Photograph by Siegfried Modola, Story by Chris Wright
It was hard, to be the first one to go back. But it had to be him.
It would be understating things to call it smoky. This was a smoke that covered everything, every direction, every part and every particle of the air. Its depth and extent could not be guessed at, for Satya could not see further than the shape of his own hand; it was a matter of faith and habit that he still had feet, for he certainly couldn’t see them.
The only clue that he was on water was the plash of the paddle when he rowed, the sense of wobbling drift beneath him. He couldn’t see the surface, nor the tiny canoe’s tapered wooden bow. Raw and sharp smoke penetrated his facecloth and cooked his lungs. His eyes emptied but the streams that came from them evaporated swiftly in the heat.
Still, a shape ahead, an impression: it must be the bank, where the village had been. Satya was practically upon it when the shape of the land became clear, though even then, it was a smudge, a relative darkness among air that was already dark and thick. The canoe made contact with the bank. He placed a hand upon it, but was tentative, fearing it might still be burning; it was hot, scorching in fact, but there was no flame. Just smoke.
He climbed on to the bank and rushed to put the soles of his shoes between his body and the land, though still heat rose about his shins. Insofar as he could, he looked around; shapes of stumps were apparent in the sooty gloam. It was all gone. Everything was gone.
At this end of the chain, the charred and shattered end, this was how things worked. The man from the buyer who came to this side of the river from time to time paid the best money for palm oil, and so people planted palms; but the man with the money who came with him, to lend cash to buy the crops, charged so very much for the lending, and it had to be paid back when he said so, and palms have to grow for three years before they bear fruit. So, when the money man came back carrying empty bags and threats, what would you do, when the fruit was not yet lusty on the palms, and there was no money to pay him back? You would burn more land, to plant more palms, so the money man would see there was a plan to grow and pay and then maybe he wouldn’t hurt the children like he said. And if the land belonged to a neighbour, or was one of those places people said was old jungle that shouldn’t be burned, well, what was the greater need?
Nobody meant for it to get out of hand like this. When the fire playfully leapt the breaks and they knew there were seconds to abandon, the people got across the river in the boats, some suspended from the sides, hanging on even when they took a flat oar in the face, or contorting their bodies to try not to drift into the spinning blades on the outboard at the back of the longboats. But the monkeys! The monkeys were jumping into the river. Monkeys can’t swim. Fire bickered in the tips, spread cracking and hateful in the trunks. And above it all, that very human screaming of a burning orang-utan, frantic in the canopy, too mobile and immense to die quickly.
Trudging over venting heat-gorged peat he was forever unleashing pockets of trapped fire until his heels were scorched and cracking, crackling. The ground was whistling, farting, belching super-heated air through glops of baking mulch. Not much else was clear: just the agony of burned earth. But as he made progress from the riverbank, retching, blinded in the smoke, eventually shapes made some little sense. The cracked cinderblock of homes and stores, roofless now, and odd survivors of the furnace: coins, a grill, the best pot, wherein they made rendang for eid. Anything stone was right where it used to be, the fire no more than a flicker in a billion years of static observation, but what did you use stone for, today?
He could not know about the shifting weather fronts of opinion far from here, of pension funds and ESG principles, of Iceland supermarket ads where little girls talked to orphaned orang-utans about the evils of palm oil production. Here was a simplicity: crop, money, food. Get the best price and your kids don’t die of malnutrition. This was the smallholder end of things, where people didn’t speak of yields and technique but debt and survival. Satya was dimly aware of the vast producers who coordinated it all, would see the name Allied Sumatra on trucks and plantation gates, but what happened to the fruit after it left the trees was of no consequence to him, just the payment for the red and yellow flesh that left in bunches on the back of winded trucks, unsuited to what passed for a road here.
It was hard to imagine it now, but he knew there would be rebirth, of sorts: though the fire would have leached nutrition from the soil it would still, in time, nurse palms, and a village as rustic and unplanned as the last one would rise again in support of the modest plantation. Visits would resume from men wanting palm fruit bunches who would pay less because they pretended the fruit was overripe, and from others wanting to give money and then take back far, far more. As if in acknowledgement of his return, the smoke began to clear, and shapes emerged in sinister disorder. You’re back, Satya; welcome home.
The thought triggered a mix of emotions in him: confidence, acceptance, guilt. Because, as he made his uneasy way across the black scorch, something could not be forgotten: he was the one who had lit the fire.
Chris Wright is a journalist and author specialising in financial and travel journalism across Asia Pacific and the Middle East. He is the Asia editor of Euromoney magazine, the former investment editor of the Australian Financial Review, and a contributor to numerous other publications worldwide. Born in Birkenhead in the UK, he now lives in Singapore. Chris has won several journalism awards, including the Citi Journalism Awards for Excellence in Australia four times. His first book, No More Worlds to Conquer, was published by The Friday Project, a HarperCollins imprint, in May 2015. Find him on Twitter here @CWrightmedia
Siegfried Modola is an independent Italian photojournalist and documentary photographer focusing on social, humanitarian and geopolitical events worldwide. He lives with his wife and two children in Paris from where he regularly travels for assignments and longer term projects. He grew up in Kenya and still uses the capital Nairobi as a second home and a base for his work in East Africa and the region.
He has reported in over a dozen countries across Africa and worked in Europe, the Middle East and Asia: from the on-going civil war in South Sudan, the conflict in Somalia to the chronic insecurity gripping the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He has covered the depopulation of the Italian country side, immigration issues in Italy/France, the 2014 Israel-Gaza war, the Syrian refugee crisis in northern Iraq in 2016 and the humanitarian situation of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh in 2017 and 2018. Find him here @siegfriedmodolaphoto