Tag Archives: Borneo

War is over… not quite yet

You hear it everywhere as we approach this time of year – in the shopping malls, on the radio, the optimistic crooning from John and Yoko’s classic: “War is over, if you want it”. Seems like we don’t want it, or not enough anyway.

I don’t think there’s been a time in recorded history when someone, somewhere hasn’t been fighting, killing someone else. Some months ago the British Army thought 2015 might be the first year in a century when it wouldn’t be involved in a conflict somewhere. With events in Syria, Iraq and Iran unfolding as they are, that hope looks less likely by the day.

Iraqi Freedom

Image courtesy of soldiersmediac

It’s easy to get war fatigue, to throw up one’s hands in despair and tune out of it all. For me, it’s the civilians caught up in war, especially the children, who haunt me most. Here’s an extract from my novel Francesca, shortly after the heroine’s home town of Dili, capital of East Timor, was invaded by the Indonesian army just before Christmas 1975…

“Checking for soldiers, she set off along the street. With her awkward gait and instinctive caution, progress was slow. She took the back streets, avoiding the main thoroughfares where troops were most likely to be combing through houses. Halfway down the street adjacent to hers a kampong dog, its curled tail high up in the air, stood in the middle of the road gorging on a corpse whose entrails had been ripped open by machine gun fire. Pieces of flesh flicked out from the dog’s greedy mouth and when it glanced up at her she saw its entire snout was covered in bright red gore. The dog stared her down, reluctant to abandon such a feast. Enraged, Francesca reached down, picked up a stone from the gutter and hurled it at the animal as hard as she could. The stone struck the beast square on the shoulders and it jumped with a sharp yelp, scurrying away from the corpse as Francesca reached for another stone. It was a futile symbolic gesture, she knew, the dog would return to finish off its grisly meal the moment she was gone, but she had needed to do something to take a stand against the horror unfolding all around her.
She continued her shuffle in a broad northerly direction through the routes she knew so well. There was an eerie quiet to these normally bustling back alley ways and side streets. Shops were either boarded up or spilt open, their contents looted by the invaders who could only carry so much and had discarded the rest. Where were all the inhabitants? The machine guns had kept up their sporadic firing ever since she had left her house, presumably shooting at someone. She wanted to bang on the shutters to see if anyone was inside, to find out what was going on, but she knew she couldn’t.

Eventually, she reached an alleyway that led out onto the harbour and she stopped, her heart racing in terror. An Indonesian platoon was directly in front of her, less than fifty yards away, marching at double time to the command of an NCO jogging along at the side. Rifles were shouldered, as the troops struggled to keep up the pace whilst hauling their bulky packs. Darting under a set of wooden steps, Francesca waited for the soldiers to pass, convinced she would be spotted. She tucked her head under her arms and crouched herself into a ball, desperately making herself as inconspicuous as possible, even though the stance was agony for her injured body. She heard the steady rhythm of the platoon as it pounded by almost on top of her, two dozen pairs of rubber soled boots slamming down on the dusty road overlaid by the metallic rattle of loose magazines and mess tins. So this was what invasion sounded like, this was what it meant to be embraced into the fold of mother Indonesia. Her thoughts turned to her own mother, and tears welled up from her heart. Perhaps she was looking over Francesca right now, guiding her hand, willing her to make good decisions, seeing her through to safety. Out of habit, she fingered the tiny silver crucifix around her neck, astonished now she thought of it that none of the soldiers had seen to rip it from her throat. She would keep it as a talisman, the only touchstone she had in a world gone crazy.”

Excerpt copyright 2014 Donald Finnaeus Mayo

You can buy a copy of Francesca here

Character Sketches 5: Reverend Ron Milliner

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Photo by frozen chipmunk

What does it take to winkle a senior evangelical pastor out of a prosperous small town American church and drop him in the middle of the inhospitable Borneo jungle? And what on earth is he going to do with himself when he gets there?

Could it be the humiliation of being left by his wife, Patti, awakened from her little woman persona by the radical feminism of the early 1970s? Or a sense of degeneration from a life that had become too complacent, too easy? Or disillusionment with the public morals of American life in the wake of Nixon’s resignation? Or the alienation of his children over his inability to accept their views on the Vietnam war and the sexual revolution?

There’s probably something in each one of these catalysts. Whatever the reason, 53 year old Ron Milliner finds himself abandoning his comfortable life to run a primitive mission station in a tiny kampong kissing the Equator, a good five mile hike from the nearest link to civilisation, a camp run by one of the American oil companies.

Ron is not the only one bringing his truth to the villagers. He faces stiff competition for their hearts and minds from the oil and logging companies, with their easy money and western vices. They may be happy to kit Ron out with the medicines he needs, but has he forgotten that out here there’s a price for everything? Neither will he be allowed to forget the spectre of the communists, ruthlessly purged by Suharto’s troops, their survivors hiding in the shadows.

Will Ron be able to overcome the physical challenges, the leeches, the snakes, the oppressive climate, the physical deprivations, to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to the people of the jungle? Or will the sheer enormity of it overwhelm him and eventually dull his evangelical zeal? One thing’s for sure; the people to whom he ministers are not the only ones who will be forever marked and changed by the experience.

Character Sketches 4: Doubting Eddie

Photo by expertinfantry

There are times when thinking too much can get you into more trouble than not thinking at all. So it proved with Eddie Vanderberg, former US Army helicopter pilot and current paramour of Amanda Cole.

Brought up in the American Mid West as the son of academics, Eddie grew up questioning everything around him. When contemporaries were being drafted into the Vietnam War, Eddie neither accepted his fate nor dodged the draft. In what he later came to see as a half assed piece of adolescent nonsense, he decided instead to volunteer for flying training with the US Army.

Flying hundreds of missions in Bell Hueys he managed to survive the war, but not without deep emotional scars accompanied by a profound sense of alienation from his country. He despised the ignorance of people who called him a hero, and yet failed to connect with others who had condemned the war. Eddie’s not even sure the war was all good or all bad; as with everything he has his doubts.

With his services no longer required by the military, Eddie took his flying skills back to Asia to find work with the oil companies who ferried equipment and personnel out to offshore rigs and into inhospitable jungle clearings. Increasingly he is disturbed by the emptiness of his life; the boozing with his fellow pilots, the occasional recreational drugs, the loose women, the long working hours punctuated by bouts of R&R in Singapore, Bangkok or Manila.

Image by Mr. Q

Image by Mr. Q

In Amanda Eddie sees the chance to escape the future of a broken down, debauched expatriate. For the first time in years, he is alive to the possibility of something approaching a normal life. And would that be such a bad thing? Eddie realises he has nothing against the American Dream per se, it was the fact everyone assumed he should want it that stuck in his throat.

Eddie is ready to come in from being “out there” in so many ways. He is mesmerised by Amanda’s innocence, but he also has a respect for it that holds him back. It’s not her fault, he reasons, that he got himself messed up over Vietnam, and a part of him feels it’s not right to lay that burden upon her. Amanda, for her part, has no such reservations…

Francesca – Genesis of an idea

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It’s easy to forget just how different the world was back in the mid 1970s, when Francesca was set. No mobile phones, no internet, no Starbucks on every street corner. Easier, too, for dictators to keep a lid on their shenanigans. You could take out a town, empty a region of its population without any fear of pesky demonstrators posting evidence of your atrocities on youtube for all the world to see and condemn.

So it’s hardly surprising the Indonesian invasion of East Timor passed me by, even though I was living in the region at the time, an expat teenager whose father worked in the oil business. The local media was strictly censored, whilst foreign correspondents who might have kicked up a fuss were for the most part unable to access the place. Besides, who was interested in what was going on in a backwater most people had never heard of?

It wasn’t until the early 1990s that I encountered East Timor again. I was doing some volunteer work for Amnesty International in London, and kept coming across all these cases from the conflict. The more I looked into them, the more shocked I became, compounded by the more shocking revelation that I had been in Indonesia when this tiny country was gobbled up by its neighbour and large parts of its population annihilated.

Several hundred miles away our lives continued in their cocooned luxury, oblivious to what Suharto’s soldiers were doing. No one mentioned it, no one spoke out, no one did anything that might upset the cosy relationship between the Indonesian government and the western oil companies. Everyone was making money, and besides Indonesia was on our side, a bulwark against communism.

It was the discovery of these parallel worlds that inspired me to write Francesca. In particular, I was interested in people who straddled both, the ones with the fullest picture. Naturally, they would all be invented characters, but that is the freedom and the joy of fiction. As they took on their own lives, they created their own dramas, sorrows, joys, tragedies and triumphs. Out of all this Francesca was born.

Francesca will be published in September 2013 by Betimes Books

www.betimesbooks.com