"Gently stroke your books, dear stranger...
…and remember they are dust."
(more on the dismembered subject line below)
The Shock of the Obvious
I’ve been writing about borders and migration for about a decade. A lot of the stories I’ve written have been about the harms of U.S. detention centers, where migrants are often abused, sometimes tortured, and not infrequently left to languish for years just because they walked across a line.
Some of the stories include such revolting details that they seem — the body politic rejecting an obvious poison — not to settle very deeply into our collective consciousness. Do we not believe them because they are, simultaneously, so awful and so close to home? Have we become inured simply by repetition? Or — perhaps more disturbing still — are we simply resigned to the status quo?
A couple years ago, my good friend and frequent co-reporter for The Intercept, José Olivares and I broke a story about the Irwin Detention Center, in Ocilla, Georgia, where, on top of gross medical neglect, dozens of women were subjected to coerced, non-consensual, and not medically necessary gynecological procedures, including hysterectomies. One woman we spoke with, who had recently been deported, knew that she had undergone surgery, but she didn’t know what it was for. When we first talked to her, she didn’t know if she still had a uterus.
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Less than a year after José and I broke the story about those coerced gynecological procedures in Irwin, the Biden administration announced that they would stop detaining migrants in that particular hellhole. But instead of releasing them, they just sent them to other detention centers, including Stewart, a notoriously awful joint just a few hours away in Georgia. Until migrants from Irwin started getting sent there, Stewart detained only men.
Two weeks ago, José and I broke another story, again for The Intercept, about a series of sexual assault allegations made by women detained in Stewart. We now know of at least six different women who claimed that a male nurse employed by CoreCivic — the private, for-profit company that runs the facility — sexually harassed and abused them. After reporting the abuse, a couple of the women were accused of lying and threatened with years in prison if they continued with their complaint.
As this newsletter is meant to, among other things, go a bit beyond or behind my reporting, I’m here including more than we were able to publish, just a detail really, but something that shook me out of the daily grind of reporting.
Via a couple of long Zoom sessions, José and I interviewed one of the female Venezuelan migrants who said she’d been sexually abused by that same nurse. At one point, we got sidetracked in the conversation when she mentioned how she had first arrived to Stewart. She told us that, after turning themselves in, she and about fifty other women were being “processed” in a Border Patrol facility in Texas. Agents stuffed them into a small room where they waited with barely enough room to sit down, one exposed toilet, and hardly any food. Increasingly desperate and claustrophobic, three or so days in, they heard what sounded like the jangling of chains approaching from down the hallway. A few moments later, a couple Border Patrol agents opened the door and wheeled in a cart stacked with metal boxes filled to the brim with shackles.
The agents began calling out the women’s names, one by one, bringing them to the doorway where they were chained up at the wrists, ankles, and waist, and then sent down the hallway.
“I was in shock,” the woman told us. “I couldn’t believe this was happening.” She said that at least four women fainted from fear. Each of the fifty or so women was eventually chained up, marched out the door, and loaded onto busses that headed for a nearby airport, where they were shipped to detention camps spread throughout the country.
This is the current reality of immigration detention, the reality we have grown used to — at once shocking and any old day.
What I’m Reading
I recently finished Sarajevo Marlboro, by Bosnian writer Miljenko Jergović, a journalist and author with a long list of publications, but with just a few of his books translated into English. Sarajevo Marlboro is a collection of anecdotes and vignettes of the struggles of daily life in Sarajevo during the four-year siege, which began in 1992 when Bosnian Serbs encircled Sarajevo and started shelling and sniping at civilians.
If the Bosnian war is a bit hazy for you, I’m with you, but it’s doesn’t speak well to our educative/media systems. I was in grade school and too young, I guess, to be taught about the war as it was happening. By the time I got to college almost all the geopolitics I was learning was refracted through a post-911/“War on Terror” lens. But I’m guessing that other Americans, outside of my age-bracket, also didn’t get much news or education about Europe’s most recent genocide.
See, for example, this article, which includes the head-scratching formulation, “Since the end of World War II, no wars have been fought in Europe. That is if one excludes the Balkan wars of the 1990s…” It sounds like a Yogi Berra quote, and is probably an official fallacy of some sort. It was a good win, except for the fact that we lost.
Here’s just a bit of context to the Bosnian War: Over 2 million people displaced, at least 100,000 killed, mass rapes, genocide, and the most brutal war in Europe until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Slavoj Žižek, whose books I found absolutely captivating until suddenly I didn’t, assessed the ignorance of the Bosnian wars: “Far from being the Other of Europe, former Yugoslavia was rather Europe itself in its Otherness, the screen onto which Europe projected its own repressed reverse.” Sounds plausible, if a little too Žižekian.
In Sarajevo Marlboro Jergović paints out that otherness, detailing the inescapable mundanity of war. In a city under siege, people still need to eat, drink, and sleep. They also maintain intricate attachments to family, lovers, pets, plants, habits, and hobbies. Small children are still cute, needy, annoying, and beloved. Even as the shells whistle and and the snipers peer through their scopes, humans are petty, generous, jealous, bored, or distracted.
Despite the revealing quotidian intimacy of Jergović’s portraits, poet Ammiel Alcalay, writing in the introduction, questions how much a book can ever cross a cultural, linguistic, or political divide:
The texts that manage to sneak through the policing of our monolingual borders still only provide a mere taste — fragmented, out of context — of what such works might represent in their own cultures, languages, as well as historical and political contexts.
But it is the very limits of translation that lay bare its urgent necessity. Like plant cuttings, the fragments left when a text passes across a language divide can find new soil, take root.
But don’t let me get too romantic here. The subject line of this newsletter is a quote from the collection’s last story, “The Library,” which details the different kind of fires the narrator has come to recognize that blaze up after a bomb drops.
If the fire is slow and lazy, it means that the burning flat belongs to some poor people. If it bursts into a huge, blue fireball, then it’s somebody’s nicely decorated attic with panelled walls burning. If it burns unremittingly….
….If the flame suddenly shoots up, wild and uncontrollable, like the hair of Farrah Fawcett, and disappears even more rapidly, allowing the wind to spread paper ash over the city, that means somebody’s private library has just burned down.
Jergović ends this meditation and the book on a note both dark and realistic: “But you will have to leave [the books] behind… with the bitter conviction that not only in this city, but also in the world at large, a book’s natural state of aggregation is fire, smoke and ash.”
I was recently doing some interviews with forest fire experts up around Flagstaff. With extreme heat and rampant fires the new normal, it’s hard not to extrapolate Jergović’s formulation to more than just books.
One more share: my recent QandA for The Nation on Edafe Okporo’s new book, Asylum: A Memoir and Manifesto. Edafe, a refugee from Nigeria turned author, playwright, activist, and NGO-founder, is one of the most impressive and driven people I’ve ever met. You can read our discussion about his book here.
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