Tuesday, April 15, 2008

All the Presidents' Men

The first thing I heard was whistling and shouting. My friend Tony and I had gone for a Sunday cycle ride, enjoying the empty roads and beautiful weather. Now suddenly we were in trouble: all around there were dozens of disembodied voices calling and whistling at myself and Tony to stop. Tony was about 100 metres ahead, and being hard of hearing, he continued jauntily on his way. I paused, looking around me, but couldn't see anything beyond the school playing fields, and the empty road. Suddenly a yellow beret appeared out of the grass, and an AK machine gun was waved to signal me to cross the road and get closer. I couldn't actually see the face of the soldier, but the yellow beret denotes the Presidential Guard.

Uh oh. I hadn't heard the news and was wondering if something serious had happened, or, more likely, that they thought I was up to something serious. I shouted across the road "What's the matter?" But there was no response, just lots of rustling in the long grass, as I envisioned army snipers jostling each other to get the best fix on me.

Heart thudding, I considered the options. Tony was leading the way and I had no idea where our destination was. State House, the official presidential residence, was just around the corner, and there was no where to turn off. Obviously there was some security situation going on. But you can't stop. Stop your car, stop your bus, stop your bike, and you risk being arrested, threatened or even beaten. My friend's car had burst into flames near State House and she was ordered to push it out of the way, at gunpoint. This is not the place to be indecisive.

I continued on my way, cautiously. Around the corner another guard waved his AK to beckon me towards him. I paused, as a car was coming, and called out "What's wrong?" "This way, come over here - you must use the cycle path," he responded. I crossed the road and went down the cycle path, which, ironically, runs directly beneath the wall of State House. At the next set of traffic lights, the guards asked me to go across the lights and wait for Tony (who had been taken in for questioning - but that's another story) a few blocks away. The lights were red, and I was asked why I was stopping. I couldn't tell who was more nervous - the soldiers, or me. A nervous soldier is not someone you can take lightly.

Only a few months ago I had cycled this very route before and called out greetings to the guards, who had taken their hands off their semi-automatics to wave and wish me a good morning. Now if even a cricket started to sing, it would be instantly drowned out by the loud click of a dozen rifles being cocked.

As I paused for traffic at the median strip, a voice barked: "Go away! You can't wait here! The Old Man is coming." Ah, well, that explains everything.