Ulithi Atoll, Federated States of Micronesia
[During World War II, this vast coral atoll served as the main forward base for the United States Pacific Fleet. During World War Z, it sheltered not only American naval vessels, but hundreds of civilian ships as well. One of those ships was the UNS Ural, the first broadcast hub of Radio Free Earth. Now a museum to the achievements of the project, she is the focus of the British documentary Words at War. One of the subjects interviewed for this documentary is Barati Palshigar.]
Ignorance was the enemy. Lies and superstition, misinformation, disinformation. Sometimes, no information at all. Ignorance killed billions of people. Ignorance caused the Zombie War. Imagine if we had known then what we know now. Imagine if the undead virus had been as understood as, say, tuberculosis was. Imagine if the world’s citizens, or at least those charged with protecting those citizens, had known exactly what they were facing. Ignorance was the real enemy, and cold, hard facts were the weapons.
When I first joined Radio Free Earth, it was still called the International Program for Health and Safety Information. The title “Radio Free Earth” came from the individuals and communities who monitored our broadcasts.
It was the first real international venture, barely a few months after the South African Plan, and years before the conference at Honolulu. Just like the rest of the world based their survival strategies on Redeker, our genesis was routed in Radio Ubunye.
What was Radio Ubunye?
South Africa’s broadcasts to its isolated citizens. Because they didn’t have the resources for material aid, the only assistance the government could render was information. They were the first, at least, to my knowledge, to begin these regular, multilingual broadcasts. Not only did they offer practical survival skills, they went so far as to collect and address each and every falsehood circulating among their citizens. What we did was take the template of Radio Ubunye and adapt it for the global community.
I came aboard, literally, at the very beginning, as the Ural’s reactors were just being put back online. The Ural was a former vessel of the Soviet, then the Russian, Federal Navy. Back then the SSV-33 had been many things: a command and control ship, a missile tracking platform, an electronic surveillance vessel. Unfortunately, she was also a white elephant, because her systems, they tell me, were too complicated even for her own crew. She had spent the majority of her career tied to a pier at the Vladivostok naval base, providing additional electrical power for the facility. I am not an engineer, so I don’t how they managed to replace her spent fuel rods or convert her massive communication facilities to interface with the global satellite network. I specialize in languages, specifically those of the Indian Subcontinent. Myself and Mister Verma, just the two of us to cover a billion people . . . well . . . at that point it was still a billion.
Mister Verma had found me in the refugee camp in Sri Lanka. He was a translator, I was an interpreter. We had worked together several years before at our country’s embassy in London. We thought it had been hard work then; we had no idea. It was a maddening grind, eighteen, sometimes twenty hours a day. I don’t know when we slept. There was so much raw data, so many dispatches arriving every minute. Much of it had to do with basic survival: how to purify water, create an indoor greenhouse, culture and process mold spore for penicillin. This mind-numbing copy would often be punctuated with facts and terms that I had never heard of before. I’d never heard the term “quisling” or “feral”; I didn’t know what a “Lobo” was or the false miracle cure of Phalanx. All I knew was that suddenly there was a uniformed man shoving a collection of words before my eyes and telling me “We need this in Marathi, and ready to record in fifteen minutes.”
What kind of misinformation were you combating?
Where do you want me to begin? Medical? Scientific? Military? Spiritual? Psychological? The psychological aspect I found the most maddening. People wanted so badly to anthropomorphize the walking blight. In war, in a conventional war that is, we spend so much time trying to dehumanize the enemy, to create an emotional distance. We would make up stories or derogatory titles . . . when I think about what my father used to call Muslims . . . and now in this war it seemed that everyone was trying desperately to find some shred of a connection to their enemy, to put a human face on something that was so unmistakably inhuman.
Can you give me some examples?
There were so many misconceptions: zombies were somehow intelligent; they could feel and adapt, use tools and even some human weapons; they carried memories of their former existence; or they could be communicated with and trained like some kind of pet. It was heartbreaking, having to debunk one misguided myth after another. The civilian survival guide helped, but was still severely limited.
Oh yes. You could see it was clearly written by an American, the references to SUVs and personal firearms. There was no taking into account the cultural differences…the various indigenous solutions people believed would save them from the undead.
I’d rather not give too many details, not without tacitly condemning the entire people group from which this “solution” originated. As an Indian, I had to deal with many aspects of my own culture that had turned self-destructive. There was Varanasi, one of the oldest cities on Earth, near the place where Buddha supposedly preached his first sermon and where thousands of Hindu pilgrims came each year to die. In normal, prewar conditions, the road would be littered with corpses. Now these corpses were rising to attack. Varanasi was one of the hottest White Zones, a nexus of living death. This nexus covered almost the entire length of the Ganges. Its healing powers had been scientifically assessed decades before the war, something to do with the high oxygenation rate of the waters. Tragic. Millions flocked to its shores, serving only to feed the flames. Even after the government’s withdrawal to the Himalayas, when over 90 percent of the country was officially overrun, the pilgrimages continued. Every country had a similar story. Every one of our international crew had at least one moment when they were forced to confront an example of suicidal ignorance. An American told us about how the religious sect known as “God’s Lambs” believed that the rapture had finally come and the quicker they were infected, the quicker they would go to heaven. Another woman - I won’t say what country she belonged to - tried her best to dispel the notion that sexual intercourse with a virgin could “cleanse” the “curse.” I don’t know how many women, or little girls, were raped as a result of this “cleansing.” Everyone was furious with his own people. Everyone was ashamed. Our one Belgian crewmember compared it to the darkening skies. He used to call it “the evil of our collective soul.”
I guess I have no right to complain. My life was never in danger, my belly was always full. I might not have slept often but at least I could sleep without fear. Most importantly, I never had had to work in the Ural’s IR department.
Information Reception. The data we were broadcasting did not originate aboard the Ural. It came from all around the world, from experts and think tanks in various government safe zones. They would transmit their findings to our IR operators who, in turn, would pass it along to us. Much of this data was transmitted to us over conventional, open, civilian bands, and many of these bands were crammed with ordinary people’s cries for help. There were millions of wretched souls scattered throughout our planet, all screaming into their private radio sets as their children starved or their temporary fortress burned, or the living dead overran their defenses. Even if you didn’t understand the language, as many of the operators didn’t, there was no mistaking the human voice of anguish. They weren’t allowed to answer back, either; there wasn’t time. All transmissions had to be devoted to official business. I don’t want to know what that was like for the IR operators.
When the last broadcast came from Buenos Aires, when that famous Latin singer played that Spanish lullaby, it was too much for one of our operators. He wasn’t from Buenos Aires, he wasn’t even from South America. He was just an eighteen-year-old Russian sailor who blew his brains out all over his instruments. He was the first, and since the end of the war, the rest of the IR operators have followed suit. Not one of them is alive today. The last was my Belgian friend. “You carry those voices with you,” he told me one morning. We were standing on the deck, looking into that brown haze, waiting for a sunrise we knew we’d never see. “Those cries will be with me the rest of my life, never resting, never fading, never ceasing their call to join them.”