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Killing for Medals

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Babloo LoitongbamThe northeast part of India, the largest democracy on earth, has proven to be a military regime. Hundreds of civilians are killed, and a special law guarantees the soldiers immunity. A lawyer and a woman who has eaten nothing for 14 years are fighting this. The two might win.

By Michael Gleich
Photos: Anupam Nath/AP/Peace Counts

Babloo is vanishing. First, his black hair dissolves into nothing. Then his facial features become blurred. His head is a mere silhouette. Contours of his body, which was still sitting cross-legged on a raffia mat just a moment ago, melt away. Only his voice remains. It calmly and powerfully pierces the darkness, holding its ground against the cacophany of temple bells, barking dogs and car horns, beseeching the other shadow figures in the room. “Hunger strike. One whole day. On the city’s major squares. But without announcement. Else the police will notice.” Opposition comes from somewhere out of the dusk: “The time is ripe. There will have to be many who come to fast with us. We’ll call on the masses. Then the police won’t dare.” Arguments wander to and fro. Draw more attention to oneself or keep a lower profile? Anyone who attracts attention must not only fear prison. They could be abducted and vanish forever. They could be killed. The darkness notwithstanding, the dispute does not get lost in chaos. Babloo’s voice creates order. The listening remains concentrated.

Suddenly there is light. The men and women on the raffia mats rub their eyes, which have been blinded by the light. The power failure is over. In the glare of naked lightbulbs, they write down the compromise that they have found in the dark in the glare of naked lightbulbs. There will be no call in the media for the hunger strike, but school children and students will be informed. And, above all, the market women are to be mobilised. That will impress the government. Definitely. Hopefully. One after the other, they stand up and leave the room, swallowed by a moonless night.

Babloo is the last. He turns off the light in the austere meeting room that is part of his house. The floor below houses the office of Human Rights Alert. Babloo Loitongbam, a 44-year-old attorney, fights for human rights in his northeast Indian homeland. And against a draconian law that grants the army virtually uncontrolled authority and powers to act. The “Armed Forces Special Powers Act” (AFSPA) allows soldiers to search houses, arrest people, and dissolve meetings of more than five persons without a judicial order. It allows them to shoot suspicious persons, and gives them the right to “shoot to kill”. The perpetrators need not fear prosecution. AFSPA guarantees them immunity.

The army insists that it needs special rights to combat terrorists. Numerous armed rebel groups operate in the northeast, all of whom are fighting for more political autonomy for their respective ethnic group. Northeast India, which has eight federal states, is connected to the mother land only by a narrow corridor, the so-called “Chicken´s Neck”. It is an Indian enclave, encircled by Bhutan, Bangladesh, China and Burma, and inhabited by 45 million people who do not look like most Indians in the mainland and are of Tibetan-Burmese descent. In the eyes of the central government, this has made them look suspicious and potentially disloyal since time immemorial. This situation can best be compared with that of Tibet. In both cases, the occupying forces came from the outside, it is disputed as to whether the claim to power – here the Delhis, there the Pekings – is legitimate, resistance groups are forcibly suppressed, martial law has been imposed. However, unlike Tibet, where the world is watching, India’s backyard remains in the shadows of public notice. Just like the human rights violations that are committed under the protection of an Army Act which is hardly controlled from the outside. When it was imposed in 1958, there were only a small number of rebels. Today, there are 20 underground groups in the state of Manipur alone. The special powers do not appear to be very effective. At the same time, legitimised by AFSPA, innocent civilians are arrested, raped, shot and killed. Babloo’s Organisation has exposed hundreds of such cases.

His most important ally is Irom Sharmila. She has been fasting for 14 years in protest against AFSPA. She is the visible icon of the resistance, and Babloo is its organiser. The action week too is intended to direct attention to Sharmila’s lonely struggle: the longest hunger strike in history. Babloo hopes to receive the permit from the police administration that will allow him to visit Sharmila in her cell in the next few days.

The market women are the first to come. They sit down in rows, similarly to the way they do it at Ima Keithel, the market in the centre of Manipur´s capital Imphal, which belongs entirely to them, the Imas. Here they hawk textiles and vegetables, pots and t-shirts, hundreds of them. Yet, today their booths stay empty. The Imas are angry. Many of them are widows, although they are not even 25 years old. Their husbands were shot and killed during what is referred to as “fake encounters”, meaning feigned combat missions of the army. The women are angry because there are no investigations of the cases, and there will definitely be no financial compensation. Without a widow’s pension and without male protection. This is why the Imas join the call for protest. Settle down in the shade of a pavillion roof that was built for the fast day. Their sympathy goes out to Sharmila. “At least for one day we would like to do what she is doing,” the Imas say. They will eat nothing and drink nothing, until the sun sets. “I am happy that they are there,” says Babloo, “when the Imas protest, the government takes notice.” The market is the heart of Imphal, the capital city of Manipur. Not only food is sold there, it is also a political barometer of the public mood.

The next to arrive are the school children. The girls in their pink blouses and orange wraparound skirts, and the boys in blue shirts and black trousers. Separated according to gender, they seek to find shade underneath the surrounding trees. More and more frequently, passers-by stop, enquire about the action, and some of them sit down in the rows of the persons fasting. A student asks Babloo: “Will you also post the action on Facebook? Then this will spread like wildfire.” Babloo turns to a colleague. No, she says, social media are only infrequently used. “Then take some photos and upload them on the Internet, straight away,” Babloo says and adds: “It is always wise to implement good ideas at once.”

When Babloo speaks, he appears larger. He is a skilful orator, he braids in episodes from the history of India, quotes European thinkers. In such moments, he seems to be more like a philosopher than a political activist. Doggedness is alien to him, the dogmatism and concepts of the enemy that are frequently typical of fighters “for the just cause”. As he sees it, his struggle is less a battle against something than for something. It is a battle for more humanity and for democratic control of the army. It is a struggle for equal rights for the inhabitants of northeast India, who are treated by the central government in Delhi “like servants in a colony”.

When Babloo isn’t speaking, he seems to disappear. It is hard to recognise him within the crowd that gathered here for fasting. He is slim, of average height, has slightly Chinese facial features, like most Indians from the northeast. Day by day, he wears the same combination of beige trousers and light-blue shirts. Looking average is a good camouflage for someone who is challenging the mighty and must fear their revenge. He has been arrested numerous times. He deletes text messages with death threats. However, a feeling of constant threat remains. Fear is not as easy to click away.

Fasting slows him down. Being a diabetic, he has to pay particular attention to his energy levels. He sits down in the shade to await the delegation from South Korea. The journalist of a large daily newspaper sits down next to him on the mat. The break is over. Babloo explains to her which methods Human Rights Alert (HRA) deploy to repeal the Army Act. “First of all, we use all statutory possibilities. Every opportunity we have, no matter how slim, for using the applicable law to change something.” He enumerates how often HRA has already called the constitutional court and the national Commission on Human Rights. “Here it was important that our documentation of cases of fake encounters be watertight.” Over the years, HRA has proven in 1528 cases that soldiers killed innocent people. They call it “extra-judicial executions”. As robbery with murder, because the victims had lots of money with them. Because of denunciations. Out of revenge. Not once was anybody punished. “On the contrary, the killers were promoted and rewarded with medals for bravery, because they had allegedly eliminated terrorists.” Killing for decorations. This creates an atmosphere of fear and violence in the northeast of India. “Documenting cases does not sound particularly spectacular. Yet our strategy is built on the foundation of complete chains of evidence.” In many cases, the persons doing the research had it easy because the extra-judicial killings were only hushed up in an amateurish manner. Here, the corpse of an alleged terrorist, presented with a dozen bullets in his body, which was subsequently dressed in combat uniform – yet without any bullet holes. The offenders thought they were untouchable.

“The greatest success to date,” Babloo reports to the journalist, who is holding her microphone in front of him, “was a commission sent out by India’s Supreme Court in 2013.” The court selected six of the 1528 cases at random and researched them. “For the first time ever, military officers had to appear before court. One could see how they got entangled in contradictions, became increasingly more insecure, and started to sweat.” This moment, says Babloo, was a turning point for him. “To date, we always thought the army was huge and invincible. In the court room everyone could see how vulnerable this giant is when faced solely with the weapon of truth.” The judgment of the commission was a triumph. All cases were “fake encounters”, thus murder. While voilent attacks against the civilian population have continued since then, there have been no more bodies. “We can be proud that the killing has stopped, at least for the time being.” Nevertheless, Sharmila and he will not let up, “because there will be no peace in the northeast as long as martial law applies.”

Public protest is used alongside legal means. Babloo’s glance sweeps across the long rows of fasting persons. Now, during lunchtime, the number of people has grown to a few hundred. Additional groups are gathering at other locations in the city. The midday sun is shining down, and it is hot. The demonstrators have been sitting for hours, and some are battling with circulation problems. What can feeble protestors achieve against a powerful military establishment? Babloo is convinced that non-violent resistance is effective: “That which is weak breaks power.” He trusts in the superiority of the heart over the fake authority of weapons.
Science proves him right. A group of researchers from Harvard University investigated resistance movements between 1900 and 2006. Who is successful? They found out that 53 per cent of the non-violent but only 26 per cent of the armed movements attained their political goals. There can be no doubt that the terrorist attacks are more spectacular than hunger strikes, boycotts, protest marches and sit-down blockades. Yet, within the population, they only manage to evoke sympathy to a very limited extent. What is more, in most cases a military struggle is waged by men. Non-violent protests, on the other hand, can be joined by others as well. Women, the elderly, children and juveniles can participate too, as is shown on the fasting day in Imphal. “We can also reckon with approval from abroad,” says Babloo, who freqently travels to Geneva and speaks to the United Nations Human Rights Council. He knows: if a regime responds to peaceful protests with violence, as is the case in northeast India, more frequently than not, the solidarity will even grow, both internationally as well as among the members of a movement.

The Harvard study mentions additional success factors. Contrary to the groups that rely on the arguments provided by their guns, non-violent movements prove to be more open to dialogue. They want to negotiate with the other side, and are willing to find solutions that will be of mutual benefit. This also applies in Babloo’s case. Political persuasion is a part of his strategy. “We need scenarios for the northeast that are also attractive for the central Indian government. Our region is set to undergo strong economic development in the course of the coming years. “Gate to Southeast Asia” – this is good! But it will work only when peace and security prevail. Else nobody will invest here.” He says the government should negotiate honestly with the rebels and separatists, abolish the Army Act, restore human rights and give the northeast the same rights enjoyed by all the other federal states. “Then this country can burst into bloom.”
The delegation from South Korea meets under the pavillion roof. Its foundation awarded Irom Sharmila the much-acclaimed Gwangju Prize for Human Rights in 2007. In so doing, they honoured “a noble struggle” against the Army Act. Today, seven years later, Sharmila is still on a hunger strike, and the emissaries from Seoul mingle among widows, market women and students. In the course of the day, additional well-known Gwangju prize winners from other countries arrive. Babloo greets them. Gives in camera interviews. Prepares a press conference, directly next to the fasting pavillion. “The Indian government is very sensitive to criticism from abroad,” says Babloo. This can help. But also backfire. When the statements of international solidarity become too massive, harsh backlashes are to be feared. The activists of Human Rights Alert must be sensitive in finding a balance between unobtrusive subversive activities and public staging. Disappear, and reappear at the right moment again. In the evening, Babloo appears exhausted but also satisfied. Many hundreds of demonstrators are reported from different squares in Imphal. No police action.

A few days later the time has come. Babloo is allowed to visit Irom Sharmila. The prison administration, following a protracted procedure, approved his request. 30 minutes are allowed, not more. He gets onto his scooter and drives off. Asian Highway is written on the signs found along the road. The scooter struggles through potholes, clouds of dust and traffic jams. At the major crossings, there are army jeeps filled with soldiers who have covered their heads with black cloths, as if they were in an anti-terror mission. In fact, however, they are only sitting and smoking. Babloo overtakes Ricksha drivers who are strenuously pedalling ancient bicycles. They too hide their faces behind cloths, with a narrow slit for the eyes. “Many of these covered faces,” says Babloo, “conceal college graduates who are so poor that they have to drive rickshas. They are embarrassed. They don’t want their neighbours to recognise them.” The state of Manipur is suffering from high unemployment. The economy is stagnating. Nobody wants to invest in a crisis region.
Babloo reaches the Nehru hospital. He enters a kind of police station on the ground floor. Nurses are hurrying around. One officer writes down the personal details of the human rights lawyer, after which a uniformed person leads him through a dusky passage to the adjacent room. The door is not closed. Babloo shifts aside a curtain, the light green colour of which is reminiscent of surgical clothing. Irom Sharmila slowly rises from her bed and takes a few small, unstable steps toward him. While they are greeting each other, Sharmila routinely shifts aside the thin tube hanging from her right nostril. This tube has been hanging in her face for 14 years. This is how long she has not let a single bit of food or drop of water into her mouth.

In the first minutes she remains silent. She merely looks. Her large black eyes glance toward the ceiling, then to the window and briefly toward Babloo. She seems to need time to accustom herself to a visitor in this prison room, after so many hours of solitude. Then she says: “I dreamt of Modi.” Her words appear as if she has to will each single one over her lips. Softly, she continues speaking with quiet strength. In her dream, the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, stood in front of her. He was smiling. “Babloo, I clearly sense this: this man has the strength to get the Army Act repealed.” Before, she was suspicious of Modi. For instance, when a mob of Hindu fanatics in the state of Gujarat hunted down Muslims and deceitfully murdered hundreds of them; even children were doused with gasoline and burnt to death. Modi was the Prime Minister then and there were accusations that he was in cahoots with the murderers. But now: the dream, Modi’s smile, “Babloo, I know that we can win.”

She places two plush toys onto her lap, a dog and a teddy bear, “I received them yesterday. The people do not forget me in here.” Now her face appears soft and young, the 42-year-old looks like a girl. Postcards received from across the world, sent to her by supporters, are affixed on the tiled walls. Posters of Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, as well as pictures of animals, mountains and lakes. Dozens of cactusses seek a spot on the narrow windowsill, and a cage with two pygmy rabbits has found a place underneath a table, on top of which is a small globe. It all looks like an attempt to compress the whole world into three by three metres. “I miss nature. The forest. The green. Good air.” She hints at what else she misses even more: “I am a woman with normal needs.”

Later on, Babloo says: “Most of all, she is suffering from loneliness.” Apart from the letters she receives from an admirer from England, the police custody offers her no opportunity to live her love, no affection. She is under arrest on the spurious grounds that her fasting is attempted suicide and thus punishable by law. One may only be held prisoner in India for this offense for a maximum period of 365 days. This leads to the absurdity that at the end of each year of imprisonment, Sharmila is released for 24 hours. The police then follow every move she makes: Does she eat or does she not? Since she continues to fast, she is locked up in her cell once again.

Sharmila needs to feel supported in her struggle. Babloo tells her about this week’s solidarity campaigns. “Did many of them join in the fast?” –“Yes, there were thousands. Not only in Imphal. Also in other cities in northeastern India. Even in Delhi.” Human Rights Alert is the political arm that is extending the hunger strike out of the prison cell. Babloo coordinates all campaigns with Sharmila. She sacrifices her freedom. For him, this is a constant motivation to remain vigilant in his struggle against AFSPA. “There will be no peace in the northeast,” says Babloo, “until this draconian law has been repealed.” Sharmila adds: “When the government in Delhi has an open ear for us and our concerns and needs, then the hearts of the rebels will open too. Then compromises will be possible. But they don’t relate to us as equals. They look down on us. This distorts their perception.” She points at the two rabbits. “When I look at the animals from above, I could think they had only a nose, but no mouth. Only when I go down onto my knees do I see their entire face.”

Sharmila protested against the Army Act long before she started her hunger strike. As a 28-year-old, she was rather shy and softly-spoken. As a member of Human Rights Alert, she assisted in writing flyers, signed petitions and marched with the others. Yet this failed to impress the government. Then something happened on 2 November 2000 that shook the foundation of her world. On that morning, rebels in the west of Imphal attacted an army truck. Although the soldiers were not injured, the longer their search for the offenders lasted, the more infuriated they became. And their revenge was appalling. Close by, in Malom, ten people were waiting at a bus stop. They were office workers, teenagers and a 60-year-old woman. The uniformed soldiers opened fire on them and killed them all.

When Sharmila heard about the massacre, she made the decision to go on an unlimited hunger strike. She revealed her plan to her mother and got her blessing. Two days later, once the curfews that had been put in place were lifted, Sharmila cycled to Babloo’s house. “When she told me what she intended to do, I was first opposed to it,” he recalls. “My impression was that she did not entirely comprehend the path she wanted to take.” Sharmila remained steadfast. Babloo yielded. “I said to her: if this is what you really want, then let us also make it public. Your sacrifice must be worth it.”

A hunger strike is a form of vanishing physically in order to become politically visible. After days of refusing food, the body begins to consume its own fat. Later, tissue is used to nourish the organs, the muscles weaken and the breathing becomes shallow. Some people, who were on hunger strike until the very end died after 50 or 60 days. In Sharmila’s case, the Indian government wants to prevent this at all costs. Three times a day, she receives a nutrient solution through the tube in her nose. Nevertheless, she is gaunt, can only move slowly, and her lips have trouble forming the words. “This is not a punishment. I do not feel any hatred toward anyone. I took a very simple decision. And I am sticking to it. My faith in God is what keeps me going. I know that everything is good the way it happens.”

Sharmila and Babloo crouch on the floor of the cell. They look like brother and sister. They have already accompanied one another on this road for a long time. “I keep thinking of Delhi,” Sharmila tells him. What a big adventure it was back then, eight years ago. With Babloo’s help, she managed to vanish from Imphal. In 2006, the time had come once again for her to be released from police custody for one day. 24 hours, just to be arrested again? The two of them devised a plan to get her out of Manipur, which was under army control. To Delhi! In front of the cameras of the national press and in front of the eyes of the global public! A plane ticket was booked for her under the name I.S. Chamu. Nevertheless, the two could hardly bare to hope that they would get farther than Imphal airport. It is very small, heavily guarded, everybody knows everybody, and already back then Sharmila was an icon of the protest. However, thanks to a coincidence, she became invisible: At the crucial moment, a Federal Minister arrived. The security officials scurried around him and Sharmila was able to board the plane unnoticed. The first flight of her life! On board she wrote a poem:

“Beyond this tangled visible world
I flew to heave in an airplane
Reaching That Land
Where my Maker was to test me.”

Upon landing in Delhi, they had no time to lose. They drove directly to the tomb of Mahatma Gandhi, a national shrine. Babloo had informed the press. TV teams filmed Sharmila as she laid a bouquet of marigold at the feet of the Great Soul. With a white scarf wrapped around her curly black hair, she sat calmly in the grass and answered the journalists’ questions. In the evening, these images could be seen on all channels. “That was the breakthrough,” Babloo thinks. The opponents of the Army Act were no longer dismissed as idiotic separatists. “It was,” says Sharmila, “as if the Father of the Nation had blessed our resistance.”

The visiting period of half an hour has come to an end. Babloo must leave. Sharmila stays behind on the bed, with the dog and the teddy in her arms. Her eyes follow her friend, and then look out of the window. Finally, her glance fixates itself on the ceiling of her cell, in the emptiness, and seems to attune itself to the loneliness.

Hundreds of candles are already burning when Babloo emerges from the dark. He parks the scooter and enters a small temple of flickering lights. Its light sets him off from the surrounding rice fields. The bus stop is in the shade. It is here where ten people were killed within a few minutes. This happened in 2000 and triggered Sharmila’s decision to start her hunger strike. Today, as on every anniversary, the family members come together here. Sinam Chandrajini has come too. She is 64 years old. She lost two sons during the massacre. Tears roll down her cheeks and her face is distorted with grief. “How could the soldiers do that?” One of her sons was 17 at the time. He had received a medal for bravery from the Indian Prime Minister because he had rescued another child from drowning. He died in a hail of bullets fired during a patrol of the paramilitary Assam Rifles, who were allegedly combatting terrorists. Babloo holds the old lady’s hand, who is dressed in white sawl and off pink sarong today, which is the colour of mourning for Manipuri Hindus. “They will not vanish from our memory,” he tries to comfort her. Babloo lights a candle, it illuminates a serious but not embittered face. He embraces Sinam and the other mourners, gets back on his scooter and once again vanishes in the black of night.

The noise of the city slowly subsides. When darkness falls, only a few inhabitants of Imphal dare to walk on the streets. And no women without accompaniment. The trauma of many years of curfews is effective, especially the fear of being raped. Having arrived in his office, Babloo collapses into a threadbare armchair. The day has visibly exhausted him. He enjoys the quiet after a hurricane of interviews, mails and discussions, he enjoys the quiet. He thinks about what abilities a human rights lawyer must have to be successful. He needs tenacity, so that he will not give up immediately in the face of failure. And sensitivity for a balance of the powers, so that he doesn’t break any law, but stretches them to the greatest possible extent. And intuition as to how to stage a protest with powerful images. For instance, after the events in July 2004. At midnight, soldiers forced their way into the house of the 32-year-old Manorama Devi and abducted her. She was accused of belonging to an underground group. The following day her body was found: half dressed, riddled with bullet wounds, some of them in the genitals. The autopsy showed she had also been raped. Babloo and his fellow campaigners were appalled. “This brutality went beyond everything we had experienced to date.” Yet, how were they to react? What would be appropriate for such horror? Together with his comrades he devised a strategy that ought to wake up the entire country. A few days later, 12 middle-aged women marched to Kangla Fort, in the heart of Imphal, where the army was stationed. From one second to the next, they all dropped their clothes. They held up a long white banner, on which was written in red letters: “Indian Army: Rape us!” They called out: “rape us, but not our daughters!” Press photographers captured the image, and newspapers throughout India printed it. Four months later, the Assam Rifles left the fort and it was returned to the city.

However, spectacular actions are the exception, not the rule, says Babloo. “My task is to change human suffering into legal cases. For this, I need to know the laws. Yet, even more important than this is the ability to feel what their souls feel.” He studied anthropology, which is the science of people, and then law. A fortunate combination for the work he does. “But not for my father. He hoped I would become a rich lawyer. When I returned from my studies in Delhi, he said: my boy, you can’t earn any money with human rights. You are jumping into a bottomless hole! He was disappointed. This made it difficult for me. After all, I wanted him to be proud of me!”

Nevertheless, Babloo remained true to what he calls the matter close to his heart. This single-mindedness impressed his father. His father added an extension to the parental home for him, where he today has the office and meeting room of Human Rights Alert. The money for the family of five is earned by his wife, who is a local government official. This is unusual, and not only in India. “Sometimes I ask myself: Am I depriving my children of opportunities?” He could accept offers from abroad, earn more money and offer the family a pleasant life with Western standards, above all security. “But I am a Manipuri. The culture of this country is engraved deep within my soul. I do not wish to cut these roots. Here I can have the greatest impact. And as long as Sharmila is on hunger strike, I could not go away anyway.” Contacts with the West are less a temptation for him to emigrate than a kind of life insurance that allows him to continue. His popularity makes it difficult for the government and army to simply have him vanish from the scene. Babloo has stopped counting how often he has been arrested. Death threats come from the other side, from the members of underground groups. Life between two fronts is dangerous.

The army rarely comments on AFSPA officially. But finally an officer based in Manipur was willing to break the silence. “But no photos and no name!” He comes to the meeting in a large hotel in Imphal, dressed in civilian clothing. In his version of the story, the soldiers are the actual victims. “We are not even trained to chase terrorists,” he says, “and yet we risk our lives to do this every day.” None of them know anymore which underground groups are fighting for what. And the dead civilians? “Regrettable but isolated incidents.” The rape and killing of Manorama Devi? “We have learnt from this. We punish the perpetrators internally.” Could it not be said that the immunity favours the encroachments by soldiers? “We must protect our people. And we may not let our reputation be sullied.”

It is five o’ clock in the morning. The sun has not risen yet. There is a pleasant coolness in the house when Babloo gets up and walks downstairs. On the ground floor is a small altar that he has built for himself. In the southwest corner, as is the tradition in Manipur. Babloo lights up an incense stick, sprinkles orange flowers, bows down in front of Sanamahi, deity of the eternal creation. He sits on the floor with crossed legs, remaining motionless, his breathing constant and his eyes closed. Whilst meditating like this, he recently had a vision: Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister, visits Sharmila in her cell. He announces that the Army Act will be repealed. Then he symbolically offers her the first bite of nutrition after 14 years. This is an image that feeds his optimism. Babloo vanishes, sinking into his inner realm. Feeling at one with himself and with the world. With the widows he is battling for. But also with the officers, against whose methods he is fighting. He enjoys a peaceful moment.