Toronto Star editorial on Katrina aftermath

September 2, 2005 at 10:32 pm | In yulelogStories | 1 Comment

The following is from an article by Rosie DiManno in today’s TorontoStar. The Star requires registration, which might keep people from reading DiManno’s article, hence I’m quoting it. This is how America is seen abroad: an emerging third world nation. Here’s the article, in full:


Tales of woe shame a nation

ROSIE DIMANNO

NEW ORLEANS – Nature wrought destruction but human beings have brought disgrace.

It is disgraceful that countless people are still stranded five days after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf coastline, flattening communities and knocking a major metropolis on its ear.

It is disgraceful that hundreds of state troopers and National Guard soldiers have been deployed to protect property rather than help people.

It is disgraceful that thousands of hurricane refugees — including the elderly, the infirm, the sick, mothers with babes in arms, children separated from parents — have been essentially abandoned in the Superdome and the convention centre, left to fend for themselves without food or water.

It is disgraceful that not a single relief agency has any presence on the ground as far as those of us who are here can see. No Red Cross, no federal emergency administrators, no medical teams, no shelter officials, no angels of mercy.

That is why, beneath the damp and dank, New Orleans is seething.

That — and not rampant greed — is why there has been so much looting in recent days, to the extent that police and troops have been taken away from critical rescue operations and assigned to watch the inmates, or outcasts, who are being treated like vagrants.

And that’s all they do: Watch. Patrolling up and down the main arteries, in their armoured personnel carriers — as if this were Baghdad — automatic weapons hoisted on their shoulders, never stopping to assist fragile citizens in wheelchairs and walkers or mothers with ailing, wailing infants.

I’ve seen better disaster response efforts for earthquake victims in India and the ethnically cleansed exiles of Kosovo. Even the prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay are surely being cared for better than this.

Could it be because the overwhelming majority of these dispossessed are poor and black that their very lives are apparently of less worth than business properties in the French Quarter, deluxe hotels on Canal St., chi-chi mansions in the Garden District, and tourist casinos on the riverfront?

Harrahs Casino, one of the largest and sturdiest buildings near the Riverwalk Palisade, barely damaged, has bolted its front doors, while scores of homeless families that might have taken temporary refuge therein are left to huddle on the torn-up grass, in the dripping humidity — and, yesterday afternoon, the deluge of another thunderstorm — waiting forlornly for promised evacuation buses that have yet to appear.

“We are a Third World city in a First World country,” spat out one disgusted local as he propelled a grocery cart laden with personal possessions along Royal St., intent on getting the hell out of the city, out of the parish, even if he had to walk all the way to Baton Rouge, 130 kilometres northwest. Another frail fellow, a diabetic whose limbs are too swollen to walk — he’s been unable to obtain dialysis treatment for nearly a week — was being pushed along in his wheelchair by an elderly friend. They had no specific destination — just away from here. Out, out, out. But a speeding scout car almost ran them over in the middle of the street.

Julie Holzenphal, 31, delivered her first child on Aug. 22 in nearby St. Bernard Parish, shortly before Katrina hit, but was turned out of the hospital the next day, even though maternity ward staff kept her newborn daughter, Zoe, who required medical attention. When Holzenphal managed to make her way back Wednesday, she found all the babies had been transferred to distant hospitals, some even out of state.

“I don’t know where my baby is,” the single mom sobbed. “Somebody said Houston. How am I supposed to find her? Where are the records? My house is gone, but I don’t care about that. This is my baby daughter, for God’s sake!” [emphasis added]

Everywhere, the scenes are heartbreaking, the tales of woe pathetically similar.

“We spent four nights in the Superdome, but we just couldn’t stay there no more,” said Deion Franklin, as she and husband, Lamond, ushered five youngsters and one chow puppy onto an aluminum skiff — and how the couple managed to get hold of such a precious conveyance, they wouldn’t say.

“There must have been 100,000 people in the dome, and you just wouldn’t believe the mess, the heat, even the crime,” Franklin continued. (Officials put the figure at 25,000.)

“We were always being told: `We’ll get you out of here, there are buses coming.’ But we never saw no buses.

“I didn’t want my little girls in there any more. There were at least four girls raped, that’s what I heard. Shots being fired, knives being pulled, fights breaking out all over the place.”

The woman’s daughters excitedly come forward to recount the worst thing they’d seen: “This man, he jumped right off the top section. I saw him do it,” claims the oldest. “He was holding this little girl in his lap and then he put her down and then he just jumped, killed himself.”

Franklin claims the man had scrawled his name and address on a sink before committing suicide. “Apparently he’d lost the rest of his family in the hurricane. They’d all drowned.”

There was chaotic violence at the convention centre some 10 blocks south of the Superdome, as well.

Late Wednesday night, shooting broke out and at least one person was killed. But three or four others apparently died overnight and two bodies had yet to be removed yesterday morning. They were still lying on the pavement across from the centre.

“Police won’t come in here to help us out,” complained Leanne Zambloom, as she fretted over her 11-month-old son, Jahon, frantic over the child’s listlessness, his refusal to take in fluids. “We’ve had rapes, we’ve had murders, but all the cops do is drive around with their shotguns.”

Then, wrenchingly, she begs: “Will you take my baby? Please, get him some help. I’m willing to turn him over to somebody who can get him to a doctor. I’m terrified he’s going to die.”

For several blocks, to either side of the convention centre, thousands of refugees wait sprawled on the concrete, endlessly pleading for information and release. Insofar as they are surviving at all, it’s because they are taking poignant care of each other, sharing their dwindling provisions, minding one another’s children.

“I could never have lasted this long if it wasn’t for strangers,” adds Zambloom.

It is every day more apparent that these refugees and evacuees are on their own, to cope as best they can.

“I was stuck on the roof of my house for two days, and then a 240-foot barge smashed right into it,” said Joceryn Moses. “It wasn’t no police or soldiers who rescued me. It was just a man with a boat, and I never even got his name.

“So then I’m brought here and I end up sitting on the sidewalk for three days. Can’t they at least bring in some portable toilets? You got to do your business, you squat down behind a car. Is this America? Are we animals? I don’t know, maybe we’re turning into animals.”

But what I see are young people taking care of old people, the relatively healthy caring for the sick, people sharing their paltry supplies. It’s true there’s crime and violence, but tempers are terribly frayed, and feelings of hopelessness overwhelming. The only well-known and sympathetic face these people have seen was that of the musician and actor Harry Connick Jr. The New Orleans-born celebrity — his father was the city’s famous district attorney for decades — spent yesterday wandering among the stricken.

There is also, it must be remembered, the underlying reality of impoverished and ghettoized New Orleans, where dangerous neighbourhoods were already segregated by more than race. And it is from these neighbourhoods, these resentful enclaves, that many of the refugees originate.

They didn’t get out when they were told to get out because they couldn’t get out. They’re poor. They don’t have cars. They don’t have SUVs that could navigate the flooded streets. And they had nowhere to go, so they followed the advice of officials, pouring into the Superdome and the convention centre.

“Everybody’s angry, can people on the outside understand that?” asks Kathy Jenkins, a 26-year-old single mother with a toddler and an infant. “Then you get different gangs from different projects who already have their rivalries, and they’re thrown in together. What do you think is going to happen?”

The men, the heads of families, are palpably infuriated and shamed by their inability to look after loved ones. They feel impotent, and that also nourishes their rage.

“Every time I try to talk to a police officer, I just get blown off,” grumbled Carl Davis, a labourer who has lived all of his 50 years in New Orleans.

“Man, I know we got us a disaster here. But how could they have been so ill-prepared? They knowed this was coming. There must be hundreds of public school buses in this city. Why can’t they use those to get us out of here? What would it take to give a person two square meals a day?

“We’re always sending food and doctors to people on the other side of the world. We have soldiers dying in Iraq. And they can’t get help down to us poor people in New Orleans?

“I tell you, America has let us down.” [source: TorontoStar, Sept.2, 2005)

Scripting posted the audiotape of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s interview on WWL-AM here. It’s a must-listen. Nagin is just brilliant, no bullshit. Can we have him for US president instead, please?

Anonymous was a woman

September 2, 2005 at 1:54 pm | In yulelogStories | 3 Comments

Looking around for links to Trümmerfrauen (“rubble women”) for yesterday’s entry, I came across a review of a book I’d completely missed when it was published in English translation this summer: A Woman in Berlin by “Anonymous.” The book, based on a diary kept by a 34-year-old journalist in Berlin, was published anonymously in Germany in 1953, where it was rejected as too shameful, disgusting, and discomfitting. It was re-published in Germany 50 years later, in 2003, and is now available in English translation. As the American Amazon review puts it, “…it was probably too dark for postwar readers, German or Allied. Now, after witnessing Bosnia and Darfur, maybe we are finally ready.” An Aug.7/05 review in the San Francisco Chronicle notes, “When at one point Anonymous speaks of spewing onto the pages, an unwitting echo of the spewing the war has performed on her, we have begun to feel, in contrast, the urgent necessity of her account.”

In 1989, when I was doing graduate research as a SSRC fellow at the Freie Universität in Berlin, I heard Inge Deutschkron give a talk at a symposium. Born in 1922 in Finsterwalde, Germany, she was a child when Hitler became chancellor of Germany, and she was a young woman barely 20 at the height of World War II, which she, daughter of secular (and socialist) German Jews, survived underground, hidden by friends. She is the author several books, including an autobiography entitled Ich trug den gelben Stern (I wore the yellow star). At the symposium, Inge Deutschkron had a lot to say about the Nazis, the postwar Germans (supposedly “rehabilitated”) who stepped in to run the country, and the “special relationship” between Germany and Israel, but she was also one of the first I heard who spoke openly about the systematic rape by Soviet soldiers of women in Berlin and Germany during that 8-week period from April 20 to June 22, 1945. If I remember her talk correctly, she told of how she, too, was threatened, in her case by a Soviet soldier who also happened to be Jewish, but who couldn’t understand that she, Inge, should be spared. She was a woman, therefore she was to be raped. It didn’t matter that she was a Jew who had just survived the Nazi genocide of Jews.

“Anonymous,” the author of A Woman in Berlin, learned to “dissociate,” to refer to herself as a “walking machine.” She and scores like her endured torture, “dissociated” and accomodated themselves to their lot as best they could, but they couldn’t ask for sympathy or understanding. Some German men in Berlin even brought women hiding in cellars to the Soviets, in a bid to be spared the Russian soldier’s wrath themselves. Then, once the Soviet men left and the German men returned, it became ever clearer that the latter certainly didn’t want to learn that “their” women had been “sullied.” Besides, by the time the rapes stopped, the world learned of the death camps. What’s a raped woman — a city of raped women — compared to that atrocity? Silence shrouded all. And so it goes….

This is still happening. It’s important to break the silence. Crime is crime. War crimes are war crimes.

I usually don’t quote entire articles, but the July 2, 2005 Guardian review by Linda Grant is really very good, especially in terms of how it links then and now. Here it is, The rubble women — Linda Grant on A Woman in Berlin, a shocking account of mass rape during the fall of the German capital, in full:

In the early stages of the Yugoslav war, allegations of mass rape of Croatian and Bosnian women by Serb militias appeared in British newspapers and were dismissed as propaganda by some broadsheets or treated with predictable sensationalism by the tabloids, which predicted a surfeit of “rape babies” available for childless British couples. I played a very small role in the attempt to understand whether real atrocities were occurring, by tracking the course of how these allegations reached the western European media. The answer was mechanical rather than ideological; the war in the former Yugoslavia was the first conflict to be monitored by modern feminist organisations in both Zagreb and Belgrade, which collected the data, and in those days just before the internet, got the information out to German women’s groups, which in turn alerted one of the major German news magazines, which then broke the story.

Despite the difficulty of collating accurate statistics (some women had been raped many times, other cases were multiple eye-witness reports of the same rape) and the mysterious absence of a sharp rise in pregnancies (abortion on demand was available up to 12 weeks and many women, during the heavy shelling, stopped menstruating), I concluded that the rape of Bosnian and Croatian women was not a peculiar feature of this conflict, but a condition of war generally. The failure was that of those organisations whose job it was to document atrocities and which, in the case of rape, had never established the mechanism to do so. A press spokesman at the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed to me that it gathered no statistics on rape in wartime. Any woman wanting to make a report would have to tell her story to a male ICRC officer, through a male interpreter. He agreed that there was no authoritative means of collecting data.

Sixty years ago, in the closing days of the second world war, a 32-year-old German woman, employed in publishing, wrote in her diary: “A stranger’s hands expertly pulling apart my jaw. Then with great deliberation he drops a gob of gathered spit into my mouth.” Anyone who read Antony Beevor’s monumental account of the fall of Berlin, Berlin: The Downfall, will know of the frenzied and brutal attacks on thousands of Berlin women of all ages when the city fell to the Red Army. The diaries, first published in Germany in 1954, and translated into English the following year, were greeted with disgust by German audiences and quickly went out of print. The anonymous author describes the degradation of Berlin women at the hands of the Russian troops and, perhaps more controversially, the choices each made to survive. One need have no sympathy at all for the cause of German nationalism in the 1930s and 40s to be filled with horror at her calmly written accounts, told without self-pity. Even when the rape period is over, and the occupying forces have reasserted control over the city, they continue to feel, and indeed to be, dehumanised: “To the rest of the world we’re nothing but rubble women and trash.”

The narrator, describing herself as “a pale-faced blonde always dressed in the same winter coat”, has the small advantage that she speaks some Russian, having travelled through that country in the 30s. Some groups of soldiers gang-rape her, others contemptuously leave a few cigarettes, “my pay”. The soldiers, known to the women as the “Ivans”, talk to their horses, “which they treat far better than they do us: when they talk to the animals their voices sound warm, even human”.

After the horror and degradation of the first few days, she decides, in the interests of self-preservation, to find an officer, assuming that if she becomes a kind of courtesan of the army, she will be protected against mass rape. However, she discovers that the Soviets have no educated officer class with Germanic codes of conduct, chivalry and clear class-based demarcations of control over their men: a Russian army officer is as likely to be a peasant as his troops. One of the small incidents she notices is that women on the upper floors of her apartment building are more likely to escape attack because many soldiers, from villages in the remote steppes, are unused to stairs.

Even as the rape days continue, the author is conscious of what is going to happen when they end, and considers the different means by which male soldiers and female civilians are awarded a language to describe their experience. Speaking of the German soldiers who had returned to Berlin on leave, she writes: “And they loved to tell their stories which always involved exploits that showed them in a good light. We on the other hand will have to keep politely mum; each one of us will have to act as if she in particular was spared. Otherwise no man is going to want to touch us any more.” And this is indeed the brutal conclusion to her book: the return from the front of her fiancé Gerd, to whom she gives the diaries, and who returns them to her without comment.

Nazi Germany assigned women a closely defined space, as breeding animals for Aryan youth. “The Nazi world,” she writes, “- ruled by men, glorifying the strong man – is beginning to crumble, and with it the myth of ‘Man’. That has transformed us, emboldened us. Among the many defeats at the end of this war is the defeat of the male sex.” Beevor notes that the sexually repressive post-war era in Germany, in which husbands reasserted their authority and the experience of mass rape was submerged, proved that her optimism was “sadly premature”. Perhaps the value of her observation is in its retroactive understanding of German fascism; of the masculine lure of the strong state, the glamour of those uniforms so salaciously depicted by Leni Riefenstahl. The experience of women in occupied zones, whether Germany in 1945 or Iraq today, has its own story to tell, which is not the same as that of the conquering or occupied males.

Perhaps the most horrific incident recounted in the book concerns a lawyer married to a Jewish woman whom he had refused to divorce and who had had to endure terrible hardship as a consequence; they are huddled over the radio, listening to foreign broadcasts, looking forward to the liberation, when Russian soldiers burst into their basement, shooting the husband. Three of them threw themselves on top of the wife while she screamed: “But I’m Jewish, I’m Jewish” and her husband lay bleeding to death. “No one could invent a story like this: it’s life at its most cruel – mad blind circumstance,” the narrator writes.

In his introduction, Beevor addresses the question of authenticity, given the continuing anonymity of the author who died two years ago. The truth, he concludes, lies “in the mass of closely observed detail”. Indeed, most propagandistic accounts of rape in wartime have the air of folk stories, large shapes with recurrent images and themes, heavy with cliché. Satisfied then, that the diaries are real, the reader might ask where should they be placed – as archive material for historians? I would argue that while A Woman in Berlin lacks the great moral interrogation of Primo Levi’s post-war accounts of Auschwitz, what the books share is a voice describing the lived experience of horror that the mind almost always prefers to forget, the examination of painful memories, the questioning of the impact that it has on the self, and on the inner struggle to survive, at all costs.

And we are also confronted, in this book, with a central moral ambiguity that pervades every war, just or unjust. The very Red Army troops who drunkenly ejaculated into the body cavities of a half-crazed elderly woman, screaming in terror, were likely to be the same individuals who, in the January of that year, had liberated the Auschwitz death camps, had been, in fact, Levi’s own liberators. And so the faces of victim and oppressor switch and switch around, and this is why one can only regret that the author would not allow the book to be republished in her lifetime, after its hostile reception in the 50s, and did not live to know that others, even those who were the victims of her country, could read, and empathise, and understand. [Guardian review by Linda Grant]

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