What David said

Everything falls apart. Everyone dies in time. In the great, slow reduction of our lives and history, the things we can believe in shrink into a space smaller than our own bodies. To preserve them, for as long as you might, arm yourself, and be afraid.

I would change those last three words to “and beat back your fear.” That’s the only way you keep moving.

The bracelet, a coincidence

On Saturday, I wrote about the opening of Afghanistan’s first museum dedicated to victims of war.  I wrote about the glass cases containing bits of lives snuffed out, the detritus of just one of countless mass graves: dentures, torn cloth, shoes, rusted handcuffs.

That night, I slept fitfully. I had Afghanistan dreams. Again. Nightmares about a place I’ve never been.

The next morning, my mother, my sister and I went through boxes of my old things. In a few months, my grandmother will sell the only house I have ever truly called home. Anything I left there when I moved out must go. As my mother sifted through my jewelry and knick-knacks of years ago, she held up each item and asked “Keep? Or throw away?”

Out of a dusty makeup case, she pulled a bracelet. I snatched it almost violently and ran into the living room.

I hadn’t seen the bracelet in years. I thought I had lost it somewhere, and guilt weighed heavily on me for that. It was a precious object; you see, it once belonged to a girl who now lies in an unmarked grave in Afghanistan.

The bracelet is glass, handmade. It looks black, but, when you hold it up to the light, you see that it’s actually very dark purple. There is a single, freckle-sized blot of of green paint on it, a lovely mistake the artisan saw no need to correct.

I rubbed the bracelet gently between my palms, warming the glass. It didn’t fit over my hand. She had smaller hands, I thought, and such little wrists.

When the bracelet came into my possession, I was 17,  exactly the age she’d been when a bullet stopped her heart, when she saw her husband drop in front of her in the last terrible moments of her own life.

Her daughter would fall asleep in the back seat of my best friend’s car on the way back from Sunday trips to the playground and the ice-cream parlor, and I would stare at the little girl as the winter sunshine rolled over her flushed cheeks and thick-lashed almond eyes. Her mother had been pretty, her father undoubtedly handsome. They had loved their baby, and loved each other. They wanted to have more children. They wanted to go on living. History laid waste to those simple plans in one bloody day.

I pressed the bracelet to my chest.


The picture below is my new blog icon.


Bistrik is an old, quiet neighborhood in Sarajevo full of kids playing soccer, tiny stone mosques and old guesthouses. I stayed in a creaky Bistrik guesthouse my first night in Sarajevo. The owner was a woman who spoke no English and fussed over me like I was her own child. I think back on her, and Bistrik, so fondly now.

Interesting things

The Migrant Express – Four days through Central Asia on the crowded Dushanbe to Moscow train. This tender, humane seven-part RFE_RL documentary explores the social and economic consequences of Tajiks migrating to Russia for work.


Via the CPJ Blog – Afghan journalists are finally speaking with one voice, and are calling for a full investigation into the death of New York Times journalist Sultan Munadi and compensation for Munadi’s family.


Also on the CPJ Blog – An Iraqi journalist finds refuge in Phoenix, Arizona, but struggles to find work. Eventually, his persistence pays off …he gets a job at Red Lobster.


Kevin Heller blogs about the inevitable attacks on the Goldstone Commission, and the Goldstone-bashers respond in the comments.


The slow march of justice in the former Yugoslavia continues. Four former members of the Bosnian Army have been arrested on suspicion of participating in war-time crimes against Bosnian Croats in a village in Herzegovina. Meanwhile, the ICTY trial of Radovan Karadzic is set to begin October 19th.


The author of this article about expat snobbery and ignorance in Bosnia is someone I know personally, and we were part of the same large social circle in Sarajevo. He makes some important, if painful, points about how things work in the international organizations. However, I do think he exaggerates the extent to which young expats isolate themselves and eschew discovering all that is great about Bosnia. (Older, more mercenary expats are a different story.)  Also, the line, “the foreigners lecturing Bosnia have a fair amount of trouble mustering the necessary vocabulary to order a beer at a local bar” is a tad ridiculous. That’s the first phrase every expat learns.


From the “things that make me ashamed of my country” files or, alternately, “America’s shitty domestic human rights record”: in eight states and the District of Columbia, many insurance companies consider being a victim of domestic violence a “pre-existing condition,” and thus grounds for denying coverage. Jillian Hewitt at Feministe is spot-on when she writes: “This is so ridiculous that it may make my post seem obvious or unnecessary, but I think it makes it all the more essential to talk about. This is not a controversial talking point; it does not even seem like a political one to me—this is about humanity. Or inhumanity, as it were.”

Some stuff

First the good news.

Via Spencer Ackerman: the AP is reporting that the concrete barriers in Baghdad are coming down. It’s about time.


Before catching my return bus last weekend, I used my sister’s Netflix account to re-watch the first half of The Edge of Heaven and was again reminded why Fatih Akin is the best thing in European cinema right now.


Now, plunging into the crappy stuff.

Jill has a great post up about how the larger culture of misogyny and dehumanization of women enables men like George Sodini by legitimizing their view that women are things they are entitled to possess.

“In Florida and Pennsylvania children as young as 7 can receive a mandatory sentence of life without possibility of parole.”

America’s justice system: made of FAIL.


Hamesha writes from Kabul:

[…]one fears we have bitten off more than we can chew. we have dived headlong into constitutional liberal democracy, with the attendant outcome that we have none of the above: neither rule of law, nor true democracy, nor liberalism. and in the process the masses have come to abhor all of it, because it has not come at their pace, their comfort zone.

Some will say, well duh, this is a tired point, holding parliamentary elections in 2005 was sheer insanity. But if it is such a tired point, why do we always seem to screw up the sequencing of these things?

With no way to rewind history, the task ahead is that of filling Afghanistan’s hollow democratic order with something approximating the real thing. It will be slow-going and, I worry, increasingly dangerous in the near term.


A few weeks ago I received an email from the refugee resettlement office, inviting me to watch Turtles Can Fly,  Iranian Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi’s critically-acclaimed 2005 film about orphans in Iraqi Kurdistan during the weeks leading up to the US invasion.

As much as I enjoy activist get-togethers, I passed on this one. Back in early college, I picked Turtles Can Fly out, pretty much randomly, from the foreign films rack at the video rental store near my sophomore residence hall. Without exaggeration, it was the single most upsetting film I have ever seen (followed closely by Lilja 4 Ever and Osama). Days afterward, I found myself breaking down in the shower.

American films, even pitch dark indie ones, generally shy away from portraying the world as a relentlessly violent and callous place to children.  If a child protagonist suffers it is never so much or so viscerally that the viewer feels the need to look away. Turtles Can Fly dispenses with all the sentimentality that surrounds children’s experiences in American cinema and goes well beyond where, say, Spanish cinema goes in this direction.

The film’s main protagonist, Satellite, is the shrewd thirteen year old leader of a tribe of orphans in an IDP camp near the Iraq-Turkey border. The children earn enough money to survive by clearing minefields and selling the unexploded mines. Satellite supplements their income by installing satellite dishes and translating English television news to villagers eager for information about the impending American invasion.

Ghobadi’s film overflows with imagery of bodily and social devastation; the deformed bodies of child victims of Saddam Hussein’s chemical attacks, a toddler’s chubby fingers grasping a razor wire fence, a  soldier shooting at the heels of Kurdish children from a sniper tower across the border. Even the sky is merciless. Day after day, it rains on the orphans’ meager existence, muddying their feet and dirtying their leaky tents.

Turtles Can Fly isn’t about underdogs making it against all odds (the title refers to the release of death). Instead, it’s about how even brave, smart, resourceful people get ground into the dust by historical events and material circumstances beyond their control. Ghobadi rejects the (largely American) idea that the human capacity to bounce back from tragedy and trauma is limitless. By subjecting the viewer to the fates of Satellite and the other children, he says don’t be so naive.

The take-away message of Turtles Can Fly is that respecting people like the film’s child protagonists requires a more sober understanding of where agency begins and ends.

It’s an important film, but once was enough for me.


John le Carré is being put out of business by real life.

A former Blackwater employee and an ex-US Marine who has worked as a security operative for the company have made a series of explosive allegations in sworn statements filed on August 3 in federal court in Virginia. The two men claim that the company’s owner, Erik Prince, may have murdered or facilitated the murder of individuals who were cooperating with federal authorities investigating the company. The former employee also alleges that Prince “views himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe,” and that Prince’s companies “encouraged and rewarded the destruction of Iraqi life.”

This is one of those stories for which “fucked the hell up” doesn’t even come close.


Take a look at this.

BiH coast memories

Bosnia is back in the news, and it’s gotten me reminiscing about my time there. Today, I thought about the country’s one and only coastal town, scruffy little Neum –which isn’t half bad as a destination for your department’s annual retreat.

Neum, BiH coast, 2007. This is a silly picture, but the coast is really nice and that water is warm from April to October.

Neum, BiH coast, 2007. This is a silly picture, but the coast is really nice and that water is warm from April to October. When I was there last time, my colleagues asked by the resort next to ours had never been repaired. No one seemed to know. It's become a weird kind of tourist attraction anyway.

I have forgotten the name of this village in the south. The kids there sold us fruit in paper cones by the roadside.

I have forgotten the name of this village in the south. The kids there sold us fruit in paper cones by the roadside.

More coast.

More coast.

Transitional justice folks after hours in a very blue bar.

Transitional justice folks after hours in a very blue bar.

Energizer Bosnians kept going late into the night, after many more drinks and many more wacky dances.

Energizer Bosnians kept going late into the night, after many more drinks and many more wacky dances.

Looking through this album, I’m sad that the best photos are the ones I can’t put here for fear of embarrassing people with Very Important Jobs. Such is life.

Everything you need to know about DC

A friend’s former professor writes:

Washington, D.C. is a great place for people who really loved high school — the Post is the school paper; the Washingtonian the yearbook; Congress is the SGA by any other name; the White House is for anyone who got elected to something in high school and never got over it; the bureaucracies are the nerds’ revenge . . . maybe they weren’t cool enough to get elected to the homecoming court in high school or invited to join a fraternity in college, but they are smart enough to extract their revenge on the cool kids; and the Supreme Court? That is for National Honor Society members, the kind of kids who aced every class in high school, but couldn’t make through a sleepover or summer camp without coming home early. I have lived in Washington almost eighteen years. People still ask me why I don’t get involved in politics or try to latch on to someone’s candidacy so that I can “use my skills.” Leaving aside for the moment that I don’t have any skills that could possibly benefit anyone in politics, the question for me is not why I am not involved, but why would anybody want to do this?

I am smug to say I figured all of that out by my sophomore year of undergrad.  Of course, I figured it all out while hopped up on caffeine pills and sitting in the freezing rain trying to feel something, ANYTHING!

..but, uh, that is another story.

On threads

June 3, 2007.

Email to friends in the US:

Throughout my wanderings, I have come to see that there’s a lot of truth to the  “six connections between any two people on Earth” idea.

Today, I received an e-invite to a US Campaign for Burma house arrest party for jailed Burmese Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s birthday. It instantly reminded me of something that happened earlier this week.

When I was on the road with my colleague Adis, headed to a human rights workshop in Kozara, we got on the subject of travel. Adis said he wanted to visit Southeast Asia, and mentioned an interest in Burma in particular. Why Burma? I asked him.  He told me that during the war, clothing donations were sent to Bosnia from all over the world. One day, he and a school friend went to pick up clothes from a relief agency operating in their area. After waiting in line, they received some donated shirts, pants, etc. One of the tshirts given to Adis‘ friend said “FREE BURMA. FREE AUNG SAN SUU KYI” on it. Adis said everyone thought it was the coolest thing, and it never left his mind.

I just thought that was a strange, illuminating story about the threads that tie us together across vast distances.



More things I miss about Sarajevo (and the Balkans in general)

Adding to the list.

10. Ah, topla čokolada. The extremely rich and pudding-like hot chocolate served in coffee bars. It’s a wonderful winter treat I first tasted in Belgrade in 2006 and then contributed to probably five pounds of weight-gain on its own when I lived in Sarajevo. I’ve never lived anywhere with that kind of hot chocolate. As with Bosnian booze and coffee, it’s go hard or go home with hot chocolate.

11. Lying on the big bed in my first apartment on a Saturday morning and just bathing in the summer sunlight as it poured in my ninth story window. Bliss. I have this silly dream of going back to Sarajevo, buying that apartment and fixing it up in a few years, before the BiH Government gets its shit in order and real estate prices go through the roof. Of course, I should probably have a good job and pay off most of my student loans first…

12. The endearing hodgepodge of Socialist, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian architecture.

13.  My first landlord, Nedad. He was nineteen years old, a freshman in medical school, and the sweetest thing ever.  Nothing upset the kid. When I think of him, I think, “Ok, ok, no problem, no problem.” (My second landlord was a hellraiser. A fine arts professor who lost his job after the war, he took out his frustration at having to work nights shifts at EUPM on his expat tenants, namely, me. I should have stayed in my first apartment and not tried to greedily “upgrade” to one with 24 hour running water and heat. That was a lesson hard-learned.)

14. Zeljanica and tikvanica –a vegetarian’s best friends in Bosnia.

15.  Being able to go to the Mission doctor when I got sick.  Having your doctor work in the same building, just four floors up, is a very nice thing.

16. The flatly ridiculous parking lot (more like a giant mud hole) outside 16 Branilaca Sarajeva. Parking and parking lots in Sarajevo are good for laughs –if you don’t drive!