It is an ongoing diaspora of staggering proportion: Across the globe, at least 14 million people are refugees, driven from their homelands by war, political: oppression or natural disaster. They ate ordinary people swept tip in the tumult of history—Latin American peasants caught in the violent battles between their governments and guerrilla forces; Africans fleeing the droughts, famines and plagues that have been exacerbated by civil wars; Asian boat people risking their lives for freedom. Their travails have been documented in a new book, Forced Out; The Agony of the Refugee in Our Time*, edited by Carole Kismaric and published by die New York-based Human Rights Watch And the J.M. Kaplan Fund. As the book pointedly illustrates, the search for asylum is fraught with peril. The flight into exile is harrowing enough, but life in the refugee camps is often no better than the one left behind. Cramped and squalid, the camps are chronically short of food, water and medicine; malnutrition and disease are rampant. Even after resettlement, the ordeal goes on. Those refugees who are not deported by their host countries find assimilation ho easy task. Confronted with language barriers and discrimination, they are often relegated to the bottom rungs of society.
These photographs and excerpted first-person accounts from Forced Out speak poignantly of the suffering that every refugee endures.
We arrived home in the evening. Everything was changed. Houses that once were beautiful now lay in ruins. The orange and mango trees in the compound were dying, scorched by the raging fires. The world was silent. Not a soul was seen, neither was there any sign of life. It had rained during the night, and the footmarks left in the wet sand by the heavy boots of the soldiers sent shivers down our spines. The footmarks of death.
James Appe, writer, Uganda
The soldiers came on December 11. They separated everyone and then they locked us up. First they took the men outside and shot them. Next it was the women’s turn. When I heard the shots, I just fell. I wasn’t shot, but I pretended to be. While the soldiers began dragging bodies away for burning, I crawled away. I made it to the brush. I was in anguish because my kids were locked up. Then the soldiers started killing them. They cut their throats and choked them. I could hear the kids yelling, “Mama, they’re stabbing me!” I wanted to run to them, but I knew I couldn’t do anything.
Rufina, 40, El Salvador
He was a student of economics at the university. He was going to work; he left the house at two o’clock in the afternoon, but then he was taken by a group of heavily armed men. Since then we have denounced this to the police; we’ve looked for him in hospitals, in all the detention centers. We even went to the morgue, but we’ve had no news of him. Yesterday it was 11 months since my son “disappeared.” He was the sole support of our house. It’s just as if the earth opened and swallowed [him] up.
The planes were shooting at the houses and made the banana trees and bushes fall down. The flowers were blown over by the wind of the bombs. My father and my little sister were working this small plot of land. I was on my way to bring them tortillas with salt. The bomb killed my cousin who was also working there. We had chickens who were killed. The soldiers left us only one little chicken. The house near the well, where we went to get water, was burning. We were afraid of the bombs, my mama and me, and we ran away. The bombs uprooted the trees. When we could not live any longer in our village, we hid in this little gully, my mama, my papa, and I. But we caught malaria. In the past, we planted beans and corn, but they destroyed everything. Now, I have a big ulcer, because I was hungry so often.
Ana de Jesus Ernades, 12, El Salvador
We could bring only what fit into one small bag. They warned us not to take too much. For days I burnt documents on my terrace, papers from when I worked for my government, papers from when I worked for the Americans. I couldn’t think, except to destroy whatever would bring trouble. I burnt photographs of the whole family at Tet, year after year, all of us together. I stared at the black and white pictures: me—tiny, smiling, a pigtail on both sides, holding my eldest brother’s hand. Me, the angel in the school play, a tiara on my head. Me in China at the bottom of Sea Mountain, my children standing beside me. As the pile of ashes floated away, I felt I was burning my life.
Tran Thi Nga, bookkeeper, South Vietnam
There were a hundred people in the group that came out of the village and seven from our family. There was snow and there was ice. Many had their feet frozen from frostbite. It took us two weeks. The Russians bombed us all the way, day and night. This girl was on a horse with a baby under her arm. The Russian airplane came low, and she felt blood running. It was from the baby. The baby was dead. Of the hundred who left with us, only 10 got through the mountain to Pakistan.
On the way, we met the soldiers again. Our brother who had his ears cut was so powerless, he could not run fast enough because of the tortures he had received. He was recaptured and shot. Immediately we threw down our luggage and ran. We had to carry the small children on our backs. Bombs followed us. Many were victims as the bombs exploded in front, behind or sideways. Almost nobody cared for [each] other. Children were lost and in critical condition; women even threw their children away so that they could escape.
The next day a child name Chau died. A group butchered her. I tried to forget my hunger. But two days later, I couldn’t. We nodded to a boy named Qui. He jumped into the cabin for protection. I pulled him out, and we sank him in water. We needed 20 minutes to kill him. We butchered him and distributed the bad meat. All this I did to survive.
Phong Quant Minh, Vietnam
This is a detention camp. It seems that I just ran out of one prison to get into another. With 1,433 other refugees, I have been put in an ill-smelling windowless warehouse. I need air more than anything else. When suffocated by the sultry heat and lack of air, I usually wonder if I will get out of this camp alive. For a week I had to sit day and night on the damp cemented floor before I could manage to get a little space to lie down at night.
Vietnamese woman, closed camp, Hong Kong
After 10 days in the camp we were permitted to have a shower. We didn’t have any bathroom. We showered under taps close to the ground. The men wore their shorts, and took a shower easily. But the women were deeply embarrassed. They had to wear their clothes to have a shower. I felt humiliated, but I had a great need to be clean! I hadn’t washed for 17 days since I had left Vietnam. I couldn’t stand to be as dirty as I was. There were just about 40 taps, but 3,000 people. So the refugees rushed and pushed at each other. Sometimes there were fights, and the fighters were sent to jail. There was a 30-minute interval in which the people were allowed to shower. If you hadn’t finished, or had just finished applying the soap, that was your bad luck—no more water ran from the taps after that half hour.
Woo Chan Chan, Vietnam, Kowloon camp, Hong Kong
We are surrounded by Honduran troops here. At around six or seven at night, you start hearing shots up close, from the military outposts near here. And, although we’d like to go out on the hill, or take a walk in the street, it isn’t possible. If I had known that I was going to be a prisoner in this camp beforehand, I never would have sought refuge.
Nena, El Salvador, Mesa Grande camp, Honduras
That day I got up, as usual, at 6 a.m., and after breakfast my friends and I went singing along to the big tents in the camp’s center that serve as our school. It was 7 a.m. and the bell had just signalled the start of classes. We were lining up when suddenly we heard a noise in the sky. There were planes dropping things and we said, “They are sending us more rations.” A tragic mistake. These objects exploded as they touched the ground.
Koini Idete, Namibia, Kassinga camp, South Angola
It is a fact that our safety has not been guaranteed here, on the border; so how will it be guaranteed for us further into Honduras? There we will only go deeper into the pit, where there are more armed forces, and where they are going to repress us even more. We have become adjusted to the camps here. We have work here, work that was very hard for us to organize.
We have built everything ourselves: the water tank, the health station, the houses, the latrines, the workshops. Here we have achieved a way of life where we share all our work, and we help each other very much. We live in a community and work collectively. We all take part in the decisions because we understand that our only hope for survival lies in sticking together.
Francisco Gomez, El Salvador, Colomoncagua camp, Honduras
It is very hard for me to think about my future. I would go home immediately if there were no political problems. In Ethiopia I lived on one job, and I had time to enjoy my friends. I had my own house. And I have a wife and children there. But the situation in Ethiopia is very difficult and will take a long, long time to solve. I don’t think about going back. It is too complicated.
I hope sometimes for resettlement, but I have no relatives in America, so there is really no chance. You see, I cannot have a stable plan. Everything depends on the government in Sudan. I am not in my own hands. I am in the government’s hands. And the government is not stable, not at all stable. I cannot plan. I cannot know what is next.
Birhani Paulos, Tigruyan, locally settled in the Sudan
One day around 4 p.m. we women were all gathered at the sound of whistles. After that we were made to parade nude in front of men and women. Stripped of our clothes and belongings, we were made to sit in a room where we were to spend the night. The room was like a wake, where sad songs were being sung. Around 5 a.m. we were jammed in a bus which was to drive us to the airport. This is how we left Miami for Puerto Rico. When we left Miami, we were led to believe we were only going to Puerto Rico for a few days. Now we have been suffering for eight months. We have been locked up behind barbed wire. Sometimes we are hungry and cannot eat. Now we cannot stand it anymore. If we [are] not freed [soon], a good number of us are going to commit suicide. Because we have sworn to die in the United States.
Haitian women detained at Fort Allen, Puerto Rico
In my country, I was a shepherd. I was outside all day. Now I am cooped up inside, and I can’t stand it. After 25 years of suffering, I end up in an American jail. I thought I would find freedom as a refugee in this country, but my suffering continues. I came here to hide from persecution. This is beyond my limit. Here my heart beats fast, and my body shakes. Being here is like a bad dream.
Robert Gardener, South Africa, detained in immigration jail, New York
Being in the U.S. is even harder than being in Mexico. You face a new language and strange food. Your eyes suffer seeing the luxury in this country. For Guatemalans, it is extremely hard to come here. Sixty percent of the population is Indian, with their own languages. They don’t speak Spanish very well. They can’t read or write, so they have trouble communicating with North Americans, and this gives them more headaches. Sometimes the headaches and the stomach upset take years to go away. Every single refugee
Guatemalan in Sanctuary, Philadelphia
July 10 was one of the happiest days in my life. The two smaller families among us were accepted by Australia, and our neighbors shared our joys, and my mother-in-law cried with happiness, and it was as if our two children could understand this joy, for they were jumping up and down. The lunch that day tasted so good, although the food was the same. A month later, our names appeared on the list of people allowed to leave the island. We felt pity for our parents, so old, so frail, who had to stay back waiting to go to America. Nobody could stop the tears.
Han-Hai-Van, Vietnam, Pulau Bidong camp, Malaysia