought I might have to spend that night in a hotel. Barry suggested I could stay in a house owned by the church in Manhattan, on 71st Street.

Late that evening Bill, driving his Dodge van, took Noriko, me and several other people I had met after the lecture to the house Barry had mentioned. The church members called it a “center,” and it seemed packed with mostly young people. The men and women were strictly segregated and lived on separate floors. I was taken to a large room where many men lay close to each other in sleeping bags on the floor. The ceiling lights had already been turned off, so it was fairly dark inside. I found a place in a corner with just enough space for my backpack and sleeping bag.

Early next morning we were all woken up when the lights were turned on, and we had to take turns using the bathroom and the few sinks where we could wash our faces. I talked to some of the men there, and when they found out I was not a member of the church they were surprised I had been allowed to spend the night there with them.

Noriko came to our men’s floor a little later to pick me up for a sightseeing tour of Manhattan. We had lunch in a Japanese restaurant that day and visited Central Park, the Empire State Building and a few other places around town. …. 

2014/11/11

About my first journey to Japan, across Siberia, in 1979:

Filed under: Thoughts&Journeys — tramp11 @ 17:23

1-trans-Siberian ticket stub Oct1979

I traveled across the southern part of Siberia on the trans-Siberian train in October 1979 during Soviet times — from Yaroslavski station in Moscow to Khabarovsk, where all foreigners had to get off to spend a night, and then from Khabarovsk to Nakhodka east of Vladivostok. I loved the Lake Baykal area most, where the train passes a stone’s throw from the lake shore near Slyudyanka, with the snow-capped Sayan Mountains on the Mongolian border to the south. Beautiful. (Scroll down to the bottom of this post under the links to “Photos:” for more on my impression of Soviet Russia during that 9-day journey across the vast land).

***

The trans-Siberian was part of my first trip to Japan. It took me exactly two weeks to get from Luxembourg to Yokohama, from 6 to 20 October 1979 — 11 days on trains. I was ushered to Japan on the Soviet Morflot passenger ship Baykal by the remnant of Supertyphoon Tip, which a few days earlier had been the largest and most intense tropical cyclone ever measured (it’s described in Wikipedia and in a 1998 report I have from the US National Oceanicand Atmospheric Administration).

***

We left Nakhodka about midday on 17 October 1979, crossed the Sea of Japan (or Eastern Sea), then passed through Tsugaru Strait between the Japanese islands of Honshu and Hokkaido before turning south off the Pacific side of Honshu, headed for Yokohama. The weather was really beautiful and the sea was calm until some time after we passed Hakodate on Hokkaido Island in the afternoon of 18 October, entering the Pacific Ocean. The sky darkened, the sea got rough — I got seasick fairly quickly — and soon all passengers were asked to go below deck because the ship’s crew was going to lock all hatches. No passenger was allowed on deck any more. The captain’s announcement did not say anything about us heading into a big storm but it was obvious from the rocking and creaking of the boat that something like that was afoot.

***

Not long after that I spent about 24 hours passing back and forth between the bed in my cabin and the toilet across the corridor, my body seemingly turning inside out from extreme seasickness. Around midnight of the 19th the storm eased up, and the Baykal steamed at full speed towards Yokohama Bay, which we finally entered around 6 a.m. on the morning of the 20th. The Baykal’s nice sunroof aft on deck was almost completely chewed up, as if a giant had bitten off pieces of it.

***

A Japanese coastguard or customs boat pulled up alongside and officers came on board the Baykal to check our passports.
When I first got down to the pier at Yokohama I suddenly felt very dizzy and for a moment, inadvertantly, I rocked back and forth to keep my balance as if the ground under my feet was like the boat in the typhoon…

***

About photographs, or lack thereof ….

***

Nowadays I regret very much that it took me very long to realize it would be a good idea to buy a camera and take pictures during my travels. My father always had a camera and took a lot of photos, and he also shot quite a bit of film of our family with a small wind-up 8-mm Yashica camera that he bought at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958. Despite this it didn’t occur to me that I should get a camera of my own to take along on my travels.

***

I did buy a cheap Polaroid camera shortly after I arrived in New York City in March 1975 and took a few pictures in Central Park that I still have — nothing very interesting. In 1982, again in New York, I took a few more pictures in the Chinatown area with another Polaroid.

***

I finally bought my first 35-mm camera in 1984 during a short trip to Luxembourg to renew my passport while I was living in Cyprus. It was a Yashica, fixed-focus — very simple and cheap. But I took a lot of good pictures with it in Cyprus, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Japan, where I bought an Olympus OM-10 with a 35-70 lens at Camera-No-Doi in Tokyo in 1987. This Olympus served me well in Japan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Greece, Egypt, Cyprus and Luxembourg, though I never learned how to use all its features. Since 2003 I have been using digital cameras, including a Fujifilm Finepix S2950 that I got for my 60th birthday in early 2011 — nothing fancy but I’m quite happy with it, though still shooting mostly on automatic…..

***

Here are links to my posts on my travels, and to some of my photo albums: 

***

https://tramp11.wordpress.com/2009/08/26/under-fire-in-afghanistan/

https://tramp11.wordpress.com/2010/04/27/my-answers-to-questions-about-my-trips-to-afghanistan-saudi-arabia-and-pakistan-in-the-1970s-1980s/

https://tramp11.wordpress.com/2007/06/24/spiritual-journey-backwards-latest-first-mostly/

***

Photos: 

***

https://www.flickr.com/photos/erwinlux

***

Miscellaneous albums

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On my 9 days in Soviet Russia (8-17 October 1979)

From an email to a friend:

About my first trip to Japan, I was not pressed for time and thought it would be more interesting to go by train and boat (rather than flying). Also, I wanted to see with my own eyes what the Soviet Union looked like. At the time, in New York, I worked for a Moonie (=followers of the late Korean Christian sect leader Sun Myung Moon) anti-communist newspaper where all of us regarded the USSR as the big enemy, the ‘evil empire.’ I was on my way via Japan to Bangkok/Thailand, where I wanted to work as correspondent for that newspaper.
At the time also, the leader of our religious movement Sun Myung Moon himself kept saying he wanted to go to Moscow to hold a ‘freedom rally’ in Red Square, and all of us Moonies were supposed to prepare for that (it meant the liberation of the USSR). I was quite skeptical of his chances of doing that but I wanted to get my own impression of the country first.
Well, on the train in West Germany headed for Moscow I met a man who was a Communist Party official from Tselinograd, Khazakh SSR. He spoke German and we talked quite a bit all the way to Moscow, which took 2 days. Later, I corresponded with him for a number of years until his wife wrote back to me one day in 1990 that he had died.
I was surprised to find that the undercarriage of the whole train had to be changed at Brest on the Polish-Soviet border, a process that took a couple of hours. It was, of course, because the rail gauge is different – wider – on the Soviet side.
I thought, well, if the Soviets launched a major offensive against western Europe, as us anti-communists feared, they would face a problem bringing enough supplies from the hinterland to their troops on the front line if every train from their country was held up at Brest and other places like that. They would represent bottlenecks. Road and air transport wouldn’t be enough for the logistical job required. Also, those places would make valuable targets for air strikes from the west.
I didn’t see how the wheels were changed because a Soviet border guard took me off the train when he found a book (supposedly) of Khrushchev’s memoirs in English in my luggage. I was kept waiting for awhile in an office at the border and was asked to sign a paper agreeing that I could not take that book into the USSR and in effect allowing them to confiscate it. They asked a few questions but were generally polite. I actually had a lot of other stuff in my luggage that I had reason to be more worried about than that book, but they didn’t check very thoroughly at all.
In Moscow I once walked into a sort of cafeteria for local workers, listened closely to how the other customers ordered bread, sausage and beer in Russian, and ordered the same in Russian (at the time I still ate meat). I didn’t feel that anybody noticed I was a foreigner.
The country looked poor and generally quite shabby to me, not at all like a great superpower. There were other incidents during the trip and especially in Khabarovsk where I did things normally forbidden but nothing happened and I didn’t have the impression that I was being watched very closely. Near Novosibirsk I saw roughly 3 dozen armored personnel carriers on a train in a shunting yard, and when I heard a few months later in Bangkok that the Soviets had just invaded Afghanistan I thought those vehicles I had seen in Siberia might have belonged to a contingent getting ready to move down to Uzbekistan in preparation for the invasion.
A few years later, of course, I would come under artillery, mortar, tank and rocket fire from some of those Soviet forces and their Afghan allies in Afghanistan myself – and see a lot of destroyed Soviet APCs, tanks, field guns, etc. – and also many dud bombs lying around (yes, many failed to explode, probably because of the negligence [or even deliberate sabotage] of disgruntled workers in Soviet munitions and other factories, producing mostly shoddy goods).
Really, no, to me the Soviet Union didn’t look like a big military power threatening the west, though it took some time for that realization to sink in.
Already at the end of 1976 in New York I had read the book La Chute Finale by the French demographer Emmanuel Todd, predicting the collapse of the Soviet Union as a result of worsening economic problems, discrepancies between the Russian heartland and the vassal states, etc. – and I had written a commentary about it (under a pseudonym) that appeared in our paper The News World in early 1977. (I still have a clipping of that commentary, one of the first pieces I wrote that appeared in print). 

2012/06/17

On God … and death …

Filed under: Thoughts&Journeys — tramp11 @ 08:15

I believe God, this one spirit or universal consciousness has basically divided itself into innumerable small parts by bringing about (in whatever way) what we regard as the physical universe with all the individual consciousnesses within it, each tied to a body of some kind or another.

We are really all one ― each one of us living beings and inanimate things is a part of this God ― but through our bodies we have the illusion of being separate from one another. When the bodies of us living beings fall away we return to where we came from and become one again completely with God ― the universal spirit. It is only the short-lived body of ours which makes us feel separate.
I cannot think of another way in which the world could be “just.” No concept of heaven and hell and good and evil that I have known would ever satisfy my sense of justice. For years I thought Sun Myung Moon’s Divine Principle had the answers but I have concluded that it doesn’t. It is no better than some other ideas that do not satisfy me at all.

God is absolutely responsible for everything that happens in the universe — from the greatest, most beautiful thing or event to the most horrible monstrosity or atrocity — but we all share that responsibility because we are all part of God. God as a whole has thrived on the differences and divisions among us that lead to conflict — especially in us humans, the spearheads of the evolution of his consciousness in this world — and on both the good and the evil things we have been doing to each other in our bodies, which make us feel separate. But his/our consciousness is evolving. God is learning with us, through us.

In our primitive days, when we were totally unable to understand the reality of our ultimate oneness, God gave us myths including the Bible and all the scriptures, which were propagated by people inspired by “Him” (or “Her,” “It”) to awe us and make us fear, and to herd us together as groups and make us fight each other for his own pleasure. To explain this: I believe the deepest parts of our nature are the emotions, which we share with God, our source. Yes, I believe God has the same emotions, though from a universal perspective, since his “body” is the entire universe.

Now, I think, the time may be coming when those myths are no longer useful. It is time that we humans outgrow them and look for the truth behind and beyond them. Most of all I hope we can truly become aware of the reality of our original and ultimate oneness.

On Life After Death

I have thought about the concept of a spirit world. Do I believe there is a world of spirit where we/our souls go after we die? Do I believe we have a spiritual body in which our soul/spirit resides for eternity and which resembles our physical body as it is when we are young and healthy? — No, I do not believe this! — This does not mean that I believe it is impossible.
I think that when we die – when our physical body dies and decays – our spirit dissolves in the ocean of universal consciousness, which is what God is to me. However, there remains a residue of a memory within God – a memory of us as we were when we were alive. As I have written before, I believe time – the “flow” of time – is really an accumulation of memory or memories within God. It expands ad infinitum, which is probably also why our universe seems to expand. 

When we die, then, the memory of our life remains as part of this ever-growing universal memory. In this way we will continue to exist – but we cannot create new things or learn or grow because we will no longer be conscious as a separate entity. We will be fully assimilated or merged into the whole whence we came, a grain of salt dissolved in the ocean – still salt and still contributing our specific flavor to the ocean – at least to the tiny part of it that we have been able to influence during our lives – but no longer a separate entity and no longer able to expand our influence.

I may be wrong, of course, but it would be very hard if not impossible for me to return to a belief in a spirit world like that described by Unificationists and others such as Swedenborg.

2010/07/11

The Biggest Lie

Filed under: Thoughts — tramp11 @ 22:09

Illusion and reality - all is one

We have been cheated, in a way. We have been living with a big lie: God [see my post below:   My View of God as it has evolved -including the comments – and others about God further down.] But we have willingly participated. The lie is our lie, too. We have been happy to be deceived by God, because it is comforting to believe in a great supernatural power that is on the “good” side – which is always our side, because no one believes they are bad. Even the worst criminals and mass murderers believe they are “good.”  They may admit mistakes – like most everybody does – but they always believe they are fundamentally “good.” However, the “good” can really exist only if there is also an opposing “evil.” We do believe in an “evil” but it is always someone else – just like God wants us to see “evil” as something entirely separate from him.

Yes, we are all part of this deception or self-deception. We participate willingly, most of the time. – But then we cannot separate from this God and his deception. This God leaves us some breathing space, some room for maneuver, some space for us to think for ourselves, because he wants us to grow, to improve, and he grows with us, improves with us – through us.

We are, all of us humans without exception, part of this God. We are really, ultimately, one. The whole cosmos is one, but we and any other intelligent beings that may exist are the most important elements of this one. The one, as I have said again and again, grows with us and through us.

I think perhaps the Buddhists have the deepest understanding of this oneness, this monism, this interdependence. The accounts of Buddhists I have read – such as those of the French Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard – give me the impression that they have a much better and clearer understanding of the importance of oneness and interdependence than any Christians I have met, including the Moonies. Moon’s (Korean Moon Sun Myung of the Unification Movement/Church –see posts on religion below) teaching has many good points, for sure, but I regard it as deficient in the sense of explaining the real God, and misleading. I think Moon himself does not want to acknowledge the fact that God has deceived us by making us believe in an “evil” that is not of him. Moon’s interests are better served if he just ignores this – and I tend to believe he knows that very well. This would be the element of hypocrisy in Moon that I feel has been touched on indirectly by Nansook Hong, the ex-wife of his now-late son Hyo Jin.

Of course, it is clear that – ultimately – we will have to work with God, no matter how much he has deceived us. We are inalienable parts of him and he is totally in each one of us. We are really one. My contention is only that we have to grow up to be aware of the reality of God – not the fantasy we have believed in for so long. – And the reason we have to grow up this way – with this understanding – is that it is the only way God can continue to evolve – and, indeed, grow himself. As I have insisted many times before: God evolves through us (and any other beings at the highest levels of consciousness) – he grows through us…

2010/07/10

A dangerous bus ride on Pakistan’s Karakoram Highway -January 1988

Filed under: Thoughts&Journeys — tramp11 @ 22:59

Karakoram Highway extension to Skardu Baltistan -photo late August 1985

Karakoram Highway January 1988

[from my article in the Middle East Times weekly, based in Cyprus.
・    My editor insisted that I use a somewhat impersonal style in this article
・    and did not allow me to write it up as a personal experience, which,
of course, it was. I wrote this after returning to Islamabad from a two-week trip to Baltistan in January 1988. This is the unedited version]

ISLAMABAD — In the winter, when the weather is bad in the mountains, taking a bus on Pakistan’s perilous Karakoram Highway (KKH) can be every bit as exciting as a game of Russian Roulette.

There is nothing like a rough ride of four and a half hours on the back of a four—wheel-drive pickup truck on a bitterly cold winter morning for the traveller to appreciate the awe-inspiring grandeur and desolation of the Karakoram mountain range, which contains the greatest concentration of high peaks anywhere and is regarded by geologists as one of the most unstable but also most fascinating features on the earth’s surface.

Along the 100-kilometre dirt road through the wild gorges of the  Shyok  and Indus rivers from Khaplu to Skardu in Baltistan one cannot help feeling that the enormous bleak rock faces, the jagged, snow-covered peaks poking into the clouds, the eerily frozen waterfalls, the huge boulders strewn all around and the vast scree slopes must belong to some distant uninhabitable planet but not to this earth. All of this spells danger. Under a gloomy, leaden sky, with the sun’s rays unable to break through thick clouds that hide the high mountain tops, there appears to be a veiled threat of impending disaster.

From Skardu, a small town in a wide, sand-covered valley at 2,300 metres, the road continues along the Indus River through dangerous gorges for about 500 kilometres before turning east away from the river on its way to  Rawalpindi. If one travels on a public bus, this trip on the KKH has to be made in two stages. It involves a seven-hour journey from Skardu to Gilgit followed by a gruelling sixteen-hour trip to Rawalpindi on a different bus.

For four days from the end of 1987 until the first day of 1988 heavy clouds hung above Skardu Valley and hid the many 5,000-metre mountain peaks  surrounding it on all sides. As the small airport in the valley had no radar, all flights were cancelled. The sky looked as though there was worse weather to come, so it seemed that there was no choice but to court disaster and take the bus.

Everyone in the packed, gaily-painted bus appeared to be in good mood  when the journey began on the first day of the new year. The gloomy  atmosphere  outside did not affect the passengers for a long time as the bus sped on the asphalt road to the western end of the valley, then moved slowly over a narrow suspension bridge across the Indus and entered the gorge.

Compared with the  bleakness of the grey, brown and black tones of the massive rock formations on its sides, the river was a pleasant sparkling green colour — almost inviting save for the fact that it was at times separated from the road by several hundred metres of sheer cliffs [I had already traveled the Karakoram Highway from Skardu to Gilgit and Passu in Hunza, and down to Rawalpindi 2 years earlier in August 1985 — but in summer the Indus is a dirty brownish color; quite different from its look in winter].

For most of the way the road appeared in good condition except for only  one or two spots where part of its foundation had collapsed and plunged down the precipice into the Indus far below, leaving a gaping hole. The driver was quite agile and avoided such death traps easily. At least two small bridges spanning gaping chasms above raging tributaries of the Indus appeared rather dilapidated. The driver accelerated, apparently anxious to cross the bridges before they collapsed.

Some eighty kilometres before Gilgit a number of boulders the size of large  cars had broken off from a gigantic rock formation that hung threateningly above the road. The road was hopelessly blocked. A maintenance crew was already at work preparing the area for blasting.

A little farther west, high above the road on a steep scree slope that  seemed to stretch endlessly into the sky, two local shepherds herded their sheep and goats down as quickly as they could. The workers had signalled to them to come down because the blasting might make the scree come alive and cause a huge landslide. The shepherds wore roughly cut pieces of goatskin wrapped around their feet and ankles in lieu of shoes. They could perfectly well have fit into a Stone Age setting, with nothing on their bodies to show that they lived in the 20th century.

Luckily for the travellers, the three heavy blasts that were required to break up the boulders did not bring down any more rocks although cracks  appeared  in some huge slabs that hung precariously above the road. A lone bulldozer took  more than two hours to push the debris over the edge into the Indus. Darkness fell soon after the road was cleared.

The bulldozer then headed west on the narrow road at a snail’s pace, and  the bus driver had no choice but to follow at the same speed for some time. The driver quickly became irritated. He tried to pass the bulldozer several times but there was not enough space.

A military officer ran up on the road from behind the bus and knocked on the driver’s side window. The two exchanged some angry words. The driver had been ordered to pull the bus up to the edge of the precipice to allow a military truck to pass. He did so but complained bitterly. Then the officer also ordered the bulldozer to get out of the way at the next spot where this was possible.

The military truck sped on ahead, followed quickly by the bus, whose driver appeared very angry and nervous all of a sudden. He was determined to pass the military truck, which was already moving quite fast on this perilous road with rock walls or scree slopes to the right and a gaping black chasm to the left where in many places parts of the asphalt had broken off and plunged down into the gorge. The bus driver used his ear-shattering horn and flashed his lights wildly to drive his message home to the soldiers.

Finally, they let him pass. But they stayed close behind and flashed  their lights as well, irritating the bus driver even more. His antics behind the steering wheel became increasingly wild and on several occasions the bus very nearly went over the edge of the cliff. Two passengers sitting in the front abreast of the driver angrily warned him to slow down. Others anxiously mumbled prayers. The angry warnings seemed to madden the driver even more, and some  other passengers urged everyone to calm down. The atmosphere in the bus became increasingly tense, laden with a strange mixture of anger and naked fear.

Suddenly, there was another bus in front and the angry driver of the  first bus flashed his lights to signal that he wanted to pass. The bus in front slowed down but stayed in the middle of the road for some time. When it finally allowed the first bus to pass its driver was fuming. To make matters still worse, the other bus also stayed close behind and flashed its lights. Many passengers on the first bus were terrified but no one dared to approach the driver for fear of  distracting him in this extremely dangerous situation.

After what appeared to be an eternity, the valley widened and the bus stopped at a petrol station. When the bus left the station after refuelling, a  teenage boy sat down on an improvised seat next to the driver and this seemed to calm the man down. Later, he let the boy drive the rest of the way to Gilgit. Although the boy’s driving was somewhat unsteady from lack of experience, the passengers were relieved that the bus was now moving more slowly and carefully.

Next morning, another bus with a few foreigners among the many passengers left Gilgit on the long journey to Rawalpindi. The driver was a man of about 50, clearly very experienced and skilful. But on this trip the road was in very bad condition — and the weather turned worse.

There were scores of spots on the way where rocks of all sizes had fallen from above and very nearly blocked the road. Often the space left between the bigger boulders and the edge of the precipice was just barely wide enough to allow the bus to pass.

Again and again, the bus lurched sideways as it moved slowly over very uneven terrain past big boulders. Some terrified passengers, who saw the gaping  abyss come up from below their windows as the heavy vehicle seemed close to the point of rolling over, leaned into the aisle and looked the other way.

At one point, some rocks rolled away from under the wheels of the bus at  the edge of the broken road and the driver had to quickly steer the vehicle towards a big pile of boulders away from the precipice. The boulders tore into the side of the bus, causing minor damage, but passengers later congratulated the driver on his presence of mind.

After a seemingly endless series of similar incidents, the passengers felt relieved when the bus crossed a bridge on the Indus, hoping that the worst was over. But then, shortly before dark, it began to rain.

Water is both a boon and a bane in the mountains. Local villagers need it for drinking, cooking, washing and irrigation but it also inevitably brings down boulders and mud, and it causes the landslides that so often obstruct the KKH.

The bus drove on into the night on the wet road, dodging many more fresh rockfalls. In one area, the going was slow over a stretch of at least 20 kilometres where many landslides had completely blocked the KKH for over two weeks in October. The road was still badly scarred and the piles of debris on one side did not allow two vehicles to pass each other along most of this stretch.

After the bus finally crossed the last bridge over the Indus and headed out of the gorge, the driver stepped on the accelerator. As the road was still dangerous, some passengers became concerned that the bus was moving too fast. An Australian woman expressed her worries to a Pakistani passenger who translated for the driver.

After more than 12 hours on the KKH the driver was clearly becoming tired and it seemed that he was accelerating because he was afraid to fall asleep. There were a few more hair-raising moments when the driver nearly seemed to lose control of the bus in dangerous curves. But he finally stopped and allowed a younger colleague to drive the rest of the way to Rawalpindi.

It is by braving such a danger-filled winter journey on the KKH that one can learn to appreciate the remarkable feat that the building of this road represented. One can also easily understand how the KKH claimed at least 500 lives during the 20-odd years of its construction and many hundreds more in the last eight years since it was opened.

My last trip into Soviet-occupied Afghanistan in October 1987

Filed under: Thoughts&Journeys — tramp11 @ 22:51

Kunar Shultan Valley mujaheddin 1987 – Pazlimalek is 4th from left.

asadab.DO  [For information: This was originally written on a small NEC PC-8201 laptop with less than 32 kilobytes of usable RAM. This is scanned from a printout of the original, unedited version that I typed up in Peshawar]

ASADABAD — KUNAR PROVINCE (18-22 October 1987 — written on 1 November) [1987 in Peshawar, Pakistan]

[from my article in the Middle East Times weekly, based in Cyprus]

TARI SAR PLATEAU, Afghanistan — Mujaheddin commander Ajab Khan, a  short, wiry man with a vaguely bird-like quality in his movements and speech, is perched precariously on a rocky outcrop. In rapid Pakhtu, he is speaking into the microphone of a red plastic walkie-talkie. Next to him, Pazlimalek, a tall, seasoned fighter at 25 with a thick beard, leans on a flat rock and peers through binoculars into the Kunar Valley far below.

Seconds earlier, the heavy blast of the driving charge of an 82-millimetre mortar reverberated through the rugged mountains and valleys to the east of the fast-flowing, slate-grey Kunar River. Then a small cloud rose from some low hills across the river, just above Shigal Tarna, a garrison of a few hundred government troops.

“Down five millièmes,” suggests Pazlimalek, and the commander repeats the message into his microphone. The next mortar bomb, fired by one of two mujaheddin positions in the mountains near the border with Pakistan, explodes on the road that leads to the base of the Soviet-backed dushman, the enemy. The second mortar also places a bomb close to the road.
“Allahu Akbar — God is great,” shouts the commander. Pazlimalek  suggests a further slight shift in the aim of the mortars. Soon, the cries of “Allahu Akbar” multiply as, one after another, three clouds of smoke from mujaheddin mortar bombs rise in the middle of Shigal Tarna itself.

Later, the mujaheddin fire a few 107-millimetre rockets from a single, man-portable tube — the Bimyak — and, following some adjustments in the aim of the weapon, rejoice when two of the missiles hit a large house in a village by the Shigal River upstream from the army base. People in the village, the families of pro-government militiamen from other regions who were resettled there to occupy houses left behind by refugees, can be seen running for cover.

Throughout the firing by the mujaheddin, the heavy thump of a large-calibre artillery gun can be heard from the government base, followed by the explosions of its shells in the mountains to the east. The gun, well hidden under earthworks in Shigal Tarna, fires roughly one shell a minute.

On a different frequency than that used by the mujaheddin, the radio crackles with the excited voice of the commander of Shigal Tarna base. Later, another voice speaks in rapid Russian.
Suddenly, the air above Tari Sar Plateau is filled with a sort of swishing sound that is followed within seconds by a series of powerful explosions. Flashes can be seen on a mountainside across the lower Shultan Valley, and soon clouds of smoke cast shadows over the pine-covered slopes.

“Asadabad, Bimsiezda,” Pazlimalek tells three foreigners who watch the spectacle from the vantage position on Tari Sar. Bimsiezda is the Afghans’ term for one of several modern versions of the famous Stalin Organ multiple rocket launcher that was dreaded by invading German soldiers on the Soviet front in World War II. Asadabad is the capital of Kunar Province and the site of Chagha Sarai military base, roughly 10 kilometres to the south of Tari Sar Plateau and about twice that distance from the Pakistani border.

[I had brought two other Europeans with me to this place in Afghanistan: Eugenio, a one-eyed Italian adventurer – he had a glass eye that replaced one lost to a stray bullet – and Jacques, a French ex-Foreign Legionnaire. I ran into them separately in Peshawar after each of them had tried in vain for weeks to find a mujaheddin group that would take them across the border. I then took them to my contact Engineer Es Haq in University Town, who arranged the trip for us after they  presented themselves as journalists like me – which they were not.]

High above Asadabad, on two mountain plateaux to the east and one to the west of the Kunar River, Soviet Spetsnaz commandos have established small permanent bases that are regularly supplied from the valley by helicopters, mostly at night. Four helicopters were parked on the tarmac of an airfield at Asadabad when the fighting around Shigal Tarna began, Pazlimalek claimed that each of the three mountain bases, Soder Sar, Mechellay Sar and Shahbazay Sar, housed about 300 Soviet commandos. According to Ajab Khan, the Spetsnaz have a Bimsiezda on Soder Sar, only a few kilometres to the south of Tari Sar mountain and clearly visible from the highest peak above this plateau.

The mujaheddin count 13 rockets in the first salvo. A second salvo blasts the same mountainside across the valley with nine rockets but all fail to hit the mujaheddin mortar and Bimyak positions.
Commander Ajab Khan was well aware that the Soviets, together with the Afghan government forces, could lay a heavy rocket and artillery barrage over the entire area under his men’s control, including Tari Sar mountain. They could also call in Mi-24 helicopter gunships and Sukhoi-25 ground attack jets to blast the mountains and valleys all around, as they did just two months earlier in August. Compared with the firepower at the disposal of the communist enemy, that of the mujaheddin seemed truly pitiful.

Normally, the mujaheddin would continue to fight no matter how much retaliation they had to expect from the Soviets. But this time, the commander felt responsible for the lives of the three foreigners, the first to visit this area since Ajab Khan and his men established their bases on the massive rocky ridges along the upper Shultan Valley about two years ago. He decided to call off the attack on Shigal Tarna at about 1:30 p.m. and save his remaining mortar and rocket ammunition for future operations.

** 

[Actually, in retrospect, I don’t think Ajab Khan broke off the attack because he was concerned about us 3 Europeans. I found out a bigger attack was to take place a few days later with a larger force. A week or two after these events I met the well-known American correspondent Kurt Lohbeck (since deceased) at the American Club in Peshawar, and when he heard I had been north of Asadabad he told me he went there a few days later and filmed a major offensive by the mujaheddin towards the Kunar capital in which they came close to capturing the town. I could not believe it and asked if I could see his film, but he said he had already sent it to New York for editing. It then occurred to me that most likely the mujaheddin had sent me and my companions out of the area because they wanted to give Lohbeck exclusive coverage of whatever operation they planned — Lohbeck himself may have asked for it — because he was a much more important witness than we were. I have never since been able to find any information about the battle for Asadabad that Lohbeck said he filmed, and the town was captured only a year later — months after Soviet forces withdrew from the area. — Also, our mujahed guide Mohammed Kaftan was unhappy when he realized Eugenio and Jacques were not journalists as they had claimed, because they did not have cameras, never took notes and were only interested in getting Kalashnikov assault rifles from the mujaheddin so they could join them in fighting. They did get the Kalashnikovs but were very disappointed they couldn’t use them when we were under artillery bombardment far from any enemy soldier. Kaftan is the one who insisted on sending us back over the mountains to Pakistan].

**

While some mujaheddin based on a mountain to the north fired random shots from a heavy single-barrel 14.5-millimetre anti-aircraft gun as a diversionary tactic, the commander had a few of his men lead the three foreigners down into the Chowgam Valley below Tari Sar Plateau. From there, the party proceeded over several ridges back to the mujaheddin camps in the upper Shultan Valley. But although the mujaheddin stopped firing early in the afternoon, the riposte from the Soviets and the Afghan army continued for several hours until long after sunset. A slow but steady rhythm of heavy mortar, artillery and rocket fire continued to rock the Shultan Valley, coming from the nearest Soviet commando base on Soder Sar Plateau to the south-west, Shigal Tarna to the west and Asmar to the north-west. Two of the Bimsiezda rockets tore holes into the mountainside only about 10 metres above one of the mujaheddin’s Zikuyak 14.5-millimetre machine-gun positions.

The operation cost the life of one mujahed, who stepped on a mine near the east bank of the Kunar River and apparently bled to death after losing both legs. His body was later carried on a mule for burial in the Bajaur tribal area of Pakistan. The number of casualties on the other side of the river was not  known but mujaheddin reported that one helicopter made at least two return trips between Asadabad and Shigal Tarna, presumably carrying wounded people to a hospital in the city.

The mujahed who became shaheed, martyred, had triggered the fighting somewhat earlier than planned when the mine exploded under his feet. Firing had started along the Kunar River before the mujaheddin mortars and the Bimyak, carried by mules on treacherous paths up the mountains, were in position. Soldiers in Shigal Tarna raked the east bank of the Kunar with bursts of heavy machine-gun fire and one tank blasted the lower slopes of Tari Sar, while mujaheddin near the river responded by firing rocket-propelled grenades and rifle bullets.

In the Kunar Valley, there is a striking contrast between the military situation to the north of Asmar and that to the south between Asmar and Asadabad.

In the north [north of Asmar, where I went with another group of Yunus Khalis mujaheddin two years earlier, in August 1985], the mujaheddin control a number of villages along the river itself and have laid siege to the government garrison of Barikot near the border with Pakistan. In a major offensive during the spring of 1985, a division-sized Soviet force [in hindsight I’m sure I was misinformed about this — there is no way the force could have been that large] backed by an estimated 100  warplanes and helicopters fought its way up the narrow dirt road along the Kunar to relieve the besieged garrison at Barikot, using airborne Spetsnaz commandos to destroy as many as nine anti-aircraft    machine-gun posts that the mujaheddin had set up on mountain peaks overlooking the valley. The Soviets managed to bring Afghan army reinforcements to Barikot but as soon as the main Russian force returned to the south the mujaheddin retook control of almost the entire stretch of road between Asmar and Barikot, established fresh machine-gun nests in the mountains and resumed their siege of the border garrison. In May last year, Soviet jets destroyed an important bridge across the Kunar River between the villages of Sao and Neyshagam north of Asmar in an effort to deny the mujaheddin an easy way to cross to the west bank with their mules laden with heavy arms. According to Pazlimalek, the mujaheddin have since stretched at least three cables across the river and use rafts to transport heavy weapons and ammunition, and they are trying to repair the Sao bridge as well as another one at Narei further north.

South of Asmar, however, the Soviets have made a strong commitment to keeping the Kunar Valley under direct control and it is extremely dangerous for the mujaheddin to try to cross the river. The east bank of the river is heavily  mined, and the Soviet commandos in their mountain bases above Asadabad are ready to intervene at any time should the mujaheddin threaten any part of the valley. Due to the possibility of surprise attacks on mujaheddin strongholds by helicopter-borne Spetsnaz forces, the guerrillas keep guard posts with watchdogs   on all the strategic high points above the Shultan Valley as well as in some of the villages in other side valleys of the Kunar.

The majority of the original inhabitants of most farming villages on both sides of the Kunar Valley have fled to Pakistan since Soviet forces pushed into this extremely rugged region more than four years ago, using heavy  bombardment to terrorize the population. Many of the men from those villages are now mujaheddin. After the Soviets asserted control of the valley, tribesmen who were willing to work with the government that was installed during the invasion in December 1979 were resettled in some villages, occupying abandoned houses and farmlands.

Few civilians live in the villages of the lower Shultan and Chowgam valleys just to the east of the Kunar, in the areas under mujaheddin control. Some families whose houses are still intact remain in the area despite frequent fighting nearby, growing maize and wheat, tending orchards and raising cattle, sheep and goats.

Some children were playing in a field at Gaweja village as mortar bombs, rockets and tank shells passed high overhead, exploding in the mountains to the east. The children belonged to the only family that remained behind in the village, and they seemed almost oblivious to the din. All other families had long fled. Just across the valley, the village of Wan was completely abandoned. Scattered bomb craters and gaping holes in most of the houses, which were built of rocks and mud, provided mute testimony to the tragedies that must have forced the people out.

Considering the Soviets’ enormous advantage in firepower and equipment, and the very rough conditions under which the mujaheddin continue to live and fight their jihad (holy war) in this region eight years after their country was invaded, it comes as a surprise to witness the courage and determination of these fighters. The most active group of mujaheddin in the Kunar Valley, both north and south of Asmar, appears to be the Hezb-e Islami (party) of Maulvi Yunus Khalis, an aging but tough leader who was recently named chairman of the seven-party Ittihad-e Islami Mujaheddin Afghanistan (Islamic Alliance of Afghan Mujaheddin) based in Peshawar. Maulvi Khalis is expected to lead a mujaheddin delegation which will attend the debate on Afghanistan in the United Nations General Assembly beginning on 9 November.

The three foreigners who visited the Shultan Valley for five days to watch  the attack on Shigal Tarna in late October were impressed by the fervour with which the mujaheddin practised their faith. Islam is a very demanding religion. To pray five times a day in the Islamic way is not easy, especially under difficult conditions such as those encountered in the jihad in this rugged land. At one point, on the day before the attack on Shigal Tarna, a small group of mujaheddin raced at breakneck speed over very treacherous terrain for well over an hour just in order to reach a mosque in an abandoned village in time for the maghreb (sunset) prayer.

After eight years of a terrible war against a superpower in Afghanistan, it is perhaps no wonder that only a fervent commitment to their religion, Islam,  can provide the mujaheddin with the courage and determination to carry on their difficult struggle.

END OF ARTICLE

2010/04/27

My answers to questions about my trips to Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in the 1970s-1980s

Filed under: Thoughts&Journeys — Tags: — tramp11 @ 21:52

Recently I was interviewed about my experiences in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Here are my answers:

About writing an autobiography:

… I do hope to find the time to write a book, primarily because I want to tell the story of the lessons I have learnt in my life to my family and friends. I will need a lot of time because I am a very slow writer. I have put some of my thoughts and brief accounts of my experiences on the Internet just in case it is of interest to others, especially old friends with whom I have long lost contact and who might be looking for me and may be curious about what happened to me without necessarily wanting to get in touch. They might not like how my religious and political views have changed.
About Saudi Arabia 1972-73:
The people with whom I traveled to Mecca were my friend “Ali” – whose real name I won’t reveal, to protect his identity, and whom I met on an earlier trip outside Europe — and Ali’s brother and the brother’s family (Pakistani wife, from Lahore, and three small boys). They lived in England and came to Luxembourg to pick me up in December 1972. They had two cars: a VW van with a mattress and gas cooker in the back and a Ford Capri 3000 GT sports car. They had to get to Jeddah by early January 1973, in time to pick up their old mother, who was coming there by plane from London for her first and probably last Haj. After the pilgrimage and putting their mother on the plane back to London they were going to continue their trip to Lahore in Pakistan to visit their family there. They wanted me as a backup driver, and I was all gung-ho about going to Pakistan. But since I could not accompany them to Mecca we were going to drive to Kuwait, where I was going to stay with their eldest brother (they were a family of 12 kids, and “Ali” was the youngest) and I was to wait for them to return after about a month in Saudi Arabia.
When we got stuck at Abu Kemal on the Syrian-Iraqi border, where the Iraqis refused to let us enter their country, my friends had to change their plan and drive down through Jordan and directly into Saudi Arabia’s Hejaz. When they offered me the choice I decided to officially become a Muslim so that I could accompany them, and they were my witnesses at the Saudi Embassy in Damascus where we all got special “pilgrim entry” visas for the kingdom. We arrived in Saudi Arabia at the end of 1972 and stayed in that country until 1 February 1973.
In Mina, the tent city outside Mecca, where we spent at least 2 weeks, many people were very curious about me and invited me into their tents for a cup of tea and to ask me questions about my background and my thoughts about the world of Islam. Some people refused to believe that I was from western Europe and insisted I must be Turkish. The same happened in Medina, where we rented a small apartment in the old Uhud quarter near the main mosque, where Prophet Mohammed’s tomb is located, during the period of 40 prayers after the Haj. The old quarter where we stayed and which seemed like a town from the Middle Ages, was torn down a few months after we left to make way for a project to expand the great mosque of Medina.
I received a big Quran in Arabic and English from the director of the Islamic University in Medina and read a little bit from time to time, including the lengthy commentaries in footnotes by the translator Abdullah Yusuf Ali.
I remember the big crowds in Mecca and Medina, more people than I had ever seen before. In Mecca we used to wash up in a large underground facility under a square just outside the big mosque before going inside for the Tawaf, the counter-clockwise circumambulation of the Kaaba, and the walks between Safa and Marwa, and so on. “Ummi” (or mother), as I also came to call my friends’ mother, only spoke to me in Punjabi, though she tried Suaheli sometimes when i didn’t understand. I quickly learned the few words I needed to know in order to follow her instructions. Like many old or infirm people she could not do the Tawaf by herself, and we paid a pair of big, strong men to carry her on a stretcher with a sort of basket in the middle.
After we saw “Ummi” off we stayed a few more days in Jeddah. We lived in the house of a family of Pakistani origin, and my friends suggested that I marry the youngest daughter of that family – who was only 16 at the time – and stay in Saudi Arabia. A Filipino friend of Ali’s who acted as our guide on the Haj had received a scholarship some years earlier to study at Medina’s Islamic University (with the support of King Faisal, if I remember correctly), and my friends thought I could try to get one too and stay behind in Saudi Arabia rather than go with them to Lahore.
I was very impressed by the experience of the Haj and meeting so many people who were mostly very nice to me, but I was not ready at all to get married and to stay in Saudi Arabia. Again, to make a long story short, I accompanied my friends to Kuwait, where we spent 9 days in a big villa doing nothing but eating, drinking fruit cocktails and having fun — then later they dropped me off in Abadan, Iran, and I made my way from there back to Europe on my own, with very little money. Nowadays I wonder how much of my experiences I still remember correctly. I learned some Arabic from my friends and others, and still remember the numbers and quite a few words that I had had to learn, such as the Shahada, etc.
About my attachment to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and whether my experiences there were the most special time in my life:
As far as Afghanistan and Pakistan are concerned, my interest in those countries comes from the wonderment I felt in my first experience traveling outside Europe, as well as my fascination and awe of mountains. Luxembourg has only low hills, and the first time I saw real mountains was when I went to Austria with my boy scout troop in 1963. I was so fascinated and awe-struck that I stared for long periods of time at Mt. Grimming near Tauplitz, in Styria, without uttering a word.
My first trip outside Europe took me to Teheran, Iran in March 1972. I met Ali there. As I mentioned, his family was originally from Lahore, in what is now Pakistan. He was born and grew up in Kenya. When I met him he was on his way to Lahore, in a car he had bought while studying in the United States. He wanted to share expenses on the trip so he was looking for people who would travel with him. To make a long story short, we traveled together from Teheran to Kandahar, and I had to return from there on my own because I had to get back to my job in Luxembourg. The experience of that short, two-week trip affected me so much that it was almost impossible for me to re-adjust to my workaday life in Luxembourg. I longed for the mountains and the very different kind of life I thought I had glimpsed especially in Afghanistan.
About the contrast between the Afghanistan I saw in 1972 and that of the 1980s:
I entered Afghanistan from Iran on the day after Nowruz (that is, the New Year, 21 March), which was 2. 1. 1351 in the Hejra solar calendar used there. In Saudi Arabia and most of the Islamic world the Hejra lunar calendar is used, so when I went there 9 months later it was the year 1392, because the lunar year is shorter. In 1972 I traveled only to Herat and Kandahar, and spent just five days in Afghanistan. King Mohammed Zahir was still on the throne and a lot of western hippies passed through the country on their way east to India and Nepal. Young boys followed foreigners almost everywhere in the towns to beg for some spare change. It was clear the country was poor and life was hard for most people — but it was a country at peace. I remember talking to young men in both Herat and Kandahar. You could not talk to young women in those towns; though I am told it was different in Kabul. Some of the young men I met were unhappy because they saw no future for themselves, and they hoped to be able to go to the west, perhaps because they envied the seemingly happy hippies they saw. Generally, though, I did not get the impression in 1972 that the country might be headed for serious political trouble. The atmosphere was peaceful, perhaps because people seemed resigned to their fates — I don’t know. At any rate, I liked the atmosphere of the country very much and wished I could have stayed much longer to explore and get to know it.
In the 1980s I did not visit any of the towns of Afghanistan but passed through several villages, some abandoned, mostly within 20 kilometers of the border with Pakistan. I went to the Jaji area in Paktia Province in 1984 and to different areas north and south of Asmar in Kunar Province in 1985 and 1987. At this time, of course, the country was at war — and it seemed almost as much a civil war as it was a war against foreign invaders. Naturally, the mujahideen emphasized the fact that they were fighting the Soviet infidels and those they regarded as their lackeys. But it seemed to me that there must have been substantial numbers of Afghans who welcomed some of the changes the so-called communists were making with the support of the Soviet Union. The mujahideen I was with were mostly fighting the Afghan Army. Of course, my newspaper being of a rather conservative, anti-communist orientation, I felt it would be unwise to mention this. At the time I also felt a personal solidarity with the mujahideen in their struggle against a superpower that had invaded their country. I must point out here that I had very little training as a journalist, and that in any case I had learned the trade from very conservative Americans who had a strong ideological commitment against anything socialist or communist.
I saw some of the damage done by bombing and shelling in villages, and I also saw children who had lost limbs to mines, and refugees who fled the fighting.
Overall I feel my experience and knowledge of Afghanistan is very limited, and I could by no means be regarded as an “expert,” whatever that really means. Nonetheless, as a result of my experiences there I cannot help feeling deeply concerned about the situation in that country as the state of war has continued for more than 30 years now.
To tell the truth, when I first visited that country in 1972 I knew very, very little about Afghanistan and didn’t bother to read up on it even after I got back to Luxembourg. That time   I just wanted to get out of Luxembourg — badly. And seeing Afghanistan — even for such a short time — had at least taught me that there were places in the world that were really very different from my country, much more like the places I had read about in the many adventure stories that I had read. — I did not get back to Afghanistan until 12 years later — 1984 — and many things had changed in the meantime, both for me and for that country. 1984 was also the first time I visited Pakistan, and I think I sort of fell in love with at least some aspects of that country at first sight. I went to Jaji, Paktia Province, Afghanistan with mujahideen of Abdul Rasul Sayyaf’s Ittihad-e Islami Mujahideen Afghanistan group. In the western media Sayyaf’s group was known by a different name, but they emphasized to me that this was their real name. Together with a Japanese journalist friend who had lived in Pakistan for 9 years I interviewed Sayyaf himself in a tent in Jaji – I still have the transcript of that interview as it appeared in my newspaper, the weekly Middle East Times, which I had helped to found in Cyprus at the beginning of 1983.
I returned to Pakistan and Afghanistan again in 1985, and that time I also traveled to Baltistan and Hunza, as far as Passu. At that time the Karakoram Highway beyond that village was closed to foreigners. Both in 1984 and 1985 I couldn’t spend as much time on my trips as I wanted because I had to get back to my newspaper office in Cyprus, plus I was short of money – as always. I used my own cheap camera and paid most of my expenses from my pocket because the newspaper was just barely surviving financially. In August 1987, after getting married in Japan, I settled down in Islamabad — my wife stayed behind in Tokyo for the time being — in a house rented by my Japanese friend who had taken me with him on the 1984 trip to Jaji. He could not come to Kunar with me in 1985. In October 1987 I went from the Bajaur tribal area to Kunar Province, again without my Japanese friend, intending to travel into Nuristan. But after a brief battle north of Asadabad (a few mortar rounds, answered from the Soviet and Afghan Army side by many hours of bombardment with rockets, field guns and heavy mortars) the mujahideen I was with refused to let me stay in Kunar and took me back across the border.
About an example of how good the mujahideen were as fighters against the Soviets and the Afghan Army:
In the battle I witnessed in 1987 the mujahideen scored a few direct hits on an army base north of Asadabad from positions in the mountains but extensive minefields did not allow them to even get close to the treacherous Kunar River, which they would have had to cross in order to pursue their assault. There were mujahideen from at least four different and supposedly allied parties in the area but cooperation among them was very limited.
The Soviets, who at the time had several hundred well-equipped spetsnaz commandos (according to the mujahideen) stationed in three mountaintop bases above the major air base of Chagha Sarai, and their Afghan allies retaliated by firing multiple rocket launchers, «Bimsiezda», and heavy field guns and big mortars at mujahideen positions for several hours until long after the rebels stopped shooting.
It was clear that those troops in Kunar had a good idea of the exact location of the rebels’ mortar positions, their „zikuyak” – the 14.5-mm anti-aircraft machine gun nests –, their hidden shelters and even the paths they used because a number of shells missed by less than 30 meters over distances ranging between five and 15 kilometers without the aid of spotter planes, at least none observed by me or the mujahideen I was with.
About how I met Abdul Rasul Sayyaf in 1984, the man who introduced Osama Bin Laden to Afghanistan and helped him to set up his first base there (I met Sayyaf two months after Bin Laden was with him):
My Japanese journalist friend, who had lived in Pakistan since 1975 and who had been to Jaji in 1983, found out in Peshawar that Abdul Rasul Sayyaf’s men had taken over that area and had driven the Afghan Army out of one base there, which the mujahideen called Sarai. He is the one who organized the trip to Jaji for the two of us that time, through a man named Abdul Hannan, who had connections with different mujahideen groups. Soviet and Afghan Air Force planes had repeatedly bombed the positions of Sayyaf’s men for more than two months before we went there in late August 1984. We did not expect to meet Sayyaf himself there, but a few days after we arrived we were told that he had come and was willing to meet us in one of the tents, supplied by a Saudi relief agency, that the mujahideen had pitched in a pine forest on the slope of a hill just 2 kilometers behind the Durand Line – the border. He met us there with some of his lieutenants, and we interviewed him at considerable length. His English was very good. He spoke with confidence of overcoming the Soviets “because God is helping the mujahideen,” and of having detailed plans to establish a “pure Islamic system” of government. He also predicted that “someday you will see the power of the Soviets vanquished, and all of those poor countries now under their domination will be free — they will get their freedom as a result of the freedom of Afghanistan.”
About the importance of Jaji, Paktia Province, where Osama Bin Laden set up his first base in 1984:
Jaji is strategically important because it is located just inside Afghanistan near the point where the Pakistani border comes closest to Kabul. I described Jaji this way in my first report from there in 1984 — I shall quote this: It is a beautiful area, with many springs and brooks of sparkling and delicious water from the mountains. But many people had to leave their villages here for a dreary existence as refugees in the steaming hot lowlands of Pakistan, where there is no clean, fresh water. Hardly one of the more than a dozen villages I passed through on a 60-kilometre trek from a resistance camp just inside Afghanistan, on the way to the frontline, seemed to have escaped the bombing, rocketing, shelling and strafing by Soviet and Afghan forces – Babrak Karmal’s forces. Many houses sustained heavy damage, leaving their inhabitants without shelter for the harsh winter in these highlands.
Strategically, the Jaji area, less than 80 kilometres by air southeast of Kabul, was vital for both mujahedeen and the refugees because it is one of the main avenues for traffic between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The struggle for control of this area, therefore, was constantly intense, as the Soviets and the Babrak Karmal regime tried to prevent the Muslim fighters from bringing food, ammunition and supplies into the country.
They were facing an uphill struggle in this terrain. After September 1983, when the resistance forces overran the government base of Sarai after three months of heavy fighting, they have pushed their powerful enemy out of all of Jaji except for one base of two square kilometres in an area called Chownee. Morale at that base was by all accounts very low. Some deserters died on the way trying to flee from that base, on the minefields in the surrounding area.
About a photo I took where a guerrilla aims a rocket-propelled grenade launcher at my head:
That picture shows 6 mujahideen in a tent in Jaji in 1984. They were preparing to go on a long trek from there to Mazar-i-Sharif in the north. One man in the front of the picture on the right was actually a defector from the Afghan Army, who had escaped from the Sarai base before it was captured and joined the mujahideen. The guy in the background pointing his RPG launcher at me was, of course, just trying to look funny for the photo.
About the religious conviction of the mujahideen and what role it played in their struggle:
I must say I was impressed, sometimes, by the religious fervor of some of the mujahideen – though they were by no means all like that. In 1985, some of Yunus Khalis’s men I was with in Kunar Province tried very hard to teach me some Pakhto (with „kh” as in the northern dialect) and some basics of Islam, even though they could not speak English. In 1987, also in Kunar but further south, the Yunus Khalis men there once ran for close to an hour over treacherous terrain just to get to a small mosque in time for the evening prayer. Even though I wasn’t carrying any weapons like they did I was barely able to follow them and totally exhausted when we arrived.
I felt that their religious convictions may very well have helped those men to be strong enough to face an enemy with greatly superior firepower, equipment and training. If a mujahed was seriously wounded, in most cases he was doomed, because the others could not provide medical aid. One mujahed in Kunar in 1987 stepped on a mine and bled to death because the others could not help him. I saw him only after his body was already wrapped up in a blanket. But I am sure very many mujahideen died like that after being wounded, because no one could help them. I am also sure that this is still happening today in Afghanistan to the Taliban and other insurgent forces, probably a lot more than in the 1980s because the  Americans today are a much more powerful and dangerous enemy than the Soviets ever were. What is interesting in this is that the Americans themselves also generally hold quite strong religious or quasi-religious convictions, and they are clearly well aware of how important those are in keeping up the morale of their troops in the field. I have met American Army chaplains (not in Afghanistan, of course) who seemed to play a role similar to that of communist political commissars, but probably much more effectively because of the enormous potential power of religious belief. Few things can help people overcome the fear of death as much as religious belief. But at the same time few things can drive people to commit atrocities without remorse on the scale that religious conviction has done. Probably the only thing that comes close in this sense is a conviction of racial superiority like that of the Nazis.
About what I think of Sayyaf’s activities today, as a member of the Afghan parliament, etc.:
I know very little about what Sayyaf has done since I met him in 1984. I have read the Wikipedia article on him, and some other accounts that accuse him of having ordered massacres and of having helped the fake journalists who murdered Ahmadshah Massoud in 2001. But I have not heard from him or anyone connected with him, and don’t know his side of the story at all. I know that he always had good connections with the Saudis. I have grave doubts about the role that the Saudi government has played and is playing in the world, and in Pakistan and Afghanistan in particular. It seems like they are playing both ends, supporting the propagation of radical Islam on one hand while keeping strong military and economic relations with the US on the other. I can only guess that this is because they feel they need both in order to preserve the House of Saud. About whether the West should cooperate with people like Sayyaf, I don’t know. I believe the US-dominated foreign military intervention as it is now must end as soon as possible. Perhaps a peacekeeping force could be put together with the help of neighboring Islamic countries, and then a wholly new political process should take place that would include the Afghan insurgents. These are just my feelings but I don’t know anywhere near enough about the situation to be able to give any kind of advice on what can be done to bring peace and good fortune to Afghanistan.
About my memories of Pakistan:
In December of 1987 I spent two weeks in Baltistan observing the work of the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme, and for a number of years after that I felt that I had to return to that area to help with development programs and get a chance to hike a bit in those awesome mountains. I have since read the book Three Cups of Tea, about an American by the name of Greg Mortenson, who was in Baltistan a few years after I left and who has built many schools for both boys and girls not only in that area but also in Hunza, Afghanistan and the Pamirs – much more than I could have hoped to accomplish. That book is now my favorite.
Getting back to your initial question, yes, I do have a special attachment to Pakistan and Afghanistan. But whether it was the most special time of my life: I would have to say no. It was special and a unique set of experiences for me in some ways but it was not the most special time. I feel there were many very special experiences, mostly very different from each other and unique in some ways — but none stands out as the most special of all.
About my stays in Pakistan, in 1984, 1985 and 1987-88, I have to point out that they amounted to a combined total of barely six months, and I spent most of that time in Islamabad and Peshawar — so that was not so long. I found most people I met there quite friendly and hospitable, and I liked the atmosphere in the towns very much. I found most places I saw very beautiful because there was a lot of green all around, especially in Islamabad. I very much enjoyed walking in the Margalla hills, for example, and along Rawal Lake.
Another thing I enjoyed very much was the food. I often ate food I bought from people in the street or in cheap eateries, and almost always liked everything. The only time I ever felt sick from food was when some British people I met in Skardu, in Baltistan, gave me some British shepherd’s pie — I ate it out of politeness but hated it from the start and vomited afterwards…
Also, during my third stay of exactly five months in 1987-88 I started drinking the water in Islamabad and Peshawar straight from the tap and never had any problem. And, of course I loved seeing the big mountains in northern Pakistan, even though I didn’t get a chance to do any real hiking in them as I was always short of time and money, and not adequately equipped for that type of thing. On the negative side, apart from seeing the juxtaposition of opulence and miserable poverty and disease, which is sadly, of course, not at all unique or unusual, one of the most difficult aspects of life in Pakistan for me was what I would call the “absence” of women from street life in the countryside, and that was the same in Afghanistan. I find the presence of women extremely important and comforting. In the cities you can see women in the streets but in the countryside it seems almost like they don’t really exist or at least they are always hidden because you cannot see their faces. I don’t know of anything more beautiful than the face of a beautiful woman — though I am not and have never been a womanizer at all; it is just one of the greatest pleasures to see them. Pakistan has many really beautiful women, but you don’t see them in the countryside.
It is very hard for me to pick out one particular point that I liked most about Pakistan; I think every country has a certain “feel” to it, and I just liked the “feel” of Pakistan very much, even though I am also aware of its dark side, which I could not ignore. I have hope that the country’s problems can be overcome someday.
About what I think the most tragic outcome of 9/11 was, and whether I see a glimmer of hope for the world:
I think that the reaction of the United States to 9/11 was much worse for the world than 9/11 itself. The so-called war on terror, to me, is a war of terror. Humankind’s addiction to violence and war has worsened very much because the USA tries hard to make them look clean and neat even while inflicting great suffering and damage on other countries and wasting enormous resources that could be used instead to help resolve the problems that generate terrorism in the first place. – I do see glimmers of hope as more and more people in the United States and elsewhere are slowly coming to realize that military means cannot resolve the world’s problems. I was inspired when I saw how people around the world expressed solidarity with the American people after 9/11, but then, tragically, the feeling of empathy was lost as the US embarked on what was really a campaign of revenge. Recently,   after a series of natural disasters struck various places around the world, it seemed that a new spirit of empathy and solidarity started to emerge. I only hope I am not just dreaming…

2009/08/26

Under Fire… in Afghanistan

Filed under: Thoughts&Journeys — Tags: — tramp11 @ 21:35

Reading about the terrible battle in Vietnam’s Ia Drang Valley in Hal Moore’s book “We Were Soldiers Once… And Young” reminds me of my own comparatively puny experiences of coming under fire in Afghanistan 20-odd years ago. It also reminds me of the horribly realistic first half hour in the movie “Saving Private Ryan.” I wonder if having bullets whizzing around your ears is more scary than artillery shells exploding nearby – which is what I experienced. I never faced small arms fire, although a volley of machine gun bullets dug up the ground in front of my feet during the civil war in Lebanon once in June 1985 — a warning from the Lebanese Forces against my taking pictures.
In Afghanistan, on my first trip after the Soviets invaded, I was with Abdul Rasul Sayyaf in Jaji, Paktia Province in late August 1984, two months after the same Sayyaf welcomed Osama Bin Laden in the same area on his first visit to that country. Bin Laden and his men had their baptism of fire under Soviet aerial bombardment in Jaji that time (according to the excellent book “The Looming Tower” by Lawrence Wright) — they were scared shitless, and Sayyaf and his seasoned Afghan fighters thought those guys were useless. Three years later Bin Laden would become the big Muslim war hero after a battle with Soviet commando forces in the same area.

I had my own baptism of fire – so to speak – also together with Sayyaf’s men, in a forward base they called Badullah, in a small tent pitched behind a rock at the foot of a range of hills overlooking the high plain near the army garrison Sayyaf’s men just named “Chownee,” which apparently just means cantonment (perhaps Ali Khel, I don’t know for sure – a larger army base a little further out was called Narai). Mujahideen were firing 82-mm mortars from positions just above us into Chownee, and an artillery gun, mortar crews and at least one tank fired back towards us from the garrison. Mortar bombs and artillery shells were exploding close by as I was talking — actually shouting — to Commander Mohammed Naim in that little tent. The mujahideen seemed unperturbed by the din and the shaking of the ground under us. They knew we were safe. I was a bit queasy but their confidence made me feel better. At one point a mujahed stepped out of the tent for a second after a mortar bomb explosion very close by and came right back, dropping a very hot piece of shrapnel in front of me. I picked it up later and kept it as a souvenir.

Another time, in a camouflaged Dashaka .50 caliber (12.7-mm) heavy machine-gun position a bit closer to Chownee I was with mujahideen who were firing into the army base, trying to hit a building where 7 Soviet advisers were staying, according to Commander Naim (based on info from defectors). I was supposed to fire that gun myself at one point but it jammed. A tank from the base fired a few rounds back at us. The first two fell short but the third one passed just above our heads – so close you could “feel” it – and blew up a tree some 50 meters to the rear.

A year later in August 1985 I climbed over high mountains along the Afghan-Pakistani border with a different group of mujahideen (Yunus Khalis) who were planning to attack the exposed Afghan army garrison of Barikot in the Kunar Valley. They fired a total of 17 rockets from a place on the river the fighters called Narei. The response took longer than I expected, indicating to me that the rockets had probably missed their target. The first mortar round from Barikot exploded in the exact location from where the rockets had been fired. You can hear them whistling if they are going to hit some distance away — not if they come too close. Of course, there was no one left in that place. The next round came quite a bit closer to where I was — still whistling. They were taking potshots, but they might get lucky and hit us. Another round changed direction a little bit, again, and I thought my cover behind a mud wall might not be good enough. The fourth and last round took out a chunk of the corner of a mud house about 50-60 meters from me.

In October 1987 I was in the Kunar Valley again, much further south and perhaps about 8 km or so north of the capital Asadabad and the nearby Soviet air base of Chagha Sarai. I was with Commander Ajab Khan on top of Tari Sar hill, watching as mortar bombs fired by mujahideen in the mountains to the east exploded closer and closer to a small army base called Shigal Tarna just across the fast-flowing river below. The commander used a walkie talkie to direct the crews. Finally one, two, three bombs exploded right in the middle of the base. “Allahu Akbar,” resounded the cry of the mujahideen. During the whole time a heavy artillery gun inside the base had kept up a slow but steady fire into the mountains and its boom reverberated through the valleys. But now, suddenly, we “felt” something like a swishing sound in the air above us, and seconds later a hillside to the northeast was covered by plumes of smoke. “Bimsiezda,” commented one mujahed. It was a Soviet multiple rocket launcher, firing from the Asadabad area. Shortly after the second rocket salvo whizzed by we were on our way down the hill to get back to the Mujahideen caves and dugouts in the Shultan Valley closer to the Pakistani border. Just before we left the position we saw a helicopter landing in Shigal Tarna, possibly coming to pick up wounded soldiers there.

There was no more fire from the mujahideen mortar crews after this but soon the “dooshman” or “shuravi” (enemy) were firing into “our” Shultan Valley from three sides with rocket launchers, field guns and heavy mortars: Asadabad to the south, Shigal Tarna to the west and the Asmar garrison upstream to the north. I don’t know if this can be called a barrage but the shelling continued for a long time until late into the night. The ground shook many times under our feet and the sound was frightening once or twice when several very heavy shells exploded close to each other not much more than 100 meters away and lit up the valley. But it seems they did not use airburst munitions because I think some of us would have been blown away. Also surprisingly, there was no air activity, and in fact I never once experienced being under aerial bombardment.

The big difference between my experiences and those of most soldiers/fighters in combat or civilians under bombardment is that neither I nor any of the mujahideen close to me was ever wounded or killed. I saw one wounded mujahed being carried by others in the mountains once, and another who had bled to death after triggering a land mine that blew off his legs — but his body had already been wrapped up in blankets. I didn’t see anyone getting hurt in battle. I think if I had I might have been just as scared as Bin Laden’s men in their first experience in Jaji. So, yes, I have been under fire — but it was nothing at all compared to what unfortunately too many other people have experienced. And it continues…

Like most if not all of those people I wish for peace.

Tramp11 with mujahideen at bombed-out Sao village -Kunar Valley Afghanistan August 1985

Tramp11 with mujahideen at bombed-out Sao village -Kunar Valley Afghanistan August 1985

2008/07/28

Time – an accumulation of memory in universal consciousness, not entropy -updated

Filed under: Thoughts, Thoughts&Journeys — Tags: — tramp11 @ 20:27

Recently I read an article by a scientist who proposed that the “flow” or “arrow” of time is basically the growth of entropy, including decay. When you pour milk into a cup of coffee, for example, it would be extremely difficult to go back and separate the milk from the coffee. The same applies if you try to rebuild an organism that has completely decayed.

I propose a different explanation, though I don’t have the scientific knowledge to back it up: the direction of the “flow” of time is determined by the accumulation of memory in universal consciousness. Everything is memory / universally stored  information, which keeps increasing with the passage of time and can never decrease (otherwise time would “flow” backwards). Even the mysterious dark energy and dark matter that seem to fill our universe may be a store of memory. We carry the memory of our ancestors within us – even though we are mostly not aware of it. Memory is the imprint that everything leaves on universal consciousness or god (see my posts about god/universal consciousness below). – Unlike the scientist who believes the flow of time is the growth of entropy, I believe that entropy is only something like a side effect – it is inevitable and it always distorts or degrades memory to some extent, but it is not a dominant aspect of reality.

2008/04/29

My view of “God” as it has evolved

Filed under: Thoughts&Journeys — tramp11 @ 22:49

Peaks overlooking upper Kachura Valley Baltistan December 1987

Diary entry 26 April 2008:

Recapitulation of my ideas about god:  What monotheists refer to as “God” is — to me — universal consciousness, the cosmos as a whole, the “sum” of all consciousness. God is in everything and everything is god. We humans are the highest level of consciousness on this planet earth — as far as we know — and we represent the highest level of the evolution of god here. On our small “island” in the cosmos god evolves through us, changes through us. If our “island” the earth is unique in this sense, then we humans are the spearhead of the evolution of god itself. God is not in any way greater than the cosmos and did not “create” it, and cannot exist separately from this cosmos. In fact, if we are unique — which seems unlikely if the cosmos is as we perceive it (see my posts below: “The End of Religion…” and “The Universe And Us”), though certainly not impossible — then god is dependent on us to a great extent.

God has a “personality” of its own, and each one of us humans — and every other intelligent being that may exist elsewhere — represents an aspect of the “personality” of god. Each one of us reflects a facet of god’s nature.

If the cosmos itself “emerged” in some way through a Big Bang or something like it, then god was the internal essence that “emerged” with it, as did what we know as the laws of nature. The cosmos was not “created” based on any design but emerged and evolved through a process of trial and error, “guided” by god’s evolving intelligence based on the organization of memory. The emergence of life on earth and its evolution was also “guided” in this way by god. Humankind is a product of this evolution, taking consciousness to the highest level known so far on earth.

I believe god inspired man to create religions, spiritual teachings, etc., because it wanted to find a way to guide or even control humankind.

(More on 29 April 2008):  This is also the reason why humans and just about everything else tends toward forming hierarchies and pecking orders. God needs hierarchical organization in order to be able to exploit and control “created” beings. And what we have come to regard as “good” and “evil” are just different ways of looking at things from the larger perspective of god. God has traditionally favored the strong, the top of any pecking order hierarchy, because he draws the greatest pleasure from that type of organization of both living beings and inanimate reflections of his consciousness. Is god, then, like a human in his feelings and behavior? I say, absolutely, yes: at least on this earth, our tiny part of the cosmos (=>”the universe and us” below), god cannot be otherwise, because we are this way — we reflect god’s nature and god is no greater than us as a collective, and no better.

(For a chronological account of my changing view of God, see: “My View of God…”)

More to come …

2008/03/10

There is no “absolute,” no “perfection”

Filed under: Thoughts&Journeys — tramp11 @ 21:16

My daughter in front of the Eiger North Face Switzerland Sep2005

November 2007 diary entry:  I continue to believe that we — humankind — must outgrow religion and all of the things that have divided us in such a way as to lead to war. All of our religions, which have been the foundations of civilizations, have tended to divide us because they have led us to use force against each other in the name of a god or gods. There are always “chosen” ones, favorites, or the “good” in religion as opposed to the others, the “bad” or “evil.” I do believe in an ideal of “goodness,” which we have been developing. There is no absolute “good.” There is no absolute anything at all. We are striving towards a goal that can never be reached — but which is nonetheless a worthy goal. Our understanding of this goal, this imaginary and forever unreachable “absolute” goodness, is evolving, and so is our ability to put this understanding into practice. But we must come to realize that the universal consciousness, the fundamental essence of the cosmos that we like to call “God,” is in itself neither good nor evil, and cannot move our world towards goodness without our help. — We have to begin by thinking and feeling as “we,” “us,” including all humankind; and beyond that all living beings, to a lesser extent.

2007/12/15

Winter View of Khaplu, Baltistan, Dec. 1987

Filed under: Thoughts&Journeys — tramp11 @ 08:31

Winter View of Khaplu, Baltistan, Dec. 1987

Afghanistan and Thoughts About War & Peace – updated

Filed under: Thoughts, Thoughts&Journeys — tramp11 @ 08:13

About my trips to Afghanistan

About Afghanistan, I have visited that country 4 times – once from Iran in 1972 when the king was still there (he reigned 40 years – 1933-1973), and 3 times from Pakistan with mujahideen fighting the Soviets, in 1984, 1985 and 1987. Each time I stayed only between 4 and 6 days — because I didn’t have more time, unfortunately — so I have never even seen the capital, Kabul. The first time in March 1972 I went to Herat and Kandahar, and in 1984 I spent 6 days with A.R. Sayyaf – the man who had just introduced Osama Bin Laden to Afghanistan 2 months before I met him in Jaji, Paktia Province (and he had helped Bin Laden to set up shop there — I didn’t know Bin Laden then, of course, although I did have a connection to his country Saudi Arabia as I had made the Haj pilgrimage in 1972-73 and almost got married in Jeddah that time — long story… see “My first Journeys” below”). Then in 1985 and again in 1987 I spent a few days with other groups of mujahideen who launched rocket and mortar attacks in Kunar Province. Each time I went barely more than 10 miles into Afghanistan (on foot), but I also came under artillery fire each of the 3 times with the mujahideen (close enough to have shrapnel hit the ground a few feet from me). I wrote for the Middle East Times weekly at the time, which I had helped to found in early 1983 in Cyprus.

I think we have to stop regarding and treating groups of people different from our own as non-humans, regardless of what some of their members may have done. I was in Afghanistan a few times during the Soviet occupation, but I had also seen Afghanistan the way it was when the king was still there — a country in relative peace for over 40 years. The radicalization caused to a large extent — if not exclusively — by foreign intervention is very obvious and terrible. The Afghans opposed to this foreign intervention (be it Soviet or US/NATO or whatever) face an enemy with overwhelming firepower and resources. Their situation is almost hopeless. There is enormous disruption and suffering. The result is that these fighters eagerly listen to the most radical, fanatic leaders and become virtually brainwashed, and some of them end up committing unspeakable atrocities. Foreign military intervention can only breed more of this radicalization and hatred — and especially suffering & disaster.
Erwin Franzen, for the Facebook group “Troops out of Afghanistan,” 25 January 2009.

Foreign Troops Out of Afghanistan

I think we have to stop regarding and treating groups of people different from our own as non-humans, regardless of what some of their members may have done. I was in Afghanistan a few times during the Soviet occupation, but I had also seen Afghanistan the way it was when the king was still there — a country in relative peace for over 40 years. The radicalization caused to a large extent — if not exclusively — by foreign intervention is very obvious and terrible. The Afghans opposed to this foreign intervention (be it Soviet or US/NATO or whatever) face an enemy with overwhelming firepower and resources. Their situation is almost hopeless. There is enormous disruption and suffering. The result is that these fighters eagerly listen to the most radical, fanatic leaders and become virtually brainwashed, and some of them end up committing unspeakable atrocities. Foreign military intervention can only breed more of this radicalization and hatred — and especially suffering & disaster.

tramp11, for the Facebook group “Troops out of Afghanistan,” 25 January 2009.
Can We Believe in World Peace?

From a message I wrote in December 2007 to a grandchild of the famous WWII General George S. Patton, Jr. (who is interred in the US military cemetery where I work and which also holds the graves of some 5,000 of his soldiers):

… I think the most worthy goal is to work for peace, which means first of all to help people to believe in peace — world peace, that is. Humankind has lived with war throughout the history we know, and because of that most people nowadays don’t seem to believe world peace is possible — unless a heavenly Savior comes down to earth and uses supernatural powers to establish it (by force?). Too many people think it’s naive to believe that humankind can build a peaceful world, and any effort in this direction is doomed. Your grandfather fought in the two world wars and he could surely see how the outcome of the first one led almost directly to the second one, and he also foresaw that the second one could lead to a third one. He needed war in a way – to prove himself as a soldier – but he also needed peace for his family. He did not get a chance to see the peace that has now lasted 60 years over all his battlefields in western Europe. His son, your father, followed in his footsteps in war but he also saw the peace, and he consolidated the gains made by your grandfather in southern Germany after the war by building a friendship with former enemies. Your generation of the Pattons has really grasped the value and meaning of peace, and I think there is something big there on which you can build real faith in peace — and inspire others to believe.

We cherish freedom, and the saying goes that it is not free. But does war give us freedom? Does war make us secure — even if it is a war our soldiers fight in distant places? Are those places really so distant anymore in this day and age? Can we always rely on the west’s overwhelming military superiority to ensure our freedom and safety and prosperity by taking war to other lands and keeping it away from our shores? Is that good, right, just? Can we label other people as “evil” or as “barbarians” or “rats” and then utterly destroy them, and go on to live in peace with ourselves? Hitler and his gang tried that with the Jews, for example… Luckily they were stopped and defeated before it was too late. However, ideas similar to theirs continue to proliferate in different guises and in insidious ways. We have to guard against that by promoting peace.¨

Not long ago our agency (which maintains American military cemeteries) adopted a “new” motto: Time Will Not Dim the Glory of Their Deeds — which is something Gen. Pershing said after WWI. I think WWII came to dim somewhat the “glory” of those deeds — because it showed that regardless of their own value the larger cause for which they were done (the war to end all wars) was lost. And other wars since then have dimmed the “glory” of the deeds done in WWII. But is “glory” the true message of our cemetery? Does glorification help to promote peace, freedom – all the things we cherish most?

Many American visitors to our cemetery also like to visit the (nearby) German (military) cemetery, and some of them find it drab and uninspiring compared to the beauty of ours. It is the final resting place of those who fought on the side that lost the war. But the idea behind the German cemetery is to promote peace. In all the literature of the German war graves commission (Kriegsgräberfürsorge) I find one theme that is emphasized: peace.

I wish our cemetery could also help to inspire people to believe in peace.

About War

From a message to a friend on 15 February 2007: … I am not an absolute pacifist but I do believe wars are very, very serious business and cause so much unpredictable upheaval and so much suffering that every effort should be made to avoid them. Virtually every war sows the seeds for another because there are always loose ends and problems inevitably created by the way the war is fought that ultimately lead to other wars. The unresolved problems of World War I led to World War II, and unresolved problems created or exacerbated by WWII have led to many smaller conflicts around the world that are even now still playing themselves out — and sowing seeds for further conflicts. It is too easy for people to talk about war and even to send others to fight wars when they themselves and their families face no or little danger of becoming victims of those wars. I have very little experience of war myself but I have been close enough to wars, both directly and through meeting survivors, to at least take them very seriously. I feel that far too many people in the west don’t take war seriously enough. …  [this is mainly because the west, especially the United States, possesses military power that is so vastly superior to anything almost any potential foe can muster that it has no need to fear serious retaliation for any attack it decides to launch].  As far as America having been isolationist — I don’t think that is really even true; America has always intervened politically and militarily in other countries, probably more than any other nation since the decline of the European colonial empires. Yes,  it has learned from the mistakes made by the European colonialists and has not behaved as badly as they did in occupying others, but it has nonetheless caused a lot of misery — and indeed killed tens or hundreds of others for every American killed in its wars. And it is far from over…

The US attack on Iraq

Adapted from an email to a friend in April 2003 – a month after the USA attacked Iraq: … I have several major problems with what I see in the beliefs and attitudes of many conservative and neoconservative Americans today. For one thing: they seem to value the lives of “Americans” (actually, most especially Americans of European or primarily European ancestry, meaning “whites”) so highly that the taking of one of them can only be avenged by the deaths of tens or even hundreds of “others.” I have met Americans and read opinions of others who seem to feel, for example, that even the firebombing of Tokyo and the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not sufficient revenge for the attack on Pearl Harbor (that and the Bataan Death March [here the few hundred American dead counted far more than the many thousands of Filipinos who died at the same time] seem to figure much more prominently in Americans’ minds than the Rape of Nanking and other Japanese atrocities in China and Korea, and elsewhere).

To many Americans, it seems, the deaths of over 55 million “others” in World War II don’t really compare in significance to those of the 400,000-odd American servicemen/women who also died at that time. Perhaps, if they could be brought to seriously think about it, their feelings would be different. I don’t know.
I am also worried that the Christian conservatives seem to be turning their America into something akin to a religion. I feel that there are grave dangers in exaggerated nationalism, especially when it is combined with a certain callous and arrogant attitude towards other nations and the will to use an awesome military machine that can kill thousands of people (even if they are labeled “terrorists” or simply called “ragheads”) in the blink of an eye without risking any serious retaliation.
You know, there have always been “really evil” people. Can you say that the thousands of Taliban or even Al Qaeda members and camp followers who were wiped out in Afghanistan or the thousands of Iraqi soldiers blown up in the latest conflict — quite apart from the civilian lives lost or destroyed — were all really evil? Of course not. So how are they to be accounted for — as expendable for the sake of the greater good? What greater good…? Who decides and based on what? This is might, not right!

Saddam Hussein and his gang can surely be called evil — but he didn’t just suddenly come to power in Iraq — nor is he the only evil one around. But one thing is for sure: whatever military capabilities he ever possessed, they were absolutely nothing compared to the power that just swept him away. The United States has by far the most potent nuclear, chemical and biological warfare capabilities in the world. Luckily for us (so far), it has a fairly good system of checks and balances that normally restrains it from any misuse of those capabilities on a massive scale. I believe everyone needs to do their best to help that system of checks and balances work as it should — and that may sometimes mean opposing the government in power or warning of the dangers one sees in certain courses of action.

*** Today, 4 years later, I have the impression that the system of checks and balances has broken down. This is much more dangerous than any threat from “terrorism.”

2007/07/01

The Indus east of Skardu -Baltistan Dec. 1987 -EF

Filed under: Thoughts&Journeys — tramp11 @ 11:26

The Indus east of Skardu -Baltistan Dec. 1987 -EF

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