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Of Wars: Letters to Friends

About the author
Carolin Emcke has studied philosophy, political science, and history in London, Frankfurt, and the United States. She has been a staff writer at the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel since 1998, covering human-rights violations and war crimes in Lebanon, Colombia, Nicaragua, Kashmir, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. She has been a visiting professor of political theory at Yale University, teaching seminars on theories of violence, war crimes, and cosmopolitanism.

Two years ago the German literary magazine Lettre International launched a new literary prize, the “Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage”, to recognise and honour a valuable but underrated form. In its first year, the prize was won by the Russian writer Anna Politovskaya for Chechnya: Russia’s dishonour. In 2004, the Chinese writers Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao carried the prize for their seminal work, A Survey of Chinese Peasants.

Last week the shortlist for this year’s prize was announced. Over the coming weeks, openDemocracy will publish excerpts from the shortlisted texts. The winner will be announced in Berlin on 15 October.

The short list:

  • Riverbend (Iraq):
    Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq (Marion Boyars, 2005)
  • Carolin Emcke (Germany):
    Of War: Letters to Friends / Von den Kriegen: Briefe an Freunde (S. Fischer, Frankfurt am Main, 2004)
  • Alexandra Fuller (Great Britain):
    Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier (Penguin, 2004)
  • Abdellah Hammoudi (Morocco):
    Une saison à la Mecque: narratif de pèlerinage / A season in Mecca: narrative of a Pilgrimage (Seuil, 2004)
  • William Langewiesche (USA):
    The Outlaw Sea: Chaos and Crime on the World’s Oceans (Granta, 2005)
  • Suketu Mehta (India):
    Maximum City: Bombay Lost And Found (Review, 2005)
  • Ricardo Uceda (Peru):
    Muerte en el pentagonito. Los cementerios secretos del Ejército Peruano / Death in the Little Pentagon: the Secret Killing Fields of the Peruvian Army (Editorial Planeta, Bogotá, 2004)
  • * * *

    Extract from Of War: Letters to Friends / Von den Kriegen: Briefe an Freunde, published by S. Fischer, Frankfurt am Main (2004)

    Kosovo, 1999

    Dear friends,

    I have been back for two weeks.

    I do not know how to answer the questions about my time in Albania and Kosovo. The experiences are present; the images, the smell, the sound – everything is clear and yet it is impossible to transform it into an adequate and intelligible narrative of horror.

    We wish to believe that we are able to defuse threats by giving them a name. Rumplestiltskin loses his power when we guess his name. But sometimes Rumplestiltskin rages even when we know what he is called. Sometimes words cannot banish feelings, and their failure only increases our sorrow.

    Maybe I simply don’t know where to start.

    There: in the refugee camps where the deportees were stuck, the men silently sitting on the field, smoking, covered under coloured woollen blankets; the women bent over plastic buckets, washing the only clothes they had, there: on the fields where the corpses were decaying in the sun, in the hospitals with this inimitable smell of disinfection and death, there: on the overflowing marketplaces, in the devastated mosques – there we all had the same horizon of experience. We were all stuck in this world of pain and destruction. Within this context, all these horrifying scenes made “sense.” Of course, it all seemed unreal, and yet it was simultaneously too real for us to permanently call it into question. Our conversations and gestures were embedded in this context. It was a life within the same radius of violence.

    Only now, back in Berlin, now when I am about to talk about that time, does its absurdity strike me. The experiences there are somehow separated from reality here, and it feels a bit like when I was a child at my grandmother’s and we would make biscuits, cutting out shapes in the dough. Maybe that is why journalists are considered disturbed cynics: because the reality that they describe is so disturbed.

    That is the burden of the witness: to remain with a feeling of failure, of emptiness because even the most accurate account does not grasp the bleakness of war.

    The task

    We were in Tirana when the peace agreement was signed: the Serbian delegation agreed to pull out within 48 hours after the settlement from Kosovo and to withdraw to what was left of the Yugoslav republic. The air bombardment of the NATO alliance had lasted 78 days during which they flew attacks against government buildings in Belgrade, against positions of the Serbian army in Kosovo – but also against civilian targets: bridges, factories, power stations, the television station of Belgrade and various refugee treks, “collateral damage” as the propaganda unit in Brussels would call it.

    At the end of the war, we travelled with the ground troops that had been inactive so far and the thousands of Kosovo Albanian refugees returning to Kosovo.

    Our team in Kosovo included our Albanian driver Kuijtim Bilali, his nephew and our translator Noni Hoxha, Joanne Mariner from the organization Human Rights Watch from New York, whom we had met in the refugee camps in Albania, the photographer Sebastian Bolesch and myself.

    We remained two more weeks in the war torn Kosovo and then travelled throughout the entire region. We saw how the young men – who had been hiding in fear of the Serbian militia – returned from the mountains. We saw the famished Kosovo Albanian prisoners with sunken eyes tied together on a truck. They were supposed to be hostages from kidnappings in Serbia, but now they had been forgotten. We saw how the Kosovo Albanians celebrated the end of the repression. We saw everywhere how the Serbian units had raged: burnt down farmhouses, demolished minarets of the village mosques. We saw the mutilated corpses where the Serbian myrmidons hadn’t had time to erase the traces of their deeds and to bury their victims. We saw the Serbian troops on their withdrawal, drunk from stolen booze. But we also saw Serbian civilians fleeing out of fear of revenge. We also saw the neighbourhoods of the Roma standing in flames.

    Death and destruction

    Since my return people ask me: “How do you cope with what you witnessed? How do you digest all the experiences?”

    The answer is: you don’t.

    There are certain impressions you cannot “digest.”

    The sight of a seventeen year-old girl in the hospital of Prizren in Kosovo. She had been shot by a sniper the day before the allied forces entered Kosovo. She had a brain injury and urgently needed to be transferred to the hospital in Prishtina. Since that night she had been staying in a room with five badly injured men: Serbs, KLA-fighters and Albanians, the enemies of the war united in one overheated room.

    You could hear her breathe.

    She would probably die within the next five hours because the hospital could not transfer her to Prishtina – the Serbian troops had stolen the only ambulance for their flight at the end of the war.

    The sight of a charred back of a dead catholic Albanian between hundreds of books in his house in Koronica. The muscles in the shrunk body were still recognizable – it looked like one of those charts from biology class where all muscles of the human body are schematically displayed. Except: the man in Koronica was brown-black, his burned flesh was porous and looked hairy like scratchy fur. Arms and legs were missing. Maybe they had been cut off, maybe they were burned completely, maybe it had been the dogs...

    The Homeric heroes in the Iliad have less fear of death than the thought of being left unburied – outside the city walls – at the mercy of stray dogs. It always seemed rather strange to me that a living person would have to worry about his corpse being ravaged by dogs. I could not imagine a world in which dogs would run around with human limbs in their mouths.

    It was the brother of the dead who brought us to this package of withered flesh. He walked from one room to the other, in a destroyed house, and talked as if it was still intact, and as if that bundle on the floor still had anything in common with the human being he grew up with.

    And one does not digest: the sight of corpses without heads, cut off body parts, contorted bodies that had been pulled behind a truck for miles (also like a quote from Homer); the sight of bloated or burned corpses, some two months old, one week, one day.

    And there is this one image I cannot forget: the foot of a male body that we found in a ravine on a field near Meja. I still remember those five centimetres between the black leather shoe on his right foot and the blue cotton trouser, a peasant uniform as I would get to see in the following weeks so often when looking at dead civilians. The corpse had been lying there apparently since 27 April.

    In the meantime it had rained, and it had been hot as it can be in a Yugoslav summer. And there is one particular part of the image that haunts me, a small detail: those five centimetres between the tied shoe and the seam of the trouser. Without the clothes that proved that this had once been a man, there was only five centimetres of dead, living flesh. Nothing else.

    And there was this sound, very quiet, first unnoticed, and then so penetrating in its repulsiveness that no taboo, no shame could repress my hearing it: a number of parasites was eating the rest of a human being.

    And I cannot forget the ten year-old girl in Gjakova who stood in front of the burned out ruins of her former house and could not say two complete, intelligible sentences. She spoke without pausing, as if her speech was making sense. She did not stutter or hesitate, she formed one incoherent sentence after the other.

    Finally we understood that in this house her father, her brother, her aunt and two cousins had been killed. Her uncle and her two other brothers had been arrested by Serbian units and deported the day before the arrival of NATO troops.

    She told us, her father had fallen off the roof when celebrating the long-awaited NATO intervention. He had broken his leg and could not move when the Serbian soldiers arrived at their house. They had told the girl and her mother to leave the house – and killed everyone else in it.

    I cannot forget how she stood there in her pink shirt, in front of her former living room wall, slightly oblique because the floor was no longer flat. And I cannot forget that she could not speak properly, and that she occasionally only stared at us and then continued to speak. And that she did not seem upset at all.

    She was quiet and calm, and only every now and then did she seem irritated – when she realised that she did not know that trick anymore, the trick that someone had taught her, years ago, in another time: how to form sentences and makes sense to others. Then she paused and suddenly felt like a stranger to herself, and then she seemed to tell herself that these words that came out of her mouth were unintelligible.

    Many journalists only arrived in Albania or Macedonia when the peace agreement was signed. But we had already been acquainted with the terrible events. We had been writing since April on the refugees and their fate, we had been listening to them: how their sons and husbands had been killed, what they had done before the crises began, where they used to live, how they were expelled, how many hours they had walked till they had reached the border, when they had last seen their brother, where they were standing when a Serbian officer pulled a woman out of the refugee trek, how they had been hiding in a barn.

    At the end of the war, when we entered Kosovo, we knew exactly where to go and what to expect there. We had a map of killing in our minds – even before we arrived at the places of the massacres.

    But that meant that we could not relate to those tormented bodies as neutral bystanders towards anonymous corpses. But after weeks of interviewing survivors in the camps in Albania, photographer Sebastian Bolesch and I knew the story of many of the dead, we knew whether their wives or children had survived on the other side of the border.

    It also meant that we could imagine the corpses before us as fathers and brothers, as peasants or writers. We could imagine their previous lives, and sometimes we knew the relatives in Albania.

    Impossible to gain distance.

    But it was also conciliatory: to remember the real person, the living father or brother or cousin or neighbour; to ask for their story and narrate it; to recreate in writing a world that was supposed to be destroyed; to give each of these stinking, faceless bones a name again and not to turn one’s back.


    Search for traces

    Moujib Termos is 28 and looks 45. His forehead is studded with deep scars. He was a member of the Hizbollah since the age of seventeen, got arrested shortly afterwards by the South Lebanon Army (SLA) and detained in Khiam.

    He spent the last eleven years in the notorious prison that was condemned repeatedly by the International Red Cross and by Human Rights Watch for its cruel conditions and physical abuse. He was released a few months ago when the Israeli army withdrew and when the SLA-militia left the prison unguarded.

    Maybe he remains here at the prison in the name of the propaganda of the Hizbollah, so that foreign visitors learn of the crimes of the Israeli army and its assistant, the SLA. Maybe he simply does not know what to do with his new freedom and the joblessness in the south. Maybe his traumatic experiences behind these walls continue to haunt him. Maybe all motives are intertwined.

    Moujib guides us through the empty hallways and cells of his former prison and describes how he was brought to the interrogation room during the first six months, every day, with a hood over his head, where he was beaten before he was even asked a question. The barren room radiates nothing: no horror, no darkness, a disinterested witness of daily abuse. Nothing else.

    He had to kneel on the floor, Moujib shows us, like this... and each question about the Hizbollah came along with a blow on his head, he says. Three times a day he was brought to this room, three times a day the same questions, the same beatings. After two months electric cables were attached to his ears, fingertips and genitals, and then electroshocks were pushed through his body.

    Twenty times a day, he recounts, he fainted, long after he had lost all capacity to speak. Naive, who thinks torture is about statements and confessions. Beyond vicious physical torture there is nothing but stammer, whimper and unconsciousness.

    Moujib shows us his cell where he was locked up for six months: a small dungeon of 1.40 m x 80 cm, stone floor, metal door, only one small hole on top of the cell so that fresh air – and rain – could enter.

    There was no toilet, no running water, no window. When the door is closed fresh air only enters through the hole. A small bucket for excrements was emptied every ten days; the guard could open a small bolt in the door to control the detainee.

    The guards used to pass by the cell any hour of the day and kick against the metal door from the outside – so that if the isolation and darkness and limited space hadn’t been enough, the noise of the banging against the door would definitely drive you mad.

    Shall I repeat this?

    He spent six months in this cell, 1.40m x 80 cm, unable to stretch, stone floor, no window, no toilet, just a hole on top. Six months.

    Secretly, I was searching for reasons to doubt his story. Worse, I searched for reasons to justify his treatment.

    Hadn’t he been, according to his own account, a member of Hizbollah? What kind of crimes had he committed? How much more sadistic had his actions against Israeli soldiers been in comparison to his detention? Wasn’t it necessary for the troops in Lebanon to defend themselves against ruthless terrorists like Moujib? Maybe he had never lived in this dungeon? Maybe the Hizbollah had dictated to him every single word he told us?

    We stared into this dark cell and did not want to, did not want to believe it – simply because none of us wanted to imagine it. Self-protection feeds on doubt of the painful truth, it is an escape agent. That is how we respond as television viewers, when we cannot bare the suffering of others, when the images are too overwhelming, and so do we journalists react when confronted with injustice and violence.

    I tried to distract myself from the inner horror through alleged precision of research. That’s a trained technique of contemporary journalists: in particularly disturbing contexts, we suddenly focus on details that shall increase our investigative credibility, the so-called authenticity of our subjective narratives. Then you suddenly find number-plates, car-types, colors and brand names in the stories and reports – that only in rare exceptions are of any relevance.

    So I tried to whitewash my own shame about the endured pain of the other by pretending professional activity. I went inside the cell to measure its size with my feet and Moujib asked me whether he should shut the door for a moment, just so that I could see how dark it was.

    He closed the door, and after three seconds, I wanted to scream.

    I knew they were standing outside, knew, that they didn’t have the keys to lock the door, knew, that they were my friends, knew, that I would be quickly out there again, and yet I had lost my nerves already after a few seconds...


    There was a steel power pole in the prison. It stood next to the barracks where the prisoners were detained if they had survived the first six months of interrogation (by the way, apparently there was no interest in killing the prisoners, they were only tortured long enough to destroy them, but short enough to keep them alive).

    Anyway, there was this steel power poll next to the barracks, and it had a little mistake. Some inattentive steelworker years ago had unintentionally cut the crossbeams a little too long so that they were hanging over just by a few millimetres. An irrelevant tiny mistake for the power pole, but a crucial few millimetres for the prisoners who were handcuffed and tied to this pole. When they were beaten, these few millimetres cut themselves into their heads and backs. That’s where Moujib’s scars stemmed from.

    Over the course of the years 3,500 prisoners have been tortured in Khiam prison, and considering what they practiced here, it seems surprising that “only” 24 detainees died here. Due to the pressure of two human rights groups in Israel, the Association for Civil Rights and the Center for the Defense of the Individual, the Israeli Ministry of Defense has admitted its involvement in the torture and interrogation practices at Khiam prison. It was also confirmed in an affidavit by Brigadier General Dan Halutz, who was in charge of the IDF’s operations in south Lebanon.

    My sense of solidarity for Israel as a German does not make me blind and deaf to Israeli offenses. What the sometimes shrill debate on anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism neglects is the critique which is rooted in emotional proximity and worry for Israel, not in anti-Semitic hatred or denial of the right to exist.


    Dear friends,


    That means first of all wind!

    There is always, permanently, everywhere wind. It accompanies you, your thoughts, it ensnares you when it plays and flirts with your body, it cools the pearls of sweat on your skin, and yet it presses, it torments, it harasses your breath, your hair, and your eyes. The wind brings the dust, and it brings trouble.

    You hear the wind also at night when the branches of the bushes and trees knock and stroke the window of your hotel room. It’s not loud enough, this knocking, to keep you awake, it’s not quiet enough to let you feel alone in an unknown silence in a strange country. It seems to demand attention, and it seems to protect you.

    Desperation 1

    The time-frame of hope for a daily meal on the streets of Managua lasts for exactly one red light period. It is the slice of time between the red and the yellow phase when the beggar on the little island of pavement can approach the drivers in the waiting cars for some Cordobas. He has lost his legs and is tied to a wheelchair, and when he sees me, opening the window, his motionless face is suddenly filled with life, and he bends forward with the upper part of his body: at the same time a gesture of respectful greeting towards me in the car, and the anticipation of the movement of a body that cannot move, an indirect movement that begins with his head which physically seems to pull the rest of his body behind it, first the chest, and then the arms move the wheelchair towards me. After a few centimeters he stops, pushing forward with his head, somewhat ridiculously moving without having any effect on the body/wheelchair anymore.

    The streets in Managua are not made for wheelchairs. There are huge holes in the asphalt surrounding him, and whichever way he tries to turn his vehicle, he remains stuck. His arms cannot bridge the gap between the position where the wheelchair got stuck and my hand with the bills. It is already green by the time he has given up his hope and has rowed backwards to his pariah island on the pavement, far away from the pick-up trucks, far away from the Cordobas behind closed windows, and far away from a meal.

    Desperation 2

    For the first time in my life I was bitten by a dog.

    The dog belonged to Alberto.

    The place where Alberto lives has no name. Alberto’s neighbourhood is beyond the last town that is still worth a name, it is beyond the last bus stop, it is even beyond the last stop of one of the old East German trucks that carries workers, campesinos on the loading platform.

    He lives in a geographical void, a no-go-neighbourhood.

    And so Alberto has to walk the last miles to his corrugated iron hut. The hut is empty, just nine children (one is away, four are his, and five are his sister-in-law’s who still has a job in the Zona Franca “las Mercedes” near Managua) fill it with life. There are two reddish iron chairs, a rolled-up hammock somewhere in the dark, and one lonely electric bulb that does not work hanging from the “ceiling.” Alberto takes a wooden stick and walks out of the house to hit at the electric cable on the street. The light in the hut turns on, for about two minutes, and then fades out. There is nothing to eat, we talk standing outside the hut. The sticky heat of the day has been pent-up inside.

    In the middle of the night Alberto’s dog shows up.

    A strong-muscled grey-brown bastard with black ears who jumps up and down out of joy to see his master, Alberto, again. Suddenly he smells something unknown, he raises his snout, turns around himself, and then discovers what’s strange: me, standing among the family members as if one of them – and suddenly without any growling or teeth-baring warning, he bites me into the back of my right hand.

    In shock, Alberto pulls him aside: “I am sorry. But he does not know guests. Nobody who does not have to live in these conditions dares to come to this area.”

    Nobody in Nicaragua would come out of curiosity or friendship to a neighbourhood without a name, without streets. No stranger would voluntarily come to the favelas, They are towns that are not found on any map, invisible for anyone who is not forced to live here. Separated from everything and yet without borders. Frontiers of shame prevent any contact.

    Friendships and visits remain within the same radius of misery; nobody travels beyond the dusty fringes of the collection of huts – only for work. In the early, cool morning hours a human herd leaves, along the small paths between the huts, into the traceless vastness of the dried-out area surrounding their neighbourhood, past miles of dump of plastic bags and garbage, to the unmarked post next to an old tree that gives shade, till the truck stops here and picks up the workers to take them to the first street where an official bus stops.

    How could Alberto’s dog possibly know what a guest is?

    Kosovo, October 2000
    (translated from German by Sara Costa)

    Dear friends,

    I am back from Kosovo, and still slightly disoriented.

    Everything seems to be calibrated for the world of experience over there: skin and nerves are porous, over attentive, irritable every moment in the expectation of a threat. Body and perception are still conditioned by permanent danger. Every movement, every sound is registered and quickly examined.

    It is strange to be back in an environment of silence. Even the consumer hectic in Berlin suddenly seems disconcertingly slow and smooth; I perceive, see, feel as if through a thick heavy curtain. Everything appears deadened. Without the border controls, checkpoints, barb-wires, yelling, loud folklore music and army vehicles that surrounded me till yesterday, I feel as if I were deaf.

    Still tuned to the enmity of post-war-Kosovo, the simple possibility of crossing the street without thinking is an incredible luxury.

    A return to what?

    Only one year had passed since my journeys through the war-worn province with its refugee treks, mass graves and burned houses, first of the Albanians, then of the Serbs; only one year had passed since the victors had joyfully danced on the marketplace of Prizren, celebrating the end of the ethnic slaughter.

    And now we returned to Kosovo to witness the first local elections in the peaceful part of the republic.

    Suddenly the old Kosovo seemed as unreal as did the new Kosovo.

    The stories were more complex, the images less shining, the frontiers less clear cut. The pain was real and imagined, the emotional landscape was multilayered, the apparent normalcy was illusory. Suddenly there were “official” people –politicians, police officers, UNMIK (United Nations Mission in Kosovo) staff, party members- who dominated the discourse. There was an official language now, a virtual script that organised collective thinking and speaking -you had to find the periphery, the splinters, the fragments of individual lives and language, to understand what was really happening.

    Last year, I could listen to individuals telling me their story, their experience, the chronology of the last days, weeks, months -depending on when they had been driven out of their homes (the further north they had lived, the longer their stories, the longer their flight). Detailed, epic descriptions of what had happened to them.

    One year later, the recent experiences of the Kosovo Albanians were of apparent normalcy, not worth mentioning. They do not talk about their individual experiences anymore, but about their collective claims, about the interpretation of past suffering and their longing for the future. However, it is old pain and their past status as victims that guide their understanding of themselves and their vision for the future.

    The present remains locked up in a blind area of their perception.

    The former victims do not want to acknowledge that the persecuted of yesterday, the Kosovo Albanians, have become the dominant, protected group, whereas the former oppressors, the Serbs, live isolated in Ghettos.

    The past stays alive, is repeated, a counterpoise for the future –but the present is faded out.

    Election day

    Certainly, there were also moments of joy; there was also a sense of reconciliation during this disappointing journey of return.

    How the Albanians were queuing for hours on election day in front of the polling stations, for example. They arrived at 7 in the morning, couples holding each other’s hands as if to tame their civic enthusiasm, others slightly afraid, in disbelief whether this gift of free elections was really true.

    I remembered what they had looked like in northern Albania, the thousands in the mud, later in tents, with no belongings and no hope, in dirty sweaters, one on top of the other, because all they could take with them on their flight was what they could carry on their body. I remembered how they all looked alike in their sorrow, searching for a loaf of bread, a piece of soap or an injured relative.

    What a change to see them now in their happy excitement on election day, proud, individuated according to wealth and status, and not just to their losses; how they stood in front of schools, court-houses and administration buildings, quietly whispering as if one of the international election supervisors could still drive them away, as if their newly gained right could be taken away from them in the last minute.

    Many did not know what options they had, did not know that they could have refrained from voting. The preparations by the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) was a disaster: there were not enough polling stations, the identification procedures were ridiculously complicated (one of the consequences of the Serbian policy from 1999 to take all identification papers, number plates and licences from the fleeing Kosovo Albanians), and nobody was prepared for the anticipation and excitement of the people.

    The patience of these first-time voters was amazing: how they stood in front of closed doors, eager and happy about a privilege that to most of us in our saturated Western democracies seems like a useless duty. And their elegance: They all arrived in their Sunday clothes, a gesture of respect for themselves and for the long and painful path to these elections.

    At the same time, their patience was also very much tactical and not only emotional: They wanted to be good pupils, wanted to behave well, to be the way the West wanted them to be, so that they would receive the reward for their homework: independence from the detested Yugoslav Republic.

    They all knew: Any violent act would have harmed their image, destroyed their democratic credibility – and damaged the prospect of international recognition.


    The Pill or lying with tacit understanding

    A Dutch friend of Markus (my photographer) was working together with her boyfriend in Peshawar and desperately needed a supply of her contraceptive but could not expect any help in the rather traditional Peshawar. So she asked Markus whether I could go on her behalf to a gynaecologist in Islamabad and ask for the pill, and then later bring it to her in Peshawar.

    With a certain awkwardness we explained to our Christian driver Elyas that I had to see a doctor, and he took us to an elegant private estate in a rich neighbourhood in Islamabad.

    A veiled lady in her fifties listened first to Elyas and then asked me into the house with a welcoming gesture.

    She asked me in fluent English what my complaints were.

    Neither did I know whether laws in Pakistan prohibited medical contraceptives, nor which religion this doctor belonged to, nor whether her faith might forbid her to hand out contraceptives.

    Hesitantly, I began to explain to her that I came on behalf of a friend of mine who had been working for months already together with her partner in Peshawar, and now had to stay longer than expected. The medication she had brought along were running out, and she needed the pill.

    “I suppose,” the doctor underneath the veil interrupted me, “that your friend is married, isn’t she?” And she nodded with her head to indicate that I had to affirm her question if I expected any help.

    I faltered briefly and then lied dutifully: “Yes... married.. .certainly.”

    She got up and disappeared. After a minute she returned and gave me an envelope with a monthly ration of the pill (even if I don’t really know a lot about this, it was clear nevertheless that it was totally stupid to give a complete stranger any medication, and a sheet of paper with a name and a phone-number. In Peshawar there were a couple of women, doctors, who would take care of women.

    “If your friend visits this doctor and sends her greetings from me, then she can examine her and maybe prescribe her something else than this pill. This is the only one I have here currently.” I thanked her, when she suddenly invited me to have tea with her family. She opened a double door in the wall behind her, and suddenly the room opened up to a spacious, beautiful living room.

    Fast, almost invisible servants brought tea and milk and cookies and cake and samosas, and her husband and daughters greeted me in excellent English. We sat around the table and they talked about their lives in Pakistan and the ironic turns of world history that had them banned as outlaws until yesterday, and suddenly today as America’s best-friends.

    They were funny and warm-hearted, sophisticated and unbelievably generous with me who knew so much less about their world than they about mine.

    After a while, I remembered that Markus and Elyas were still waiting for me in the car outside and were probably worried by now.

    I thanked them and said goodbye. Only then I realised how mean I had been. I had lied to this wonderfully helpful lady and doctor, and that is not done. So on the way to the door I said to her:

    “By the way: I would like to apologise to you. I have lied to you. The friend for whom you gave me the medication – she is not married.”

    She took my arm, smiled and said:

    “I know. And, of course, there is no such friend. It does not matter.”

    And she brought me to the door.

    She had not believed me from the beginning, she had assumed that this conversation between knowing women had been only lies: mine rooted in shame, hers in subversion against existing laws. In countries like this, women command a language of their own to communicate secretly – otherwise they could not survive. Acknowledging this code, it did not make sense to explain to my doctor that the pill really was not meant for me, but for a friend.

    War zones – on death and normalcy

    Some of my friends and some of the media representatives have asked over and over again why do we go to regions of crises?

    Why do we want to visit death and violence?
    Why do we always return to such places?
    Why do we carelessly risk our lives?

    When eight of my colleagues were killed in the course of the first ten days in Afghanistan, some asked: what did they do wrong? Why did they take that road? Why did they travel on that road? Why were they in the company of these people? How could they be so reckless? Were they driven by ambition? By voyeurism? By pressure from their headquarters?

    I go to countries at war for a whole set of complex reasons, motivations, and drives.

    Some of them I know, some I don’t.

    Some are so intertwined with who I am that it is difficult to disentangle them enough for a brief, clear explanation.

    Some are banal, some egocentric, some political.

    Mostly I go on these trips because the knowledge of victims of war and injustice haunts me.

    Of course, the victim of today quite often becomes the perpetrator of tomorrow, the despair of today quite often nurtures the brutality of tomorrow.

    It’s about the genealogy of exclusion and war – and about giving a voice to the victims.

    Quite often abuse and violence not only mark the victims physically: the victims are not only beaten or raped, but the trauma also steals their ability to speak or to express themselves intelligibly. Repression and violence against individuals or groups do not only aim to destroy the people, but also seek to erase all traces of the criminal deed. Language is at the beginning of all traces and traceability. It is a systematic method of repression to destroy a person’s ability to give an intelligible account of what was done her.

    I travel to war zones because the experience of violence often leads to the inability to give an account of the injustice endured, to the speechlessness of the victim, to them being forgotten. But that only increases the injury.

    In war everything is present simultaneously: there is the normalcy of a peaceful life, there is laughter and sensuality, there are people out on the streets, there are bazaars, and food markets open, there are wedding ceremonies and children with kites. There are feasts, and there is love, and there is no sound or site of war.

    “No soldiers in the scenery, no thoughts of people now dead,” says the poet Wallace Stevens.

    People come home and they tell of death and cruelty at places that were peaceful till yesterday. And they take you to their homes in the ghettos, in the favelas, in the outskirts, at the border, on the countryside, and they move back and forth between areas and zones.

    The fighting also moves back and forth and it changes its locations, and shape, and timing, and appearances and forms.

    And at some point, you are not an outsider anymore because you cannot stand outside the violence in such areas – it is everywhere and has penetrated all segments of society and its topography.

    People lie in hospitals or you meet them in farmhouses. And you hear that there is an old lonely woman in this village at the front, and she does not want to move, she has seen all the suffering and she does not want to run away from war anymore. And her son wants to visit her and asks whether you want to accompany him.

    And of course you go.

    Of course, I have no interest in getting killed.

    Of course, I try to be careful.

    But one cannot calculate where death awaits you.

    Not even in our western world.

    My life is not in my hands.

    It is not that I have disrespect for life, or no gratitude for the privilege to live in a peaceful society.

    I appreciate this gift, in particular because I know that it is not my entitlement, just coincidence, and because I know that it can be taken from me any time anywhere.

    Nobody pressures me to go to such regions – definitely not my foreign news department. Quite the opposite, out of concern they would probably prefer to prevent each dangerous assignment, if I would not insist.

    I also travel because there is so much beauty and joy, in particular, in such areas of conflict. There is such a generosity and hospitality. There is an intensity that allows us to achieve the impossible: to overcome mutual strangeness.

    It was a long journey, but I have returned home at last. I have unpacked my suitcase and slowly I can reach for the experiences and images in the depths of memory.

    In German there are etymological connections between the words for “mourning” and the words for “slow,” to “calm down,” to “turn lazy,” for “bloody,” or “gruesome,” but also: to “water,” to “pour,” to “trickle through.”

    It seems to grasp my own slowness, my inability to come to terms with all I saw, my difficulty to give it words, to find an analytic frame in which to situate the events – but it also describes the feeling of being filled with sadness and despair, and how it trickled through my being and life.

    “You have language, you can write,” is what Mariam in the refugee camp in Cherat, Pakistan, said to me.

    Nobody I ever met on my assignments in the regions of crises of the world has ever asked me for direct, practical help. Nobody ever believed that I, as a journalist, could change their situation in the prisons, in the hospitals, in the refugee camps, at the frontlines.

    But over and over again people have asked me: “Will you write this down?” and “Will you tell people what’s going on here?”

    The opportunity that somebody talks to the victims, a witness, who listens and writes about them, who gives the incredibility of violence a name, who carries them out of the zone of silence, the ignorance of stigmatizations, this testimony confirms that they live in the same world as “us.”

    That is why Mohammed Shafi began to weep so bitterly when he saw me in the hospital in Sialkot – because a witness, a human being from the unharmed world, listened to him and made him human again.

    “You have language, you can write,” is what Mariam said to me.

    But mourning had dried out my language for quite a while.

    “Tell them,” said Mariam, and in the beginning I mostly wrote for her.

    And probably only she knew then that it wouldn’t be necessary for her alone – but that the writing would be Ariadne’s thread out of my own labyrinth of sadness in which I had gone lost in these past months.

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