Friday, February 27, 2009

Where's Diego?

I planned to muse today in this blog on Afghanistan's upcoming elections, a fascinating topic for anyone with a taste for humor, world politics and comic tragedy. But an email containing an unexpected name has carried me to the past instead of the future. I first met Diego when he appeared on a bench in the children's club I ran at a Bolivian orphanage. The children came from the streets, where they'd survived by rummaging through garbage, pick-pocketing, and far worse, some from as young as two years old. They were scabby, scarred, dirty--and adorable.

About ten years old, Diego was unusual, not only his fair skin and light hair that denoted European blood, but because he was clean and healthy and well-fed. His eyes twinkled with mischief as well as intelligence, his grin impish. Unlike most of the street waifs, he already knew the Bible stories and children's songs I taught them, his hand shooting up eagerly at every question. Where had he learned them? How had he ended up here?

I never found out. Within a few classes, Diego was gone. This wasn't unusual. The orphanage was only a holding pen from which children were funneled to more permanent housing, whether one of massive, under-funded state orphanages, as apprentice maid or gardener in a wealthy Bolivian home (i.e. indentured servant), or rarely, in one of the few private Christian children's homes. But Diego had not been transferred. The other children told me he'd climbed over the fence and run away. What had happened behind the orphanage walls to make him run, I never learned. Some children simply can't adjust to rules and regulations after the precarious freedom of the streets.

But this was July south of the equator, the coldest week of the year, the chill winter rains falling steadily. Street children were dying of pneumonia, and I knew Diego had no coat. With my own three small sons safe and warm at home in mind, I went looking for him, searching all the plazas and abandoned lots and sewage drains where the street kids congregated. But to no avail.

Then one day returning from the orphanage, I spotted him clambering over a wall of an empty lot. He was shivering with cold in his rags, smelly, his hair matted with filth. He was also high on the industrial glue street kids sniff to dull the pangs of hunger and cold and loneliness. I could find nothing in those glazed eyes and dejected slump of the eager, little boy who'd happily belted out answers and songs in my class. Coaxing him with me to my car, I found him a jacket that belonged to one of my sons, fed him, and sobered him up enough to coax him back to the orphanage.

A colleague who worked with children at risk found Diego housing in a Christian boys' home. He was excited to go to school, maybe even become a lawyer. He was certainly smart enough. But just a few days later, he ran away again. When found, he was high again on drugs and refused to go back. If I'd ever questioned the addictive stranglehold of drugs, seeing an intelligent, beautiful child turned into a zombie in a matter of days would settle any doubt.

Soon after, my husband and I left Bolivia for a wider canvas of ministry, where we now deal with children at risk among other needs all over the world, some of whom you see pictured in this blog post. But I never forgot Diego. I told his story often when raising awareness of the million of street kids worldwide, prayed for him, wrote volunteers back in Bolivia to see if anyone knew what had become of him.

But he'd disappeared. He must be about out of his teens by now. Was he still alive? Or had he died of drugs, disease, or violence, the three main killers of street kids? Then came the email. It was from the colleague who'd helped find Diego a place in that Christian boy's home. She and her husband still work with street kids in Bolivia. She writes:

“You don’t remember me, do you?”

Arriving at the jail door on Wednesday, my eyes met with those of a young man, obviously a drug addict, pacing back and forth. The guards had refused him entrance to visit because he smelled like alcohol. I had already passed him when he said, “Hermana [Sister] Corina.”

I turned around and looked a bit more closely. Eyes incredibly bloodshot. Arms covered with scars, some self inflicted, others from fights. One wound was still fresh, a slash across his arm, open and crusted with blood. His teeth were all discolored and rotting. My mind raced to try and remember.

“You don’t remember me, do you?”

I looked into his eyes again beyond the glassiness and swollen veins, and I saw a little boy. “You’re Diego."

I do not know whether to cheer or cry at the news. Diego is alive, but it is hardly the happy ending I would write if this were one of my own novels. That I do not possess the power to change that ending, to turn a despairing drug addict back to a bright, smiling child with a hopeful future, makes me want to pound my fists against a brass sky of human futility.

Or am I with that thought preempting another Author who holds the end of every human story in His own capable and loving hands?

Back in those orphanage days, Diego and the other children had one favorite song they asked to sing over and over. A haunting minor melody, it was hardly a typical children's song, its words taken right out of Scripture. 'Mira que te mando que te esfuerzas y seas valiente . . . " In English: "Be strong and courageous; do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.' (Joshua 1:9). I had to fight back tears when they sang, not only because of the faith with which they belted out the words, but because I'd seen the places where many of them would end up. Places to which I wouldn't condemn a dog.

And yet to work with children at risk without losing one's sanity as well as one's heart, those words of song and Scripture must be grasped with the unquestioning faith of those orphanage children. If I do not know where Diego and so many other lost children with whom I've worked have ended up, they have a heavenly Father who knows exactly where they are. If I cannot bring the light and love and life I would like into their lives, the Creator of this universe who made them and loves them far more than I do can do just that. Yes, He really does hold the whole world in His hands. After all, what are the odds of a North American aid worker walking across a Bolivian prison yard just as a grown-up lost boy shows up to visit?

"If you see him again, tell Diego I love him," I wrote back to Corina. "Tell him I've never forgotten him nor stopped praying for him."

Diego, in whatever alley or storm drain you may be sleeping this night, know that you are not forgotten. You are loved. It is never too late. Through the haze of drugs and alcohol, may you bring to mind the stories and songs you once knew so well of Someone who is big and loving and powerful enough to save. 'Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.'

Monday, February 16, 2009

While We Were Sleeping

The first non-English language into which my political-suspense novels were translated was Dutch. The Netherlands is a delightful country with its canals, houseboats and tall, skinny buildings. A nation of readers. The first place I was ever served raw meat as a main dish--and enjoyed it!

The Netherlands is also famous for its laissez faire attitude towards moral issues Americans take seriously like drug use, prostitution, euthanasia. So I was disturbed to have the Netherlands pop up recently on my 'freedom of speech' watch-list.

In synopsis, a supreme court has just ruled that a Dutch politician may be prosecuted criminally. Not for trying to sell a parliament seat. Nor hiding bribe money in a freezer. Nor indulging in inappropriate conduct with interns.

No, the charge is 'insulting Islam'.

It is a charge that across the Islamic world has sentenced countless journalists, moderate Muslim scholars, and Christian converts to prison. Only this time the ruling did not come from a sharia court, but from a Dutch appeals court. Politician Geert Wilder had stated publicly his belief that Islamic 'sharia' law is a fascist totalitarian ideology that poses a threat to Western democratic freedom.

At issue is a film documentary Wilder produced juxtaposing Koranic verses calling for armed jihad against images of that jihad actually being carried out. Was the film tastefully produced? Have all Wilder's statements been PC? I couldn't say, not having seen the film. It may be that I myself would not appreciated the final product.

FITNA: "This 15-minute film, which drew millions of viewers since its release Thursday, contains footage of Muslim clerics and protesters calling for the slaying of Jews, verses from the Koran, videos from scenes of suicide bombings and executions, illustrations of the demographic increase in the number of European Muslims and archive material from the Dutch media about Islamic terrorism-related incidents."

But what sends chills up my spine is that the veracity of Wilder's position has not been made an issue. After all, sharia law imposed currently by Islamic regimes across the planet proscribes freedom of speech, religion, association, and self-determination. Meanwhile Islamic leaders make no bones that the Koran's ultimate command is a global 'caliphate' ruled by sharia theocracy. So Wilder isn't the only one who might consider 'totalitarian' or 'fascist' a not unreasonable characterization.

The Dutch court's ruling addressed a much simpler issue. To question or criticize Islam is offensive to Muslims (of course it is! By sharia law, it's punishable by death!), therefore making Wilder's public debate 'hate speech', a criminal offense. It seems the Dutch haven't forgotten the worldwide violence and destruction that followed Danish cartoons lampooning Islam. And if you think the Dutch are alone, Wilder was just banned from travel to Britain. Why? Because his presence might incite violence among British Muslims.

Is anyone as concerned as I am by this ruling in a Western democratic nation? When was the last time questioning the tenets of Christianity was made a criminal offense? Oh, yes, something called the Inquisition. And why has not our media, so protective of its rights, jumped to speak out at this erosion of freedom of speech? The abridgement of public debate or criticism on any topic should have every human rights activist across the free world on their feet.

If I am passionate about freedom of speech, it is because I have seen firsthand the consequences of its denial. I grew up in Latin America at a time when too many who spoke up against oppressive regimes became one more 'desaparecido' or 'disappeared one'. In Afghanistan, where I traveled recently, a 23-year-old journalist in prison for downloading an internet article, has been joined by two other journalists who translated the Koran into local Dari vernacular.

They thought they were doing something good, since few Afghan Muslims read the Arabic of the original Koran. After all, the Christians have translated their Holy Book into Dari. An Afghan court judged it blasphemy and handed down a death sentence. Working in recent years with ministry partners in India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Nepal, and many other countries, I have seen the bludgeoning club of 'anti-conversion' laws use against those who would choose their own faith or share it with others.

Among them more than 50,000 Christians burned out of churches and homes this past year in Orissa, India. I have shared in earlier blog entries about the refugee camps our own ministry organization, BCM International, established on the Orissa border to shelter the 62 pastors [see group picture; faces blurred for security] and their families of our own Orissa churches, all of whom had lost home and church to Hindu extremist mobs.

We recently hosted a BCM medical team, including dentist and ophthalmologist, at the camp. Along with their services, the team was able to give to each family a set of dishes and pans[see photo below].

The reason is that our refugee camps are closing at the end of this month. The government camps are already closed. These Christians have lost homes, jobs, loved ones. Now they are being sent back to the same villages that burned them out. The government is insisting they can maintain order. The Hindu extremists have announced that returnees must convert to Hinduism or be killed.
Meantime some of our pastors have already returned to burned-out ashes of their churches. Below is an excerpt of a recent letter from our Orissa regional director, Rev. Nayak [his phrasing]:

"It is worthy to praise the work of our BCM pastors during this tough time of hazardness. Pastor Tuna of Bataguda boldly went to their village and gathered the scattered out believers from different places of the area and started worship service in his church in spite of dreadful fear. He encouraged to others that they are serving the living God. He said to others that we are already dead in Christ, no need to fear any more to anyone. If they die, they die for Christ and their eternal place is heaven. This very thin and short BCM pastor shows a strong faith, and looking to his braveness, other pastors also have been taken the steps, among them Pastor Bimalraj and Pastor Lubara Mallik. Pray for these
pastors who could be the example for others."
It is easy to make a stand on freedom of speech sitting in my current comfortable swivel chair in front of my computer monitor. It is another to raise one's voice and refuse to be silenced under threat of death. And I am reminded as I see the courage of penniless Orissa Christians on one hand, while on the other a well-armed democratic state knuckles under without a fight on their own freedom of speech, that freedoms can be lost far more easily than they can be won. Freedom of speech and religion as we know it today is less than 250 years old. Current events in the Netherlands are a frightening object lesson of what may be in store if erosion of those freedoms is allowed to continue unchallenged.

Meanwhile, my own upcoming Afghanistan release, Veiled Freedom, explores just what it means to be an Islamic 'democracy' without those accompanying freedoms. And I have to ask myself, having written in its pages truth and only truth, is Veiled Freedom one title of mine that will not be welcome in its Dutch translation?

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Writing Tip #2: Weaving Illusion Into Reality

A favorite query I receive from interviewers who've read my press bio is whether government agencies really have questioned if I've received classified information. The answer is a multiple 'yes', the stories in retrospect more funny than alarming (bottom line, any place on the planet government intelligence can send an agent to dig around, some missionary or aid worker will already be there and know more than they do!). Certainly good research helps and a mind that 'thinks like a terrorist', as one government type informed me. Unfairly, since if like any good journalist, I'm fairly competent at piecing together an intel puzzle and thinking up unique ways to use it, at least I do so only in fiction.

However there was the time, soon after writing my first major suspense novel CrossFire, when I found myself in the DEA compound of a certain Latin American city being grilled by a furious Special-Agent-in-Charge. He was very competently using six-foot, four-inches of Special Forces-trained body language to intimidate one petite female civilian--me! Among his list of infractions was a description I'd made in CrossFire of an interrogation room within the DEA compound. I had at one time been privileged to take the same tour of that compound as any visiting congressional junket. But certain areas were off-limits, and that was one of them. The SAC was determined to find out which of his agents had let 'that author woman' into a 'classified' zone.

The guy was good. I can honestly say that if I were trying to lie, I couldn't have kept it straight five minutes. But since I was telling the truth on all accounts, I rather enjoyed myself as only a writer can, taking plenty of mental notes of what it felt like to be grilled by the 'best of the best'. And I got my revenge (as any good writer should do with obnoxious people in their lives) by writing him into my next book, The DMZ. Yep, that large and furious U. S. task force commander berating a certain female reporter protagonist in the Colombian jungle. I hardly had to change the dialogue.

When I finally got out of the SAC's office, it was to find a couple of agent acquaintances lurking in the hall. "You're still alive!" they commented.

"He was actually quite courteous," I responded, "and accepted my explanations very reasonably."

At which they gave me a disbelieving look and said with what I certainly hope was sarcasm, "That's because you're a civilian, and he knows he can't kill you."

There is far more to that story. But I picked up one great writing tip that day. Good research is important, the blogs, interviews, on-the-ground experience I've mentioned in an earlier blog. But what about when you still cannot find the details you need? How do you weave a plausible reality that can con a counternarcotics field SAC into thinking you've been inside his interrogation room? The answer is again simple.

Reality is in the eye of the beholder--or reader.

You see, I really hadn't been in that interrogation room. However, I have eyes and a brain. When I walked across the front courtyard and through a huge, steel-reinforced door with multiple locks and cameras into the headquarters building, I couldn't help noticing a verandah lined with doors out front that was not part of the tour. Being a nosy investigative journalist, I had to ask myself, if I was counternarcotics with 'bad guy' informants entering my compound to report, where would I want to interview them? Maybe somewhere that gave no access to the inside workings of a DEA field office. Like those doors along the verandah.

On the other hand, I'd certainly want access from those outside rooms into the headquarters itself, just in case an agent ran into trouble and needed backup. So let's add a second door across the room. What else would an interrogation room hold? A table. Some chairs. A surveillance camera. My description was as scant as my knowledge.

I have no idea to this day how close the reality behind those doors matches the picture in my mind as I wrote the interrogation scene in question. What I do know is that those few details I'd included matched my interrogator's own reality closely enough that his own personal experience in those rooms had filled in the blanks to leave the erroneous illusion I had to have been inside.

Since then, a notorious Third World prison, a Vietnam-era Huey, North America's largest underground network of nuclear waste tanks, are among settings I've never actually been, but have heard back from readers who have (including a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission). One humanitarian aid worker who'd been in that same Third World prison wrote, "Reading [FireStorm], Palmasola was so real I could actually smell the urine on the walls."

So how to weave a plausible illusion of a reality you've never experienced?

1) You don't have to know all the details as long as those you use are accurate. Any written scene is only a bare outline of the endless details contained in any real life counterpart. The reader fills in the rest from their own life experience. So as long as you use only details you've researched and are sure of (and leave out anything you can't confirm), the reader who has actually been there will fill in the blanks from their own memories and assume you too are writing from personal knowledge.

This again requires only basic research. In writing of Palmasola for instance, I'd driven by (and so knew its smells!), but had never been through the gates. Human rights reports and other news stories gave me such details as the drug lord mansions with saunas, big-screen TVs, catered meals and mistresses on one side and common debtors ten to a cell without food or bedding on the other.

2) A jungle is a jungle is a jungle. So is a desert. Once you've experienced any setting or situation--an earthquake, blizzard, hurricane, cliff top, hunger, thirst, the terror of personal assault, the joy of love and friendship, or a law enforcement interrogation--you can write that experience in any setting on the planet. All you need is a little research for details unique to that setting.

3) Travel guides like Lonely Planet or Rough Guide are excellent resources. Virtually every country, however remote, has at least one. With detailed city maps, sights, roads, restaurants, hotels, travel and danger tips for every region of a country, and LOTS of pictures, these offer those bare bones details to be able to plot an accurate setting in your mind. has the widest variety. Add those traveler blogs for your local color, and you are set.

Now how to navigate the shoals of all that internet data to know which is truth? Again it's simple, but that's for another day.