The refugee, symbol of the 20th century

April 06, 1999|By H.D.S. Greenway

IF THERE is a symbol of this sorry century, it is the refugee -- shuffling along some dusty road, jungle trail, or mountain pass, with a haunted-eyed family and a few pathetic belongings, trying to reach safety but knowing that even if safety is reached, nothing will ever be the same again.

Refugees are the byproduct of wars, social disruption, and disorder, and every century has had them. But this century has been awash with refugees from beginning to end.

In the Balkans, where the century is ending with the forced exodus from Kosovo, the early years saw similar scenes in the wars of 1912 and 1913 -- similar tragedies with strikingly similar atrocities as various ethnic groups and nationalities sought to free themselves from the dying grip of the Ottoman Empire.

World War I saw a bloodletting of previously unimaginable proportions, and the photographs of Belgians fleeing German advances in their huge ox carts inflamed passions in the West, as do the Kosovo images of today. Perhaps the most tragic of the displaced persons of World War I were the Armenians of eastern Anatolia, driven from their homes, beaten, starved, raped, and murdered along their long march to the Syrian desert, from which few returned. Theirs was an early brush with genocide, which would also become a hallmark of the 20th century.

Each refugee is different, with a different story to tell, but there is a dreadful similarity to them all. Here is how a young reporter for The Toronto Daily Star named Ernest Hemingway described the refugee-jammed roads leading toward Macedonia in 1922: "Twenty miles of carts drawn by cows, bullocks, and muddy-flanked water buffalo, with exhausted, staggering men, women, and children, blankets over their heads, walking blindly along in the rain beside their worldly goods."

Except for the rain, that column of Greeks leaving Turkey exactly matches the 20-mile columns I saw coming out of East Bengal 50 years later, columns you could find by watching for the vultures in the sky, and the dogs eating the dead along the way, and the lost babies floating in the shallow waters of river crossings.

The scene in Kosovo today, with people fleeing on foot and on primitive transport, seems oddly old-fashioned. It could be Russia during its civil war, when armies surged back and forth across 10 time zones displacing countless thousands in an orgy of murders and revenge. Or it could be World War II and its aftermath, the conflict that generated the greatest number of refugees in these last 100 years. From Europe to the Far East, huge populations trudged across the surface of the earth, looking, too often in vain, for safety and sustenance.

The end of colonialism spawned another generation of misery. During the partition of India, trainloads of Muslims going one way and Hindus going the other would arrive in stations with their throats cut by marauding bands of zealots up the line.

In Indochina, the 30-year war produced its own mass displacements. Cambodians in ox carts of the same design as those depicted on 1,000-year-old friezes poured into the cities to escape the fighting, only to be turned out again in the century's most bizarre tyranny: the year zero of the Khmer Rouge. The snaking processions of cars, carts, trucks, and buses that marked the end of South Vietnam as the armies of the North approached were transformed into fleets of scattered boats escaping yet again upon the perilous waters of the South China Sea -- the flotsam and jetsam of a lost war.

Africa has perhaps suffered the most in the postcolonial era. Brutalized by murderous intent, beset by endless wars, famines, pestilence, and death, the emaciated African with the concentration-camp stare may be the refugee century's most lasting image.

Then there are the camps, rows upon rows of despair, cooped-up families trying to cope with the meager rations, the diarrhea, the dying children, and too often the brutality and indifference of officials, with only the harried international aid workers to stave off disaster. No one who has ever walked through these desperate places can ever again take for granted the gift of belonging, of a control over life, that everyone around has lost.

It would be nice to think that the next century could be better, that a certain stability would take hold now that the world is rid of the Cold War. But as the century ends the way it began, there is every indication that in the next millennium, dogs will still be eating the dead along the roadsides as endless columns of the dispossessed pass by.

This column appeared originally in the Boston Globe.

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