My Camera Captured My Father as I Let Him Go


I took photos.

I took photos of my dad in the hours and minutes as he pressed forward to meet his death. Eight in all. I sent some of them via text to my own three kids, who could not be there with me -- their absence mainly due to my mother's wishes, her own fragility, and the fact that, after 11 days shy of 62 years of marriage, this moment belonged to her almost as much as to my dad. How she wanted to do it was how she deserved to do it. That's what my father would have said as well.

Mom, holding Dad's hand, spoke to him now and then. "Everyone loves you so much," she told him several times. Though Dad was unresponsive, and had been for hours, he did squeeze her hand twice. Neither she nor the hospice nurse nor my brother, who came and went, noticed me taking the photos with my iPhone of Dad bravely managing to breathe, and of the hands of my parents entwined. I didn't have permission. I felt compelled, though I wasn't sure why. I did understand why I felt guilty.

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God's Fingernail: A Story


He brought her stories, long and intricate narratives that he laid at her feet like a dog with a bone. She would have preferred love, or at least more of his wild, open-hearted sex, but that was complicated; after all, she lived in another time zone now, and the divorce, far beyond messy, had left him in debt. For weeks, he’d camped out in his friend’s van—demoralizing for a middle-aged man. He had an apartment on the third floor in what she knew was a rough neighborhood, backing up against the desert. He had a son also, and that’s where his energy needed to go. Stories were what he could manage for her.

So she took them, uncomplainingly, suspecting that one day they would fade away too. It is what it is what it is, she reminded herself. And sometimes she told herself it was best this way, that her own life was nowhere near as chaotic as his, was in fact relatively serene, and that’s how she liked it.

He was a drummer, and he worked as many gigs as possible to try to stabilize his finances. He worked most every day, and twice some days, gigs that lasted four hours or more. He was constantly setting up his drum kit, taking it down. Mainly at bars, sometimes for private parties. Gig seemed to her a strange word for a grown-up to use in place of job. She worked these days as a curator at a smallish art museum in an eastern city, arranging exhibits and sometimes giving lectures. She specialized in abstract expressionism; she’d written two books on the topic.

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“Today, I am going to die” — A Syrian refugee's story


Ahmed’s hands hovered over the tea cups and he paused, sucking in his breath. When he spoke, it was barely above a whisper. “That’s when I surrendered myself,” he said. “to this certainty: today, I am going to die.”

Ahmed, 32, is a Syrian refugee living in northern Lebanon with his family. Just a few years ago, he was working at a prominent job and living in his own home with his wife and two children, busy, successful and satisfied.

The path to a sharp reversal in his fortunes is a story that is unique, dramatic and heartrending. Yet the themes are echoed by hundreds of thousands of other Syrian refugees. The ongoing civil war means four million people — the greatest population exodus since World War II — are seeking refuge outside of Syria’s borders, while another seven million are displaced internally. Many, forced from middle-class lives, are now trying to support their families on too-meager aid.

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Drawing on the Memories of Syrian Women


Fleeing their homes, many Syrians left behind middle-class lives; most arrived with none of the mementos that stir memory. Fedaa was different. She brought things. Diaries. Drawings. A pillowcase that she’d used since childhood. An empty pack of her brother Mustafa’s Kent cigarettes.

How best to explain what Syrians have faced over the last four years?

Numbers tell part of it: More than 191,000 people have been killed since the outbreak of the civil war in March 2011, a third of them civilians, according to the United Nations' human rights office. An estimated 9 million have fled their homes.

Photographs offer frozen moments that hint at a larger story, such as those showing the wrapped bodies of Syrians killed in the Damascus suburbs in August 2013 by the nerve gas sarin.

But researchers say recall and storytelling work on the brain in unique ways.

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Rwandan Genocide: Two Days, Three Memorials


In 1994, I followed the news out of Rwanda as we learned that over a period of 100 days, those identified as Hutus killed some 800,000 others identified as Tutsis, mostly with machetes. Recently returned from a decade working as a foreign correspondent, I considered returning overseas to cover the immediate aftermath, but only briefly: I was pregnant with my third baby, and I knew from experience a pregnant me could not manage the extended stretches without sleep and food which would be required to report on this story, at once complex and horrifyingly simple.

In the two decades since then, I’ve covered conflict close-range and lived in warzones; in the course of that, I’ve been scarred by losses myself. I’ve thought, mostly inconclusively, about what it takes to go on. I continued, too, to follow the news from this African country about the size of Maryland. So when a chance came to visit Rwanda before the genocide’s 20th anniversary, I was at once wary and eager.

I don’t know what is said in the privacy of their homes, but outside their doors, Rwandans discount the Hutu-Tutsi divide these days; President Kagame has led the effort, largely successful it seems, to remake his countrymen into simply Rwandans.

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Empowering Farmers in Somaliland


Sheikh Muhumed Dhinbil Cumar sits in a bit of shade chewing khat as he muses over how farming in his village has changed over recent generations. His father and his father before him—12 or 13 generations of his family, he says—were all farmers in this area, with tenuous livelihoods subject to unpredictable rainfall and drought.

But thanks to Concern’s Farmer Field Schools, begun here in 2012, Cumar, 60, has improved his ability to collect and manage rainwater and further diversified his crops. Today he is cultivating 50 percent more land than before the program began, pushing aside stingy acacia trees and defiant shrub brush to make room for citrus trees, grains and nuts on land he can now irrigate.

He is able to sell 90 percent of what he grows in the nearby city of Hargeisa, some 25 miles to the northeast, keeping the rest for household consumption. With this profit, he can send some of his 20 grandchildren to schools in the city, resulting in improved education not only for the family, but the 350-household-strong community of Gogol-wanaag.

And now, for the first time, he believes he can fight back against nature itself in this harsh, semi-arid land. “If a drought happens,” he says with new confidence, “we will survive.”

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Street Kids In Nairobi's Kibera Slum


When Victor "V'key" Ochieng Jumah was nine years old and living on the streets – a "garbage eater," as they are dubbed in local slang – he learned to mug and rob white foreigners, often scaring them first by smearing oil on his face and feces on his hands.

"Just seeing me like that, the women would scream and hand over whatever money they had," he said. He also developed an easy intimacy with bare ground for a bed, plastic bags for a toilet, discarded food scraps for meals, and a culture of aggression that included drugs, knives and, eventually, guns.

I didn't go to Kenya to interview street kids. I traveled there to finish researching an upcoming novel. But in the capital, I couldn't avoid seeing the homeless kids who roam Nairobi streets like watchful phantoms, feared as much as they are pitied and avoided more than they are helped.

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Amina Ali: An Essay

So there I was, with my bottled water and organic dried fruits under the seat of the Land Rover, already dusty but expecting to get a shower at the hotel at day's end. And there she was under the unforgiving sun, prayer beads dangling around her neck, a flamboyant red dress hanging from her thin body, describing what it was like to go four days without food or water.

"Amina Ali," she said, pointing at herself.

Sometimes I think we don't understand a thing until it stares us straight in the face, until we can reach out and touch it. Before traveling to the isolated North East Province of Kenya, I'd read about this drought and famine. I'd read 3.5 million people affected in the northern reaches of sub-Saharan Kenya. "The world has not appreciated in last 60 days how serious this situation is. We are now in a crisis. We are in a life saving mode," World Food Program chief James Morris said this month.
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Afghanistan: An Essay


We were rattling across central Afghanistan, following some meager intimation of a road as the CD player blared a Pakistani love song, when three women appeared from nowhere. They rose out of the deserted valley in a loose group, their bodies and faces hidden within floating burqas. They looked like ethereal sky-blue apparitions – until, that is, they began frantically waving and running toward us, suddenly and desperately human.

My companion, Massoud Mayar, steered toward them, slowed and stopped. As they reached us, to my surprise, it was me in the passenger seat toward whom they dove, reaching through the open window, their voices rich like rain falling in the desert. They implored, barely pausing to breathe as they bent and swayed and pointed to their bellies, backs and chests with hands that moved like tiny wounded birds. I didn't know Pashto beyond a few cursory phrases. But even without the benefit of shared language, I knew what they were saying. Their hidden bodies were still bodies – female bodies that carted and carried and bled, that contained new life and then nurtured it or, too often, buried it. And now those bodies were failing them in some way – an odd bulge on a shoulder, an ache in a hip, a pain in a belly that would not cease.

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Kenya's Drought Victims


BORALGY, Kenya – Amina Ali gestured at the cloudless sky, her voice rising in anger as she recalled how the region's worst drought in a generation wiped out her entire herd of 40 goats, leaving her to face her final years with no milk, no meat, no means of support.

"We are forgotten people," she said, sitting on the dusty ground beneath a searing sun in Kenya's remote North East Province, a string of prayer beads around her neck. "I am 80 years old. I had nine children. Now what can I do? Sometimes food aid arrives, but the young people grab it first. So I go hungry, often for days."

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It Always Does: A Short Story

He brought her stories, long and intricate narratives that he laid at her feet like a dog with a bone. She would have preferred love, or at least more of his wild, open-hearted sex, but that was complicated; after all, he lived in another time zone and the divorce, far beyond messy, had left him in debt. For weeks, he'd camped out in his friend's van - demoralizing for a middle-aged man. He had an apartment now, on the third floor in a rough neighborhood. He had a son also, and that's where his energy needed to go. Stories were what he could manage for her.

"Baby with Eggshell Coat" painting by Erica Harris
So she took them, silently, knowing that one day they would fade away too. It is what it is what it is, she told herself, a mantra. And sometimes she reminded herself it was best this way, that her own life was nowhere near as chaotic as his, was in fact relatively serene, and that's how she liked it.

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Women In Jail


Women still face obstacles in a country where their voices are ignored and the law is stacked against them.

A woman in the Kabul Women's Prison.
Courtesy of Rosemary Stasek.
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – Musliba leans forward, holding her white scarf so that only her dark eyes are visible, and makes an open-handed gesture. She wants to explain to the foreign visitor why she's been in jail for the last two months, but at age 12, she doesn't quite understand herself.

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Fear in Kandahar


Without authentic human connections, our alliances can be neither genuine nor lasting.

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – The engineer from Florida seemed the perfect seatmate on that eight-seater Cessna flight from Kabul to Kandahar over the rugged reaches of Afghanistan. It was my first visit, and he'd already been living six months in the former Taliban stronghold, overseeing the construction of highways and schools as part of the effort to rebuild the war-shattered country that America bombed in response to Sept. 11.

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Kandahar, Afghanistan, in the optimistic period of 2004
Unemployed In Burquas Turn,
Reluctantly, To Their Children


Women Are Heads Of Households, But Still Unemployed, In Afghanistan

An Afghan mother and her child at a malnutrition clinic.
KABUL – As evening approached in one of west Kabul's poorest neighborhoods, Parwin sat outside in the waning light, trying to mend one of her daughter's dresses with a precious bit of thread a neighbor gave her. She didn't worry about stopping to prepare dinner. There would be no dinner that night.

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A Mother's Trip To Afghanistan


Some risks, once measured, are worth taking.

"My desire to go to Afghanistan was fueled by a longing to know, as much as possible, what it means to be an Afghan woman today . . . Occasionally I felt a jolt of fear as I prepared for the journey. So much was unknown, and so much of the news from there was bad."

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The Sound of Music


After the silence of the Taliban years, Afghanistan is beginning to hum again.

KABUL – In a small room snuggled into the war-damaged buildings of Kharabat Street, Zahed Nodar sits cross-legged on a maroon carpet, inhales deeply and closes his eyes as if to shut out the blare of car horns, the shouts of men pulling wooden carts, the scent of wood smoke and rotting fruit, his own years spent fleeing the fighting. Then he nods to his fellow band members, leans over his armonia and begins to play with a passion that makes his rich, lined face look far younger and the audience feel larger than four.

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Season of Anger


Sounds of gunfire and prayer mix in the West Bank

JERUSALEM – The golden hills of the West Bank are filled with families working in the shade of silver-leafed trees, their arms moving with the rhythm of a conductor's baton. Sometimes they sing or trade jokes, cheerful with thoughts of the money their labor will bring. But often they are quiet, the sway of branches the only sound. It is the season of olive picking in ancient Judea and Samaria.

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Snippets of Postcards from Moscow


MOSCOW – Valia brought over her special mushroom-shaped glass jars the other day. I watched while she wrapped the end of a pencil in a vodka-soaked cotton ball and set it afire. She held the burning stick inside each container for a minute, pulled it out and slapped the hot jars, one by one, down on my bare back.

As I lay there on my stomach, she brought a mirror so I could see red welts of my skin being sucked inside the jars. This was not a comforting sight.

"But it will warm your lungs and pull that cough right out," she assured me.

Ask a Russian, any Russian, about folk medicine and the result is something like lifting the floodgates on a rushing river. Enthusiastic belief in these remedies seems to unite all strata of society. A member of the intelligentsia here launched into a discussion that stretched into two hours when I asked her about home remedies. Another acquaintance, an elderly retiree, responded with equal eagerness and returned the next day bearing a homemade version of something like Crisco. She promised that regularly eating as much of it as I could stand would keep my system "clean."

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The Camel Library

Published by O: The Oprah Magazine

The camels halt under an Acacia tree, grunting, weary from a two hour trip through the African bush. "Toh! Toh!" the herders cry, whipping the beasts' knees to force them to kneel so their cargo can be unloaded. Then the traveling librarians open a wooden box, revealing its cache: books of fairy tales, novels, atlases, biographies and more in English and Swahili (the official languages in Kenya). Barefoot children appear as if out of nowhere, sinewy and dusty, leaning against one another as they watch the librarians unroll grass mats and spread out the books. They wait for the moment when they can sit on the ground and hold the books in their own hands.

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Obama's Afghan headache


An epidemic of kidnapping adds to the downward spiral of violence the president-elect's team will soon confront in Afghanistan.

KABUL, Afghanistan — Businessman Farzad Kadri holds his body tight like a wrestler, and his suspicious squint makes him seem older than his 28 years. Ever since his brother was kidnapped, shot in both legs and then released after the family paid a hefty ransom, Kadri is on edge, constantly varying his schedule, curtailing his nightlife. "These days, people are being grabbed left and right in Kabul," he said. "I have to watch out."

Abtullah Danishwar, raised in Los Angeles, returned this summer to the city where he was born 29 years ago. Full of dreams and idealism, he intended to stay a couple of years, find a wife, and help in Kabul's reconstruction efforts. But he's already escaped one kidnapping attempt and is unconvinced his luck will hold. "I'm so scared," he said. "I don't think I can stay."

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Women Wed to Addiction Find Relief at Kabul Center


KABUL, Afghanistan — In a bullet-pocked cement building wedged into a hillside in a crime-ridden neighborhood, a group of drug-addicted women are gathered in the two barren rooms occupied by a family there. Most hold babies as they listen to a social worker passionately urge them to check themselves in to Afghanistan's sole women-only clinic for treatment.

"If your husbands smoke heroin, sisters, or you yourself take opium as medicine, it is like eating poison," said Nadara Saee, squatting before the women. "Besides, it is a big sin against Islam. And it makes you unable to take care of your children. Please listen to me. You must get treatment."

"Before God, I want to come," murmured 45-year-old Torpakai, who like many Afghans, goes by one name only. "But I don't have my husband's permission yet. God willing, he will give it tomorrow."

"We will return tomorrow then, sister," promised Saee.

Nazdana, 33, addicted to opium and painkillers and in whose home the group was gathered, spoke up. "I am ready. I will go."

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Frogs on the Highway


I learned I was pregnant in the midst of covering the intefedah in Gaza and the West Bank. The doctor asked what I did for a living and what I knew about the stages of pregnancy and then he shook his head. "Try to avoid tear gas for the next few months," he said. I was still so young, and fearless.

The first baby arrived, everything about her perfect — tiny faultless fingernails, the exquisite shape of her head, the little noises she made: pure poetry. I, who detested exclamation points, was reduced to superlatives. Still prone an hour after the C-section in the Jerusalem hospital where she was born, I told my husband I wanted three.

"Hold on," he said, laughing wryly, enigmatically. "Let’s get used to one first."

Though the day of the birth was joy defined, I understood quickly that things could go wrong. Horribly wrong. Before we left the hospital with our new baby, an Orthodox couple in a corner room asked my husband, a gentile, to turn off the lights on Shabbat, and then revealed that labor was being induced because their baby was a stillbirth. I barely met them, but their story haunted me. I was fearless, it turned out, except when it came to my children. From the beginning, I grasped that loving someone this strongly made me vulnerable.

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Letter to an Ex, on the Occasion of His Suicide


It was morning, after another rough night. You’d barely slept on the floor in Bill’s cave of an apartment, where you’d spent the last three nights watching the hour of the wolf stretch to become every hour that was dark or semi-dark. Now, though the apartment remained as stale and murky as it had been at 1 a.m., then 2 a.m., then 3, you knew it was light outside. A long way from the kind of light you loved, when clouds turn pink from the rising sun, water-coloring men who make coffee in tin kettles with long handles over an open fire. That was Africa—Rwanda or the Congo or maybe Madagascar. This was Manhattan. Fucking Manhattan.

You ate plenty, like a man with plans: two lemon drop cookies, a lemon yogurt and half a pint of strawberry ice cream. That’s what Bill had in his kitchen. You watered the mix with coffee. Then you spilled out the bullets to reduce your payload to two. One was all you truly needed, but somehow you thought it right to have a spare. On any op, the best-laid plans turn to mush once it starts, you’d often said. Contingencies were critical.

You set off, walking toward the East River where dumped bodies, grim blossoms, push their way up each spring once the water thaws. It took only five or six minutes to reach Sutton Place Park, even moving slowly as you do now—did then—with the pain in your hips and feet. You passed East Side professionals on their way to work and the ornate, obscenely expensive brownstones built by Effingham Sutton, who raked it in during the 1849 California Gold Rush. I can imagine you making fun of his first name.

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Photos by Heidi Levine, Briana Orr and Masha Hamilton (unless otherwise noted)