Funny, how even six empty beds in a dorm room, filled the night before with people who said hello and meant it, can leave one with a deep sense of hollowness, loss. Across the globe—and across the heart that dwells on the globe, beating in rooms and with people— there are myriad forms of pain. Empty beds are but one.
Indonesia’s Krakatoa may have had its most historic explosion in August 1883, but thanks to years of civil conflict in Sri Lanka it managed to find its way back into the news this week. “About 260 Sri Lankan asylum-seekers detained in Indonesia have threatened to blow up their wooden boat if the navy forces them to disembark,” reported the AFP. Their vessel, which had been en route to Australia, was stopped in Indonesian waters near Krakatoa.
Reading this story—and any number of other stories about people undertaking dangerous journeys out of desperation—may remind one that many of the world’s travelers aren’t backpackers, explorers, or jet-setting businessmen; they are refugees. Other writers have pointed out the etymological connection between the words “travel” and “travail”, but surely few understand the link better than refugees. Travail, according to one dictionary, is
1. painfully difficult or burdensome work; toil
2. pain, anguish or suffering resulting from mental or physical hardship
3. the pain of childbirth
The UNCHR annual report released earlier this year put the worldwide refugee population at 42 million. Most are internally displaced, meaning they’ve not left their country of origin but have had to move within the country. For example, there has been mass displacement in Pakistan this year because of internal conflict.
The photo above wasn’t taken at a refugee camp, on an overcrowded ship, or in a war zone, but it does represent the pain of displacement, the pain of travel when it is not entirely a voluntary undertaking. The girl is Tibetan, protesting outside the Chinese embassy in Washington DC on a spring day in 2008. I don’t know the story of her own experiences, but she was protesting with other Tibetans who would have known that travel isn’t always cruise ships, beaches, and the occasional stomach bug. For some more than others—for at least 42 million people this year—travel is firmly rooted in the word travail.
In my book Thirty Reasons to Travel, one of the reasons I offer is "graveyards." Here you meet people, some of them absolutely fascinating, you’ll never get to know in hotels and cafes because they are dead. In addition to introducing us to individuals from the past, cemeteries also assist us in putting our own present lives—their brevity, fragility, and perhaps meaning—into perspective.
Not all my visits to cemeteries have been easy experiences. Hearing strangers weep beside a headstone is troubling, as is carrying the coffin of a cherished college friend who, only weeks before a car accident and on the afternoon you went together to hear James Baker speak, taught you how to tie a tie. Nor is it serene when, swept up in a funeral procession on the streets of the Palestinian town of Jenin (this was in 2003), you peer into the ashen face of a 14-year-old boy killed by an Israeli tank. Five minutes later, as you stand beside a hole in the earth and watch men lower him into the ground, the man beside you thrusts his M-16 into the heavens and blasts several rounds into an innocent blue sky. The sound of each shot punches you—angers you. Something is boiling in your veins at this moment; it is the hatred of violent death, whether from smashed cars, gargantuan tanks, or tiny bullets. It is that thousands of mangled people fill the earth each day, including this boy.
The above photograph was taken last week in Mompós, Colombia. Though it shows a grave being readied for a person who I suspect died a natural death, it was still unsettling to peer into the hole (but also comforting to see two good-spirited, sweaty men chatting inside). Later that evening I was reading Stephen Crane’s classic The Red Badge of Courage and came upon the following passage, appreciating how it captured both the horror of violence and the emotions elicited by it. In the scene a mortally wounded soldier has been walking for several minutes to the rear of the battlefield and now enters the final throes of death:
His tall figure stretched itself to its full height. There was a slight rending sound. Then it began to swing forward, slow and straight, in the manner of a falling tree. A swift muscular contortion made the left shoulder strike the ground first.
The body seemed to bounce a little way from the earth. “God!” said the tattered soldier.
The youth had watched, spellbound, this ceremony at the place of meeting. His face had been twisted into an expression of every agony he had imagined for his friend.
He now sprang to his feet and, going closer, gazed upon the pastelike face. The mouth was open and the teeth showed in a laugh.
As the flap of the blue jacket fell away from the body, he could see that the side looked as if it had been chewed by wolves.
The youth turned, with sudden livid rage, toward the battlefield. He shook his fist. He seemed about to deliver a philippic.
Got milk? This calf in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta does. But there are times and places where milk isn’t so easy to come by. Chris Hedges, in his book War is a Force that Gives us Meaning, relates one such story.
The setting is Goražde, a predominately Muslim town in Bosnia, and the time is the early 1990s, when the Bosnian Serb army has put Goražde firmly under siege. Most ethnic Serbs have fled town, but a few, including the family of Rosa Sorak, have decided to remain.
It was a decision Rosa and her husband would come to regret, not least because they would lose two sons, one in a car accident and one at the hands of the Bosnian (Muslim) police, who took the son and presumably killed him. This second son left behind a pregnant wife. When several months later she gave birth—in the midst of continued Bosnian Serb shelling, increasing harassment from Muslim neighbors, and a food shortage—another tragedy threatened the family, for the new mother was unable to nurse. “Infants, like the infirm and the elderly, were dying in droves,” Hedges writes. After five days of tea, the baby “began to fade.”
Enter Fadil Fejzić, an illiterate Muslim neighbor who milked his cow at night to avoid being killed by Serbian snipers.
Rosa told Hedges: “On the fifth day, just before dawn, we heard someone at the door. It was Fadil Fejzić in his black rubber boots. He handed up half a liter of milk. He came the next morning, and the morning after that, and after that. Other families on the street began to insult him. They told him to give his milk to Muslims, to let the Chetnik children die. He never said a word. He refused our money. He came for 442 days, until my daughter-in-law and granddaughter left Goražde for Serbia.”
Rosa went on to tell Hedges that while she could never forgive her son’s Muslim murderers, neither could she be silent when her fellow Serbs spoke only disparagingly of Muslims. She and her family were the recipients of one Muslim's courageous act of love, and her granddaughter was alive because of it. This story needed telling too.
After Rosa's story concludes, Hedges locates Fejzić, who is living a hard life even after the war. Hedges concludes with a reflection of his own:
The small acts of decency by people such as [Fejzić] ripple outwards like concentric circles. These acts, unrecognized at the time, make it impossible to condemn, legally or morally, an entire people. They serve as reminders that we all have a will of our own, a will that is independent of the state or the nationalist cause. Most important, once the war is over, these people make it hard to brand an entire nation or an entire people as guilty.
For a short New York Times editorial about Bosnia today, click on "Bosnia Unraveling" (Feb 22, 2009)
I received an email this morning from a Venezuelan friend who had been celebrating New Year’s Eve at a nice hotel in Panama City, Panama. She wrote, “The dinner was great, a lot lot lot lot of food it was, but at the moment I ate my food I just can´t stop thinking about the 400 people killed in Palestina, and how it was the new year for that families. The party was awful…I just can´t imagine that the rest of the world were celebrating yesterday while a lot of moms, dads, and sons were crying about their lost in Palestina.”
She writes about a tension with which many of us are familiar. How does one celebrate while knowing that at the same moment someone else is mourning, or living in absolute fear?
There is no space here to delve into that question. But like her, the events in Gaza and Israel have been on my mind in recent days. Of all the places I’ve traveled, none were as difficult as Gaza. I thought it an often claustrophobic strip of land (at least in the cities and refugee camps) that had taken not only the lives of Gazans but also amazing (and controversial) people like Rachel Corrie—and where one afternoon, in my desire for a photograph, I had feared it might take mine as well. I had never been to a place where even for a mere 72 hours it was so hard to stay sane. Unless you’ve been there, you simply have no idea what it means to live in Gaza, to live in a cage.
The photograph above was taken in the West Bank town of Ramallah in late 2006. The Palestinian boy was part of a protest against Palestinian-on-Palestinian violence, which the day before had left three Palestinian children dead in Gaza City. Some eyes on this Earth take in an incredible amount of suffering. They take it in, even while many of us celebrate.
Ba Chuc, a Vietnamese community in the Mekong Delta, sits just across the border from Cambodia.In April 1978, Khmer Rouge soldiers entered the village and massacred 3,157 men, women, and children—almost the entire population.Today the skulls of the victims are on display in this outdoor memorial.
Statistics, when referring to numbers of dead, fall flat in their attempts to convey the humanity of what has been lost.This is because emotions are connected to people, not numbers.Try, for example, to process this excerpt from Chris Hedges’ book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning (2002):
Look just at the 1990s: 2 million dead in Afghanistan; 1.5 million dead in the Sudan; some 800,000 butchered in ninety days in Rwanda; a half-million dead in Angola; a quarter of a million dead in Bosnia; 200,000 dead in Guatemala; 150,000 dead in Liberia; a quarter of a million dead in Burundi; 75,000 dead in Algeria; and untold tens of thousands lost in the border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea,....
In Ba Chuc, I spent a good amount of time before these skulls, imagining the life that had once animated the now hollow bones. I heard the laughter, the conversations, the sneezes, the crying...and then the sudden ending of it all. The victims in this photo were almost all females in their late teens—girls in the process of becoming women—and more than a few of them died only after being horrifically raped (an adjacent room offered the most nauseating pictures of sexual violence I had ever seen).And in looking into these skulls, I felt neither the sterility of statistics nor a mere twinge of sadness; I felt a palpable, riveting absence.