Violence, Veils and Bloodlines

About the Book:
Violence, Veils and Bloodlines

Reporting from War Zones

Louis J. Salome

308 pages $45 softcover
26 photos, maps, index
ISBN 978-0-7864-4659-9     2010

Contents page:

ONE : Faces, Faiths, Tongues and Blood
TWO : Across the River and Into an Iraqi War
THREE: Jerusalem's Soured Milk and Honey
FOUR : Lebanon's Cedars of Mahem
FIVE : Gender War Unveilied in Afghanistan
SIX : The Bumpy Tribal Road from Moscow to Tel Aviv   
SEVEN : Riding the Rails and Crossing Borders
EIGHT : Crosses to Bear in Belfast
NINE : Somalia, Land of the Walking Dead
TEN : Desert Anarchy, Algerian Style
ELEVEN : Bosnian Test: Who's Your God?
TWELVE : Soul-searching in Central Asia
THIRTEEN : In Syria, My Name Is Not My Name

Images from the book:

Faces of famine: A Somali mother feeds her children what little was available in Baidoa during the devastating civil war, famine and drought of 1992. (photograph by Louis J. Salome, © Cox Newspapers Inc.)
Afghan Highways: A typical road in Afghanistan's mountains. It was common for a 100-mile journey to take ten hours in 2002, when this photograph was taken, after the U.S. invasion to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. (photograph by Louis J. Salome, © Cox Newspapers Inc.)
Afghanistani children
Innocent Faces, Uncertain Futures: With the Taliban in power, Afghan children like these, especially the girls, were barred from school. Even the boys were forced at an early age to attend fundamentalist religious schools before they became soldiers. This photograph was taken in 2002, at the Kabul Zoo, where most of the animals had been killed during the Afghan civil war and subsequent Taliban rule. (photograph by Louis J. Salome © Cox Newspapers Inc.)

Maps from the book:

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Middle Eastern tribes dashed in to convert or reconvert Jews and Muslims in the tribal states that emerged in Central Asia and the Caucasus mountains region between the Black and Caspian seas. Map drawn by Grace Peirce.

Bosnia map
The Balkans wars of the 1990s, when tribes, history, and gods dictated the fire this time. Map drawn by Grace Peirce.

"In raw numbers, Bosnia didn't sink to the level of Rwanda or Somalia, but it was no less brutal. And it was a supreme embarrassment to the West because it is white and it is the loins of Europe rather than in what the West perceives as a sinkhole in black Africa. The aggressors were Christians, too, not "infidels. With ethnic cleansing at its core, the Bosnian conflicts also revived the memories of Hitler's Nazism and Germany's Aryan Nation only 50 years earlier." -- L. Salome, Chapter 11, Bosnian Test: Who's Your God? p. 228


Book Excerpts

Excerpted from Chapter 1, Faces, Faiths, Tongues and Blood:

In Aberdeen and Belfast and all across the Eurasian expanse to Afghanistan and Pakistan; in North and East Africa, the Middle East and Persian Gulf region, tribal chiefs, political figures, religious worthies and unworthies, killers, hostage-takers, desperate refugees, hotel clerks, cooks, taxi drivers, translators, life-saving aid workers, soldiers, police, arms dealers and women weeping for dead children asked, “Where you FROM?”

The question says more about the questioner than the questioned. Few asked where I called home or even where I was born, unless they thought I was born in their world or in the lairs of their ancient tribal enemies. They really wanted to know my roots, my religion, my tribe, whether I spoke their language, and by extension whether I liked their culture and supported their status in the world. My answers would determine whether they would trust me with their truths.

People of the deserts, steppes and littorals, of the mountains, valleys and islands were eager to fill a slot in their cultural lock boxes with a simple answer that would tell them all they needed to know about me. By my answer they would judge me, probably for all time or at least until they learned more about me as an individual. Most often we didn’t get to know each other well enough as individuals because I trudged from war to war, crisis to crisis, during my nine-plus years as a foreign correspondent.

For almost half that time I was based in Jerusalem, a city that suffocates under the religion and religiosity of three major faiths. When I wasn’t in the city that Christians, Jews and Muslims bless more for themselves separately than for each other, I ranged across landscapes that were no less tribal. Mere days after I arrived in Jerusalem I learned that “Where you from?” means, “What’s your tribe?” “What’s your religion?” as if Islam, Judaism and Christianity were the only religions in the world. Wherever it is asked, the question cuts two ways: It binds and it divides. Which of the two prevails depends on where you sit and the answer to the question.

Everywhere I went the question came up because I have Mediterranean features and don’t look like the tall, blond Hollywood version of an American. My waning Massachusetts accent altered by twangs from other languages and dialects acquired in my travels added to the mystery. Often I was accused of not even sounding like an American, so eager were people to put me in a slot they could more easily judge and understand. My Slavic, Semitic, Latin and Nordic friends refused to be tricked and thrown off course by the simple answer that I was an American. They knew better. They could tell by looking at me that it wasn’t that simple. They wanted to identify a friend, or an enemy, a person they could or couldn’t trust.            Back to Contents (top of this page)

Excerpted from Chapter 5, Gender War Unveiled in Afghanistan

Naw Roz the Afghans call it. It’s the advent of a new year. An ancient rite of spring and symbol of fertility, Naw Roz also represents the freedom to grow, smile, walk to a cemetery for a picnic and a children’s carnival and have a little fun celebrating other Afghan traditions.

The date was March 21, 2002, on the modern calendar, year 1423 on the Muslim lunar calendar. To most religious, ethnic and linguistic tribes, this was Year One in the annals of post–Taliban Afghanistan. This was the first time since the Taliban took control of Kabul on September 26, 1996, that Afghans were allowed to celebrate Naw Roz, an ancient festival familiar in principle if not in name to people of the region. Naw Roz predates Islam and is too old to have a finite age. The Taliban wanted no part of joy, so the religious extremists banned Naw Roz as unIslamic and unworthy, similar to the way Iran’s fundamentalist Shiite mullahs deny that country’s glorious Persian past because it, too, predates Islam. Part of the Naw Roz festivities honor Ali, the fourth caliph, from whom sprung Islam’s Shiite sect. To the Taliban, Pashtun tribesmen who belonged to their own far-right wing of the larger Sunni sect of Islam, the Shiite connection was probably another reason to ban Naw Roz celebrations.

For Afghans, especially women, the revival of New Year celebrations offered the first taste of freedom in five-and-a-half years. The Taliban, which means Students of Islam, had compelled Afghan women who went out in public to wear the burqa, hooded gowns so enveloping that only a wearer’s shoes were exposed to the outside world. The sensation of imprisonment was real: Women looked at the world through small openings that resembled prison bars. For Afghan women, peripheral vision did not exist.

Even at that Naw Roz moment, most women still feared that walking in public without a burqa and without a supportive government edict would jeopardize them with Taliban sympathizers who secretly stalked Kabul’s streets. The new U.S.-backed government, which lacked widespread support and control over the country, was reluctant to issue an edict permitting women to shed their burqas. The government was afraid to arouse the opposition of super-orthodox believers. Most men and women were tip-toeing around the burqa question.

The communal picnic at the Shuhada Salain Cemetery by the lake that used to be the sanctuary of Afghan kings is one tradition of Naw Roz. First, pray for the dead at the cemetery, and then honor the living with food and a little fun, a traditional juxtaposition of respecting the past while enjoying the moment.

As some women furtively shed their burqas, vendors sold potatoes, chick peas, bread and fruit to the thousands of people who gathered on the hillside above the lake. Cheerful girls and boys rode in four wood bucket seats that were part of a hand-made wood ferris wheel all of eight-feet high and pulled and shoved all day long by weary old men. Six wood seats attached to wood poles that moved around a rotating center pole entertained other children. The motors were other men who breathed hard and heaved, taking turns one after the other, pushing in circles. Danish, age ten, her sister, Ramallah, nine, and their brother, Matiullah, three-and-a-half, reached down from their wood seats on the circular swing, trying to pick up a plastic chip from the dirt. A child who snagged the chip won two free rides on the swing. The simplicity with which children can be entertained is often lost but it is universal. With picnics and prayers, paeans to Mother Nature and miniature carnivals and events that resembled county fairs without neon, glitter or deafening noise, the people of Kabul smiled again in public. Better than any outsiders, they knew what the Taliban had stolen.

Near the cemetery, at the Shashaheed Shrine which is dedicated to a former king, women gathered to celebrate the new year. They went alone. Men were not allowed. Yet almost all of the women wore their burqas. A group of women who appeared to be in their twenties said before they entered the shrine that they were waiting for a statement of support from the new government before they would show their faces in public. For those women, it was as if the Taliban remained in power, their murderous ferocity still dominating Afghan society, still attacking the female psyche.

Elsewhere, the Taliban’s psychological grip was slipping.

The largest New Year’s event in Kabul unfolded at the 15,000-seat athletic stadium. Nearly every structure in the capital had been heavily damaged during the fighting. The stadium was no exception. Its infield had been bloodstained, concrete in its grandstand cracked and broken off in large chunks by artillery. The New Year’s parades, speeches, displays of traditional forms of Afghan labor and entertainment were an attempt to eradicate the Taliban past and revive other aspects of the country’s culture. Around the infield, where the Taliban had executed alleged criminals at soccer games, the people of the plains north of Kabul bravely presented a float that mocked the Taliban who had leveled their villages.

Anjilah stood in the midst of what often seemed like delirium at the packed stadium. Her burqa was off; her face blazed like the sun that brightened the scene. “Enough is enough. I feel terribly happy,” said Anjilah, 24. A doctor’s assistant, Anjilah said that she had removed her burqa twenty days earlier after nearly six years of public anonymity. “The burqa was a cage for me,” she said. “When I see my friends, I encourage them to take off their burqas and some of them do.”

Many more men than women were in the stadium that day, but the women who were there wanted to be hidden no longer. A woman, who my translator said was a lieutenant colonel in the old Afghan Communist army, was driven into the stadium after she parachuted to the earth but missed the stadium infield. The large crowd cheered wildly as she marched around the infield waving the Afghan national flag.

Naw Roz traditionally is a three-day festival; the opening celebration, called Farmers’ Day, celebrates nature in a universal way. Animals were paraded around the running track and the Agriculture Ministry distributed brochures detailing how to raise the best crops and animals, as if the farmers had forgotten. Heads high and spinning, hands clapping vigorously, male dancers twirled and leaped in circles as they performed the traditional Afghan dance called the Atan. In a show of tolerance, even non–Muslims marched. Loud cheers greeted doves of peace that were released in the stadium. A few drummers and buglers added to the festivities that were as simple at times as farmers marching with shovels.

After I had interviewed Anjilah and other women at the Kabul stadium, my interpreter pointed to an area of the infield and told this story: The Taliban had accused a young man of killing another young man and brought the accused to the stadium to be executed, although no evidence had been presented to prove the man’s guilt. When the time came for the execution, the Taliban brought forth the mother of the dead man; the woman promptly slit the throat of the accused in front of the crowd. The Taliban tribe was expert at making victims of the living as well as the dead.

Brutal teachers, the Taliban executed about 25 people in the stadium, survivors said. The Minister for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue would announce an interesting soccer match; when fans showed up, the minister made certain that executioners appeared to dispatch an accused criminal or two. The dead were displayed as a warning to all the spectators of what would await them if they ran afoul of the Students of Islam. The matches proceeded in a distinctly somber mood. Soccer hooliganism never sprouted from Taliban soil.            Back to Contents (top of this page)

Excerpted from Chapter 9, Somalia, Land of the Walking Dead

Somalia is the only place where I ever wept while reporting. A child, with his distended stomach signaling starvation, defecating and vomiting in the dust as his mother held on helplessly should always melt a lens’ hardness.

The Somalia story was anything but another routine journalistic moment. What was happening was not in dispute: The sickening evidence of the dead and dying was in front of my face, in my nasal passages, my ears, mouth and throat; it was all around and inescapable. Sultry winds bore the stench of death along with the dust. The responsibility was broad and wellknown and didn’t make much difference anyway because the number of people who were falling daily and whom only food and security could save was so large. Bombarded by drought, famine and war, Somalia was a human disaster of Biblical proportions in a world where human senses and sensitivities were fast being hardened or eroded by repetition on 24-hour news cycles and advances in communication that seemed to exaggerate events or make few distinctions among them.

Every time I peered into the camera lens to capture the blank face of a dying child or talked to old women and men creeping toward their graves with already-dead eyes, I had to toss my head to shake away the tears and pretend that my eyes were merely polished glass.

Humor had worked before as a means to break down language and cultural barriers—but humor was homeless in Somalia.            Back to Contents (top of this page)

Excerpted from Chapter 12, Soul-Searching in Central Asia:

He looked like a businessman, not an agent of the dying KGB. In his suit, shirt and tie, Yevgeny could have been in the vanguard of the new Russian entrepreneurs angling for a joint business venture with a Western company. But there he was, a spy by trade, warning that it could be fatal for me to ask the questions in Central Asia that I was asking him in the Soviet capital. The Soviet man in Moscow looked and acted nothing like a descendant of Stalin’s intelligence network that 60 years earlier had sealed Central Asia from foreign eyes.

In the early 1990s, its Communist Revolution spent, the Soviet Union was a dying Soviet and a fraying union. Tribalism in its most literal sense was riding and roaring again in the ancestral mountains and open spaces of the Turkic and Mongol peoples and among the many fractious peoples who lived in the valleys and on the slopes of the Caucasus Mountains. In the East as well as the West of the former Soviet empire new states were sprouting from its still-warm ashes. In Central Asia Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Turkmen, Tadjiks and Kyrgyz were rising again in new expressions of tribal identity. Empires they had been, or been a part of, in centuries past, but never before had they been the rough nation-states that they were becoming. And this time there was no way to keep foreigners from their sweeping steppes, majestic mountains, wild valleys, broad deserts, rivers and seas. So Yevgeny warned me about the visceral tribal competitions ready to blow in the vast region, the ethnic, language, religious and cultural conflicts in Central Asia and to the west in the Caucasus region between the Black and Caspian seas.

The potential for endemic tribal clashes was real enough. And, as usual, outsiders added to the danger: Iranians, Saudis, Kuwaitis and Turks, and Russians who were left behind in the tribal regions and along their borders with the huge new and largely self-contained Russian state. All were bidding in various degrees for souls, political power and influence, money, land and oil. Always oil. Americans and Israelis were in the region, too, the Americans sniffing Caspian Sea oil and gas and checking the intentions of the new Russia; the Israelis working with great success to build a people pipeline to Tel Aviv for the region’s Jews and to use the emigration connections to knit technological, political, security and other ties with the fresh, mostly Muslim, nations.

“This isn’t America. You must be careful,” Yevgeny whispered. “Over here you could be killed asking questions like this. The problems in Central Asia are very serious and very dangerous.”            Back to Contents (top of this page)