By Krista Mahr
reporter Krista Mahr.
November 9, 2004
All I know is that the shipping container I'm looking for is blue.
It's approaching 4 o'clock in the afternoon in early October 2004, a muddy cloud ceiling has descended over Nuuk, and I'm lost.
According to my Nuuk Tourism map, which is disintegrating in the rain, this deserted dirt road will eventually dead-end at the harbor, where hunting boats return with catches of caribou, seal and fish and where my destination -- the container -- supposedly awaits. I lean into the wind as an arctic storm begins to whip up around me.
Nuuk is the capital of Greenland and, at 14,000 souls, the biggest town on the world's largest, coldest island. Eighty-five percent of Greenland is uninhabited inland ice, otherwise known as the ice cap; the rest is a jagged, rocky fringe where some 57,000 people live, in about 60 scattered settlements.
I am here because in August 2004, Secretary of State Colin
Powell flew to a tiny outpost in south Greenland to update a
53-year-old defense agreement between the United States and
Denmark. As Greenland's former colonial ruler, Denmark still
oversees the vast country's defense. The new pact allows the
United States to begin a $260 million upgrade of the early warning
radar system at the American military base at Thule, Greenland.
It is part of the Bush administration's plan to implement the
controversial SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative), or "Star
Wars" antimissile defense system.
is home to about 14,000 Greenlanders. Many people live in
massive, government-owned apartment blocks with an ocean
view. But some members of the Home Rule government of Greenland
are pushing for more homeownership.
I wanted to know what Greenlanders thought of the new treaty, of the antimissile system and of their place in the world. Except that right now I am lost in a maze of blue shipping containers, somewhere between Nuuk's greenhouse district and the town prison.
The container I'm looking for belongs to Chilly Friday, the
biggest band in town. I had met Alex Andersen, a 28-year-old
self-employed musician and the band's drummer, earlier in the
week at a café downtown where students from Nuuk's gymnasium
-- the equivalent of high school in Greenland -- hang out. Alex
had invited me to visit the container, which he'd purchased
for about US$2,700 so that his band had a place to record their
newest album. Metal shipping containers are part of the landscape
in Nuuk. They're found abandoned between apartment buildings,
in backyards, and stacked high in the commercial harbor. Everything
comes to Greenland in these containers: food, medicine, cars,
to-go coffee cups, kitchen sinks.
With relief I finally spot Alex waving to me from the door of his blue metal box. I duck inside to find a 5-by-10-foot space furnished with U2 posters, a couch and a double-monitor computer system that Alex grumbles is taking too long to reboot. I forget to take my shoes off -- a local custom -- in the container's foyer and tramp some mud onto the new white carpet.
Alex and Chilly Friday have just recorded an album of Greenlandic
revolutionary songs from the 1970s and 1980s, the period when
the country began to assert its independence from Denmark. It
was in 1979 that Greenland established its Home Rule government.
Greenland has its own premier and Parliament and handles its
own domestic affairs. Denmark is in charge of Greenland's defense
and foreign policy and provides the island with an annual subsidy.
Andersen and Angunnguaq Larsen are part of the band Chilly Friday.
"A lot of people just sit back on the couch and watch the world go by on the television," Alex tells me. He complains that people his age don't know the revolutionary songs of the Home Rule movement. Unlike their parents, the younger generation stays out of politics.
I ask if Alex and his band members feel safer with the American base here.
"Let's say that the base wasn't there," Alex counters. "What interest would the world around us have in going to Greenland and have a war or drop a bomb or make terrorism? Greenland is harmless. Totally. In every way."
When I ask him what he thinks of the new defense pact with the United States, Alex says it's a mystery to him. He isn't sure what his country agreed to do. And given the state of tension in the world today, and the U.S. war in Iraq, Alex and his friends are not sure that agreeing to become part of America's controversial antimissile defense system is a wise move.
Alex's bandmate, Malik Kleist, chimes in. "You can kind of have two opinions about it -- because signing with the Americans means that we're probably going to get a lot of money. But then again, the bad side of it is that the world could start recognizing Greenland as [a place] helping warlike stuff."
"Somehow war has come into Greenland without people's acceptance," Alex says. "Maybe the politicians accept it, but not people in general."
Peeling the Onion
The influence of the American base in Greenland cannot be overstated.
"In our 25 history of Home Rule, governments have been overthrown because they argue about the base," Greenland's Prime Minister, Hans Enoksen, said through a translator one afternoon in Nuuk. "Even laypeople are following what's going on," he added. "Because the whole world is watching the action."
Before being elected to office, Enoksen managed a general store in a settlement north of Nuuk. Like many Greenlanders who didn't grow up in Nuuk, he does not speak English.
"I think there's a basic distrust in the Greenlandic people, which, of course, is also in the government, with the American presence," Mikaela Engell, deputy minister of Foreign Affairs in the Home Rule government, told me on my second day in Nuuk. "Are these people [Americans] to be trusted? And are they to be trusted when any contact we have with them is always through Denmark, which filters what we want to say?"
The United States first intervened in Greenland when Denmark was occupied by Germany during World War II and Americans took over Greenland's defense. In the local museum in Nuuk, several homespun display cases document the American presence in Greenland, which peaked during the Cold War. One sees sticks of Juicy Fruit gum, Sears Roebuck catalogs, curlers, pantyhose, a Viewmaster, and a schoolbag embroidered with the names of Elvis Presley and Ricky Nelson.
In 1951, the United States signed a defense treaty with Denmark that established Thule Air Base as a key base to retaliate against Soviet attack. The United States got 339,000 acres. Greenland, at that time still a colony, did not have a say in the matter. In a massive and secret construction effort, code-named Operation Blue Jay, some 12,000 men arrived by ship to build the base for fighter interceptors and strategic bombers.
As far as most Greenlanders are concerned, the base did not get off to a good start. An early expansion of the base in 1953 unceremoniously displaced an entire village of the indigenous Inuit population from their ancestral land -- the repercussions of which are still being hashed out today in the European Court of Human Rights.
According to Engell, the United States and the Danish prime
minister signed a secret agreement that nuclear weapons could
be stored at Thule, a violation of Denmark's public policy.
Thule's nuclear role was not officially acknowledged until 1996,
even though in 1968 a B-52 bomber with four nuclear bombs on
board crashed nearby. The 1968 accident was one of 32 nuclear
weapon accidents, known as "broken arrows," to which the
Pentagon later admitted. The bombs were recovered from the sea
ice off Thule, but reports indicate that plutonium remains on
the ocean floor. Local hunters and fishermen avoid the area.
Nuuk, fisherman and hunters sell fresh meat at an open air
market downtown. Fish, seal, whale, caribou and seabirds
are common in the traditional Greenlandic diet.
"It's like peeling an onion. You're told that things are a certain way, and then you start peeling the layers, and it's lie upon lie upon lie," said Deputy Minister Engell.
I visited Engell in her office in downtown Nuuk when Parliament had just gone into session. Debate centered on how Greenland might begin to stand on its own feet economically. Greenland is dependent on an annual subsidy of roughly $500 million from Denmark. The Home Rule government is hoping that somebody will strike oil in the exploration that is currently under way off the coast. Meanwhile, the local government is trying to form new economic and trade relationships with other countries.
But these trade deals are hard to come by, Engell said. Greenland is isolated and geographically remote. Pointing to a map of the world seen from the Arctic's perspective, Greenland features prominently. "On this map, we're at the center of the world. On all other maps, we're this white blob off the left-hand side."
Basically, the deputy foreign minister said, the United States could have gone ahead and upgraded the radar system at Thule without asking anybody in Greenland. But this time Washington consulted Greenland's government. This was Greenland's long-awaited chance to have a say. But if Greenland had said, "No, we don't want to become part of America's anti-missile defense system," would Denmark and the United States have listened?
The government of Greenland decided to sign the military agreement. It was accompanied by two nonbinding declarations -- one encouraging America to be a better steward of the environment at the base, the other encouraging new economic ties between the United States and Greenland.
"The most important part is that Greenland became part
of the international society -- of the world," declared Vice
Premier Josef Motzfeldt, who co-signed the August agreements
with Colin Powell and Danish foreign minister Per Stig Moller.
The ceremony took place in Igaliku, a tiny settlement in southern
Greenland where Motzfeldt grew up.
August, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Greenland
to renew a 53-year-old agreement between Denmark and the
United States. The agreement paved the way for updates to
an early warning radar system at the Thule Air Base in northern
Secretary of State Powell is remembered fondly here; pictures of his Greenland visit are still taped to bookshelves in the public library. The local government in Igaliku even wants to name a glacier after him.
On a map in his Nuuk office, Motzfeldt traced the area where he and Powell looked down on Motzfeldt's homeland from the window of a helicopter.
"As we passed and the chopper turned around here, we looked at the wall of a glacier," Motzfeldt remembered, smiling. "So I think it is in his mind, the glacier. Maybe it will be called Colin Powell Glacier."
By the time I arrived in Greenland, the first five ballistic missile interceptors had been lowered into silos at Fort Greely, Alaska, as part of the initial test phase of the ground-based missile defense system. At the first 2004 presidential debate in Florida, President Bush was pledging to implement a missile defense "relatively quickly" as another way to deal with "the threats we face in the 21st century."
Missile defense was a subtext in this presidential campaign as the candidates competed over who could make America safer. John Kerry never flatly opposed reviving Ronald Reagan's vision of a missile defense shield, which had been dubbed "Star Wars" as soon as it became public in the 1980s. But Senator Kerry did say that missile defense requires further testing to see if it's feasible. He argued that the current system is not ready to be installed and that "it's the wrong priority for a war on terror, where the enemy strikes with a bomb in the back of a truck or a vial of anthrax in a briefcase."
However, now that he has been reelected, President Bush is expected to charge forward with the antimissile system. The administration has already allotted more than $10 billion in the 2005 budget to missile defense.
The new agreement permits the United States to perform an internal software upgrade to the early warning radar system at Thule. Theoretically, the upgrade will enable the radar at Thule, along with radar newly installed at a base at Fylingdales in the United Kingdom, to track missiles launched at the United States from what U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld calls "rogue nations."
I wanted to visit Thule Air Base and talk to the men and women stationed there. But despite the best efforts of the base's public information officer, I was told I could not come up to Thule until next year. I got the feeling that it was inconvenient for a reporter to show up at Thule when a heated election campaign was going on back home.
Little Denmark, Little America
You don't come across many Americans in Greenland, except at Thule. The only Americans I saw during my trip were in the steakhouse at the posh Hotel Hans Egede, named after the first missionary to Greenland. Considering that there were 12 cows in all of Greenland the last time the government counted, the steakhouse was an anomaly. It was an American-style restaurant in a European hotel on the edge of a vast and icy plain.
Americans stationed at Thule usually take military planes directly from the United States to the base. I didn't have the option of a military plane -- it took seven planes and about 20 hours of flying for me to get to Nuuk from Oakland, California, where I live. Despite the fact that Greenland is part of North America, no direct civilian flights connect the country to its continental neighbors.
Three years ago, I went to East Greenland in late summer and found a stark, stunning landscape of sharp, bare peaks and blue icebergs. In Tasiilaq, the region's biggest town, kids played kickball in the unpaved roads, sled dogs howled at the end of chains outside houses and families piled into boats on Saturday to cruise the fjords.
When I emailed a friend who lives in East Greenland to tell him I was going to Nuuk this year, he warned me: "Nuuk is horrible." One young woman, who grew up in a small town, told me she had traveled to many places, but she was never homesick until she moved to Nuuk.
"We call it Little Denmark," she said.
More Danish citizens live and work in Nuuk than anywhere else
in the former Danish colony. Downtown is busy with passing cars,
buses and bicycles. But the economy is stagnant, and Nuuk, like
other settlements in Greenland, suffers from high rates of unemployment,
suicide, alcoholism and child abuse. Local politicians are abuzz
with the promise of economic benefits from the new military
agreement with the United States.
prime minister Hans Enoksen addresses the island's 31-member
parliament. Coalition governments have been dismantled and
reformed several times since 1979, when the island started
looking after its own domestic affairs. The Thule Air Base
has been a point of contention among parties.
"The Danish media has said they will get billions of dollars
out of this agreement -- that the Americans take care of their
friends," Per Rosing-Petersen told me one afternoon. "This
is not just a question of what's going on at the base," continued
Rosing-Petersen, a Parliamentarian who served on the committee
overseeing the United States-Denmark-Greenland negotiations. "We
know that Denmark and Danish industry get a lot of benefits out
of the agreement, huge benefits."
Roughly 900 miles north of Little Denmark is Little America, otherwise known as Thule Air Base. About 120 American military personnel are stationed there.
Creating more jobs for Greenlanders is one immediate, tangible effect that the economic agreement, signed in conjunction with the defense agreement, could have. Thule's operations contract is scheduled to be renewed this month. It's worth approximately $500 million. The economic agreement encourages the base's contractor to employ a more Greenlandic workforce.
At the moment, the base employs between 500 and 600 Danish civilians and only about 100 Greenlandic civilians. The fact that Danes vastly outnumber Greenlanders at the base reflects the reality of the skilled labor force throughout the country. Without many universities or trade schools, many Greenlanders lack the education and skills to secure the jobs that pay well. But at Thule, there's opportunity for employment as well as job training. Thule needs truck drivers, taxi drivers, cooks, cashiers, secretaries, doctors, nurses, mechanics and janitors.
But living in barracks with your co-workers in complete isolation, starting work at 6 a.m. and working a 54-hour week is not for everyone.
"Either you hate it or you like it," said Brian Hansen,
a mechanic who had just applied for a job at Thule, where he
would make three times the salary he makes in Nuuk. "It's
a special place to be -- from mid-November to the end of February,
there is no sun. But if you can hack it," said Hansen, "you
can be almost anything you want to be at Thule."
Hansen is hoping to return to work at Thule Air Base as
a mechanic. Some Greenlanders like Hansen support the agreement
with the United States because it will generate much-needed
While Hansen waits to hear if he got the job, Greenland Air, the government-owned airline, is already a major beneficiary of the U.S. base. The airline recently won a contract with Thule.
Leaving Our Mark
Almost everyone I spoke to in Nuuk -- from politicians to teenagers -- made sure I understood this, if nothing else, about their country: Greenland has never had enemies. Greenland has never fought a war, and Greenlanders do not relate to people who take up arms against other people. And yet, the U.S. base at Thule, with the latest "Star Wars" technology, offers money and jobs to Greenlanders, who can't afford, economically or politically, to refuse.
The morning I left Nuuk, the wind whistled around the corners of the airport's single building. Tearful families were saying good-bye to relatives leaving on the expensive flights to far-flung hometowns. There is no immigration authority as you enter and leave the country; in fact, if you want a Greenland stamp on your passport, you have to ask.
We all boarded, nudging past the rows filled with shapeless piles of cargo. On the runway, the wind rocked the four-prop plane. Taking off, the plane rocked even more. Two friends sitting across the aisle from each other were laughing and raising eyebrows at our plane's undulations and freefalls through air pockets. "That was a good one!"
As part of my seven-flight return ticket, I had to stop in East Greenland. My friend who lives there -- the one who warned me about Nuuk -- happened to be on the second leg of my journey.
As our plane skirted the last edge of land before heading east over the Atlantic, I watched the jagged mountain peaks slip under our plane. Nobody lives on the land below. It is an empty expanse of mountains, snow, water and ice. My friend broke my trance to point out a bay, where, thousands of feet below us, an unassuming brown stretch of cleared land lay at the foot of a mountain.
"An old American military airstrip," he told me.
Funny. I would never have known it was there.
Krista Mahr is a student at the U.C.
Berkeley graduate school of journalism.
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