Category Archives: War

Breaking radio silence.

Today, I stand inside my apartment, in front of a closed door, as I have done each morning since Donald Trump became president-elect. The last time I had this much difficulty breathing, I was fresh from an appendectomy that excised the organ but couldn’t repair months’-long internal damage. My anticipated full-recovery date was November 13, my thirty-first birthday. This weekend, I turn 33, what some call the Jesus Year, the year we are meant for greatness. Three days ago, I watched the election results in the throes of a terrible cold that refused to let go, without surprise, with a rising mixture of feelings akin to what I felt during the climax of Sri Lanka’s civil war. I vomited once, and later that night, coughed up bloody phlegm. It felt as real as anything else, meaning it didn’t feel real at all.

Fibromyalgia means any bout of illness destroys me, physically and mentally, but for once I am grateful for this cough scraping the flesh from my throat, lungs, diaphragm, energy reserves, because it legitimated canceling my classes, it allowed me to stay in bed for days, to let my apartment go to shit, to utterly lose momentum on my dissertation, to wear the same pajamas day and night, through sweaty night terrors and takeout stains, and call all this something other than depression.

I can’t work up the courage to step outside.

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Failures.

There has been a lot of turnover at my nonprofit site.  A longtime staff member left two weeks ago, leaving me the only remaining member of last year’s personal statements team.  Our most accomplished and well-connected advocate has been driven out by incompetent bosses who couldn’t seem to see the good he was doing for the kids.  Our education coordinator is leaving, and supposedly her spot will go unfilled because “it was like that for a year and it was okay then.”  Actually, no.  I worked that year.  It was not okay in any sense of the word.

None of this is actually why I’m posting.  I’m posting because of 1) Wednesday’s site visit, the first one I was present during, 2) the ludicrously careless actions of a coordinator, which could have seriously threatened a kid’s life, and 3) my first time witnessing police brutality based on race. Continue reading

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When Broken Glass Floats.

“We are like the dust of history being blown away.”

When I start thinking about war or genocide, I go to the images first.  Maybe this is so I can feel as though I’ve survived something.  Reading the narratives puts it into perspective, or assuages (or feeds) the guilt, that I feel this way when I’ve never experienced it for myself.  Call it whinging, posturing, or vicarious trauma.  I don’t know that the impulse goes by a name.

Chanrithy Him’s When Broken Glass Floats is, to date, the most emotionally difficult survivor account I’ve ever encountered.  She describes her experience living under the regime of the Communist Khmer Rouge, which instated a policy of social engineering that resulted in genocide.  Agricultural “reform” measures and the insistence on total self-sufficiency in the matters of food, water, and medicine led to widespread famine and disease.  By forcing the entire Cambodian population to work as farm laborers, the Khmer Rouge hoped to institute a classless society under a totalitarian government.  Intellectuals, as well as those who only appeared to be educated, were executed; books were destroyed; money and symbols of Westernization, including Western medicine, were looked down on.

This system led to the deaths of approximately 1.4 to 2.2 million people.  Half those deaths were likely by execution, the rest by starvation and disease, such as amoebic dysentery, edema, and cholera.  The Khmer Rouge ruled from 1975 to 1979.  The phrase “Year Zero,” which we use to mean “building from the ground up,” was coined in relation to the 1975 Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Penh, as it immediately set about destroying all previous evidence of Cambodian culture and substituting new revolutionary ideals in its stead. Continue reading

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Bearing witness.

This month marks the first anniversary of the bloody end of Sri Lanka’s civil war.

On 2009 May 17-18, depending on how you look at it, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (தமிழீழ விடுதலைப் புலிகள்), also known as the LTTE or Tamil Tigers, were routed by the armed forces of the primarily Sinhalese government.  The war, which was the product of years of ethnic tension between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority, lasted 25 years and was marked by the ruthlessness of both government military and paramilitary campaigns and guerilla warfare and suicide bombing employed by the LTTE, both with little regard to the cost of civilian life.  We saw this magnified in the end stages of the war in May 2009, when the LTTE brought over 80,000 civilians with them into a tiny spittoon of land in the northeast, using them as human shields and impressing them into service (“Sri Lankan Government and LTTE Must Heed Demands from UN Security Council”), and the Sri Lankan army indiscriminately shelled the shrinking warzone, as it had hammered designated no-fire zones such as hospitals, bunkers, and other areas in the Vanni with a known civilian presence in flagrant disregard of the laws of war (“Sri Lanka: Repeated Shelling of Hospitals Evidence of War Crimes”).

In May 2009 my sanity was eroding and I cried almost every night, barely slept, was made numb by President Rajapaksa’s victory speech.  People celebrated in the streets of Colombo and throughout the country.  Like many others, most of whom were Tamil, this victory felt hollow and strange.  Thousands upon thousands of civilians died in the months leading up to May 17.  And while I personally condemn the actions of both the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government, I didn’t know what to think when confronted with the news of LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran’s corpse.  On the news segment his forehead was covered.  There were flies.  I wanted to see the bullet hole for myself.  Wanted proof.  Felt like a part of my life had ended.  At that point I hadn’t lived my life outside of the shadow of Sri Lanka’s war. Continue reading

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The Bang-Bang Club: Snapshots from a Hidden War

Authors Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva were members of the so-called Bang-Bang Club, a group of South African photographers working during apartheid and named for their propensity to photograph violence, “bang-bang” in local slang.  Though the name applied to a larger group it most commonly applied to four photographers: Marinovich, Silva, Ken Oosterbroek, and Kevin Carter.  Of these four, Oosterbroek was killed in a firefight in April 1994 and Kevin Carter committed suicide in July of the same year.

I haven’t read a large body of journalist perspectives on conflict zones—usually I’m drawn to survivor memoirs or fiction inspired by these conflicts—but The Bang-Bang Club is refreshingly honest, direct, and generous towards both sides of the conflict.  Marinovich doesn’t shrink from observing that, after Ken’s death, he and Joao attempted to turn him into a heroic icon; similarly, at the beginning of the memoir he notes without malice that Ken, at least initially, has trouble breaking free of the racism inculcated in him by national attitudes.  Marinovich and Silva also recognizes their own flawed behaviors, whether briefly wanting to deny Kevin his moment of fame regarding his famous Sudan photograph, or cutting himself off from fellow photographer Gary Bernard, who eventually committed suicide.  The straightforward, conversational telling heightens rather than diminishes the impact of witnessing people being dragged out of their homes and hacked and burned to death in the streets while policemen and bystanders turn a blind eye; of women ululating a victory cry as they beat another woman to death; of “necklacing,” the practice of placing a petrol-filled rubber tire around the victim’s neck and setting it alight; of slicing the tendons in a man’s leg so he can’t escape as his own friends take him to be killed; of a Walkman wired as a bomb so that the explosion rips through the head of an ANC lawyer the moment he presses play; of girls being “jackrolled,” abducted and gang-raped for days on end before being returned to her parents with the thanks of the abductors, for the enjoyment their daughter brought them.  Narrated from Marinovich’s point-of-view—albeit with startling leaps into the other photojournalists’ perspectives—The Bang-Bang Club is an honest, brutal examination of their experience chronicling apartheid conflict between 1990-1994, and additionally interrogates the ethics of photojournalism. Continue reading

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