A human body on fire on a quiet street in a safe European city is a scene your mind is remarkably unequipped to comprehend. You see it first through the clear back panel of the bus-stop shelter as you get off the bus: Just a pile of something burning. Much bigger than a campfire. Perhaps a bonfire to keep the homeless warm.
Then the bus leaves, and you move around to a different angle and see it more clearly. It is certainly shaped like a face-down human body, blackened and roasted, flames leaping three or four feet into the still night air. It must be a mannequin. The arms stick out too symmetrically, like someone in the movies who raises his hands when confronted by a gun-wielding assailant. But the left leg bent at a ninety-degree angle, the heel pointing skyward as though curled from the heat — that looks . . . realistic.
You allow yourself for a moment to think that this might be a person, that you might be watching a human burn, but you quickly dispel the thought. The leg, well, that is a nice touch, you think. Whoever staged this — as a protest? a performance artwork? — was attentive to details.
“C’est une personne!” a bystander says.
You speak little French, but you understand the word for person. Gwen, your Belgian colleague who got off the bus with you, tells you that the people on the sidewalk say they saw the man while he was alive, that he came running down the street just five minutes earlier and ignited himself in front of them.
You tell her they must be in on the prank. The smell is not that of burning flesh, you say, though you’re not quite sure how you know this, or if you really know this. It smells of something inorganic, like gasoline burning. Not a bad smell really. It is all a big hoax, something political, you say to her. But you soon realize that only one of those two observations is correct.
You can’t look away, and you know that if this is a real man, he is beyond hope. The flames are strong and relentless. The fire is not dying. And there is nothing on these clean Geneva streets with which to roll him over or put him out. No pole, no bench, no trash can. Perhaps you could throw your coat over him, but this would be pointless. Yes, you say “him” now in your mind and not “it.”
And while you are thinking these thoughts, the police show up, and then a firetruck. The firefighters, in their long coats and helmets, work quickly, unwinding the high-pressure hose and beginning to spray water almost before the truck has stopped. They douse the man for several minutes until he is only steaming.
A man’s body lies smoldering in front of you, no more than fifteen feet away, as though it were any other cooked animal. Then suddenly he reignites, and they have to hose him down again. Your mind has become, in a very short time, equipped to understand that you have been watching a human being go up in flames on an otherwise immaculate sidewalk near the United Nations office in Geneva.
There are only a few witnesses: you, Gwen, the men who were here when you first arrived and who told Gwen they’d seen him alive. They are not “in on it,” you realize. They don’t even know each other. One is a young man wearing an oversized ski jacket with fake fur in the hood and a tight fleece hat pulled to his brow. His shaking hand covers his mouth, and he is crying and mumbling in French, which at this moment is the most tragic language you’ve ever heard.
The police push you away. You don’t see their faces, transfixed as you are by the man’s body, which is now covered with a thick plastic blanket. You wonder how long he lived while on fire, what his final thoughts were.
Then you are walking briskly through the frozen Swiss night toward the restaurant where you and Gwen will meet your colleagues, UN agency staff from around the world. You are here to learn how to manage emergencies and protect displaced people, how to apply humanitarian principles and coordinate responses to a crisis.
Though you met Gwen only this week, you find yourself putting your arm around her. After what you’ve both witnessed, it seems all right. You stare at your feet as you walk and mumble that perhaps you should skip the dinner. You are still having trouble naming what you saw, whereas Gwen is already wondering why the man did it, who he was, what compelled him to set himself on fire. He must have chosen the setting, so close to the UN office for a reason; it doesn’t seem coincidental. You take your arm away from Gwen. Such a small, vapid gesture, thinking, or pretending, that you were comforting her. She has never worked in a conflict zone, never been in an emergency, like you have, never accompanied a boatload of half-starved refugees or driven a newly dead teenager back to his village with family members moaning in the back seat. But you need comfort too. You want her to know that you are also affected, that you still see the burning man everywhere you look.
You and Gwen are late to the dinner, and the other training participants are loud and jovial, glasses of red wine clinking, cigarette smoke in the air. Today was the day of the big workshop simulation: a pretend earthquake, hundreds of thousands of imaginary people displaced. It was a long day, an intense day, and everyone seems relieved that it is over.
Only a few seats are left at the tables, none of them together. Occasionally you make eye contact with Gwen as she plays with her salad, ignores the fondue, sends the dessert back, drinks the red wine like water. You see her crying from across the room, her pale cheeks wet with tears; she is telling the people around her what happened, and the festivity drains from their faces. For a few moments they stare thoughtfully at their plates, imagining what you both saw.
You selfishly begin to wonder why, with more than 6 billion people on the planet, you were among the handful who accidentally came across this burning man. Then you think that everything is accidental, or that nothing is accidental. It is your own fault, your life so chaotic that it brought you to this spot at this time, crossing paths with a violent, barely seen protest. You start to think about what you are doing, this aid work in foreign countries, away from friends and family; this profession; this calling, your grand adventure. You think that it is all futile, that you should go home immediately. You’ve seen your wife a total of fifteen days in six months. You should cook dinner and clean your gutters and plant flowers. Get a normal job. Start trying to have a child.
You are thinking of the irony: How last week you were in Mozambique, in the poverty-stricken flood plains of the Zambezi Valley, one of the poorest regions in the world. How you worked in East Timor in 2000 just after the referendum for independence, when the small island turned into a hell of arson, murder, torture, and rape. How you have driven through riots, had your car stoned, surrounded, nearly overturned. Yet you have come here to safe, boring Geneva and witnessed this.
Your colleagues are getting drunk, and one of them accidentally moves a napkin too close to the burner under a fondue pot. The napkin catches fire. A woman tosses it in the air and screams, and several people slap furiously at it. They laugh wildly as the flaming napkin dances and floats over the table as though alive until someone finally throws it to the floor and stomps it out. You see Gwen across the room. She was relaxing, even smiling finally, but now she’s staring after the traces of flame in the air. She looks up at you, and you know what she is thinking: that you both have had enough fire for one night.
You take the bus together back to the hotel and say good night in the lobby. In your room, before you fall asleep, you phone your wife in the U.S. and tell her what happened. She’s worried about you. You tell her you are fine. She understands trauma, has counseled war veterans, and she expects you may have nightmares tonight, perhaps experience depression or anxiety later on. You tell her you will be OK. You don’t want therapy, just her. Just her presence and her living skin.
The next morning, the training coordinator tells you that someone is coming from the Occupational Health Unit to talk to you and Gwen about what you saw. You will have to file an illness report.
Illness. You are not ill, just unlucky. It is the burning man who needs an illness report. The world needs an illness report.
The doctor asks how you slept. Fine, you tell her. You were exhausted and a little drunk, but after a fitful hour you fell into a deep, dreamless sleep. Gwen says she didn’t sleep at all. She seems no more or less fragile than you, no more or less capable of extinguishing the burning body in her head.
The doctor says that whatever you feel is correct. That the two of you were unintended witnesses. That the man had his reasons, and those reasons made sense to him, but they don’t have to make sense to you. He was a Tamil, she explains, and circulated an e-mail to the Tamil community in Geneva the day before his death. He also left a letter near the fire saying that his people were being exterminated in Sri Lanka while the world ignored the situation. He felt helpless and didn’t know what else to do about it. His name was Murugathasan.
The next day is Saturday. Your training is over. You stroll around Geneva in the cold, crisp sunlight, a thin sheet of snow covering the grass. You walk alone along the lake, hat pulled tight over your ears, ski jacket zipped to your chin. Everywhere you look, people seem to be enjoying life.
On Monday, after bad weather, delayed flights, a missed connection, and an unplanned night in a hotel in Zurich, you finally arrive back in Mozambique. You are thinking about your wife, how much you need her. And you are still thinking about the burning man, how maybe you should write about him. You owe it to him. Or maybe he owes you for having implanted himself in your memory. The image of him in flames has become an uninvited part of you. But what could you possibly write about this man? All you know about the Tamil people is that they are fighting to exist in the middle of a civil war. What could you say that would help anyone make sense of his actions?
You have no idea what to do with yourself: it is too late in the afternoon to go into the office, too early to go to sleep or to drink. All you want is your wife or a friend, some other living soul to talk to. But your closest friends in Mozambique have been leaving one by one, leaving for good. The other aid workers have their spouses with them, and it would feel like an intrusion to drop in on them, to steal their precious time for human contact. You are thinking that you are alone, about how the word loneliness feels on your tongue, how it burns.
You go home to unpack and see an envelope on your bedside table with your name on it. Inside is a card from a friend who left Mozambique for another posting while you were in Geneva. The two of you did not get to say goodbye.
On the front of the card is a painting by an African artist of two people in a boat, drifting lazily down a river. One, a girl, sits in the middle of the boat, smiling broadly. The other, a boy in ragged pants, stands at the back of the boat, pushing it along with a long pole like a brown-skinned Tom Sawyer. A rooster is perched on the boat’s bow. There is something dreamlike and timeless about the painting, as though these three beings have always been in this small boat floating down this river, and always will be. Inside are four handwritten words above your friend’s signature. “Sometimes,” it says, “words are useless.”