July 24, 2014
Guest: Letta Tayler
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Chilling reports are coming out of Iraq describing what the militant Islamist group ISIS is doing in cities it's taken over such as expelling, kidnapping or killing religious and ethnic minorities, including Christians. This week, State Department officials warned that ISIS is worse than Al Qaeda. ISIS has taken over large swathes of Syria and Iraq with the intention of creating a caliphate - an Islamic state. My guest, Letta Tayler, has made two recent trips to Iraq to document ISIS's human rights abuses and crimes against humanity, as well as abuses committed by the Iraqi government. Taylor works with the group Human Rights Watch as its senior researcher on terrorism and counterterrorism. She was in Iraq from mid-May to the first week of June. On June 10, shortly after she left Iraq, ISIS captured Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. So on June 14, she returned to Iraq for about three weeks to continue her investigation of abuses. Taylor was a journalist for more than 20 years. She covered the invasion of Iraq embedded with U.S. forces. Letta Tayler, welcome to FRESH AIR. What's been happening in Mosul since ISIS took over is really just horrifying. When ISIS took over, it issued an edict to Christians giving them a couple of choices. Can you explain what the edict said?
LETTA TAYLER: Yes, ISIS issued an edict around mid-July, and it said you've got three choices - convert, pay us a jihad tax, get out of town. And if you don't do those, you'll face the sword. And this was, of course, an absolutely chilling message. It was disseminated throughout the city and on the Internet, as well. And at that point, most of the Christians had already fled Mosul. But the few remaining families - and we're still talking several hundred, apparently - just packed up and left. Some left with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Others piled whatever precious possessions they could into their cars. And some of them then found that at ISIS's checkpoints that they were robbed of those few precious possessions that they had hoped to bring out with them. So it's been an absolutely terrifying part of a broader campaign to cleanse, if you will - in quotes I use this word - cleanse Mosul and surrounding areas of anyone who does not espouse this strict interpretation of sharia that ISIS espouses.
GROSS: So were Shia Muslims told to evacuate as well?
TAYLER: Shia minority Muslims were told to evacuate, and most of these are Shabaks and Turkmen. And they were also told to evacuate, but they were expelled from surrounding areas. There were almost no Shabaks or Turkmens in Mosul itself, but there are many, many villages ringing Mosul, just on the outskirts of the city, where these groups live. And in many cases there are both Sunni and Shia Turkmens and Shabaks in these villages. ISIS would roll up in trucks with their signature black banners on the back of the trucks, jump out with loudspeakers and their AK-47s and call out in the village squares, OK all the Shia Shabaks, all the Shia Turkmen get out of your houses. Leave. Now's the time to go. And then they would take all the men out and put them in one place, and they would separate the Sunni men from the Shia Shabak and Turkmens. And then they would take the Shabak and Turkmens and put them in their pickups and take them away. And most of these men have not been seen since this happened. And this was starting to happen in late June and was continuing through mid-July. Some bodies have turned up executed, shot in the back of the head. But most of the bodies are still missing, and their relatives don't know if they're dead or alive. And one thing that is so heartbreaking about this is the fact that nobody knows what's happened to these men. The most likely scenario most families and village leaders believe is that they have been executed and dumped in mass graves that nobody can access yet because they're in ISIS-controlled areas. And so on top of this horrific event of having your loved ones round up and going missing and presumed dead, they can't even get the bodies in most cases.
GROSS: Well you write that there's this new black-market industry that's cropping up of people who track down bodies and bring them back to their families since the families can't find the bodies. The families can't even return to their homes where their family members were abducted and probably executed.
TAYLER: Indeed. And we found this in the eastern outskirts of Mosul. For example, there's a cemetery and an industrial zone in the eastern outskirts of the city. And just beyond that, a little further to the East, are several of these Shia minority communities. And so men would be captured by ISIS in these Eastern minority communities and disappear. And then several days later, families would get calls from Sunni residents of Mosul saying we found your son's body. We found your cousin's body near the Al-Karama Cemetery, for example, in eastern Mosul. Would you like us to help you get that body to you? And, of course, the families would say yes. And then it would suddenly turn out to be costing several thousand dollars, which most of these families don't have. These are very marginalized communities - the Shia minority and the Yazidis which is another group which has links ethnically to Kurds. The Christians in contest are more - many of them are more affluent. But the Christians who had the means to leave - many of them left long ago. So at the point that these ISIS edicts were coming down - who they were affecting? The most vulnerable, the most marginalized Christians and other minorities. Those who had no place to flee to. No money, no wealthy relatives to help them if they got into Kurdistan or some other country.
GROSS: Three days before the edict was issued by ISIS telling Christians that they had to leave Mosul, ISIS began placing marks on Christian properties and the properties of other - the homes of other minorities, designating them as Christian or Shia, Shabak, Turkmen. And reading about the edicts that ISIS issued to Christians and minorities, I found myself thinking about the early days when the Nazis were taking over in Germany. And I was wondering - I know ISIS, unfortunately, doesn't have a monopoly on ethnic cleansing. There's been such an extended history of that in various countries over the past few decades, but I'm wondering if you know at all if ISIS has taken any of their cues from the Nazis.
TAYLER: I thought exactly the same thing when I read about these markings. I thought it was absolutely bone-chilling. But I do not know if they took their cue, if that's where they got the idea. Certainly there are a lot of very educated individuals within ISIS who know their history, so it would not surprise me one bit. You mentioned the term cleansing and I think it's really important to note that this is a form of ethnic and sectarian cleansing that's going on here. The term - we tend to think of it in terms of genocide, but in fact, systematic roundups, expulsions, and targeting of individuals based on their ethnicity or their creed is a form of cleansing. And so we're not exaggerating by calling ISIS's activities in and around Mosul right now cleansing. It really is that. And it's horrifying. We don't know why ISIS has not yet reached the level of ethnic and sectarian cleansing in Iraq that it already has, horrifically, in Syria. We don't know if that's what's around the corner. We fear that that may be the case. And we certainly - at Human Rights Watch are doing everything we can to try to stop that, to get the word out that these brutal attacks are going on.
GROSS: What has ISIS done in Syria that it has not done in Iraq?
TAYLER: Well, in areas such as Rakah we've seen mass executions on a much larger scale than we've seen in Iraq - greater expulsions. We've seen public executions of alleged spies or amputations of alleged thieves. We haven't seen, for the most, part that level of activity in Iraq. And I think there are political reasons for that, in that ISIS has made packs rather quietly with groups such as the Baath Party - that was the former elite party under Saddam Hussein, of course, the former president of Iraq toppled during and in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion. So the Baathists are Sunnis, and they very much want to the Shia-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki out of Iraq. And I think they decided that they would make this pact with ISIS in order to route the Shia leadership from Iraq. But how will that play out? What will the consequences be? We've already seen that ISIS has, in Mosul, kidnapped several prominent Baath Party members and other leaders under Saddam - that is, former leaders, who would clearly play a key role in any Sunni-led government in the future in Iraq. So there have been some fissures in that alliance, some falling out. And most experts - and I tend to agree with them - predict that there'll be further fissures between the more traditional and, in many cases, secular-leaning Sunnis in Iraq and ISIS. But for the moment there does seem to be at least some degree of participation, and that's why I believe we haven't seen even worse behavior on the part of ISIS towards civilians.
GROSS: So the edict gave July 19 - which was last Saturday - as the deadline for Christians to leave Mosul.
GROSS: Do you know what's happened since July 19?
TAYLER: I believe all Christians have left at this point. Therefore, I don't believe any are being captured and murdered. I don't, in fact, know of Christians being killed by ISIS since the takeover of Mosul. And that is in contrast to its activity in Mosul before the capture of the city because ISIS was very much active in the city before it actually took it over. And it was already terrorizing residence and taxing many residents. But at that point, it functioned as a state within a state. Now it is the state, so there is a dramatic difference in how it's behaving. I would emphasize, though, that while ISIS is targeting minorities, it is trying to play nice with the local Sunni population, for the most part, when one puts aside groups such as law enforcement and soldiers. And it is cleaning up the trash, removing roadblock. When there are long gas lines, it sends out gunmen to create lines so that there will be orderly queues of drivers and residents waiting for gasoline. And they're not there to threaten or terrorize people. They are there to ensure order. ISIS was, apparently, distributing pensions to retired government employees in June. This is the kind of activity that they want to be known for. They're doing their best to try to supply water and electricity for residents in Mosul, and that's been a tough task because there are shortages throughout the country and, of course, the Maliki government doesn't want water and electricity to do to get to Mosul if it can help it. So ISIS is trying very hard for rank and file Sunnis to be the most wonderful occupying force that anyone could imagine. But if you're a religious minority, you've got to pay up, convert or get out.
GROSS: How do the ISIS guards at the checkpoints find out who's Sunni, who Shia, who's Christian, who's Turkmen?
TAYLER: Well, in fact, most Iraqi identity cards list religion or ethnic origin. So for example, the Yazidis who were a group of - who have ethnic ties to the Kurds but do not consider themselves Kurdish - their identity card say they are Yazidi. So unfortunately for Iraqi citizens, it's very easy to spot who they are based on their identity card. In addition, many ethnic and religious groups dress differently in Iraq. There are certain beard styles or certain cuts of pants that different groups wear. So it's not that difficult to spot. In some cases, ISIS has separated men in roundups in villages and then said are you Sunni or are you Shia, and just taken people's word for it and then later have released some men who've they determined to be Sunni whether because they've made some phone calls or had a chance to look more closely at their documents or question them. But yes, unfortunately, it's chillingly easy to find out in Iraq who's who.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Letta Tayler. And she's Human Rights Watch's senior researcher for terrorism and counterterrorism. She made two trips to Iraq between May and July. We'll talk more about what she found there and the human rights violations she found there after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Letta Tayler. She's the Human Rights Watch senior researcher for terrorism and counterterrorism. She just returned from two trips to Iraq. She was there from mid-May through early June, and then returned in mid-June and stayed through early July. And she has documented human rights violations, both by Isis and by the Nouri al-Maliki government in Iraq.
Now, Isis has been telling police and security forces in cities and towns that Isis has taken over that they need to repent at certain assigned mosques. What are they supposed to be repenting for?
TAYLER: These bureaucrats and security forces and, in some cases, lawyers or judges, are supposed to repent for adhering to state law. Now, of course there's a bit of an irony here because rule of law in many cases was not exactly respected by these security forces, largely Shia security forces. In fact, most residents in Mosul told me that they were terrified of the Shia security forces who consistently took the law into their own hands. Nevertheless, at least on paper, the government security forces are supposed to be adhering to state law. And so what Isis was insisting on is that these forces go into designated mosques and repent for having followed state law, rather than only Sharia; that is, Islamic law. And after taking an oath and all swearing only to follow Sharia law, these law enforcement officers were told that they could go home. They could not return to their law enforcement duties, but they could go home and they would not be killed. In some cases however, we received reports that some of the security forces who quote, "repented" on quote, actually were found dead later. So there's no guarantee, as far as we're concerned, that "repenting," again, in quotes, means that you won't be killed by Isis. But thousands, thousands, of security forces, government officials, soldiers, anyone else who thought they might be in danger if they do not quote "repent" on quote, went into these mosques and repented. It sounds like quite a scene, and there are some videos of it, and we've spoken to some residents who described it. And also, residents who said they just fled instead because they had no faith that Isis would actually leave them alone.
GROSS: So judging from what you're saying, in places that Isis has taken over there are no longer, like, government, police and military.
TAYLER: That is correct. In fact, most soldiers fled as Isis captured Mosul. And in fact, the muscle on the street is Isis, as well as any affiliated groups who are working with them. And these could be former Ba'ath party members, it could be other Sunni militant groups. But Isis is really in command of the situation. And the forces operating under the Isis banner are guarding the hospital, they're guarding the morgue, they're guarding government buildings. They are guarding the water authority, they are guarding the power authority. They are guarding all the checkpoints. So Isis is very much in control of the city. There are no government forces, and there are no local government officials, even the Sunni. For the most part, the Sunni government officials, many of whom were opponents of Prime Minister al-Maliki have fled as well. For example, the governor of Ninawa province, which is the province that includes Mosul, is a Sunni, and he fled. And, Isis has taken over the government mansion. It also ransacked the Ninawa governor's country farm which had been in his family for generations, stealing, according to the governor, his 250 Arabian horses and several tons of wheat. This is a breadbasket area, the Ninawa province. Much of it is called the Ninawa plains, it's acres and acres, and miles of rolling wheat fields and other farms. And so wealthy families, elite families in Iraq, many of them have their farms there. And so Isis has ransacked many of these, including that of the governor.
I don't mean to suggest that - I mean of course, stealing Arabian horses pales in comparison to the other activities that Isis is up to in Mosul and surrounding areas. Nevertheless, it's just another example of just how complete the control is, and how thorough the ransacking is.
GROSS: Letta Tayler will be back in the second half of the show. She's the senior researcher on terrorism and counterterrorism at Human Rights Watch.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Letta Tayler of Human Rights Watch. She's the group's senior researcher on terrorism and counterterrorism. She's been documenting human rights abuses and crimes against humanity committed in Iraq by the Maliki government, as well as by the militant Islamist group ISIS which has taken over large portions of Iraq and Syria. Tayler was in Iraq from mid-May to the first week of June. A few days after she returned home, ISIS captured Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul. So Tayler went back to Iraq and stayed about three weeks continuing to document abuses. She's interviewed many people who fled or were forced out of areas that ISIS had taken over. We've been talking about Christians and other ethnic minorities as well as police and security forces who have been forced by ISIS to flee their homes. Where can they go? Where are the safe places in Iraq now?
TAYLER: Well, there are increasingly few safe places in Iraq. And one of the distressing things that I found when I was there was that residents of areas such as Mosul were fleeing to one community that they thought was safe only to find that that community was no longer safe, and that they had to flee somewhere else. So for example, some residents were fleeing Mosul for Sinjar, which is a town to the West, and then - but that town has been a traditional conflict area between the Maliki government and other groups. So they get there, and the next thing they know, there are government airstrikes and conflicts taking place on the ground in and around Sinjar. And so then they're trying to flee again. But where do they go from there? Do they have to cross back to the East? Does that mean going through Mosul? Do they have to circle around Mosul? In some cases, the Peshmerga - these are the Kurdish forces who are helping control parts of northeastern Iraq - in some cases, the Peshmerga have closed the roads for certain amounts of time. And the Maliki government has also closed roads further to the South in Anbar province, which is a Sunni stronghold that ISIS is also in control of. So sometimes these groups who are being targeted by ISIS have nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. I found Yazidis living in Christian communities. I found Shabaks living in Yazidi communities. The religious minorities, in many cases, - or - and ethnic minorities - are banding together and sheltering each other in little towns and villages that are protected by the Peshmerga. And for now ISIS really doesn't seem to want to pick a battle with the Peshmerga. It's really got its eyes on the Shia.
GROSS: Those of the Kurdish military forces?
TAYLER: Exactly. So many minorities feel that they're relatively safe in areas that are protected by the Peshmerga. And this is primarily in eastern Iraq which is next to the autonomous region of Kurdistan, which is part of the country of Iraq but, yet, has its own functioning regional government.
GROSS: You spent time there, right?
TAYLER: I did. I spent a great deal of time in Iraqi Kurdistan and had quite a bit of freedom of movement there because of the Peshmerga. And it was for this reason that I was actually able to go into communities that are hosting many of the people who have fled cities such as Mosul. And I would like to add, residents, including minorities, are not just fleeing ISIS. They're also fleeing indiscriminate attacks by the government, including with barrel bombs which are dumb bombs, which are indiscriminate by their very nature. So to circle back to your question, I was traveling through quite a bit of Iraqi Kurdistan and that - for the most part, I felt quite safe in Kurdistan. But that is in distinct contrast to how I felt when I was in Baghdad. During my first trip I spent most of my time in Baghdad. And Baghdad felt very much like a city under siege. There were checkpoints everywhere. There were...
GROSS: Maliki government checkpoints?
TAYLER: Yes. Heavily armed guards behind sandbags everywhere. There were - on street corners of neighborhoods that had been attacked by ISIS - these would be predominately Shia areas - there were roadblocks just almost on every single block to try to discourage suicide bombers. That kind of incident is so common that Iraqis often don't even talk about it. When I was in Baghdad, I got a call one morning from my translator who apologized for being late. He said, I'm on my way. I'm terribly sorry. I was stopping to run an errand in such and such square, and a bomb - a suicide bomber blew himself up right around the corner. And so there was chaos, and I haven't been able to find a taxi. I'm having to walk for a great distance until I can find a taxi to get to you. And I'm thinking, you almost got blown up in a bomb and your main preoccupation is apologizing to me that you're going to be a little bit late to work. But he was sincere about this. People live with death at every moment in cities like Baghdad now, in Iraq. And they have become so accustomed to it that it's the backdrop to everything. It overshadows everything they do. It's become a part of their life. And the profound - the profound wounds that this has created and will create for this society is mind-boggling.
GROSS: One of the types of crimes that you have documented is executions of prisoners - often mass executions of prisoners in Iraq. Who is responsible for these?
TAYLER: Well, the mass executions of prisoners that we have documented were carried out by Maliki government forces, Maliki prison guards and allied Shia militia. In addition, we have also documented ISIS mass executions of prisoners. So this is happening on both sides. Both ISIS and the Maliki forces are killing prisoners. We believe that this is happening because they fear that the prisoners will be freed by the other side and then join the forces of the other side, so it's a preventive - preventive executions. Clearly, whatever the reasoning, there is absolutely no excuse for executing captives. This is one of the most serious types of war crimes that exists, and it is reprehensible behavior. And some of the cases that I documented, the Maliki government actually killed dozens of prisoners by setting them on fire and setting their blankets on fire and just leaving them in a prison to die. In many other cases, they have rounded up these prisoners and shot them in the back of the head. And in a third case that I documented, in the city of the Tal Afar - this is just to the west of Mosul. Tal Afar fell to ISIS on June 16. That was just less than a week after ISIS captured Mosul. It was clear that ISIS fighters were marching into Tal Afar. In the middle of the night, forces of Maliki went into a counterterrorism prison in a fortress on a hilltop in Tal Afar, and they went into the prison. And they went cell to cell and opened fire on the prisoners. And there was no attempt to have the prisoners surrender. There was no attempt to assist them in any way. They simply stormed the prison, opened the doors and began shooting with at least two Kalashnikovs and most likely a machine gun. I spoke to four witnesses who survived - some of the few men and, in one case, a boy who survived these attacks. The teenage boy described the gunmen shooting through the little windows and the doors to the cell and then opening the door and continuing to shoot. And he was a 14-year-old boy and a very small boy. And he said he hid behind an adult prisoner. And that's how he didn't die. He was wounded in the shoulder and in the leg, but the larger prisoner fell on top of him and covered him and protected him. But he said that the gunmen just kept shooting until they thought they'd killed every single prisoner and they'd all fallen into a heap on top of each other. He said, I laid there for several hours until morning. These were the longest hours of my life. And then he added that one of the dead bodies on top of him and near him was that of his 15-year-old brother. So this is the kind of atrocity that the government of Nouri al- Maliki, the government that has been supported by the Obama Administration, who's troops have been trained by the U.S. government in the past, the government that is receiving weapons from the United States - these are the kinds of atrocities that are being committed.
GROSS: So you're suggesting that the reason why the al-Maliki government has been behind the mass execution of prisoners in Iraq is that they're trying to preempt these prisoners from being, quote, "liberated by ISIS and joining ISIS?"
TAYLER: Exactly. And ISIS has done this in many cases. For example, when ISIS captured Mosul, on the way there it went to the main prison in an area called the Valley of Badush which is just north of Mosul, and they opened the gates to this prisons. Between that prison and a couple of other prisons that - smaller prisons in the center of Mosul, ISIS claims to have liberated more than 2,000 prisoners. So this is absolutely a pattern were ISIS liberates Sunni prisoners and I'm sure it does hope that they will join the fight. But again, this does not excuse - there is absolutely no excuse under international law for slaughtering masses of captives as a preemptive action. It's absolutely contrary to international law. We have received reports that ISIS did the same thing, however, even when it freed prisoners from the Valley of Badush, that ISIS singled out Yazidi and Shia prisoners, and that it's unclear what became of those prisoners. And we've received many reports of piles bodies being found near the Valley of Badush. All of this very macabre, obviously, but we do not know how much of that is rumor. What we do know is that ISIS has boasted of and released videos of executing what they say were well over a thousand prisoners. Clearly, this is a deliberate attempt to get rid of any potential fighters in these prisons.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Letta Tayler, and she's is the Human Rights Watch senior researcher for terrorism and counterterrorism. She just returned from two trips to Iraq. We'll talk more about human rights violations there by ISIS and by the al-Maliki government after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us, my guest is Letta Tayler and she's the Human Rights Watch senior researcher for terrorism and counterterrorism. And she's just returned from two trips to Iraq. She was there from mid-May through the first week of June, then returned in the second week of June and stayed through early July, documenting atrocities and crimes committed by the militant Islamist group ISIS and by the Nouri al-Malki government in Iraq.
You've written that the Malki government is using barrel bombs, which you describe as indiscriminate weapons. Tell us what barrel bombs are and how the Maliki government is using them.
TAYLER: Yes, well, barrel bombs fall into a category that we often called dumb bombs. And that means that they cannot even tell a broadside of a barn from anything else. They will devastate, destroy anything within a very wide radius and they can't target a small area. It's - let's say - you know there's an ISIS cell in a particular house in Mosul or Fallujah or Ramadi and you're the government. And you want to get those fighters because you know they're planning to go out and massacre your troops, well, that's allowed under the laws of war. But you can't do that with a barrel bomb because they will not just take out that building or that room where the ISIS fighters are plotting. They will take out the house next door and the house next door to that one and the house next door to that one. And they'll fall in the street and hit the people in the street. They're indiscriminate, they're cheap, they're improvised, they're big barrels or other similar objects. They're stuffed with explosives and sometimes scraps of metal. A lot of them are duds and they just fall on the street. And many residents I spoke to said that they saw ISIS fighters gleefully extracting these barrel bombs and boasting that they were going to take the explosives out of them and use them to make their own improvised explosive devices to plant on streets where they thought government forces were going to go. Perhaps some of these bombs are not causing any harm and are maybe even aiding the enemy, but many, many them are being dropped in civilian areas and killing civilians. And we believe children have been dying in these attacks as well. Now, in Syria, the United Nations Security Council has strongly condemned the use of barrel bombs by the Assad regime, yet there has been no public vociferous condemnation of the use of barrel bombs by the Maliki government just across the border in Iraq. We do understand that the U.S. government has privately told the Maliki government stop using these bombs. That was apparently in June when we issued a press release on this matter. Since then, however, we have found multiple, multiple uses of barrel bombs in Iraq since the U.S. government reportedly told Maliki cut this out. And since the Maliki government has denied that its used barrel bombs, we found clear evidence that it still is.
GROSS: What has the personal impact been on you of basically inventorying atrocities and mass execution?
TAYLER: Well, that's what I do for a living now. I've been with Human Rights Watch since 2008 and I had a long and full career as a journalist, including as a foreign correspondent in many hotspots before then. So I'm used to inventorying and documenting atrocities and I thought I'd built up a pretty hard shell, actually. But these two trips to Iraq affected me profoundly. I came back very, very distraught from both trips, primarily because I had been to Iraq 10 years earlier - well, 11 years earlier initially - first as an embed with a frontline U.S. Marines unit that participated in the invasion and went up to Baghdad with that group. The company was called the Grim Reapers. The second time I went to Iraq was in 2004, so that was exactly a decade ago. And some of the stories I documented at that time included torture by U.S. guards at Abu Ghraib. So I already had this backdrop of the profound destruction and the profound damage being done to Iraq and was so hopeful when I came back a decade later on these two trips that I might find at least some modicum of improvement in the daily lives of the Iraqi people and in basic services and infrastructure. And yet, what I found was a country still in entire chaos, where fear and intimidation were the order of the day, where death overshadows every person's movement, where every person seems to be damaged in one way or another. Grappling with that has been, really, one of the biggest challenges for me as well. But on the plus side, the number of people I've met, extraordinary people, who have been enduring this hardship, has been tremendously inspiring. People who have lived through this and keep on going. The bravery and the dedication of the Iraqi people I have met, both a decade ago and on these last two trips, that's what keeps me going, that's what helps me overcome the challenge of this work.
GROSS: Before you were covering war and war crimes, you wrote about rock music. I'm wondering on these last...
TAYLER: (Laughing) Yes.
GROSS: Yeah, I'm wondering on these last two trips to Iraq if you were surprised by any of the music that you heard.
TAYLER: I was. I was particularly surprised by the Kurdish music traveling to Iraqi Kurdistan. This is a - it reminds me of the Blues or Dirges, this - these mournful, tragic marches, speaking of loss and longing and desire. The Kurds have been trying - they themselves a marginalized, persecuted minority in Iraq - have been trying to gain full independence for decades. And to hear this music, it was deeply moving.
GROSS: Letta Tayler, thank you very much for talking with us and thank you for the risk that you took to document these crimes against humanity.
TAYLER: Thank you. It's been such an honor and a pleasure to speak with you.
GROSS: Letta Tayler is the senior researcher on terrorism and counterterrorism at Human Rights Watch. She sent us an example of the Dirge-like Kurdish recordings she'd heard on her trip that reminded her of the Blues. This is the late singer of Abeh Mallah.
(SOUNDITE OF ABBEH MALLAH SONG)
ABEH MALLAH: (Singing in foreign language).
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review of a new novel she says, puts a fresh comic spin on the age old coming to America story. It's called Panic In A Suitcase, the debut novel by Yelena Akhtiorskaya.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: There's a wonderful 1982 memoir called An Orphan In History by the late Village Voice writer Paul Cowan. It's about Cowan's search for his European Jewish roots, and in it he says something about the sacrifices of older generations of immigrants that's always stayed with me. Cowan says, millions of immigrant families left the economically and culturally confining old world towns where they were raised and paid for the freedom and prosperity this country offered, with their pasts.
Those words speak to me because that's my family's story. I can't tell you the names of my great-grandparents left behind in Poland and Ireland because nobody ever mentioned them. The break was that final. These days of course, it's different. Within the space of a few hours, people can fly across oceans. Through Skyping and email they can electronically commute between old world and new. Three cheers for the March of Progress, right? Except, if you want to make a definitive break, how can you, when the old world is always calling on the phone, texting and crashing on your living room couch for extended visits? That's the crucial question Yelena Akhtiorskaya mulls over in her sharply observed and very funny debut novel, Panic In A Suitcase. Akhtiorskaya, who was born in Odessa and emigrated to the Russian immigrant enclave of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, at the age of seven, writes of the fictional Nasmertov family, whose move from old world to new imitates her own. Beginning in 1993, the novel follows the lives of the Nasmertovs for over two decades as they pledge allegiance to ambivalence, most of the family members wondering at times about America, should I stay, or should I go?
The novel mostly focuses on an adult son, a poet named Pasha, who in 1993, flies in from Odessa to visit his recently emigrated parents, sister and brother-in-law, and niece, all crammed together in noisy disharmony in a Brighton Beach walk up. The family is pressuring Pasha to emigrate, but he's not so sure the move is worth it. Especially when he sees Brighton Beach for the first time. Filth and dreariness didn't bother him, but five restaurants in a row called Odessa did. His fellow countrymen hadn't ventured bravely into a new land; they'd borrowed a tiny nook at the very rear of someone else's crumbling estate to make a tidy replication of the messy, imperfect original they'd gone through so many hurdles to escape, imprisoning themselves in their own lack of imagination. Pasha's feelings about emigration will continue to seesaw throughout the next decade. Eventually, they'll be transferred to his niece, Frida, whose fascination with the Odessa she can barely remember pulls her back to that city.
I'm making the plot here sound contrived, and it isn't. In fact, there barely is a plot in Panic In A Suitcase. That's not a criticism. What we get instead of a sweeping story are a multitude of exuberant set pieces about modern emigre life, animated by Akhtiorskaya's insider knowledge and her offbeat way with words. Here for instance, is how she describes the view from the Nasmertov's Brighton Beach kitchen window.
(Reading) The kitchen window looked out on the ocean, which had the cast-aside air of a large piece of grandparents' furniture thrown to the curb. Grandparents put plastic covers on sofas so butts and sweaty palms wouldn't damage the fabric, and children sat on the loud, sticky plastic. The ocean seemed to be inside such a plastic cover, and somewhere at the back there was a zipper that could be undone.
What an ingenious way to capture that look of the Atlantic Ocean; slick, contained and worn out by the time it reaches Brooklyn shores. Akhtiorskaya directs the same tart eloquence to her character studies. Saying of the emotionally manipulative Pasha that...
(Reading) Pasha's talent was to shift dynamics until all sympathy was directed toward him. He aroused feelings without necessarily returning them, and was permanently enclosed in an aura of exemption.
Panic In A Suitcase updates the classic coming to America tale, making it more open-ended. Indeed, Akhtiorskaya's immigrants find it comically difficult to commit to a fresh start, given that so much old baggage keeps turning up on their doorstep.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed Panic In A Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya.
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