Sand Dunes and the Art of Seduction

The morning of our sand dune tour we woke up at 4 am so we could be ready for the jeep by 4:15am. We waited in the lobby for fifteen minutes, careful not to wake the women working the night shift, but when the first bits of gray started to crack the black sky we became concerned about missing out on the “sunrise” component of our tour. We woke up the night clerk and explained the situation and she called the tour company. Words were exchanged in incredibly terse Vietnamese which implied that error in some part of the interaction.

Another fifteen minutes later, an beaten up jeep came to a halt in front of the guest house. “Go, go, go!” The night clerk ushered us. The jeep was well into its senior years. It had the drivers row, then a row of seats behind that which sat three, then behind that the trunk had been converted into to benches facing one another. We climbed into the back and occupied one of the open benches. The nigh clerk slammed the trunk and the jeep took off flying down the road. At which point Carly looked at me and said “Should we be questioning that we just got into a Jeep at 430am in a foreign country with no receipts or exchanges?” “No, of course not,” I said half convincing myself.

DSC_0322.jpg

We then became with the six other persons on our tour group. Directly across from us in the transformed trunk of the jeep there were two elderly Taiwanese who’s English was limited to basic introductions. We did manage to learn that they were two old friends traveling on vacation together. Then there were two Korean women about our age who were relatively quiet. Finally there were two French guys traveling together in their mid to late twenties. One was living and working in Vietnam and the other had come to visit. The two elderly men seemed by far to be having the most fun, constantly giggling at jokes intimate to their friendship. As we exchanged introductions the jeep raced against the quickly rising sun towards the sand dunes.

DSC_0322.jpg

Sunrise during the jeep ride

As we pull up to the white sand dunes, the sky are caramel and quickly turning blue. Our driver tells us we have 50 minutes to explore and then we should meet back at the jeep. It’s a bit of a walk to the crest of the dunes and we can either ride atvs up for an extra six dollars or we can walk. The dunes are incredibly beautiful and even at 5 in the morning they are crowded. It looks as if someone transplanted a few square miles of the Sahara and dropped it in coastal Vietnam. Perhaps even more impressive than the view was the young Asian women we saw in full hair and makeup. There were a handful of different women with men (who I presume to be there significant others) doing photo shoots in heels, gowns, full makeup and complex hairdos. A little past 5 am the temperature was already creeping up on one hundred degrees and Carly and I were struggling in a shorts and tank tops.

DSC_0350.jpg

After our meager equivalent of photo shoot and tourist picture taking Carly and I started to wander back to the jeep camp. We had given ourselves fifteen minutes of leeway time. We wanted to the site on our horizon to realize that it was an entirely different camp than the one where we had been dropped off. We looked around but we could not find evidence of other entrances. It is incredible how quickly everything in the desert begins to look the same. We found that our French and Taiwanese were in the same situation. Our group of six *tried* to walk methodically along the perimeter of the desert. We found two more jeep camps, neither of which were ours. One of the Taiwanese men had cleverly taken a picture of our license plate, so we fruitlessly tried to show it to other drivers to see if they were familiar with our vehicle. We decided to stay at the third camp and wait to be found, since we were the majority of the group and we were sure that the driver knew the terrain better.

FullSizeRender-67.jpg

Soon enough a man on a motorbike came over and said our driver was looking for us. The man on the motor bike urged “go, now, quick,” and our little group walked down what could only be liberally called a path in the sand. We found salvation and our driver, but he was considerably less happy to see us. He let off a stream of what I believe were unkind Vietnamese expletives and then in English said “I said 50 minutes, its been 1 hour and thirty minutes. I said 50!” We apologized profusely and got back in the jeep to head to the red sand dune. The two Taiwanese began giggling again and trying to communicate something to us via hand gestures. He took out his phone, plugged something into Google translate, and then handed us his phone which read “driver very angry!” We started nodded and this only made them giggle more, as if the drivers indignation was the best joke they had heard in years.

We arrived at the red sand dunes, which were less visually striking, but also populated by far more tourists and hecklers. We walked around and snapped a few pictures, when our Google translate friend came up and tapped us on the shoulder. “Picture?” He said. “Sure, we can take one of you.” I went to grab his camera and he said “no, picture” and gestured to the three of us. At which point he hailed another tourist and asked them to take a group picture of Taiwanese/American diplomatic relations.

IMG_0933.jpg

After the red sand dunes, we waited by the jeep for driver to finish his cigarettes. Carly and I got a breakfast of ice cream to pass the time and watched a scene play our between our fellow tour participants. One of the Frenchmen and one of the Korean women had taking an interest in one another, but due to the language barrier the degree of flirtation was limited. Then the Google translating, group picture taking Taiwanese man pulled the Frenchman aside for another technologically aided conversation. When the Frenchman was handed the phone he looked slightly aghast. He turned to and in the most stereotypical French accent said “I believe he is teaching me ze art of seduction.”

After the lesson in romance, we all piled back in the jeep for the penultimate activity: a fishing village. It was advertised as a way to be exposed the old time charms of Vietnamese fishing culture, but from the moment we pulled up to the beach we were assaulted with the smells of chemical pollution and rotting animal flesh. The “village” was one of the main docks in Mui Ne and they were trying to expand the towns tourism. The smell was suffocating, but we were trying to remain open to the possibility of cultural immersion when the recently reeducated Frenchman told us that Mui Ne had recently been exposed for fishing scandal, since the fish had contained toxic levels of pollution. This was enough motivation to high tail it out of the area and back to the car.

FullSizeRender-64.jpg

Back in the jeep we bid our short-lived friends goodbye, headed back to the guesthouse where we took brief naps, and packed up. When our bus to HCM pulled up at the guesthouse we boarded without incident and no one asked to see our tickets. The ride back to the city was nearly identical to the first except that at the preset rest stop a number of passengers bought and then opened durian fruit on the bus. Back in HCM by 7pm, we had another dinner of pho (perhaps the best of the trip) and headed back to the hostel.

The woman who worked the desk at Luan Vu in HCM seemed to be permanently stationed there 24/7. We had left our big bags the hostel, since we had already paid for the rooms the night we were in Mui Ne. Nonetheless when we walked back in the door the woman with a raised eyebrow commented “You didn’t come back last night did you?” We went to Mui Ne, we replied, but she seemed unconvinced thinking we had participated in some seductions of our own.

 

One Way Ticket to Mui Ne

Our first bus in South East Asia created mixed expectations for the rest of the trip: it had AC and wifi, but it also abandoned us on the side of the road.. We went to the Mui Ne Bus office a little before 8am. We were given our bus tickets to go to Mui Ne and promised return tickets upon our arrival. Next we were rushed across the street to wait at an informal bus stop. Our crowd quickly grew to about twenty. Then a small 12 seater van pulled up, which we were told would take us to the main bus. Getting ourselves and our luggage (luckily we just had our day packs) turned into survival of the fittest and the smallest.

The van started down the streets of HCM and we prepared ourselves for a long journey with four people sandwiched into a space meant for two. But after a mere three blocks the van pulled into the bus terminal and we disembarked. This was the first indication that land transportation and logic don’t necessarily go hand in hand in South East Asia.

We were told to remove our shoes and board the bus. At which point we discovered it was a partial sleeper bus, meaning all the seats were at a 45 degree angle. We settled into our assigned bunk and started out of HCM. The bus driver and bus attendant promised our return tickets would be returned later on.

IMG_4003

Weird Sleeper Bus

An hour and a half into the journey the bus stopped for a snack and bathroom break. Most of the bus companies have tendered an agreement with one of the highway rest stops, where they only stop there and (I assume) they receive some sort of kick back. The chosen stop was open air fruit and food market. Carly and I from breakfast decided to stay on the bus since we were unclear on how long the stop would be. Let me tell you, the stop was thirty minutes. I know this because the driver closed the doors and turned off the AC morphing the bus into an oven. I thought the 90 degree weather in HCM had prepared me for the heat of the trip, but on during that thirty minute waiting period I started to truly understand what people mean when they say “South East Asia sweat.”

Carly and I fell asleep, waking up just outside out Mui Ne. The bus had promised to drop us off at our guest house. The bus pulled up to what we knew was the general vicinity of our place and we shouted for it to stop (thanks google maps). We grabbed our bags and headed for the exit only to realize in some impressive feat of witchcraft both the bus attendant and the driver were entirely different people. Somehow in the time we slept the entire staff managed to change. The new guys were not party to our ticket situation and not willing to discuss it. Our questions were met with a chorus of “not our problem” and we were ushered off the bus still barefoot. The bus attendant gave us the companies business card and commanded “call them.” It inspired little faith that we would get tickets back to HCM.

Mui Ne is known for being a seaside town with a random collection of beautiful sand dunes, so after settling into our guest house we went to speak to the proprietor about arranging a tour and finding tickets back to HCM. She was incredibly kind and sympathetic to our bus situation, I got the impression that this wasn’t the first time that this issue had occurred. We gave her the name of the bus company we used and she called them for us, but they had no record of our tickets. So we gave her the company card which the bus attendant had given us. She pointed out, which we had failed to notice that the card corresponded with an entirely different bus company. She called the second bus company, found a record of our reservation, and confirmed the pick up time for the next day. As it turns out there are two companies that run daily trips to Mui Ne and we had ended up the wrong (and far less reliable) company. We booked a sunrise sand dune tour for the next day at 4 am and then headed into Mui Ne.

The second biggest attraction in Mui Ne is called the “Fairy Stream.” It is a stream which runs through a beautiful and striking rock formation, surrounded by smaller red sand dunes. We walked to the fairy stream, cutting through brush to the neck of the stream. There there was a collection of middle aged Vietnamese men and worn down Jeeps. For the less adventurous traveler, you can hire a jeep to take you the mile length of the stream. We were going to walk, but we stood on the bank of the stream perplexed. The rock structures obscured any opportunity to walk on solid land. We were wearing sneakers and walking in the clay red stream seemed like something the travel docs at Mt. Auburn Hospital would not have approved of. The Jeep drivers pointed to our feet and mimicked the motion of removing our shoes. We looked at each other, shrugged, and sunk our bare feet into the mud of the stream.

DSC_0288.jpg

Fairy Stream, Mui Ne, Vietnam

The landscape of the Fairy stream was incredibly beautiful and unlike anything I had seen before.

DSC_0261.jpg

Fairy Stream, Mui Ne, Vietnam

Covered in mud, we headed back to the guest house and showered. We had a light dinner of pho along the ocean and took to bed early to prepare for our sunrise sand dune tour.

Good Morning Vietnam

Our first full day in Asia Carly and I woke up late and lazed into the day. Down the street from our hostel at Cong Caphe, I discovered the south east Asian trend of dark bitter coffee with loads of sweetened condensed milk (which I would grow to have a love hate relationship with). Our otherwise lovely hostel lacked wifi so over breakfasts of Bahn Mi and began to plan our time in Vietnam. Coming into the trip we had a plan for which days would be spent in which cities and a rough list of things we wanted to see in each place, but that was about it.

We had chosen Ho Chi Minh (HCM) as our starting place, since Carly had lived there for a summer in college so it seemed like a good place to get our bearings. We had budgeted four days in HCM and we decided to spend half of that time in Mui Ne, a small beach town about four hours from HCM. Before beginning hard core tourism our postprandial tasks were finding bus tickets to Mui Ne, and to Cambodia. We found relatively reliable companies and went in search of their offices.

Bus tickets cannot be purchased online in Vietnam. Therefore all the tourist and bus offices have been concentrated to Pham Ngu Lao. The buildings are conveniently unmarked and if you ask anyone for directions to a specific establishment, they try to bring into their business and explain why their price/trip is better. We found (or thought we found) the Mui Ne Bus company relatively quickly. We reserved seats for the bus the next morning and returning the day after. We were told we would redeem our receipts for the tickets in the morning. Next we went in search of Mekong Bus Company for our tickets to Cambodia. The office however was no where to be seen. We spent about thirty five minutes wandering up and down a four block stretch of street leading a group of loitering elderly men to become concerned for our wellbeing. Finally a woman took pity upon us and guided us to the offices (which we had walked by dozens of times) and we finally got our tickets.

With our business complete we headed to the Vietnam War Museum. The museum is huge and incredibly detailed. It was especially striking since the war is a portion of our countries history that has been relegated to memorialization and nothing else. There is no American Museum for the Vietnam War. The exhibits (were of course) biased, but also incredibly well thought out and informative. I was particularly taken by the exhibits on Agent Orange and the abuses of journalists during the war. The exhibit on journalism was co-sponsored by a small town in Kansas and detailed how the war was one of the first major instances where journalists were killed and abused by both sides. Photographs had been donated by dozens of war journalists from around the world and in closing the exhibit encouraged the just and lawful treatment of non-combatants in all war zones.

The mix of the museum population was also quite interesting. By my guesses the largest populations in attendance were Aussies, French, Americans, and other Vietnamese. The entire time we were there the museum was overflowing and everyone was incredibly respectful of the space.

Our somber afternoon was revitalized by a trip to Notre Dame church (not the original, but also built by the French) and the post office which is considered a major tourist attraction. By this time we were in serious need of food, so we stopped at “Tous la Jours” a French bakery and had apple turnovers and red bean doughnuts. We were back in our hotel by 6:30 muttering promises that we would go out again for dinner, but by 8:30 we were both sound asleep.

Dark Alleys and Happy Puppy Taxis

Like any good international adventure my arrival in Vietnam began rather ominously.   In the course of thirty hours I had flown from Boston to Detroit to Tokyo to Manila and finally Ho Chi Minh. By the time my Cebu Air flight landed in Ho Chi Minh it was 12:30 pm. It had been about a year since I had been in a developing country and my haggling skills were seriously rusty, so on the intermittent airport wifi I googled which taxi services were reliable and metered. The internet quickly taught me that the Ho Chi Minh taxi stand is a prime place to get ripped off. There are only two reliable taxi companies and you should never pay for than 150,000 dong ($6 USD) for a cab.

I exchanged my US dollars for Dong and walked confidently out the doors into an onslaught of young men waving taxi signs. My confidence started to dissipate when I walked towards the taxi stand and realized that neither of the two pre approved companies were an option. I was “good” offered prices ranging from 350,000 to 200,000 dong. I stood my ground and negotiated a ride into town with the ever-questionable “Happy Puppy Taxi Company” for 150,000.

The cab pulled out of the queue giving me a full view of the airport arrival area. It turns out I had exited the side door. A sharp turn to the right would have revealed a second well organized and metered cab queue which was exclusively populated by the two reliable companies. As if to mock me cab driver left the meter on during our ride. The first things I noticed about Ho Chi Minh is that it is extremely clean and a larger population than I expected, but there is also a large homeless population.

After about fifteen minutes the cab pulled to a stop on a small street. The bright neon signs advertising cheap beer, western food, and illicit nighttime activities told me that I was in the backpacker district. The meter on the cab read 120,000 dong, so that’s what I tried to pay. The driver in broken English explained that I had agreed to pay 150,000 so that’s what I would pay. You got me there Happy Puppy Taxi, you got me there.

I retrieved my bags from the back of the cab and the driver pointed down a darkened alley and kept saying “Luan Vu” the name of our hostel. I stood there and shook my head, trying to communicate “Dude, its 1am and I am a single female traveler and your asking me to go down a dark alley? Hell no.” I knew for a fact that gullible attitudes and dark alleys is always how the first girl dies in horror movies, but due to the language barrier I didn’t have many other options. I started walked and much to my surprise after half a block a bright yellow neon sign reading “Luan Vu Guest House” beckoned me in.

 

Defending My Thesis

hamilton
Today is April 7th, the 22nd anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide. Today (coincidentally) I successfully defended my Honors Thesis for the Peace, War, & Defense department here at UNC. The subject of which was civilian participation in violence during the Rwandan genocide. I have been working on this project for over a year and this milestone brings me such joy, that it is hard to articulate.
 
First, as I shared a few days ago, my interest in genocide studies and genocide prevention began when I was in middle school. This is a passion that has carried me through my academic and professional life. In a traditional sense, a thesis is the culmination of one’s work in college, in my case this project is representative of what I have spent my life working on thus far. This is all of the protests, classes, trips, conversations, and conferences. This is the hours spent trying to rationalize why people commit genocide. This document is 80-pages of “me.” It also helped remind me, at a crucial point in my life as I look to graduate college, what I do and why. I study genocide and conflict so that moving forward I can try and prevent it.
 
This summer when I went to Rwanda I was terrified. Not terrified to travel in the country alone, but to be on the precipice of what I knew was an incredibly influential project for me personally. Looking back over the past year and I half, I have learned so much from the thesis process, but I have also struggled.
 
I have mentioned in the past that I have a chronic health condition but I never detail on social media how much that actually effects me. This year has been brutal. I can’t count how many hours I spent in doctors offices, urgent care, the ER, physical therapy, etc etc. At times it felt like my life was one long medical appointment. There are so many times this year I thought I was going to have to drop my thesis. That I thought my thesis, my life’s work, would be one more thing that my disease would steal from me. I was terrified that if I was unable to complete it, that it would be proof that I couldn’t lead the life that I want while having with this disease.
 
But I did it. This morning I defend my thesis and I was awarded honors. It feels like, not only have I completed a project representative of what I am passionate about, but I have also proven to myself that this disease is not going to slow me down. So screw you EDS, I am going to graduate college in three weeks and I am going to live the life that I have always planned for myself.
 
Also to anyone considering a thesis, do it. Do it if you are incredibly passionate about something. Do it if theres an issue in the world that you wake up everyday and think about. Do it if you have a deep and unyielding sense of curiosity. And as cliched as this may sound, to anyone who feels as though they have a limitation on there capabilities, whether it be physical, mental, or financial – fuck it. If I can complete an honors thesis, while having my life consumed by a genetic condition, then so can you.

Keep Me in Your Heart

“I myself am made entirely of flaws stitched together with good intentions.”

February 28th is a challenging day for my family.  It is the anniversary of my aunt’s death, also known as a yahrzeit in Jewish Culture.  She passed away three years ago and my family struggles to figure out how to approach the day.  In the beginning there were ceremonies and memorials, but now we all seem to remember in our own private chambers of grief.  My aunt’s death was emotionally conflicting.  I want to remember the joy she brought to my life, but I am also still angry for things that transpired in her last years of life.  Mostly I think I’m angry that she’s gone.

I don’t remember when my aunt got diagnosed, it was sometime in the middle of high school.  I knew ovarian cancer was serious, but at the time my family had survived four rounds with cancer, so the odds seemed like they were in our favor.  I do remember, however, when my mother explicitly told us that the situation was declining and we needed to begin to expect “things.” It was spring of my junior year after school.  We were sitting in the kitchen, my mother at the island with her hands folded.  I was pacing on the linoleum, wondering if our family was medically cursed.  I don’t remember what my mom said, but I remember reminding myself that I needed to be fine since my mothers sister was dying.  I remember watching her nervously twist the rings on her fingers, just like I do.

That conversation was the turning point.  Words like recovery and survival became less frequent.  I kept asking my mother what her percent chance was.  I figured if I could rationalize her illness maybe it wouldn’t hurt so much. I thought that my impending loss was less than the rest of my family.  My cousin was losing a mother, my grandparents a child, my mother and aunt a sister – my relationship seemed tertiary.

It is with this attitude, that I went to a weekly meeting with my high school advisor.  We used to go to Dunkin Donuts together every week.  Over the course of the house we would have long winding conversations about everything and everything.  He was my confidant, my advocate, and a source of (mostly) impartial wisdom.  The details here are clear. It was a warm Massachusetts spring day, the kind where you are still wearing your jacket out of habit, but the sun has finally come through the clouds with spirit. We were walking down Academy Lane, on the way back to his office, standing in front of a white colonial house. I was telling him about my aunts illness and how I didn’t feel like I had the right to be sad, stressed, or taxed.  I pointed out that there were people suffering around the world from more severe pain and within my own family there were people suffering greater pains.  I  was not allowed to be distraught.

My advisor paused and then said “you know Corie, there’s no strength in comparative suffering.” He went on to explain that there may be people starving in Africa, dying in conflict, or even those in my family with a more intimate connection to my aunt’s illness, but that did not invalidate my pain.  He said that we only lead our own lives, so we can only know the suffering that we have personally felt.  If something hurts, then that is an important emotion that should be acknowledged and processed.  I started to understand that my emotional processing did not discredit or weaken the experiences of others – instead it humanized them.  In communal pain I did not have the right to be a martyr or to make the situation all about myself.  But at the same time I had an emotional obligation to be honest with myself about how my aunts potential death was affecting me.

In the years since, that phrase has become a part of my vernacular.  Whether talking about genocide, human rights, or my own life – I find this take on pain and suffering incredibly insightful.  It served me through the rest of my aunt’s illness and is now a fundamental part of my world view. It has made me more human. When I interact with people who have felt great emotional suffering I do not feel superior to the, I do not feel stronger, or more resilient. Instead I recognize that we are mutually flawed in our humanity.

My aunt died on the morning on February 28th, 2013. I was sitting in my introduction to comparative politics class when my phone started ringing relentlessly.  I gathered my things and left.  There had been a packed suitcase waiting in my room for three days.  We knew.  I sat in my dorm room and cried, then I wiped my eyes and prepared to be the person that I thought my family would need.  I flew home and spent a week in her home.  I mourned, but I was okay.  In the two years interim, I had suffered at my aunts disease.  I spent hours crying, hoping, and wishing for her recovery.  I let myself feel pain and when the end actually began to approach I wrote my aunt a letter which my mother read at her bedside.  I let her illness hurt, which better prepared me in the emotional long run.

I still miss my aunt.  When I think of her my heart hurts with all the moments she’s missed in the past three years.  I miss her laughter, the twinkle in her eye when she was teasing, her compassion, and her warmth.  Mostly I just miss her being there.  Im still angry, but that hasn’t eclipsed the pain. I think of that funeral adage “If love could have saved you, you would have lived.” Thanks to my advisors advice, I embrace this grief and recognize that my pain is no better or worse than anyone else.  On February 28th I think about her and I think about how I am dealing with my own pains in life.

At one of my aunts memorial services, I read the lyrics to a Warren Zevon song, that said “You know I’m tied to you like the buttons on your blouse/ Keep me in your heart for a while.” I carry this with me.  My aunts death is another wound in my side, a pain that was significant to me and has taught me greater strength.  Loving her memory hurts and I don’t think thats going away anytime soon but thats okay.

 

The Dangers of Denial

I had the moment of realization when I was fifteen.  I had just returned from my two week trip to visit the concentration camps and I was sitting in my grandparents house recounting the stories of my trip.  They asked which camps I had visited and I dutifully went through the list “Auschwitz, Birkenau, Plashow, Majdanek, Sobibor…” But then I was interrupted by the giggles of my eight year old cousin.  “Those words sound funny.  What are they?” There was a long pause and someone explained that they were just the names of places I had visited in Poland.  There was a collective decision that she was too young for the truth.  But by the time she was old enough most Holocaust survivors had passed away.  That day I came to understand that in my lifetime Holocaust denial would become easier and more common.

Now in the face of the worlds problems I consider myself a relatively calm person.  I have spent the past ten years hearing survivors stories, reading testimonies, reviewing evidence, and visiting genocide memorials.  I have become accustomed to spending my days with some of the ugliest parts of humanity.  I am continually impassioned by my work, but I am rarely angry.  But time and time again the denial of mass atrocities angers me in a way I struggle to articulate.  My body is consumed with the anger that people are denying these events and the fear that their opinions will become common place.

I am brought back to this anger by a recent google search.  My mother is a high school teacher and she is giving a presentation to her students on the Holocaust.  She needs photographs from the Holocaust and asked me to compile those I thought were most compelling.  With certain images in mind, I took to google with a list of key words.  For every ten images I found, there was one image of Holocaust denial.  Then half the image sources came from denial websites or blogs.  I had chosen to forget how widespread this problem is. Spending my time in the academic community, it is easy to forget what “truths” are googelable.

Any person in the world can go online, read these websites, and interpret it as the truth.  Sadly this is a piece of mass atrocity and genocide prevention that often goes un-disscussed.  Typically there are three stages of conflict: the warning, the execution, and the aftermath.  The aftermath, however has an expiration date, and soon enough the international community is on to the next problem.  There is a very precious window after a conflict, when the survivors are still alive and able to tell their stories.  This presents two problems: survivors must be psychologically safe to tell their stories and there must be the resources to collect them.  Sadly these qualifications are not often met.  Many Holocaust survivors did not begin to tell their stories until thirty or forty years after the Holocaust, once they could gain emotional distance.  Survivors of Srebrenica, Rwanda, and Cambodia have not had the same international encouragement or support to tell their stories.  As a result important parts of history follow these people to their graves.  Collecting first hand accounts is one of the key modes of denial prevention – create overwhelming evidence that these events truly happened.

Denial is a process that comes after the aftermath of conflict.  Once the bodies have been buried, the ceremonies conducted, and the reparations paid, there is a silence, a moratorium on the tragedy if you will.  The survivors try to move on to their “new lives” and the deniers have a space to start writing their own version of history.

To me, denial is one of the most vile and offensive crimes.  It completely invalidates the experiences and struggles of survivors.  It tells Holocaust survivors that the endless billows of smoke, the piles of bodies, the years of starvation, and the final conversation with their families were imagined.  It tells survivors of Armenia that the death marches were really “friendly relocations.”  It tell every person who persevered through violence, who survived rape and beating, who stared down death, and who wished they could have died to save their loved ones that they are worthless.

Denial is the final emotional violence of genocide and one that we cannot tolerate.  It is a fruitless effort to argue with every denier, to try to quiet them, or remove their pages.  Instead we must make our voices louder and clearer in the annals of history.  We must be secondary witnesses, committing to memory stories of the survivors we know, and carrying them to the next generation.  So in twenty years, when a person says, “Corie, what is Sobibor, or Auschwitz, or Majdanek?”  I will show them the stone I have from one of the barracks at Auschwitz, I will tell them about my friend Judy, and I will refuse to let genocide denial be part of my future.

Defining Violence

In the field of genocide and mass atrocities, definitions are often a contentious issue.  Many policy makers and advocates feel as though definitions are an arbitrary process that takes up massive amounts of time, while people are dying.  In contrast, academics are typically strong proponents of definitions.  They feel as though definitions provide structure and a universal mechanism for understanding human behavior and conflict.  I stand somewhere in the middle.  Definitions are required, so that everyone can be on the same page, but they also cannot be an excuse for inaction in the face of mass violence.

Take the micro analogy of your own personal health.   Imagine you fell over and seriously injured your arm – to the point where you were blinded by the pain and you could tell, simply from looking that some of the bones were out of place.  Of course the next logical step would be to go to the ER and seek treatment.  So you arrive in the ER and the doctor calls you back.  He looks at your arm and without a physical examination the ER doc says, “You know I think you fractured the bone.  I am not totally sure, but it seems that way.  So heres what I am going to do, I am going to give you a cast, then you come back in a few weeks, you get the cast taken off, and we’ll see if anything is any better.”

Now if a medical professional told you to take the “wait and see” approach you would be furious.  You would demand that he take x-rays, MRIs, and other tests to appropriately examine the injury.  Because if he didn’t, if he sent you home casted and treated for a fracture, when you clearly had a protruding bone, then your arm would heal incorrectly.  And when you came back in a number of weeks to have the cast removed, you would realize that you had lost a portion of the function in your arm since the doctor had misdiagnosed you and suddenly nothing would ever be the same.

On a macro level, in the field of genocide and mass atrocities prevention, the analysis or diagnosis is the same.  When violence breaks out in a certain country there is a tendency to jump to conclusions.  Within moments, a complex situation is diluted into “ethnic tensions,” “age old tensions,” or some other cliched analysis.  Now there is the institutional problem that there is no consensus on how different types of conflict should be defined.  Scholars constantly argue on how genocide, atrocities, and human rights abuses should be categorized.  So some have the tendency to abandon definitions in the name of action.  Whereas other argue about appropriate definitions until all of the bodies have been buried.  Now these are the polar extremes and neither is effective.

Conflict, as most things in life, must be approached with a delicate nuanced approach.  Definitions, used appropriately, have the potential to change the ways we respond to and analyze conflict, but they must be dealt with carefully.  Imagine if we had the same definitional rigor in the social sciences that we do in the hard sciences.  Imagine, when a conflict broke out if analysts, activists, and policy makers were able to quickly asses the type of violence at hand.  Then they would be better equipped to respond to the crisis, since they could sense or understand the trajectory of the problem. On the flip side, misdiagnosis is extremely dangerous in the social sciences as it is in medicine.  If your doctor casts you for a fracture, when you actually have a shattered bone, the injury will not heal properly.  Your arm will be permanently and seriously damaged.  The same is true in war, when conflicts are simplified or misunderstood, they have the capability to do greater damage to the society.

Take Burundi for example, people were quick to call the violence either a genocide or pure ethnic hatred.  As I previously wrote, this analysis is not only wrong but problematic.  The violence in Burundi is a complex power grab by the sitting president, who is not ready to give up office.  This is complicated by other regional actors who are not prepared for a democratic transition of power.  The violence being perpetrated towards civilians is awful, gruesome, and problematic, but it is not genocide.  It is violence of subjugation, meant to oppress the people so that the president can maintain his position.  When we misdiagnose genocide, we give his regime more power, we create greater fear, and we separate the problem as a unique event.  Calling genocide does not acknowledge or address the regional intricacies of the problem.  The international response to Burundi has a direct impact on what happens in the country, so we cannot risk inaction or incorrect assessments of the type of conflict.

In a developing environment of conflict, where traditional states are continually facing less traditional non-state actors it is important to come to a consensus on assessment.  Learning to diagnosis violence is an overlooked field, that many activists consider a stalling technique by policy makers.  That is not the case.  The humanitarian, government, and military communities need to come together and develop a singular language so we can collectively develop creative solutions to complex conflict problems.

The Forgotten Men in Feminism

A few nights ago I was up late, I had sprained a few of my ribs and I was kept up by the gnawing pain.  Crippled by an injury, there isn’t much to do besides watch bad television.  This is how I came to find myself watching a dating program on MTV, at 4 am, where the contestants are all living together in a house in Hawaii.  The premise of the program is unimportant, except to know that twenty young men and women were living together with constant interaction and very little privacy.  A transgression during the course of the program made me realize there is a very important part of feminism that we are not discussing: the abuse and safety of men.

Feminism, at its core is meant to promote a society where men and women are treated equally in all aspects of society.  In most cases, women need to be brought to where men are and afforded the same opportunities/treatment, but in some instances men need to be given the same respect and attention of women.  In current new wave feminism there is a focus on sexual assault, sexually safety, and violence prevention – but only for 50% of the population.  The abuse of men is not a widely discussed or respected issue, nor one that I am forced to think about very often.

So there I am, at 4am, watching this program when a violent seen breaks out between two of the contestants.  There was a man and a woman, we’ll call them Chris and Ally (since I can’t remember their names) who were romantically involved and had a highly volatile relationship.  One evening the members of the television program are sitting around and drinking.  Ally, intoxicated, begins verbally harassing Chris.  He tries to walk away and diffuse the situation.  She follows hip and starts to hit him, jokingly at first, but then every time he tries to speak she hits him in the face. Chris walks away again and returns to the communal bed room.  Ally follows him and yells obscenities.  She follows him into the bedroom where she begins kicking him, hitting him, and screaming.  He asks her to walk away.  She continues.  She pulls the sheets off his bed and hits him with them.  Chris, also intoxicated, stands and pushes her.  She pushes back and he then pushes her again.  He sends her falling backwards onto the bed and she then falls to the floor.

The other house members, previously apathetic, become enraged.  They come to the defense of Ally and start screaming at Chris.  Chris is removed from the situation and the producers of the program intervene.  He is sent to a hotel for a night so the situation can be addressed.  The next morning Chris announces that he has decided to leave the show.  He is crying and saying how he never meant for this to happen.  He says he has brought shame to himself and his family, that he is not that kind of man.  The other contestants say that they can no longer be friends with Chris now that he’s shown his true colors.

After Chris leaves, the program continues and Ally’s actions are never addressed.  Now I am the first person to speak out against violence.  I firmly believe that violence is not the answer to conflict and individuals must work towards non-violent deescalation, but no one is perfect.  In the case of this television program, Ally instigated the violence.  She repeatedly hit Chris, while he tried to walk away and diffuse the situation.  She was the catalyst.  He should not have responded to the situation with violence, but this is not the case of “woman beater.” I mean run through the series of events and switch the roles.  Imagine a woman had tried to walk away from a mans repeated acts of violence, before eventually responding with her own act of retaliation. How would you react to that?

Now consider this alternative.  A few nights ago I was out for drinks with some friends, they were rehashing the story of their friend who got “mauled” by this girl.  They had been out at bars and this extremely intoxicated woman had made sexual advances on one of their friends.  He tried to decline.  Then she began forcibly making out with him.  My friends were laughing about how he was looking over to them for help, mouthing SOS.  Then the woman asked to go home with him and he declined.  Once again, change the pronouns.  Reread that story with different gender roles.  If a man forces himself upon a woman, for a kiss or something more, and she turns to her friends for aid they laugh and tell her to have fun.  That story reads completely differently, but it shouldn’t.

Thinking about these two micro experiences, I realized that on average men are excluded from the discourse on abuse and assault.  They are the attackers, never the victims.  If they are the victims however, then they are weak and unmanly.  Somewhere in the search for gender equality, masculinity and victimhood became mutually exclusive terms.  There is not a conscious or safe space for men in the current mainstream feminist movement.

Often times my male friends ask me questions about female safety.  They are good kind men and they want to know how they can make their female friends feel safe.  They want to know if they make women uncomfortable when they walk behind them on the street.  They want to know if they should cross the street when they women walking alone at night.  They want to know how they can approach women in spaces without seeming predatory. There are so many men who are actively committing themselves to being better allies to women, but are we doing the same for them?

I think there is a tendency to say that men have lived on the comfortable side of history.  They hold the social power and their bodies are not used as extended battle grounds of violent conflict, they are the lucky ones.  Once we decided that men, as a category, are privileged, we exclude them from this dialogue.  I am guilty of this, I do not spend time thinking about how I can be a better advocate for my male friends.  I do not take steps to make sure they feel safe or pressured to be masculine.  Gender support is predominantly one sided and that needs to change.

Information about the assault of women is readily available and well organized. It is easy to discover that 1 in 3 women in the US will experience assault in some way and 1 in 5 women will experience rape.  It is much harder to discover that 1 in 10 men in the US have experienced intimate partner violence and 4% of men have experienced serious harm as a result of domestic violence.  We are only having one half of the conversation right now.  Not only are we ignoring the male component of partner violence and sexual assault, but we also have a tendency to mock and insult men who can’t “handle” their women.

Now I am not blaming the MTV programming or my friends, but I am trying to point out a flaw in the discourse.  Think about the fact that priests who sexually assault children, target young boys from working class families.  These boys, already in already challenging and hyper masculine environments, are in a situation where they believe they would be shamed for discussing the assault.  We have created an environment that does not allow men to maintain their masculinity while simaltaneously being honest about their experiences.

This is problematic and this is not the brand of feminism I signed up for.  I know many men in my life who have vocalized their concern for the my safety and the lengths they would be going to protect that.  These men would move mountains for me and feminism encourages that narrative.  On the other hand I would go to every length of my power to protect the men in my life and save them from the pain of interpersonal violence.  Often times I hear men say “I want to be a feminist because I love my sister, mother, girlfriend, etc” but you also hear men say “I want to be a feminist because women are humans who deserve to feel safe.” Well in the simplest form, men are humans who also deserve to feel safe and loved. And its about time we designed a wave of feminism that includes them.

Frida’s Story

My father recently pointed out that everyday is bound to be an anniversary for some world event or human suffering.  It seems statistically probable, that on every day of the year there has been a serious or painful event for some portion of the population.  So celebrating each day of remembrance for each human rights abuse can get repetitive.  Nonetheless I still go through the motions.

I am a cynical optimist and I keep thinking I will grow tired of these mournful acts of commemoration, but I haven’t yet.  Each anniversary serves as a quiet reminder as to why we must be steadfast in the face of injustice.  Yesterday was a particularly significant day for me since it was the 71st anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and also the International Remembrance Day for the Holocaust.

For most people Auschwitz brings Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel to mind.  Perhaps they think of plumes of smoke curling out of the crematoriums, or emaciated bodies class in striped uniforms.  Everybody remembers differently and each year I think of Frida Rozmati.

When I was fifteen years old I went to Poland and Israel on a trip called the March of the Living for Jewish youth.  We visited eight concentration and death camps and on the Jewish remembrance day for the Holocaust we marched from Auschwitz to Birkenau- the death march during the Holocaust.  Then went to Israel for a week to reaffirm our faith in the strength of the Jewish people.  In my group I was one of two reform Jews.  During those weeks I learned two important things.  Pain and suffering transcends social groups and that the perpetrators of these crimes were human.

For the entire trip we were required to wear lanyards with our name, hometown, group number, and chaperone.  Then on the back of the lanyard there was the story of a child who died in the Holocaust.  1.5 million victims of the Holocaust were under the age of eighteen.  So each student on my program was assigned a youth who died, and we marched in their honor and memory.  I was assigned Frida Rozmaiti and for two weeks straight I stared at her name.  I read her story thousands of times until it felt like my own.  Frida was born to a working class Jewish family in a small village in Poland in 1940. Her and her parents were deported to Auschwitz.  She was a year and a half old.  She was sent to the gas chambers immediately upon her arrival, as were her parents.  By 1941 the entire Rozmaiti lineage had been successfully wiped from history.

On Yom HaShoah, the Jewish Remembrance Day for the Holocaust, we marched from Auschwitz to Birkenau.  We were given little wooden placards to write messages, then we placed them in the railroad tracks at Birkenau.  We were all trying to reclaim the space, as if covering it with our notes of love for those long lost would over come the hatred and pain that fills Birkenau.  On my placard, I scrawled Frida’s name along the top and then the name of all the Holocaust survivors who I knew personally.  By that point in the trip, her death felt personal and painful.  She was, for lack of a better phrase, permanently burned into my memories.

So every year as various remembrance days roll around for the Holocaust I think of Frida. To me her death is the worst thing about genocide.  Its not the fact that she could have been the next great scientist, or artist, or political leader.  Instead its the idea that she should have lead a life of memories and experiences.  Not only was her opportunity to be great taken away, but her chance to be human was stolen.  Im not talking about changing the world, but I am talking about all the other little things that our society and culture are made from.  Her chance to play, learn, grow, to feel joy and pain, and continue the lineage of her family were taken away simply because she was Jewish.  To me this is the greatest casualty of genocide.  The millions of moments of normality and humanity that disappear when people are killed for inalienable aspects of their identity such as their race, gender, nationality, religion, or ethnicity.

Frida’s death and the death of millions of Jews like her, hurt Polish society.  Diversity in our lives does comes from both macro and micro perspectives.  One day the Rozmaitis may have chosen to share their Passover dinner with their Christian neighbors.  Then these Poles would have been brought into a new, different, and equally beautiful culture.  They would have learned through their human connection with others.  The death of Jewish life in  many parts of Europe prevented people from connecting with “the other.” As we can see today, humanizing those that are different from us is incredibly important.

Genocide and mass suffering does not just harm the targeted population, but it damages the whole society.  The definition of the word genocide says that it is the intentional destruction of a group, but it is more than that, genocide is the murder of millions of individuals.  Each with their own story.  On the Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz, I think of Frida.  I think of her mother clutching her in her arms as they were led to the gas chambers, where they were suffocated with Zyklon B, and then burned in the crematorium.  When I think of the plume of smoke rising above the Arbeit Macht Frei sign, I think of Frida rising and I think of the millions of stories like hers that have been forgotten to history.  And every year it is for those I remember.

1917597_1412283034685_2067471_n