Archives for February 2010

Sister, I’m not dying, they’re trying to kill me


Hunger strike! London graffiti, Sclater st

On December 28, 1977, Liliana Fontana gave birth to a boy. At the time Liliana and her partner Pedro Sandoval were prisoners in the torture center known as the Athletic Club. This was Buenos Aires during the Dirty Wars. Liliana and Pedro were deemed subversives, and so, at birth, the infant was turned over to the military, and Liliana Fontana and Pedro Sandoval disappeared: “Delia Barrera, held for 92 days, remembered the young couple….Two clear recollections haunt her — how Fontana and Sandoval quietly sang love songs to each other and how on Nov. 4, 1977, the day Barrera was transferred from the center, Fontana hugged her goodbye. `She gave me a kiss, and I could feel her pregnancy,’ Barrera said.” This story was reported two weeks ago. Since then, I have been thinking of Liliana Fontana giving birth, surrounded by torturers. Followed by decades of silence, her screams fill the air.

I have thought of Liliana Fontana while reading about the women prisoners on hunger strike in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, outside Bedford, in the east of England.

In 2003, the British government created something called the Detained Fast Track Asylum System. Here’s how the UK Border Agency, UKBA, describes the system: “Our objective is to fast-track asylum decisions, remove those whose claims fail and integrate those who need our protection. We have succeeded in closing the gap between the number of failed asylum applicants and the number removed. The Government has dramatically cut asylum claims since their peak in 2002. There were fewer claims for asylum in 2006 than in any year since 1993. In the fourth quarter of 2006, 3,665 principal applicants were removed from the country. We have successfully met the Prime Minister’s ‘tipping the balance’ target for the whole of 2006, by 3% (450 people), breaking records for the number of failed asylum seekers successfully removed. In 2007 we introduced a new process for reviewing and deciding asylum cases and we are on target to conclude 40% of cases within six months of receiving the application. By 2011 we aim to complete 90% of cases within six months.” According to the government, the program is a model of efficiency.

According to women asylum seekers, and the children who accompany them, the truth lies elsewhere. In the silence and the screams of a place in which their deaths would count for nothing. That place is Yarl’s Wood.

Here’s how DFT works. A woman applies for asylum. In two or three days, her claim is decided. In 2008, 96 percent of claims were refused first time out. Then, the woman has two days to appeal. The appeal has to be heard within 11 days. Once the woman has applied and failed, while she is `appealing’, she stays in detention at Yarl’s Wood. In 2008 91% of the appeals were refused.

It’s a lousy system for everyone, but for women, it’s loaded and lethal. Women’s cases are often more complex because so many of them involve sexual violence and because many involve family members and partners. If an English woman is raped, the courts understand that the trauma of rape creates feelings that inhibit women from going straight to the police. A woman seeking asylum, however, is expected to reveal all, instantly, to strangers. Delay in revelation is read as duplicity. It’s the logic of the fast-track efficiencies.

Here’s what happens at Yarl’s Wood: “Once in the DFT procedure, women are on a fast-moving treadmill with structural features inhibiting or even preventing them from making their cases effectively. When women arrive at Yarl’s Wood, they will often have their asylum interview the next day. Most only have an opportunity to consult their duty solicitor in a short conversation over the phone. There is little opportunity to build trust, and women, especially in cases involving rape or abuse, may only reveal relevant information late in the process, or not at all. There is limited opportunity to access expert evidence, such as medical reports. The UKBA officer who conducts the asylum interview, known as the case owner, decides whether or not asylum should be granted.”

Since May 2005, over 2000 women have been detained. They have been subjected to programs of efficiency at least twice over. First, there’s the DFT itself. Then, Yarl’s Wood is run by Serco plc. Serco is quite proud of its work at Yarl’s Wood. They “are committed to developing the centre into a recognised centre of excellence for detaining females and families in a safe and secure environment.”

The women prisoners don’t see it that way. Women currently on hunger strike at Yarl’s Wood include: Denise McNeil, 35 year old Jamaican asylum seeker; Mojirola Daniels, Nigerian asylum seeker; Leila, Iranian asylum seeker; Victoria Odeleye, 32 year old Nigerian asylum seeker. They report torture, rape, starvation, other forms of abuse. They talk of the devastating impact of Yarl’s Wood on imprisoned children, such as 10-year-old Egyptian Nardin Mansour. They mourn and protest the suicides as they explain that Yarl’s Wood is intent on killing them. As Laura A, a Sierra Leonean and former Yarl’s Wood prisoner, noted: “I am a fighter, I am used to fight to live, but to be told, ‘You faked your life,’ is a little like death.”

The Yarl’s Wood women hunger strikers have taken the calculus of the killing and turned it on its head, have said they are better than that, they are women, fighters used to fighting, peacemakers used to making peace, and no one decides that it is right for them to be slaughtered. From the Dirty Wars to today’s Efficiency Wars, women prisoners call out, shout, scream. Will the response this time, again, be decades of silence?

(Photo Credit: Mermaid99,

Haiti, “mes cousins jamais nés 
hantent les nuits de Duvalier”

Nadia François

Tragic haunting has moved recently to the center of the world stage. Tragic haunting is the haunting of singular, incomprehensible, inexpressible moments, and Haiti is the epicenter of the tragic haunting.

There are the images. Michael Mullady is a 26-year-old photographer, currently in Haiti. He’s been trying to photograph the conditions on the ground: “What I’ve witnessed will be sure to haunt me.” The tragic haunting of the witnesses is in the certainty of the ineffable trace the experience leaves on the soul and on the eye. Part of the tragic haunting is also the recognition that witnessing is a luxury. Haitian women and men don’t have time to witness. They gather. People like Nadia François from Delmas 75, in Port-au-Prince, spend the whole day and much of the night gathering and distributing for the community. Everywhere Haitian survivors are taking very good care of one another and of themselves. Hope rises from the ashes of the fires women make to cook, to clean, to purify. When the quake struck, what articles did the women take? They took pots and buckets. They knew. The work of sustaining leaves little time for witness. That time will come, but not now.

This tragic haunting, though singular, is not the first for Haiti. In November 2007, the Montreal-based band Arcade Fire announced its affiliation and with support for Partners in Health and its Haitian sister organization, Zanmi Lasante. In performance, word, song, and deed, they raised money and support for Zanmi Lasante and raised awareness about the ongoing devastation of Haiti by multinationals, by foreign forces, and especially by the United States. Their song “Haiti’ captures a bit of that:


Haïti, mon pays,
wounded mother I’ll never see.
Ma famille set me free.
Throw my ashes into the sea.

Mes cousins jamais nés
hantent les nuits de Duvalier.
Rien n’arrete nos esprits.
Guns can’t kill what soldiers can’t see.

In the forest we lie hiding,
unmarked graves where flowers grow.
Hear the soldiers angry yelling,
in the river we will go.

Tous les morts-nés forment une armée,
soon we will reclaim the earth.
All the tears and all the bodies
bring about our second birth.

Haïti, never free,
n’aie pas peur de sonner l’alarme.
Tes enfants sont partis,
In those days their blood was still warm”

My unborn cousins haunt the nights of Duvalier.

Edwidge Danticat’s Brother, I’m Dying tells the story of her father, her uncle, herself, her family, including Maxo, her cousin who died last month in the earthquake. Danticat’s Uncle Joseph and cousin Maxo were arrested and sent to Krome Detention Center, outside Miami. Krome: “a place that … all Haitians knew meant nothing less than humiliation and suffering and more often than not a long period of detention before deportation” Uncle Joseph died at Krome. Krome was a death sentence for a man of his age and ill health.

The penultimate chapter of Brother, I’m Dying is “Brother, I’ll See You Soon.” It is the book’s climax and the articulation of the tragic haunting. Uncle Joseph is buried in Queens, New York, not in Haiti. The chapter is framed by two mirror reflections of Haiti’s tragic haunting.

First, Uncle Joseph’s: “Uncle Joseph’s most haunting childhood memory, and the only one he ever described to me in detail, was one of the year 1933, when he was ten years old. The U.S. occupation of Haiti was nearing its final days. Fearing that he might at last be captured by the Americans to work in the labor camps formed to build bridges and roads, my granfather, Granpè Nozial, ordered him never to go down the mountain, away from Beauséjour. Uncle Joseph wasn’t even to accompany his mother, Granmè Lorvana, to the marketplace so that he might never lay eyes on occupying marines or they him. When he left home to fight, Granpè Nozial never told my uncle and his sisters, Tante Ino and Tante Tina, where he was going”

One day, Uncle Joseph had to go down the mountainside to the market. He came upon a group of six or seven white men in dark high boots kicking something on the ground. This is what the ten-year-old saw, what haunted him: “They kept kicking the thing on the ground as though it were a soccer ball, bouncing it to one another with the rounded tips of their boots. Taking small careful steps…, my uncle finally saw what it was: a man’s head. The head was full of black peppercorn hair. Blood was dripping out of the severed neck, forming dusty dark red bubbles in the dirt. Suddenly my uncle realized why Granpè Nozial and Granmè Lorvana wanted him to stay home. Then, as now, the world outside Beauséjour was treacherous indeed.”

The chapter ends with Danticat’s father’s tragic haunting: “My uncle was buried in a cemetery in Queens, New York. His grave sits by an open road, overlooking the streets of Cyprus Hills and the subway tracks above them. During his life, my uncle had clung to his home, determined not to be driven out. He had remained in Bel Air, in part because it was what he knew. But he had also hoped to do some good there. Now he would be exiled finally in death. He would become part of the soil of a country that had not wanted him. This haunted my father more than anything else.”

For Haitians, the tragic haunting is not new. It comes with US Marines and US immigration officers and Haitian dictators. Hope rises from the ashes, from the songs, from unmarked graves, from the memories, from the tears, the bodies, the warm blood. Meanwhile, in Miami, they’re moving prisoners out of Krome to prepare for the “potential influx of Haitian migrants”.


(Photo Credit: João Pina / Kameraphoto / New Yorker)

Abstract Space: Mother

Abstract Space: Mother

Mother of the raining in me
that falls slowly, imperceptibly around your ruined dreams
and through my realised dreams.
Mother of the sweeping plummeting birds
in the sky we walk under- you and I
in different worlds
Well it is snowing here, shining there
we know how the story goes
the pebbles you turn over in your hand
like regret that comes suddenly and lethally
knowing it is all too late
and you wear that apron
and put that pot on to boil
and you say you have rediscovered the poems of W.H Auden.

The immiserating power of tradition, of roles
of mother
doubles me over
I know-you know the story
so well
I wish I could give you time
I wish I had never been
if it means that you would have been