(This was originally written as a guest column for The Beijinger, but the censors apparently didn’t find it as funny as I did, and it didn’t make it into print.)
Brendan O’Kane, The Beijinger‘s new war correspondent, contributed this piece while in Beijing on vacation from his regular posting in Baghdad.
[DATELINE: FEBRUARY 13, 2010]
Beijing is under attack.
Low-grade munitions detonate all around the city every few seconds, the noise coming first from a few meters overhead and then from all around you as the sound slaps back and forth off of concrete, walls, overpasses, the inside of your ears.
It is everywhere, and I phone my local source to say I don’t know if I’ll be able to make it out of the bunker-like apartment block where I am staying. My calls drop as China Mobile’s circuits fill with people frantically calling loved ones, and when at last we are connected we have to shout over the explosions. All evening I have been receiving text messages in Chinese. I cannot read them, but the exclamation marks suggest that they are warnings – or threats.
Strewn across my bed are the things that will keep me alive on my way to dinner: a bulletproof vest; American dollars for bribing my way past checkpoints; a hijab. My source encouraged me to wear red underpants — “so that bad things will not happen,” she added ominously — and so I lay out a pair of these as well. I came to Beijing expecting a restful, relaxing stay that would wash away the horrors of Basra; Qala-i-Jangi; Newark – and indeed, all seemed calm when I landed here last night.
I awoke this morning to pandemonium as inscrutable to me as the ideographs scrolling across the television screen. Amazingly, state media provides no coverage of the blasts that must surely be audible within broadcast headquarters, opting instead to air slick televised galas showcasing perfectly coiffed, unnaturally grinning celebrities who have presumably refused to take sides in the conflict that threatens now to level China’s capital.
I risk a peek out the window. Outside, the air fills with chemicals loosed from the primitive cardboard tubes of gunpowder, strontium nitrate, barium chloride, and cryolite that young children run around with in their clenched fists as their parents look on approvingly.
It is difficult at first to make out what is happening, but as I speak to locals – none of whom will give me more than their surnames – a picture begins to emerge: the firefights are seasonal, having occurred at roughly the same time each year for as long as anybody can remember. Beijing had avoided the heavy shelling typical in other regions until February 2006, when civilians all across the capital first took up arms; every winter since then has seen the violence return as predictably as the spring that follows it. Last year, insurgents succeeded in burning down one of the newly built China Central Television buildings, scoring a propaganda coup for their cause. What cause that may be, however, is far from clear: when I ask locals what the fighting is all about, they only look back at me blankly.
My source has invited me to dinner in the very heart of Beijing, and I have accepted, reasoning that the hutong alleys that wind like snarls of yarn through the old parts of the city must surely be safe. It is also a late dinner, 11 PM, and with any luck the streets should have cleared – or been cleared – by then. I have been told that young people will be out on the streets, possibly for some kind of peace rally.
Outside I notice an acrid, quite literally mephitic odor, and gunpowder smoke stings my eyes. I hunch over, careful to make myself inconspicuous, but almost instantly a string of explosions goes off next to me. “Marg bar Amrika,” I shout reflexively. A burly, crew-cut man nearby shoves a tube of gunpowder at me, along with a cigarette to light it. I break into a run, not daring to look behind me, and manage to flag down a cab. “Drive!” I shout. “Drive!” The driver looks at me strangely, and I wonder what side he’s on. He doesn’t move until I thrust the map in front of him, my destination circled: the square between the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower, where surely even the most depraved terrorist would not dream of setting off explosives. He floors it, and as we tear through the burning streets of Beijing, I realize with a sinking feeling that I am wearing completely normal underwear.
War is hell.