No Place Like Home
Sarina Makugasana was 16 years old when her native Rwanda plunged into ethnic violence and genocide. Rallied into bloodlust by the shrill hatred being broadcast into the village, Hutu neighbors and former friends beat her Tutsi parents to death as she cowered in the bushes nearby. It was a scene being repeated across all of Rwanda, writes Mark Fritz in his book Lost on Earth: Nomads of the New World (Little, Brown): "The self-appointed sentries swung their machetes until their arms ached. Sloppy stacks of dripping bodies rose high along the roadsides."
Dozens of similar stories fill the pages of Fritz's book, which portrays the terrors and anxieties of the world's 100 million refugees as they flee around the globe. Fritz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent, spins an epic story that includes Rwanda, Germany, Iraq, and Somalia, and makes vast tragedies unnervingly intimate by focusing on the individuals caught up in them. Take, for example, Markus Leiske, an 18-year-old Dresden neo-Nazi who shows off the half-moon scar where a police officer hit him on the head with a billy club. Or Kay Schaack, a Liberian mechanical engineer who learned a love of Japanese culture during a year of study in Tokyo. Fritz's characters struggle to maintain their orientation amid a whirlwind narrative of bloodletting and forced migration. Schaack tries to remember his Japanese, even painting Japanese phrases on the side of the cab he drives through Liberia's capital, but he spends too much time simply surviving to be able to keep up. "The words got harder to remember," Fritz writes. "One by one, they just disappeared."
Gradually, Lost on Earth paints a picture of the chaotic geopolitical world that the U.S. helped create in waging the Cold War. Evidence of this appears in post-Iron Curtain Europe, where capitalists buy up state industries and slash jobs, giving rise to bitter xenophobia and nationalism. And in Africa, where dictatorships that had once relied on cash and arms from a friendly superpower now collapse into tribal war. By juxtaposing Somalia, Bosnia, and Rwanda, Fritz makes it clear that today's conflicts are not isolated brushfires in an otherwise peaceful world. They are the first glimmers of a slow, international conflagration--a Thousand Points of Light in our New World Order.
Nowhere is the global nature of this storm more evident than in Germany, which represents the first port of entry to the West for Kurds, Croats, and Liberians. "Germany became a tidal pool, a catch basin for people hurled from their countries by post-Cold War turbulence," Fritz writes. But the swelling anti-auslander sentiment that has ensued has forced the government to take absurd measures. It ships 500 refugees to a rural town's abandoned army base, nearly tripling the population in the process. In 1992 West German politicians pay a mercenary-cum-international security advisor to deliver a busload of children from a bombed-out orphanage in Sarajevo to German soil, driving them over craggy mountain roads and through sniper fire. Later, as anti-immigrant sentiment soars, Germany flies the orphans back at government expense.
For its part, the U.S. has proved just as unaccommodating. Last month Seattle's weekly paper The Stranger reported that the Immigration and Naturalization Service is starting to fully enforce a 1996 law stipulating the deportation of every immigrant who ever committed a crime that received a sentence of at least a year. Some of these crimes are more than 20 years old, and some are as benign as shoplifting.
For Fritz the way to stop the tide is surprisingly easy: In Lost on Earth's epilogue, he argues for a new military branch that would stand as "the global police force of the paramount power, halting catastrophic crimes against humanity with lightning speed and ferocious efficiency." It's an ending that ill serves his engrossing, terrifying book, mostly because it reads more like a military position paper and less like passionate journalism. It's also uncharacteristically shortsighted, forgetting that we cannot afford to act without a deeper, more measured, understanding of the nations we try to help, or of the new questions the world would ask of us. In spite of the glittering promises of Super Bowl halftime shows and Intel Pentium III ads, the world we inherit is not one without a history. Its fear and hatred run too deep to be solved by giving the world a Coke, and every time the United States insists otherwise, history deals it a bloody lesson.
Regardless, it's a lesson we may be relearning soon: This week the Marine Corps will be staging a mock invasion of Oakland, California. Six thousand sailors and Marines will flow into the city, training for the dense urban environment that will be the backdrop for tomorrow's military operations. They'll fill the air with tens of thousands of blank rounds of small-arms fire, tramping through the streets as they prepare for the next Bosnia, or the next Somalia. Or, perhaps, for the next Vietnam.
Tara Bahrampour's To See and See Again (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) also depicts the lives of refugees, though its scope is much more intimate: The autobiographical book follows the lives of Tara, her American mother, her Iranian father, and her two siblings. In a matter-of-fact prose peppered with occasional glimpses of poetry, Bahrampour describes how her upbringing in Iran was interrupted in 1979 when the Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic Revolution overthrew the Shah, and the family fled to the U.S. In this seemingly safe haven, though, the Bahrampour family encountered economic hardships and occasional flare-ups of anti-Arab racism.
Bahrampour seems to have a preternatural memory for childhood detail, and the early chapters glow with wondrous moments. A friend's grandmother in Iran teaches her how to drink tea and talk while holding a sugar cube in her mouth. Tara and another friend plan Barbie's pilgrimage to Mecca: "'And what about Mard-e Shish Million Dollari?' Maryam asks. The Six Million Dollar Man. 'Can he go?'"
It soon becomes apparent, though, that Bahrampour has resisted any broader analysis that might have lent structure to her book over the span of its 300-plus pages. Instead, she has strung together countless episodes that grope halfheartedly toward a cross-cultural understanding--episodes that lose their luster as the chapters drag on. To See and See Again is an oddly apolitical book, considering its topics: American racism, the Shah's colonialist despotism, the Islamic Revolution. Bahrampour refuses to consider anything broader than the particulars of her situation, apparently forgetting--or worse, not caring--that these decisions to kill and deprive are acts of human hate and negligence, not acts of God.
Integrating individual experience with historical understanding, as Fritz does in Lost on Earth, gives people the power and the right to find a place in the politics around them. Bahrampour's narrative, by contrast, emphasizes the personal to the exclusion of the political and ultimately serves neither.
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