Continued from The Yagé Posts, Part II

PASTO, Colombia — As the night progressed, I spent a lot of time waiting for the dawn, thinking and staring into the fires. I was freezing because the poncho I had borrowed was too small, having been designed for a child, so I huddled as close to the embers as I could. When you’re physically and mentally exhausted, there are few things so soothing as watching a fire, feeling its heat and settling into the warmth of other human beings doing the same thing. The coals in the heart of the blaze glowed like quartz crystals lit from within, and the occasional crack of a log sent sparks spiraling into the black sky, rivaling the fireworks from earlier.

Given the shamanistic trappings of the ceremony, it was impossible not to chew over the nature of religion. And as I soaked up the warmth and the dim glow of the fire, which pushed back the night, I thought, wasn’t all religion just an overly ornamented evolution of fire worship? For it was fire that first gave our species comfort against the cold, light against the darkness, a giver of both life and death. It was capricious and cruel in how it could burn us and yet it was also our salvation against the savagery of raw nature. Listening to Taita Morales’ Cofán growls, I drew my poncho around me as best I could and turned away from the darkness. Read More

Continued from The Yagé Posts, Part I

PASTO, Colombia — … I had been warned by accounts on the Internet that drinking this would mean a long night of vomiting, purging, and possibly terrifying hallucinations. Taita Lorenzo Morales, who appeared to be the most respected of the shamans in the group, in a prayer before the ceremony had instructed us all to think on God. Victoria said it would save me 10 years of therapy. Håkon, a Norwegian psychiatrist friend, said I would need therapy afterwards.

Finally, after an eternity — lasting maybe two seconds — I did what I usually do when faced with fear squatting in my stomach. “Fuck it,” I said, and drank down the tiny cup as deeply as I could.

It was possibly the most vile stuff I’ve ever consumed. Not only did it look like and have the texture of crude oil, it tasted like it had been recently drilled from the Athabasca Oil Sands of Canada. I gagged and immediately reached for the tin cup of water to the side, trying desperately to either wash the taste out of my mouth or at least down my throat where I couldn’t taste it anymore. And then, I waited. Read More

PASTO, Colombia — As I gazed into the little white plastic cup of dark chocolate-colored, viscous liquid, I felt the familiar grip of terror in my gut. This was yagé, also known as ayahuasca, the Amazonian root used in shamanistic ceremonies and brought to the world’s attention by that great drug hound, William Burroughs in his book with Allen Ginsburg, “The Yage Letters“.

As the Cofán shaman blew strongly over the cup, I took those few seconds to contemplate how I had managed to find myself here. And it had been a long, strange trip, indeed. After more than a year on the road, from Bangkok to Bogotá, my friend Victoria Fontan, whom I had met in Iraq almost a decade ago, was in Colombia and asked me over Facebook if I wanted to take part in a yagé ceremony. Read More

BOGOTÁ, Colombia—Two years ago yesterday, I was awakened in Islamabad by an editor in Singapore calling me at 6 a.m. to tell me President Obama was going to make an announcement about Osama bin Laden.

“What is it?” I asked blearily.

“That he’s been killed,” he said, and waited a beat. “In Pakistan.” Read More

Eight years ago today, the world lost a humane and human voice for those who often have none—the civilian victims of conflicts. Marla Ruzicka, my friend, was killed in a car bomb on the airport road in Baghdad while a group of journalists waited for her at the Hamra Hotel. This is what I wrote a few days later, after the shock had set in:

BAGHDAD — Even now, I have a hard time believing that she’s gone.

Marla Ruzicka died Saturday, April 16 when a suicide car bomber blew up his car next to hers in an apparent attack on a nearby civilian convoy on Airport Road in Baghdad. She was 28.

Marla was a friend of mine here in Bagh­dad. She was a match­maker, a social hub and the heart of our journo-​tribe, both here and in Afghanistan, although she wasn’t a jour­nal­ist. She was known and loved — Sometimes through gritted teeth, admittedly — by the majority of Baghdad, it seems. Every­one knew Marla.

That’s because Marla made it her busi­ness to be known. She was tire­less and ubiq­ui­tous in her work, which was to get com­pen­sa­tion for Iraqi vic­tims of war from the U.S. mil­i­tary. She confronted, cajoled, flirted with and — more often than not — convinced generals, diplomats and politicians that Iraqi civilians were worthy of remembrance and that the U.S. had a responsibility to the families of those killed or injured by American munitions.

It was the height of the Iraq War, when the insurgency was growing in intensity by the day. Losing Marla was a shocking blow to all of us who cared about her and the civilian casualties her organization, CIVIC, worked for. Today, her successor organization, The Center for Civilians in Conflict, is active in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Pakistan, Somalia and Syria—putting people on the ground to work with victims to bring their stories to the leaders and generals who often see the people in harm’s way as unfortunate “collateral damage.” They operate at great personal risk in some cases, and her organization offers a moral howl against the thoughtless killing and maiming of non-combatants. It is, of course, a tragic irony that Marla herself was such a victim, and it was a great loss for campaigners for human rights.

If you care at all about those killed, maimed, displaced or otherwise innocently affected by today’s conflicts, I urge you to donate to help the Center.

You aren’t forgotten, Marla.