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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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