Footprints Become Trouble

On the road …again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek


Footprints Lead To Trouble

When family and friends asked out of curiosity why the Footloose Forester was in the Republic of the Comoros one year, they became doubly curious in the following years after Islamic fundamentalists hijacked a jet liner and crashed it into shallow water in the Comoros, only two hundred yards from the runway.  They may have wondered what he did for a living.  And how did he know that the US Embassy in Nairobi was still standing after an Al Qaeda attack in 1998, when most everyone else believed that the embassy was destroyed by a massive bomb?  How come he was working on the second floor of the US Embassy in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, a few years before another terrorist bomb at that American facility that was also attacked by Al Qaeda terrorists on that same day in 1998?  Where does he come up with the little details about the terrorist massacre inside St. Dominic’s Roman Catholic Church in Bahawalpur, Pakistan in 2001? 

Yes, if you ask, he might tell you a little something about the torching of the US Consulate building in Peshawar, Pakistan—the obscure building that was burned down by a mob.  And yes, he remembers being in Port-au-Prince on the day dictator Baby Doc Duvalier fled the country in 1986, and a few years later during drug war clashes between Haitian police and the army.  He also remembers watching the tracer bullets going off in every direction in the early morning hours during that version of a drug war.

His mother was particularly concerned because he always seemed to be walking into trouble. She may have thought that the Footloose Forester had a hand in fomenting unrest, because she already knew enough about his years during the war in Viet Nam; and a few other incidents during the 1965 war between Pakistan and India. In reality, however, most of the time the troubles started after he had left his footprints somewhere, wherever that somewhere was.

The Footloose Forester enjoyed the life of a traveler, so saw many places that most people never heard of.  But at times a few of those places were unstable or unsafe.  For example, it was so easy to get into a dangerous situation in border areas in Uganda and Kenya that we used to joke that if anyone was intent on suicide, all they had to do was to travel by road between Lodwar, Kenya and the Sudanese border.  The choices for those who wished to arrive alive at border outposts were: 1) go by chartered plane or: 2) stay home.  Even the popular tourist game parks in Africa were not always safe to visit.

At one time, a gang of thieves targeted tourist busses headed to Maasai Mara in SW Kenya, in anticipation of the annual wildebeest migration across the Mara River at the edge of the Serengeti Plain.  The thieves robbed every person and stripped their victims down to their underwear on three successive busses until the Kenyan government finally got the best of them. The Footloose Forester knows more than one story about Americans who came home in their underwear, including a neighbor in Nairobi who was stripped and robbed on a residential street only a few blocks from his house.  Luckily, the Footloose Forester himself never suffered that embarrassment. It was uncomfortable, however, sitting though a security lecture by the US Embassy Chief of Security in Kenya who assured a new comer, when she asked, if our middle-class neighborhoods were safe.  The man who gave her a re-assuring answer was that same Chief of Security, knowing full well that in his own neighborhood, a thief had recently held a knife at the neck of his own 10 year-old son.

By comparison, the Footloose Forester lost very little when a lone thief broke into his house in Pakistan; and again in Cape Verde.  In Haiti, a would-be thief attempted to saw through a locked gate outside their home in the quiet hills above Port-au-Prince, but the attempted break-in was discovered.  Thus, one learns to not leave valuables lying around in exposed places, even inside your own house.  Securing your person was possible to some degree, by not going into public wearing an expensive camera around your neck. Keeping your valuables safe was more problematical because the valuables themselves were targeted. Having them exposed only focused attention on them and on you-- as a likely mark. The Footloose Forester didn’t even wear a watch in public, thus leaving an extra doubt or two about the benefits of a robbery attempt on the part of the thieves. 

It was only by coincidence, however, that the Pakistani terrorists who held the Indian police at bay for almost a week in Bombay (now referred to as Mumbai) in 2008, landed at the Gateway to India arch where John Harper, Jerry Jensen and the Footloose Forester left their footprints on the steps leading from the water, some years earlier.


The Gates of India at Mumbai

One footprint that he wishes he never left was on a crowded street in Saigon in 1968.  During the second Viet Cong summer campaign following the infamous Tet Offensive, the daily mortar and rocket attacks on Saigon had everyone on edge. The Footloose Forester had already heard the news of a single 82mm mortar round that had killed an entirely family of ten, just a few blocks from where he worked.  Unfortunately, that second-story apartment was on one of the streets he traversed on his way home.  On his way home, there was no way to escape from the center of a traffic jam of bicycles, mopeds, and motor scooters. He was mortified, however; that he could not avoid the spot in the road where the elbow-to-elbow traffic forced him to come to a stop.  When he put his left foot down to maintain his balance on his Honda 50cc scooter, he felt the mushy remains of human brains, left there after the attack.  It was the kind of story he did not relish repeating to anyone, for many years to come.  The memory of that dreaded footprint came after the trouble.  He was nonetheless puzzled why somebody did not try to clean it up, but they did not.  Sometimes the cultural attitudes in various countries became clearly evident, but sometimes they did not.

For example, it became clear that, in Haiti, when a thief met his maker at the scene of a crime, the official police policy was to let the body (or bodies) remain on the ground where the thieves fell.  More than once the Footloose Forester witnessed the body of a thief lying dead on the street, with a bullet hole or two in him. The police wanted to make an example for others that crime did not pay.  It was particularly gruesome to see the bodies of two thieves lying directly in front of the door of a busy market in his neighborhood.  Customers were obliged to step around them for two or three days, until the authorities relented.

Finally, the Footloose Forester is haunted by the memory of St. Dominic’s Roman Catholic Church in Bahawalpur, Pakistan.  He often left his footprints on the plain floor covering in the main body of the church that had only 3-4 pews.  He preferred to kneel and sit on the floor with the other Pakistani parishioners, rather than to project an image of entitlement by choosing a pew for comfort.  They all sat on the floor, so he did, too. It was a good way to learn a lesson in humility, by feeling the discomfort. The haunting memory, however, is linked to the horrific massacre of 18 Protestant worshipers inside St. Dominic’s in 2001, when Islamic fundamentalists linked to the Pakistani Taliban used automatic weapons to vent their anger at both Pakistani Christians and the American missionaries who built the church.  The terrorist group stated that they were angry with the United States for a bombing raid in Afghanistan.  We now know that Pakistani Taliban supporters were active even back in 2001.

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