STATES OF EXILE

 
Dennis Jung States of Exile

1

National Museum of Contemporary History

Ljubljana, Slovenia
November 19th, 2019

 
Harper Harris gazed out the window of the museum’s lecture hall at the approaching dusk and the bare, mist-shrouded chestnut trees. According to her host, an earnest young woman from STA, the Slovenian Press Agency, the weather had been unseasonably warm and sunny until an overnight cold front gifted the city with a light dusting of snow. Harper watched as a troop of people in identical yellow rain slickers emerged ghost-like from the trees and scurried toward a waiting tour bus. A Japanese tourist group, she guessed, gauging from the calligraphy signage on the front of the bus and the flowery Oriental motif of their open umbrellas.

Harper had rather impulsively agreed to the lecture and retrospective photo exhibition six months earlier, before her energy had been sapped by her recent assignment in Syria. Reneging on the commitment had never been an option, for the advance fee was immediately consumed by her adopted daughter Funaya’s fall tuition at the overpriced boarding school in upstate New York. Her ambivalence about traveling to Ljubljana had been tempered by her curiosity in seeing the city she had last visited in 1991, back when the threat of a war in the Balkans was merely a vague possibility. At the time, the city had been awash in the exuberance over its recent and unexpected independence from the disintegrating Yugoslav Republic. Little did anyone know that the heady times the Slovenians enjoyed foretold the bloody days ahead for their restless neighbor republics to the south.

On that visit, she had been accompanied by a young Frenchman, a journalist with Le Monde, who the following year would fall victim to a sniper’s bullet in the opening days of the Serbian invasion of Croatia. Rene was his name, and he had briefly been her lover, their dalliance interrupted by a mutual ennui as much as a bullet.

Her memories of those days in Ljubljana consisted mostly of wine-soaked interviews with jubilant students in the sidewalk cafes along the river that intersected the city’s old quarter. Her only other visit had been a two hour layover at the airport on her way to Sarajevo.

“Pardon me, Miss Harris,” a voice behind her interrupted her thoughts. It was the young woman from the press agency. Her short, purple-streaked hair, liver-colored lipstick and nose ring seemed in sharp contrast with the severe, black pantsuit she wore over a frilly white blouse. “The lights,” she said, pointing up at the ceiling, “You must tell me. They are perhaps too bright?”

Harper glanced first up at the chandeliered ceiling and then at the two dozen or so rows of chairs, most of which were already occupied. Another fifty or so people stood lined along the exquisitely ornate, Venetian plastered walls of the small lecture hall.

“No, they’re fine for now. You can dim them when I start the photos.”

Harper scanned the audience for any familiar faces, but failed to recognize anyone. She had hoped to see at least some acquaintance, a fellow correspondent perhaps. Most of the audience seemed middle-aged or older except for the entire front row which was occupied by what appeared to be high school or college students.

“Shall I begin the introduction?” her host asked.

Harper nodded and strolled over to the podium and began fiddling with her laptop as the young woman began her introduction in Slovenian. Harper tapped a key and an image appeared on the screen behind the podium.

It was her first published photograph; an image of a slender middle-aged black woman leaning on a shovel in front of what appeared to be a wire chicken coop. The woman’s broad smile and bright eyes hinted at the sensual allure that undoubtedly persuaded the white farmer for whom she once share-cropped to trade the deed for a hundred acres of prime bottom land for her favors. Harper’s mother had spoken to her only once about the night Harper was conceived, and then in only the vaguest terms. Oddly enough, her mother’s recounting seemed tinged with more warmth than regret.

She clicked off the laptop, and as she waited for her host to finish, she glanced over at the large gilded mirror on the side wall. The reflection of the woman standing by the podium was that of a trim, middle-aged, caramel-complexioned woman dressed in an ankle-length turquoise-colored skirt, a waist-length black leather jacket, and a scarlet head scarf that partially concealed her stylishly-cut mop of red hair. Anyone able to study her face more closely would undoubtedly notice the resemblance with the woman who had once posed before the chicken coop; the same generous mouth, the high forehead, and the deep set eyes, the irises that would appear coppery in the right light.

“Miss Harris,” the host now intoned in English, “is the recipient of numerous awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes. Her work has been featured many times in National Geographic magazine, and her photographs have been exhibited in more museums than I could possibly list. Her reporting on many of the world’s conflicts has also won her numerous journalism awards. Her byline has been featured in many of the world’s leading magazines and newspapers. Please let us welcome Harper Harris.”

The audience broke into polite, lengthy applause that Harper finally cut short with a wave of her hands. “Please. You’re too kind. It has been too long since I’ve been to your lovely city,” she said, nodding her head. “1991 to be exact. Those were exciting times for Slovenians.” A soft murmur erupted from the audience and someone in the rear of the hall clapped. “That particular visit meant so much to me. You see, at the time I was a relatively inexperienced journalist. And this was to be my first major newspaper assignment.”

She paused to collect her thoughts. She never enjoyed public speaking; never had overcome the awkwardness of discussing her work on such a personal level. When pressed as to why, she deflected by confessing that it was really more the subject matter of many of her photos that caused her unease. She lifted her gaze to the glittering chandelier above her for a moment before continuing.

“Sadly enough, the tragedies that overcame your neighbors to the south gave me my first break. It launched a career that has taken me to far more places than I could have ever imagined growing up on a small farm in the American South. The lights, please,” she said and clicked on the first image.
“1979. This is my mother on her farm. She bought me my first camera, and the rest is history you might say,” she said. She hesitated a few seconds before advancing to the next image.

“Some of you perhaps may recognize this one.”

The grainy black and white photo depicted a group of jubilant young men and women clutching wine bottles and clinging to a large statue of a winged dragon. “Your city. June, 1991.” Several members of the audience broke into applause. “Is there anyone here this evening who might be in that picture?” she asked, breaking into a grin. “No? Well gauging from the number of wine bottles, your lack of memory can be forgiven.”

The audience responded with polite laughter. She clicked again and an image appeared of a pair of black women standing in a muddy road hemmed in on either side by thick forest. One of the women cradled a nude infant in her arms; the other woman’s arms encircled a large straw basket, their faces registering nothing more than numbness born of what seemed fatigue and despair.

“The Congo, 1996. These women were fleeing the war.”

She looked back at the audience. “Someone once asked me why I take photos. I told them I take photographs so I can remember. To flesh out my life. That’s why any of us take photos. Right? We wish to remember the joys these images represent, but also we want to be reminded of the bittersweet.” She paused for a few seconds before going on. “And some of us take photographs to document the pain we can’t turn away from. When I look at my work I realize that some of my photos are true. Some hit the mark so to speak. And some do not. Tonight I will show you photos that hit the mark. At least they do that for me. They mean something to me,” she said, placing her palm to her chest. “These photos are very personal. In fact, some of them are from my private collection and have never been published or exhibited. And then there are photos that I will not show for they are too personal, too painful.”

She went to the next photo. It was a stark image of a coiled hand protruding from beneath the white sand of what one assumed was a beach. In the background, and slightly out of focus, was an elderly man clutching a hoe of some sort and squatting at the foot of a ragged palm tree.

“2004. The aftermath of the Indonesian tsunami. My first Pulitzer,” she said solemnly. “The old man in the background found out later that the hand belonged to his daughter.” She went on to the next one.

“This was taken in 2008 in Darfur near one of the refugee camps.”

It was an odd image of a bearded Caucasian man apparently attempting to block her camera with his hand. In the background one could just make out what appeared to be a pile of burning bundles, garbage perhaps. One would have to look closely to recognize the bundles were actually bodies. Not able to help herself, she stared at the image for a long moment. Darfur was the first time she met Sonny Day. She had followed him to Nicaragua for the sake of a story. When it became more than a story, she lost him. The word was he died in a car accident in Cuba. She lingered on the image for longer than was necessary before going on to the next.

“2009. Managua, Nicaragua. This woman is one of many forced to forage in these garbage dumps simply in order to exist.”

The image was that of an old woman sifting through a smoldering mountain of garbage, the sky in the background a blood red canvas. Newsweek had paid her handsomely for that shot and the accompanying essay, and to her everlasting shame, she spent all of it renting a condo in Maui while licking her wounds. She moved on to the next one.

“1995. Srebrenica, Bosnia.”

An audible gasp erupted from some of the audience as a black and white image revealed a muddy ditch littered with hundreds of bodies sprawled in grotesque repose, their limbs entangled. She paused, at a loss of what else to say. A long moment of silence passed before she moved to the next photo.

It showed a woman with long, dirty blonde hair and wearing a patch over her left eye, her face partially in shadow. She was leaning over a candle, a tin cup in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and laughing.

“This was taken in Aleppo, Syria. 2012. My friend, the correspondent Marie Colvin. She was killed a month later in Homs.” Harper stared at the photo for a moment before going on to the next image.

“I took this next photo shortly afterwards. I was part of a small group attempting to flee the fighting in Syria to safety over the mountains into Lebanon.”

The photo showed two women seated on a fallen tree trunk, their faces downcast. One could assume they were Muslim from the hijab visible beneath their heavy wool head scarves. A small child at their feet appeared to be pushing a toy car along the muddy path.

“I took this photo several minutes before we were captured by Syrian troops. The woman on the left, the child’s grandmother, was killed by Syrian soldiers a mere fifteen minutes or so after this photo was taken. I never found out the fate of the other woman and her child.”

A black and white image appeared next showing a bare stony field surrounded by a forest of listless gray palm trees. It always took a moment for the observer to realize the white stones were arranged in linear rows. One of the stones in the foreground was surrounded by a clutch of small, colored bottles and a bouquet of wilted flowers.

“This was also taken in 2012 outside of a village in Liberia, West Africa. A graveyard for the victims of the war,” she said simply. “Two years later, I was back in West Africa to cover the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone.”

She clicked the next photo. It was a close up shot of Funaya as she stood in the gateway of the orphanage outside of Freetown. It was difficult to tell if the look on her face reflected surprise or anxious uncertainty. Harper moved to the next one without comment.

“Freetown, Sierra Leone. This is a… Well, I hesitate to call it a hospital. It was more like a hospice for the victims of Ebola. A young Belgian nurse working there very appropriately called it God’s Waiting Room.”

She had interviewed the nurse as she washed the blood and feces-stained linens in the muddy stream behind the hospital. Harper heard later that she had contracted Ebola and had been airlifted home. Whether she survived Harper never found out.

The picture revealed the shadowy interior of what might have once been a warehouse gauging from what appeared to be loading docks and chains with pulleys suspended from the rafters. The floor appeared haphazardly littered with cots, some draped in mosquito netting, others empty. Several of the empty ones appeared marked with some kind of stain. Other than a solitary nun standing in the foreground, the picture was devoid of anyone not confined to the cots.

“I must apologize for some of my choices of photos. Some of them are quite grim. What can I say? We live in a world where it is increasingly difficult to look away from tragedy.” She glanced down at her laptop. “How about I show something lighter? This is my daughter Funaya in her bedroom in New York.”

It showed a lanky adolescent girl with skin the color of Belgian chocolate sprawled on her unmade bed, encircled by a half-dozen open books. Her broad face registered a feigned horror. “Studying for her mid-term exams.. Still too grim,” she added with a laugh before moving on to the next image.
“1995. What was referred to as Sniper Alley during the siege of Sarajevo.”

A black and white image of two people, a man and a woman lying side by side in the street in a pool of blood.

“They were said to be lovers. The woman fell wounded and her lover was shot while attempting to drag her to safety. He was Serbian Christian Orthodox. The woman was a Bosnian Muslim.”

“Again, 1995, Drina River, Bosnia.”

A color image of a group of soldiers dressed in mismatched camouflage standing in a semicircle, in the center of which stood a tall, rangy man dressed in crisp fatigues and notable for the powder blue beret he wore at a jaunty angle. What appeared to be a small US flag was affixed to his sleeve. In contrast to the men surrounding him, he bore no obvious weapons. His right arm was extended in what appeared to be defiance in the direction of a huge, bearded man wearing crisscrossed bandoliers and holding a handgun aloft as if in celebration. Only then, did one’s eyes take in the figure of a young man kneeling between them, his hands folded behind his head.

“My colleagues and I came upon this UN observer bartering with the Serbian militia for the release of a captured Bosnian Muslim.”

“Do you remember his name?” a woman’s voice suddenly shouted from somewhere in the audience.

“What?” Harper stammered, taken aback by this unexpected query. She squinted into the audience as she tried to locate her interrogator.

“The UN soldier in the blue beret. What was his name?”

The woman’s accent sounded Middle European, German perhaps. Harper could vaguely make out the figure in one of the rear rows, but her face was in too much shadow to be discernible. Harper stared at the woman in confusion. The audience, sensing her unease, swiveled their gaze back and forth between the woman and Harper.

She had included the photo at the last moment, grappling with the dormant emotions it aroused. Now her sudden regret for including it left her struggling for a response. Of course, I know his name, Harper thought to herself. She glanced back at the screen, still fumbling for a reply.

“No. I don’t recall his name. It was a long time ago,” she said, finally.

There was a moment of silence before the woman abruptly stood and pushed her way past her fellow audience members before turning and making her way to the exit doors. All Harper could tell was that the woman was rather tall and wore her dark hair pulled back into a chignon. She carried a raincoat draped over one arm and a large handbag slung over her shoulder. Harper watched as the woman paused at the doorway to say something to the usher before appearing to hand him something. Harper turned her attention back to the audience and smiled.

“What happened to the young Muslim man?” a voice from the front row asked.

Harper considered the question for a moment before replying. “The UN observer managed to secure his release. This most likely occurred because there were several of us journalists on the scene bearing witness.”

What she didn’t reveal was that a week later the young Muslim was found shot to death beside the road along with six other men. She clicked the remote wand.

“Something lighter. 2016. Mardi Gras in Rio de Janeiro. One of my favorite celebrations. So many wonderful and outrageous subjects,” she said as a bejeweled, feathered and nearly nude coffee-colored woman filled the screen, her brilliant smile reflecting unbridled ecstasy.

And so it went for the rest of the evening, the photo exhibition followed by a short recitation of her background and a discussion of why she became a journalist, then followed by the obligatory questions and answers. Fortunately, no one else asked the names of any more of her subjects or pressed her to comment too deeply on the circumstances that motivated her choice of subject matter. At the end, a handful of people lingered to purchase signed copies of one of her books. When the last of them had gone, her young host approached her and handed her a slip of paper.

“The woman,” she said in explanation. “The one who asked about the soldier in the blue beret. She left you this.”

Harper slipped on her glasses and read what was scrawled on the paper.

It’s important that we talk. I would appreciate if you could meet me afterwards in the bar at the Slamic Hotel.

The note was unsigned. “Where is the Slamic Hotel?” she asked the young woman.

“It is not far. If you wish to go our driver will take you. Is there anything wrong?”

“No. I don’t think so. Just an admirer,” she said offering the woman a smile. “Tell your driver I just need to gather my things. Thank you so much for this opportunity. I enjoyed it.”

She watched the young woman walk away and then studied the note again. What was this about, she wondered. What could this possibly have to do with Luke Marchand, someone she hadn’t heard from or seen in… What? Twenty-four years? She fought back a sudden swirl of emotion, took a deep breath and then gathered up her laptop and coat and headed for the door.

 
 
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