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Saying Goodbye to Our Mothers

My bona fide, the UK edition.

Cover photo from Afghanistan © James Nachtwey

"Let my photographs bear witness."

by permission



You who are living, live the best life you can.

Don't count on the earth to preserve memory.


--Ai Qing


Home is not where you were born; home is where all your attempts to escape cease.


--Naguib Mahfouz



Reporters are interviewing refugees, mostly women holding their young children, who have escaped over the borders from Ukraine to Poland, Hungary and Romania. Responsible reporters and photographers try their best not to be pandering, salaciously entertaining, or exploitatively graphic. But the tears flow, the anger surfaces, the television ratings effloresce. I prefer to get my news from print, internet, radio and podcast. It's easier to digest in small doses. I often listen in the car, yesterday to a BBC World News Service podcast as I was driving to the swimming pool. The reporter was interviewing a young woman who had left her elderly mother behind. Thinking of my own refugee mother leaving her mother behind, I began to cry, then swam a few extra laps, had a scalding hot shower, dressed slowly,  put on some make-up, drove home. Finally, it was lunchtime and I could eat my lunch in the safety of my apartment overlooking the peaceful, majestic Minnewaska Ridge. Most evenings, the sunsets are glorious, undisturbed by tracer fire.


Activist friends—Black, Palestinian, others—have criticized me recently for my singular and focused attention on Ukraine, as though it were an extension of the opportunistic news cycle and nothing more. Or, they have said, "It's because they are European that the world cares. Have we forgotten the Afghan refugees already?" Or, they have called me hypocritical for ignoring and abandoning other occupations, other war crimes, other atrocities. I try to remain calm, diplomatic, compassionate and informed. Many of these aggrieved people are my friends; I love them, they hail from all over the world. But when there is pain, argument and defensiveness don't work. Best to step away and let the waters find their level.


Conflict resolution and mediation training has taught me never to compare atrocities; they are all bad. Bad. That word doesn't say very much. Egregious maybe? As a writer, I try to find the best words, to stay connected to what I write, emotionally as well as intellectually. The war in Ukraine did hit me especially hard, I admit, but not because of my refugee parents. After all, "my" people, North African and European Jews, have been refugees for millennia. I've written about them and so many others, but all I can manage right now, this week, is Ukraine. And I know someone in Kyiv, Peter Zalmayev, who is broadcasting live from the beleaguered, still standing city. So, I am paying undivided attention to Peter's dispatches from Kyiv. In this way, I am supporting him as best I can from afar and contemplating the implications of Putin's KGB "playbook," for what remains of civil society, not only in Ukraine, but on Planet Earth.

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Broadcasting Under Siege


Each of our lives is a Shakespearean drama raised to the thousandth degree.


― Anna Akhmatova (born in Odessa, 1889, died in Moscow, 1966)


I usually hear from Peter Zalmayev on FB messenger in the morning. He sends a link to an interview he's done either on Canadian Broadcasting, CNN International, BBC, even WBAI this week, so that I and all his friends, acquaintances and colleagues, can share it, thus creating a chain of information with a global reach. I am sure that other recipients of these messages, which assure us he is still alive and working—body guards at his shoulder—reply  as I do with a thumbs up, or words such as "received and will share," or "thinking of you." Peter has disclosed that his family is safe, and that he has dual American-Ukrainian citizenship, but that like so many other brave Ukrainians, he decided to return to use his expertise and perfect English to help fight the Ukrainian counter-propaganda war; Zelensky's address to Congress was part of that war.


Just imagine the logistics of broadcasting in the midst of missile barrages, the struggle to keep Wifi going, the constant worry about friends and family.


I first met Peter when I was living in Washington Heights in Manhattan; he lived in my building. I had started a Tenants Association and he wanted to know more about it. I was about to open a meeting in the lobby when he walked in, a commanding presence. Tall, handsome and self-assured, I can't remember if he stayed or left that night, but he was immediately engaged and interested in the process we had started to hold a landlord to account.


At the time, he was finishing up his studies at Columbia University; I left the city before he did, and though he returned to Kyiv and I moved to upstate New York, we became FB friends and stayed connected in the casual way one does on FB. Then I read on his page that he'd become the Director of the Eurasia Democracy Initiative, "dedicated to the promotion of democracy and human rights in post-Communist transitional societies of Eastern and Central Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia," according to the Wiki entry.


Here's their webstie: http://eurasiademocracy.org/about-us-2/



I hope (and would pray if I could) that Peter Zalmayev, President Zelensky, and everyone else broadcasting and/or in the Ukrainian government will be able to continue the life-affirming work of building and sustaining the Ukrainian democracy in the months and years ahead.


#Слава Україні #Slava Ukraini



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Virus Without Borders: Chapter 89


I Told You So



I tried to straighten him out, but there is only so much you can do for a person who thinks Auschwitz is a brand of beer.


                                                              -David Sedaris



"So what did the vaccine do for you?" a woman in the health store asked me after I told her I'd had a mild case of Covid in January with a lingering neuralgic effect that is already "resolving," as my doctor says. I didn't miss a day of exercise—walking on my own when I was still positive—I didn't end up in the hospital, and, best of all—though  I am in the "vulnerable" age group—I  am not dead.


"I'm still alive ," I said in answer to her question, more succinctly and more forcefully than I intended. Her righteousness bothered me.


We were standing in the alternative remedy aisle. This woman is a rep for one of the products. She's sixty, has an eighty-four year old mother, and neither have been vaxxed.


"Oh, you haven't been waxed, how interesting," I said. The malaprop just slipped out. I don't think she noticed. The conversation was absurd, a labyrinth of "theories," and sales pitches for her products to prevent dread disease and stay youthful, etc. "And, by the way," she told me when I confessed my age this birthday week, "You look terrific."


"That's because I work hard at it," I told her. "And because I've been vaxxed and  I am not dead. Just a reminder, the global death toll from the pandemic just hit six million." 


Of course, we were standing there chatting unmasked, as the mask mandates in NY State have been lifted. My doc told me she thought it was premature, but I've decided to risk it—for my mental health--at least until we are asked to pivot to restrictive protocol again. I'm hoping that will be awhile, or maybe never.


Am I past caring about vaccines and safety protocols now that we are in a happy hiatus? No, I'm not.


"I'm sorry to hear you didn't at least get your mother vaxxed and glad you have both survived." I said. "And thanks a heap for making it so much harder for the rest of us. PS I won't be buying any of your products, so don't try to sell me anything. Goodbye."   


#anti-vaxxers #get vaxxed #getboostered 

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When We Leave The Dead Behind


In peace, sons bury their fathers. In war, fathers bury their sons.



If we don't end war, war will end us.

-H. G. Wells



Dedicated to all the journalists on the ground in Ukraine, and those who have been censored, imprisoned, murdered, or forced into hiding in Russia.  


No landscapes of mountains today, dear reader. Spoiler alert: I'm writing about the war in Ukraine, yet again. Click off, delete if you must, or read on. Join me with courage and fortitude. The world is geopolitically in turmoil:


His clothes were shredded and reeked from natural and chemical odors from the missile that had hit his group home. He had followed the crowd on foot, walking more than fifteen hours, to the Hungarian border, and because he has Tourette's, he wanted to be alone. The doctor in the mobile clinic accommodated his wish. The man was confused, distraught; the doctor remained calm. The BBC reporter, who has lived in Hungary for a decade, knew the doctor; it was his family's doctor. The doctor said that he quelled his own anxiety by working in his mobile clinic. Without hesitation, he drove to the Ukrainian border, interrupting his cosmopolitan life in Budapest without regret. Unlike the refugees from a modernized, western-facing Ukraine, he will be able to return to that life quickly.


This is not a film script; it is an account of one escape among many escapes, one doctor among many doctors. Many refugees will not make it. They choose the wrong escape route; they get shot or die of starvation in the crush on the roadside. Many medical workers will also be at risk as the heavy fighting and bombardment continues. Humanitarian assistance writ large cannot be sent in until there is a ceasefire, thus frenetic diplomatic action to achieve a cease fire and lower the risk to the civilian population.


The stories about Russia's atrocities in Ukraine are reminiscent of Chechnya and Stalin's reign of terror. Shock and awe tactics, gulags. Putin and his cohorts have been infected by ancient imperial ambitions. It is as though the Nazi reign of terror crushed by the Allies in WW II, has become undead, the disease of hatred and genocide mutated and strengthened.


Are there enough words to describe what is happening? As writers, broadcasters, journalists, can we find the right words to describe what is happening?


What, besides donations, can we do to help?


I spoke to my doctor-cousin Roger in Michigan this morning. Within minutes we had agreed that watching endless loops of news was not enough for us; our Holocaust history activates. What can we do to help? There are Ukrainian communities in both of our towns. Let's find out what we can do to help them as they struggle to locate their families, for example. Let's do this, or something else,  in the name of our relatives who fled war, or were captured and killed in the Nazi death camps, or shot and thrown into pits. Let us think of them, let us honor them, as we continue to work for the rule of law locally, nationally and internationally.


#standwithukraine #standwithallrefugees #humanitarianassistance


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