Illustration of three fallen soldiers, two soldiers running with guns, and one soldier firing a machine gun over a barricade.
Brian Rea

The World Is a Thriving Slaughterhouse

Sifting through decades of testimony of people caught up in the horrors of violent zealotry, a writer grapples with what hasn’t changed in our new world of terror.

Here, lying in a stained carton, are notes on a refugee camp in Tanzania, where surviving Tutsis and their Hutu enemies lived side by side in blue tarp tents. It is 1994. The notes record that there are people everywhere, milling and moving in short parades on the main path in the camp, hastily constructed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Women wear colorful cloths, khangas, and carry yellow plastic containers of water on their heads. Children and old men push up against one another, as if at a bargain sale. They hold portable radios to their ears. A man in a brown rain hat drags a reluctant goat by a rope. White smoke mixes with the smells of fresh earth and excrement. At an outdoor butcher shop, a cow’s bloodied horn lies beside the animal’s astonished head. I greet a group of young Hutus in French. “Did you participate in the killings?,” I ask. “We did nothing,” one says. “Did you see others do the killing?” He says, “We saw nothing.” I ask, “How many Tutsis are left in Rwanda, do you think?” A teenage boy wearing a green baseball cap grins, and slowly draws the side of his index finger across his throat.

Here are several photos of and notes on Divis Flats, a Catholic neighborhood, or stronghold, in Belfast. It is 1981. Coiled barbed wire runs atop a long gray wall on which is written smash h-block, a reference to the British prison in which members of the Irish Republican Army are held. Windows are pockmarked with bullet holes and display black flags of mourning for hunger strikers. Rats skitter in huge sewage pits, soggy with rain. Glass chips cover streets that are interrupted by “dragon’s teeth,” huge blocks of stone set out by the British army in uneven rows to prevent fast getaways. The presence of a stranger in the area is scrutinized, my every step tracked by a huddle of teenage boys with grim, bold faces, loitering beside a fire-blackened car. It is essential not to look British. The week before my arrival, a CBS reporter was stabbed at this same spot because he made the mistake of wearing a Burberry coat.

Here is a taped interview with two teenage girls, Daphna and Semadar, in Kiryat Shmona, in northern Israel. It is 1981. Semadar says, “Everybody’s right and everybody’s wrong. I know the terrorists are evil. But on the other hand, they wanted a state. And I don’t know if we should think like them, but we also wanted a state. And we were ready to kill for it.” Daphna chimes in, “Sometimes I hate all Arabs.” Semadar, changing her tune: “Sometimes I think that if I could, I would drop them all into the sea.” I ask whether they ever could fall in love with an Arab. Both at once: “Are you crazy?!” Semadar: “I hate them without reason. In order to preserve my sense of self, I have to hate them.”

And here is an interview with Yasser Arafat, whom I find accidentally at the Palestine Liberation Organization press office in Beirut, where I happen to have parked myself for a couple of hours. It is 1982. Arafat is in hiding from the Israeli troops who have the city under siege. Rumor has it that he is awaiting an Egyptian ship to make his escape. He appears diminished and weary, the energy forced, yet he agrees to answer a few questions before fleeing again. “When the war stops, what happens to the Palestinians in Lebanon?,” I ask. “They remain to put their fingers on the main spokes of the Palestinian issue, the Palestinian cause, the Palestinian rights,” he says, adding, “We have the right of self-determination. We have the right to go back to our homeland.” I ask whether he would give up his arms to the Lebanese army. He says, “Would you give up your arms to the Lebanese army?” Would he enter into negotiations with Israel? His eyes bulge. “Do you think we should negotiate with the barbarian, savage, terrorist junta in Israel with their hands full of blood?”

More notes, more photos, papers, scribbles on napkins. From 49 battered this-side-up movers’ boxes spill curled legal pads, maps, audiotapes, souvenirs, 30-year-old newspapers that crumble at the touch, background articles, propaganda pamphlets, children’s drawings, a couple of spent shells—the detritus of two decades in which I occasionally wrote pieces for Time, The New York Times Magazine, and Vanity Fair about people caught in wars in Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Israel, Cambodia, Vietnam, Sudan, and Rwanda. A collection of sorrows and rages. Obsessed with order, my clerkish mind addresses the mess of materials, now sprawled all over the attic. I have acquired stackable plastic crates for labeling and arranging. How will I get this anarchy under control?

My sifting begins in the wake of the San Bernardino massacre, the jihadist massacres in Mali, and the Islamic State massacres in Paris—more violence brought on by ethnic and religious fanaticism, but now with new emphasis on televised spectacle, and with front lines that can appear anywhere. My sifting proceeds, and news arrives of the explosions at the Brussels airport, a wave of bombings in Baghdad, an attack in Bangladesh. Could anybody have seen all this coming back then? I doubt it. Generals aren’t the only ones who fight the last war. Students and observers of world conflicts have been accustomed to conceiving of wars, no matter how deadly, as contained, with international powers fighting, even during a world war, in discrete theaters. But the world war we are in now—and it is that—is informal and seems uncontainable. It goes undeclared, is conducted solely by surprise attacks, and anticipates no truces or treaties.

Not that the wars I saw made much sense either. Around you in a war is shooting, shouting, running, bleeding, banging, weeping, and you try, in essays and stories, to make neat and clear all that resists neatness and clarity. I’m trying to do that again now, in the crates and on the page. It has been 35 years since I was in some of these war zones. I find boxes with material from my tour of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in 1985. I was there to write a 40th-anniversary piece about August 6, 1945. Outside, Hiroshima was a flourishing city. Inside, my translator, a young woman in her 20s, burst into tears at our guide’s firsthand account of the morning of the bombing. I find the tape. Yoshitaka Kawamoto, the director of the museum, had been a 13-year-old whose school stood only half a mile from the hypocenter. When the bomb hit, he and the few other children who survived began singing the school song to bolster their courage.

But then the singing and the cries grew weaker. My classmates were dying one by one. That made me very frightened. I struggled to free myself from the broken fragments and looked around. Through a hole in the roof I could see clouds swirling in a cone; some were black, some pink. There were fires in the middle of the clouds. I checked my body. Three upper teeth were chipped off—perhaps a roof tile had hit me. My left arm was pierced by a piece of wood that stuck in my flesh like an arrow. Unable to pull it out, I tied a tourniquet around my upper arm to stanch the flow of blood. We were taught that it was cowardly to desert one’s classmates. So I crawled about the rubble calling, “Is there anyone alive?”

Hearing his account through the voice of the young translator makes it seem closer rather than further removed. She has to be about 60 today. If she heard her voice on the tape now, I wonder whether she would be as affected by what she was relating.

Here are notes taken for a story on the “lost boys” in Sudan. It is 1993. I am talking with Ayen, a 23-year-old woman who lives under a tamarind tree in Sudan. Her two children are dead from malnutrition, her husband “away,” probably killed by soldiers in Khartoum. She has lived under the tree for a year. “What do you think about here, in this place?,” I ask her. “Nothing,” she says. Her persistent coughing drives the flies from her lips. “Do you think about your children?,” I ask. She says no. Your husband? No again. “At night, under the tree, do you have dreams?” She says, “Sometimes. Sometimes I have dreams.” I ask her what she dreams about. She bows her head. “Nothing.”

I saw my first dead person in Sudan. Thon, an 11-year-old boy, had died of starvation after the 800-mile trek south from Khartoum, undertaken by many thousands of boys fleeing government planes. In a straw hut, a tukul, I held Thon’s body in my arms as he was being dressed for burial. I could barely feel his weight.

Here is a recording of 15-year-old Bernadette, a fifth-former in the Cross and Passion Secondary School in Belfast in 1981. She is sitting by a window in one of the nun’s offices. I picture her, the white-blond hair she sweeps away from her eyes as she speaks of the death of her sister. Her matter-of-fact voice fills the attic. “One of the hunger strikers had just died. Francis Hughes, I think it was. Yah, it was. And Julie and her friend had just come out of a shop. And there was the bangin’ of the lids.” She means trash-can lids, to signal mourning and anger.

Suddenly people started running. And the army Saracens came down the road, you know? Six-wheeler Saracens? And Julie dove. But when her friend tried to pick her up, she couldn’t move. She was still unconscious on the way to the hospital. But she wasn’t all there, like, when we left her. Mommy kept ringing the doctors all night to see how she was. The thing they were afraid of was the blood leaking into her brain.

In a torn manila envelope I have pages I wrote in the early 1980s on the theory and nature of war in the abstract. They seem to make a deliberately false case for war as a good thing. I quote a lecture by John Ruskin, of all people, espousing the idea that high art is impossible in a peaceful or peacekeeping country. Harry Lime made the same argument in The Third Man. I wrote that a state of war tests and cultivates basic human virtues—courage, loyalty, stamina, coolheadedness, cunning, stoicism, self-sacrifice, and honor, or one kind of honor at least. I noted a psychoanalytical hypothesis that holds that war is good for the subconscious because violent conflict relieves it of self-contempt by objectifying guilt. I’m not sure why I wrote all this, since it reads like horseshit. Perhaps to set up a straw man in the interest of making the point that, whatever else we may say of it, war is death.

Here is a crayon drawing of an airplane. I know it at once. In the Khao I Dang camp set up by the United Nations in southern Thailand, I met with Cambodians who, at immense risk, had escaped Pol Pot’s work camps. It is 1981. Ty Kim Seng, 13 years old, made his escape through the jungle, traveling many miles on foot and nearly dying from lack of food and water. His father, who, as a doctor, had been deemed an intellectual and therefore an enemy of the Khmer Rouge, had been taken away by a helicopter and returned a few days later, dead. Seng buried him in his village, and not much later, his mother, who died of starvation. Seng’s older brother fled to France. In the Khao I Dang camp, we talk in a small, hot room. The camp: deep, wet heat; flash rains; dirt; and piles of prosthetic limbs. Thousands of Cambodians wander aimlessly from place to place, much like the Tutsi and Hutu camp residents in Tanzania. Seng’s drawing is a gift for me. When I ask him, Why the plane?, he says that’s where he wants to be, on a flight to France. He tells me he is the pilot.

Journalists rarely see something good result from their work. Seng was my good thing. After I wrote about him in Time, a couple in Massachusetts was moved to take him in as a foster child and then adopt him. Eventually he went to college, worked with Cambodian relief, and wrote a book about his life. He is in his late 40s today, married, with two children. We’ve stayed in touch all these years. The first time he came to visit, in the late 1990s, we stood still in the doorway before we embraced, shocked that we both existed.

Another box holds photos taken in 1994 from the bridge on which I stood over the Kagera River, separating Tanzania and Rwanda, watching Tutsi bodies rise on a waterfall and tumble. One, three, 50, many more, plunging into eddies or washing onto the shore or carried out toward Lake Victoria. The bodies, limp and grayed, dressed neat as civil servants. Here are a tape and my notes on an interview with a Tutsi survivor at her tent in the UN refugee camp. She sits on a green tarp surrounded by seven little ones. “Who are these children?,” I ask. She indicates that a boy and a girl are hers, two belong to friends, and she does not know the others. Many babies lie unclaimed in the camp because it takes too much to feed them. Her husband is dead, she says. “They took him even though he is Hutu, because he married me. He would not tell them where I was hiding.” She had crawled under a sheet of aluminum behind her house. “I took the babies and I put my body on top of them. I almost crushed that one”—she points—“to death, because she was crying. We lay on the ground for many hours, listening to people running, and the soldiers shouting and slashing the bushes. Then there was silence.”

I find a yellowed newspaper clip that says more people were killed by machetes in Rwanda than by the A‑bomb in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Can this be so?

In Israel I learned that something similar occurred to a Jewish family in Nahariya as parents and children tried to hide from terrorists from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who had invaded their home from the sea. As the Israeli forces approached, the terrorists shot the father, grabbed the 5-year-old daughter, and cracked her head open on a rock. Like the Tutsi woman, the mother hid with her 2-year-old, in a utility room. When the baby began to cry, she clamped her hand over her mouth. So hard was her grip, she suffocated her own child.

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A baby named Palestine was born in the wake of an Israeli air raid on West Beirut. It is 1981, according to the clip I find. The child’s mother was discovered dead in the rubble, her stomach ripped open. Three meters away lay her new baby girl, still attached to the placenta. She was given the name Palestine by committee, since the circumstances of her birth were politically useful to the PLO. Here is a photo taken at the nursery in the Akka hospital. Palestine is dressed in a bright-blue sleeping suit with the words space patrol on the pocket. If she’s alive today, she is 35 years old.

Here is a photo of a boy sitting by a window in Beirut, his arms resting on the sill. It is 1982. I did not speak with him. I took his picture because he seemed to embody everyone who silently looks out a window during a war. I encountered another Beirut boy, about 12, on a solitary walk at night. Headlights of passing cars made menacing shadows on the buildings and on a billboard announcing that Superman II was coming to the city. Stumbling in the rubble in the dark, I came up face-to-face with the boy, who was holding a machine gun at his waist. He looked terrified to see me.

A conversation jotted on a napkin: “Do you come from New York?” a teenage girl asks me at a Belfast carnival in 1981. “I do,” I say. “Oh, I wouldn’t go there,” she says. “Murders everywhere.”

Here is another child’s drawing. I wish I’d never seen it. In the pencil drawing there seems to be a wagon wheel, with spokes extending from a small circular hub to the outer rim, and with the odd feature of a drawstring on the outer rim. It is not a wagon wheel. When 9-year-old Peov escaped to the Khao I Dang camp, she would not speak a word for a year. Finally, she made this drawing. It is of a portable guillotine devised by the Khmer Rouge to be used on children caught attempting to flee the Pol Pot work camps. A child’s head would be placed in the ring at the hub. The “spokes” of the drawing were steel blades. When the child’s head was in position, someone would pull the drawstring and the blades would close around the ring, like a camera lens. The soldiers did not pull the string. They made other children do it.

Maybe I ought to be wondering not how to organize this material, but rather, why to keep it in the first place. I’m not a hoarder. I take more pleasure in throwing things out than in piling them up. What will I be accomplishing by sorting these heaps into the stackable crates? Once in a while I come across a recorded gentle word in the war zones, or notes on tender, plaintive moments and acts of kindness. A picture of the wooden bed the Sudanese lost boys built for my visit to their camp, on the very day they had arrived there themselves. Words spoken by a 10-year-old Israeli boy named Nimrod, who identified with Israel’s loneliness, as if his country were “a speck of sand alone in the world, with only a few other specks of sand who care about it.” A poem by a girl in a secondary school in Derry that begins, “There is a hollow somewhere, a big hollowness that needs filling.” A tape of dances and music in Khao I Dang. Yet the preponderance of this evidence shows the world much as it is today: a thriving slaughterhouse.

The only reason I can think of for preserving this material is to honor, in a private way, the ordinary people who were caught up in these wars, whose names might disappear otherwise. In this attic is my small memorial to the dead, and also to the living, those with whom I spoke for my stories, and those who are walking around somewhere right now, harboring their memories and observing a dangerous world. Many of them, too, showed willful optimism and, in spite of death all around them, faith in life, often expressed in wonder.

What will today’s zealots and plotters, its survivors and bystanders, see when they look back? What patterns will the diplomats and chroniclers now in the thick of things make out? Will they discern a meaning I cannot? Or perhaps there is nothing to understand. Perhaps our rhythms simply repeat, endless and mysterious irruptions that sweep us up, righteous and powerless, convinced of our causes and visions, and possessed by the particular urgency of our times.

Here are notes on a conversation with Khu, a 15-year-old boy who fled Vietnam to Hong Kong after the war. His parents are dead. He had nothing in Vietnam, so one night he jumped aboard a boat in Haiphong, headed up the South China Sea to Hong Kong. After some time, the people on the boat ran out of food. The captain, or “boat master,” assigned one man to knock Khu unconscious with a hammer and another to cut his throat, so the others could eat him. When the crew members saw the tears on Khu’s face, they let him live. But the next day, the adults killed the man with the hammer and cut up his body. “Everyone was issued a piece of meat, about two fingers wide.” Khu holds up a hand to indicate the size of the portion. He says he understands their actions. They were starving. Would you do the same?, I ask him. No, he says, I would not kill in order to live.

It is evening, and Khu and the translator are sitting with me, looking over the dazzling Hong Kong harbor. We watch the junks move among the little islands. The mountain of the city rises like a Christmas tree. I ask Khu what he’s thinking about. The lights, he says. They are beautiful. And the boats. I ask what he thinks about the boats. He says they are also beautiful. What else is beautiful?, I ask him. He says everything is beautiful.