Judith Armatta

Judith Armatta is a lawyer, journalist and human rights activist

MEETING ELIE WIESEL

In 1999, I found myself in Skopje, Macedonia, an evacuee from the Kosovo war. While there, I headed a war crimes documentation project, interviewing some of the 800,000 Kosovar refugees. In the midst of tragedy and suffering, I had the privilege of meeting the great humanitarian, Elie Wiesel, who left this earth a little over a year ago. Today, more than ever, we need these gentle, heroic souls, and I need to be reminded that they have walked this earth -- and left a lasting legacy. The following is what I wrote at the time, included in my memoir in progress.

The U.S. Embassy called to say President Clinton was sending Elie Wiesel here as a personal emissary to speak with refugees. They would like me to meet with him. Would I be available? I said I might be able to rearrange my dance card. I didn't hear anything more for a week, when the Embassy officer called from Stenkovac 1 camp and asked if I could come there to meet with Mr. Wiesel. I grabbed Sebi, one of my young Albanian-speaking staff and a refugee from Kosovo, and hopped in a taxi for the hot ride out to the camp.

Despite the fact that UNHCR had still not issued us badges to enter the camps, Sebi and I flashed the badge Aferdita (our office manager) had made for us using a stapler, a business card, and a safety pin. We entered with no trouble. An embassy staff person met us and walked us through the camp to the tent where Mr. Wiesel was meeting with refugees and staff of the International Rescue Commission, of which he was a board member.

This was my first visit to a camp. About what I'd expected, given oral reports and television footage. Hundreds of grey, white, and khaki tents of various sizes lined up in rows on a dirt field with no trees or foliage. Laundry hanging on tent lines. Women bending over, washing plastic cups in shallow basins of water, carrying babies, changing diapers, tending toddlers. Men lying inside tents with little to do. Children teasing strangers, saying "hi" in English, but no boisterous play, no running and shouting. International aid organizations and insignias everywhere. A group of Japanese Peace tourists. My impressions were gleaned from stolen side glances, as we walked and talked with our escort.

Eventually, we approached the small IRC tent, where a couple dozen people gathered around a slight, grey haired man. When he saw me, he stopped the discussion and came forward to greet me, hand extended, saying "Hello, Judith!" That was enough to impress me for the rest of the century -- and well into the next millennium! I introduced him to Sebi, he ushered me to a chair beside him, and the conversation resumed.

The speaker had apparently just finished telling of his ordeal at the hands of Serb forces in Kosovo. He was expressing his anger and bitterness. Mr. Wiesel listened intently, without interruption. Another man entered the conversation and told how his Serb neighbor had killed a member of his family. Mr. Wiesel asked respectfully, "Do you hate all Serbs?" "Yes," the man, a staff member of IRC, replied in perfect English, without hesitation. He said they were a bad race. He'd read about it in a book, so there must be a scientific basis for it. Mr. Wiesel did not argue with him, but turned to a young girl of about 16, who was going to Canada, and asked her if she fell in love with a boy, agreed to marry him, and then found out his parents were Serbs, what would she do. "I would not take him," she replied firmly. Later, with tears in her eyes, she told Mr. Wiesel how a Serbian man had tried to rape her. With her permission, he held and comforted her.

A man who was with Mr. Wiesel, perhaps another IRC board member, urged him to tell about his experience in Auschwitz. He gently but firmly declined. It was these people's pain he had come to witness. He would not belittle it by judging their hatred. Later, I asked him if he hated all Germans. Quite simply, he answered, "No, I never did." And he acknowledged, again without judgment, that some others who survived the Holocaust still shun everything German. Sebi told him that she had worked with Serbs, had Serbian friends, but she would not see them now. He understood. For the Albanians, the terror was immediate. In Kosovo, it continued.

Mr. Wiesel told me he still struggled to understand hatred and the evil of which humans are capable. He asked the refugee whose neighbor had killed his relative, "How could he do that? To someone he drank wine with, whose children he knew, who had worked beside him and laughed with him?" The man had no answer -- except that he was Serb.

At one point in the discussion, I said that the international community bears some responsibility for what Milosevic has wrought, in that they chose to negotiate with him to end the war in Bosnia. Mr. Wiesel disagreed. He said the Bosnian war had to end, but the fault of the international community was that they failed to intervene sooner.

Mr. Wiesel clearly had a heavy heart after listening to so many tragic stories. He shook his head and wondered how this could happen at the end of the 20th Century. And he offered his concern as well as his deep appreciation for the work we were trying to do. I tried to convey my gratitude for how he chose to live his life and all he'd given to the world. He answered humbly, "We have such a short time here. We must do what we can."

And then I boldly asked if I could get a photograph. He graciously complied, pulling Sebi and me close to him, then telling the photographer to take her time as he was enjoying himself! The cars arrived and he was bustled off to his next appointment, while Sebi and I walked slowly back through the camp. She was as moved as I -- and she had not known of him before this meeting, nor read any of his books. There is something about greatness of spirit that one recognizes in its presence. It is indefinable, yet a palpable presence. I almost think that alone could conquer all the evil in the world. Perhaps, if it wasn't for that, there would be no world left worth struggling for.

OUR KNEEJERK RESPONSE TO AMERICA’S FOUNDATIONAL MYTH

My first reaction when Al-Qaeda crashed planes into the Twin Towers was, “Four more years.” By “decisively” bombing Syria, Donald Trump, the clown, has suddenly become America’s hero. Rapidly jumping on the bandwagon, pundits and pols and average Americans left questions about the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia in the dust, as well as the health care debacle. Who wants to bet the polls will show a surge in support for The Donald?

Trump was acting out America’s foundational myth when he ordered a missile attack on Syria. Americans, responding from psycho-social memory, swooned. Trump became the knight in shining armor who rescues the damsel in distress, the frontiersman who rescues the maiden kidnapped by Indians. Americans rush to applaud because it is the myth on which America was founded. We are the good guys who defend the weak (read “women and children”) against the bad guys.[1] With one violent blow. No messy rescuing refugees for us.

As much as I want to punish Assad for his chemical weapons attack, my question is “Has the bombing of one airport stopped him?” No one claims there were chemical weapons there. Which means he still has them and can use them again in four years, two years, next month, tomorrow. Did we wipe out some planes? Damage runways? That’s questionable, particularly considering that the U.S. gave Russia advance notice of the strikes. Any reason to believe they didn’t pass along that wee bit of information to their long-time partner, Assad? My second question is “What now?”

While the chemical weapons attack killed 80 people, the six-year long war has taken the lives of 470,000: 207,000 civilians, 24,000 children, 23,000 women, and displaced 11 million more. Over 90% of civilian deaths were caused by the Syrian-Russian-Iranian alliance.[2] Nor was this the first chemical weapons attack since the one in 2013 that took the lives of 1,300. Assad has been using chlorine gas against civilians throughout the war and continues to do so.

The media and politicians rush to spin this as an Obama failure. He didn’t act out our foundational myth, though no one seems to recall that he intended to and pursued diplomacy only after Congress refused to give him authority for air strikes. Instead of doing nothing, he worked out a deal with Putin and Assad in which Assad would get rid of his chemical weapons. He sent a lot of them out of the country, but either held some back or made more. Trump didn’t destroy any, as far as a we know. We say Assad’s a bully and Obama was wrong to trust him. After the bombing, we’re still left with the bully. Unless we bomb Syria back into the Stone Age (as we did Iraq) and drive him from power (as we did Hussein and Qadafi), the situation on the ground in Syria remains pretty much the status quo. And if we do bomb Syria back to the Stone Age? We can see where that got us in Iraq. The rise of a ruthless, headless group of fanatics who revel in killing innocents – wherever.

 

[1] See Faludi, Susan, The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America (New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Co. (2007), Chapter 8.

[2]  http://sn4hr.org/wp-content/pdf/english/207_thousand_civilians_were_killed_by_hands_of_the_
Syrian_alliance_Iranian_Russian_en.pdf   (PDF: 207K Civilians Killed by Syrian Alliance)

ACQUIESCENCE IS NOT AN OPTION

A foreign power has helped choose our president. Unfortunately, it wasn’t Ireland, Canada, or Norway. Maybe they will come to the rescue as the U.S. falls into chaos or fascism, governed by a cabal of the superclass (read David Rothkopf’s “The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making, where a number of Trump’s appointees are discussed). It also wasn’t Iran, the Republic of Congo, Vietnam, Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, or Cuba, any of which (and more) could legitimately play tit for tat. The U.S. does not have clean hands here.

Now, I know how the Iranians must have felt when the U.S. orchestrated the removal of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, following his nationalization of the oil industry until then controlled by British companies. Or the Congolese when the U.S. aided the Belgians in assassinating Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of an independent Congo, to preserve our access to uranium used in making nuclear weapons. Or the Chileans after the US-backed military coup that ousted progressive leader Salvador Allende, another ‘fearsome’ economic and social reformer. And on and on. . . .

Despite our sins, can we really allow Vladimir Putin (ex-KGB agent) to ruin our already-battered democracy? It took the Iranians (Persians) over 25 years to get rid of the U.S.-friendly Shah (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi), and his replacement was anything but a democrat. Chileans voted Pinochet out of office in 1988, after 17 years of human rights violations, including murder and disappearances. We’re hoping for only four years max, but it could be eight – and that’s if the citizens still have a meaningful vote. How can we stop this from happening?

Support the appointment of an independent commission to investigate the CIA’s report. Longtime Executive Director of the American Security Project, Jim Ludes, tweeted: "Intel community must brief electoral college about Russia before vote. EC exists to protect republic from candidate under foreign influence." Tell your electors to not cast their votes for Russia’s candidate. Contact your ‘elected’ representatives and senators and tell them to show some spine. And the Democratic Party. Or we’ll all be speaking Russian.

Acquiescence is not an option.

Typhoid Mary of the Blogosphere

            Mary Mallon, born in 1869, is best known as “Typhoid Mary.” She is iconic for allegedly  spreading typhoid to 51 people, three of whom died. Since there was no known cure, Mary was isolated for nearly three decades of her life. Today, we apply the term to people who infect (wittingly or unwittingly) us with information we otherwise might avoid hearing. That, at any rate, is the way in which I use the term here.

            When I was living in the Balkans, then in The Hague reporting on the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, I wrote regular letters to a group of friends and colleagues about my experiences. They were mostly disturbing, focusing as they did on war crimes, genocide, torture, and crimes against humanity. I was grateful to those recipients of my missives who actually read them, though they could hardly have brightened their days. One brave friend, who may have read them all when he could have been watching basketball or hanging out at the local pub, endearingly described me as “The Typhoid Mary of the Internet.” It pretty much fit and we are still friends. So, when I decided to write a blog, an amended version of the title seemed apropos. Henceforth, this blog will be known as belonging to “The Typhoid Mary of the Blogosphere.” Those with courage enter here.

            My intent is to blog about the subjects that stir my conscience, yet leave me feeling helpless. Writing is how I know to influence people -- revealing what is hidden, witnessing what is distressing, offering suggestions for change, passing along the wisdom of others, and most of all, telling stories. Writing moves me from despair. In the best of circumstances, it means I am not alone with sadness and anger that heavies my soul. Julian Beck in The Life of the Theater wrote an exhortation that has guided me since I first read it over four decades ago:

“I see all the danger, the dissolution, I am not content, I recognize the emergency in every house and place….

It is not what we do not know but what we do not feel.

The Theatre of Emergency is the theatre of feeling.

For a feelingless society, feeling.

For a fractured people, unification.

Realization. The people as one, one.

A theatre not for people, but at one with people.

Mending the gap between human nature and the human mind. Stein. We know what class hatred and race hatred are, but we can’t get ourselves to really do anything beyond petty liberal gestures because we don’t really feel what we believe. To change the world.

The theatre of change. Of emergency. Of feeling.

When we feel, we will feel the emergency: when we feel the emergency, we will act: when we act, we will change the world.”

            Yet I do want to be a comedienne. I’d love to make people laugh. I want to laugh more myself. Another adage I try to live by is attributed to Emma Goldman: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be a part of your revolution.”

            I hope some of you will take this journey with me. It is not just a telling, but a hearing. I am still teachable (I think). I know that something new comes from respectful discussion among many. So, let’s see what we can create.