During the conference, there would come a time each day when writers would share their narrative writings with participants who wanted to listen. And many did. The hundreds of chairs set up in the ballroom area, where these readings took place, were filled as people sat quietly to listen as stories were read aloud. Space allows us to publish only a few of these readings, so we selected narratives that were reported and written by those who work at newspapers.
Using Narrative to Report on Race in America
In 1999 and 2000, I had the privilege to write and help edit The New York Times’ series on how race is lived in America. When it came out, it got quite a bit of praise and won the Pulitzer Prize, and it also got a bit of criticism. And some of the criticism was that it didn’t make solid points about the issue of racism, but I always argue that it did make very solid points about race and race in America, and one of those was the extent to which race divides people who ought to have so much in common. I have a couple of excerpts to read that I think illustrate this point. The first one is from an article I wrote called, “Which Man’s Army?” I spent about six months at Fort Knox, Kentucky, hanging out with a company of soldiers mainly involved in basic training, and I got to know the drill sergeants, that sort of icon of American military. I focused in on two drill sergeants, Earnest Williams, who was black, from Waco, Texas, and his partner, Harry Feyer, who was white, from Sheboygan, Wisconsin. They were the same age. They had entered the Army within a month of each other and been in the Army about 12 years. They were both married and had children who were roughly the same age. They lived within 200 yards of each other, and they had never visited each other’s house. —Steven A. Holmes
Staff Sgt. Harry Feyer was parking cars and looking glum when the four platoons of Bravo Company, including his own, came marching toward him up a long grassy hill on their way to the winter graduation.
They stepped smartly, 214 strong, their brass buttons gleaming on dress greens, their black shoes buffed to a high sheen. They displayed all the discipline and dash that Sergeant Feyer, a leader of Fourth Platoon, had helped pound into them in nine weeks of basic training. Striding beside them were his fellow drill sergeants, shoulders back, chests out, their full-dress uniforms a deep green backdrop for clusters of glinting medals and rainbows of ribbons, their brown Smokey Bear hats cocked aggressively low on their foreheads. Sergeant Feyer, six feet tall and lanky, might have been among them.
Instead he stood apart in his mottled fatigues and dusty combat boots, directing traffic outside the dingy yellow gymnasium where the ceremony was to be held. It was a duty he had volunteered for. It was his one-man protest.
Sergeant Feyer was angry that he had been denied an award given to the top-performing drill sergeant at the end of each basic training cycle, an award he felt he deserved. True, it didn’t look like much—just a cheap bronze plated statue, a generic eight-inch-tall figure of a sergeant. But in the pressure cooker that is the United States Army, winning even a small award could help make the difference between promotion and stagnation, between a better life for his family and just scraping by.
And he knew why he had lost out, or believed he knew: because he is white. No white drill sergeant had won the award since the company was founded in April 1998. Of the five given out, three had gone to blacks and one to a Hispanic. The one time a white sergeant was selected, he gave the trophy back when a group of black sergeants kicked up a fuss, saying he didn’t deserve it.
That Sergeant Feyer had lost out this time came as no surprise in Bravo Company, particularly to the white sergeants. Everyone knew that in Bravo, a clique of black sergeants ran things.
Sergeant Feyer said he didn’t like to think that way. People make too much of race, he said. But there were times when it did matter to him. “When it’s a matter of something that I deserve because of my position,” he said, “if I outrank a person and he gets a job because of his color, then there’s something wrong.”
As Sergeant Feyer stewed in the parking lot, Staff Sgt. Earnest Williams stood erect in front of Fourth Platoon, his square, muscled frame pushing at the seams of his uniform. Sergeant Williams was part of that black coterie that ran the company and ran it smoothly. The white sergeants might grumble, but they acknowledged that the blacks got things done. Yet Sergeant Williams was not feeling particularly powerful this morning. This was his last day with the company. He was being transferred to another unit, away from his buddies, away from his position of influence.
It seemed unfair to him. He was a good soldier, a good leader. His superiors—his white superiors—had said there were too many drill sergeants in Bravo Company and not enough in others. He did not believe them. He was convinced he was being shipped out because he is black. As far as he could see, the powers that be didn’t like it when the brothers were in control.
“We had it for a little while,” said one of his black compatriots. “But then they said, ‘Oh no, we can’t let this be.’”
So on a chill December morning, two soldiers—one black, one white, both part of an institution portrayed as a model of race relations—stood only yards apart in the middle of this sprawling base, each believing himself the victim of racism.
Just then a gray Honda Accord glided into a parking space and out popped Sgt. First Class Henry Reed, resplendent in his dress greens. “Good morning!” he bellowed, a broad smile splitting his dark, soft-featured face. “It’s a wonderful day!”
Sergeant Reed was going to receive the award that Sergeant Feyer saw as rightfully his; Sergeant Reed would get the glory even though it was Sergeant Feyer who had worked the late nights, who had pitched in to help other platoons when they were short-handed, who had made sure the washers and dryers got fixed.
Sergeant Reed was limited by a back injury suffered in a car crash, and it had not escaped Sergeant Feyer’s notice that Sergeant Reed had skipped the long days on the rifle range, that he hadn’t humped a 40-pound rucksack up and down steep, chest-busting hills on 15-kilometer marches.
“We all know that Reed is broke,” one white drill sergeant said. “He can’t do the work anymore.”
Sergeant Reed was also nearing retirement; at 39 he was the oldest drill sergeant in the company. This was probably his last chance to win the company’s drill-sergeant award. So his fellow black sergeants had decided to select him, they said, on the basis of what he had done in the past.
As Sergeant Feyer watched his colleague stride jauntily into the field house, he had another reason to fume. Sergeant Reed had parked his car off by itself, leaving a devil-may-care gap in the row of vehicles that Sergeant Feyer—who finds satisfaction in rote, mechanical tasks—had meticulously arranged.
“He ruined my parking,” Sergeant Feyer said. “Not only did he screw me out of my award, but he ruined my parking.”
The next excerpt is by Kevin Sack, who spent a lot of time in a church outside Atlanta. It was an unusual church in that it was about 55 percent white and 45 percent black. It was aggressively trying to remain integrated and was struggling with this. Kevin wrote about and focused on two families: the Pughs, a white family, and the Birches, a black family. He talks about them and how they fit into the church.
Howard Pugh, head usher, is on patrol. May the good Lord have mercy on any child, or adult for that matter, who dares to tread across the lobby of the Assembly of God Tabernacle with so much as an open Coca-Cola in his hand. Because first he will get the look, the alert glare of a hunting dog catching its first scent of game. Then he will get the wag, the slightly palsied shake of the left index finger. And then the voice, serious as a heart attack and dripping with Pensacola pinesap: “Son, this is the Lord’s house. And they just shampooed that carpet last week.”
It goes without saying that Howard Pugh knows what is going on in his lobby. So when Mr. Pugh, a white man with a bulbous pink nose, spots 81-year-old Roy Denson slipping out of the sanctuary, he doesn’t even have to ask. He just knows. He knows because he has seen Mr. Denson flee the 10:30 service time and again, and it is always when one of the choir’s black soloists moves to center stage. This time it is Robert Lawson, a soulful tenor with a fondness for canary-yellow suits. As he begins to sing, the Pentecostal faithful gradually rise. First a few black members clap and sway. Then more join in. Finally, the white members are moved to stand, and before long the 2,000-seat sanctuary is washed over with harmony. Stretching their arms toward the heavens, the congregants weave a tapestry of pinks and tans and browns.
But to Mr. Denson’s ears, Mr. Lawson’s improvisational riffs sound like so much screeching and hollering. And so he sits there seething, thinking about how he joined this church 56 years ago, how he followed it from downtown Atlanta to the suburbs, how he hung the Sheetrock with his own hands, and how the blacks are taking over and the whites are just letting it happen.
He gets angrier and angrier, listening to these boisterous black folks desecrate his music, until he simply cannot bear it. “I ain’t sitting there and listening to that,” he mutters on his way out. “They’re not going to take over my church.”
And there waiting for him is Mr. Pugh, at 65 another white man of his generation, always with the same smart-alecky question. Never mind that Mr. Pugh and his wife, Janice, have themselves become uneasy about the direction of their church, that they have been quietly contemplating a walk of their own. “Now, Roy,” Mr. Pugh begins, stroking his seafarer’s beard, “what are you going to do when you get to heaven? Walk out of there, too?”
A Narrative Story Written on Deadline
As a journalist who primarily has written for daily newspapers, I’m going to be reading from a story that was a Pulitzer finalist. “Cruel Flood: It Tore at Graves, and at Hearts” is a story that probably I treasure the most because it was written on deadline and adhered to the standards that we are striving for, which is trying to do narrative in whatever form or medium we happen to be working in. —Isabel Wilkerson
August 25, 1993. Harden, Missouri: When the Missouri River barreled through town like white-water rapids this summer, and grain bins and City Hall and the Assembly of God church and houses and barns gave way and there were no telephones or electricity or running water, people in this tiny farm town thought they knew all about the power of nature.
Then the unthinkable happened. The river washed away about two-thirds of the graves at the cemetery where just about anybody who ever lived and died here was buried. The river carved out a crater 50 feet deep where the cemetery used to be. It took cottonwood trees and the brick entryway and carried close to 900 caskets and burial vaults downstream toward St. Louis and the Mississippi. The remains of whole families floated away, their two-ton burial vaults coming to rest in tree limbs, on highways, along railroad tracks and in beanfields two and three towns away.
“You cannot accept the magnitude of it until you’re standing in it,” said Dean Snow, the Ray County coroner. He said it might take years to find all the remains.
Now people who lost everything else to the flood are left to weep for the parents they mourned decades ago, the stillborn children they never saw grow up, the husbands taken from them in farm accidents, the mothers who died in childbirth. It is as if the people have died all over again and the survivors must grieve anew.
Every day they show up at the county fairgrounds to get word of their lost loved ones, gathering at a bulletin board where the names of the dead who have been recovered and identified are posted. People have driven from Kansas City and St. Louis to check on half-brothers or second husbands. A man called from Sacramento, California, trying to find his parents. Another flew in from New Mexico to find his mother. She was missing, too.
“People are just heartsick,” said Ed Wolfe, who had five generations of relatives in the cemetery. “It’s a trying, a testing time to have to go through this all over again.”
About 1,500 people were buried at the Hardin Cemetery, once a pristine landscape nine acres across and now a muddy lake where minnows and snapping turtles live alongside broken headstones and toppled graves. The disaster was all the more astonishing because Hardin is not even a river town. It is some five miles north of the Missouri.
Since it was founded in 1810, the cemetery had survived tornadoes, floods and the Civil War. No other cemetery in the country has been uprooted like this, officials of the American Cemetery Association say. Local people see the occurrence as near-biblical.
“It makes you think, ‘What is God saying to us?’” said Bess Meador, a retired nurse with two husbands in the cemetery. “What is it we’re doing that we shouldn’t be doing? You look at that cemetery and you feel so helpless.”
Whether a resident lost a direct relative or not, everybody lost someone. Just about everybody in the cemetery was kin.
So far, the remains of about 200 people have been found, stored in open barns and refrigerated trucks at the county fairgrounds and at a nearby farm. About 90 have been identified.
It is a slow, painful task, more common to a plane crash than to a flood, that has required survivors to come in and give disaster volunteers any identifying information they can remember about their relatives.
Two boxes of tissues sit on the counseling desk for the shower of tears as people dig deep for old memories. Mr. Wolfe had to call up painful details about his only son, Christopher, a stillborn, who would have been 18 years old this year and whose remains are among the missing.
“They wanted to know what kind of casket, what color casket,” Mr. Wolfe said. “What color his eyes were, what color his hair was, what he was wearing, if he had a little pillow in his casket.”
Some people were able to give only the barest description. Some could only remember that a relative had a gold tooth or a hip replacement. Others remembered everything. One man’s survivors remembered that he was buried in his Kansas State shorts, with a Timex watch, and had a slide rule in his shirt pocket. The relatives of another man said he had a tattoo on his right arm that said “Irene.”
The ordeal has forced Carrie Lee Young, 81, to relive the day she learned that her husband, Roy, had died when a tractor-mower fell on him five years ago. “He was out mowing by the road,” she said, her eyes welling with tears. “And he didn’t come in for supper. I couldn’t go out looking for him. He had the car. People went out looking for him. They found him late that night. We were getting ready for our 55th wedding anniversary. It would be our 60th this year.”
Every Memorial Day, she would carry peonies from her garden to place on the grave he had picked out for himself. Now she fears he is floating somewhere in the Missouri. “I don’t know where my husband is,” Mrs. Young said. “It is just pitiful.”
She searched in vain for his name on the list and asked a volunteer, Greg Carmichael, if he knew where her husband was. He checked the plot number and the map. “He’s pretty well gone,” Mr. Carmichael said.
“That’s what I was afraid of,” Mrs. Young said, looking away.
To this town of 598 people, the cemetery was more than a place to bury people. It was an archives, a genealogical museum, a family album without pictures. People could trace their family trees by just walking among the tombstones.
The other day, Mr. Wolfe stood on the jagged 10-foot cliff at the corner of the cemetery that the river had left alone. Vaults and caskets—most lacking any identification marks—jutted from the cliffside, rusting in the sand steppes sculptured by the river. There were pink silk carnations on the remaining graves and broken obelisks and tombstones on their backs in the ravine below as gray-brown water lapped against the shores.
Mr. Wolfe soberly toured the cemetery, introducing people he knew as if he were at a reunion. “That’s grandma and grandpa Bandy,” he said of one set of tombstones.
“Those were neighbors of ours,” he said, pointing to the headstones of a mother, father and daughter.
Joined by Mr. Snow, he came upon the grave of a World War II veteran. “That’s Della’s husband,” he said.
“Yeah, Bob’s dad,” Mr. Snow said. “He was working on his car and it fell on him.”
This is the kind of town where husbands and wives buy burial plots together and engrave their names on tombstones long before they die.
“You see, that’s why grandmother wants a positive identification of grandfather,” Mr. Chamberlain, a funeral director volunteering here, said. “Because she wants to be placed next to him, not next to somebody else.”
As people here await word on the recovery effort, some are trying to figure out what to do with the cemetery. Some want to extend it into the adjacent cornfields and maybe put water lilies in the lake the river made as a memorial to those lost to the floods. Others want to move the entire cemetery, including the intact graves, to higher ground. Some want to have a new mass funeral service after more bodies are found.
Some people said they could not even think about that. “I can’t go through that again,” said Ethel Kincaid, whose parents’ remains are still missing. “I went through it once. It’s just too painful.”
County officials have been hauling in about eight caskets a day as farmers and other residents report sightings. Clara Heil, a farmer eight miles east of Hardin, awoke one morning to find 10 vaults in her yard.
The cemetery itself has attracted tourists from Illinois and Kansas and as far away as Vermont, who drive past police barricades and ignore the “keep out” signs to take pictures. “Is this where the caskets popped out?” a gawker from Vermont asked Mr. Snow, camera in hand.
But these are hallowed grounds to people like Mr. Wolfe. When Mr. Snow waved him onto the site, he anxiously paced the cemetery in search of his father and stillborn son. He got to the edge of the cliff and saw the earth carved out in the spot where they had been.
“My baby and my dad are gone,” Mr. Wolfe said, his eyes red and watery. “We’ve been hoping for five weeks they were safe. The way things are broken up down there, I don’t know if they’ll ever be recovered.”
He wiped his eyes and headed back to the road, walking over dead corn shucks and wheat stubble, to break the news to his wife.
A Reporter Puts Himself in His Narrative Account
This story appeared in the St. Petersburg Times in November. It’s from Termez, Uzbekistan, a city on the southern border of Uzbekistan, across the Amu Darya from Afghanistan. —Tom French
The windows of the old apartment building are alive with faces, shoved against the glass to see who has gotten out of the strange van in the alley below.
You nod hello, then look around to get your bearings. Above, strings heavy with laundry hang from the side of the building, curving in the Sunday morning light. At your feet, children play in puddles of brown water.
Up the stairs, to an entryway where five boys are already waiting. They stand formally, shoulders back, chins held high, like dignitaries in a reception line. One by one, as you move past, they solemnly shake your hand. Several adults stand behind them, nodding.
“Please, can you help me?” a woman says softly in English. She is holding a thin white veil across the lower half of her face.
You don’t know what to say, and you are already being ushered forward. So you smile politely and keep your eyes away from hers and step into the apartment.
The front door is pasted over with a mosaic of photos of Madonna, Chuck Norris, Sylvester Stallone as Rambo, a couple of Russian soccer players. The room you have entered is dark and almost completely empty of furniture. The floor is covered with a faded red carpet. In one corner, on top of a mini-cabinet, there is a small TV and a boom box. On the floor, near another doorway, you see a worn deck of cards.
Your host, the man you came here hoping to meet, invites you to sit down across from him on the carpet. The others from the entryway—including the woman in the veil as well as the boys who greeted you—come in and crowd behind him and beside him. Too late, you notice they have all left their shoes at the door, while you are still wearing your hiking boots.
If your host is offended, his face does not show it. He kneels on the carpet and silently watches as you get settled and pull out your notebook and pen.
He is waiting until you are ready. He will wait as long as it takes.
His name, he says, is Hashmatullah Sharifzada. He prints it out, in your notebook, so you will get it right.
He explains that he was born on January 1, 1971—he puts the date down for you, too—in Kabul. He grew up there and lived in the city until two years ago, when he fled Afghanistan.
“Why did you leave?” you ask.
“The Taliban captured me,” he says, not taking his eyes off yours. “They hit me in the head with a pistol. They broke my toes. They pulled out my toenails.”
Sharifzada runs a hand over his bare cheeks. “I was not a military person,” he says. “I was not a Taliban. They are Wahhabites and Pashtuns, but I am a Tajik, and I didn’t wear a beard.”
It takes time for these words to travel from his mouth to your notebook because they must be relayed across several continents. Sharifzada speaks in Farsi. A boy at his side translates the Farsi into Uzbek. Another man in the room, an Uzbek guide you have brought with you, translates from Uzbek to Russian for another guide. This second guide then translates from Russian into English, so you, an American, can write down at least some version of what was originally said.
Still, the essence of Sharifzada’s story comes through. It’s written on his face. It’s in the flatness of his voice.
He shows you what the Taliban did to him. Barefoot, he points to the toes that were broken and the nails that were pulled out. Two years later, they are still black.
“I was an ordinary person,” he says, “and that’s why they did this to me. They wanted me to become a Taliban, and I was running away. That’s why they caught me and tortured me.”
He is trying to explain what he did for a living before these things happened. It seems he was some kind of a low-level government official. But he can’t find the exact word to describe his position; at least he can’t find a word that survives the chain of translations. He turns to a Farsi-English dictionary and flips through the pages. As he searches, the woman in the veil uses the opening in the conversation to speak.
“Please help me,” she says again in English. “We don’t have any work here. Can you help us?”
Again, you don’t know how to respond. You’re not sure how she learned English, or even who she is. A relative? A neighbor? With the language barriers, you haven’t figured out who any of these other people are. You understand that they are refugees from Afghanistan. But that’s all.
Finally, Sharifzada finds the word he was looking for in the dictionary.
“Petty official,” he says. Yes. He was a petty official in the Ministry of the Interior. He stamped papers that allowed consumer goods—cars, appliances, shipments of grain—to be distributed around the country.
For a moment, he pauses. Then he explains that he had a family in Kabul, a wife and a little boy, and that two years ago, just before he was captured and tortured, his wife was killed.
“Talibans were fighting, and they were shooting,” he says. “My wife was at the bazaar, and the Talibans got into a shootout, and she was killed. I don’t know if they did it on purpose or if it was an accident.”
You try to find out more. You want to know his wife’s name, how old she was, any other details he can share.
The woman with the veil—it turns out she is his sister—lowers her gaze.
Sharifzada shakes his head.
“Please don’t ask me about this,” he says, his eyes filling with tears. “Please don’t ask me.”
His son, Farshad, was 3 when his mother was killed. Now 5, he is the smallest of the boys who shook your hand at the door. He is gaunt and pale, with dark brown eyes that seem to never blink.
While you wait for questions and answers to wend their way through the languages, you watch Farshad. He is holding a bow made of a stick and a piece of string; he seems to have no arrow for the bow, but plays with it anyway, pulling on the string. He says nothing. He stands back, near the door, studying you while you study him. At last he comes forward and sits beside his father and lays his head on his lap.
Sharifzada talks about his parents and the rest of their family. There were nine children in all; three girls and six boys. He and his sister, the one sitting here now, don’t know where their other siblings are. Nor do they know what has happened to their parents. At last contact, their mother and father and at least two of the siblings were still living in Kabul.
He leafs through the Farsi-English dictionary again. He is looking through a section that translates phrases. He finds the one he wants and points to it for you to read.
I am thinking about my family. I haven’t heard anything about them.
Behind him, his sister knows without looking what phrase he has chosen. “Thinking about my family,” she says.
By this point she has taken off the veil. Her name is Fawziy Saedi. She’s a year younger than her brother. She is married, with two sons of her own; her boys were also in the line that shook hands at the door. She and her husband and their sons live in this apartment with Sharifzada and Farshad.
“How do you know English?” you ask her.
Before the Taliban came to power, Saedi says, she was a schoolteacher in Kabul. She taught English. Years have passed since then, and she has lost most of the language. Now she spends her days teaching her sons and her nephew. They can’t go to school here in Uzbekistan, because they don’t speak Uzbek. So she teaches them in Farsi and what she remembers of English.
To show what he has learned, her 8-year-old son gives a recital.
“A-B-C-D-E-F-G,” he says, running quickly through all 26 letters.
Then he sings. “Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are. Up above the sky so bright…”
The interview unfolds in slow motion. It stops and starts and then stops again.
The boy who has been converting the words from Farsi to Uzbek has to leave. Another boy, slightly younger, takes his place. He was born with polio and walks with braces. You study this child, too. As he translates, you try not to stare at his withered left leg, but you can’t help it and stare anyway.
Hours are going by, and your own legs, you are ashamed to admit, are aching from sitting so long on the floor. One of the other children sees your squirming and gets up and brings you a pillow. You try to tell him no thank you, because no one else has a pillow. The boy insists you take it.
Saedi’s husband wanders in and out of the room. Others come and go as well. Through it all, Sharifzada keeps talking. He tells how he escaped the Taliban after bribing his guards, how he and his son and his sister and her family spent weeks trying to find a route out of Afghanistan.
Sometimes the six of them traveled in a car. Sometimes they walked through mountain passes covered in snow. First they went to Pakistan, where so many Afghan refugees have fled. But after two weeks they were sent back across the border. Then they tried Tajikistan. Then Iran. Then Tajikistan again; this time they were allowed to enter the country. They stayed two years. They were easy prey for profiteers; by the time they left, their savings were gone.
Finally, they obtained permission to come to Uzbekistan, arriving in Termez on May 15 of this year. Their papers are only good for a few more months; soon they will have to apply for an extension.
With no savings, they get by as best they can.
“We live here,” says Sharifzada, looking around the room. “We are doing nothing. There is no work for us.”
He has not been able to find a decent job. Instead he sells plastic bags down at the bazaar; he has learned enough Uzbek phrases to conduct the transactions. He makes 300 to 400 sum a day—roughly 20 to 30 cents, not nearly enough to cover their rent and expenses. So they borrow the rest from other Afghan families in Termez who know they will pay them back eventually.
In Kabul, he says, they had a car, a house, furniture, beds. Here, they own nothing aside from a few clothes; the TV, which is blurry and only gets one channel, belongs to their landlord. The six members of the family stay in this room together, sleeping on the carpet.
“Do you have enough to eat?” you ask.
“Sometimes there is enough,” he says. “Sometimes not.”
“Do you have any photos of your wife?”
None here, he says. There were some at their house in Kabul. But he doesn’t know if the pictures are still there or if they’ve been destroyed. He doesn’t even know if the house is still standing.
From the boom box in the corner, he and the rest of the family listen to the BBC news broadcast in Farsi. They followed the events of September 11; they have also tracked the progress of the war across the river to the south of this city.
Sharifzada says he believes America has done the right thing, pursuing the Taliban. But he hopes that when the war is over, the bombs will be replaced by food and other supplies.
Another pause during the translation, another plea from his sister.
“Please help me,” she is saying again. “Please help me. Please help me.”
Sharifzada does not comment on what she is saying; since he does not speak English, it is not clear if he even knows what she is saying.
Instead he talks about his faith in Islam. About observing the fast of Ramadan. About how he kneels inside this room every day and prays.
“I ask Allah for peace to come to Afghanistan,” he says, “and for peace to be in the whole world.”
Now that the Taliban have been driven from Kabul, he and the others are talking about returning to their home. What they really want, though, is to be allowed to immigrate to America. That’s why the children are working on their English. It’s why Sharifzada has a book, written in Farsi, that describes what life in America would be like.
This book is in another room, the one where his sister teaches the children. You ask if you can see the book. He is reluctant to show it, but finally he allows you to glance through its pages for a few moments. There are pictures of doctors and nurses, police officers and teachers, parents and children smiling together.
“We want to go to America,” he says. “We want to live in America.”
One of his sister’s sons—the boy who sang for you a little while ago—stands at your side, pulling on your sleeve.
“Please help me,” he is saying now, echoing his mother. “Please help me. Please help me.”
As you stand in this room, hearing his words and looking through the book on America and seeing its photos through the eyes of this family, Sharifzada’s son wanders in, eating a chocolate Power Bar. He has another bar in his hand, a Dipped Harvest Energy Bar; one of the visitors has given them to him.
Farshad offers the uneaten bar to you, and your face burns.
Back down the stairs, to the alley where the van is waiting. Another look around, so you will remember.
Sharifzada shakes your hand. The boy with the withered leg, standing with his braces, actually winks at you.
You look up at the side of the apartment building and see the faces pressed against the windows once more. They watch you drive away.
A Photographer’s Eye for Detail
About 10 years ago, as a Nieman Fellow, I got the idea to do the book, “Lost Futures: Our Forgotten Children.” It’s about children in worst-case scenarios around the world. Here are stories from it and The Boston Globe. —Stan Grossfeld
The baby is passed from one person to another in a rocking motion. But this is not a child in a cradle—it’s a dead infant in a simple pine box being lowered into a mass grave. This could be Rwanda, except for the New York City skyline sitting eerily in the distance.
The men, prisoners from Rikers Island making thirty-five cents an hour, work quietly and respectfully. The infants’ coffins are stacked seven deep in a pit, looking like so many wooden shoeboxes. When they number a thousand, or about a year’s worth, the diggers cover the pit with carbon and dirt, place a simple white concrete tablet on the site, and move on. During the burial, the prison guard speaks only once: “Don’t throw the dirt on the coffin, place it.”
The potter’s field on the 102-acre Hart Island has been used by the city to bury its poor since 1869. There are more than 750,000 bodies buried here, roughly half of those are children. For the prisoners, the burial detail is coveted. “It beats sitting in a cell, plus you’re doing something good,” says one. But at least one prisoner is upset. “It’s sad to see so many kids before they even get a chance at life,” says Curtis Iaison. “Man, we’re burying crack babies and we should be burying drug dealers.”
Why do we have mass graves of infants in the United States? “Unofficially,” says one Department of Corrections official, “you say two words, crack and AIDS, and you got most of them.”
The brass factories are all unmarked, down alleyways framed by streams of urine baking under windows covered by bars. This is the nineteenth century revisited. Furnaces belch molten lava, and acrid smoke attacks the eyes and throat. On the edge of the darkness, a ten-year-old boy, his brown body turned black with soot, is making a brass angel while living in hell.
For this, he is paid a pittance every week, thirty rupees or about a dollar. But for the ten million children who toil throughout India as virtual slaves, there is no compensation.
“I was kidnapped,” says eight-year-old Laxmi Sada at a home for freed slaves. “Me and three more boys were playing outside the village, and some people came and gave us something to eat and said that they even had better things to eat. They took us on a bus. I didn’t even know what a carpet factory was. I started crying. Many times I was beaten. It was the master who first hit me with the punja [a comb-like tool], and the blood came down…then they would put matchstick powder on the wound and light it to stop the bleeding. I never saw the sun rise.” Sometimes, Laxmi went to the bathroom in his pants. “If you got up, you’d get beaten.”
Laxmi’s father came to the factory to rescue him, but factory thugs intercepted him. “I saw my father being beaten. He could not recover. My father wanted to take me and put me on his lap. Why did he have to die? I was there one year. Now I say, long live the revolution, stop child slavery. I want to kill the master. Because of him I couldn’t see my father.”
Fifty thousand children toil six days a week for a few dollars a month in factories throughout Moradabad, four hours east of New Delhi. The children choke on noxious fumes that carry tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases. “Nobody lives to be forty,” says Karen Singh, a human-rights worker.
Fida Sherafi looks at the world differently than other children do. She has big brown eyes and one of them follows you around the room; the other is glass. No one has a normal childhood in Gaza, in Northern Ireland, or anywhere else where people preach hate in the name of God. Fida lost her childhood on June 6, 1988, in a marketplace in Jubalia Refugee Camp. She was nine months old.
Hours after a weeklong curfew had ended, Fida went with her mother to buy vegetables. Israeli soldiers entered the crowded marketplace. Words led to rocks which ignited a riot. Tear-gas canisters were fired and, as things got worse, rubber-coated bullets. Mrs. Sherafi ran, clutching Fida against her chest with one arm and carrying groceries with the other. She heard screams, but didn’t stop running until she was safely home. Once inside she saw bloodstains on her shoulder. Then she looked at Fida. “The rubber bullet was stuck in her left eye socket,” she says, “and her eyeball was partially dislodged.” Hysterical, the mother ran out onto the streets screaming. An Israeli soldier came into the house and ripped the bullet out, gouging her eye.
Mrs. Sherafi pauses as the horror sinks in. She looks at her daughter all dressed up in a pink dress. “Someday,” she says, “I’m going to kill him.” Fida says nothing.
“She has to take the glass eye out and clean it every day. She doesn’t go to school. We have to get it refitted every six months, and that’s a $100 cab ride to Haifa. It hurts her during the night.”
Children are the biggest casualties of war. According to the “State of the World’s Children 1995,” a UNICEF report: “At one time, wars were fought between armies, but in the wars of the last decade far more children than soldiers have been killed.”
The father, a tall, thin boy of 16, snips the umbilical cord, cradles the baby, proclaims that she looks like a conehead, and then goes to a store to rent the video game Mortal Kombat 2. The 14-year-old mother hugs the infant and then starts munching on M & M’s. She says she wasn’t thinking about anything during the delivery, that the needles didn’t hurt, but that she wanted some Tylenol. There was one surprise, the young mother says: M & M’s are not supposed to melt. “The yellow ones are coming off in my hand.”
Kasondra Marie Orzechowski came into the world, without crying, at 1:08 p.m. on February 2, 1995—Groundhog Day. Follow the lives of her parents, Christina Nolan and Allan Orzechowski, and you will find that, in many ways, they are two typical teenagers. Like others their age in the small mill town of Sanford, Maine, they hustle in and out of the mall. They scuffle over the television remote control. They giggle their way through the car wash. They’re just children, really, boyfriend and girlfriend, but they’re also parents. It’s a familiar refrain: Kids having kids. There’s an unexpected twist here, however. Christina and Allan, like an increasing number of teenage parents, “are white kids in a nice town,” says Holly Mangum, the couple’s midwife in Sanford. Although much attention has been paid to the alarmingly high rates of out-of-wedlock births among black inner-city teenagers, it is the birth rate among white unmarried teenagers that has risen fastest in recent years.
Allan and Christina’s life together began like a fairy tale. They were standing together, engulfed by sky and forest. “The first time he laid eyes on me,” recalls Christina, giggling, “it was out in the woods. I was 9, and he was 11.”
“I walked up to her, didn’t say anything, and kissed her,” says Allan. Later, he had his stepsister ask Christina if she would go out with him. Then Christina moved with her family to New York State. When she returned three years later, the two became inseparable. Allan saved the first cherry-red jawbreaker she gave him. He kept it in a box with his valuables.
Christina and Allan first had sex in a tent behind a housing project in Sanford. She was 13 years old; he was 15. “Condoms?” says Allan. “I was too young. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
And that’s when the fairy tale took on some harsh reality. Although they now have a baby, and that baby is well loved, neither Christina nor Allan has a job. They don’t have a car. They have little schooling and no money. They have been living on food stamps and the generosity of their families.
The story of Allan and Christina is the story of a changing America, a country that has become, in the words of the conservative political analyst Charles Murray, a “nation of bastards.” One million American teenagers get pregnant each year, giving the United States the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the developed world.
Constructing a Worthy Beginning
The Times sent me to Oklahoma City instead of to Denver [to cover Timothy McVeigh’s trial]. We felt that was ground zero. And I sat in the hotel room. I don’t believe in that blood popping out on your forehead stuff that people talk about when they talk about writing. What happens is you get the shakes and stand there and stare at it and wish blood would pop out on your forehead because at least that would relieve some of the pressure. And I sat and I sat and I sat. Then it finally occurred to me that what I had to do was start reading again. We had a stack of newspapers at least three feet high. I just went through them, and from every one of those stories in The Dallas Morning News, the Oklahoma City paper, our own paper, papers all over the country, I jotted down a piece of the agony that he’d caused. And this was our lead. —Rick Bragg
After the explosion, people learned to write left-handed, to tie just one shoe. They learned to endure the pieces of metal and glass embedded in their flesh, to smile with faces that made them want to cry, to cry with glass eyes. They learned, in homes where children had played, to stand the quiet. They learned to sleep with pills, to sleep alone.
Today, with the conviction of Timothy J. McVeigh in a Denver Federal court, with cheers and sobs of relief at the lot where a building once stood in downtown Oklahoma City, the survivors and families of the victims of the most deadly attack of domestic terrorism in United States history learned what they had suspected all along: That justice in a faraway courtroom is not satisfaction. That healing might come only at Mr. McVeigh’s grave.
Evocative Glimpses Bring a Story to Life
In 1994, a tornado destroyed a church that was near the hospital where New York Times writer Rick Bragg was born. This is the story he wrote about the damage.
Piedmont, Alabama. This is a place where grandmothers hold babies on their laps under the stars and whisper in their ears that the lights in the sky are holes in the floor of heaven. This is a place where the song “Jesus Loves Me” has rocked generations to sleep, and heaven is not a concept, but a destination.
Yet in this place where many things, even storms, are viewed as God’s will, people strong in their faith and their children have died in, of all places, a church. “We are trained from birth not to question God,” said 23-year-old Robyn Tucker King of Piedmont, where 20 people, including six children, were killed when a tornado tore through the Goshen United Methodist Church on Palm Sunday.
“But why?” she said. “Why a church? Why those little children? Why? Why? Why?”
The destruction of this little country church and the deaths, including the pastor’s vivacious four-year-old daughter, have shaken the faith of many people who live in this deeply religious corner of Alabama, about 80 miles northeast of Birmingham.
It is not that it has turned them against God. But it has hurt them in a place usually safe from hurt, like a bruise on the soul.