SURINAM: IN DUTCH, OUT OF TOUCH
By Rosa Jordan
In These Times, May 24-June 6, 1989
It is tedious to spend the first few moments in a new country standing in line while immigration officials squint at passports as if the print is smudged, the signature forged, and the photography resembles that of a well-known terrorist.
But when I got off the boat in Suriname, there was no line. Passengers entered a barren room where an MP barked one name at a time, asked questions, and played squint-at-the-passport.
I did not take the jackboot approach for the warning it should have been. Like most North Americans, I traveled with the mistaken assumption that I knew where I was going and was well informed enough to know what to expect when I got there. My research on Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana) indicated that I would find most of its fewer than one million people living in coastal towns surrounded by rice paddies and sugar plantations. The nation’s vast jungle hinterland apparently did not appeal to anyone except native Amerindians and Bush Negroes (the latter being descendants of runaway slaves).
When my name was called, I explained that I planned to spend a few days in the capital, Paramaribo, then would go o to the eastern border town of Albina and catch a boat on to French Guiana.
“Too many tourists in Albina,” growled one soldier. “Take a plane.”
I concealed my hostility to the authoritarian tone and planned to ignore the advice.
Paramaribo is an exceptionally nice place if you like Dutch colonial architecture, meticulous cleanliness, and superb Indonesian-East Indian-African creole food. But a few hours into my first morning the pleasure of having discovered such a lovely, inexpensive, and untouristed city was interrupted by a sharp, “Nay!”
A soldier approached, wagging his finger at me, indicating that it was not allowed to do what I was doing, which was sitting on the sea wall. I moved on. Moments later, I saw a ferryboat that looked photogenic. But before I could snap the shutter, another soldier materialized and indicated that if I did this subversive thing, my camera would be confiscated.
I knew Surinam had had a military coup in 1980 and that, under pressure from the Dutch, elections had been held in 1987. A new president had been installed, by which I supposed Suriname had returned to civilian government. I was beginning to suspect that it was the classic situation whereby a democratically elected president gets the office while the military keeps the power.
In any case, Paramaribo under military “order” was not nearly as inviting as a city of such innate charm should have been, so I decided to continue to Albina.
I asked several people for directions to Albina, but got no response except “Nay” or a shake of the head. Did this mean that there was no bus, that they didn’t know what I was asking, or that they didn’t know how to reach a town that was only 100 kilometers away? I gave up asking directions and went looking for a taxi, confident that any cabdriver’s English would be better than my Dutch.
But when I flagged down the first one and asked how much the two-hour trip would cost, he astonished me by saying, “Nay, nay. It’s hot in Albina now. Tourists make too much trouble.”
When I said to the next cabdriver, “Take me to Albina,” he laughed. “Well, maybe dey let you pass, but me, I black, same as Bush Negro. The military call me tourist and I don’t go nowhere for sure.”
Suddenly my ear fine-tuned the “taki-taki” English spoken here, and I realized that the word I had been hearing as “tourists” was actually “terrorists.”
“What terrorists?” I asked carefully.
“Well, de military call all dem Bush Negroes terrorists. But de Bush Negroes, dey fighting for all of us, ‘cause dey don’t want the military same as nobody don’t want de military. We can’t fight; we be killed for sure. Dem fight and run to de bush; don’t most of ‘em be caught. Only if dey be caught dey be killed and dey towns like Albina be burn to de ground. Das why all deese refugees be here in Paramaribo. You don’t never see dat befo’ because Bush Negroes, dey don’t like de city; dey don’t work for no man but deyself.”
As it turned out, the guest house where I was staying had given over one whole wing to refugee families. I had seen Rotary Club buses coming to pick up the children of families crowded into rooms there, part of a pattern toward the Bush Negroes for reasons soon explained to me by a number of people. Almost everyone viewed the Bush Negroes as people who were, as the taxi driver had put it, “fighting our fight.”
Many of the people in Paramaribo believed that the revolt carried out by the Bush Negroes was because it was easier for them to operate under cover of the jungle which they knew so well. But a Dutchman I met offered another explanation.
“These Bush Negroes, they don’t give a flip who is in power as long as you leave them alone,” he said. “Bush Negroes do some light smuggling—cigarettes, canned goods, stuff like that—across the river from French Guiana; have done for years. The army decided to put a stop to it. Now, it’s women who do the smuggling, and you’d think the stupidest person in the world would figure out that if you start hassling Bush Negro women, you’re going to have trouble with Bush Negro men. But the army was too dumb to figure that out, and now they’ve got a full-scale revolution on their hands.”
“What about the Amerindians?” I asked.
The Dutchman cast me a sideways glance. “Ask my wife. She’s Amerindian.”
“Amerindians and Bush Negroes have always gotten along,” she said evasively. “There’s enough room in the jungle for everybody.”
“Amerindians don’t like to fight, but the military drafted some into this Delta Force, they call it. They use Amerindians to track Bush Negroes in the jungle, because your ordinary soldier, he can’t do that.” She paused. “You understand, there’s nothing an Amerindian can’t find in the jungle if it’s there. She paused again, but at her husband’s look, continued in a soft voice. “Where my parents live, last September two soldiers came by in a tank on their way from one base to another. For no reason they blew up the village. An eighteen-year-old girl and her baby, asleep in a hammock, were killed. The papers say there will be a trial, but who knows? So now some Amerindians are joining the Bush Negroes.”I decided to pay a visit to one of Suriname’s famous nature reserves, perhaps the 149,000-acre Raleigh Falls reserve deep in the wild interior, or Brownsberg, a pristine rainforest reserve not far from the capital.
But Anita, the woman in charge of tours to the reserves, explained that the facilities had been burned in Raleigh Falls, and Brownsberg had been declared off limits because the area was, according to the military, “controlled by terrorists.”
Anita sensed my frustration at getting to see no more of Suriname than the narrow cultivated strip along the coast and took me to meet Edward. Edward, she explained, was a 37-year-old veteran of the forestry service, a man of Jewish-African-Dutch-Amerindian descent. “In other words,” she laughed, “Edward is pure Surinamese.”
Edward volunteered to use his forestry pass to take us into the off-limits rainforest.
“What about the terrorists?” I asked.
“Dat a military word,” Edward said scornfully. “Don’t mean nothing to us.”
On the way we passed a train overturned beside the tracks, with tall grass growing through its windows. According to my guidebook, Suriname had but one train, a steam engine relic built in 1904.
“Dat’s it.” Edward jerked his thumb at the overturned train. “Murdered.”
“Who? The engineer?”
“De train.” The old forester sighed. “Soldiers not de smartest people. Dey want to inspect de train for Bush Negroes, so dey yell ‘Halt!’ De crew put on de brake, but train no stop on de spot like a car. It got to run on a few meters. Soldiers get mad at train ‘cause it still moving and start shootin’ with dem machine guns. De crew get bullets in dey legs, but de train she shot plumb to death; don’t never run again.”
As someone who lived in a media-obsessed nation, subscribed to alternative publications, had an interest in foreign affairs, and carried an expensive, up-to-date travel guide, why had I not heard that there was an armed struggle going on in Suriname?
“I didn’t know there was a war here,” I said crossly.
Anita looked at me, puzzled. “Why would anybody in the US care? It’s only our people being hurt.” There was an embarrassed silence. Then she added, “You’re a tourist; you came here to have a good time. Don’t think about it.”
Edward pushed his spectacles up on his nose and smiled. “Suriname don’t have it so bad. Where the US fixin’ things, lotta more people getting’ killed.”