JUNE 18, 2009
Father's Day Has Me Thinking About Guantanamo, Iraq and Darfur
by Myriam Miedzian
"It's déjà vu all over again" Yogi Berra once famously said. Exactly my thought as I contemplate my father's life and then look around at what's happening in the world today.
Born in 1901 in Poland, my father died in his sleep at his Los Angeles home at age 94. Not a bad lifespan for a man who was condemned to death as a teenager during WWI, avoided execution for going AWOL when he was drafted to serve in the 1919 Russian Polish war, and then saved himself and his family from almost certain death during WWII.
Spying was a common accusation against Jews in Poland during WWI. A business competitor's or an envious neighbor's testimony were enough to have you arrested and sentenced to death. The identity of the accusers was not made known, nor did the accused have the right to a trial or an attorney. The accusation alone constituted guilt.
Sound familiar? Many Guantanamo prisoners were rounded up and imprisoned on no tenable grounds.
According to the military's official findings—as researched and analyzed by Seton Hall University Law Professor Mark Denbeaux and his son Joshua Denbeaux, an attorney who has represented two Guantanamo prisoners—only 5 percent of the prisoners were captured by US forces. Most of the rest were sold to us by bounty hunters at a time when the United States offered generous bounties for capture of suspected enemies. Prisoners have been denied access to much of the evidence against them, including the identity of their accusers; they spent years imprisoned, with no right to legal representation etc...
Just as in Poland during WWI, the accusation alone was good enough for President Bush and Vice President Cheney who have claimed all along that there are no innocent men in the cells at Guantanamo—they are all bad and dangerous people.
My father was still in high school when he was drafted to serve in the Russian Polish war. He had no desire to kill Russians in yet another senseless war, and so when he was about to be sent to the front, he went AWOL at the risk of being executed.
Fast-forward to George Bush's invasion of Iraq: Countries are still waging unnecessary wars and men and women are still going AWOL.
Over ten thousand young American soldiers have gone AWOL from the war in Iraq. Their punishment is not as severe as the almost certain execution my father risked. Officially, punishment for military desertion can range from an "other than honorable" discharge which involves a cut in benefits—to death by firing squad. In practice, the "other than honorable discharge" is the most likely outcome. But sometimes the punishment is more severe as in the case of Augustin Aguayo who tried for three years to be recognized as a conscientious objector. He was court martialed and ended up spending 7 months in prison.
By 1936, my father took measures that would facilitate our family's escape from Belgium—where he was by then living with his family—in case of war. When the Germans attacked, we fled, and after fifteen months of refugee life in France, Spain, and Morocco, made it to the U.S. Thanks to his foresight, and both my parents' courage, and survival skills, we were among the lucky minority of European Jews who escaped the genocide of 6 million.
Genocides, military invasions and takeovers that force millions to run for their lives continue to go strong: Iraq, Pakistan, Bosnia, Darfur, Rwanda, to name only a few.
The very lowest estimate is that approximately 100,000 Iraqis have been killed, and two million have fled the country and become refugees since we started bombing and then occupying their country. In the 1990's , over a million Rwandas were killed and approximately 2 million became refugees, while in Bosnia ethnic cleansing led to a rampage of rape and murder. The 21rst century has brought us Darfur with its 200,000 killed and over 2 million refugees. Most recently attacks by the Taliban and Al Quaeda have led 2.5 million Pakistanis to flee their homes.
When my older daughter was 3 months old, my father wrote her a letter in which he listed some of the wars that had taken place in his lifetime and expressed the hope that she would not have to go through as terrible times as he—"I hope that peace will be in this crazy world," he wrote.
Unfortunately the world continues its crazy ways. The obsession with power and money, the incitement to war of the weapons manufacturers (is it just a coincidence that Bruce Jackson, former Vice President of Lockheed Martin, founded the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq?), the need to prove manhood, religious and ethnic prejudices continue to kill and send millions into exile.
So today I remember my father with gratitude and love, but also with sorrow that so little has changed since he managed to survive so much.
Myriam Miedzian is Author of He Walked Through Walls: A Twentieth-Century Tale of Survival