Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Inhumanity of Refugeedom

I have been reading a book about the tribulations of the people in the Catalonian region (French and Spanish) before and during WWII. The stories are appalling for the inhumanity of so-called human beings, shocking for the deprivation that hundreds of thousands were forced to endure, yet heartening for those who risked their own liberty and lives to try to help others.

The book is "Love and War in the Pyrenees," by Rosemary Bailey. The subject is fascinating, and the tome is both well-researched and well-written.

In the 1939 timeframe, about half a million Spanish fled from Franco's fascist takeover of Spain. It is known as the "Retirada," or The Retreat. After they struggled across the high mountains in the brutal months of winter, carrying what was left of their possessions in cardboard suitcases, the refugees were forced into internment camps by the French authorities, who feared the unknown impact of the waves of "foreigners" on this otherwise docile farming and fishing area.

In Argeles-sur-mer, just one such place of several, more than 100,000 Spanish were herded onto the cold sand beach and surrounded by barbed wire. They would endure months there, initially with only dunes for shelter, later a few crude buildings. Women and children were separated from the men.
The following year, after Hitler's fascists had overrun France in only six weeks, there was an exodus in the other direction - those who feared German reprisals trying to escape over the Pyrenees in hope of eventually reaching Britain or the US, or at least neutral Portugal. Or die in the attempt. Those who could not escape were rounded up into concentration camps - they were called that by the French before the world discovered the heinous Nazi camps such as Dachau and Buchenwald. One of the camps, Rivesaltes, just north of Perpignan, became a final waypoint for Jews before they were shipped to the gas chambers of the German "labour camps."

Three things strike me as I read the words of people who lived through these horrors: 1 - these events did not take place so long ago, only a few years before I was born; 2 - the same type of concentration camp "solution" was used in the United States with American citizens and residents of Japanese ancestry; and 3 - there are, today, similar refugees in dire circumstances in numerous places around the world: fleeing Syria, fleeing Iraq, fleeing Somalia, fleeing North Africa, fleeing Central America, fleeing Ukraine, fleeing Gaza ... infants, children, women, men, elderly, wounded, sick ... uprooted from their homes and their homelands, usually by oppressive warlords (who are supported by the arms merchants and political hacks of the so-called "civilized" or "developed" world).

We don't seem to learn the lessons of history. Succeeding generations, embarrassed by the crimes of their parents and grandparents, hold memorial services, erect plaques and statues, and think they have absolved the sins of the past. Then they commit, or at least enable and allow, a new wave of similar atrocities against those of an ethnic group different from their own. The atrocity is usually justified by some perceived outrage, some relatively minor incident or affront, but behind it is a grab for control, for power, and the wealth that accrues to the powerful.

Certainly Hitler was a monster. But could he have done what he did without the Vichy collaborators, without Marshall Petain? Without the spineless Neville Chamberlains?

Who are the Hitlers and Francos of today? Who are the Petains? The Chamberlains? Poroshenko? Putin? Assad? Netanyahu? Merkel? Cameron? Obama?

Do you think any of them give a damn about the millions of refugees? Millions of human beings who are not partying with celebrities and lobbyists at the White House but are struggling simply to stay alive day by day. Millions of individuals who once had dreams but the "bad luck" to live in a place coveted by someone with a missile or a drone.

I don't think I can begin to imagine living as a refugee or being caught in the middle of a war zone. Bailey's book begins to give me a sense of what it might be like, but it cannot approach the levels of mental anguish and fear that refugees of yesterday ... and today ... experience every waking minute of every day.

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