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Crocodile Tears

I. Fallen

Some distance behind the village church at the edge of the jungle, a concrete tank sits half-hidden by overhanging brush. It is roughly twenty feet long by three feet wide and six feet deep. Its walls rise about two feet above ground, surmounted by a ragged chain link fence wired to a few rusted pieces of rebar. Inside this enclosure, in a pool of black water partially covered by sheets of corrugated tin and plywood, lies the sacred crocodile of East Timor.

She has lived her entire life inside this enclosure and has grown to fill it. She no longer has room to turn her body, so she must now always face west, toward the village and its church. In the early days of the revolution, government soldiers amused themselves by feeding her the severed limbs of suspected rebels. Sometimes in the course of an interrogation they would dangle a screaming suspect over the tank, howling with laughter as the hungry croc lunged and snapped. Later, after most of the villagers had fled, the bored soldiers were reduced to poking her with bayonets and sharpened sticks.

After the cease-fire, Australian peacekeepers found her wallowing in polluted water, starving and half blind. A car tire was jammed around her neck and most of her teeth had been broken.

II. The Savior Comes

The famous crocodile hunter and zookeeper arrives and holds a press conference decrying the deplorable condition of the sacred crocodile, while in the background, emaciated children can be seen picking through the ruins of the village. After the media event, donors are moved to donate and the resources of a wealthy nation are brought to bear to save the croc.

Close to the church and adjacent to its ancient cemetery, workers dig a wide, shallow pit. Concrete is poured and later, deep azure tiles are set to finish the new enclosure. A tanker full of fresh water is brought all the way from the capital to fill what could pass for the swimming pool of a luxury hotel.

People from the village gather all day to await the moving of the crocodile. The croc hunter finally arrives around noon with an entourage of cameramen, zookeepers and soldiers. Armed peacekeepers hold back the throng as the croc hunter and his helpers wrestle the huge creature from her lifelong prison. The croc, never having walked on dry land, is soon exhausted by the struggle. Limp, her head swathed in burlap; she is carried to her new pen like a broken canoe. As she plops into the water, the mud and filth from her body cloud the shadeless swimming pool like ink.

In a ceremony arranged for the cameras, the village priest accepts an envelope full of money from the crocodile hunter. It’s to help defray the cost of caring for the sacred animal. As he examines the envelope, the skin on his face tightens, exposing his teeth in a manner that bears some resemblance to a smile. Each child in the crowd is given a small rubber crocodile with big Disney eyes and a raspy little squeaker in its throat.

Crocodile Tears