If you're a lowly soldier, war is simple. Follow orders, go where directed, shoot when instructed, sleep, repeat. Any sense of culpability - if detected even from a very great distance - is quickly squashed, like a disorientated cockroach scuttling across a freshly polished floor. No guilt, no regrets, no sleepless nights, just a collection of macho photos and equally cock-stiffening stories to slur out over a sticky bar. "Simple comme Bonjour" as they say in France.
And in France, a similar clarity reassuringly graces the decision-making of metropolitan law enforcement. The law is written, nay engraved for all to read. Sinisterly motivated lawyers may continually try their utmost to bend and warp interpretations to suit the needs of their own specific quests, but the written word remains unchanged, unbroken. There for all to read, for all to obey. An experienced and comprehensive police force maintain a visible yet non-intrusive presence to ensure its enforcement. Infractions are punished accordingly. Full stop.
So what to make of French Guiana then? Technically considered a department of the French mainland despite its enormous distance from Europe, the same laws that exist in France are practiced and enforced here as well. The rules of the road synchronize themselves conveniently with those of France (and with impressive facility too, given the high quality of infrastructure established in such a remote and climatically challenging environment). The currency is the Euro. The official language - spoken by almost everyone within its borders - is French. All very civilized in theory, but all the while tending to overlook one discreet yet profound difference.
French Guiana is in the midst of a war on illegal gold digging. A war perhaps similar to those declared by law enforcement on drugs and arms smuggling back in France, but inevitably destined to venture far closer to the limits of what an actual war resembles in the traditional sense. Here in Guyanne, there are no diligent bystanders to blow whistles and point in the direction of the fleeing bank robber, no CCTV footage to identify pickpockets or sexual deviants. Here there's just the jungle. The savage, dense, near-impossible-to-navigate rainforest that hides our hunted deep within. Those who brave informing the Gendarmerie of possible site-locations or witnessed activity risk severe sanction from the gold diggers, or "Garimpeiros" as they're known here in French Guiana and bordering Surinam and Brazil. Cases in the not-too-distant past have seen French forces stumble upon sites only to find a heap of corpses scattered throughout the clearing. Ratting out your colleagues to save your own skin is a risky business down in these parts.
And so off we go to "war", patrolling the quad-bike trails in search of the Garimpeiros, assault rifle at the ready but without a single cartridge in the chamber. If we catch a glimpse and they flee, chase is never given. "Too dangerous" they say. If they're armed but not assuming a menacing attitude (personally, I would've thought that being armed already put paid to any illusion of a non-menacing attitude) it is strictly forbidden to open fire. Admittedly lacking confusion except in those grey moments. Is the weapon pointed at me in the process of being raised or being lowered? Is he running at me or around me? Who knows? Certainly not the law makers back in their mahogany splattered offices in Paris - the closest to woodland they're likely to come in there lives.
An early mission saw us arrive at a freshly deserted site, water yet to come to the boil, damp clothes hanging out to dry, women's clothes, children's clothes. It's far from a glamorous, gold-nugget-decorated life the Garimpeiros lead. They live up to their necks in mud, scavenging metres under the equatorial forest floor for the paltriest scraps of gold for up to twelve hours a day. They have rickety shacks that serve as homes, showers, toilets, shops. Pets roam free, occasionally children too. Prostitutes play an integral part in any site, as do armed guards to alert the workers to incoming French forces. It's their life, a sorry existence, one born of necessity more so than choice. A life we are obliged to objectify, annul and eradicate at all cost. Watching those children's clothing go up in flames, unable to look away as the burnt, blackened edges of mattresses, satellite dishes, washing detergent, shoes, eggs, milk, creeped ever inwards towards a charred centre of nothingness, nothingness is exactly what I felt. The time of conscientiousness is long gone, the moment for heart-string-twanging reflections on the right and wrong of our actions is behind me. I no longer worry, I no longer care. There's a job to do, a law to uphold. My pay grade doesn't venture outside of those boundaries, and my thoughts are slowly, finally beginning to catch on. Was this their goal all along? If so, it was a hard fought victory.
That, or a slow burning surrender. Slow burning like all those hard earned possessions, like those rickety shelters serving as homes for people born and bred a million miles from anything we could possibly consider normality.
Burn, burn, burn.
Burn it all, until nothing remains but ashes.