The War Stories Collector

‘I made a website called Uncloak that shares the stories of people living in war zones and the incidents and experiences they had. Until now I’ve published four stories. And I’m looking for more.
Uncloak was made to share the incidents and stories that happened to people in all war zones. Not just Yemen.’
If you grew up in Europe, you had your grandparents and relatives telling you how WWII was. What it felt like to be under bombardments, to be cold, have family members being deported, neighbours killed.
Stories ran in the family, circle of acquaintances.
The oral handing of personal stories was as effective as your history books. As if history made sense because it was hitting home.
It hit home for the war in Lebanon, Sri Lanka, the Viet Nam war, Afghanistan,  Iraq, Chechnya and an endless list which knows no borders.Salah is a young Yemeni, hurt by the war. He agrees – like many Yemenis I talk to these days – that there is no side to take any longer. Just the side of peace.
I tell him I unfortunately have many stories from so many places from Africa to Middle East but have little time to collect them and he replies:
‘If there is any need, I’m willing to help. In any possible way. Also, I still haven’t updated the site to specifically say this due to power outages, but even if these stories happened to people who don’t speak English that won’t be a problem. I’m willing to speak to them to understand their experience to be capable of writing it down and publishing it. Another option would be if they can write their experience in Arabic, I will translate it to English and post it.’

Ali

He has commenced a  sensitive project.
‘I want Uncloak to share the experiences and incidents that happen to normal, ordinary civilians living throughout the world away from the manipulation of media and politics, because if you notice, every group only talks about the hardships and problems of people who are ON their side.. This is a huge problem that creates a big rift between people of the same country or nation. Civilians, no matter what their views on politics/religion are, are the main victims of these war and shouldn’t be prioritised according to their views. I hope this war ends soon. Too many people died for nothing.’

yUN

We must never forget and Salah is willing to collect the survivors’ stories.
I am afraid his will be an endless project. Somewhere, it will always hit home

 

For further information: https://uncloak.github.io/

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Addisallem: I know everything now

‘Tomorrow is my birthday’ she says.
‘Look, you were born in July, now it’s only May.’
‘My life has started the day I met you.’
Addisallem, New World, was born in July, 29 years ago.
This is not her real name though it suits her perfectly. Addisallem has lived more than one single life can bear during her skinny three decades. Equally true: she has come to life again.
Her parents were not in love, lest married. Her father never wanted any wife and Addisallem simply got in the way, she happened, in their lives.
She grew up in Bahir Dar (Ethiopia) with her mother and an Auntie, a sister of her mother. Her father was living in Addis Ababa, far from any potential wife. But he did have another family; the important was: no wives.
He had no permanent job and, according to the fluctuations of the touristic season, he was a bus driver. Fluctuantly, he was sending money to Addisallem’s mother.
Addisallem claims her life was normal up to when she was 7.
Maybe it’s just that she does not remember much prior to going to school because at 7, she says, she was already working. The days were all consistently the same: wake up early in the morning, no breakfast, the rush to a neighbour´s home to do house chores, the long walk to the well to fetch water, a faster rush back home to prepare coffee for her mother before she would wake up . And the rush to school.
Categorically empty stomach. Empty stomach even when there was no school.IMG_0052
There are no memories of school, just a whispered ‘I was not good at it.’
The afternoons were simply a photocopy of the mornings: the rush home and, before lunch, the cleaning of the kitchen, the usual mess her mother used to make.
Addisallem’s mother was not any mother. She was a heavy drinker: a seller and consumer of Areki, a homemade alcoholic fermented drink. She was even running her own Areki House in town, working at night and consuming large quantities of alcohol.
The Areki came with the joints and the qat – locally called khat – the mildly stimulant leaf chewed in Ethiopia, Somalia and Yemen, mainly.
Addisallem’s memories overlap: her mother never home or home and nervous.
Money was never enough.Until, one day, Mother was gone. That day lasted 5 years. Without a letter, without a word, without a phone call. She had moved South, almost on the border with Kenya.
It is  Auntie to take care of Addisallem until Mother decides to return. She is in a bad shape. Skeletal, nervous, with peaks of cruelty and paranoia.
Addisalam spies on her: she sees her mother injecting something- most likely drugs, but the girl is too young to know – in her arms or sticking cotton up her nostrils after having soaked it in something the girl cannot understand what it is.
It is silence which engulfs Addisallem. The fear the police might eventually abduct her mother, the fear to be left alone after the Auntie decides she cannot handle the situation any longer.
In silence. Because the day she decided to ask her mother why she could not have a new dress considering the father, occasionally, sends some money, the mother finds nothing better to do than grab the kettle boiling on the coal and pour the water on Addisallem’s back.
She still bears the scars.
Or the night they were walking home and two dogs started barking at them. The mother, scared, upset, paranoid, most likely high on Areki and drugs, pushes the daughter in front of her, towards the dogs. Addisallem is bitten on the leg, falls on her head and cracks the skull.
DSCF0443Auntie is gone, Addisallem is sore. She decides her only way out is to go to her grandmother – from her mother´s side –  to Addis Ababa. 600 km is nothing when you are fleeing for you life.
She will return a year after when informed that Mother is bed ridden. It will last only 1 month. Mother dies on an anonymous day weighting 20 kg.
Now Addisallem is totally alone. If she wants to survive, she needs a job. School is for the fortunate. She finds a job cleaning homes.
This is when her Father reappears. He helps her enrolling in an evening school. Hotel Management. At the end, he knows that with its fluctuations, tourism can bring money.

Addisallem earns her diploma and lives on her own. She has always been alone, at the end. ‘Had it been my father instead of my mother to die, I would be dead too. I am happy and strong now. Because, now, I know everything.’

Addisallem is still afraid of dogs. But she knows everything now. She dreams of a family and a son. She knows how a real mother should be.
Yes, she knows everything. A New World awaits her and when she meets a new friend, it’s like a birthday to her. Earned.

 

 

with Danilo Vallarino in Bahir Dar
photos: © Danilo Vallarino

Personal celebrities

 A friend wrote that she was posting this everywhere:
”We are not wealthy, we own small business, we are teachers, and teacher’s assistants. We are the police and firefighters the EMS.
We are carpenters, electricians, plumbers, the janitors, lawn keepers, housekeepers, the guys that pick up the trash.
We work on the roads, build your homes, make those endless phone calls, we are bank tellers, clerical workers, secretaries, nurses, paralegals, physicians assistants, hospital technicians.
We ring up your groceries and fill your prescriptions; we work in retail stores, we are the wait staff that takes your food orders.
Look around you, we are the many and more than this list, and we will no longer be used and manipulated by the system that takes our tax money and hands it over to the wealthy and powerful.
WE are America, and we demand change that will finally reflect our needs; we want that tax money used for all of us.
We are tired of endless wars and broken soldiers that are ignored and abused. We are the Bernie Sanders ARMY.”

I told her it reminded me of Brecht and  Ginsberg, somehow, and she replied: ‘Ginsberg? Wow – spent an evening with him many, many years ago – mostly drinking coffee and listening. The old days of coffee shops all around the Harvard campus.´

´Really?´I said. My mouth dropped. ´Lucky. Both of you.’ 

´Lucky me. Brecht I didn’t meet. Others that I did meet in those years: Jackie, Andy Warhol, Joe Cocker and few others. The days of crazy parties and mixing with celebrities that were all just people´.

I do not think I have ever met a celebrity in my life. But many of the people I met have become a personal celebration.
Apart from Isaac Asimov.  I did meet him. Though he was wise enough to avoid disclosing his identity.
He told me his name was Mike and he was a poet – ´Of few, targeted, well chosen words to express large concepts´ he used to tell me.
He often made fun of my language exploring, my search for ´idioms for idiots´ but I was only 18 and he was always, adoringly, patient.
That summer of long ago, in another part of the world, eventually ended.
I found out Mike had passed away some years later, reading the obituaries of Isaac Asimov.
That did not add anything to Mike, a very personal celebrity.

Elena

My dead people usually never talk to me. They never appear, guide me. They never even smile to me, in my dreams.
Once my people leave, they leave for something like forever. The rest of my lifetime without them is the eternity  I face.
Last time we met was in the 90s, just before Christmas. We never managed to fix a cracked relationship, though.
Relatives got in our way I believe, or other people I do not even know.
You were not an easy Grandmother, I was not a delightful member of the family.
You were a conservative, I found out later in life; at the time, to me, you were just different from my friends´ grandmothers.
You were the one who tried to explain to me that no, squatters are not entitled to homes just because they have no job and those bedsheets hanging out of windows stating ´Homes for all´ mean nothing if you do not pay the rent. And your tone meant ´Period, no further discussion´.
Two decades later you bought the apartment upstairs just to get rid of noisy tenants who used to party till late. An empty apartment to give room to silence.
When you asked about the newspaper I was writing on, I rushed with words. I was so proud to tell you it was financed by the provincial Communist party: it gave officiality to the project.
Your mouth moved and I made things worse adding ´´The place where we meet is very basic. Just chairs and a table. There is a poster of Ho Chi Minh..´´. I told you you were different: you knew who he was.
To you I was an activist just because for Christmas my cards were bought from Greenpeace. But you were proud I remembered Christmas and sent my cards at the beginning of December so to make sure the receivers felt thought. Etiquette .
Thanks to you and Grandpa, I managed to go to good schools, travel around the world. I did things unthinkable to my friends.
If I can walk well now I owe it to you: you always took care of my orthopedic shoes. I hated them. I wanted to have shoes like yours: normal, light.
My passion for books comes also from you but I did not share your passion for hiking and skiing.
I remember your perfume, in this moment. And your skin. Our holidays together, your stories from what seems to be another world.
You passed away and no one had any reason to inform me. I found out after long.
We had not spoken in more than a decade.
My dead people usually never talk to me.
But you did appear in my dream. In a night when the planes seemed just over my head, when I felt I was forgotten by everyone, when I was thinking that if it had to end that same night, I would not be able to understand the meaning of life.
A night I was hugging the dogs and falling asleep every now and then to wake up to the sound of the missiles.
You appeared sitting in my room, on the corner of a bed I had placed close to the window to feel, stupidly, more protected while I was sleeping on the floor.
You were wearing a red jersey dress, Grandma. You looked just the same: skinny and classy.
While holding a piece of paper with some telephone numbers, you looked at me and said: ´´I will protect you´´.
Now I know you have never abandoned me and you know what I do in life. You know I have fallen in love with a far away land, its history and people. You know I am looking for kindness and compassion in the world, that I am still an idealist, support all the lost causes, never keep quiet, have never compromised. You know how tough it has been, at times.
I am aware I am not whom you wanted me to be, Grandma. But do not worry: I am not a squatter.
I have always paid my rent.

picture: Atlantic Monthly. CA Illustration Annual, 2007, Chris Lyons

You are there, in my war frame

They sent me this picture of you, Tnseem. I filed it in ‘My World’ folder.
You are smiling. At last I see you smile.
I am sure before the war started, our paths had crossed ways.
We must have met on the stairs or during Eid. Or on a Friday, weekend day, when you used to come and visit your family. Extended family. When it comes to families, in Yemen, I always lose count and thread.
I am sure I must have complimented you for your beautiful dress.
We must have kissed, as well. Many times, I am sure.
You must have made fun of my Arabic. I am equally sure.
But I do not recall ever meeting you before. Before the war, that is.
My memories of you belong to the war; they are relegated there.
You appear within my war frame.
I remember your perfume, your combed hair and pink clothes. I remember your voice, strident with happiness. Cannot expect anything different from an 8 year old who was eager to meet a young sister coming to life: your mum was expecting and I was praying she was not going to lose the baby because of the airstrikes. Because of fear, uncertainty. Because when you are pregnant and they are bombing, you might fall trying to find a safe place.
I remember you, indeed, but in the days of the bombings, never before.

I feel uncomfortable now, looking at your picture. Not because you seem serene, but because of the load of my memories with you. The contingency of the moment.
I remember one night, during an air raid close to us, in Al Qyadah st, when you rushed to me and said: “Can I call my Dad?” and there were no words to tell you, no hugs enough, no way of hiding my sorrow. I passed you my phone praying your father was going to answer immediately. Praying you would, eventually, forget this same night. And even me.
I remember you hugging a teddy bear, another night (always at night) when we had to take shelter downstairs at the palace entrance while the house was shaking.
I was sure we were not going to make it. We did. The night ended, our lives continued.
During the day, when the airstrikes were fewer, you used to make fun of me, not understanding why I could not cook or make bread. Perhaps you will never find anyone as bad in cooking as me.

I see you smile, at last, my little Tnseam
You are holding your litter sister Lougean in front of the world.
Do tell her we are doing our best to change everything.
Starting from this horrible war because, since she was born, she has witnessed only war.

In a village, one day

One day, passing by, someone took out the camera and the village girls started laughing.
The picture is blurred, it’s shaky.
The girls are in their country clothes.
Time of the picture is unknown, as well as the author
But the strength, the energy of the moment is still there.
And it’s all in the smiles.
Memorable moments come through smiles, at times
And an unknown photographer with a shaky hand

Memoirs of a refugee still looking out of the same window

There is still a Country
outlined by the routes of the ancient caravans
of the merchants of pepper, coffee and frankincense,
a Country equal to itself,
a jewel shining of its own light
century after century.
A Country which has remained isolated being at the nib of the Arabic Peninsula,
hence,
preserving itself from the greed of the worldwide traffickers
and the endless pointlessness of the modern world.
A country which gave birth to algebra and has perfumed the palates of the world
with the best coffee and the sweetest honeys;
a Country where the news are still being spread on the radio
and on the occasion of the weekly markets,
whilst the electricity struggles to reach everywhere.
A country whose people dress with the same fashion,
century after century,
and the mosaic windows received their name after the moon,
khamarya.
A country born as Arabia Felix,
as it was kissed by the monsoons
and from whose soil
the caravans filled with frankincense, myrrh
departed to reach and scent the temples of Imperial Rome.
A country anciently famous
as it was the site of the Reign of Sheba,
flourished 1000 years before Christ.
A Country which,
not even during its golden tourist days,
has allowed foreign fashions to change it.
A Country which celebrates weddings in the streets,
for the joy of everyone.
A Country of huge families
where the respect for the elderly is still being taught.
An eclectic Country which built the first mud and sand skyscrapers.
And damns famous throughout history.
Pier Paolo Pasolini simply described Yemen as
“the most beautiful country in the world’.
It’s Yemen, yes,
the most beautiful Country in the World.

Waiting to return home on an equally rainy night
with equally vivid feelings.