when the dust clears

Words about and images of matters political, social, and military

Posts Tagged ‘documentary

Bacon in the chowhall and other images from Iskandariyah, Iraq, August 3-15, 2004

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In the past weeks and months, Islamic State, abetted by other armed groups, has made stunning advances across Iraq as US-built, trained, and funded Iraqi forces evaporate. Islamic State “exposed the utter rot in the Iraqi army earlier this summer,” wrote analysts at the Soufan Group. This sent me back to my journals from my 2004 embed. The seeds of today’s tragedies were germinating then, in the tragically improvised U.S. occupation and the deep sectarian divide dug by Saddam Hussein that existed before American troops rolled into Baghdad.

Then as now, a boots-on-the-ground perspective of Iraqi forces’ readiness, professionalism, and tactical skill — shaky and poor across the board— was at odds with absurdly glowing reports from top-level US commanders.

Which is why those who truly wanted to know what was happening on the street ignored them and tried to convince grunts, NCOs, and line officers to talk. Not an easy task. “It’s like I told my guys,” a naval gunfire liaison officer told me on August 14, 2004, “we came into someone else’s neighborhood and are trying to tell them how to run it.” I asked a Master Gunnery Sergeant I bunked with whether the U.S. lit the fuse that blew up Iraq. It’s “like the coyote in the cartoon . . . and now we’re fucked.” Both asked me not to use their names.

After a dismounted patrol through Iskandariyah on August 4, I wrote in my journal:

“What are the salient facts and issues stuck inside me this week? Pork is served in the chow hall, in spite of the dozen plus Muslim translators. Translators get cast-off flaks. This entire enterprise is absurd, I feel, contradictory to its core. Democracy as represented by heavily armed, non-Arabic speaking men (and boys) wearing Wylie X sunglasses. Their allies are, in some sense, desperate men or opportunists. They do not give the impression of being the bedrock of the community. The cops are scared. The Iraqi National Guard posture like thugs and petty criminals. They’re scared too. That’s why they wear masks.”

Moments before I hit “publish,” President Obama announced that he had authorized airstrikes on Islamic State military forces in Iraq.  The U.S. military is also air dropping humanitarian aid to people of the Yezidi community who are being attacked and killed by IS, he said.

“I know that many of you are rightly concerned about any American military action in Iraq,” the president said, “even limited strikes like these.  I understand that.  I ran for this office in part to end our war in Iraq and welcome our troops home, and that’s what we’ve done.  As Commander-in-Chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq.  And so even as we support Iraqis as they take the fight to these terrorists, American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq, because there’s no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq.  The only lasting solution is reconciliation among Iraqi communities and stronger Iraqi security forces.

“However, we can and should support moderate forces who can bring stability to Iraq.  So even as we carry out these two missions, we will continue to pursue a broader strategy that empowers Iraqis to confront this crisis.  Iraqi leaders need to come together and forge a new government that represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis, and that can fight back against the threats like [Islamic State].”

I’m holding my breath.

Full Disclosure outtakes: Babil (2005) and Anbar (2006)

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I’m posting via Vimeo a series more favorite scenes I wasn’t able to fit into my 2008 documentary, Full Disclosure.

These scenes are from 2005 and 2006. (I didn’t shoot video in Iraq in 2004, only stills.) The first scenes focus on activities in Babil province during the run-up to the first post-Saddam election, January 31, 2005. The second chunk is from 1/2’s time in Hit, Anbar province, in early 2006.

There’s no graphic violence, but the video is still NSFW because of expletive-heavy gruntspeak and a flash of a porn magazine.

God Sees All

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Evergreen Cemetery, Richmond, VA, April 23, 2014

Evergreen Cemetery, Richmond, VA, April 23, 2014

Charles Byrd drove his front-end loader to the end of the gravel road. He cut the engine, hopped out of the cab, and nodded at me. “That’s Maggie Walker’s grave,” Mr. Byrd said. I had just photographed the curved headstone without noticing who it honored, Maggie Lena Walker: savings bank founder, newspaper publisher, civic leader, Jim Crow battler, daughter of an enslaved woman.

Under my feet.

Mr. Byrd, a contractor, said he was heading to the mausoleum that Mr. Harris, who was working in another part of Evergreen Cemetery, had told him about. He took a narrow, grass footpath that looked promising into the trees.

Charles Byrd, Contractor, Evergreen Cemetery, Richmond, VA, April 23, 2014

Charles Byrd, Contractor, Evergreen Cemetery, Richmond, VA, April 23, 2014

Mr. Byrd shouted for me in barely a minute.

As you approach from the side, the crypt looks more stately than spooky. The part of the building that isn’t obscured by leaves and branches appears solid. Tendrils of ivy creep down the walls from its roof. But as you swing around to the front, down a slight hill, you see tragedy head on—a huge, ragged hole has been punched through the cinderblock façade. I gather that the ugly gray bricks had been laid to cover an earlier desecration of the original door. The name carved into the stone at the top of the structure is “Braxton.”

We stared into the hole at the exposed coffins.

“Why would somebody do something like this,” Mr. Byrd said, not asking me, just saying.

I feel this whenever I document human ugliness: a surge of adrenalin and my news reporter’s predatory hunger mashed up with disgust and anger. Sadness, too.

Rust had destroyed the finish of the casket directly in front of us. The fixtures were busted. The lid had been wrenched off. The two caskets to the right had been dragged off their shelves as far as they would come. The floor was heaped with shattered headstones, trash, a woman’s wig. It seemed that the people who did this had plenty of time to destroy and despoil. We didn’t know how awful the story was—the dead had been pulled from their caskets—until afterward, when we Googled our way to video a by KIDA Productions. (Scroll down to “Evergreen Cemetery: History in Ruins.”)

Evergreen Cemetery is enormous. It’s part of a patchwork of African American graveyards that covers acres of Richmond’s east side, East End Cemetery among them. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of graves have been absorbed by the forest. They are invisible beneath the green and brown tangle. Volunteers from the Virginia Roots Cemetery Restoration Project, local colleges, professional landscapers, even the army’s Fort Lee do regular cleanup operations. A local chapter of black fraternity Omega Psi Phi minds the plot where Walker and John Mitchell, Jr., editor of the Richmond Planet, are buried. But nature is very aggressive here, hard to fight with limited resources; the cemetery’s owners made no provision for perpetual care, which led to its current state. And then there are the vandals. (Volunteer wrangler John Shuck tells us that “an issue” with the owners of Evergreen has ended cleanup efforts there. Volunteers are now working at East End. Here’s a link to their Work Calendar for folks who want to pitch in.)

In red marker, someone has written on the center coffin, “God Sees All”; and at the rim of the hole, “Smile. Your [sic] On Camera.” Perhaps a deterrent to further outrages. Perhaps not.

 

Postcards from the Great Dismal Swamp

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Ever since I came across the Great Dismal Swamp in the Rand McNally road atlas, I’ve wanted to see the place for myself. I’ll confess that this whole region—in fact, pretty much all of Virginia—was indistinct in my mind. (And I’m someone who loves maps and geography, thanks to my proud shunpiker parents, who pored over the atlas before every car trip in search of the roughest, remotest roads they could find.) It only began to take shape on our third voyage south, when we turned Brian’s lost passport into an impromptu honeymoon down the Eastern Shore, over to Hampton, on to Petersburg, and up through the Shenandoah Valley. That’s when I started to study the map.

It’s also when I started to study American history, my knowledge of which was patchy at best. I’d never been all that interested in pilgrims and pioneers, Rough Riders and robber barons, Confederates and carpetbaggers. But as Brian and I delve deeper into the history of slavery, the Civil War, and the dark decades that followed, the southern landscape has begun to take on new meaning for both of us.

Somewhere in the piles of articles and books and pamphlets we’ve accumulated, I had read that enslaved people sought refuge in the Great Dismal Swamp on their long journey to precarious freedom in the north. The twisting, infinite waterways and thickets of underbrush provided cover from slave hunters and their snarling bloodhounds, but it was a forbidding shelter, infested with mosquitoes and other beasties, snakes, and bears. Even so, for many it was preferable to bondage, becoming more than just a stop on the Underground Railroad, a permanent hiding place and home.

Colonies of maroons established themselves in the swamp, perhaps as early as the late 17th century, according to J. Brent Morris’s recent New York Times post, raiding neighboring plantations, then retreating to the thorny, bug-ridden bog to elude any pursuers. The whole piece is fascinating, but this bit is worth quoting at length:

The considerable numbers of maroons who used the swamp as a base for these attacks, as well as those who settled in the innermost communities of the deep swamp, were constant thorns in the side of plantation society, both militarily and ideologically. Through trade, appropriation and their own ingenuity, maroons obtained or made weapons and developed remarkable skills as guerrilla fighters. Just as important, however, was their symbolic variance from the ideological foundations of American slavery: the notion that African-Americans could not survive without benevolent white supervision, that they did not truly desire their freedom and that they were pathetically inferior to the ‘master race” in every way. Rather, they challenged white authority and stood for centuries, unsubdued, as a powerful rebuke to the Slave Power.

It was this article, in fact, that spurred us to action on Sunday. (Oddly enough, a few days before, during a marathon session at the University of Chicago’s marvelous Special Collections Research Center, I’d come across a number of references to the Dismal Swamp Land Company—founded by none other than George Washington—in the musty 200-year-old papers of a certain Fielding Lewis, proprietor of Weyanoke plantation on the James River. More on that later.) From Hampton, Brian and I drove down to Suffolk, on the south side of the James, and parked alongside three other cars at the Washington Ditch entrance to the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.

The perfect fall weather—cool, still, with a bluebird sky—went a long way toward masking the treacherous nature of the swamp, which at one point covered over a million acres in this corner of Virginia and North Carolina. Still, as we strolled along the double track to Lake Drummond, a nine-mile hike in and out, we tried to invoke the ancestors: How would they have read the landscape, the channels and pools, the hummocks and scrims of scum, the large piles of seed-laden dung? On less benevolent days, how did they stay warm and dry? How did they eat? As the sun dropped in the sky and the woods around us became an impenetrable tangle of shadows, we quickened our step, arriving gratefully at the car, where we cranked up the heat as soon as we got in. Yes, it was in the 50s. Goes without saying that the ancestors were a hell of a lot tougher than we.

Erin Hollaway Palmer, October 22, 2013

A Journey Toward Healing in Yorktown, Virginia

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Young lady photographs newly installed wayside at the old Shiloh Baptist Church Cemetery, Yorktown, VA,  July 23, 2013

Young girl photographs newly installed wayside at the old Shiloh Baptist Church Cemetery, Yorktown, VA, July 21, 2013

A rough encampment for enslaved people was set up on July 23, 1863—150 years ago today—near Fort Yorktown, Virginia, a Union stronghold in Rebel territory. It took the generic name “slabtown.” That’s what many such camps were called because the shacks built by the self-emancipated women and men—otherwise known as fugitive slaves—were thrown up with any material at hand, including irregular, bark-covered tree slabs left over from timber milling. Residents later called it Uniontown for obvious reasons. They founded a church called Shiloh Baptist and built a town around it.

Last Sunday, Shiloh joined with the National Park Service to dedicate “waysides,” those hefty informational signs you find at national parks, to honor the community, which no longer exists. Given the rather difficult history of the Shiloh–NPS relationship, the event was an amazing example of hatchet burying and cooperation.

Uniontown survived the Civil War, endured Reconstruction and Jim Crow, and thrived into the 20th century. Then the National Park Service started eyeing the land, which happened to be part of the Yorktown National Battlefield. Lord Charles Cornwallis, commander of British forces, surrendered there to General George Washington, in 1781. The NPS wanted the area pristine for the bicentennial. The black folk were in the way.

Former residents of Uniontown and friends look at new wayside at the Yorktown National Cemetery, Yorktown, VA, July 23, 2013

Former residents of Uniontown and friends look at new wayside at Yorktown National Cemetery, Yorktown, VA, July 21, 2013. Photo by Erin Hollaway Palmer

“A community generally known as Slabtown still forms a wedge into the Yorktown Battlefield,” wrote Newton Drury, the park service’s director, in 1946. Just three years later, he referred to a “significant acquisition” in Uniontown. That was the beginning of the end for the community.

The NPS started offering to buy land from residents. “There was an agreement that nobody would move out without informing the others about what was on the plate—what the National Park Service offered,” a former resident named Sherman Hill told us. But “after all the years, you started distrusting one another.” He believes that the NPS used a divide-and-conquer strategy to break the community’s cohesion—and to get the land for bargain prices. It worked. They cleared everyone out by 1977, though one man who lived far from the battlefield (but still on land the NPS wanted) got life rights. When he dies, the park service gets his land.

But on Saturday, Shiloh’s Pastor, Barbara Lemon, shared a podium with Supervisory Park Ranger Diane K. Depew, and Dan Smith, Superintendent of the Colonial National Historical Park, at an eight-plus-hour symposium hosted by the church. Heavyweight scholars, an African American Civil War reenactor (and park service employee), and two Hampton University history majors held forth on the exodus of the enslaved and the genesis of Slabtown. On Sunday, all gathered at the Yorktown National Cemetery and Battlefield to unveil the waysides. It was a moving end to a remarkable weekend.

Young boy lays wreath on the grave of a Yorktown soldier who served with the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War, Yorktown, VA, July 23, 2013

Young boy lays wreath on the grave of a Yorktown soldier who served with the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War, Yorktown, VA, July 21, 2013. Photo by Erin Hollaway Palmer

All injustices have not been remedied, and all wounds certainly have not healed. After nearly 40 years, the NPS has done nothing with much of the land acquired from Uniontowners. It is underbrush and patchy grass clearings in the woods. And yet, some kind of healing happened here. For that, we should be grateful—and ready for the next step.

From the BXP photo archives: 1996 & 1999

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Gulou (Drum Tower), Beijing, October 26, 1996

Gulou (Drum Tower), Beijing, October 26, 1996

When I wasn’t piloting my desk during my time in China as US News and World Report‘s Beijing Bureau Chief, I would wander streets and hutongs.

Photographing what I found dragged me out of the editorial and bureaucratic pool I steeped in most days—Beijing and Washington’s genuine conflicts and diplomatic spats; China’s labyrinthine officialdom; and the stress of being under (or believing I was under) the scrutiny of the Public Security (cops) and State Security (secret police) Bureaus.

The photo above, from the Gulou (Drum Tower) section of Beijing, is the result of such wanderings. The second picture is from the tailend of an interview of bus driver Wei Guiying (not pictured), who had been selected as a model worker by her work unit, in Hunan province’s Sansi Village. Wang Chunlei, my friend and office manager/editorial adviser also acted as translator, because we knew I would have difficulty understanding Wei’s Hunanese-flavored Mandarin. And I most certainly did.

I barely remember the interview; lunch, however, I recall vividly. Chunlei told me the family must have blown a month’s wages on the tableful of meat, vegetables—corn, greens, potatoes—and buns that they laid before us. I did my duty, good waiguo ren (foreigner) that I am, and devoured all that was scooped into my bowl.

Wei’s stepmother was housebound; her grandson was most definitely not.

Family of Wei Guiying (not pictured), Sansi Village, Hunan Province, China, December 26, 1996

Family of Wei Guiying (not pictured), Sansi Village, Hunan Province, China, December 26, 1996

Pak Ou Caves, Luang Prabang, Laos, November 1999

Pak Ou Caves, Luang Prabang, Laos, November 1999

This last photo is from a published story I did while working at Fortune magazine. I traveled to Vientiane and Luang Prabang, Laos, to write/photograph a travel piece.

Is there a theme—or themes— that unites and animates these photos? Escape? Encounter? I try to strike a balance between the literal and the lyrical, to see and photograph as an open, humble, compassionate, yet still critical observer and sometime participant.

Yes, more to come.

From the photo archives…

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I’m going through the several thousand 35mm and 6×7 slides—25 years worth—stacked and stuffed in my closets.

Some I have consigned to the dustheap. Others I have been happy to see after so many years. I’ll be posting selects from the latter category from time to time. Watch this space.

Dongyong (winter swim), Houhai, Beijing, February 20, 1995

Dongyong (winter swim), Houhai, Beijing, February 20, 1995

Kabul, February 2002

Kabul, February 2002