Michael's Dispatches

The Greedy Ones

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June 16, 2006

The Ghats of Varanasi, India.

It came from Poland, a message, via e-mail—zzzppt. They were searching for her, a woman with whom I had recently made friends of the sort one finds while traveling abroad in wild nations. She had disappeared. The investigators had found my contact information in her hotel room.

We’d first met while having breakfast at a guesthouse in India, perched high, overlooking the Ganges River. I had carefully selected the place to watch the goings-on down at the river. It so happened that she was sitting at the next table, speaking English, but with an accent that I recognized as Polish. I had lived in Poland for nearly two years and had picked up some of the language along the way.

When I heard her accent at the next table, I issued my best stuttering Polish.

“Dzien dobry pani,” I said with a smile.
“Ah,” she answered, “You speak Polish? But you are American, yes?”
“How did you know?”
“I heard you speaking with the waiter. Where have you learned Polish? Your parents are from Poland?”
“No, no,” long story, “May I ask if you are traveling, or perhaps you are on vacation?” I liked her from the first minute, and soon realized that I was in the company of a special person, the kind who might make a friend should time and circumstance permit.

But as we talked, The Greedy Ones were plotting to kill her, me, anyone they did not like, and for the most selfish reasons imaginable. Their motives are mostly not political and most of The Greedy Ones probably cannot even find the USA on a map, and many think that Israel is a giant country, one of the biggest in the world, when the whole caboodle weighs half of Los Angeles. I’ve met people of this persuasion who think Israel is as big as China, India, the United States, or the whole of Europe when in fact Israel doesn’t even have room for a backyard.

The political agenda, for many, is merely a façade or cliché. The murderers are so brainwashed that they actually believe, should they die while attacking, they will do so without judgment, and sit with their god, and be given seventy-two dark-eyed virgins. The murderers are so brainwashed that they actually believe that after their first drop of blood is spilled, they will feel no pain, and they will gain immortality. They were not plotting as brave martyrs but as evil, greedy cowards murdering for profit. What courage does it take for a man to murder people when he believes that he will gain the world, immortality, and seventy-two dark-eyed virgins in the bargain? “Martyrdom” is just “murderdom” and takes less than an ounce of courage, and this only after pounds of brainwashing have suffocated any vestige of rational thought The Greedy Ones might ever have possessed.

Mother River: Dawn on the Ganges — Hindus taking ablutions in Ganga Ma, or Mother Ganges.

So, while we were sitting, getting to know each other between sips of tea, The Greedy Ones were dreaming of virgins and premeditating the simultaneous murder of as many innocent civilians as the laws of physics would allow.

Through conversation, we discovered our mutual plans to travel to Katmandu, Nepal, and it happened that we took a bus there on the same day. The airplanes had been canceled due to the outbreak of civil war in Nepal, so the next-best way into that country was a cramped and dusty two days by bus.

North, into the Himalayas.

We arrived in Katmandu and had a few lunches and dinners together. The last time I saw her was when I was forced to cancel a dinner date in Katmandu, having had no idea it was our last chance to talk.


She went her way and I went walking. Hundreds of miles of walking. In the Himalayas, up, up, up to 18,000 feet and then down, down, down around the Annapurna, and then over and up, up, up to Everest. The guerrillas in Nepal were sometimes robbing trekkers but were said to be giving receipts for cash or cameras so that victims could recover insurance money.

Monkey monitors bridge traffic in northern India.

We live in a very strange world. Armed guerrillas stopped me only once and they were friendly, at least to me. Eventually, I departed for Tibet to continue the journey, then up to China and back to India and over to France and then back to my beloved Florida.

Bomb in Baquba, near where the terrorist Zarqawi was killed [photographer unknown].

And then zzzppt, it came from Poland, a message, an e-mail, they were searching for her. The message explained that my email address was found in her hotel room in Bali, Indonesia. I had seen the news. Roughly 200 people had been killed in a bombing, dozens yet were missing. Most of the victims were Australian.

The news stirred my memories—perhaps she had told me something in passing that would help find her, somewhere unexpected, but safe. She had said she was a writer for the Gazette Wyborza, which I knew to be a large Polish newspaper, and I had told her about this book-in-the-making, and she’d said that she would like to read it. As it happened, she was also writing a book, about a search for true love, and I saw on the internet that she had already written books. She talked about her Japanese boyfriend, who she missed. It was apparent that her book on true love was somehow autobiographical, but I was unable to sort out how. Perhaps it was about a true love she once had but lost, or maybe it was about a love that was blossoming now. Somehow, I suspected it was about one that she had longed for since kindergarten but had never found. And I remember that over the days she would talk about her book on true love, but her sensitive female eyes would perceive that my insensitive male ears had stopped working, and she would move on to other topics.

She disappeared in Bali. The Polish agency was asking what I knew, but I only knew from the e-mail that the chances of her being alive were diminishing by the hour. Yet, already one young Kiwi had been found in a hospital in Australia after loved ones had feared the worst while hoping for the best. His name was Dean McDougall and he had been evacuated from Bali to Australia, where he lay unable to speak while his friends back in Bali searched frantically. Parents from all over the world were flying to Bali with hope and dread in their hearts. And then Dean’s parents got the call from a doctor in Darwin. Their hope was rewarded. Their son was alive!

During detonation of high explosives, the shock front can move through the explosives at more than five miles per second. When the shock front finds air, the air becomes a giant hammer: a giant hypersonic hammer. But this is much more than hypersonic. Hypersonic is a mere five times the speed of sound. This hammer starts at closer to twenty-five times the speed of sound, making it hyper-hypersonic. Even if a nearby person is untouched by shrapnel the concussion from the air is more than lethal.

When the hypersonic hammer hits a person, their clothes are first to go. The person is stripped naked. All the clothes are gone, but the victims never know that they are naked for a millisecond before being ripped to pieces.

The shock front becomes a violent sphere of annihilation. Birds overhead are blown apart in flight. On the ground, walls become as shotguns. When the blast wave finds glass and shatters through it, the shards and shrapnel from disintegrated window frames are drawn into the current, adding a gruesome dimension of lethality. For those people far enough away from the seat of the blast to escape the deadly blows of the naked hammer, the bomb-makers leave plenty of work for the surgeons, who must dig out the hidden glass and whatever other debris, including bits of dead victims, that are shot into the living.

The blast wave speeds down the road, tearing up anything in its path and using it like bullets and cannonballs. Even the naked hammer knocks people flat. Some die without being struck by solids. They are found afterward without apparent injuries, dead from internal wounds, from blunt trauma by air. But most victims are hit with solid objects. At the edge of the blast wave, windows continue to shatter further down the road; more bodies are lacerated, punctured, and shot by glass and stone as the wall of air knocks them off their feet and heaves them into the rubble.

Further down the road, the hammer weakens, the hurtling objects lose energy as the wave releases its hold on the cloud of debris. The shock front quickly lessens, rattling walls but unable to rend them from their foundations, plates fall and shatter while ripened fruit drops from the shaken trees, and the front slows down to the speed of sound and rumbles harmlessly off into the night, delivering only the message that something big happened. Then comes the brief silence. Darkness.

Now they come. The thuds. Always the thuds. Thump…bmmp, brakkk, thudd. Some of the objects come down like meteorites, crashing through roofs, while others fall in a steady downpour, like the baseball-sized hailstorms in Tornado Alley. Large projectiles continue to rain down, some a kilometer away.

Back at the blast seat, the fireball has long gathered and mushroomed and there is only the smoke and crackling of fires and the screams of the wounded and gurgles of the dying. The sirens begin. And then the second blast and a new hammer is unleashed, and some victims are swept away while others fall naked and tangled.

Photograph taken by an unknown soldier in Baquba on a day when a car bomb killed about 70 people. Empty shoes can always be found after car bombs rip through victims, and normally the genitals of the terrorists remain intact.

The bait and ambush is a common terrorist tactic. The first bomb summons rescuers and crowds, the scene swells, concerned citizens rush in to see if their sons, or mothers, or sisters who worked there, or had appointments there, or had mentioned they might be stopping there, were in fact there, and were hurt. Just at the time when many are poised to help, the second device is timed to explode.

The Greedy Ones had done the same in Bali. They started with a small bomb and finished with the big one.

I began searching the web for a list of casualties yet found nobody from Poland under the killed, injured, or missing. Even if she were missing, there was still a chance that she was in a hospital, or had been somewhere else. Perhaps on a boat?

Days, weeks, months flipped by, but the news seemed to remain the same. The static nature of the reports masked the substantial but stealthy efforts ongoing in Bali. A more powerful hammer had arrived when determined and skilled investigators descended upon the rubble pile and The Greedy Ones were rooted out and jailed, their names shamed for eternity and not worthy of mention here.

The Aussies know how to get things done like few others can, and in addition to the investigation it was reported that teams of Australian doctors were similarly engaged in an astonishing display of the advances in medical science and the power of the healing arts. Lives that would have ended were saved. Shattered limbs that would have been amputated were mended. Victims blasted into comas began to emerge into a tentative consciousness.

Maybe she had made it after all.

I e-mailed back and forth with the organization in Poland and kept asking.


I had been regularly checking some survivor and deceased lists but never saw her name, and none of the lists showed anyone from Poland as being killed in the bombing. More months passed, and one article said that twenty-two countries had lost people in the attack, and there was another list showing that our friends the Aussies had lost eighty-three, our brothers in the United Kingdom twenty-two, Sweden nine. We lost seven.

Finally came the reply from the agency that she had been found. Finally, there it was on a list: Poland 1. Just a number. But I never saw her name until much later, and somehow that distressed me. Her name was Beata Pawlak and I read that she had been the last to be identified, and I also read that Beata had been on assignment to find the roots of terrorism.

True love.

I wondered if Beata had been thinking of him that night in Bali. I suppose that nobody will ever read her book or know her secret.



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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Alexander Jenner · 9 years ago
    A sad story told with clarity. The way you describe the effects of a bomb's blast wave brings it to life as though one were there. Thanks for writing, people are reading.

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