Stranger Than Fiction

Stranger Than Fiction

Inside the ‘Epoch Times’: How an aspiring poet in Brooklyn became a tool in a right-wing propaganda blitz linked to Falun Gong.

By Oscar Schwartz

The Atavist Magazine, No. 108


Oscar Schwartz has written for The Guardian, The Baffler, The Atlantic, and Wired, among other publications. Originally from Australia, he is now based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter: @scarschwartz.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kate Wheeling
Photographer: Jonno Rattman

Published in October 2020.

*Indicates a pseudonym.

I.

“Blame it on the Falun Gong / They’ve seen the end and you can’t hold on now.”

This lyric from the title track of Guns N’ Roses’ album Chinese Democracy popped into Steven Klett’s head as he rode the New York City subway one sunny Wednesday morning in March 2016. Klett, 27, was on his way from his apartment in Brooklyn to a job interview at a newspaper. He was wearing a green button-down shirt, a suit jacket, and black pants. His shoulder-length auburn hair was tied back in a tight, low ponytail. He needed this job desperately.

The position—breaking-news web content writer—was not his ideal gig. Klett had an MFA in poetry, and his chapbook A Field Full of Mirrors had been published in 2015 to some acclaim. He had dreamed, however briefly, of being a full-time poet. Now he was spending his days writing freelance copy for a public relations firm, earning $10 per article. He was a tidy, proficient writer, and had applied to jobs at venerable media outlets like Mother Jones and Slate. This was his first interview.

Before encountering the listing online, Klett had not heard of the Epoch Times. He browsed articles on its website, mostly brief reports cribbed from other news sources. The opinion section leaned conservative, offering takes that might appeal to Klett’s father. Klett considered himself something of an anarchist. But, as with his poetic aspirations, he was ready to set aside his political beliefs in order to make rent without having to skip meals.

One detail about the newspaper that seemed peculiar was its extensive coverage of human rights abuses in China. In particular, there were numerous reports about an organization called Falun Gong. Klett had not heard of Falun Gong, a spiritual movement whose followers, his cursory research showed, had been targeted for persecution by the Chinese government. As the subway rattled beneath the East River and Guns N’ Roses played in his mind, Klett wondered: Blame Falun Gong for what?

Klett arrived at the 12-story brick building on West 28th Street and took the elevator up to the fifth floor. He was greeted by the newspaper’s human resources manager and two senior editors—Cindy Drukier, who had a subtle Canadian accent, and Jasper Fakkert, a tall, slim man with a ginger beard that he scratched nervously. Drukier began the interview by noting that the two writing samples Klett had submitted concerned politics. She asked where he got his news. He said The Atlantic and The Washington Post, eager to veer as close to the ideological center as possible. The editors nodded.

After asking about his education, his work experience, his writing skills, and his poetry, the conversation turned to current events. The previous evening, Donald Trump had convincingly beaten his Republican opponents on Super Tuesday, and the prospect of his candidacy was being taken more seriously. Hillary Clinton had edged out Bernie Sanders. Klett, like many Americans, believed she had a real shot at the presidency.

Fakkert, who had a Dutch accent, explained that he was only interested in hiring reporters who would be able to cover the news in a fair and impartial way. “Here at the Epoch Times,” he said, “we are a nonpartisan news source.” Fakkert asked if Klett could write from a perspective that conflicted with his own views.

Klett had prepared for this question. He explained that a few months earlier he’d been asked by a manager at the PR firm where he freelanced to write a short blog post about Trump’s appearance hosting Saturday Night Live. Personally, Klett found Trump unfunny and self-aggrandizing, but the manager told him that Eric Trump, one of the candidate’s sons, was a client at the firm. “I was taking as neutral a position as I could,” Klett said of the post he ultimately wrote. “I thought of it as an exercise and a challenge to take my opinion out of the article.”

The editors smiled and thanked him for coming in. Later that day, they offered him the job.

As the subway rattled beneath the East River and Guns N’ Roses played in his mind, Klett wondered: Blame Falun Gong for what?

At a sports bar on a cold evening in December 2019, Klett leaned forward on his stool so I could hear his gentle, droning voice above the obnoxiously loud Christmas music. His long hair was magnificent, voluminous, excessively brushed. It lent him a strong resemblance—but for a long scar running down his forehead—to Axl Rose. He had a meticulous memory and offered keenly observed details about his experience at the Epoch Times. The outlet, Klett learned during his tenure there, did much more than cover Falun Gong.

Since coming to global attention in the late 1990s, Falun Gong has flourished precisely because its adherents use print and digital media to reach sympathetic audiences beyond China. Falun Gong simultaneously spreads news of its plight and amplifies the worldview of its charismatic founder, Li Hongzhi, who claims that his teachings are rooted in ancient beliefs and practices and promise believers health, freedom, and moral fortitude. But where some see a virtuous community, others see a cult: Critics say that Li is a narcissistic charlatan who enlists guileless followers to adopt his conservative social views.

Falun Gong practitioners insist that this portrayal is false, concocted by Beijing to tarnish Li’s name because the Communist regime perceives his movement as a threat. But while it is true that China’s state media routinely depicts Falun Gong as deviant, the movement’s positive image emanates largely from its own information apparatus. When reporting on Falun Gong, Western journalists tend to draw on both characterizations, presumably in the name of objectivity. If each is a fabrication serving divergent ideological ends, though, can the result be anything but a collage of propaganda?

The Epoch Times is a key player in the ongoing information war between China and Falun Gong. Indeed, the newspaper is the cornerstone of a media empire that the spiritual movement has built over the past 25 years. It publishes editions in 36 countries and 22 languages; most of the bureaus are run by Li acolytes. In the United States, it reportedly reaches 250,000 weekly print readers, with 34 million monthly page views online. (The Epoch Times and the editors named in this story did not respond to multiple requests for interviews and comment.)

Klett didn’t know any of this when he was hired. Nor was he aware that the Epoch Times was becoming embroiled in yet another power struggle, this one in the United States. As the 2016 election approached, the newspaper morphed into a pro-Trump bullhorn. Writing on his personal blog, Klett would later compare the work he did at the paper to that of Russian bots, which “sow discord in the name of activism, and reduce talking points and political agendas to the conflicts that they engender and narratives that they inhabit.” In the lead-up to the 2020 election, the Epoch Times has pursued this strategy more vigorously than ever. An NBC investigation found that, in the first half of 2019, the newspaper laid out $1.5 million for some 11,000 pro-Trump Facebook ads—the only organization that spent more was the Trump campaign itself. More recently, the newspaper has peddled narratives about COVID-19 that cast China as the pandemic’s chief villain and Trump as a potential savior.

Klett is no longer employed by the newspaper, but he sent me documentation from the period when he worked there and contact information for friends and former colleagues who could corroborate his account. The story of how he became a cog in a burgeoning propaganda machine—and why he stayed on even as the paper’s history and biases became clear—offers a glimpse into the right-wing news industry that has upended the media landscape. It’s a story about the perils of clickbait journalism and disinformation, and the consequences of apathy and alienation. It’s also about the Byzantine collection of interests that helped usher in the Trump presidency.

Klett said that during his stint at the Epoch Times, he had a front-row seat to the epistemic crisis triggered by Trump’s ascendancy, one that has made distinguishing truth from political fiction increasingly difficult. “In that first interview, I was being honest when I said I could be neutral. I really believed that was possible,” Klett admitted, hands shoved deep into his pockets as we walked down a Brooklyn street in search of a quieter bar. “By the time I left, just a few days before the election, I realized what everyone is still coming to terms with.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“That there’s no difference between the news and propaganda. That objectivity is about who has power.”

II.

The ubiquitous newspaper boxes of New York City—those colorful plastic and metal shells that, day in and day out, once served up the latest information about the world—today look like relics of a bygone media heyday. The red ones from which generations of New Yorkers grabbed the Village Voice stand empty. The blue and white dispensers of The New York Times are often vandalized beyond recognition. The containers that still offer the city’s free dailies are largely ignored by commuters staring at their social media feeds—unless they’ve been repurposed as receptacles for takeaway coffee cups.

The Epoch Times is an exception. Its bright yellow boxes adorned with royal blue text sit on street corners and near train stations everywhere from Chinatown to midtown Manhattan to Flushing, Queens. They are well maintained and frequently restocked, offering passersby a weekly tabloid for 50 cents. If the vast majority of New York’s dilapidated, graffiti-covered newspaper boxes offer a tangible symbol of the death of print, the Epoch Times containers, which are often secured firmly to the ground with metal chains, signify the newspaper’s staunch if quixotic mission to reach the largest possible audience by all available means.

Klett was told that his role at the paper would be to expand its reach on social media. As part of a new digital team, he would generate fast-paced, engaging news articles designed to increase traffic via Facebook and Twitter, where audiences were orders of magnitude larger—and even more chaotic—than on the bustling streets of New York. As was the case with his other writing jobs, clicks would be the metric by which his performance was assessed. He would be paid $2,500 per month, with the expectation that he’d get 100,000 hits per week. Anything over that would earn him a bonus.

Klett’s title was political reporter. At the time, he was following politics with obsessive focus. Like many of his friends, he was fascinated with Bernie Sanders’s campaign and spent many nights in bars talking about whether democratic socialism would ever come to America. Klett’s friends, like Klett himself, were mostly overeducated, underpaid, and downwardly mobile, snapped out of political apathy by the prospect of a revolution “for the people.” Klett was horrified by the spectacle of Trump’s campaign. He knew that there was an America that greed and bigotry appealed to, but it felt far away from his present circumstances in Brooklyn—far away, even, from the mostly white, middle-class town where he grew up.

Born in the final year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, Klett was raised in Clifton, New Jersey, in a two-story house on a dead-end street with a well-kept lawn and an aboveground pool. His father was quiet and worked a job that he only ever described to his family as “middle management.” Klett’s mother stayed home to take care of him and his brother. His father was a Republican, his mother a centrist Democrat. But they didn’t talk much about ideologies or affiliations. Politics were private, a matter of personal taste.

From a young age, Klett understood that he perplexed his parents. Where they sought to find a frictionless path through their suburban existence, Klett, though withdrawn, always seemed to stick out. He was an avid, precocious reader with a predilection for classic novels. In elementary school, he read Moby Dick. In middle school, he insisted on carrying around a copy of War and Peace. He rejected his parents’ Christianity and could quote Friedrich Nietzsche from memory. In high school, when his mother pushed him to join the marching band, he agreed begrudgingly, then complained that the conductor was an authoritarian. Klett made few friends and spent a lot of time in the counselor’s office.

His two salves were rock music—Soundgarden, Nirvana, Iron Maiden—and his grandmother. She lived on the lower floor of the family home. When Klett was fighting with his parents, he went downstairs to watch MSNBC with his grandmother or listen to her read from The New York Times. Sometimes she told him stories about when she worked as an air traffic controller in the Mojave Desert during World War II. She made the world feel bigger than Clifton, New Jersey.

After high school, Klett went to the College of New Jersey, just over an hour’s drive from home. He joined the track team in an attempt to make friends, but he found the hypermasculine culture of competitive sports menacing. He didn’t drink or do drugs, and he was still a virgin. He wasn’t invited to many parties, and he probably wouldn’t have gone anyway. Klett stayed up late in his room reading William S. Burroughs and writing poetry, imagining himself as one of the lost souls of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, outsiders “who scribbled all night rocking and rolling over lofty incantations which in the yellow morning were stanzas of gibberish.”

In addition to studying philosophy and literature, Klett enrolled in a journalism class. His teacher, an adjunct who also worked at a Philadelphia newspaper, was idealistic about the function of journalism. She told her students that more important than learning to write a good lede was developing a keen, unflinching interest in the pursuit of truth. Bob Woodward was the paradigm for which they should strive—a Republican in his private life whose yearning for truth was so pure that he wrote stories that brought down a Republican president.

Several weeks into the semester, Klett’s instructor was assigned to cover a mass shooting. A 32-year-old man had stormed a one-room Amish schoolhouse in rural Pennsylvania, shooting 11 students and killing five, all of them girls. When the instructor returned to class a week later, she looked as if she hadn’t slept. She told her students that no one in the Amish community would speak to her—her editor was expecting a story, but she had nothing to work with. Standing behind the lectern, she cried.

To Klett, it seemed that she had absorbed the trauma of the people she was covering. He empathized. As a child, he had on occasion become so deeply engrossed in stories that the boundaries between his life and other people’s blurred. In fourth grade, when he first learned about the Holocaust, he became severely depressed; he knew that his family had German ancestry, and he felt implicated. His mother demanded that Klett stop watching coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial after he confessed to having visions that he was the one who’d murdered Nicole Brown Simpson.

As the semester continued, Klett experienced a familiar muddling of his internal world and external reality. He had considered becoming a journalist but now realized he was ill-equipped to deal with other people’s pain. The future felt uncertain. Klett kept to himself more than ever. He stopped eating and interacting with other students. When a concerned peer told an RA that Klett hadn’t left his room in several days, the college called his parents. Klett never received a clear diagnosis, but doctors prescribed him a long list of pharmaceuticals.

The rest of college passed at a steady, medicated cadence. Klett spent the weekends at home and found his parents overbearing. As a diversion he started a band, the Undercover Rabbis. He met a woman who invited him to live with her and some friends at a winery in Pennsylvania, an offer he accepted after graduating in 2010. The group worked at Whole Foods Market during the day and threw raves at night. Klett used drugs and drank and slept with women and men, all for the first time. He identified as queer, first with trepidation, then with joy—the word itself helped explain why he had always felt so different.

In 2011, Klett received a transfer to work at a Whole Foods in New York City, where he lived for a time in an apartment in Ridgewood, Queens. His grandmother, who had recently died, had left him a small amount of money, which Klett used to pay for an MFA in poetry at the New School. When he wasn’t packing boxes or swiping items through the checkout at Whole Foods, he composed poems that were more controlled than his college writing. His final portfolio, exploring the boundaries between madness and inspiration, intimacy and abuse, was chosen by his professors to be published. “My favorite sex position is the Van Gogh,” one poem begins. “I won’t draw you a picture but it ends with you cutting off my ear / We can only do it twice.”

If Klett was succeeding creatively, his personal life was in disarray. He was trying to leave an abusive relationship and struggling to keep his job. Shortly after graduating, he was fired. He wrote copy for content farms to make rent on a Brooklyn apartment he shared with Martin*, a young housing lawyer and professed Marxist who lectured Klett about the failures of the Obama administration and how the impending Clinton presidency would be more of the same.

Klett listened to Martin, who seemed to know more about political theory than he did. He too felt alienated from what he called “the liberal elite.” But he also remembered the night Obama won the 2008 election. Fireworks outside his college dorm lit up his room, and he could hear spontaneous renditions of “We Shall Overcome” in the hallways. It was a time when Klett was feeling stable, and optimistic about the future. Now he was broke and bored, obsessively following the news and skipping meals. He could feel his reality once again begin to tremble.

When he received the offer from the Epoch Times, which on the surface appeared to offer stability and predictability, along with a regular paycheck, Klett felt a profound sense of relief. It couldn’t have come at a better time.

Klett wrote copy for content farms to make rent on a Brooklyn apartment he shared with  a young housing lawyer and professed Marxist who lectured him about the failures of the Obama administration.

Klett settled into the rhythms of working life. He awoke around 6:30 a.m., switched on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, smoked a joint with Martin, and then headed into the office. He scrolled through his news feeds while drinking a large iced coffee and jotted down story ideas for Fakkert, the digital team’s editor. Fakkert arrived each day at 9 a.m. and squeezed a red stress ball while listening to the day’s pitches.

There were five other journalists on the digital team. A man from Staten Island with tattoos on his arms and contacts at local police precincts; he worked the crime beat. There were two women from Brooklyn, one who had studied journalism and specialized in human-interest stories, and another who covered celebrity gossip and entertainment. A third woman was from Queens; she had previously worked on NBC’s breaking-news desk. Lastly there was Jenna*, a sharp-tongued, perpetually ironic philosophy student who covered science and technology. She and Klett became friends.

Their work was like that of any number of millennials paid to generate content to feed the insatiable appetite of social media. Each team member sat in a small cubicle and churned out content, trying to reach 100,000 clicks per week. It seemed like a huge number, but their bosses assured them it was achievable. The stories they wrote were short and required no original reporting—they were rewrites or pastiches of existing articles and press releases. The work was not particularly absorbing, but the atmosphere in the office was comfortable. After being assigned his stories— “Former Russian World Chess Champion Criticizes Bernie Sanders’s Revolution as ‘Dangerously Absurd,’” “Fox News Poll Gives Hope to Kasich, Discourages Rubio”—Klett would put in his earphones and write as quickly as possible, pausing only to grab a burger or sushi for lunch with Jenna. He headed home at 6 p.m., and prepared for the next day by reading the latest news on social media before going to sleep.

Klett noticed a stark division in the office. The digital team sat together in a small room, apart from the writers, editors, and designers who worked for the print newspaper. The bathroom and kitchen were shared, but the print staff generally kept to themselves. When Klett tried to engage, they were friendly but impersonal. They steered most conversations to the stories he was working on that day.

Whereas the digital team was made up mostly of people who grew up in or around New York, the print staff was geographically diverse, hailing from China, Europe, Canada, and Australia. Many of them seemed to be married to or seeing someone else on staff. They were workaholics, arriving each day before the digital team and leaving well after. Stranger still, many—if not all—of them were followers of Falun Gong.

The relationship between the spiritual movement and the newspaper had been touched upon briefly during the digital team’s orientation. Stephen Gregory, the paper’s publisher—a large, balding man who favored khakis and polo shirts—had explained in a lilting voice how the Epoch Times was founded at the turn of the millennium to inform the world about Falun Gong’s persecution at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP. (The new hires were later shown an hour-long film featuring a Chinese man, a Falun Gong practitioner, sitting in a blossom-filled garden talking about how he had escaped to America to live a life of peace.) Gregory said that the paper had since expanded its mission, striving to offer objective, independent reporting on current affairs and world news. While the paper was no longer explicitly connected to Falun Gong, it shared certain values with the movement. These were encapsulated in the Epoch Times’ motto: “Truth and Tradition.”

The digital team was also given a tour of the two floors immediately above the newsroom, which were the headquarters of New Tang Dynasty Television, a cable channel with the same mission as the paper. They were greeted by a senior executive, a Chinese-American man, who guided them to a large room filled floor to ceiling with monitors. The network broadcast programs in dozens of cities around the world, including several in mainland China, where viewers used circumvention tools to bypass firewalls and censors. It was necessary work, the new hires were told. The network had to tell the people of China the truth.

III.

In “golden monkey splitting its body,” the arms form a straight line with the shoulders, stretching toward the horizon on either side of the body. In “two dragons diving into the sea,” the arms reach forward. In “bodhisattva touching the lotus,” the arms are positioned diagonally with the body, hands pointing toward the ground. These movements are part of the recommended hour-long physical routine that many Falun Gong practitioners perform every day. The exercises are serene, deliberate, symmetrical; often they’re done with eyes closed. From New York to Toronto, Sydney to Bangkok, groups of people—many wearing yellow shirts—gather in parks in the early morning to do the movements together.

If you ask a devout Falun Gong practitioner, they might say that the exercises are physical expressions of wisdom dating back to a divine, prehistoric culture, discovered and revived by a spiritually gifted leader to help humanity reconnect with a godly essence. If you ask a historian of China, they’ll likely trace the origins to the 1950s, when the ascendant Communist regime was manufacturing a new national character—one that was modern and scientific, superior to the feudalism of the past, yet still maintained a distinct Chinese identity. Among other things, this immense project demanded a new medical paradigm that preserved traditional healing practices while rejecting their religious and spiritual foundations. Such a paradigm presented itself when a young government clerk wrote a report claiming to have cured himself of various ailments with slow exercises and breathing methods later called qigong, or “energy cultivation.” The report caught the attention of high-ranking officials, who found it useful for their purposes. Medical authorities studied the clerk’s “cultivation system,” as the exercises became known, and used them throughout the late 1950s in specialized clinics and sanatoriums to help people manage pain and sickness.

With the dawning of the Cultural Revolution came a reversal: Qigong was denounced by the state as “feudal superstition.” The government clerk was jailed for being “the creator of the poisonous weed.” The exercise regimen disappeared from public life until the late 1970s, when the paranoia of the “ten-year catastrophe” began to recede.

Qigong experienced a grassroots resurgence in parks throughout Beijing. Amateur teachers who had continued practicing in private during the purges began offering their own particular cultivation systems. State authorities gave tacit approval, and charismatic teachers expanded their followings. By the early 1990s, qigong fever had swept the country. The most popular teachers, or “masters,” became national celebrities. This spurred aspiring spiritual leaders from the provinces to travel to Beijing in the hope of launching their own qigong schools. Among them was Li Hongzhi, who arrived in the capital in 1992 with a cultivation system he called Falun Gong, meaning “the way of the dharma wheel.”

Like other qigong masters, Li had an instinct for self-mythology. He claimed to have been born on the same day as the Buddha and to have been a spiritual prodigy instructed by the most learned Buddhist and Daoist teachers in northeast China. By adolescence, the story went, he had acquired supernatural powers and a lucid comprehension of the ultimate truth of the universe—insight that, as an adult, he synthesized into Falun Gong. His regimen of simple, fluid exercises proved popular, and he rapidly found a following.

What distinguished Li from other qigong teachers were certain spiritual and moral elements he considered necessary for cultivation. In addition to exercises and meditation, Falun Gong demanded personal conduct of its practitioners that was consistent with what Li defined as the three moral axioms of the universe: truth, compassion, and forbearance. He also subscribed to a cyclical view of history, characterized by periods of moral decline followed by apocalyptic redemption. The modern world, Li believed, was in a degenerate state, which manifested itself in popular culture and loose social mores. In long, tangential lectures, he railed against drug use, homosexuality, miscegenation, sexual freedom, and “the demon nature that bursts forth on the soccer field.” He claimed that it was his task to help as many people as possible realize the folly of their ways through Falun Gong, so that when the moment of redemption arrived—and Li asserted that it was coming soon—they would be saved. He called this process “Fa-rectification.”

By 1994, Li had become a major star of the qigong world. His rise, though, came at a moment when the CCP was growing suspicious of qigong’s popularity. Sensing that the cultural tide was turning, Li announced that his mission in China had come to an end. In 1995, he departed for an international lecture tour through Taiwan, Southeast Asia, Europe, and Australia, where his teachings were popular among Chinese diaspora communities and some white New Age types. The tour turned into a permanent relocation. Eventually, Li settled in upstate New York.

In July 1996, China’s Central Propaganda Department banned the publication of Li’s writings, including the Zhuan Falun, the Falun Gong bible. Several newspaper articles accused Li of being a swindler who spread superstition and pseudoscience. From New York, Li connected with practitioners in Beijing on websites and email lists, where he encouraged them to peacefully protest the suppression of their movement. Over the next few years, Falun Gong acolytes staged some 300 demonstrations in China.

The protestors, who often sat cross-legged and silent, were mostly tolerated by the authorities. That changed on a Sunday morning in April 1999, when some 10,000 practitioners gathered outside the Western gate of Zhongnanhai, the guarded compound near Tiananmen Square where the CCP is headquartered. The protestors were quiet and calm, but the intimidating scale of the demonstration unnerved CCP leader Jiang Zemin, who behind closed doors declared Falun Gong the most serious political threat to party authority since the student demonstrations a decade earlier. (Li claimed to have more than 100 million followers at the time; scholars put the figure between 20 million and 60 million.)

State-run media launched a full-scale propaganda war, classifying Falun Gong as a cult posing a danger to the nation. Li rejected the characterization. “We do not oppose the government,” he once said at a conference. “We do not involve ourselves in politics.” The Chinese authorities intensified the crackdown, demanding that government officials who had practiced Li’s cultivation style renounce their affiliation and arresting people considered to be the movement’s key organizers. Falun Gong has since alleged that many of its practitioners were tortured while in custody and that hundreds died as a result. (Some human rights organizations have repeated this claim; Chinese authorities deny it.)

Li largely retreated from the public eye. Falun Gong purchased 427 acres of land in the hills of Deerpark, New York, where it built an expansive, ornate, high-security compound known as Dragon Springs. As well as providing Li with new living quarters, Dragon Springs became a spiritual base for his movement. It has a large temple and is now home to a private high school and college. Over the years, neighboring communities have raised concerns about the compound’s growth. Meanwhile, rumors of abuse and cult-like behavior have circulated, based on testimonials from former Falun Gong practitioners.

The task of defending the movement has fallen largely to North American followers, who unlike their counterparts in China face no risk of imprisonment for their support of Falun Gong. They are often middle-class professionals; many are Chinese immigrants. Among them is John Tang, an émigré with a doctorate in theoretical physics from the Georgia Institute of Technology. In 2000, Tang founded a small newspaper and named it the Epoch Times—a reference, perhaps, to Li’s frequent insistence that the turn of the millennium would bring “a new epoch.”

Li claimed that it was his task to help as many people as possible realize the folly of their ways through Falun Gong, so that when the moment of redemption arrived they would be saved. 

At first the paper was written, edited, and printed by volunteers—Chinese and non-Chinese followers of Li’s teachings, few of whom had any experience in media. It was funded almost exclusively by donations from wealthy Falun Gong practitioners. The goal was to provide an alternative narrative to China’s propaganda about the movement. The first edition, published in Chinese, appeared in May 2000; an online edition followed later that year.

Participating in the media arm of Falun Gong quickly took on a spiritual dimension. Writing or editing for the Epoch Times became an extension of Fa-rectification, the cosmic mission of saving souls. Li made clear that personal cultivation now included acts of hongfa, which roughly means “clarifying truth” to the wider world. But the paper didn’t always get the facts right. In October 2000, it reported that Jiang Zemin had caught a “strange, fatal disease” requiring his leg to be amputated at the upper thigh, a demonstrably false claim. Other stories were murkier. In 2001, after Chinese state media claimed that Li had incited a group of Falun Gong practitioners, including a 12-year-old girl, to self-immolate in Tiananmen Square, the Epoch Times countered by insisting that the event had been staged by Chinese authorities. International media and human rights groups were unable to verify either side’s version, or anything in between. The Washington Post’s attempt to do so produced an article headlined “Human Fire Ignites Chinese Mystery.” The truth of the matter has never been settled.

For the Epoch Times, funding from a growing diaspora of Falun Gong practitioners and other Chinese dissident communities led to explosive growth. By the mid-2000s, it was publishing editions in dozens of cities and several languages around the globe, including an English version in New York. It joined other Falun Gong–associated media outlets, including New Tang Dynasty Television, under the umbrella of the Epoch Media Group. The paper published special editions, such as 2004’s “Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party,” a quasi-McCarthyist screed that claimed the CCP was the real “evil cult,” one that “destroyed traditional culture” and “oppose[d] the universe.” And it promoted any allegation of human rights abuses in China, including regular updates regarding accusations that the government was harvesting organs from thousands of Falun Gong prisoners. (While it is beyond dispute that China has forcibly removed organs from prisoners, it is not clear that Falun Gong believers have ever been singled out for this practice.)

While the newspaper was clearly aligned with Falun Gong’s interests, its senior executives worked to publicly minimize the connection. “The paper’s not owned by Falun Gong, it doesn’t speak for Falun Gong, it doesn’t represent Falun Gong,” Stephen Gregory, who in addition to being the publisher is a longtime Li follower, told an Associated Press reporter in 2007. “It does cover the persecution of Falun Gong in China.” Meanwhile, in online commentary, Li—whose connection to the paper was always kept vague—continued to emphasize the spiritual function of what he called “our media.” In 2009, he delivered an address in the Epoch Times New York newsroom, congratulating the staff for successfully raising awareness of his movement’s struggle and its worldview. He said that they’d had a “major impact in Fa-rectification.”

Staff rarely speak publicly about the newspaper’s affiliation with Falun Gong. Several current and past employees did not reply to my interview requests. Some who did expressed distrust of mainstream media. Those who agreed to speak, including people who worked alongside Klett, preferred to do so anonymously.

On pureinsight.org, a Falun Gong website, I found a testimonial about the experience of working at the Epoch Times, written by someone who referred to himself as a “disciple from New York, USA.” The anonymous writer, who said he began working at the paper in 2012, described waking up at 3 a.m. to distribute 5,000 newspapers across Manhattan, first on foot and later by bicycle. His manager would strap bundles of papers onto his back before he peddled away. Even in the middle of winter, when it was freezing cold and often raining, the writer said he was filled with great joy, knowing that he was on a noble mission.

He eventually moved up at the paper—to the sales department, to editorial, and finally to a digital-side role focused on boosting subscriptions. He confessed to having moments of doubt, wishing for more recognition of his work and questioning the wisdom of his superiors. But they always passed. “I see that in the coming years the amount of work will be daunting as the Epoch Times is expanding across the US and the world,” the disciple wrote. “However, I feel that Master has arranged the wind to be in our sails, and that he is guiding every step in both my and the whole media’s development. As long as I don’t impede Master, there shouldn’t be anything that we can’t do.”

Writing or editing for the Epoch Times became an extension of Fa-rectification, the cosmic mission of saving souls.

By the time Klett was hired, the paper was a purportedly objective outlet with an unconditional bias made obscure to outsiders. One way that bias manifested was in prohibitions on certain content. “Truth and Tradition” meant that reporters could not cover modern music or art, only the classics. Stories about the LGBTQ community were to be avoided—Gregory reportedly told the new digital team that it was a controversial topic that conflicted with the family-friendly position of the paper.

Besides joking about it with Jenna—she liked to say that they’d been hired by a weird cult—Klett didn’t think much about Falun Gong or how it shaped his job. It wasn’t his goal to empathize with the movement’s belief system, which, as far as he could tell, was at odds with his own. He just wanted to reach his weekly target of 100,000 clicks.

Klett achieved this convenient detachment through an intellectual sleight of hand. In college, he’d read postmodern theories by thinkers who seemed to drive a wedge between language and meaning—to insist that words had a multiplicity of possible interpretations that exceeded the intentions of any author or speaker. Klett, who in conversations with me made reference more than once to the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, imagined himself as a kind of postmodern information worker: He generated “content” the meaning and significance of which had nothing to do with him. It was a formal exercise, one that he was getting better at every day.

A contemporary of Klett’s preferred theorists was Paul de Man, a Belgian national who was a professor of literature at Yale. His controversial, yet influential, thesis held that a text was a paradox no one should seek to resolve; language always contained contradictions, and it was the task of the reader to identify them while resisting the impulse to privilege one interpretation over another. When it was revealed in the years after his death that, during World War II, de Man had written some 200 articles for several Nazi-controlled newspapers—and that some of what he’d published had been anti-Semitic—his acolytes were forced to reckon with his legacy. Some disavowed him. Others tried to redeem him with evidence of good behavior; they pointed out, for instance, that de Man sheltered Jewish friends in his apartment during the war. Derrida went one step further: On close reading, he argued, de Man’s writings revealed a subversive, anti-anti-Semitic interpretation.

For his longtime critics, the disclosure of de Man’s past was vindicating. By reveling in contradiction, they argued, de Man had adopted an essentially nihilistic mode of critique. As one writer put it, he was a “connoisseur of nothingness”—a phrase that could easily apply to Klett during his stint at the Epoch Times.

Still, there were moments that rattled Klett. On June 12, 2016, a gunman opened fire at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing 49 people and wounding 53 others. The story broke over the weekend. When Klett arrived at work Monday morning, he noticed that none of the accounts of the incident on the Epoch Times’ website mentioned that Pulse was a gay club. He strategized how he could pitch a story to his editors that acknowledged the facts while bypassing the newspaper’s vague prohibition against covering LGBTQ issues.

That day he was working with an editor named Henry Bevington, a perpetually chipper Australian man with a wispy black beard who wore paisley button-down shirts. Bevington brought Klett tea each morning, pouring it from a red kettle. He was more visible in his allegiance to Falun Gong than some other staff; he once came to work dressed in the movement’s trademark yellow T-shirt after attending a demonstration to raise awareness about persecution in China. Klett realized Bevington might be wedded to the values that determined the paper’s coverage.

Klett pitched a story about the shooting that focused on a speech that Trump, who was still seeking the Republican nomination, had made in the aftermath. Trump split with other Republicans by expressing solidarity with the LGBTQ community. Klett figured that because Trump’s stance on other issues was conservative, the approach might work. Plus, stories Klett had written about Trump had generated a lot of clicks, including one about a Mexican restaurant owner who tripled her business after Trump brought her onstage at a rally. But Klett received a curt no.

Usually, he might have complained to Jenna about the incident and moved on. But he felt pained by the attack on the LGBTQ community, and angry that it hadn’t been acknowledged at his workplace. He sent Fakkert and Bevington an article from a left-leaning blog pointing out how some Republican responses to the shooting had erased the identities of the people targeted. According to Klett, Bevington approached his desk and, with a smile, told him that he didn’t understand the point of the article. “Some people don’t believe in that,” Bevington said, seeming to refer to homosexuality. “You can’t fault someone for not saying something.”

Klett excused himself, walked to the bathroom, and splashed cold water on his face. When he returned to his desk, he sat down and started writing an article about the Orlando shooting that didn’t include the word “gay.” It focused on how, in the wake of the tragedy, President Barack Obama hadn’t used the phrase “radical Islam.”

That words could have multiple, sometimes contradictory interpretations was an idea Klett had found fascinating in a theoretical context. It had been useful in his studies and personal writing. Now, though, it seemed as if he was being asked to use that idea to make real-world events seem uncertain, contested. In retrospect, it was a harbinger of what was to come.

IV.

By the time Trump became the Republican nominee, in the late summer of 2016, the digital team had morphed. Jenna had been laid off for failing to generate sufficient clicks; the reporter who covered crime had been let go, too. Klett, meanwhile, had been promoted. Now earning an extra $500 a month, he wrote his usual number of digital stories as well as the occasional feature for the print newspaper.

When Trump promoted the outrageous lie that Obama and Hillary Clinton were “founders” of ISIS, Klett wrote a story without critical evaluation; the fact of Trump’s comments, rather than their veracity, was what mattered. This seemed more or less in keeping with the Epoch Times’ professed commitment to unbiased coverage and its desire to ramp up page views—inflammatory comments by public figures drive clicks, after all. Other developments, however, made it hard to ignore that an unspoken enthusiasm for the Republican candidate had taken hold in the newsroom. There had been a palpable shift in the paper’s editorial direction, and it seemed to come straight from the top.

While other media outlets reported on Trump’s outlandish and incendiary Twitter behavior, Klett said that his editors discouraged him from covering it. After submitting a story comparing Trump’s and Clinton’s immigration policies, he received an email with feedback from Stephen Gregory; it was important, the publisher explained, to note that Trump was the only candidate addressing the fact that an “open border” allowed gangs, criminals, and terrorists to enter the country. Overall, Gregory said, Clinton’s policies would amplify the power of the executive branch and diminish that of Congress, continuing the legacy of Obama’s presidency.

In another instance, Klett was asked to read over a colleague’s story comparing Trump’s and Clinton’s economic policies. There was one line that caught his attention: “Trump seeks to revive American greatness with policies aimed at kick-starting economic growth.” Klett told his colleague that the word “greatness” was biased and a regurgitation of Trump’s campaign slogan. The colleague, according to Klett, said that Gregory had inserted the line.

Klett noticed that a number of journalists from the print side—mostly young men who practiced Falun Gong and had worked at the paper for a while—were becoming more brazen in their support of far-right ideas. One colleague shared a video by internet pundit Stefan Molyneux, whose YouTube channel promoted scientific racism and white nationalism. Echoing boilerplate language from the right-wing internet, staff said they didn’t necessarily believe everything they circulated in the office, but at least it was an alternative to the lies propagated by mainstream outlets. With blithe arrogance, most U.S. media used the cover of objectivity to conceal liberal bias. Truth tellers—like themselves, even like Molyneux—were pushing against this hegemony, courageously pursuing fair reporting and highlighting ideas that the corrupt media elite would not.

A number of journalists from the print side—mostly young men who practiced Falun Gong and had worked at the paper for a while—were becoming more brazen in their support of far-right ideas. 

Maybe it shouldn’t have been surprising, given its roots, that the Epoch Times would employ people suspicious of establishment forces, or that its socially conservative ethos would make it a natural mouthpiece for Trumpism. Nor, perhaps, should it have shocked anyone that the paper, created with the explicit goal of waging an information war, would thrive in a propaganda-rich election season rife with conspiracy theories. Still, given its affiliation with Falun Gong, the outfit was something of an unexpected player in the right-wing media ecosystem emboldened by Trump’s candidacy. Where its role made the most sense was with regard to China. The paper boosted Trump’s pledges to get tough on Beijing if he was elected. An article Klett wrote about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump wanted to leave and Clinton wanted to strengthen, was syndicated by Infowars.

Klett discussed with his parents the option of quitting. They told him that just because the work was difficult wasn’t a reason to leave, that the time had come for him to accept the reality of adult life, that it would show strength of character to persevere under challenging circumstances. He also discussed his dilemma with Martin, his roommate. At the time, Martin was using his law degree to represent landlords in the Bronx. Just as Klett disliked writing pro-Trump propaganda for a fringe newspaper, Martin didn’t want to evict families from their homes. That millennials had to do work at odds with their political values wasn’t their fault; it was a sign of a fundamental failure of “the system,” Martin insisted, proof of how neoliberal hegemony and late-stage capitalism destroyed the soul. A political revolution was necessary.

This made sense to Klett, and helped him justify going to work every day. He also found it difficult to quit the paper because of how nice everyone in the office was, how misaligned their personal conduct seemed with their political motivations. His editors were helpful, attentive, supportive. They often congratulated him on the work he was doing and rewarded him with longer-form assignments, sometimes even front-page features in the print paper. They knew that he didn’t necessarily share their views, but they were convinced of the basic goodness of their mission and, it seemed to Klett, assumed he’d eventually come around.

Perhaps that’s why, on September 15, 2016, Fakkert asked him to attend a speech Trump was giving to the Economic Club of New York at the Waldorf Astoria hotel. Klett arrived at 9:30 a.m., stoned, wearing a vest and a magenta shirt—Fakkert had told him to dress nicely. He met Valentin Schmid, a journalist from the print side. They were ushered to an upstairs press gallery where a few dozen journalists sat staring at their phones. The attendees in the ballroom were dressed in tuxedos and ball gowns—extravagant, Klett thought, for a lunch event. After taking their seats, the guests were served plates of chicken.

Mike Pence appeared on the ballroom’s stage, gave a brief address about economic prosperity, and then introduced Trump. The candidate spoke of his strong polling numbers in Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio, about jobs and manufacturing, immigration, the failures of the Obama administration, and, finally, the corporate tax cuts he was planning to roll out. Klett noticed that Schmid was the only journalist who clapped along with the crowd, prompting other reporters to look at him incredulously, which made Klett feel paranoid.

After the event, Schmid took Klett out for lunch at a bistro on 57th Street. Schmid, who was from Germany, wore polo shirts with upturned collars and had a lazy eye. He was among the coterie of young men on the print side who had taken a liking to Trump and his messaging. As they sat eating—Klett a burger, his colleague a steak—Schmid held forth about why Trump appealed to his libertarian sensibilities. To him, Trump was unafraid to speak the truth. The people who feared him most were those in the liberal mainstream media and political elites accustomed to pulling the strings of power in their own favor.

Klett had heard all this before—talk of absorbing bullshit from a broken system before seeing the light, recognizing who the real villains are. He knew that many on the print side were seekers, people who had been on tumultuous, sometimes strange personal journeys before finding Falun Gong and, through that, the Epoch Times. Some had lived in hippie communes. Others had partied as a way to distract themselves from their inner dissatisfaction. In a way, Klett thought, they were not unlike other people from his life: fellow loners in college, the queer community in Pennsylvania, the poetry freaks at the New School, the leftists he met in Brooklyn bars, his roommate. They all felt alienated from reality and wanted a radical change.

Schmid asked Klett about his own political ideology. Klett said he didn’t really have a coherent one, but that he had anarchist leanings. “Aha, so you want what I want,” Schmid replied, taking a bite of his steak. “I want to tear down the system, like you.”

V.

Around then, in September, a group of interns arrived at the Epoch Times. One afternoon, Klett walked into the kitchen to find one of the new arrivals busy on her laptop. She was tall, with straight black hair tied up in a bun; a single blue streak matched the color of her eyeshadow. Klett introduced himself. She looked up and, in a heavy accent, said her name was Gaia Cristofaro. She had just arrived from Italy and was interning with the newspaper’s design team. Klett said that he wrote about politics for the digital side. She said that she didn’t like politics. “Nobody does,” he replied.

Three days later, he again crossed paths with her in the kitchen and decided to sit down for a longer chat. Often he found conversations with people from the print side awkward. Not with Cristofaro. They spoke about art and music and literature. Both had strong opinions about Derrida and Franz Kafka. Both listened to the band Thee Silver Mt. Zion. Both admired the paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Cristofaro showed Klett some of the sketches she was working on for the design team. He was impressed. He found her captivating.

They started taking lunch breaks together. Cristofaro—who did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story—was 33 and an artist. She had grown up in Florence, right by the Duomo. She had been rebellious in her younger years, but it left her feeling discontented and lost. She came across one of Li’s books. She had been raised Catholic, and the strict morality and spiritual teleology of Falun Gong resonated with her, as did Li’s supposition that the modern world was degenerate. Cristofaro had since maintained a strict cultivation practice and given much of her spare time to the Falun Gong community. She had organized an art exhibition in Florence on behalf of the movement. And now she was in New York, ready to help in the service of hongfa, before one of the most unusual elections in U.S. history—one in which the candidate the Epoch Times had all but endorsed was turning the very notion of truth on its head.

At lunch one day, Klett noticed that Cristofaro had not touched any of her cucumber sushi. She had dark circles around her eyes, and her hands were shaking. Klett asked if everything was OK. Cristofaro apologized. She hadn’t got much rest, she said, since arriving in the city. Her work schedule—Monday through Friday, 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.—on top of exercise, meditation, and reading groups with other Epoch Times employees, meant that she had almost no time to herself. Moreover, the room where she was staying in Jersey City, which had been assigned to her by the newspaper, was in the same building where other staff lived. It was more like a big dorm than an apartment complex, she said. She found it uncomfortable and dirty. There was no privacy. She couldn’t sleep.

To make matters worse, Cristofaro had initially been promised that she’d contribute illustrations to the paper, but her superiors now insisted that she work on formatting and other menial tasks. Cristofaro put her head in her hands. “What am I doing here?” she asked Klett.

Cristofaro and Klett began to meet outside work hours. One Sunday, she told him that she was in the United States on a vacation visa and that she wasn’t being paid for her time at the paper. According to Klett, Cristofaro said that uncompensated work was common among Falun Gong practitioners—a claim echoed in news reports and first-person accounts by former acolytes that I read during my reporting. Believers could volunteer at one of the many organizations around the world associated with the movement: an Epoch Times bureau, New Tang Dynasty Television, a magazine called Taste of Life, or the Shen Yun dance company, which is based at the Dragon Springs compound and infamous in New York City for its ubiquitous advertising. Cristofaro had done other internships and enjoyed them, but so far this one had been mostly unpleasant.

Klett wanted to help but didn’t know how. His colleagues on the digital team teased him that he was moving over to the dark side. “Just watch out, or she’ll make you join that group,” one told him. On a Friday afternoon, as Klett was getting ready to clock out, Fakkert asked for a minute of his time. He said that Klett was spending too much time exchanging messages with Cristofaro on the office’s internal chat system. They needed to focus more on their work.

After the encounter, Klett asked Cristofaro who else knew about their friendship. She said that her immediate boss and maybe one other colleague did. Later she sent Klett a message. “Now that I think about it better,” it read, an editor “told me not talk with you too much, he said that very casually.”

“Ciao have a good weekend,” Cristofaro said, “and forget about that.”

Cristofaro had been raised Catholic, and the strict morality and spiritual teleology of Falun Gong resonated with her, as did Li’s supposition that the modern world was degenerate.

Klett decided to keep his distance from Cristofaro in the office. Outside work, however, they saw each other more often. One day in October, they went to Radio City Music Hall to see the Icelandic group Sigur Rós perform. They arrived at the venue early and took their seats. When the music started—ethereal, ambient—they kissed for the first time. Over the next two weeks, they hung out in bars in the West Village after work. As they talked about their lives, or when they kissed by the station where Cristofaro caught a train back to Jersey City, she would remind Klett that she was leaving in November, when her visa expired.

Everything was hurtling toward November. When he wasn’t with Cristofaro or thinking about her, Klett was ensconced in political news and polls. Every time Trump made a shocking new claim—the system is rigged, Hillary is sick, what about her emails?—Klett would observe as the mainstream media reacted with disbelief. This is not America, he heard liberal pundits say. Wasn’t it, though? Plenty of people reading his articles were Americans who liked Trump. It seemed to Klett that divisions ran so deep in America’s collective psyche that one side could no longer see the other.

Living and working amid so much bifurcation was exhausting. Klett was looking forward to the time after the election when things would return to normal. But then, in the last week of October, something changed in the office. Without warning, Fakkert began ignoring the digital team, not hearing their pitches or assigning them articles. They went from pumping out several pieces a day to more or less sitting idle at their desks.

On October 27, the HR manager summoned them into a small office. He told the group sympathetically that digital journalism was more difficult to break into than the paper had first imagined. Other publications were laying people off. The Epoch Times simply couldn’t afford to keep the team on any longer. Their employment was being terminated.

Based on the paper’s web traffic, this didn’t immediately add up to Klett. What’s more, the election was only a week away—it seemed absurd that the paper would get rid of him, a politics reporter. Klett wondered if there was another reason the team was being let go, one he couldn’t see.

He walked out of the room in a daze. Standing there was Fakkert, who took him by the shoulders and cried. Klett started to laugh.

The election was only a week away—it seemed absurd that the paper would get rid of him, a politics reporter.

The next week passed in a blur. Klett watched the news and checked the latest polls, now without purpose. He messaged Cristofaro, trying to arrange times to see her, but she was always caught up with work or cultivation. Finally, in early November, Klett received a text inviting him to dinner in Chelsea. It was her going-away party. She was leaving the next day.

When Klett arrived at the restaurant, Cristofaro was already there with a few other Epoch Times employees and a man she had befriended in a park while doing Falun Gong exercises. They ate pizza and then got gelato. The man from the park did most of the talking, spouting conspiracy theories that he said he’d learned about from Infowars.

Eventually, Klett and Cristofaro walked to the Strand bookstore, then to a movie. Afterward, Klett accompanied Cristofaro to her train. They kissed. He asked if she would consider coming back to his place, to spend one night together. She said no. She told Klett that he wasn’t “virtuous” enough. Cristofaro had hinted before that it was somehow immoral for them to spend time together, that it contravened a code of behavior expected of her by Falun Gong. If Klett wasn’t a practitioner, they couldn’t be together.

Three nights later, with Cristofaro back in Florence, Klett opened a bottle of wine with Martin and sat down to watch the election results. Despite everything he’d seen as a politics reporter—from the shrewd manipulation of content at the Epoch Times, to the devious fearmongering at Breitbart News, to the full-blown conspiracy peddling of Infowars—he still believed that Clinton would win. As he watched the results trickle in, he realized his error. Martin opened another bottle of wine. “Goddammit, I don’t want to have to see Donald Trump’s fucking face for the next four years,” he said.

Klett was silent. He told himself this wasn’t his fault—he was just a lowly worker at an obscure newspaper that had a curious affiliation with the rise of Trumpism. He felt a familiar sensation, one he’d had when he worried about his family’s German ancestry and saw himself holding the knife used to kill Nicole Brown Simpson. Reality was wobbling. But whether Klett was ready to admit it or not, this time his imagination wasn’t to blame. By writing the news, he had become part of the story.

VI.

Klett was unemployed until the following June, when he was hired by the International Business Times. Again he was a digital content writer, required to generate as many articles as possible to get as many clicks as possible. Coincidentally, IBT had been linked to a controversial religious sect known as the Community, a fact that Klett wasn’t aware of when he was hired. In a corner cubicle near Wall Street, he trawled Twitter looking for trending news he could repackage for the website—a celebrity feud, Martin Shkreli controversies, Trump’s Twitter meltdowns. His performance was measured by software called Chartbeat, which his editor monitored assiduously. Klett told me that he was fired after six weeks for not meeting his click quota.

He found a job writing copy for a vaping company. At the time, he was also working on his second poetry collection, The Book of Gaia. After saying goodbye to Cristofaro in early November, Klett thought they’d never speak again. But she’d messaged him the next morning—a cell phone video shot from her plane as it took off, Manhattan receding into the clouds. They’d been texting and making plans to see one another ever since. After a few months, Klett had accrued enough miles on his credit card for a trip to Italy. In September 2017, he boarded a plane, shaking and giddy. It was his first time traveling to Europe.

Klett stayed with Cristofaro in her mother’s apartment in Florence. They took long walks, and Cristofaro was knowledgeable about the city’s heritage. She was also angry at what she perceived as intruding vulgarities—commercialism, tourism, even contemporary art. One afternoon, as they passed the Duomo, Cristofaro stopped in front of the cathedral and wept. It was offensive, she said, that people would simply gawk and take pictures of the building without understanding its context.

Klett learned about Cristofaro’s daily Falun Gong cultivation practice. She meditated at six-hour intervals—dawn, midday, dusk, midnight. He would sit with her and hold her hands while she did it. The thought occurred to him that if he started practicing Falun Gong, their relationship would deepen. “Why don’t you just do it?” a friend asked him. “You could have it all!”

It wasn’t an option, though. Klett didn’t want cosmic answers for everything in his life, and he didn’t like cultivation. He had become more politically active since leaving the Epoch Times. He now volunteered with the Democratic Socialists of America. There was no way he could square his political beliefs or his identity with Falun Gong, even for the person he loved.

Klett worked up the courage to ask Cristofaro how she reconciled the supposed morality of Falun Gong with what she said had happened in New York, the way she’d been exploited at work. She said that she felt like some people in the newspaper office had been corrupted by America, that they had lost their way and were no longer engaging dutifully with Li’s teachings. Klett suggested that maybe Falun Gong had lost its way. Cristofaro became angry and, through tears, told him that as a non-practitioner he had no idea what he was talking about.

Despite the disagreement with Cristofaro, after arriving back in New York, Klett began planning for a return to Italy. He saved money and enrolled in an English-teaching course, hoping to find work in Florence. But then, just a week before Klett was set to fly back in February 2018, Cristofaro told him that she’d changed her mind; she was seeing someone else. It was best if he didn’t come.

In a corner cubicle near Wall Street, Klett trawled Twitter looking for trending news he could repackage for the website—a celebrity feud, Martin Shkreli controversies, Trump’s Twitter meltdowns.

Klett retreated into himself. He worked from home, writing for the vaping company. In his spare time, he read about the Mueller investigation. He began imagining himself back at the Epoch Times as a bot, mindlessly churning out words that became tangled in algorithms that pushed disinformation. When Klett published a blog post on Medium about his experience at the newspaper, he expected it to go mostly unnoticed.

In the spring of 2019, however, he received a message from an investigative journalist at NBC who wanted to talk to him about what he’d written. Klett agreed to meet at the NBC office in Manhattan. By coincidence, the appointment was scheduled on World Falun Gong Day. When Klett got off the train at 47th Street, he found himself surrounded by practitioners marching in celebration. Among the sea of yellow shirts, Klett thought he spotted Valentin Schmid. He lowered his head and made his way into the halls of NBC.

A few months later, NBC News published an online exposé about the Epoch Times’ rise as a right-wing media outlet. It revealed the paper’s massive spending on pro-Trump Facebook ads. It also identified employees who had splintered off to create hugely popular YouTube channels, including Edge of Wonder, which had hundreds of thousands of subscribers. The channel’s upbeat hosts pushed the QAnon conspiracy theory with a smile. Klett recognized them from the paper’s print side.

The NBC investigation wasn’t the first to describe the relationship between the Epoch Times and far-right forces. In 2017, a journalist went undercover at the paper’s Berlin office and found strong support for Alternative for Germany, the country’s nationalist party. The next fall, BuzzFeed News detailed how the paper had pushed the debunked “Spygate” conspiracy theory, which proposed that the Obama administration had infiltrated Trump’s presidential campaign. Then, in May 2019, the progressive nonprofit Acronym identified the Epoch Times as one of the biggest spenders on pro-Trump video content on Facebook.

The NBC investigation went further, emphasizing the connection between the Epoch Times’ political bias and Falun Gong’s apocalyptic worldview. “Former practitioners of Falun Gong told NBC News that believers think the world is headed toward a judgment day, where those labeled ‘communists’ will be sent to a kind of hell, and those sympathetic to the spiritual community will be spared,” the article read. “Trump is viewed as a key ally in the anti-communist fight.”

Stephen Gregory published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal describing NBC’s reporting as “agenda-driven journalism” that was “in line with Beijing’s propaganda.” He claimed that the Facebook ads in question weren’t pro-Trump—they merely spotlighted the newspaper’s work in order to boost subscriptions. “Because we’ve taken the lead in reporting on Spygate … these ads often feature articles reporting on President Trump. That doesn’t make them ads for Mr. Trump,” Gregory wrote. He denied any direct connection between Falun Gong and his newspaper. Klett noticed that some of his former colleagues took to social media to say that no one accused The New York Times of being a Jewish newspaper despite the many Jewish people on staff. (An Epoch Times contributor made similar comments to me in an interview.)

The newspaper started running online ads under the auspices of entities with names like Pure American Journalism and Best News. This went against Facebook’s transparency rules, and in August 2019, the platform banned the Epoch Times from advertising. The paper found other avenues to spread its message. A website called the BL, or Beauty of Life, created a network of phony Facebook profiles, including some with computer-generated faces, which were used to amplify the reach of pro-Trump content. Gregory denied ties between the BL and the Epoch Times, but in December 2019, Facebook told the technology news website The Verge that BL executives “were active admins on Epoch Media Group Pages as recently as this morning when their accounts were deactivated and the BL was removed.”

Meanwhile, at least one news report suggested that the paper’s digital media strategy was influenced by Chris Kitze, an entrepreneur who a decade prior essentially invented the idea of using conspiracy theories to generate viral content with his website BeforeItsNews.com. Kitze happened to be a longtime Falun Gong practitioner.

VII.

There is a slogan inscribed on the main gate of the western wall of Zhongnanhai: “Long live the great Chinese Communist Party.” After 10,000 Falun Gong devotees gathered in protest next to the compound in 1999, China scholars and observers had to wonder: Where did this spiritual movement, which claimed millions of followers in a country that demanded faith only in the ruling party, come from?

One explanation, according to some historians, was that Falun Gong was best understood as a modern incarnation of the White Lotus society, a secretive Buddhist sect that emerged within Chinese peasant communities in the 14th century. Its adherents, said to practice esoteric rites under the cover of night, were considered religious zealots who prophesied the imminent arrival of a messianic bodhisattva who would usher in an era of universal enlightenment. When news of the White Lotus reached the ruling class, the group was deemed a cult. Its rituals were banned, forcing the White Lotus underground. Practicing became a political act, radicalizing segments of society that went on to participate in the bloody rebellions that brought down the Yuan Empire. Over subsequent centuries, fearing the populist power of the spiritual movement, imperial forces responded to reports of White Lotus activities with claims that the group was evil and dangerous.

The hypothesis offered by some of the first scholars of Falun Gong, and repeated by Western media, was that the conflict between Li’s followers and the CCP was, in essence, another cycle in the long history of state versus cult. When I began reporting this story, that struck me as a good framework for understanding Falun Gong and its motivations. But then I found the work of Barend ter Haar, a Dutch professor of Chinese history and religion. He believes that it’s possible much of the primary documentation about the White Lotus—police inquiries, court proceedings, reports, even individual confessions—was fabricated by ruling forces. In other words, the White Lotus might be a myth used by the elite to strike fear into the public and, when convenient, to inculpate political dissidents in a nefarious cabal. It might be fake news.

While reading ter Haar’s research, I felt something akin to the sensation Klett had described, of reality wobbling. It wasn’t the first time a factual bedrock seemed to fall away in my reporting. Researching Falun Gong and the Epoch Times was like holding a sieve. I would establish what I thought was true, only to find enough contradictory information to raise a doubt in my mind. Facts were hard to distinguish from ideological constructions. The layers of spin and myth seemed endless.

I wanted a concrete truth, however tangential or unlikely, to round out my reporting. On a warm Friday evening in late June 2020, Klett pulled up outside my apartment building in a dark blue Toyota Sienna. I got in the back, pushing aside empty cardboard boxes and coffee cups. Klett introduced me to his girlfriend, Arielle, who was sitting up front. He apologized for being late; he had just clocked out at his job delivering pharmaceuticals around Brooklyn, which he’d picked up at the start of the year to earn some extra money. It had been deemed essential work as COVID-19 rippled through the neighborhoods he served.

The pandemic had been a boon for the Epoch Times. When the coronavirus first hit, the paper ratcheted up its anti-China content. It was among the first outlets to spread the story that COVID-19—“the CCP virus,” as the paper dubbed it—was bioengineered and released from a Wuhan research laboratory. In April, the paper unveiled a 54-minute documentary on a subsidiary YouTube channel, “exposing” the “origin of the CCP virus.” It also produced an eight-page special edition entitled “How the Chinese Communist Party Endangered the World” and sent it unsolicited to tens of thousands of mailboxes in the United States, Canada, and Australia. On July 4, it would publish an article promoting the practice of Falun Gong as an antidote to pandemic-induced stress.

Klett and I had been speaking on the phone at night, nailing down the details of his story. He seemed less interested in the Epoch Times’ pandemic propaganda or the impact of his work at the newspaper than in whether there really was a compound in New Jersey where Falun Gong housed overworked acolytes. I had found an online testimonial that described “dorms” provided for practitioners working at the Epoch Times. I asked Klett if he had any way of determining the location of Cristofaro’s old apartment. He had a vague sense that it was near Journal Square in Jersey City. He also had an idea: What if we waited outside the newspaper’s office in Manhattan and, when an employee came out, followed them home?

That’s what we set out to do that Friday. After crossing the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan, we approached an exit to Chinatown. Klett pointed to a large billboard featuring a woman leaping into the air, her legs in a split and parallel to the ground, white skirt fanned out against a bright shade of emerald. The copy read, “2020 Shen Yun. 5,000 years of civilization reborn.”

“It’s like I can’t escape them,” Klett said.

We identified two young employees—both wearing cream-colored chinos and blue shirts, with Epoch Times lanyards around their necks—emerging from the newspaper’s office on 28th Street and 7th Avenue. We followed them to New Jersey. In Hoboken, we saw them enter a three-story apartment building. I checked the names on the mailboxes. Nothing stood out. A cardboard box left outside held a dozen secondhand books about Frank Sinatra, including His Way, an unauthorized biography that claimed to go “behind the iconic myth of Sinatra to expose the well-hidden side of one of the most celebrated—and elusive—public figures of our time.”

If a compound for Epoch Times staff existed, this wasn’t it.

As we drove back to Brooklyn, fireworks exploded overhead. There had been a relentless barrage for the past few weeks, colorful explosions beginning each night at sundown and not letting up until early morning. Some New Yorkers were frustrated by the disturbances, while others speculated about their origin in increasingly conspiratorial terms.

Arielle said that she had read—on Twitter somewhere—that there was a man in a white SUV driving around neighborhoods handing out fireworks to young kids. Setting them off was intended to cause chaos and push civilians into a heightened state of alert to prepare for an upcoming military takeover. I stayed silent. Klett laughed.

“At this point,” he said. “I’d believe anything.”

The Epoch Times was among the first outlets to spread the story that COVID-19—“the CCP virus,” as the paper dubbed it—was bioengineered and released from a Wuhan research laboratory.

It’s hard not to empathize—at least to some degree—with Klett’s credulity. We live in a world where a kaleidoscope of information sources compete for our attention, making truth seem relative and waking life feel like an epistemic free-for-all. Journalists have unwittingly promoted or generated propaganda. In September, reports emerged that the Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency had hired U.S. reporters to contribute content to a site targeting left-leaning voters with misinformation.  

Trust is eroding, ambivalence is soaring, and, for many people, seeking is becoming a steady state of being. For some, like Klett, detachment—from responsibility, from consequences, from facts—is a defense mechanism. But what does that mean for questions of rightness and moral conviction? Often they are sidelined by apathy and languish, unanswered.

The ultimate beneficiaries are ideologues and megalomaniacs willing to manipulate people’s grasp on reality, along with the opportunists who glom onto their rise. The Epoch Times is an example of the latter: It has capitalized on Trumpism, hoping to promote its versions of truth and tradition and to tip the balance of power in Falun Gong’s information war with Beijing. In a sense, the paper is succeeding. In June, the State Department released a statement designating the U.S. operations of China Central Television, China News Service, the People’s Daily, and the Global Times “foreign missions.” It continued, “While Western media are beholden to the truth, PRC media are beholden to the Chinese Communist Party.” Meanwhile, the Epoch Times was cozier than ever with the Trump administration. Its reporters received special treatment in press briefings, alongside alternative outlets like Gateway Pundit and One America News. In Falun Gong’s decades-long quest for Fa-rectification, there is arguably no more resounding success than having the attention of the White House.

By the end of the summer, a paywall ad promised that, for $77 a year, the Epoch Times’ online subscribers would “get real news other outlets don’t report” from “one of the few media that report factually on President Donald Trump.” As of this writing, the paper routinely mixes pro-Trump messages with anti-China ones. Its daily email newsletter has implied more than once that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden might be in league with the CCP for his family’s own business interests. Trump, meanwhile, is portrayed as committed to protecting America from China’s influence.

Many editions of the newsletter feature glowing quotes from subscribers in praise of the outlet’s mission and values. After witnessing “the contempt for America and its people [that] oozes from mainstream news sources,” one woman says, the Epoch Times “restored my faith in journalism.” Another quote describes the newspaper as “the bible of journalism.”

“Thank God for the TET,” it concludes, “providing truth in a world blinded by fake news.”


© 2022 The Atavist Magazine. Proudly powered by Newspack by Automattic.

Do You Hear the People Sing?

Do You Hear The
People Sing?


Brutality and
resistance on the
front lines of
Hong Kong’s battle
for democracy.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 105


Lauren Hilgers lived in Shanghai for six years. Her articles have appeared in Harper’s, Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Magazine. Her book Patriot Number One was a New York Times notable book in 2018.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl
Illustrator: Mike McQuade

Published in July 2020

By the time Grace¹ arrived at Hong Kong Polytechnic University in November 2019, she had forgotten the date and the day of the week—the longer she spent protesting, the more time seemed to fray around the edges. She was battle hardened and exhausted. Hong Kong’s police were employing increasingly authoritarian tactics against pro-democracy protesters like her. She had become accustomed to the smell of tear gas and the sound of canisters squealing as they arced overhead. She knew the feel of protective gear on her face and the heft of flame-resistant gloves on her hands. Compared with those things, the date didn’t matter.

Grace is in her early twenties, a political-science student. She first joined the protests, hopeful and bold, in June 2019, during the annual candlelight vigil that takes place in Hong Kong on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. She was intoxicated by the idea of the movement, the feeling of bodies united together in a cause. A swelling in the chest, a sense of hope and desperation—she had never experienced anything like it.

Months of sustained protest followed, and Hong Kong was haunted by scenes of violence in the streets, at the airport, and on the MTR (the city’s metro). Protesters initially had set out to derail an extradition bill that would allow the government to transport accused criminals to mainland China, but as law enforcement cracked down and videos of brutality spread, the movement’s focus shifted to ending police violence and demanding that all Hong Kongers be able to vote for the city’s highest-ranking officials. Despite those progressive goals, there was an end-of-days feeling to the protests. A disquieting thought hung in the back of Grace’s mind: Hong Kong was dying, and she was helping it make one last stand.

Huge marches were followed by smaller actions. Protesters broke up into leaderless pods. Years of arrests and kidnappings had made putting anyone in charge too risky. Protesters developed a strategy, embodied in the slogan “be water”—assemble for an instant, then drain through the surrounding streets—allowing them to clash with police and avoid arrest. It was inevitable, in retrospect, that the strategy would sometimes fail. That the water would pool and become trapped.

PolyU was a hive of activity when Grace arrived on what turned out to be November 14. Protesters had occupied the school and were using it as a base of operations. PolyU students who had joined the demonstrations prepared meals and set up a supply room full of clothes, gas masks, and first-aid materials. They put sleeping mats in the gym. Older protesters took younger ones under their wing. Some demonstrators set up lookouts on the roofs of school buildings, arming themselves with bows and arrows. In the student-government headquarters, a group gathered to discuss an action intended to stymie nearby traffic, bringing a busy part of Hong Kong to a standstill.

Over the previous five months, Grace had become an efficient, unflappable protester—a far cry from the person she had been before, someone unpolitical and naive. “I was just a normal girl in Hong Kong,” she said of her life before the movement. At PolyU, she knew how to keep calm, proceed from task to task, ready herself to face the police.

Looking back, she can’t remember the exact moment when law enforcement reached the campus—she only knows that the atmosphere changed. The bustle of preparation turned to confrontation and then panic. A protester watched from a rooftop as armored vehicles lined up below. As an opening salvo, police in SWAT gear shot canisters of tear gas into the building where the protester was perched. “I didn’t have any mask. I didn’t have anything on me,” the protester later said. “From that moment, I just thought, Oh God, they want us all to die.”

Hong Kong was not a democracy, but citizens held on dearly to the idea that it was at least autonomous.

A normal Hong Kong girl, according to Grace and other protesters, is a student who wears a uniform, works hard, and occasionally goes out to buy bubble tea with her friends. “In Hong Kong, children are scared of the sun,” a protester who goes by the alias V told me, only half joking. “They don’t like walking, and they don’t like running.” They study. They go to school. They come home. They don’t spend much time thinking about politics.

That was Grace growing up. She was born too late to remember a time when Hong Kong wasn’t part of the People’s Republic of China. The handover happened in 1997, after more than a decade of negotiations between Great Britain and the PRC. The new constitution, called the Basic Law, established the policy of “one country, two systems”—Hong Kong could govern itself for 50 years, during which Mainland China’s laws would not extend to the city. Still, the PRC held sway. The Basic Law, for instance, promised freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, but it gave the National People’s Congress in Beijing the power to interpret those rights. Hong Kong was not a democracy, but citizens held on dearly to the idea that it was at least autonomous.

During Grace’s childhood, Hong Kong had an independent judiciary and a freewheeling economy, with few of the controls that limited capital flows in the mainland. And as China’s economy gradually opened up, it offered substantial opportunities for Hong Kong’s elites, whom Beijing actively courted. In Hong Kong, business and governance are directly connected. Only half the seats in the city’s governing body, the Legislative Council (or LegCo), are elected by the people. The other half are reserved for so-called functional constituencies, industry-based voting blocs that effectively allow corporations to shape policy. As the businesses that formed those constituencies cozied up to mainland China, their interests aligned more and more with Beijing’s.

In 2003, a proposed national-security law that would have limited free speech and introduced the crimes of subversion, secession, and sedition—all of which are invoked to punish dissidents in the mainland—was scrapped after 500,000 people took to the streets in protest. (Organizers estimated the crowd at that size; police put the number at 350,000.) In 2010, people demonstrated again, calling for universal suffrage and protesting the arrest of Liu Xiaobo, a writer and activist from the mainland.

Grace, still in grade school at the time, was only vaguely aware of these events. She knew that her parents voted for pro-democracy candidates in LegCo elections, and she knew about the annual Tiananmen vigil, where people wearing white—a mourning color—lit candles and sang songs. Her perspective began to change in 2012, when the city’s National Education Services Center moved to instate a pro-China “moral and national education” curriculum in schools. Pamphlets promoting the curriculum were distributed throughout the city, emphasizing the need to build a national identity and criticizing multiparty systems for causing “malignant party struggle” in the United States and elsewhere. “We will never be independent,” the head of the National Education Services Center told CNN, “so we should learn to think the same way as China.”

That July, some 90,000 people, many of them students Grace’s age, took to the streets to protest what they saw as a brainwashing effort. (Police again put the turnout much lower, at around 32,000.) There was a hunger strike and an occupation of legislative offices. Grace didn’t join the demonstrations—her parents opposed them—but then the pro-China headmaster at her school instructed a group of students to circulate a petition in favor of the new education regime. Her peers asked Grace to add her name. “They weren’t mean about it,” she said. “They just wanted to get the signatures as fast as possible so they could get it over with.”

The petition prompted Grace to think about the ideas raised by the new curriculum and about her own cultural identity. Hong Kong was not mainland China, and she was not mainland Chinese. She was a Hong Konger. She found it annoying that the headmaster had foisted the petition on students. Grace refused to sign. It was the beginning of her political awakening.

She wasn’t alone. Across Hong Kong, there were teenagers who increasingly spent time estimating the value of the freedoms they enjoyed and guessing at Beijing’s intentions. Among them was V, an aspiring musician, whose sister also wanted to fight for democracy. Terra was another, a science student at Hong Kong Chinese University with an excellent GPA. Yet another, Jack, took cues from famous resistance leaders, reading Malcolm X and Frantz Fanon. All these young people would eventually wind up at PolyU when protesters occupied it. Like Grace, they later shared their stories with me.

First, though, came the Umbrella Revolution.

Pro-democracy legislators and activists staged a sit-in. They were arrested one by one, singing “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from the musical Les Misérables.

In 2014, Beijing proposed changes to how Hong Kong chose its most powerful official, the chief executive. Traditionally, the chief executive had been selected by a committee of electors, many of them loyal to Beijing. China’s new plan would allow Hong Kongers themselves to vote for their leader—so long as Beijing approved the candidates.

Thousands of citizens, led primarily by students, mounted a resistance. Grace joined a student strike, boycotting her classes. Other young people marched in front of then chief executive Leung Chun-ying’s home and outside the legislative building, where LegCo was required to approve China’s plan for it to go into effect. They erected tents along a stretch of highway next to the building and built a camp, a progressive community where art projects were scattered among supply caches and sleeping bags. Protesters set up barriers, distributed protective goggles, and organized first-aid teams. They established supply lines so they wouldn’t have to leave their positions; they could maintain the pressure day and night. There was even a study tent where students could go to keep up with their schoolwork.

Police in Hong Kong had dealt with large-scale protests for decades, but their response in 2014 was uncommonly aggressive. Hundreds of demonstrators were arrested. The police used tear gas for the first time since 2005, when they launched it into crowds protesting a World Trade Organization meeting. Law enforcement threw 87 canisters at the LegCo protesters, who carried umbrellas to shield themselves. Nineteen days into the 79-day protest, a TV news crew caught seven plainclothes police officers beating a protester named Ken Tsang on video and broadcast the footage to the city. Many Hong Kongers were outraged.

Despite police violence, the pro-democracy movement intended to remain peaceful. Johnson Yeung, a former leader of Hong Kong’s Federation of Students, an organization that represents student unions at Hong Kong’s universities, told me that protesters wanted to believe that their adversaries were rational actors. The thought was, as Yeung explained it, “If you provide some room for an authoritarian regime to coexist with you, then they will give you some allowances.”

As the protests stretched on, Grace became more and more interested in what was happening. Her father was moving in the opposite direction. “My dad thinks Hong Kong is free enough,” she said. He considered the protests disruptive. There were clashes with police in a residential neighborhood called Mong Kok. Traffic in the city often ground to a halt. Grace’s father didn’t see the ragtag beauty in the protest camp. “My dad wants a stable society and doesn’t want a ruin in the place where he lives,” Grace said.

The protests ended in December 2014 when a court ordered the camp outside LegCo cleared. Protesters dispersed largely without incident; by the time police showed up, many people had already left. Still, approximately 200 pro-democracy legislators and activists staged a sit-in. They were arrested one by one, singing “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from the musical Les Misérables.

The following June, the legislature voted against Beijing’s revised election plan. But it was a hollow victory—no other reforms were put forward, which meant that the chief executive would continue to be selected by committee.

Following the protest, the situation in Hong Kong worsened. In mainland China, a crackdown on lawyers and dissidents was underway, and Beijing’s harder line was increasingly felt in the city. Late in 2015, five Hong Kong booksellers who stocked books banned by Beijing were kidnapped and taken to mainland China; they subsequently resurfaced in videos admitting to crimes like “illegal book trading.” One of the accused confessed to involvement in a fatal drunk-driving incident. He was eventually convicted of “providing intelligence overseas.” (Since then, only one of the booksellers has been released; he fled to Taiwan.)

In the 2016 LegCo elections, six candidates were disqualified by Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leaders for expressing support for the city’s independence. After the election, an additional six legislators were expelled from LegCo for the way they took the oath of office. Some coughed at key moments. Some mispronounced words—“People’s Republic of China” sounded more like “People’s Refucking of Jeena.” (The oath is recited in English.) Others shouted pro-democracy slogans, and one person spoke the words extremely slowly.

The following year, three of the Umbrella Revolution’s most vocal leaders were sentenced to several months in prison for their roles in the movement. Having a criminal record would prevent them from running for political office for five years.

By the time protests reignited in 2019, many young people felt that their strategy needed to change. “Beijing is writing the rules,” Yeung said. “It is hard to outcompete an opponent who is writing and breaking the rules whenever they want.” A consensus emerged that pacifism was not the only answer. “Through violence you recognize your own power,” said Jack. “You can stand up and oppose the government.” He considered Beijing a colonizer—and he was determined to fight back.

Grace didn’t want to go to her first demonstration alone. Her boyfriend, whom she met online before the protests started, wasn’t interested. While he supported the movement, he preferred to stay off the front lines. (He didn’t want to speak with me for this story.) Her older sister would join the protests, but not until later. Most of her friends were focused on their studies. They “didn’t have similar goals,” Grace said. “They would end up being soft protesters, rather than going to the front line.” Meanwhile, her father detested the protest movement more than ever; he thought Grace had been brainwashed by outside forces.

Grace had always considered herself an independent and self-sufficient person, but she worried about crowds and the potential for violence. So she called a friend, and on June 4 they made their way to the annual Tiananmen Square vigil in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park.

The 2019 memorial was charged. That February, Hong Kong’s government had proposed the extradition bill, the piece of legislation that would make it legal for people who were wanted for crimes in China—Hong Kongers such as the booksellers—to be extradited to the mainland. Protesters had been active ever since. On the daily news, Grace had watched the pro-democracy crowds grow. She was in university by then, and studying revolutionary movements in her classes. She watched the movie version of Les Mis over and over.

At the vigil, she lit a candle and kept close by her friend. She was awed by the crowd and the people around her. “I felt I was in union, that we all had the same beliefs and thoughts,” she said. “I could feel hope and love from the crowd.” Grace knew she would be back. Five days later, she headed out again.

The second protest Grace attended drew nearly a million people, according to organizers. (Police put the number at around 240,000.) Grace was still nervous, so she again went with her friend. A sea of people wearing white and holding signs packed Hong Kong’s roads. Grace and her friend left the protest before nightfall, when law enforcement moved in. The police clashed with the remaining protesters on the road outside LegCo.

Grace watched on television as protesters toppled traffic barriers and the police responded with pepper spray. She was home safe, but she didn’t want to be, not anymore. She decided to join the next protest, scheduled for June 12, in a more official capacity.

Hong Kong protesters communicated with one another on the messaging service Telegram and a website called LIHKG. The latter, a threaded discussion forum similar to Reddit, restricts connections to Hong Kong ISPs, which made it more difficult for outsiders to infiltrate the movement. Both allow users to remain anonymous.

Protesters took care to protect their identities. “I would not use my real phone,” Jack said. Like many, he used burners so the police couldn’t track him. Whenever possible, he didn’t use a phone at all. “People prefer to meet in private spaces face-to-face and not leave any record,” he said. Online, people rarely shared personal information, only what was necessary to prove they weren’t police: a snapshot of an ID or a staff card indicating where they worked—proof, presumably, that they weren’t law enforcement. The images often remained available for only a short time.

People used digital platforms to organize into teams—protest cells tasked with performing a singular function. A team might run supplies, provide first aid, clean up after protests, or protect the walls of Post-it notes that had popped up all over the city, filled with messages of support for the movement. Everything was fluid. Teams might decide to change function mid-protest or plan their own actions, apart from the big events.

Grace answered a call on Telegram to join a supply team. She would help gather masks, helmets, water, and umbrellas—whatever protesters needed to protect themselves—and distribute them at the planned action on June 12. Grace arrived at a safe house the day before the protest. There were students and parents, wealthy people and workers. Veteran demonstrators taught her how to use gas masks and to protect fellow protesters. When returning to the safe house, for instance, she shouldn’t take a direct route, and she should never follow the same path twice. Some demonstrators changed clothes several times during a protest, to throw off anyone who might be following them.

The next day, more than 40,000 people gathered outside LegCo to protest the reading of the controversial extradition bill, the first step to its passage. Grace ran into the crowd, dropping off water and first-aid supplies. The reading was canceled, and a few hours later the police rushed the crowd. Grace fled. It was the first time she’d heard the smack of rubber bullets, the pop and whistle of tear-gas canisters. “I saw the movement of the crowd and grabbed my teammate’s hand,” she says. “We didn’t know where it would be safe to go.”

Some of Grace’s team wanted to continue ferrying supplies; others ran toward the confrontation with police. Grace followed the chatter on Telegram and LIHKG from the safe house, where she’d made it unharmed. She sent updates on what police were doing—their location, where they were headed—so that her teammates could get out safely.

The police penned hundreds of protesters in the courtyard of the CITIC Tower, an office building across the street from LegCo, and fired tear gas into the crowd. Videos spread online of protesters trying to get into the tower even as smoke from the courtyard filled the lobby. The police beat people with batons and pelted them with rubber bullets. As avenues of escape opened and closed, Grace did her best to inform her teammates.

Once the police ended their assault, the demonstration dispersed. Four people were later arrested at a hospital while being treated for injuries. In the days that followed, Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, justified the aggressive response by claiming that there had been a riot. The protesters talked on message boards: Had anyone seen a riot? Grace hadn’t. No one had.

Grace’s world was the streets. Every time she went out, she crossed paths with people who were at once anonymous and somehow close to her.

The police violence on June 12 made the protesters feel more united than ever. They came up with a list of five demands: withdrawal of the extradition bill; Lam’s resignation; an investigation into police behavior;  withdrawal of the designation of the protest as a riot; and release of all arrested demonstrators. Four days later, Grace joined roughly two million protesters in the streets. (Police estimated the crowd at 338,000.)


The protests became a gathering storm—more frequent, closer together. On July 1, the 22nd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from the British, organizers estimated that 550,000 people rallied in the city. (The police reported around 180,000.) That night, protesters broke into the LegCo building. They unfurled the flag of British colonial Hong Kong and graffitied messages on the walls. A photo of the words “It was you who taught me peaceful protests were useless” went viral. Within weeks there would be a social workers’ march, a march of the elderly, a march for mothers—all of them in solidarity with the student-led movement.

Grace was almost never home. Her world was the streets. Every time she went out, she crossed paths with people who were at once anonymous and somehow close to her. She ran through a number of positions on teams organized by friends of friends or people she’d met on Telegram. She served as a lookout. She helped post art and spray graffiti. Eventually, she specialized in neutralizing tear gas. Wearing flame-resistant gloves, sometimes carrying tongs and a big water bottle, she would toss canisters away from protesters or douse them until they sputtered out.

Grace had conviction, one of her teammates said. She believed the movement could succeed. And she was happy to be working alone, without friends or her boyfriend or sister along. She knew people who protested with family members or significant others—though rarely on the same team—and recognized how difficult it was for them. “I saw people hug or kiss and then split up,” she said. “The couples would cry and say, like, ‘You need to come back safely and I will be here waiting for you!’” Grace was relieved that she didn’t have to worry about her boyfriend.

Her father called her phone nonstop when she went out. He demanded that she come home. Whenever she left the house, he shouted after her, “Don’t fight with the police!”

At the end of June 2019, a survey conducted by the University of Hong Kong found that a record number of city residents identified as Hong Kongers rather than simply Chinese. Meanwhile, the number of respondents who felt proud of being Chinese had dropped to an all-time low. Support for the pro-democracy movement was mounting.

Lam pledged to withdraw the extradition bill, but the protests didn’t stop. Amnesty International released a report decrying the treatment of protesters in custody, which in some cases the organization claimed amounted to torture—beatings, delayed access to medical care, forcibly shining laser pointers into detainees’ eyes. Journalists wore helmets and goggles to press conferences to protest what they described as a deliberate attempt by police to target the press. Law enforcement remained defiant, defending every action.

On July 21, following a protest in one of Hong Kong’s business districts, hundreds of men appeared on the streets in Yuen Long, a neighborhood an hour from downtown by metro. They wore white T-shirts—by then protesters had begun wearing black, while supporters of Beijing had adopted white—and carried metal bars and wooden clubs. At 10:30 p.m., the men began attacking people. Around 100 of them descended on a metro station and set upon anyone wearing black. Others were caught up in the violence: a pregnant woman, a journalist, random subway passengers. Local law enforcement arrived at 11 p.m. but did nothing. By the time police showed up with riot gear, nearly three hours later, the attackers were gone.

The pro-democracy protesters grew suspicious. Using thugs to carry out orders from the state is common practice in mainland China. A video circulated showing police officers talking to the men in white instead of arresting them. Law enforcement would take 37 men into custody over the next few months, on suspicion that they were linked to local triads, or criminal gangs. Only seven were formally charged.

Everyone felt the antagonism building. Grace narrowly missed being hit in the head with a rubber bullet at a protest outside the Sham Shui Po police station. Terra, the science student, recalled an officer pointing his rifle at her and her friends while they captured the scene on their phones. On August 11, police disguised as protesters attacked a dispersing crowd, beating demonstrators and crushing one student’s head against the concrete. He begged for mercy and spit out teeth as he laid in a pool of blood.

On August 31, protesters defied a ban on demonstrations and used the metro to move around the city, popping up in one place, then quickly moving to another. At Prince Edward Station in Mong Kok, on a platform packed with families and commuters, an alarm went off, and the police swarmed. They ran through the crowds, pushing people aside, looking for anyone in black. Videos showed people on the ground, putting up no resistance as police beat them with batons; first-aid providers being turned away from a man who was apparently unconscious; a couple huddled next to a stopped train, crying out as the police showered them with pepper spray.

Terra was one stop away, in Yau Ma Tei station, when a train from Prince Edward pulled in. “Suddenly, I saw people screaming and crying, and a lot of blood and umbrellas. It was a mess,” she said. Terra was not on a first-aid team; her job was cleaning up after protests. So she started picking up discarded gas masks while others tried to help the injured. She didn’t realize that the police were on their way. When they appeared, Terra dropped her bags and ran toward the escalator. Officers grabbed at her arms. “I felt like I’m not prepared to fight back. I’m not strong enough to push away a police officer,” she said. But she made it out of the station.

There were other incidents, too many to list. By the end of the summer, it was all but impossible to keep track. For Grace, time was starting to blur. More and more, she found herself on the front lines, joining protesters like Jack whose job it was to clash with police directly.

Jack wielded an umbrella and wore a gas mask so he could hold his ground as long as possible when the police charged. That helped people behind him get away, flowing down side streets unharmed. Front-liners also began participating in the targeted destruction of property. “You started to have more clear goals as time went on,” Jack said. “It was a faster pace.” Protesters broke windows in government buildings and in shops associated with organized crime, which seemed to have joined forces with the police. They threw Molotov cocktails and set things on fire. “You just judge there is not a lot of police coming yet, you destroy a China Bank machine or whatever, and then you go,” Jack said.

In September, an Indonesian journalist was blinded in one eye after being hit with a rubber bullet fired by police. In October and early November, at least two protesters were shot with live rounds. Grace was determined but fatigued. She kept fighting, knowing that her side, while not outmanned, was certainly outgunned. “We don’t have what they have,” one protester told me, referring to the police. “They have no limits on hurting us.”

Anyone could join the protests. Office ladies in high heels could make Molotov cocktails on their way to work.

In the early hours of November 4, a student named Alex Chow fell from a parking garage as police used tear gas in a nearby clearance operation. He died four days later, and Hong Kong erupted with renewed vigor. Protesters launched a campaign they called “blossom everywhere,” which employed hit-and-run techniques intended to cause chaos. They appeared at night, stacking bricks in roads like mini Stonehenges, aiming to snarl traffic. Sometimes they strung together metal street barriers, connecting them with zip ties to make them harder to clear away. The actions were small, quick—multiple groups would engage at once in activities all over the city, then recede into the darkness. Anyone could join the protests, even for a moment, and then return to normal life. Office ladies in high heels, Yeung said, could make Molotov cocktails on their way to work.

When the “blossom everywhere” offensive launched, Hong Kong’s universities were logical places for protesters to congregate. Many are located on major thoroughfares and near the bridges and tunnels that connect parts of the city. Even as classes continued, schools became de facto protest headquarters. The police knew this was happening, and on November 11, they bombarded Hong Kong Chinese University (CUHK) and PolyU with tear gas—the start of what would become a protracted battle.

Grace started the week at CUHK. She still made it home on some nights, hitchhiking to her parents’ apartment. When she stayed on campus, she slept outside next to other students. They shivered as nighttime temperatures dropped. “Everyone was getting hypothermia,” Grace said.

CUHK seemed to become the center of the clashes. Students threw debris onto Tolo Highway, located below the hillside campus. When hundreds of police charged on a bridge over the highway, protesters fled under a torrent of tear gas. Outside CUHK, the police parked vans and set up a perimeter, blocking the main entrance while attempting to break through barriers the protesters were defending. Protesters formed human chains to transport supplies across campus. Terra opened the doors of a student-run co-op to the newly resident protesters. She made them cups of noodles.

On November 13, a Wednesday, the courts rejected an appeal from students to ban the police from entering campuses without a warrant. The same day, Grace left CUHK. Other protesters convinced her to head to PolyU, where students needed help. They wanted to block one of Hong Kong’s most important arteries, ratcheting up the chaos engulfing the city.

The campus felt chaotic, like the protesters were making it up as they went. 

Hong Kong Polytechnic University is a fortress of red tile. It sits above the entrance of the cross-harbor tunnel, which allows commuters to move between the Kowloon Peninsula and Hong Kong Island, located off the city’s southern coast. Despite the campus’s centrality, its design separates students from the urban fray—the cluster of highways, train tracks, and tunnels that surround it. The school’s buildings, each designated by a letter of the English alphabet, form a linked perimeter punctuated by barrel-like turrets, which students call cores. The structures are so tightly connected that a person can wander from one end of campus to the other and only rarely set foot outside. Amid all the tile, on the northwest side of campus is a white building, designed by Zaha Hadid, that houses the university’s design school and resembles a giant cruise ship.

PolyU is accessible almost exclusively by pedestrian overpasses, bridges, and stairways. In some places, these pass below the elevated roads around campus; in others they’re perched above traffic. At first this layout seemed to protesters like an advantage. They could block access points with bricks and furniture, keeping the police at bay. They slept in a gym at night and sprawled in tiled courtyards during the day, their voices echoing off the towers around them. Someone made signs out of cardboard directing protesters to available showers. People practiced archery and made slingshots out of bamboo. Some practiced throwing Molotov cocktails into an empty pool, to refine their aim. They were getting ready for whatever came next.

On the Thursday when Grace arrived at PolyU, protesters had already managed to block the cross-harbor tunnel, setting toll booths on fire and throwing down debris from an overpass they’d occupied. The campus felt chaotic, like the protesters were making it up as they went. There wasn’t enough food. “People were feeling distressed,” said Jack, who arrived at PolyU around the same time Grace did.

Grace volunteered to mix Molotov cocktails. To ensure she was getting the balance of gas and oil just right, she threw test explosives down an empty walkway and measured how close she could get before feeling the heat. (The farther away the better, to help keep the police at bay.) Grace wasn’t as effective as some others on the front lines. She wasn’t strong enough, for instance, to throw the Molotovs very far. Here was something she could do: test the heat of the bombs against her own skin.

On Friday, November 15, the police had yet to charge the barricades around PolyU. But the protesters knew this would happen at some point. It was hard not to think of Tiananmen Square. What if the police used live rounds? What if demonstrators were arrested and sent to mainland China, despite the extradition bill’s demise? The protesters decided to act preemptively. They piled debris in the roads closest to campus and set it on fire.

The roads burned for hours before the police came, on Saturday. They positioned water cannons and armored vehicles on the far side of a sea of bricks scattered across the asphalt at PolyU’s main entrance. Grace and Jack joined students gathering at the campus’s access points. Vans and officers approached from the south, spraying water and a blue liquid spiked with pepper spray. The protesters, some of whom assembled into a tightly packed testudo formation beneath umbrellas or scavenged pieces of debris, had amassed Molotov cocktails and boxes of bricks. They could throw them by hand or launch them from makeshift catapults. Some protesters held walkie-talkies, to pass along instructions and intel.

A standoff ensued—the police fired projectiles, and the lines of students fell back and then surged forward, hurling explosives and debris. Updates about police activity circulated throughout Saturday night via Telegram, walkie-talkies, a whiteboard in the campus canteen—any way the protesters could think of to get the word out. When reinforcements were needed at one entrance or another, Grace added her body to the crowd, holding an umbrella to deflect water and pepper spray. When the police threw tear gas, she did her best to put it out. The police shot the canisters parallel to the ground rather than in an overhead arc, aiming directly at the crowd.

News and rumors flew over Telegram and on LIHKG. The police announced that anyone who wanted to leave PolyU peacefully could exit via Y core, a building toward the northern end of campus. Some left, but many of them were arrested, including members of the media and first-aid groups. The remaining protesters knew that they couldn’t trust the police. They held their lines. At one point, the police retreated from the main intersection on the south side of campus long enough for protesters to retrieve bricks they’d thrown, to be used again.

On Sunday night, more than 24 hours into the siege, the police attempted to break through a group of protesters who had planted themselves on a bridge above the cross-harbor tunnel. Two armored trucks approached a line of open umbrellas; Molotov cocktails flew. When one of the police vehicles caught fire, a gasp went up from the protesters—a moment of surprise that soon turned into a cheer. The flaming car backed up and returned to the police cordon.

The protesters weren’t losing—not yet. But they were tired. They were frightened. They were hungry. When Grace heard that the police had threatened to use live bullets, she started to feel desperate. At CUHK, she knew how to get out and did so whenever she wanted. At PolyU, the police weren’t leaving—and they weren’t allowing anyone else to leave.

Grace’s phone buzzed with a new rumor: The police were about to break through the barriers and storm the campus.

People began talking over how to escape. The protesters didn’t want to be arrested and charged with rioting, which can bring a penalty of up to ten years in prison. They didn’t want to be shot or injured. They just wanted to go home.

Word spread that some students were climbing a tree on the edge of campus, easing out onto the branches, and dropping down into the road to be picked up by passing cars—the city had grown so concerned about the protesters that strangers were offering them a ride. Grace ran to the tree and was waiting her turn to climb when her phone buzzed. She launched Telegram. A message said police had taken up a position just beyond the tree and were arresting people as they landed on the ground.

Grace heard about another escape route, but police discovered it before she could get there. Messages were hitting her phone constantly. Pictures of police with sniper rifles. Word of another clash. Early on Monday morning, her phone buzzed with a new rumor: The police were about to break through the barriers and storm the campus.

Grace joined a group of protesters in an empty classroom. They barricaded themselves in and went silent. The officers entered PolyU at 5:30 a.m., arresting people in a part of campus that had been set up to triage protesters with injuries. Then they withdrew. It wasn’t a raid, the police insisted—it was a “dispersal operation,” aimed at collecting explosives. They seemed to be shifting their tactics: Rather than an all-out assault, they were going to wait the protesters out.

Students who had hidden started to emerge. Grace and other protesters came out of the classroom and checked their phones. There was a new plan: The protesters would leave together, as one.

Hundreds of young people headed for a pedestrian bridge that led away from campus. Students wearing protective gear took it off so they could move faster. V, the musician, was walking with his sister, but she passed out when the tear gas, which the police kept firing from outside the barricades, became too thick. “I’m grabbing her, and her boyfriend is grabbing her as well,” V said. “She just can’t feel anything. She felt so heavy.”

Grace ran. A rubber bullet hit the helmet she was wearing. Then she saw people ahead of her running back—the police wouldn’t let them leave. She was disoriented by the smoke and the noise. She ran with a crowd until someone broke a window of the library. Grace climbed over the shattered glass to get inside.

She called her parents and told them that she couldn’t get out. Her father didn’t believe her. “He thought it was not a big deal. He thought his daughter could escape so easily,” Grace recalled. Her mother cried with her and said she was proud. Grace sent a message to her boyfriend, telling him that if she died, he should never forget who killed her: the police.

The protesters at PolyU pinned their hopes on a group of marchers heading toward campus. There were thousands of people: parents, office workers, more students.

The plight of the trapped students captured Hong Kongers’ attention. People called for the protesters to be let out. On Monday, pro-democracy legislators declared the situation a humanitarian crisis. The popular singer Denise Ho took to Twitter to ask the world to help save Hong Kong’s students. Meanwhile, an editorial in the Global Times, a Beijing-based publication, called for the police to fire live rounds.

On Monday night, many of the protesters at PolyU pinned their hopes on a group of marchers heading toward campus. There were thousands of people: parents, office workers, more students. Terra joined from CUHK. “The people next to me were wearing suits—they just got off work,” she recalled. The group hoped to draw police away from campus long enough for the students to escape. It didn’t work.


People who’d given up were slowly trickling off campus. Those who weren’t picked up by cars or motorbikes were arrested. Jack tried to escape through the sewers, but the map he had wasn’t right—he ended up at a dead end. He felt like a trapped animal. Beyond campus, the police were blasting songs by movie star and singer Jackie Chan and theme music from television shows, trying to prevent the protesters from getting any rest. “From time to time, they will make some announcement, ‘Oh, just come out and surrender, we will treat you good,’” Jack said. “Everyone knows they won’t treat you fairly.”


He heard that some people had cut the crash netting used to protect the campus from an elevated road. Protesters could climb up to the road, wait for the police to change shifts, and run when they had an opening. Jack hid in some bushes for several hours. When it was time, the protesters he was with went in groups of three. Jack’s group was the second to run. The police caught him. The other two protesters escaped.

Hundreds tried to get out via Z core, the last building in the chain of PolyU, connected to the rest by a sky bridge. The police were shooting tear gas from the road below, but then the wind changed direction, blowing the smoke back, forcing the cops to retreat. Protesters rappelled down from the bridge and were carted off by people on scooters waiting below.

This was her chance. Grace went.

The bridge stood about 20 feet over the street—a covered stretch of glass and steel with high railings on both sides. Just beyond the railings were rounded metal ledges where a person could stand, albeit precariously. There was one spot where someone had strung ropes that reached from the bridge all the way to the ground.

Grace slung herself over the railing and felt pain shoot through her arm. But she couldn’t turn back. She waited, balancing on the bridge’s metal lip. When it was her turn, Grace leaned out; she grasped a rope and jumped. Her injured arm couldn’t handle the weight of her body. She fell.

It took ten days for the police to clear the campus. They arrested more than 1,100 people.

When Grace hit the pavement, pain shot up her leg and back. A group of strangers ran toward her. She couldn’t walk, so they picked her up and put her on a scooter. The ride from campus was a blur of agony. At some point, Grace lost consciousness. When she came to, she was in an apartment. She tried to get up but couldn’t. She wanted to call her boyfriend, but she couldn’t get her phone out of her pocket by herself. “I kept asking about the situation inside of PolyU,” she said. Grace learned that many protesters were still trapped.

Over the next few days, Grace was moved from safe house to safe house. A doctor came to examine her; she had multiple injuries, but she asked me not to describe them, since they could be used to track her down. She contacted her parents, and they came to see her. By then the injured had flooded the city’s hospitals. Soon after Grace escaped, Hong Kong’s medical authority reported that doctors had treated about 300 people from PolyU.

It took ten more days for the police to clear the campus. Finally, on November 29, the siege was over. The police had arrested more than 1,100 people. The authorities announced that they’d recovered 3,989 petrol bombs, 1,339 other “explosive items,” 601 bottles of corrosive liquids, and 573 weapons. The implication was clear: The police hadn’t done anything wrong—they were contending with dangerous people.

Grace went home to recover from her injuries. She monitored protests from her phone as they continued to flare up around the city. In late November, an election for Hong Kong’s district councils—local advisory bodies in charge of community activities and environmental improvements—handed democracy advocates an overwhelming victory, with 86 percent of the vote. Two weeks later, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers took to the streets to insist that China meet their demands for a freer city. Beijing made no concessions.

In December, the international members of a panel tasked with reviewing police behavior at PolyU stepped down in protest—the group had too little investigative power, they said. The same month, Hong Kong’s police chief cryptically thanked China’s public-security bureau for its “vigorous support and help.” Shortly after, a leaked use-of-force police manual showed that Hong Kong’s officers regularly broke their own rules. Again, there were no consequences.

Then, in January, everything came to a screeching halt—the protests, the press conferences, the arrests. The coronavirus pandemic shut down Hong Kong. For the first time in months, it was quiet.

During the lockdown, Grace texted with her boyfriend and started to think about her schoolwork again. She chatted online with friends. Still, her mind wandered. She couldn’t sleep well—she had nightmares. Every time she heard a siren, she jumped. It was strange to have been at PolyU and feel as if the world was ending, then see life go on, however quiet.

Terra had fought with her parents during the 2019 protests—they were pro-Beijing—and moved in with her boyfriend. Now she watched as friends stewed in their hatred of the police. “A lot of my friends are still stuck in those moments,” she said, referring to the violence of last year. “Even though we are staying at home, they are still making video clips about those battles.”

Terra tried to think about the future. She wanted to form an organization to help protesters who’d been arrested and were now facing criminal charges. She also joined Grace and other demonstrators in throwing herself behind the idea of the Yellow Economic Circle, a campaign to convince Hong Kongers to stop shopping at stores that supported the Chinese government, spending their money instead at businesses allied with the pro-democracy movement.

“Sometimes I feel passionate and determined and I want to change the world,” Terra said. “But when I feel uncomfortable I have another mindset, which is: Hide in a cave, hide in a mountain, hide in CUHK, get a research job and a comfortable position.” She could try to resurrect the normal Hong Kong girl.

As protesters like Grace and Terra used the pandemic lockdown to ponder protest tactics, strategize about local elections, and plot boycotts, Beijing changed the rules again. The national-security law that had been proposed and rejected in 2003 was resurrected. This time, Beijing announced that it would not need the approval of LegCo to enact the law. It exploited a loophole in Hong Kong’s constitution that allowed China to introduce certain laws by decree.

“The world is just disgusting,” Jack told me. “People who have capital will migrate and flee. The people who need to flee the most cannot really go—either they have no money, or they have a criminal record because of the protests.” He remained in the city, where his own legal case, the result of his arrest at PolyU, was pending.

The national-security law represented everything the protesters at PolyU feared might happen. It would introduce the crimes of subversion and secession, with a maximum penalty of life in prison. It would make damaging public transportation a crime tantamount to terrorism. It would enable Hong Kong’s chief executive to cherry-pick the judges who hear national-security cases, overriding the city’s prized independent judiciary, and allow some trials to happen behind closed doors. Beijing was coming for the protesters. And it was coming for Hong Kong’s freedoms.

The situation was grim, but the city’s pro-democracy forces persisted. “Before you get slaughtered,” Terra told me, “at least you should yell.” Demonstrators flooded the streets in May, despite a ban on gatherings because of the pandemic. The police came too, toting blue signs that read, “This meeting or procession is in breach of the law. Disperse or we may use force.” On June 4, the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the city prohibited the annual vigil for the first time. People came out anyway.

It didn’t matter. At the end of the month, Beijing made its next move: It approved the national-security law.

In late July, four students were arrested for publishing “secessionist” social media posts.

Without question, Grace knew that she would join the next battle for democracy. “I don’t want to leave Hong Kong,” she told me. “Hong Kong is my home. I will fight until it dies.” Having recovered from her injuries, she joined a protest on July 1, the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China. The crowds were smaller than in years past. The police had already changed the wording on its posters: “You are displaying flags or banners/chanting slogans/or conducting yourselves with an intent such as secession or subversion, which may constitute offenses under the ‘HKSAR National Security Law.’ You may be arrested and prosecuted.”

When Grace returned home, she watched bystander videos making the rounds online. A journalist thrown sideways by a blast from a water cannon. An older woman pulled out of her car by police. Riot cops charging with batons. Around 370 people had been arrested, ten of them under the national-security law. Protesters circulated jokes about what they might be detained for: Loving Hong Kong too much? Or something Beijing hadn’t thought of yet?

Books critical of Beijing disappeared from Hong Kong’s libraries. The office of the Public Opinion Research Institute, which publishes polls about politics and local identity, was raided and threatened with the confiscation of its computers. As demonstrations continued, some protesters held up blank pieces of paper to signify that nothing was safe for them to say. The police arrested eight of them. In late July, four students were arrested for publishing “secessionist” social media posts.

Grace knows that her time might come. But she will keep protesting, whether that means detainment or worse. She has already written down everything she wants her friends and family to know if that happens. She wrote the message even before she knew if she would make it out of PolyU alive. It was a goodbye to the people she loved, and a testament to her conviction.

“Officials have forced the people to fight back, blood for blood,” she wrote. “In the face of occupation, of suppression and abuse, Hong Kong people must resist and never compromise. You, like me, might feel exhausted. You will inevitably feel powerless in the face of the Communist Party. But you should know that there are many people who will walk with you along this difficult path. And, although I am going to stop here, you will help me to continue on.”

“I would rather be ashes than dust,” Grace wrote, quoting Jack London. “I would rather die than live quietly.”


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The Rescue

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The Rescue

A flimsy raft, more than 100 souls, and three teenage heroes—or are they pirates?

By Zach Campbell

The Atavist Magazine, No. 95


Zach Campbell is a writer based in Barcelona. He has written for The Intercept, Politico Europe, and Harper’s, among other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @notzachcampbell.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kate Wheeling
Illustrator: Nicole Rifkin

Published in September 2019. Design updated in 2021.

Every master is bound, so far as he can do so without serious danger to his vessel, her crew and passengers, to render assistance to everybody, even though an enemy, found at sea in danger of being lost.

—International Salvage Treaty, 1910


With the same hope I had felt in the afternoon as I waited to see airplanes on the horizon, that night I looked for the lights of ships. For hours I scrutinized the sea: a tranquil sea, immense and silent, but I saw no light other than that of the stars.

—Gabriel García Márquez, “The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor”


Abdalla Bari was hungry. It was the morning of March 26, 2019, and Bari and more than 100 other people were floating in a 30-foot-long rubber dinghy in the Mediterranean Sea, somewhere in the expanse of water between North Africa and Italy. Men straddled the boat’s edge, each with one foot dangling above the water and the other inside the dinghy. They formed a tightly packed ring around a huddled mass of women and children. At least one of the women was noticeably pregnant. Another, Souwa Nikavogui, was Bari’s wife.

Bari was on the starboard side, near the bow. He was skinny but muscular, with hair fashioned into short, spiky locks; he had a long scar down his right arm. Nikavogui, slightly shorter, with an intense, distant gaze, braced herself to stay upright as the dinghy rocked in the waves. They were teenagers in love—Bari was 19, Nikavogui 18—and they already had a child of their own. Her name was Fanta, and they’d left her with Bari’s mother, thousands of miles away in Guinea. Fanta was two years old. If help didn’t arrive soon, she would grow up with no memory of her parents.

The cheap inflatable dinghy wouldn’t make it to Europe. Bari and Nikavogui knew that before they climbed aboard in Libya. Their only hope was to be rescued before the boat sank. Bari watched as the bow bent upward, working its way up a wave. A small outboard motor strained to nudge the rest of the vessel over the crest of water.

For Bari and Nikavogui, this was the last leg of a long journey, stretching across four countries and a swath of the Sahara desert. They had spent the past four months in Tripoli, living in what migrants call “the campo,” a massive warehouse that smugglers use as a staging ground before moving people across the Mediterranean. The night before they left, the couple were approached by a man demanding money for their uncertain passage, although they’d already paid once. Bari and Nikavogui did as he asked, and early the next morning they loaded into a truck that rattled them to the water’s edge. Smugglers inflated the dinghy; the migrants climbed aboard. As they pushed out to sea, they knew it might be the last time they saw land.

Still, they were relieved. Libya was hell, and certain death if you stayed there too long. A man on the dinghy—I’ll call him Victor, a pseudonym, for his safety—was making his third attempt to reach Europe. The other two times, his group was intercepted before they could get on a boat. After the most recent try, Victor, who’d fled violence in his home country of Nigeria, was sent to one of Libya’s notorious migrant detention centers. Human rights organizations and the media have exposed the facilities as rife with torture, slavery, extortion, and other horrors. Victor bribed his way out for nearly $1,000. Then it was back to the campo, into the hands of another smuggler, and finally onto the dinghy.

The boat motored north. The harsh sun rose higher in the sky as the migrants searched for any speck on the horizon, a disturbance in the endless blue that might grow larger, take shape, become their salvation.

Finally, someone cried out, “A plane!”

Bari jolted at the sound. Suddenly, people around him were talking. As the plane approached, some said they saw a Spanish flag painted on its tail; others thought it was Italian. Either way it was European. That’s what mattered.

The plane passed overhead, and the people on the boat waved and yelled, as if they could be heard over the roar of the engines. Bari counted in his head as the plane circled the boat: once, twice, three times. The pilot had spotted the dinghy, that much was clear. After the fourth pass, the plane flew toward the horizon and out of sight. Those on the boat were left to wait one last time.

A few miles away, aboard the oil tanker El Hiblu 1, a radio crackled to life.

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Partial transcript of radio communication between an aircraft deployed by the European Union’s Operation Sophia and the El Hiblu 1 on March 26, 2019; obtained via a nearby ship.

EH1: I am going to Tripoli port. My destination is Tripoli port, Libya.

OS: Sir, there are lives at sea, can you assist them?

EH1: OK, no problem. What assistance do you need?

OS: We need you to proceed to the area and help the boat in the water.

EH1: Where is it? Can you give me the latitude and longitude, please?

OS: Position three-three-three-seven north, zero-one-four-two-zero east.

EH1: This is the position?

EH1: OK, I will proceed to this position. OK.

OS: We are flying over the area. If you can see us, we are flying over the boat.

EH1: OK, I will check your—OK.

OS: Thank you, sir.

[Ninety seconds pass.]

OS: El Hiblu 1, El Hiblu 1, this is the maritime patrol aircraft. We are coordinating with the Libyan coast guard. Sir, you need to rescue those people, because the Libyan coast guard boat is out of service.

At first all that Bari could tell about the ship coming toward the dinghy was that it was big and painted red. He hoped that it was an NGO boat, maybe the Spanish Open Arms or the German Alan Kurdi. Like others attempting the Mediterranean passage, he’d watched countless YouTube videos of these humanitarian ships rescuing people at sea. He knew what came next: A smiling European crew would climb onto small high-speed boats, zip to the dinghy, and hand out bright orange life vests. They would transfer the migrants to the larger ship, ten at a time, where there would be blankets, medical supplies, and food. Then they would make land in Europe, where it would be safe, where there was work. From there, Bari hoped, he and Nikavogui could provide for Fanta and the rest of their family.

But as the ship came closer, Bari realized that this rescue was going to be different. The El Hiblu 1 wasn’t a humanitarian ship—it was a 170-foot bunkering vessel, used to move oil between larger ships. What Bari couldn’t know was that the plane he’d seen, the same one that had radioed the tanker, was part of Operation Sophia, a European military effort aimed at stemming migration from Libya. It took its name from a baby born to a Somali mother on a German frigate in the Mediterranean in 2015.

That year, European ships, planes, and submarines began patrolling international waters off the coast of Libya, rescuing migrants and destroying their boats. But the smuggling networks found more boats—smaller, cheaper ones that were far less seaworthy. In response, Operation Sophia began training, funding, equipping, and directing a new Libyan coast guard that could do what the Europeans legally could not: take the people intercepted on ships back to where they came from, even if they had already made it out of Libya and into international waters. (Under international law, this is called refoulement, from the French for “turning away.”) Operation Sophia organized the effort despite mounting evidence of atrocities committed against migrants by Libyan smugglers, security forces, and the coast guard itself. In September 2018, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees declared that nowhere in Libya should be considered a place of safety for people rescued at sea. Six months later, the Women’s Refugee Commission released a report detailing widespread sexual violence against migrants in the North African state. “Everyone knows when a man says, ‘I’ve gone through Libya,’ it is a euphemism for rape,” a source told the organization.

That people continued to attempt the journey across the Mediterranean in large numbers prompted yet another shift in strategy: On the same day that Operation Sophia radioed the El Hiblu 1, EU member states decided to stop sending ships out on patrol and focus instead on surveillance flights. The planes would identify migrant boats and direct either the Libyan coast guard or nearby ships, including commercial ones, to stage rescues.

This was the scenario that the El Hiblu 1 found itself in. The tanker was empty, save for six crew members en route from Istanbul to Tripoli. The lack of cargo weight caused the bow to perk upward, as if the ship were popping a wheelie. As the tanker moved toward the dinghy, the driver of the rubber craft shut off the outboard engine. The waves were getting bigger, and the migrants worried that they might be swept under the ship as it approached.

When the two vessels were close enough, a crew member on the El Hiblu 1 threw down ropes and a ladder from the tanker’s deck. People crowded together to climb one by one off the dinghy. Bari and Nikavogui queued up. But six people stayed put. One of them said that he thought the ship was Libyan. What if it took them back?

Those still aboard the dinghy begged the wider group, now amassing on the deck of the El Hiblu 1, to come back down; the dinghy could keep going north, toward Malta. No one descended the ladder. Instead, the people on the tanker implored those on the dinghy to reconsider. It was clear that the dinghy, now nearly empty of people, was deflating. It bobbed limply up and down on the waves.

Don’t go, Bari and others shouted down at the boat. Just come up to the ship. These people are going to help.

Instead the men let go of the ropes that connected the boat to the El Hiblu 1. They started up the dinghy’s motor once again and headed north, eventually disappearing from sight. Malta was still more than 100 miles away.

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Nader El-Hiblu was the tanker’s first mate. He was Libyan, and he shared his name with the ship because his brother, Salah, owned it. Slender and balding, with high cheekbones and a beard, Nader asked if anyone spoke English. “I do,” said a teenager who, like Bari and Nikavogui, was from Guinea. Through the translator, Nader was able to explain that he’d been called by the crew of a military airplane to rescue the people on the dinghy. He was still awaiting instructions about what to do next.

He asked where in Libya the group had embarked: Garabuli, Zawiya, Zuwara, Tripoli? All were well-known departure points for migrant boats in Libya, but Nader said their names with a familiarity that made some of the migrants uneasy. Was he Libyan? They began to whisper among themselves, their many languages quietly colliding.

“Where are you going to take us?” someone yelled in English.

Nader repeated what he’d said about the plane.

“Yes, but are you taking us to Libya?”

Bari, standing with Nikavogui, wondered if the people who’d stayed on the dinghy had been wise. What if he’d come this far only to be turned back, to have nothing to show for his journey?

He and Nikavogui were from Mamou, a small village in the Guinean interior. Bari was the eldest of nine children. His father had been a vegetable farmer, while his mother took care of their seven boys and two girls. In 2017, Bari was in his first year of university, studying sociology, when his father died. He quit school to support his family, going to work in the fields like his father had. Still, there were times when they couldn’t afford food. Before long, Bari had more mouths to feed: Nikavogui’s and Fanta’s. Survival meant leaving Mamou—following “the route,” as many migrants from Africa call the passage across the Mediterranean. Nikavogui decided to go, too.

Bari left first, toward the end of Ramadan in 2018. He traveled by day on an empty stomach from Guinea to Mali to Algeria, where he spent two months waiting for a safe opportunity to cross the border into Libya. By September, he’d arrived in Tripoli and found work pouring concrete on construction sites. Nikavogui joined him soon after, and by the end of the year the couple were staying at the campo, waiting for their chance to leave for Europe. There was little food or privacy at the warehouse; tuberculosis was rampant. Outside, Libya was in the midst of a civil war. The people in the campo heard the same refrain every night: the boom, boom, boom of gunfire in the distance. They were locked inside and told to keep quiet. “We didn’t scream,” one woman who spent time there told me. “We didn’t do anything. Even the children didn’t scream.”

Now, aboard the El Hiblu 1, Nader uttered the words that the migrants didn’t want to hear. He explained the ship’s original course: Istanbul to Tripoli. Word rippled through the crowd, and arguing quickly ensued. Victor, the man from Nigeria, was determined to never go back to a Libyan detention center. He declared that it was better for the tanker to leave them to die at sea.

In the telling of some of the people present that day, Nader tried to calm the group by swearing on the Koran that he would help them get to Europe. He pointed at the sky and talked again about the plane. He said that the Europeans would send a rescue ship and that he was only waiting to learn the rendezvous point. He climbed up to the ship’s bridge and turned the vessel away from Libya. The migrants considered it an act of good faith. “He swore in front of all of us, saying that he had the courage to take us, to help us,” the pregnant woman, whom I’ll call Mariama, later told me.

The tanker went north for a while, then turned west, moving slowly toward the setting sun. Placated, people settled onto the deck. They clustered toward the bow, where a raised section of the ship provided some protection from the elements. There were only a few blankets to share, and no food. Night fell, but Bari and Nikavogui knew they wouldn’t sleep much. She was seasick, and it was cold.

Bari couldn’t hear what Nader was saying in the ship’s cabin. Over the radio, Operation Sophia requested that the El Hiblu 1 pick up a second boatful of migrants, situated a few miles from the tanker’s location. Nader said that he couldn’t.

Partial transcript of communication between Operation Sophia aircraft and the El Hiblu 1 on March 26, 2019.

OS: El Hiblu 1, El Hiblu 1, thank you for your cooperation, sir. We ask for the other boat. Can you proceed to the other one?

EH1: I cannot proceed because I have big problem. Let me put—they don’t let me to move from my position, OK? They want to go to Europe, Spain or Italy.

EH1: Airplane, El Hiblu 1.

OS: Sir, we are cooperating with the Libyan coast guard. They tell us to say to you that you can move those people to Tripoli.

EH1: I take the people to Tripoli?

EH1: Airplane, airplane navy, El Hiblu 1.

OS: Sir, we are coordinating—we are under the coordination of the Libyan national coast guard. Don’t go and rescue the other boat. You can proceed to Tripoli.

EH1: OK, send to me their support please, because I cannot move from my position because the people is very crazy here.

OS: Thank you, sir. Thank you for your cooperation. We are calling for assistance.

EH1: It’s no problem for me, but the people is very crazy here. They make me big problem on board now. Big problem on board now.

OS: Thank you, sir. I’m sorry for the inconvenience. Please, I’m going to turn [inaudible].

[Four minutes pass.]

OS: [Inaudible] the situation on board.

EH1: Very bad. Very bad.

OS: Can you give us any information about the situation on board?

EH1: I want any assistance from the other ship, please. Because he refuse—anything and made to me too much problem on board here. If you can send me other ship for [inaudible].

OS: Sir, we are doing all we can to [inaudible].

OS: El Hiblu 1, this is maritime patrol aircraft. Libyan authority is now aware of your situation. They come to your position as soon as possible.

EH1: I’m waiting here in my position. I’m waiting here in my position. I need assistance, please.

OS: Thank you, sir. They are on his way.

It was early morning when one of the migrants spotted land. In the weak light of dawn, he climbed a set of stairs to look over the ship’s bow. There was a dark strip in the distance. The man cried out. Bari heard his voice; he sounded happy. Other people ascended the stairs to see for themselves.

Joy quickly gave way to fear. Some of them thought they could see lighthouses—ones they recognized. Then someone got a signal on their cell phone. It was from a Libyan network.

Nader hadn’t held his position at sea. Around 12:30 a.m., he had given up waiting for the Libyan coast guard. He locked the door to the cabin, turned the El Hiblu 1 south, and pushed the throttle. As he headed toward Libya, Nader finally spoke with the coast guard; they told him that soldiers were preparing a boarding party, which would find the ship and detain the migrants.

Those on board didn’t know that the Libyan coast guard might be on its way, but seeing land was enough for them to feel tricked. Some began to cry and yell. “Oh, Libya! Oh, Libya!” one person screamed.

People threatened to throw themselves off the ship. Bari heard voices shouting at Nader to stop, to turn around. A group of people picked up tools and pieces of wood from the deck and began banging on the tanker’s surfaces. They moved toward the bridge to confront Nader.

Bari later said that he was near the bow at that point, with Nikavogui. She was still sick, and they were both exhausted. But Bari decided that he had to do something. Angry people had surrounded the ship’s cabin. If the situation escalated, someone could get hurt or killed, or all of them could wind up arrested and tossed into a Libyan detention center. The previous fall, a group of more than 90 people had barricaded themselves inside a cargo ship that rescued them at sea and returned to the Libyan port of Misrata. Ten days later, Libyan authorities used tear gas and rubber bullets to remove them from the ship.

Bari climbed to the bridge, where men held sticks and metal objects in their hands. They chanted, “No Libya! No Libya!” Shielded by the walls, windows, and locked door of the cabin, Nader could see that the tanker was six miles from Tripoli. He changed course, turning the El Hiblu 1’s prow toward the open sea. “I don’t know why the captain turned,” Bari recalled. “But I know that I saw people protest, and it worked.”

In several of the migrants’ recollections, Nader unlocked the cabin and came outside. He told the group that he would take them to Europe. No one believed him—not after what had happened overnight. They kept chanting and banging the items they’d scavenged from the ship. Nader seemed to recognize the teenager who’d translated for him the day before. “You,” Bari remembered Nader saying. “Come in. I’ll show you the direction we’re going.”

The translator, who was 15 years old, went into the cabin. Another young man, only a year older, joined him. So did Bari. He felt like it was the right thing to do. He stayed near the cabin’s door as Nader showed the translator the ship’s controls and navigation system. Satisfied, the teenager returned to talk to the angry group. “Calm down, the captain is right,” he said, poking his head out the cabin’s door. “We’re going to Malta.”

Bari stepped farther inside to look at the ship’s compass. It was true: The ship was heading due north. “Everybody calm down,” Bari shouted.

Bari and two other men decided to stay inside the cabin with Nader. He had misled them before, Bari thought. How could they trust him not to do it again?

“I don’t know why the captain turned. But I know that I saw people protest, and it worked.”

As the tanker’s engine growled and morning slid into afternoon, the migrants’ anxiety subsided. They ambled around the deck; some dozed at the ship’s bow. Bari could hear Nader talking on the radio, trying to explain the situation to Maltese authorities, who told him the ship didn’t have authorization to enter the country’s waters. Still, Nader didn’t seem agitated—none of the crew did—so Bari wasn’t worried. As long as the tanker stayed its course, he thought, things would get better.

On land, however, stress about the El Hiblu 1 was mounting. Word of the tanker’s situation made its way to the media. Before they set foot in Europe, Bari and the two other men in the ship’s cabin were labeled criminals of the worst kind.

“Rescued migrants hijack ship, demand it head towards Europe,” read an Associated Press headline on the afternoon of March 27, as the tanker plowed through Mediterranean waves. Other news stories described migrants “seizing control” of the ship amid a “desperate” situation. The Maltese military told local media that there was “a pirate ship” and that soldiers were “on alert.” Italy’s interior minister at the time, far-right politician Matteo Salvini, took to Twitter. “They aren’t shipwreck survivors; they are pirates,” he wrote. “They should know that they’ll only ever see Italy through binoculars.” The ANSA news agency quoted Salvini saying, “Poor castaways, who hijack a merchant ship that saved them because they want to decide the route of the cruise.” Meanwhile, the AP reported that Salvini “had a message for the pirates: ‘Forget about Italy.’”

Bari and the other migrants weren’t aware of the mounting media firestorm—they knew only that Nader was taking the ship closer and closer to Malta. At 12:51 a.m. on March 28, the El Hiblu 1 was just over 24 nautical miles from the island nation. If it moved any closer, it would enter Maltese jurisdiction on its way to Valletta, the capital and main port. The Maltese coast guard radioed the ship. Bari later said that he was asleep during the exchange.

Transcript of communication between Maltese Armed Forces (AFM) and the El Hiblu 1 on March 28, 2019.

AFM: El Hiblu 1, this is Maltese patrol vessel Papa 21. You are still proceeding towards the Maltese islands at a constant speed. You have already been given instructions to not continue entering Maltese territorial waters. Please stop your vessel.

EH1: OK sir, but the migrants, my vessel not under command now. My vessel not under command.

AFM: Captain, stop your engine now. You are still proceeding at ten knots, at ten knots. You are still proceeding at ten knots.

EH1: OK, roger sir. OK.

EH1 [a different voice]: Good morning, sir. Good morning. I am one of the migrants. Good morning, sir.

AFM: Good morning.

EH1: Please, listen to me carefully. Listen to me carefully. We are not proceeding—the ship to go to Malta. But the situation is very bad, we have children, 12 children. They are not even talking anymore. Three days now, no food or water. Please. We are not allowed to go back. Please. Three days now, we do not have food. We are 19 women, 12 children. Please help us. None of us are well. We are all sick. Please, please, no one get—please, for God’s sake, please help us. Not allowed to go back.

AFM: Copy that, sir. For now your instructions are to stop your vessel immediately and to wait for further instructions. You are not allowed to continue proceeding to go to Malta. Stop your vessel immediately.

EH1 [Nader’s voice again]: We have already stopped, captain. Already stopped. My engine is stopped now.

AFM: Copy that. Stand by. Stand by on this channel for now.

EH1: OK, thank you, sir. Thank you.

AFM: El Hiblu 1, El Hiblu 1, Malta patrol vessel P21, do you read?

EH1: Yes. I have now 100 people Africa on board. He change my course to Valletta, to Malta, to Valletta by force, by force. I am not under command. Please, if you can send to me Malta coast guard, I will thank you in advance.

AFM: Are there any crew members injured?

EH1: Yes, now I have—crews injured on board here. Many people fight with me yesterday because I don’t want to come to Malta. My destination was from Tuzla, Istanbul, to Tripoli, Libya—all the people on board fight with me, broken my vessel, by force. That’s why change the course to Malta. I called the Libyan navy many times but no, they didn’t answer. Also, for put me in the situation, military aircraft, when I proceed from Tripoli, I proceed from the Tripoli port, military call me for change my course for some place and rescue people from the port.

AFM: Captain, instructions for now are to hold the course one-four-five. Course one-four-five.

EH1: One-four-five, to where? To where?

AFM: Wait further instructions, so you are in good stability for the ship. For now, hold the course and wait for further instructions. Minimum speed.

EHI: OK, but please, if you can send to me the coast guard I will thank you, because I am not under command.

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Bari was still asleep on the ship’s bridge when he heard one of the crew members yelling. “Hurry up,” the man barked. “Get out. Your friends are out. The soldiers are coming.”

It was 5:30 a.m. and dark out except for a sliver of peach-colored sun to the east. Maltese special forces had arrived by boat to storm the El Hiblu 1, still a few miles away from land. The soldiers, including members of Malta’s counterterrorism unit, wore tactical gear and balaclavas. They carried automatic weapons. They climbed onto the tanker, and a handful hurried to the ship’s control room. In a video of the raid, edited by the Maltese government to include a triumphant instrumental soundtrack, a soldier waves one arm while holding his weapon with the other, urging two men in the cabin to step away from the window. They both appear to comply with the soldier’s command.

Bari had gone to find Nikavogui. He felt relieved: They were finally in European territory. But Nikavogui was terrified. In her experience, armed soldiers had never meant anything good.

Soldiers manned the El Hiblu 1’s bridge as Maltese ships escorted the tanker to a wharf near Valletta, a harbor frequented by luxury cruise liners. As they pulled into port, the migrants could see TV cameras lining the concrete shore. Police were there, too—they supervised as people disembarked and entered Malta via a gangway painted bright yellow.

Bari and Nikavogui stepped off together. As they did, someone told Nikavogui that Bari couldn’t come with her—he would be put in a different vehicle than the one that would take her to a migrant reception center. Only when she saw zip ties being placed around his wrists did she realize that he was being arrested.

Bari and the other two young men who stayed in the cabin with Nader—both minors whose names Maltese authorities have withheld—were soon charged with nine crimes, including seizing a ship, destruction of private property, confining people against their will, forcibly moving people across a border, and issuing threats of violence. Maltese prosecutors added terrorism riders, which carry a life sentence, to two of the charges.

A judge denied the defendants bail, because they had no means to pay it and no established ties in Malta.

Word quickly reached the media that Nader was also under suspicion. The Times of Malta reported that police were “investigating the possibility that the skipper could have ‘misled’ the authorities by claiming he lost control of the vessel.… Investigators are not ruling out that he could have reported such a situation over the radio to be allowed in Maltese waters.” Police, it turned out, had found no damage to the ship or weapons on board.

Was it possible that Nader had wanted to be a good Samaritan but also avoid criminal charges? If so his concern was well founded: According to OpenDemocracy, more than 250 people in 14 European countries have been arrested, charged, or investigated for aiding migrants. Among them are the crews of NGO ships in the Mediterranean. Operation Sophia had introduced a new complication by compelling civilian ships to return people to Libya.

In the Maltese legal system, a magistrate must decide if there is enough evidence to bring a case to trial, based on testimony, forensics, and other materials. In early April, Cedric Mifsud, a defense lawyer, questioned Nader in court. The El Hiblu 1’s first mate demanded to know why he was being treated as a villain.

Cross-examination of Nader El-Hiblu on April 10, 2019, by defense attorney Cedric Mifsud, with magistrate Aaron Bugeja presiding. Recording provided by a source who attended the hearings; Malta has yet to release official transcripts.

AB: Nobody is saying that you are a criminal. You are explaining what happened. You are a witness. I explained to you your rights before you start to testify, not to do harm to yourself. So please, tell the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth. That is what you swore before Allah. And this what I expect from you, nothing more, nothing less. Thank you, Mr. El-Hiblu. Continue.

CM: I am suggesting that not from the beginning that you wanted to take them to Malta. You had never any intention to take them to Malta. What I am suggesting to you, when you were just a few miles away from Tripoli, the port, and they found out that you were very close, and the 20 to 25 were protesting with the hammers and the tools and the whatever, you called in these three and said, “We have a problem,” and you discussed this problem.

Prosecution: Objection!

AB: Change question.

CM: I am going to suggest to you that with the Maltese authorities, you escalated, you increased, you told them that the problem was far more serious than it was, because you wanted them to leave your ship.

NEH: How?

CM: I’m going to tell you how you did that. That you told them various times that you had no control of the ship when you always had control of the ship.

NEH: I don’t have control, I don’t have—

CM: You told them that your crew members were injured, and it never had any injured. I am suggesting to you that you told the Maltese authorities that the problem—I’m not saying you didn’t have a problem—the problem is far larger than it actually was, because you wanted to end your problem. That you shift your problem on the Maltese army.

NEH: No.

CM: So tell me why you told— There’s a transcript, and I think there are CDs where we can actually hear you say you have injured crew members. Who was the injured crew member?

NEH: I don’t say it like that.

CM: You don’t say like that?

NEH: I don’t say like that, “I have injured crew members.”

CM: You did not say to the Maltese authorities that you have an injury?

NEH: I didn’t say that I have injured.

CM: So the Maltese army is lying?

Five days after Nader’s testimony, the court ruled that the case against Bari and the teenagers could go to trial. Nader wasn’t charged with any crimes. “From the statements from the crew and the immigrants themselves, we didn’t have any suspicion or any conclusive motive that the crew was involved,” Omar Zammit, lead prosecutor on the case and head of the Maltese police’s counterterrorism unit, told me. Soon after the announcement, the El Hiblu 1 departed Malta for Tripoli. Nader and his brother, the ship’s owner, both declined to be interviewed for this story. I wasn’t able to ask Nader about discrepancies between his testimony and what he said at sea, or between what the migrants remembered and what he claimed on the radio.

For its part, the defense team told me that context is everything with the El Hiblu 1 incident. “The prosecution is treating this as a terrorism case and are ignoring the migration case,” said Neil Falzon, a member of the team. In demanding that they not be taken back to Libya, Falzon explained, the migrants were acting in the sincere interest of their safety. A similar argument has held up in court before: In 2018, the Vos Thalassa, a commercial vessel, was called on to save 67 people off the coast of Libya. At first the crew intended to deliver the rescued group to the Libyan coast guard, but when the migrants protested the crew turned the Vos Thalassa toward Italy. Two people were charged with hijacking the ship but cleared of all charges by an Italian court. The judge wrote that the takeover constituted a “legitimate defense” against the prospect of returning to Libya.

Bari’s lawyers made that point before the Maltese magistrate. Zammit, the prosecutor, dismissed it as preposterous. “This is like saying that when my child is sick, I go to steal to help my child,” he said in court.

I brought up this quote when I interviewed Zammit at Malta’s police headquarters, where lofty marble hallways led us to a large dining hall paneled with stone and wood. Zammit was bald and stocky, and he wore a pressed white shirt. I asked what he would do if his child was sick and he couldn’t afford medicine—would he steal it? Zammit fidgeted in his chair. “I prefer not answer that question,” he said. (This was a common refrain in our interview: Zammit was hesitant to share details about an active case.) A crime is a crime, he continued, though punishment can “be mitigated—that’s fair enough.”

Later, as we walked through one of the building’s regal halls, Zammit came back to my question. “If my son were sick, I would do anything to protect him,” he said. He stopped walking when he spoke and looked me in the eye. He started moving again before concluding, “Still, if it was against the law, I would face the consequences.”

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When I met with Bari, he’d been in Malta for three months. He was behind bars at Corradino Correctional Facility, an imposing stone building that has housed prisoners for more than 150 years. It sits in the center of a small town across the harbor from Valletta, and it was calm when I arrived. In Bari’s block, two floors of cells flank a common area, where a long table and benches sat beneath an arched ceiling. Most cell doors were flung open, allowing prisoners to move around. Large ceiling fans circulated the summer air. It was close to 100 degrees and humid, the kind of heat that sets life in slow motion.

Bari and I met in a room where inmates typically speak to their lawyers. It was cramped, with chipped paint and an old wooden door. Two beat-up office chairs sat on either side of a small table. A top-of-the-line security camera watched us from the ceiling.

I asked about his treatment in the facility. Bari shrugged. “It’s been fine,” he said. “But it’s still prison.” Since the court green-lighted his case for trial, there had been two evidentiary hearings. Three more hearings were scheduled but canceled. As of this writing, the trial itself had yet to be scheduled. One of Bari’s lawyers told me that the case could take years to resolve. Until then, Bari and the two other accused would remain in prison.

As we spoke, Bari was sometimes indignant and angry. In other moments, when talking about family, he cried. I offered more than once to end the interview if it was too much for him, but he insisted on continuing. When trying to remember a specific detail about the El Hiblu 1—the ship’s layout, when and where each event occurred—he squinted his eyes in concentration.

Bari said that he’d thought he could make things better by intervening when they spotted Libya. A group of people were angry and protesting, and he defused the situation. Still, sitting in prison, he regretted the choice. “If I had known what was going to happen,” he said with a sigh, looking at his hands on the empty table, “I would have stayed with my wife.” He missed Nikavogui; Fanta, too.

When Bari talked about Nader, he stood and waved his hands in the air. “He told the judge that he’s not afraid of the three of us in the cabin—he was afraid of everyone outside,” Bari said. “And we’re the terrorists?” He sat down again and rubbed his head, as if for an instant he wasn’t sure what to say or do.

Bari had been surprised to learn that Nader was allowed to leave Malta. “He used us to get out of trouble,” Bari said. He took a breath, and when he spoke again there were long pauses between his words: “He betrayed us.”

“If my son were sick, I would do anything to protect him. Still, if it was against the law, I would face the consequences.”

Limbo is painful, but Bari has allies. In May 2019, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called on Malta to drop the terrorism charges against Bari and his codefendants. A press release noted that some of the migrants saved by the El Hiblu 1 “exhibited clear signs of torture and ill-treatment” from their time in Libya or before. Going back wasn’t a humane option.

In all, 105 people from the rubber dinghy went to an immigration reception center in Marsa, a town across from Valletta’s harbor. They were interviewed by police, seen by doctors, and given the chance to apply for asylum, a process that usually takes between six and eighteen months. After a few weeks, the group dispersed to Malta’s open migrant centers, where residents can come and go freely. Some people in the centers hope to stay in Malta; others want to leave and go to the European mainland. If someone doesn’t apply for asylum, or if their application is denied, they won’t necessarily be deported. Many people remain in Malta and find work in the cash economy. It’s a bureaucratic purgatory: They’re in the country illegally but lack the documentation to leave without being detected. They keep their head down and hope never to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I made contact with some of the people rescued by the El Hiblu 1. Many were worried that speaking publicly could jeopardize their legal situation or cause trouble with the police. I met Nikavogui one day at a café near the migrant center where she’s living. She had a strong, matter-of-fact way of speaking but struggled when talking about Bari. When she reached an emotional point in her story, she would trail off and look down, as if searching for her next word somewhere on the floor. A few seconds would pass before she’d raise her head, take a slow breath, and keep talking.

Without Bari, she felt strange, unsafe, and alone. She’d seen him only once since they’d arrived in Malta. Arranging visits in prison, she said, was nearly impossible. She hoped that the court would find him innocent. “I don’t understand what they want,” Nikavogui said. She told me that she still feels panic when she thinks about being at sea. “I thought we were all going to die,” she said.

Victor, the man from Nigeria, said that Malta wasn’t without problems. Just nine days after the El Hiblu 1 docked in the country, a man from Ivory Coast was killed and two others were injured in a drive-by shooting near one of the migrant centers; police arrested two Maltese soldiers in connection with the crime. Still, Victor said, Malta is better than Libya—anything is better than Libya, he added. He was thankful that he didn’t give up on getting to Europe. Two months after we spoke, a migrant detention center near Tripoli, like the one where Victor spent time before finally making it into the dinghy, was hit by an air strike. At least 53 people died; scores more were badly injured.

Mariama, pregnant when the El Hiblu 1 rescued her, gave birth to her second son four days after arriving in Malta. When we met, she wore the infant strapped to her back, swaddled in fabric. Her older son, who was three, sat nearby sipping juice; he’d been saved by the tanker, too.

Mariama told me that she often thinks about Bari and the teenagers in jail. Without them, where would she and her children be? Perhaps in a Libyan detention center. Perhaps on another rubber raft. Perhaps dead. “They aren’t terrorists,” Mariama said of the three men. “They aren’t criminals.”

She doesn’t hold ill will toward the tanker’s crew. “It’s because of them that we are alive,” she said. “Otherwise our boat wouldn’t have lasted another two hours.”

How long did the rubber dinghy survive? According to recordings of marine radio chatter, Operation Sophia tracked the deflating boat and its six passengers late into the evening of March 26. Then the mission’s planes ran low on fuel and were forced to return to their base. An Operation Sophia spokesperson told me that the El Hiblu 1 eventually picked up the remaining migrants—an account contradicted by those actually on board the tanker.

If by some miracle the dinghy made landfall unassisted, the relevant authorities would know. Maltese and Libyan officials told me that the the boat didn’t reach their countries. Frontex, the European border agency, and the Italian coast guard wouldn’t comment on the matter.

It’s as if, when the dinghy blurred to nothing on the Mediterranean horizon one spring afternoon, it vanished forever.

There Are Places You Cannot Go

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There Are Places You Cannot Go

A friendship born out of the ruins of a nation, a dangerous journey home, and a 40-year search for the truth.

By Brent Crane

The Atavist Magazine, No. 93


Brent Crane has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Outside, and The Economist, among other publications. He was previously a reporter for the Phnom Penh Post.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Tekendra Parmar
Photographer: Thomas Cristofoletti

Published in July 2019. Design updated in 2021.

Prologue

One day in February 2019, Cindy Coleman sped through central Cambodia in a motorcycle rickshaw. Most of the half-hour ride from the capital, Phnom Penh, to her destination followed a narrow two-lane road through poor, bustling towns. The rickshaw, or tuk-tuk, passed a busy wet market with fish gasping in styrofoam boxes, meat hanging from rusty hooks, and women in face masks pushing wagons of river snails. “The kids aren’t in school,” Coleman shouted over the roar of the wind and the engines, referring to a gaggle of roaming children. It was a national holiday, and hot. The air smelled of mangos, burning charcoal, and sour trash.

The tuk-tuk came to a stop at the edge of the Bassac River. Coleman, petite, with short white hair and an airy white shirt, ducked out of the rickshaw and made her way toward a shaded school across the street from the water. Dogs began barking. “Oh, be quiet,” she rejoined. The last time Coleman visited Cambodia, she walked with a cane. A recent hip replacement meant she didn’t need it anymore, but she kept a pad in her shoe to compensate for a leg shortened by the surgical procedure—an annoyance for the 77-year-old retired social worker and teacher from northern Michigan. She preferred flip-flops.

The school gates were closed. Coleman placed her small hands on the wrought-iron bars, slipped her fingers through the slots, and gazed at the empty grounds. Low-lying, red-roofed buildings encircled a concrete courtyard. There were palm trees, potted plants, and a flagpole. Cambodia’s flag—navy blue and red, with a white sketch of Angkor Wat in the center—hung motionless in the heat. “This is the place,” Coleman murmured. “I’m sure of it.”

Decades ago, this school, like all of Cambodia, was a kind of prison. From 1975 to 1979, the country was ruled by a Communist militia known as the Khmer Rouge. The group seized power in a coup, and immediately, as if thrust into a fever dream, Cambodia transformed. The new regime turned back the clock to what it called Year Zero. Private property was outlawed, families split apart, whole cities emptied. A few days after the militants took Phnom Penh, residents were marched into the countryside at gunpoint to build a new proletarian utopia. They were allowed to bring only what they could carry. Many died or were killed along the way. Those who survived began a life of toil, working long hours in makeshift labor camps, their days dictated by orders delivered over crackling loudspeakers or shouted by exacting military cadres. Everyone was forced to wear black.

The threat of death was constant. People were called away by the authorities and never came back. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to who disappeared. At any time it could be you, your brother, your daughter. Temples were used as torture centers; ancestral farmland served as mass execution sites. Under the Khmer Rouge, one in four Cambodians died. It was the worst genocide since the Holocaust. Tiziano Terzani, an Italian reporter who covered the country both before and after the Khmer Rouge’s reign, wrote that he “could no longer see a row of palm trees without thinking that the tallest were those most fertilized with corpses.”

The school that Coleman had come to see, 40 years after the Khmer Rouge’s downfall, is in a place called Prek Pra. The Communists referred to the surrounding area as Region 25—everything in the country has another identity, one that it was forced to inhabit. After peering at the small campus for a while, Coleman lit a cigarette and walked away from the gate, toward the river. She stood on the bank, thick with reeds. Rising above the ochre-colored water were clusters of wooden hovels balanced on stilts. To the north was Phnom Penh, a cityscape interrupting the flat, brown and green countryside. Coleman studied it like someone might a tombstone. It represented, she later remarked, “the beginning of the end.”

Looking out at the river, its soupy current flowing southward, Coleman was thinking of old friends.

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Cindy Coleman looks through the gate of the school in Prek Pra.

Chapter 1: Premonitions

Social activism practically ran in Coleman’s blood. Her father, John Bartlow Martin, was a celebrated investigative journalist who reported on the forgotten segments of society—the poor, the mentally ill, criminals. Today there is a journalism award in his name at Northwestern University. He and his wife raised Coleman and her two younger brothers in Illinois. A tomboy, Coleman watched Cubs games with her father and joined him on hunting trips; she got her first shotgun in her early teens. She was also curious and passionate, intrepid and decisive. In college, she attended feminist rallies, even burning her bra at one. Later, she got involved with antiwar efforts and volunteered as a marshal at protests in Washington, D.C.

By the mid-1960s, Martin was working in government. He’d been a speechwriter for various political figures, including Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy. Once elected president, Kennedy appointed Martin ambassador to the Dominican Republic. On a visit there one summer, Coleman met a young foreign service officer named Joseph Fandino. A charming Cuban American from New York City—among the first Hispanic members of the foreign service—he’d served in the Air Force during the Korean War and attended Columbia Law School. Like Coleman, Fandino was sharp, quick on his feet, and darkly funny. Once, when angry rioters swarmed a car he and Martin were riding in, the ambassador asked, “Joe, what do you intend to do if things get really bad?” Fandino responded, “I’ll jump out of the car, tear off my tie, and yell, ‘Down with the Americans!’”

Coleman stayed in touch with Fandino. Eventually, they were married. Fandino was posted to Spain in 1968, and Coleman went with him. Despite her husband’s job, she was stalwart in her opposition to U.S. foreign policy. She even anonymously copublished an antiwar ad in the International Herald Tribune, which she remembered provoking an investigation within the U.S. embassy. Coleman helped resettle Cuban refugee children in Spain, and after she and Fandino moved back to the United States, she became a social worker for abused children. By then she and Fandino had two kids of their own, a boy and a girl.

In September 1971, Fandino was sent on assignment to Vietnam by the U.S. Agency for International Development, as part of a hearts and minds campaign. Coleman hated the new position: Her husband was now part of a war that she thought was an abomination. She also worried about his safety. When Fandino came home to America for Christmas, Coleman pleaded with him to quit. “I kept saying, ‘If you go back you’re gonna die,’” she said. “It was one of those things. I just knew.”

Fandino returned to Saigon. In June 1972, Coleman received a call from a State Department receptionist. Her husband had died in the line of duty. Coleman never learned how.


Nhek Veng Huor grew up about 120 miles northwest of Saigon, just over Vietnam’s border with Cambodia. His village was in Prey Veng, a poor province in a poor country. Its name means “long forest” in Khmer, the language of Cambodia’s dominant ethnic group. French colonists converted much of its jungle into farmland in the 19th century. Silt deposited whenever the Mekong River overflowed made the soil fertile. Both of Nhek’s parents were rice farmers.

Born in 1952, Nhek had eight siblings. It was clear from an early age that he was smart. The family acted accordingly, preparing him for life beyond the rice paddies, for an education. His father pushed Nhek to learn; the boy got more free time to read and study and received fewer chores than his siblings. He excelled in school. In his free time, Nhek roved the village and the countryside with his best friend, Peng, who came from a wealthier family. They climbed tall, skinny palm trees, caught croaking frogs, looked at the stars, and swam in ponds. Peng was a good student, too. Theirs was a bond forged by the pressure of familial expectations: Leave the village, make something of yourself.

Nhek and Peng were the only children their age who in 1969 went to Phnom Penh for high school. The city’s long, Parisian-style boulevards were hectic with shiny cars manufactured in Japan and America; its cafés and nightclubs blasted rock and roll. Magnificent new buildings, designed by visionary architect Vann Molyvann, gave the city a sense of looking to the future. Nhek had few means to partake in the capital’s pleasures, though. Any money he had went toward schooling and food. He secured free lodging with a Christian missionary, who helped him sharpen his French.

Cambodia had been independent since 1953, and by the time Nhek arrived in Phnom Penh, the country was becoming a war zone. The Nixon administration had begun a covert bombing campaign aimed at disrupting a network of Communist supply routes that cut through Cambodia. Over several years, the United States bombed Cambodia more heavily than it did Japan during World War II, including Nagasaki and Hiroshima. This effort only bolstered support for Cambodia’s own leftist insurgency. Strongest in rural areas, it was led by the Communist Party of Kampuchea, which would become known as the Khmer Rouge.

A 1970 parliamentary coup in Cambodia ushered in a fierce anti-Communist government, led by an army marshal named Lon Nol. Unhinged and unpredictable, with a penchant for the occult, Nol was prone to delusional thinking; one U.S. government cable described him as “a sick man, both mentally and physically.” Nol dramatically escalated Cambodia’s battle with the ascendant Khmer Rouge while encouraging U.S. air strikes. Shell-shocked peasants poured into Phnom Penh. Many were forced to live in the streets. Food prices skyrocketed. Amputees were a common sight. The war, once a distant worry for city dwellers, became impossible to ignore.

The conflict became Nhek’s life when, after high school, he enlisted in the navy. He joined the crew of a ship that transported troops to battle. It had a heavy front hatch, which Nhek helped lower onto riverbanks so that soldiers could scramble out. Guerrilla strikes were common. “They attacked every time we got out of the city,” remembered Sim Tan, a veteran who served on the same ship. Nhek kept a yaon, a piece of cloth blessed by a monk, with him always; it was said to afford protection. Once, after lowering his boat’s hatch, he watched as the deploying troops were decimated by a rocket attack. Their limbs stained the water and the sides of the boat red. Somehow, he was unscathed.

Nhek was eventually stationed on a larger carrier affixed with a 105-millimeter cannon. His job involved transporting supplies provided by the U.S. military in South Vietnam up the Mekong to Phnom Penh. The war was getting uglier. Nhek killed Vietnamese and his own countrymen—the enemy was defined by ideology. In one battle, he helped rescue a civilian family, which returned to Phnom Penh with him. Nhek became engaged to a daughter in the family.

In early 1974, Nhek received good news: The humble country boy had been invited, along with other select servicemen, for military training in the United States. Navy commander Sophano Vong called each man personally to deliver the message. Nhek enrolled in three months of mandatory English classes at the naval headquarters in Phnom Penh. It was a happy time. Instead of deploying to battle zones, he was learning a new language. When lessons were done for the day, he went to bars and movies with friends. “We’d just have a good time together,” serviceman Um Sihourn said. “Nhek and I were like twins.”

One day, Nhek and Um visited a palm reader. Like many Cambodians, Nhek harbored a strong belief in the supernatural and in destiny. He was leaving his country, his fiancée, and a war that had engulfed his life. He wanted to know what would become of him. The seer made two predictions: You will soon travel far away, she told him—and never in your life will you marry.

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Nhek Veng Huor’s passport photo and application.

Chapter 2: Year Zero

The men’s training began in the fall of 1974, at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Friends remembered Nhek radiating warmth, but he could also be rowdy, in the way of young military men. He drank beer in the dorms, and once, during playful roughhousing in a campus cafeteria, he tackled an Iranian serviceman twice his size who was also there for training. “All the teachers said, ‘Don’t mess around with this guy, he knows kung fu,’” Um remembered. Nhek also wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. On another occasion in the cafeteria, he accused an English teacher of speaking down to the Cambodians and demanded an apology. The teacher had been instructing them on how to use a toilet.

That winter, the Cambodians continued their training in Newport, Rhode Island, at a U.S. Navy facility composed of squat buildings on a rocky spit of land jutting into Narragansett Bay. Newport Bridge, stretching across the water and easily visible from the school, must have seemed near divine to a rice farmer’s son from a province where the only way to cross the Mekong was by boat. In a picture of the Cambodian servicemen taken on campus, Nhek crouches in a black uniform and white hat. He has large ears and a dark mole beside his nose. His left hand is draped over his knee, his mouth pulled into a pensive grin.

With its pristine streets, quaint New England charm, and extravagant wealth, Newport could not have been more different from Phnom Penh. This was especially so in January, when the Cambodians experienced their first blizzard. At first they marveled at the snow, laughing and taking pictures. The novelty wore off during their daily dawn walks to an indoor pool where, as part of their physical training, they had to tread water. They requested thicker jackets.

Meanwhile, Cambodia descended into chaos. Congress forced an end to Nixon’s bombing campaign, and the Khmer Rouge ramped up its efforts to seize Phnom Penh. Rockets and artillery shells rained down on the capital, and civilians perished while shopping, biking, or hawking noodles. The city was running out of food, medicine, money, and oil. Blackouts were common. Supplies had to be airlifted in by U.S. military planes because the Khmer Rouge deployed floating mines in the Mekong.

In early April 1975, Lon Nol fled the country. Soon after, the communists captured a key military base south of Phnom Penh. To the men in Newport, it was crushing news: The Cambodian capital became a sitting duck. On April 12, U.S. Embassy staff began evacuating the country. A week later, Khmer Rouge troops entered Phnom Penh virtually uncontested. As the militants asserted control, ordering everyone by megaphone to evacuate to the countryside, an Associated Press reporter named Mean Leang transmitted a message from the bureau. “I have so numerous stories to cover. I feel rather trembling,” he wrote. “Appreciate instructions. I, with a small typewriter, shuttle between the post office and home. May be last cable today and forever.” A year later, he would be executed.

Nhek waited for America to send him home. Instead, it sent him to Cindy Coleman.

The old Cambodia was gone. The Khmer Rouge renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea, a signal of its intent to erase history. In Rhode Island, many of the servicemen requested political asylum. A State Department representative described the situation as “unprecedented”: soldiers on student visas—they were in training, after all—suddenly made stateless. A Navy spokesman called them “men without a country.” They were assured, in letters sent by President Gerald Ford, that the government would resettle them.

Nhek, though, didn’t want asylum. He wanted to go back. This perplexed some of his fellow servicemen. “I couldn’t believe he would trust the Khmer Rouge,” Um said. Everyone knew how brutal the Communists could be, a reputation accrued over many years of war. They decapitated “Lon Nols,” shorthand for government soldiers, with the razor-edged branches of palm fronds. Captured Cambodian servicemen often chose suicide instead.

In mid-1975, as Um and other soldiers began the resettlement process, Nhek went to Camp Pendleton, a military facility in Southern California on a green stretch of rolling plains between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ana Mountains. Thousands of Indochinese refugees were already there, housed in hastily erected camps. Saigon had fallen to the North Vietnamese shortly after the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh, and operations New Life and New Arrivals were underway: In the largest humanitarian airlift in history, the United States transported some 150,000 asylum seekers to military bases in Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Florida, and California.

Among them was Peng, Nhek’s best friend from childhood. Peng was thrilled to see Nhek but bewildered by his friend’s plan. “You better stay for a while,” Peng remembered cautioning him. “Wait to see what’s going on in Cambodia. Right now nobody knows.” The arrival of Year Zero had brought a virtual news blackout. People who made it out of the country spoke of horrors—killings, torture, forced labor—but it was hard to separate rumor from fact.

Nhek convinced himself that his chances of surviving were good. He reasoned that the new regime surely had desperate need of skilled navy men like him. He had some money saved up that could be used to bribe officials. Besides, the civil war was over. Going back might be risky, Nhek thought, but it wasn’t suicide. He said goodbye to Peng—who moved to nearby Long Beach to start a new life—and waited for America to send him home. Instead, it sent him to Cindy Coleman.


Every day in the autumn of 1975, Coleman walked the two blocks from her townhouse in Center City, Philadelphia, to the local branch of the Nationalities Service Center, a refugee-resettlement agency. She was 33 and recently remarried, to a social worker named Joe Coleman. As a volunteer at the center, she helped register refugees for English classes. The agency occupied several floors of an old brick building with dark hallways. Its director was a man named Mike Blum, a short, fast-talking liberal idealist with a curly beard.

One day, Blum called Coleman into his office, a large room with windows overlooking busy Spruce Street. By that point, three weeks into her time with the Nationalities Service Center, word of Coleman’s past experience with refugees had got around. Blum had an assignment for her, a paying one. The agency had been subcontracted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to manage a group of 114 Cambodians. Roughly a quarter were civilian families. The majority were military men who’d been training in various parts of America when the Khmer Rouge overran Phnom Penh. All of them wanted—desperately—to go back. Some had even threatened suicide if they couldn’t.

The Cambodians had been corralled and were now coming to Philadelphia, where they would live in a YMCA in Center City for five months. During that time, someone had to figure out how to get them back to Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge had almost no diplomatic presence anywhere in the world, which meant there wasn’t an embassy or consulate to liaise with in Washington, D.C., or New York City. The regime had cut off the country from international travel, allowing commercial flights to come only from Peking (now Beijing). It wasn’t clear what repatriation would require: what documents, whose permission, which transit route. It would be Coleman’s job to oversee the group of stateless people until the details were ironed out.

“It was pitched to me as crisis management, basically,” Coleman recalled. The Cambodians were due to arrive in a week. She accepted the job on the spot—she never shied away from a challenge.

On the night of December 11, 1975, Coleman, Blum, and another Nationalities Service Center staffer named Mary Beach drove to Philadelphia International Airport to meet the Cambodians’ plane on the tarmac. Blum and Coleman boarded to make an announcement over the intercom, introducing themselves and welcoming the men and women seated in the jet’s rows. “I remember feeling really nervous, but not about the project, just that I had to say something,” Coleman said. She despised public speaking as much as she hated airplanes. When the introduction was over, the Cambodians disembarked and loaded into buses bound for the YMCA.

The servicemen moved into the eighth and ninth floors of the facility, while the civilians, most of whom didn’t speak English, moved into the twentieth. Coleman, whose office was on the eighth floor, became the point person for the soldiers, while Beach lived among the civilian families. The situation was tense from the start. A man named Norng Sam Oeurn was the first soldier to introduce himself to Coleman. He had a rigid posture and, according to Beach, “a face that always looked like it was wincing.” Norng, who often carried his suitcase with him, told Coleman sternly that the servicemen “would take it from here”—they didn’t need her guidance.

Not all the men were so cold. One was a pilot named Taing Vannassy who always wore a long white scarf with a bomber jacket, like an old-fashioned aviator. Another was an aging navy captain named Keo Keam who was perpetually sick; he stayed bundled in flannel pajamas, a sweatshirt, and a wool hat, and he wore his room key dangling from a string around his neck.

Then there was Nhek, who’d come all the way from Camp Pendleton. He was especially affable. He began stopping by Coleman’s office every day, settling into a chair near the door. “He’d come in for ten or fifteen minutes,” she recalled. “Sometimes he’d just sit.”

Nhek was charming and endearingly curious. He asked about Coleman’s evenings—where she’d gone, what she’d done—as well as her kids and her home life. Coleman took an immediate liking to the soft-spoken man. There was something quietly impressive about him. “I always considered Huor one of the smartest and bravest of the entire group,” she said, using his first name.

Before long, Nhek was sitting in a chair closer to her desk. He called Coleman bong srey (older sister). They were becoming friends.

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Youk Chhang of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) helps Coleman check records from the Khmer Rouge’s Paris mission.

Chapter 3: In Another Life

The servicemen instituted a strict system of internal control: check-in procedures, a nightly curfew, mandatory meetings, and a prohibition against single men visiting the twentieth floor. They set a desk next to the eighth-floor elevator, and a watchman was there at all hours. All comings and goings were monitored.

To some extent the rules were kneejerk, products of the servicemen’s ingrained military culture. They were also political and preemptive. The men were going back to a country utterly remade, and they had to be ready. That meant eschewing American influence. The Cambodians studied Communist philosophy. In nightly, hours-long gatherings that mirrored reeducation sessions, they confessed to various impurities of the flesh and the mind: adultery, doubting the revolution, studying English or Christianity. Once condemned by the group, they could be redeemed.

Coleman and her colleagues were barred from attending these sessions. Many of the servicemen were wary of the American staff, who they feared only wanted to thwart their efforts to go home. Beach recalled one of the men telling her that he knew “it would look bad on the U.S. that these guys wanted to return to a Communist country.” They began calling each other “comrade” and America “imperialist.” They organized a “supreme committee” mimicking the structure of the Communist Party in China. Norng claimed that he was in touch with a Khmer Rouge “mission” in New York. Contacts at UNHCR and the State Department told Coleman there was no such thing. (Later, it would be revealed that the mission consisted of a Cambodian economics professor who received information from Phnom Penh via a Chinese courier at the United Nations.)

Meanwhile, the private conversations between Coleman and Nhek that began as small talk evolved into more substantial dialogue. Nhek talked about his time in the war, his family, his worries and doubts. He admitted that he’d considered striking out on his own—leaving the group and traveling to a country where it might be easier to repatriate. Somewhere in Africa, maybe, that wasn’t aligned with either side of the Cold War. In the charged atmosphere at the YMCA, where the group mattered more than the individual, the thought constituted a high offense.

Beach remembered other servicemen telling Nhek not to be so sociable. “He really didn’t care what the rest of the group thought,” she said. “He would talk to us anyway.” On a few occasions, Nhek snuck out to get French novels from the Philadelphia library. He went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and became indignant when he saw an Angkorian statue, arguing that it belonged back in Cambodia. One day he asked Coleman where in Center City he might find a woman he could pay for sex—a forbidden act. Gingerly, she suggested a shady-looking fortune-teller’s shop. That evening, Coleman laughed all the way home.

Life at the YMCA wasn’t all secrets and suspicion. The refugees had a food allowance, and a nearby Thai restaurant compiled a special menu entitled “For Our Cambodian Friends.” On a television in a common room, the men devoured episodes of M.A.S.H.— Nhek and three of his close friends always sat on a brown leather couch to watch the show. Most mornings, Beach, a 22-year-old blonde who walked with a limp, would accompany the Cambodians to local newsstands so that they could look for stories from home.

In the afternoons, the YMCA opened its recreation rooms to the servicemen, who liked volleyball and Ping-Pong. They were particularly adept at the latter, and an audience often formed around their matches. “I couldn’t even see the ball when they were playing,” Beach recalled. Sometimes Blum, the Nationalities Service Center director, joined in. The servicemen let him win. “Hey folks, we live in a democracy here. Just play your game,” Blum told them one day. He never got another point after that.

One night two Cambodians started playing a guitar and a fiddle. The others gathered to hear the music; so did some of the American staff. In a photograph snapped during the impromptu show, Nhek is seated cross-legged on the floor, his eyes fixed on the guitarist. He looks content.


In early February 1976, a UNHCR official named Virendra Dayal arrived at the YMCA with news. A Khmer Rouge mission in Paris—one that actually existed—had informed the agency that the Cambodians would need to come to France and apply for new passports. There would be multiple interviews and reeducation classes. There was no guarantee that the Cambodians would be allowed to return home. Speaking solemnly, Dayal gave the room his recommendation: Become refugees, start new lives. On his way out, Dayal stopped and placed his hands on Coleman’s shoulders. “Poor friends,” he said sympathetically.

The announcement increased the sense of urgency at the YMCA. The group had hoped they would be granted repatriation collectively, because there was safety in numbers. That they might be separated, and that any one of them might be denied entry to their home country, was devastating news. Some of the Cambodians repeated threats of suicide by self-immolation or starvation. A psychiatrist hired by the Nationalities Service Center said the group had hysteria. Some were prescribed valium. The psychological distress was piled atop existing physical ailments acquired through poverty and displacement, particularly among the civilians: tuberculosis, malaria, oral disease. (A patient report from Temple University’s dentistry school described one of the Cambodians as having “severe dental disease with rampant decay affecting every tooth in his mouth.”)

In mid-February, Blum and Coleman traveled to Washington to speak with State Department officials, who recommended that the Cambodians get to Paris as soon as possible. The government had intelligence suggesting that the Khmer Rouge mission in France might shut down, cutting off the only known access point for repatriation. Soon after, a few of the Cambodians requested to leave for Paris, and the Nationalities Service Center helped them get French visas. Among them was Keo Keam, the old navy captain; he’d run afoul of some of the other servicemen, who in a state of growing paranoia now believed he was a CIA plant. Taing Vannassy, with his scarf and bomber jacket, went too. Before he boarded a bus for the airport, Taing hugged Coleman and sniffed her, a Khmer signal of affection. “I’ll see you in another life,” he told her.

Blum told a newspaper reporter at the time that the Cambodians “would like to go silently back to Paris and silently back to their country.” In reality they were desperate. After the first Cambodians left, others began bombarding Coleman, begging to be sent to Paris. “In an alley, walking home, people jumping out of buildings, people showing up at my door, people calling at night on my home phone saying, ‘I have to be next, I have to be next,’” Coleman said.

Even while they coordinated visas and flights, Coleman and the other American staff issued repeated reminders: The Cambodians could become refugees at any time. No one was forcing them to return. None of them took the offer.

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High-rise buildings surround Tuol Sleng, the school converted into a prison by the Khmer Rouge.

Chapter 4: “Love, Huor”

The Cambodians kept tabs on everything the Americans at the YMCA did. When Coleman went to pick up a set of airline tickets to France at a local travel office, some of the men followed her and hid in a bookstore across the street, holding open volumes up to their faces as if they were in a Spy vs. Spy comic. When she flew to Paris for a short visit because the first group of men were still waiting for passports and had run out of money, they would meet with her only in out-of-the-way cafés. They wouldn’t tell her where they were staying or where the Khmer Rouge mission was located. They didn’t want to jeopardize their chances of being allowed into Cambodia—not when they’d made it that far, to the final gauntlet. “This was real cloak-and-dagger stuff,” Coleman recalled.

Meanwhile, news reports about Cambodia were scarce. Some mentioned that half a million people had died of starvation, disease, or execution since the fall of Phnom Penh. The group in Philadelphia largely ignored such reports. “They didn’t believe that Cambodians would treat other Cambodians that way,” Beach recalled. Instead they read work by American journalist Gareth Porter, who praised the Khmer Rouge victory and disparaged claims of Communist atrocities. (In 1977 congressional testimony, Porter described international reaction to the Khmer Rouge as “hysterical” and the death march after the fall of Phnom Penh as a “myth.”) Porter’s writing inspired optimism among the men. Coleman felt it, too. “I still hold that against him,” she said of Porter.

According to Coleman, the State Department—specifically the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs—told the Nationalities Service Center that it knew nothing about what was happening in Cambodia. In fact, an official in Thailand named Charles Twining was filing reports to the bureau informed by refugee interviews. On March 31, 1976, Twining described “a Spartan, miserable existence for people constantly living in fear, under strict control. Disease and executions have become commonplace.” There was also at least one government cable about the fate of Cambodians who returned home from foreign countries. Sent in September 1975, it noted that there was “fairly reliable evidence that a number of Cambodians who repatriated themselves from Thailand were executed by the Khmer Rouge.”


As they prepared to leave, the Cambodians ventured into Philadelphia, visiting the zoo and the Liberty Bell. Nhek and Coleman sometimes drank together at the YMCA, and she was allowed to attend reeducation film screenings. At one, the Cambodians showed a propaganda movie about the industrialization of North Korea. Everyone sat on the floor, backs against the wall, passing around a soda can half-full with gin. Coleman was next to Nhek. The film lasted nearly four hours. Turning to Nhek at one point, Coleman quipped, “Dear God, if only we invaded North Korea, I wouldn’t have to sit and watch this stupid movie.” The two friends burst out laughing.

If Coleman was like a bong srey to Nhek, Beach was something else. Nhek told her about Cambodian cultural etiquette: Don’t touch a child on the head; don’t put your feet on a seat. He relayed a Khmer folk tale about a couple in love who couldn’t be together, so the man swallowed the woman up. That way he could produce her from within himself whenever he desired.

One day, Nhek mentioned that there was a woman waiting for him back home. A few days later, he reversed course, insisting that he had made it up “because he was trying to make me jealous,” Beach recalled. Nhek told her that Cambodian men, when they are interested in a woman, follow her around so that she will grow used to him. “One day I had gone out of the Y, and when I got back I was standing, waiting for the elevator, and all of the sudden I noticed he was behind me,” Beach said.

Nhek and Beach developed a romance. It was sweeter than it was impassioned. He liked her, she liked him; they were both modest people. In March 1976, Nhek proposed. Beach was shocked. “I really hadn’t known him all that long,” she said. If Beach accepted, Nhek said, he would not return to Cambodia.

Beach told Coleman, who counseled against accepting the proposal. “If not now then later he will resent you for having kept him here and not letting him go back home,” Coleman said. It wasn’t that Coleman didn’t want her friend to stay. She constantly pressed Nhek to change his mind, not because of romance but because it would mean safety, a better life. During one exchange, she lost her temper and threw a packet of cigarettes at him. “I didn’t realize Americans were emotional,” Nhek said.

Ultimately, Beach asked Nhek if he would be happy living in America without her if a marriage didn’t work out. He didn’t answer.


A few days before Nhek flew to Paris, in April 1976, he gave Coleman his navy officer’s hat. Once he got to France, the interviews and reeducation with Khmer Rouge officials began. Coleman waited for word of what would happen next. Nhek called her one night. “We’ve all been accepted to go back,” he told her. In three groups over as many weeks, the Cambodians would fly to China, then to Phnom Penh. The friends talked for a bit—Nhek liked Paris; everything was fine with the Khmer Rouge mission; the YMCA was quiet without the servicemen around.

In mid-June, Nhek called Coleman again.

“I’m leaving in the morning,” he said.

“Will you be safe?” Coleman asked.

“I don’t know.”

“For God’s sake don’t go. Come back. If you come back, I’ll take care of you.”

Nhek was crying. “I have to,” he said, and hung up.

A week later, Coleman received a postcard from Athens, where the plane to China had made a refueling stop. Another one arrived from Peking.

“The city is beautiful and silent,” it read. “Love, Huor.”

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The entrance to Tuol Sleng, still lined with barbed wire.

Chapter 5:  Not Enough of Anything

Coleman stayed at the Nationalities Service Center for another year before taking a job—again working with refugees—at the Pennsylvania Office of Mental Health. She thought about Nhek and the other Cambodians often. She even kept Nhek’s passport photo in her wallet, alongside photos of her children. There was nothing she could do for him. Nothing, that is, but worry.

The situation in Cambodia remained frustratingly hazy. The silence emanating from its confines could be excruciating, and as an outsider, Coleman had no easy way to penetrate it. She considered finding a way to travel there and seek out her friends. Then, in late 1978, three Western reporters were given a tightly controlled tour of Phnom Penh. One of them, a British writer, was murdered by a Khmer Rouge soldier. News of the incident, like removing a veil, brought into stark clarity for Coleman that there was no way she could—or should—go to Cambodia. She had five children and a husband to think about. She felt absurd for even entertaining the idea.

A few weeks later, in December 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia. Once allies, the Communists in the neighboring countries had become adversaries. The Vietnamese easily overpowered the Khmer Rouge, and leaders in Phnom Penh fled into the country’s forested north. (Pol Pot, the regime’s notorious dictator, would remain there until his death in 1998.) Overnight, the government’s grip on its citizens loosened. Refugees began spilling out of the country into Thailand, where they gathered in camps. The Cambodian diaspora went into a frenzy as people frantically searched for information about family and friends they hadn’t heard from since 1975.

Coleman and her husband, Joe, took leave from work and flew to Thailand. She was determined to find Nhek and the others, or at least some news of their fate. “It was just, make the reservations, go visit the camps, do anything—just get to the border and see if I could find anything,” Coleman recalled. She had a list of names and some photos, including Nhek’s passport picture. In the image, his shiny black hair is combed over. He has a wide jaw, full lips, and an imploring gaze.

Coleman kept Nhek’s passport photo in her wallet, alongside photos of her children. There was nothing she could do for him. Nothing, that is, but worry.

Officials at the U.S. embassy in Bangkok already knew who Coleman was because of her work in Philadelphia. “Around here we call you Ms. Cambodia,” one staffer told her. The embassy provided the Colemans with a car and a driver. For more than a week, they traversed the Cambodian border, moving between refugee camps. They were desperate places, Coleman said, with “not enough of anything.”

Coleman had drawn up fliers in Khmer identifying some of the servicemen: their names and the fact that they were ex-military. There was barely anywhere to put up the fliers, however, save for a bulletin board in one camp. So Coleman talked to whomever she could. “I was going to any little field where there was a group of bedraggled Cambodian refugees sitting, surrounded by Thai guards and barbed wire, just looking for a familiar face,” Coleman said. “Nobody knew anything.”

One day toward the end of the trip, in an eastern Thai region called Aranyaprathet, Coleman walked from the car, alone, to the border. Nothing marked the divide but a rusty iron gate. The land was flat all the way to the horizon, with high grass and few trees. “There wasn’t a soul,” Coleman recalled. “It was just dead silent.”

She stood looking into Cambodia. It was a strange feeling to be so near this country that had had such a dramatic impact on her life. She thought about stepping in—over the invisible boundary, toward the truth about her friends. But then she thought about the land mines in the ground, the Thai border guards that were possibly watching her, the brutal heat, and her dismal chances of success. Dejected and exhausted, Coleman turned back to the car. “There are some places you cannot go,” she said.


In the fall of 1980, Coleman was in her office at the newly formed Indochina Refugee Action Center in Washington, D.C. She was up to her elbows in resettlement work once again, and she had yet to hear any news, good or bad, about Nhek and the other Cambodians. She hadn’t lost hope, but she was realistic. “I knew it was looking pretty grim,” she said. “It had been a long time.” That day around noon, Ben Kiernan, an Australian scholar, stepped into her office. He hadn’t announced his visit. He was a historian, and he had just returned from Cambodia. He knew about Coleman’s search for her friends.

Kiernan told Coleman that he’d met Ung Pech, a survivor of Tuol Sleng, the infamous Khmer Rouge prison, who’d recently become the first director of a museum dedicated to what had happened between 1975 and 1979. Pech was compiling names of the people killed by the regime, which, like the Nazis, had kept detailed records of its cruelties. Kiernan handed Coleman a list. There were dozens of names, most of which she didn’t recognize. But 19 of them she did—19 of the servicemen she’d helped in Philadelphia were dead. One of them was Nhek.

“I just kind of shut down,” Coleman said. She’d waited so long, and now she knew. The truth was too big, too final. She couldn’t feel it.

A few weeks after Kiernan’s visit, Coleman had lunch with a journalist who’d been to the refugee camps in Thailand. She carried with her a letter from a Cambodian refugee who was a dancer before the revolution. Coleman read it, and one line landed like a punch to the gut. It was an entreaty, the kind of desperate plea that follows an unfathomable disaster, and it triggered the full weight of Coleman’s grief and guilt.

“Does anybody out there remember me?” the letter read. Coleman began crying and couldn’t stop.

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 Remains of prisoners held at Tuol Sleng.

Chapter 6: Confessions

Coleman held onto Nhek’s passport photo for another decade, until she moved to the Bahamas. Her marriage to Joe Coleman ended in divorce, and with her kids grown and gone, she went to the island nation for a fresh start. She worked as a schoolteacher and a translator for Cuban refugees. Gazing one day at the picturesque beach next to her home, she thought: Nhek was a navy man. She walked to the ocean’s edge and tossed her friend’s photo into the great spill of radiant blue. It was a way of moving on.

In 1998, Coleman moved to a small town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with her new partner, a yachtsman and Korean War veteran named Larry Shanley. She taught sociology at a high school. She told the story of the servicemen to her students, and some of the teenagers suggested that she might be able to find out what had happened to Nhek and the other men. The internet, a new luxury, might turn something up, the students offered. They crowded around a classroom monitor. Some browser searches led to the website of an organization called the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, or DC-Cam, a research organization in Phnom Penh that preserved records of Khmer Rouge atrocities. Kiernan, by then a scholar at Yale, had helped start DC-Cam in 1997 with funding given to the university by the State Department.

Coleman sent a short email to DC-Cam inquiring about the Cambodians who’d lived at the Philadelphia YMCA. She hoped that some of them might still be alive. Maybe there’d even been a mistake and Nhek’s name shouldn’t have been on the list Kiernan showed her. DC-Cam’s director, a gregarious man named Youk Chhang, responded quickly. “Sorry to tell you, they’re all gone,” he wrote.

It was a devastating start to a years-long correspondence between Coleman and Chhang. Like most Cambodians of his generation, Chhang understood loss. Though he’d survived the Khmer Rouge, several of his family members had not. After the Vietnamese invasion, he’d lived in a refugee camp in Thailand for many years before eventually making it to the United States, where he earned a degree in political science from the University of Texas at Dallas. He’d then returned to Cambodia to run DC-Cam. Over time he and Coleman would become close friends. “I think Cindy feels a sense of guilt for helping them come back,” Chhang said. “But I tell her, ‘It’s not your fault.’”

In one of their early exchanges, Chhang said that he had torture confessions from some of the men, recorded at Tuol Sleng. The documents, often remarkably long, were the final records of many victims of the Khmer Rouge. Chhang offered to translate them into English. Coleman told him to send copies of the originals to Michigan; she’d have someone there help her with them. She got the papers in the mail and leafed through what amounted to the last chapters in the lives of Nhek, Taing, and others. She asked a Cambodian friend to translate. Not wanting to distress Coleman with the confessions’ contents, the friend politely refused.

Coleman let the documents sit untouched for several more years. In 2008, she and Mary Beach went together to Cambodia, both for the first time. They met Chhang and toured Tuol Sleng, which had been transformed into a museum of the genocide. It made Coleman want to throw up. Displayed on long panels were photographs of prisoners taken upon their entry into the prison: doomed men, women, and children, their eyes pleading from every frame. Coleman searched for faces she knew and found none. She and Beach also visited Choeung Ek, better known as the Killing Fields, where more than a million people had been executed and dumped in mass graves.

Though Chhang had offered before, Coleman didn’t ask him to translate the confessions. She was too overwhelmed. Perhaps her Cambodian friend in Michigan had been right; maybe she wasn’t ready to hear the truth—not yet. “I could barely take the fact that they were all dead,” Coleman said. “I couldn’t face it.”

It took another seven years for her to decide that she wanted to hear her friends’ voices. When she did, Coleman was back in Phnom Penh, volunteering for DC-Cam. Larry, who’d never really approved of her returning to Cambodia, because he worried about her safety, had died recently. Coleman had her cane by then; her hip replacement was still a few years off. She spent a portion of her days at DC-Cam, which occupies a modest building beside the imposing, lotus-shaped Independence Monument in eastern Phnom Penh. Coleman sat next to a Khmer translator, slowly going through the confessions.

The translator dictated. With a pen, Coleman wrote out the words once uttered by people she cared for. Nhek’s confession was nearly 400 pages long.


Only a few thousand Cambodians repatriated from abroad after the Khmer Rouge took power. Among them was Ong Thong Hoeung, an intellectual who survived the genocide; he later remembered a militia cadre boarding his plane while it was on the tarmac and collecting people’s personal items like watches and passports in a bucket. Most repatriates were taken to the Khmer Soviet Technical School in Phnom Penh, known then as K-15. Servicemen like Nhek were separated from the other new arrivals, most of them students, and the groups immediately began reeducation in the form of hard labor: smashing rocks, digging in rice paddies, repairing houses. “The reeducation was for us to forget everything in the past,” Ong recalled. He never witnessed any violence at K-15, but he saw many people “taken out” who did not return. Meals consisted of a “thick gruel … like the food we give pigs to eat.”

According to Nhek’s confession, which reads almost like a memoir, after ten days at K-15, he and some other servicemen were sent to work at a place called Ta Lei, a village outside Phnom Penh. Some weeks later, on August 10, 1976, he and a soldier named Soem Sei Lena, who had also been in Philadelphia, were sent to another labor site south of the capital. It was on the east bank of the Bassac River, in Prek Pra, at a school with pastel yellow walls. It was the school that, in 2019, Coleman would visit on a sweltering February day.

Nhek and Soem plotted to escape, to get to Vietnam—they wanted to live. On the night of August 18, they snuck out of their sleeping quarters in the school. They were armed with a homemade hatchet, a knife, and a slingshot. Silently, the pair managed to slip past the camp’s guards—youth with Kalashnikovs—and into the nearby jungle. The day before, one of them had climbed up a coconut palm and scoped out a route that avoided other labor camps. They followed the path east toward the Mekong. At dawn, when the rising sun illuminated the plain of central Cambodia, they neared the river and felled two trees in a banana grove. The men hauled the green trunks to the riverbank and rested until the evening.

As darkness fell, Nhek and Soem, clutching the tree trunks as flotation devices, eased into the flow of the Mekong, submerging their sweaty bodies into the dark torrent. Water soaked their clothes and splashed their faces as the current carried them south toward freedom. Around dawn, Soem said he was feeling unwell, so the pair rested at a place called Dei Ith, where the Mekong narrows. Other people would try to escape Cambodia the same way, and the Khmer Rouge would eventually set up guard positions at Dei Ith. But that August, there were none.

The men found some corn and ate it raw. In the late afternoon, they heard voices and hid among the trees. A few hours later, they decided to enter the river again to continue their journey. But a group of peasants appeared, detained the men, and gave them up to authorities. Though Nhek’s confession mentions the weapons that he and Soem carried, it says nothing about fighting back.

Each confession was recorded by a torturer tapping away at a typewriter, then the account was signed, dated, and stamped with the prisoner’s thumbprint. Once it was finished, the only thing left to do was die.

The men were sent to Tuol Sleng, which the Khmer rouge called S-21. It had once been a high school—square buildings surrounding two sun-drenched courtyards, taking up several blocks in south-central Phnom Penh. Of the more than 15,000 prisoners assigned to Tuol Sleng, less than a dozen are known to have survived. When the Vietnamese entered the premises in 1979, there was fresh blood on the walls but no prisoners.

Tuol Sleng was the black, raving heart of the Khmer Rouge’s murderous enterprise. The regime sent people there not to house them but to break them. The facility’s crumbling surfaces were the color and texture of moldy bread. Spirals of barbed wire topped the walls surrounding it. Cells were hardly bigger than a few square feet, hastily created in classrooms out of cheap concrete and brick. Each was equipped with a chain to loop around the prisoner’s ankle and an ammunition box for bodily fluids.

According to the few survivors, interrogations could last days or even weeks, and they often extracted only lies. Prisoners were under excruciating pressure to confirm the conspiracy theories of their torturers, who were themselves under pressure by superiors to discover such plots. People were asked who recruited them to the CIA, KGB, or Vietnamese intelligence forces, and who among their friends and family were working as spies. They were accused of trying to sabotage the regime. Guards beat prisoners with sticks. They pulled out toenails. They broke fingers. They attached wires to ears and administered electric shocks. Eventually, prisoners relented and told their captors what they wanted to hear. Each confession was recorded by a torturer tapping away at a typewriter, then the account was signed, dated, and stamped with the prisoner’s thumbprint. Once it was finished, the only thing left to do was die.

Nhek’s records say nothing about how he died, but most people at Tuol Sleng were transported to the Killing Fields, where, to save ammunition, soldiers executed prisoners by hitting them in the back of the head with a shovel or some other blunt object. Nhek was put to death after admitting in his confession that he’d been involved in a clandestine CIA plan to overthrow the Khmer Rouge, a common theme in torture documents. He also said that he was party to a CIA scheme to take down Kim Il-sung in North Korea before doing the same to Cambodia’s leaders.

As she scratched it down with her pen, Coleman recognized this detail. It echoed the joke she’d made to Nhek at the Y, when they’d watched the propaganda film together and sipped from the same can of warm gin.

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View of the Bassac River, where Nhek mounted his escape.

Epilogue

The servicemen from the YMCA were told in Paris that they would be reunited with their families in Cambodia, but there is no evidence that this ever occurred. Following the Khmer Rouge’s collapse, one man’s wife contacted the U.S. military asking where her husband was. She had no idea that he’d returned for her. The servicemen returned home to a purging they didn’t—or didn’t want to—expect. In 1976, the Khmer Rouge accelerated its campaign to rid the country of suspected enemies. People once associated with Lon Nol’s government were among the prime targets. Though Nhek’s attempt to escape down the Mekong may have been what sent him to Tuol Sleng, he likely would have wound up there regardless. The regime always found a reason to kill.

It took three months for Coleman to finish Nhek’s confessions and four others. One came from Keo Keam, who had survived only four days at Tuol Sleng. The navy captain’s cause of death was listed as “[got] sick and died,” but Coleman chose to believe that “he willed himself dead.” The translation work was exhausting and painful; Coleman could do it for only a few hours in a sitting. Still, there were times it made her laugh, like when she copied down claims that she and other Nationalities Service Center staff were CIA agents. “There was stuff that was just funnier than hell,” she said.

Nhek had relatives who survived the genocide but never learned his fate. Peng, still living in California, reached out to Coleman after learning of her connection to his friend. (I wrote about Coleman in a 2016 article for the Phnom Penh Post, which Peng read.) He put her in touch with Nhek’s surviving siblings, who were still living amid the rice paddies of Prey Veng. Coleman went to meet them at Nhek’s childhood home, a green-roofed dwelling on stilts. “People told me he had been arrested, but I didn’t believe them,” said Vann Limheng, Nhek’s older sister. Coleman shared what she’d learned from the confession. She also recounted happier memories from the YMCA.

Speaking with people who knew him, it was clear that Nhek had become a repository for various emotions, traumas, and explanations—joy for halcyon legacies and youthful promise; guilt over living when others had not; regret over actions not taken and things not said; confirmation that, far too easily, human cruelty can become a source of power. Peng said that he had recurring dreams about Nhek in which his friend was dressed well and looking healthy, like he had when they were young. Sihourn Um, who became a software engineer with IBM in Colorado, and later Texas, remembered Nhek as a patriotic warrior who would have done anything for his country. To Mary Beach, he represented a parallel life.

For Coleman, he would always be “a sweet, gentle, poetic, smart, lovely, kind guy who everybody agrees was just a wonderful, wonderful kid.” He’d been cut down in his prime, severed from his home and then swallowed by it. Not in an act of devotion like the one described in the Cambodian folk tale, but in an attempt at total annihilation.

Love is obliteration’s undoing; memory endures. On the morning that Coleman and her translator finished Nhek’s confession, they sat at a table in a shaded outdoor space at the DC-Cam office. Just as the translator reached the end—the pages that preceded Nhek’s unrecorded death—a butterfly came over the steel wall surrounding the office. “It just kept flying around, and I started watching the butterfly. I quit writing,” Coleman said.

She was entranced. Coleman, a longtime gardener, had never seen a butterfly like it before—small, with yellow and black wings. It fluttered for several minutes, until the translator read the final words on the page before her: “Signed, Nhek Veng Huor, September 13th, 1976.” The butterfly rose up as if on a current of air. Then it went back over the wall, flitting out of sight.

Commonwealth v. Mohamed

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Commonwealth v. Mohamed

A car crash in Kentucky left a 13-year-old girl dead. A Sudanese refugee was charged with her killing. Could anyone get justice?

Margaret Redmond Whitehead

The Atavist Magazine, No. 89


Margaret Redmond Whitehead is a journalist and fiction writer whose work has appeared in Good Housekeeping, Reason, Narratively, and other publications. She was a Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity Literary Journalism fellow in 2017. Follow her on Twitter @margredwhite.

Editors: Seyward Darby and Jonah Ogles
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Tekendra Parmar
Illustrator: Hokyoung Kim

Published in March 2019. Design updated in 2021.

1.

On the morning of May 23, 2015, on a highway in Scott County, Kentucky, two cars kissed and then pitched off the road.

The black Toyota Tacoma pickup was headed west on its way to a youth volleyball game. Emily Sams, 13 years old, with long brown hair and large, soft eyes, was perched in the back seat. She wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. Her father, Jeff, was driving. Her mother, Shella, was riding shotgun.

The other car, also going west, was a blue Toyota Camry. A refugee from Sudan named Mohamed Abdallah was driving. A willowy man with fine features in his early thirties, Abdallah and a friend, Mohammed Tom, were on their way from Baltimore to Louisville, where a community of Masalit—the men’s ethnic group, from the Darfur region of Sudan—had invited them to attend a meeting. It was at least a nine-hour trip, and Abdallah had been driving through the night to make the morning appointment.

At approximately 7:05 a.m., Abdallah’s sedan went into a yaw on I-64 West, moving forward and sideways at the same time. The car slid across the asphalt, leaving its lane and making contact with the Samses’ truck. Metal bit metal, and both drivers lost control of their vehicles.

Abdallah’s Camry spun down the side of the road until it hit a leafy thicket. After the car came to a halt, Tom pulled Abdallah through the driver-side door to safety. Abdallah stumbled toward the wrecked black pickup. Its front right side was caved in. Shella was still in her seat, and one of her legs looked unnaturally crooked. Behind the wheel, Jeff asked for his daughter. With no sign of a third person in the truck, Abdallah searched the debris.

He found Emily, dead, near a tree. Her neck was bent, her body twisted. Flashbacks of war shuddered through Abdallah’s mind: blood and dust, torched grass huts. He crumpled to the ground.

Emily’s grandparents, who were traveling to the volleyball game in a different car, arrived at the scene. A truck driver also saw the smoking Camry and pulled over to help. He found Abdallah collapsed near Emily. Abdallah would later remember the truck driver, a burly white man with a gut, saying “Let’s pray,” followed by a few questions.

The first was, “Where are you from?”

“We’re coming from Baltimore, Maryland,” Abdallah said.

The second: “I didn’t mean where in the U.S. Where are you from?”

“We’re from Africa,” said Abdallah.

And finally: “Are you Muslim?”

“Yes,” Abdallah said.

The truck driver walked away, toward the Samses’ pickup.

2.

I first met Abdallah at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. It was October 2012, and I was in my second year as a resettlement caseworker for refugees. I waited near the arrivals gate, clutching a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and making sure my International Rescue Committee badge was visible. Abdallah was one of seven Darfurian men landing that night. I had a tiny row house ready for them in the Baltimore neighborhood of Pigtown. Earlier that day, I’d picked up three rotisserie chickens for their first dinner in America.

I’d been working with Darfurian refugees for a few months, but Abdallah and three of the other men who arrived that night were the first Masalit people I’d met. Most historical accounts place the start of the genocide in Darfur in 2003, when the Sudanese government began a vicious campaign to eradicate or evict the region’s western ethnic groups. The Masalit, however, have been under attack since at least the mid-1990s, a peril of living in the borderland between Chad and Sudan.

Abdallah was never a fighter, but he witnessed violence. In 1996, when he was 14, his father was killed resisting members of the Janjaweed, a state-sponsored militia, as they robbed the family of cattle. When he was 16, the Janjaweed massacred 50 people in an adjacent town. When the militia came to Abdallah’s town in 1998 and cut down his uncle, the family fled to Chad. They returned briefly, but the attacks increased. They left Darfur for good in 2003.

A week after the men arrived at the airport, during orientation, I asked if they had any questions. This was a time when clients typically asked me to repeat the details of their transitional benefits, like food stamps. Abdallah, leaning on the table around which the men were sitting, raised a hand.

“How can I be a good neighbor in America?” he asked.

I looked at him, astonished. His brown eyes, ringed in thick, dark lashes, stared back at me. He held a pen in his long fingers, waiting to write down my answer. “Well,” I said, “you can help your neighbor take in the groceries.”

He scratched that down with his pen and asked another question.

“Where can I volunteer?”

“How can I be a good neighbor in America?” Abdallah asked. I looked at him, astonished.

Abdallah quickly became my point person for his house. He would consolidate the queries of all seven occupants and bring them to me. When a cantankerous roommate stirred up drama, I sat in the living room to mediate and Abdallah interpreted for me. Whenever the other men raised their voices, he rocked back and forth, his thin back curved tensely and his arms pressed against his chest. Conflict made him squirm.

Around the resettlement office, other people came to rely on Abdallah, too. He was easygoing, neat, eager, and humble. His English was good and getting better. In 2013, Abdallah joined a trip to hear President Barack Obama speak, and he took his role as an audience member so seriously that he showed up in a suit. He was dismayed when the president’s staff filled the event’s front rows with people wearing T-shirts and jeans. Abdallah, dressed to the nines, had to stand in back.

Once, he hit gravel while riding his bicycle and crashed. I met him at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Sitting in the pharmacy, I pointed to a TV screen where Obama appeared in a news segment. “Look,” I said. “It’s your friend.”

Abdallah glanced up, laughed, and waved his hand dismissively. “I’ve already seen the real one,” he said.  

A few days before Christmas in 2013, Abdallah and one of his roommates caught me on the street in front of the resettlement office. Grinning, they pressed a plastic bag into my arms. It was a Christmas gift. Inside the crinkling white plastic was a pleather jacket from Marshall’s. On a small piece of notebook paper, the men had scrawled a message in blue ink: “Hi Maggie—this is small gift from Jamoa yahia. mohamed Abdallah. and Juma mohamed. Thank you so much your helping, and thank you agania.”

I wasn’t supposed to accept presents from clients. I couldn’t control when a wizened Nepali woman surreptitiously slipped a can of Coca-Cola into my purse, but I’d disappointed dozens of clients with apologetic refusals of thoughtful offerings. Still, I accepted the jacket from Abdallah. My designated time—eight months—as his caseworker was technically up. I’d been waiting for this moment, when I could become his friend.


One weekend in September 2015, after I’d left resettlement work to become a graduate student and writer in New York City, I was supposed to meet Abdallah in Baltimore. He’d agreed to be an interpreter for one of my reporting projects. “I can’t pay a lot right now,” I said when I called him. “Only $15 an hour. But I hope I can pay more later.” The rate didn’t faze Abdallah. “Of course,” he replied. I could tell from his voice that he was smiling.

I never saw Abdallah that weekend. By the time I arrived on Friday, he was in jail. Earlier that day, four officers had shown up at his door with handcuffs and arrested him. His alleged crime was causing the fatal car crash in Kentucky four months prior. He would stay in a Baltimore cell, appear in court, and then be transported to Kentucky to await trial. The news felt like a punch below the ribs.

The Darfurian community in Baltimore was in a frenzy. My host, a refugee named Abbas Yahya, spent the weekend fielding and placing phone calls, then racing out the door to emergency meetings to discuss the situation. For many community members, it wasn’t a question of what had happened—they were aware of the crash and that Abdallah had been coping with its aftermath—but of what came next. What would the American justice system do? How would it assign blame for what seemed to be a tragic accident? The last two Masalit clients of mine who’d gotten in trouble with the law were young men caught sipping beer in a public park. They had no idea why they kept receiving mail from the city government, and their unpaid fines soared to more than $900 each. Abdallah’s legal tangle was far uglier, and it was more confusing than anyone in the community knew how to handle.

Yahya dropped me at the bus station early Monday morning, three hours before I was scheduled to leave for home. He apologized and explained that he wanted to get to Abdallah’s court hearing on time. Yahya knew he could only watch, but he intended to be there anyway. Like several other Darfurians in Baltimore, he considered Abdallah his dearest friend.

Abdallah was charged with second-degree manslaughter and two counts of assault; according to his indictment, he “wantonly drove his automobile into the [Samses’] automobile.” He was transported to a jail in Kentucky and held on $75,000 bail. From home, I wrote Abdallah a letter. “I was in Baltimore the weekend you were arrested,” it began. It devolved into a patchwork of encouragement and advice.

Two weeks later, I received an envelope with a red stamp on it that read “INMATE MAIL UNSECURED.” Abdallah wrote that he’d always told other people to be safe and not get in trouble, “but today I’m here in jail.” Being behind bars “let people miss a lot of appreci oppertunity.” Still, he wrote, he was trying to stay positive.

Former resettlement colleagues of mine pitched in to help Abdallah. One happened to be living in Kentucky, where she was working on a farm. She visited Abdallah in jail. Another, Amanda Olmstead, then the Darfurians’ main contact in Baltimore, found a private defense lawyer in Kentucky who agreed to represent Abdallah. The lawyer’s name was Dan Carman, and he haggled Abdallah’s bail down to $7,500. Yahya and Olmstead split the cost, and Abdallah was released on house arrest.

He moved in with a Masalit friend in Louisville; he wasn’t allowed to go back to Baltimore. Abdallah’s life in Maryland, including recently procured jobs as a security guard and an interpreter, dropped away like freshly snipped strings.


For two and a half years, Abdallah waited as his case moved through the legal system. The only places he was allowed to go outside of his apartment were the Amazon fulfillment center where he worked and the courthouse. Carman tried to negotiate a plea deal, but the prosecution wouldn’t budge on the charges or drop the penalty lower than five to 15 years in prison. Under federal law, a conviction for a “crime of moral turpitude” or an “aggravated felony,” which includes manslaughter, would place Abdallah at risk of being deported. To stay in America, he would have to stand trial and hope for the best.

Abdallah’s plight stuck in the back of my mind like a deep splinter. I’d let myself forget about them, then I’d see his Facebook posts—a humanitarian plea about Darfur, a cheesy inspirational quote, a Merry Christmas message, a selfie—and feel a sick pang. I’d remember that there had been a collision, that now Abdallah was in Kentucky, that a young girl was dead.

The few times we spoke, Abdallah evaded my questions about his case. Thinking that he was embarrassed, or that maybe he didn’t know the answers because legal matters can be so bewildering, I didn’t press the issue. I saw him once during his house arrest, in October 2016, when research took me to Louisville. Abdallah arranged for me to interview a young Masalit couple at his home, where he could interpret. I felt a surge of relief knowing that I’d see him in person and ensure that he was intact.

Abdallah was living on the third floor of a brick apartment building. When I arrived, we sat in the living room, me on a chair and Abdallah on a sagging couch. He poured me syrupy tangerine-colored juice. Rubber slippers rested in a doorway, available to anyone who needed to walk on the gritty tiles of the kitchen floor or into a nearby bathroom that smelled like pools of cool, stagnant water. The hems of Abdallah’s pants, as always, were let out to compensate for his long legs. Even so, they didn’t cover his ankle monitor. The device cost him $10 a day.

As an interpreter, Abdallah seemed his usual self, focused and professional. But when we spoke between interviews, he was subdued. His English had regressed. His shoulders drooped. When I asked what was happening with his case, he looked askance.

“Some things are not finishing,” Abdallah said.

“Do you know when they’ll be finished?”

He muttered something about his lawyer. I changed the subject.

When I left, Abdallah bid me goodbye from his front walkway, the invisible force of his ankle monitor tethering him to his home.

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3.

Through the speakerphone, I heard anxious, distant voices. My cell phone sat beside me on a sofa cushion. I clutched a notepad. Everyone on the line that day in January 2018, including my spouse, Sara, sitting across from me, knew Abdallah and felt invested in his situation. Amanda Olmstead had scraped us together for a conference call because she finally had details about Abdallah’s trial. It was scheduled for February 19. Carman, the defense lawyer, had told Olmstead that he needed character witnesses. Specifically, he needed white, American faces—people who could speak to Abdallah’s upstanding nature and “mix in” with the Darfurians who would inevitably show up in the courtroom to support their friend.

Olmstead told us what else she knew. The girl who’d died in the crash was named Emily Sams; her identity entered into my consciousness as a dense weight. Shella Sams, who worked in special education, had been in a wheelchair since the accident. Abdallah would be tried where the incident happened, in Scott County.

Someone asked if Abdallah’s charges were, well, normal. Olmstead explained that, according to Carman, they were not. It was unusual for felonies like second-degree manslaughter and assault to result from a crash involving sober drivers who hadn’t done anything overtly reckless. Authorities in Scott County had also deemed Abdallah a flight risk, despite preexisting limitations on his movement. He was a refugee with a green card; he couldn’t travel abroad without applying for a special permit. Between work and volunteering, he was entrenched in his community.

A knot of confusion settled across the conference call. Why, then, was this happening? We could guess but didn’t know for sure. And if what we suspected was true, we needed to hear it.

Olmstead relayed in more detail what Carman had said about Scott County: It was predominantly white, and it was conservative. It also had a sour history with immigrant drivers. On the same day as Abdallah’s accident, an undocumented Mexican man hit and killed a bicyclist, panicked, and drove a few miles with the dying man’s body in the back of his truck, where it had landed after hitting the windshield. The police eventually stopped him. The driver, who had a history of DUI convictions, was stoned and drunk. He was given 35 years in prison. At his sentencing, the man asked the cyclist’s wife for forgiveness. “You took away my husband,” she responded. “You have no respect for life.” Later, to the press, she said, “Obviously, we would like him to be in jail for life.”

Carman believed that Abdallah likely wouldn’t get much sympathy from a Scott County jury. From my vantage point, it was easy to share his concern. In 2016, Scott County went for Donald Trump by 31 points. The president had since vowed to keep Americans safe by barring people like Abdallah from entering the country. Young male refugees—unencumbered by children and often the first of a population to flee a troubled region—and Muslim immigrants were under intense national scrutiny. When I mentioned Abdallah’s predicament to friends, many furrowed their brows in apprehension. “And his name’s Mohamed?” they asked.

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Several people from the conference call blocked off the third week of February in our calendars; some of us planned to carpool to Kentucky. Olmstead reserved an Airbnb in Louisville, one with bunk beds and a pull-out couch. We debated who should take on the role of the white character witness: Who knew Abdallah best? Ultimately, Olmstead and I were cast.

I felt desperate for information, in much the same way that my clients did when I was a resettlement caseworker. Refugees often wanted any useful thing I could tell them, any crumb of knowledge. How strange now to be on the other side. I counted down the days until my first phone call with Carman, which Olmstead also joined.

“I think he’s innocent,” Carman told us. He was a fast talker, with what I assumed was a Kentucky accent. “It was just an accident. Mohamed didn’t do anything wrong.”

To be clear, Carman continued, Abdallah had been speeding. My brain fumbled with this information. The Abdallah I knew followed rules to a fault. The cognitive dissonance ground down the words even as I transcribed them.

The GPS from the Camry, now in evidence with Scott County, showed the car going around 19 miles per hour over the speed limit, which was 70, around the time of the accident. In the preceding hours, Abdallah had topped 100 miles per hour three times. Under Kentucky law, going more than 15 miles per hour over the speed limit may accrue several points on someone’s license, but it doesn’t necessarily qualify as reckless driving. In order to prove its case, the prosecution would have to establish that Abdallah had demonstrated flagrant, excessive disregard for highway safety—“wanton” behavior, in legal speak, that showed indifference to the lives of other people on the road.

“There’s a lot going on in the case right now,” Carman continued, including the fact that, on his advice, Abdallah had hired an accident reconstructionist named Henry “Sonny” Cease, a retired major for the Kentucky police. Abdallah had paid Cease $5,000 up front but hadn’t yet received the accident report, which made us nervous. There was no way to tell if what Cease had to say would help or hurt Abdallah’s defense.

It was possible, Carman continued, that a Scott County jury might vote for a partial conviction as a compromise. “These jurors, they’ll see Mr. Sams in the grocery store,” he said. A partial conviction, however, wouldn’t mitigate the risk of Abdallah being deported. “The law is on Mohamed’s side,” Carman explained, “but the equities are not.”

When I spoke to Abdallah the next day on the phone, knees curled to my chest on my sofa, his voice sounded tight and low. For the first time, he talked to me about the accident. Jittery, I wrote down what he said on a half-size yellow steno pad.

He told me about the Sams family. How he thought he remembered their truck bumping his Camry before he went into the yaw. How he staggered to the pickup after the crash. How he looked for the girl and found her. “It was so sad,” he said. “It was so, so sad.” He told me about the truck driver and the questions: Where did he come from? Was he Muslim?

Abdallah and I spent the rest of the call brainstorming people who might be willing to write a character-reference letter for him. When I hung up the phone, I stared at the list of 53 names—people who’d been my colleagues, interns, and volunteers. They’d helped Abdallah during his resettlement, rented to him, hired him, and worked alongside him. He remembered them all.

We had prioritized people we hoped would win over a Kentucky judge. Most had Anglophone names. Only a few were Darfurian men. My striving for this mix would repulse me in retrospect. Right then, though, I didn’t care. I wanted a bluegrass roster.

When I sent out a mass email to the people on the list, I took care to explain that their letters wouldn’t be used during the trial; I didn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up. The letters would come into play if Abdallah were found guilty. The writers’ job would be to convince the judge to minimize the sentence so that Abdallah might be able to stay in America.

I googled “what to wear as a character witness” and scoured my wardrobe for warm, feminine clothing. Nothing black. Nothing too coastal elite.

Days later, on another call with Abdallah and Olmstead, we ran through everything we didn’t know, including why Scott County didn’t have Abdallah’s official statement from after the crash and how Mohammed Tom, who was set to testify, would get to Kentucky from Washington State, where he’d relocated. “It was an accident,” Abdallah kept repeating. “It was an accident.” He said it so many times that I finally snapped and told him that he’d better pull it together and get his head in the game. Get a nice suit. A respectable haircut. Practice American eye contact.

After Abdallah hung up, I told Olmstead that maybe I shouldn’t have been so harsh. She said that it was fine, that it needed to be said.

I took phone calls from Darfurians who couldn’t come to the trial but wanted to submit letters for their friend. I prompted them with questions, transcribed what they said.

“Mohamed is a good man. He is always giving,” said Jamoa Yahia, on a break from driving an 18-wheeler to Texas. “Whatever he has, he gives to people who need it.”

“Everyone loves him,” said Hassen Ismail. He added that Abdallah’s mother, who was still living in a refugee camp in Chad, was heartsick and scared.

I drove to Baltimore one day, shooting down I-95, and for a moment screamed so hard I thought my voice might rake open the flesh of my throat. When I arrived, I sat on Abbas Yahya’s couch, helping him with his own letter. “All the Darfurians in Baltimore have been impacted by the accident because we miss Mohamed,” Yahya dictated. “It feels like all of us had an accident.”

I admitted to Yahya that I’d cried during a recent call with Abdallah. He looked at me aghast—appalled by the breach in my professional veneer. I felt viciously bored with myself. When I got back home, I tore through my closet, packing for Kentucky. I had googled “what to wear as a character witness” and scoured my wardrobe for warm, feminine clothing. Nothing black. Nothing too coastal elite.

Carman called me to go over what he would ask me on the stand. I hammered him with anecdotes I’d been stockpiling: Abdallah’s good-neighbor question, the incident of overdressing to see Obama.

“Those are good,” Carman said, “but I can only ask, like, three questions. How do you know him, can you form an opinion on his character—”

“Yes.”

“—and what that opinion is. And you can basically just say ‘high’ or ‘very high.’”

That was all I’d get: a fragment of a sentence.

I doubted that so brief a testimony could persuade a jury of my faith in Abdallah. At the very least, though, I could bear witness. I’d been at the airport for Abdallah’s beginning in this country. If it came to it, I would be there for the end.

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4.

Georgetown, the seat of Scott County, is a picture-perfect small city. The buildings on its main drag are old, made of brick, and so charming they belong in a movie. At the courthouse, security guards smiled and nodded as I passed through the metal detector.

I arrived toward the tail end of jury selection, which had taken up most of a Monday morning. More than a dozen of Abdallah’s friends and supporters were already inside the courtroom. As witnesses, Olmstead, Mohammed Tom, and I were relegated to a hallway, opposite two nearly exhausted candy machines and a lime-crusted water fountain. We wouldn’t be allowed to watch the trial until we’d testified.

In the early afternoon, a young woman emerged from the courtroom and came over to us. She was Kalee Collett, Carman’s assistant. She had wide, clear eyes and straight blond hair. Her serious expression made her look older than her 19 years. She brought good news: Jury selection had been rigorous. For starters, the defense asked potential jurors to identify any biases they held against people of a certain skin color or religion, along with whether or not they knew the Samses personally. The prosecution had unsuccessfully tried to cut a black woman, citing a previous speeding ticket and alleging that her profession—engineering—would make her a difficult juror. A Hispanic man and a white woman who said she was from South Africa had made the final panel.

After Collett left, we took turns standing up to peer through large, rectangular windows into the courtroom. I tried to take notes, balancing my notebook on the ledge. But there wasn’t much to record: I couldn’t hear what anyone was saying.

At 4 p.m., the doors opened and jurors filed out. They looked numb and exhausted. A young man with sandy hair touched his stubble, an absent look in his eyes. The only black juror’s steps were narrow, her shoulders pressed in, as if trying to take up less space. A middle-aged woman with thinning hair and gaunt cheeks looked like she could use a smoke.

In the car on the way to our Airbnb, friends who’d been in the courtroom caught me up on the day’s events. A couple of them worried over the defense’s opening statement. Carman, who with his beard and stocky frame reminded me of a short lumberjack in a nice suit, had sketched out Abdallah’s past for the jury while Collett passed Abdallah a box of tissues. The statement took less than five minutes to deliver. The prosecution, meanwhile, offered meticulous scene setting.

The county’s first witness was Scott Burgett, who had traveled to Kentucky from Overland Park, Kansas, where he worked for the tech company Garmin. Pat Molloy, the lead prosecutor, asked Burgett about the GPS device he’d helped design, which was the model in Abdallah’s car. Then Molloy had Burgett read some of the data pulled from Abdallah’s GPS. Minutes before the accident, the Camry exceeded 90 miles per hour. According to Burgett, the car’s speed at the moment of the collision was 89 miles per hour.

The next witness was deputy sheriff Jeb Barnes, the first officer to respond to the crash. A large bald man who seemed affable and honest, Barnes described how the Samses’ truck had rolled and flipped before hitting the edge of a concrete drainage ditch and going fully airborne. Emily’s body was thrown around, a loose item in a violently pitching cabin. Barnes believed that Emily died before the truck hurtled through the treetops, shearing off its roof. She was ejected through the gaping hole that remained.  

Barnes said that, despite asking for one, he’d never received a statement about the accident from Abdallah. Olmstead mentioned that she found this odd: She remembered helping Abdallah write his police statement when he got back to Baltimore, before she knew how serious the situation was.

Barnes introduced into evidence several photos that he’d taken of the accident: skid marks, smoking vehicles, what he called “gouges in the earth.” His testimony had a poetic precision. He was the last witness of the day.

Abdallah’s allies gathered for dinner at his new two-bedroom apartment. The living room had a large central rug ringed with couches and chairs. The space wasn’t as shabby as the one I’d seen a year prior, but Abdallah hesitated when someone complimented him on his home. He said that every time he had friends over, his upstairs neighbors called the police.

Soon after arriving, I found Abdallah alone in the kitchen, free of his suit jacket and dress shoes, next to an oven where he was roasting a huge foil-covered dish of goat meat. I’d never seen him so thin. He was happy to have company. While he cooked, I leaned against the fridge. We joshed about how much sugar he put in his tea. We giggled at each other’s bad jokes. The mood was light and ephemeral, like the soft crackle of carbonation.

Abdallah spread black trash bags across the living room rug and brought out dishes: hummus, pita, bell peppers, store-bought chicken, the chunks of goat. He added bottles of water to the array, placing one in front of each guest. For the span of the meal, we let go of the trial. We stopped rehashing how the Garmin man had listed high speed after high speed. How frustrating it was that Abdallah’s official statement was missing. How Carman seemed fine but we needed Atticus Finch.

Midway through the meal, I disentangled myself from the packed-in knees, the arms reaching for food, to stand on a chair and take a few pictures on my phone. Too often we document only victories, the moments of joy but not of loss. No one takes candids at a funeral. The images I got were muted by the apartment’s low light, like something out of time. They already looked like artifacts I would unearth one day, after the verdict had been read and there were no more choices to be made.

Too often we document only victories, the moments of joy but not of loss. No one takes candids at a funeral. 

On the second morning of the trial, Collett gathered Abdallah’s friends together in the hallway: seven young white women, a white, ponytailed man, and a dozen Sudanese men in sharp suits and pointy-toed shoes. She warned us that it was crucial for us to keep it together today. The Sams family was going to testify. Shella had undergone 25 surgeries since the accident. Both of Emily’s grandmothers would be there. Many people who took the stand would be grieving.

When the Samses were finished, the defense would begin its case. At some point, I would be called to testify. Carman eventually came into the hall to prep me. I had to be careful, he said, because if I went off script—did anything other than answer his exact questions as succinctly as possible—the judge could shut me down.

Carman looked a little rueful over this restriction. Then he raised his eyebrows. “Unless,” he said, “if they ask you a question during cross-examination. If they give you an opening when they talk to you, you can go on for as long as you want. If they do that, go for it.”

He gave a meaningful nod. I nodded back, feeling unequipped for a filibuster.

As the morning passed, a man and a woman stood against a nearby wall. They emanated quiet intensity. The man, who was paunchy, looked stressed. The woman leaned against him, draping her thin limbs out across his chest and belly. They murmured to each other in pleading tones. I thought I heard the words “this country” and “Christian.”

I turned to Olmstead. “I think that’s the truck driver,” I said quietly.

She nodded. She’d been listening, too.

Eventually, the man was called into court—Abdallah’s court—and he disappeared behind heavy double doors. When he emerged 30 minutes later, he and the woman boarded the elevator. We didn’t see them again. Soon after, a raised voice in the courtroom snapped me to attention. It was muffled but hard, and clearly female. The volume ebbed, then spiked again.

“I think it’s the grandmother,” said Aliza Sollins, an old colleague.

“I saw her go in,” Olmstead added.

“Is she shouting?” I asked.

A while later, I peered through the narrow window while Shella Sams testified. Her composure struck me: She bore a gentle dignity in the midst of a storm.

That afternoon, when I was called to testify, the air in the courtroom felt stiff yet mildly electric. A damp light filled the space. I walked the single aisle between the wall and the gallery, past the double row of jurors. A bailiff settled me into the witness area, which held a small, walled-off table with a chair. There was a microphone, but it was too far away for me to reach. I imagined how I must have looked, a poor fit for the witness box and sweating through my carefully selected clothes.

Carman asked me my name. I gave it.

“Just generally and briefly, how did you come to know Mohamed Abdallah?” he asked.

I explained that I had been his caseworker. I knew I was supposed to look at the jury, but my brain couldn’t override how weird that felt.

“And did you have dealings with him for a number of months or even years?”

“Yes, I had dealings with him most intensely for eight months, and then on, for about two years.”

“Have you been able to be around him enough,” Carman asked, “to be able to form an opinion of his character?”

“Yes.”

“And what is that opinion?”

I straightened my back and leaned toward the microphone. “Extremely high,” I said.

A portly prosecutor who was assisting Molloy rose to cross-examine me. “Were you at the scene of the collision that occurred between the defendant’s automobile and the Sams family?” he asked.

“No, I was not,” I said.

“So you don’t have any direct knowledge of that day or that incident. Is that correct?”

“That’s correct.”

“Nothing further.”

I was dismissed. Testimony delivered, I was allowed to take a seat in the gallery.


Carman called for Mohammed Tom. At my urging to trim his goatee and wear dress shoes, Tom had shaved his entire face raw and smashed his feet into a too-small pair of brown Oxfords. He plopped onto the seat and slouched into a casual posture that treaded the fine line between self-assuredness and arrogance. I wished he would sit up straight.

An Arabic interpreter pulled up a chair beside the witness stand. Tom could put on a show of English, but it was mostly a confidence act. Carman questioned Tom for 13 minutes, after which Molloy, an older man with short hair, glasses, and a white beard, stepped in for the cross-examination. I thought Tom seemed confused at times, which he tried to mask with pride, appearing certain of everything he said even when it clearly wasn’t correct. At least once, he answered a question before fully hearing what it was. I thought there might be a hitch with the interpretating, because Tom’s answers didn’t always match Molloy’s questions. Also, the interpreter’s dialect didn’t sound like Sudanese Arabic.

In a Southern drawl, Molloy asked questions about minute details: the placement of chargers inside Abdallah’s car, the location of a cell phone, where the GPS sat on the dashboard, and the speed of the vehicle. At first, Tom insisted that Abdallah never went above 70 miles per hour, didn’t once break the speed limit. He would have known, Tom said, because the steering wheel would have started shaking. He mimed holding a rattling wheel. I gaped at him from my seat.

“The car is four-cylinder,” Tom said. “If you go over 70, it starts shaking.”

“Over 70, it starts shaking,” Molloy repeated.

“Four-cylinder, the car can go as fast as 80,” Tom said. “We didn’t go more than that.”

“So 80 would have been the top speed, is that correct?” Molloy asked.

Tom considered. “I think the fastest we went was 75. I don’t think we reached 80.”

“OK, 75 it is then.”

“I think so, yes.” The way Tom said it sounded like sure, why not.

I dug my fingers into the bench with such force that Aliza Sollins reached over to hold my hand. On the witness stand, Tom grabbed a couple of plastic water cups and started a series of improbable demonstrations reenacting the accident. Tom described the Samses’ truck bumping the Camry twice on its right side, which he indicated had caused Abdallah to veer left then right before hitting the Samses’ pickup. Tom tried to explain how he’d wanted to help the Samses after the accident.

“And that’s what you really came here to say, isn’t it,” Molloy said. It wasn’t a question.

“Yes,” Tom said, without irony.

The questioning lasted another 15 minutes. When it was over, Tom sauntered away from the witness’s chair. By the time he walked past me, three Darfurian men were already tearing into him. I hissed at them to be quiet or go eviscerate Tom out in the hall.

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“What?” Tom kept asking, bewildered. “What?”

Abdallah took the stand without an interpreter. I watched him in profile as he leaned forward in the witness chair, placing both elbows on the table and folding his hands. His long legs were bent at the knees and tucked beneath the chair. Carman threw him softballs: Where did he grow up? Where is Chad? Where did he work? Did the United States government give him permission to be in the country? Abdallah spoke carefully, eyes up. At Carman’s subtle reminders, he addressed the jury.

When the questioning turned to the accident, Carman called in an interpreter. He explained to the judge that this was for accuracy, but it was also clear that he’d wanted to show off his client’s articulate English before getting deep into the testimony.

Abdallah admitted he’d driven fast, but said that his speed had gone only into the seventies and eighties. Like Tom, he said that he’d lost control of the car when the Samses’ vehicle nudged his Camry twice. After the crash, he recalled, “We tried to help. I was so scared, so I got the energy to help. We tried to open the door [to the pickup], but the door was locked, was jammed, and it wouldn’t open. And the man was crying and screaming, ‘Where’s my daughter, where’s my daughter?’”

“What are your feelings about all of this?” Carman asked.

Abdallah decided to answer in English.

“First of all, I would like to say is, I really feel very troubled about the family was lost their daughter. And I saw the mom sitting in the wheelchair. I just remember that I lost—I lost my father.” Abdallah wept as he spoke. “I saw the same situation. It is hard for me to describe.”

When Molloy addressed Abdallah on cross-examination, he said “ab-doo-lah,” as in “zip-a-dee-doo-dah.” I wished the pronunciation were correct; names are so vital to who we are. Molloy’s questioning began with a reference to Tom’s testimony, which Abdallah quickly contradicted, saying the car didn’t shake at any speed.

“I was the one who was driving, and I would know if the car is shaking,” he said.

“So when Mr. Tom said that—and he was pretty adamant about it—that’s not true?”

Abdallah agreed but pointed out that Tom had trouble understanding the questions.

“So it’s a language problem,” Molloy said. But hadn’t the court given Tom an interpreter? Abdallah explained that Arabic wasn’t Tom’s first language, Masalit was.

Molloy brought up the 911 call after the accident. According to Abdallah and Tom, they weren’t confident enough in their English to communicate with emergency dispatch, so they gave their cell phone to the truck driver—whose name, I finally learned, was Ed Schreiber. During his testimony, Schreiber had said that Abdallah and Tom were speaking in Arabic on the phone and that he had to snatch the device out of Abdallah’s hand to call for help.

Molloy continued: Hadn’t Abdallah avoided the police after the accident—skipped town and gone back to Baltimore, where he evaded Scott County’s attempts to get his official statement? Abdallah insisted this wasn’t true. Officer Barnes had called him once to get a statement, but when Abdallah asked for an interpreter, Barnes said there wasn’t one available.

“I told him, ‘My language is not enough,’” Abdallah said. “He did not engage with me in any conversation about the accident. I asked him a few questions. I said, ‘If you give me the chance, I can tell you what happened.’”

Abdallah sent a paper statement. When it bounced back in the mail for some reason, he sent it again. The authorities in Scott County apparently never got it.  

Molloy asked whether Abdallah had contacted Shella Sams after the accident. Abdallah said no. Molloy looked unimpressed. “You never called her,” he said. “You never said a word to her, in almost—what—two years or little better, about how bad you felt, until you saw her in this courtroom today.”

“Right after the accident, I was really sad,” Abdallah replied. “And I know she’s a mother, so she was very sad, too. So I couldn’t reach out to her. Then I found out I was a defendant; they accused me of something.” He didn’t think he was supposed to contact the family, even though he wanted to know how they were—“to see what’s going on, what’s happening with them. I wouldn’t leave a situation like this.”

After Abdallah finished testifying, Carman called Olmstead so that she could tell the court about helping Abdallah with his statement. Calm and businesslike, Olmstead described how Abdallah came to her office for guidance. He’d already written a draft of the statement on scrap paper; Olmstead mostly helped as a proofreader, a human spell-check. She remembered Abdallah saying later that the statement had been sent back to him.

On cross-examination, the prosecution asked whether Abdallah had been in further contact with Scott County investigators. Olmstead answered, “He did tell me that he had called the police department a lot because he didn’t know what had happened with his car.”

“So his concern was his car?” the questioning prosecutor asked.

“One of them, yes,” Olmstead replied, her eyebrows rising.


I drove Abdallah and Tom home that night. In the back seat, Tom felt terrible, shaking his lowered head and saying over and over how sorry he was. He’d never be able to save face in the Darfurian community after making Abdallah look like a liar by association.

“Don’t worry about it,” Abdallah told him from the front seat. “It’s OK. It’s OK. I’ll tell them you did OK.”

At Abdallah’s apartment, Tom exiled himself to a bedroom. No one could coax him out.

People again filled the living room. Pizza boxes and plates of leftovers littered the floor. We were exhausted but reviewed the events of the day before I’d been called to the stand, including the testimony of Sonny Cease, the accident-reconstruction expert. A square-headed, heavyset man with sharp eyes, Cease brought toy cars with him to the witness stand; apparently, juries like that kind of thing. Cease contested the Garmin representative’s testimony about Abdallah’s speed, arguing that when the Camry slid sideways out of its lane, the friction with the asphalt would have reduced its speed to closer to 76 miles per hour at the moment of the collision with the Samses’ truck. Yes, Cease said, speed kills—but it didn’t kill this time.

Then there was the testimony of Ed Schreiber. The prosecution lauded him as a good Samaritan. On the stand, Schreiber described pulling over in his truck, comforting Emily’s grandparents, and later attending her funeral. On cross-examination, Carman asked Schreiber about the 911 call.

“You mentioned something about their religion to dispatch, did you not?” “Yes, sir,” Schreiber said. “That’s because when I grabbed the phone out of his hand, there was a name there that was actually a Muslim name, it was Mohamed something.” Carman then shifted gears and asked Schreiber about his Facebook account. Did he publish an anti-Muslim post on October 13, 2015? “I might have,” Schreiber said. What about on November 1, 2015? “I may have.” “Now, it’s just my job,” Carman said, shuffling papers at the podium. “I’ve got to do this.” His head snapped up. “Are you a racist?” “No, sir!” Schreiber replied. His chin rose in defiance. What about images of Confederate flags, Carman asked—did he post those? Carman gave Schreiber more dates. “I think. I mean, I’ve posted a lot of stuff,” Schreiber said. “I mean, I see stuff, and I repost it, and whatever.”

At Abdallah’s apartment, as our group talked, new, unspoken admiration for Carman hung in the air. A warm appreciation for the bailiffs also went around the room. The older Kentucky men had been kind: opening doors, pouring us cups of water on the witness stand. Nothing outside of their jobs, but their consideration seemed genuine.

I wondered about the heart of a place: Does such a thing exist? Who can legitimately claim to best represent a community out of everyone working to protect it, with their inevitable range of worldviews? The following day, the jury would be tasked with delivering a fair verdict on behalf of Scott County. What would that mean to them?

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5.

Judge Jeremy Mattox arranged the files in front of him. “Good morning, folks, and welcome to day three of the Commonwealth versus Mohamed Abdallah,” he said. The courtroom was the fullest it had been so far. The Samses and their supporters were there, along with some reporters and public defenders in training. Tom, whom Abdallah had cajoled into showering and dressing, sat with us. A clutch of Darfurian men who were expected to be there hadn’t yet arrived. We tried to spread out, take up space, make our group seem larger than it was.

To still my brain, I wrote down every word I could catch of the lawyers’ closing statements. It felt like cheating, a cop-out from having to watch what happened. I told myself that recording an event was important.

Carman took up a position behind a podium near the jury. He drank from a white paper cup and covered a cough with his fist. He buttoned his suit jacket, crossed his arms over his chest, and leaned back. “What I’m going to do with you here this morning,” Carman told the jurors, “is give you a top ten.” He asked that the men and women each take out a notepad and write down the items he listed. I was poised to do the same.

“Number ten.” Carman moved away from the podium, taking his notepad with him. “It was an accident.” He said each word slowly, emphatically. “And there are reasons we do not criminalize accidents.”

Number nine: Speeding didn’t cause the crash. He said it twice, reiterating Cease’s evaluation of the accident.

Carman cocked his head and swung back around the podium for number eight. “Mohamed’s vehicle was probably hit twice,” he said. Abdallah had been consistent on this point from the start of the case, and Tom remembered it, too: the Samses’ truck making contact with the Camry right before the accident. The Samses, however, had testified that their car never touched Abdallah’s until the crash. I wasn’t sure who had physics on their side; as the prosecution had pointed out, I wasn’t there for the collision. Carman scanned the jury. “A graze,” he said, “a small bump.” He gave a who-knows shrug.

The seventh point was that there were no drugs, no alcohol, no drag racing, no devil-may-care attitude involved in the crash. “Number six—this one’s not easy for me to even say. It’s not easy to remember, but it is my solemn duty to have you write down number six,” Carman said. “Emily was not wearing her seatbelt.”

For his fifth point, Carman touched on witness testimony. First, there was Schreiber. “He might have a bias against people of a certain color, people of a certain religion,” Carman said. Of the testimonies from Abdallah and Tom, Carman argued, “Nobody was coached.”

Number four: There were other opportunities for justice. A civil case, money from insurance companies. Lives didn’t have to be ruined further for there to be justice. For number three, Carman read aloud the legal definition of wanton: “aware and consciously disregard[ing] a substantial and unjustifiable risk. The risk must be of such nature and degree that disregard thereof constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would reserve in such a situation.” Abdallah’s driving, Carman said, simply didn’t meet this definition.

Number two was what kind of a person Abdallah was. “You heard about his reputation in the community,” Carman said, then paused. “Did you notice all his support? If one of us were to go to trial, would ten or fifteen people show up every day of that trial?” The group of late-arriving Darfurian men had just settled into their seats in the back of the room.

“Moved around. Refugee from Sudan,” Carman continued. “Reminds me of Matthew, chapter eight: ‘Foxes have their den, birds have their nests, the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’”

Carman noted how forthright Abdallah was during his testimony. “Did you notice his hands were shaking a little bit?” Carman asked. “I don’t think it’s ’cause he was being untruthful.… You know why he was a little nervous?” Carman leaned toward the jury and lowered his voice to a dark whisper. “Because this is for all the marbles.”

For a moment he was silent, letting the jurors hold that thought.

“Moved around. Refugee from Sudan,” Carman continued. “Reminds me of Matthew, chapter eight: ‘Foxes have their den, birds have their nests, the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’”

Carman was moving fast now. My heart sped up, too. “That brings us to number one.” He flipped to the next page in his notebook. The prosecution hadn’t “even come close,” Carman said, to proving Abdallah’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. He held forth on the concept of equal justice under the law, an idea dating back to ancient Greece and found in the Old Testament—in Hebrews, Exodus, Leviticus. Carman seemed to be morphing before the court, achieving a deft grace.

“The evidence shows that if this were Jimmy Smith from Georgetown, not Mohamed Abdallah, who got in an accident with the Samses, we would not be here today,” Carman said, jabbing a finger in the air.

“When the accident happened, who’s the first one on the scene?” he reasoned. “God love him, Ed Schreiber. He’s telling the dispatch, ‘I think these are Muslims.’” As for Mohamed struggling to submit his statement, “He’s dealing with logistical issues. He’s a doggone refugee!”

Carman abruptly stopped moving. He said that he believed America’s justice system was the best in the world. No one should be put on trial for “what color they are, what religion they are, what language they speak.” He banged his fist on the wall of the jury box. “Maybe I can imagine this kind of indictment, this kind of prosecution, this kind of conviction” happening somewhere else, Carman said, “but not in this county, not in this commonwealth, and not in this country. We are better than that.”

For the first time, I felt a flash of hope.

When Molloy rose to address the jury, I again burned anxious. In contrast to Carman’s fevered sermon, Molloy’s voice was low and steady. He choked up when he spoke of the Sams family. He knocked the flaws in Tom’s testimony. Molloy, a longstanding advocate for civil rights, rejected Carman’s argument that the trial had anything to do with racism, xenophobia, or Islamophobia. “This case is not about Mr. Abdallah’s place of birth. It is not about his religion. It is not about the color of his skin,” Molloy said. It was about what Abdallah did, and what he didn’t do. Abdallah drove too fast and “never showed any remorse, ever,” Molloy argued. “When Mrs. Sams came into the courtroom, he broke down crying. For himself. What a perfect time to say ‘I’m sorry.’”

“This is the day that Mr. Abdallah is to be held accountable,” Molloy concluded. “This is the day that you, the jury, having heard all you have heard, can hold him accountable for what he has done.”


The jury holed up in the deliberation room, and we clustered in the courtroom. Beside me, Abdallah sat with his hands stuffed between his knees. We chatted with Collett and Carman and produced the stack of 30-plus character-reference letters that we’d collected. I read them aloud to Abdallah. I skipped the parts where writers said that he seemed depressed and withdrawn because of his legal troubles, focusing on the bits where they heaped on praise. Every few letters, I reminded him that if the jury found him guilty, these documents were going straight to the judge.

Carman gave us the rundown of the ways the trial’s aftermath could go. Once Abdallah was convicted, he would be taken to jail on the spot. A probation officer would conduct and write up a presentencing investigation, which might take up to a month. The court would then hand down a final sentence. Immigration and Customs Enforcement could opt to deport Abdallah or render him a closely watched nonresident, a man who would move like a ghost through prison and life in America until he left the country or died.

Carman tried a metaphor. It’s like we’re on a path in the woods, he said, and we might have to turn and go down another path. We might get to a clearing. We might turn down a path and, whoa, there might be a bear, and we might have to shoot the bear.

Everyone stared at him.

He mimed releasing an arrow from a bow.

At 4 p.m., five hours after the jury began deliberating, the courtroom stirred. Collett whispered to us that there was a verdict. We drifted to our places. At the defense table, Abdallah looked slight and flimsy. The Sams family returned and sat up front. I looked at the backs of their heads with shame, pain, sorrow, indignation. There was a hard shiver in the back of my ribs that wouldn’t cease.

Seated in a back row of the gallery, between Olmstead and Tom, I watched officers I hadn’t seen before file in. They lined up against a wall and near the exits. Handcuffs glinted at their belts. Unlike the cordial bailiffs, these officers were younger and grim faced.

A peal of laughter sounded from the jury room. I felt nauseous and nostalgic for a half-hour ago and the burden of waiting.

Then the jury returned.

“Will the defendant please rise?” Judge Mattox asked.

Abdallah stood. My throat compressed.

“On count one,” Mattox read, meaning the second-degree manslaughter of Emily Sams, “we the jury find the defendant not guilty.”

Olmstead’s grip on my hand tightened. My other hand jumped to one of Tom’s but missed and hit his thigh.

“On count two,” for assault, “we the jury find the defendant not guilty.” The result was the same for the third charge, the last one.

I traded glances with Olmstead, whose stunned, frozen face mirrored mine. Tom was so busy showing no emotion I couldn’t tell if he’d missed what just happened. In front of us, other members of our party twitched and shifted on their benches.

Affectless, we rose as the jury filed out. One juror winked in our direction as he left. We let the Samses exit the courtroom next. Abdallah stood for their exit like a soldier at attention. Then we walked out in silence.

In the hallway, we shattered. Darfurian men held their heads and wept. They dove at me, at Abdallah, at anyone, with close embraces. They collapsed on my shoulders. At Abdallah’s side, Collett’s cheeks were wet with tears. We stumbled into the elevator, desperate to escape. I caught Carman ducking his way through a snuffle. The back of my hips hit the elevator’s wall. My hands found the railings behind me as my knees gave way.

We scattered to our cars. I was worried we’d leave someone behind, but we went, and in going, I somehow climbed into the back seat of my car. Abdallah got into the passenger seat. He closed the door, then he threw himself between the seats onto an armrest and sobbed.

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6.

Fawzia, a Darfurian woman who attended the last day of the trial, announced that we were “going to the river.” She knew a restaurant where we could celebrate, but her proclamation also felt baptismal. It was time to be clean of this.

The next morning—after the delirious phone calls, ululations, a glittering night, dinner by the river, more tears—Abdallah, Tom, and another friend came over to the Airbnb for pancakes and jam. We all sat in the sun-drenched living room, on the furniture and on the floor. It felt strange not to be in court in the daytime, stranger still for Abdallah to have shown up at some place he wished to go.

Abdallah kept repeating Mattox’s words: “Mohamed Abdallah, you are a free man.” His eyes shone when he relived how Carman had pounded his fist on the jury box. He echoed the Bible verses Carman had used, slowly committing them to memory.

Later, at a bowling alley where he chose “FREE MAN” as his name on the computer screen, Abdallah kept checking his cell phone. A man who worked for Scott County was supposed to contact him, and Abdallah was anxious that they meet. Eventually they did, in the parking lot of an Ethiopian restaurant where we went for a late lunch. The man swung open the door of a silver sedan and passed Abdallah a large pair of surgical-style scissors. In a series of hurried, stiff clips, Abdallah cut through the plastic band of his ankle monitor. Then he hugged everyone in sight.

Inside the restaurant, Abdallah thanked the crowd of Americans and Darfurians gathered. “I was very, very being patient, to see whatever the result happened,” he said of the trial. “I should be happy with that.” He looked around the room as he spoke. “Finally, yes, I’m a free man,” Abdallah said. “God bless everybody.”


A year after his trial, Abdallah was still in Kentucky. “You must think I’m crazy,” he told me. Driving away from the courthouse the day of the verdict, Abdallah had paged through a book on U.S. national parks, looking for ideas of where to move now that he could. He stayed in Kentucky because he applied for American citizenship through an immigration lawyer in Louisville. Once that was done, maybe he’d leave. Put in for a transfer at Amazon. Go to California. Maybe Utah. Pennsylvania.

Abdallah knew he’d been lucky. Still, it haunted him that, after the trial, Carman advised him not to reach out to the Samses. Just let it lie, the lawyer said.

I called both Carman and Molloy. The men had acute memories of the case, but their perspectives were different. Before the trial, Carman told me, he and Molloy were “pretty friendly,” often joining the same happy hour after work. A little wistfully, Carman said those days were through. Molloy told me that Carman had crossed a line in his closing argument when he suggested that a local defendant would have been treated differently than Abdallah. For Molloy, a man who had dedicated his life to justice, the insult implied in his opponent’s argument was intolerable.

I learned from a lawyer for Abdallah’s car-insurance company that the Sams family had settled for close to $60,000. I doubted that, as Carman had hinted in court, money felt anything like justice. I reached out to the Samses in February 2019. Emily’s father responded to me by email, taking on the task because Shella was still in recovery and exhausted at the end of the day. She had an infection in her femur that would require two additional surgeries.

Much of what Jeff Sams wrote was tough to read. He graciously said that he didn’t blame me for my participation in the trial—“I assume you were simply telling what you knew to be true about someone you knew”—but several of our truths diverged. He rankled at Carman, who he said should either “win an Oscar for that performance or burn in hell.” He also thought that bringing race into the trial had muddied the waters. For him the case was about speed. He saw Abdallah as a person with appalling moral decrepitude who lied to save his own skin. Still, Sams wrote, “Would I be happy if he was in jail, no. Would I be happy if he was deported to whatever hole he crawled out of, no. Would I be happy if he suffered and drew his last breath, no. That may seem odd, but it wouldn’t bring me joy. My joy is buried in a cemetery. My joy can’t surface as I watch my wife struggle to walk, do ordinary tasks, choke down 30 pills a day, or hold her as she cries because she misses our daughter.”

“We had nothing to gain from this,” Sams said of the trial. “Nothing would bring back our dead daughter, nor give my wife the ability to overcome paralysis. It was just a continuation of a nightmare.” They had been “handed down a sentence of pain, suffering, and tears long before it. It was a life sentence to us, no way around that.”

Earlier in the year, he’d attended a ceremony for Emily’s basketball team; the players and coaches had asked him to come. “They miss her just like everyone else. She was a stellar kid who made all A’s and was good at volleyball and basketball. Quick witted. Pretty. A great kid,” Sams wrote. “Not a day will go by we won’t think of her. Think of what she would look like, what college she might have attended, how great a volleyball player she would have been, what career she would choose, what boy she might bring home or marry, how many kids she might have, where she might live, or simply what it would be like to just hear her voice and hug her today.”

He added, “That child alone and missing her could be its own book.”

Justice, a concept ostensibly rooted in clear-cut truths, is in fact fickle. America can inspire grief and faith in the same stroke.

If I’d expected reconciliation, it wasn’t there. I remembered something my wife had said during the trial. “It didn’t feel like justice,” she’d observed after the first day of the proceedings. “It felt like two boys trying to win a game.”

What if the quest for justice brings no healing, only more pain? Abdallah lost nearly three years of his life; the Samses found no reprieve from their immense hurt and grief. If the accident had happened in peacetime Darfur, Abbas Yahya told me once, village leaders likely would have convened and decided upon compensation for the people affected. Here we duked it out until everyone in the vicinity of the case was black and blue.

Much like an angry brawl, the participants had different reasons for coming to the ring. Where the prosecution saw a need for consequences, the defense perceived systemic racism. I reached out to several jurors to better understand their decision in the case, but none responded. I’ve tried to stop guessing what went on in their minds—to surmise what, as individuals, they value and fear.

In our narrative-heavy culture, we are taught to interpret people and places as symbols, to imbue them with meaning. Stories, though, often fail to reflect the world’s complexity and contradictions. Justice, a concept ostensibly rooted in clear-cut truths, is in fact fickle. America can inspire grief and faith in the same stroke. And Abdallah, a man onto whom other people—myself included—have projected their perspectives, is nobody’s best or worst dream of him.

When I talked to Abdallah in the months following the trial, I sensed a sort of transient state. He couldn’t visualize his next step until he got his citizenship, giving him purchase in a country that had both welcomed and thwarted him. Life beyond the verdict still held a question for Abdallah—and, it seemed, for everyone who’d endured the trial. We were waiting to see what this land would hold.


Update, May 2019: Two months after this story ran, Mohamed Abdallah became a U.S. citizen. He took his oath in a government building in Louisville, Kentucky. It rained all day, but Abdallah told the story’s author that he didn’t mind—rain signaled a new beginning.

The Whalers’ Odyssey

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The Whalers’ Odyssey

A courageous tribe, a colossal foe, and a terrifying ocean voyage.

Story and Photos by Doug Bock Clark

The Atavist Magazine, No. 84


Doug Bock Clark’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, GQ, Wired, Rolling Stone, and The New Republic, among other publications. He won the 2017 Arthur L. Carter Reporting Award and is a visiting scholar at New York University’s Journalism Institute. This story is adapted from Clark’s first book, The Last Whalers (Little, Brown), which is available for order.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl

Published in October 2018. Design updated in 2021.

Prologue

The Lamalerans are the last of their kind. For five centuries, the Indonesian tribe has survived by hunting whales from a rocky Pacific island so remote that their countrymen call it the land left behind. Several Inuit communities hunt the massive mammals, too, but the Arctic seafarers increasingly derive sustenance from packaged foods and mechanized fishing methods. Not the Lamalerans. The 1,500 tribespeople still get most of their calories by spearing prey with bamboo harpoons. Annually, they take about 20 sperm whales—from a worldwide population in the hundreds of thousands—and use every part of their catch. They jerky the meat to feed themselves through the lean monsoon season, when storms make it difficult to launch boats.

From 2014 through 2017, over several extended visits, I lived with the Lamalerans to document their exceptional but threatened culture. The tribe has long followed the ways of their ancestors, a set of rules handed down through the generations that dictate a camaraderie so intense that anthropologists have ranked the Lamalerans as one of humanity’s most cooperative societies. Today, venerable traditions are being undermined by cell phones, television, government regulations, and other modern influences. One area where the old ways persist, though, is the hunt: Dozens of Lamaleran men still coordinate on ancient wooden boats to kill the largest toothed predator in the world, then share in the bounty.

Whaling is harsh, dangerous work, and not every hunt is successful. Such was the case in 1994, when the Lamalerans undertook a harrowing voyage that became the kind of legend that fathers tell their sons. Not only did they fight for their lives against a seemingly invincible whale, but they confronted a danger new to many of them, one more threatening than any leviathan: the outside world.

Baleo! Baleo!—“The hunt is on!”

The cry resounded through the seaside village of Lamalera, beginning on the beach and sweeping through the ramshackle houses and surrounding jungle as every man, woman, and child who heard it added a voice to the shouted relay, chorusing that sperm whales had been sighted. It was a Thursday in early March 1994, and the squalls of the monsoon season were nearing their end. Many hunters were pile-driving flagstones into their village’s single dirt road, which had all but liquefied during months of rain. They dropped their shovels and sprinted to the shore. Using log rollers and their shoulders, they shoved the téna, their 35-foot wooden whaling ships, across the sand and into the surf. Captains yelled exhortations. Once the water unyoked the weight of a boat from the backs of its crew, the men leaped aboard.

Ignatius Blikololong, 44 years old and one of the most renowned harpooners in the tribe despite his slight frame, had bid a hasty but impassioned farewell to Teresea, his wife, before setting out. Teresea was due to give birth to their next child at any hour. Ignatius did not want to leave her, but he could not shirk his duty; the tribe had almost exhausted its food stores. As he clambered atop his hâmmâlollo, a bamboo platform jutting five feet from the prow of the téna, and sharpened his harpoons, he prayed for a swift and safe return.

Also aboard Ignatius’s téna, which was called the Téti Heri, was Yosef Boko Hariona, Teresea’s close relative. He was entering his sixth decade and his eyesight was faltering, but still he whaled; his son had died, and there was no other man to support his wife, husbandless daughter, and grandchildren. Yosef Boko wielded the ship’s tiller oar as the crew paddled through the breakers. Though he could no longer stroke as forcefully as younger men, he steered with savvy.

Six boats in all cut through the waves, chasing the white whale spouts, which contrasted against the dark sea and stormy sky. As they rowed the men sang:

Kidé ajaka tani-tena (Many widows and orphans cry)

Lié doré angina (Requesting for the wind to join us)

Hari hélu bo kanato. (And for the fish to come to us.)

The Lamalerans sing for every occasion. To celebrate a successful hunt or to lament returning home empty-handed. While axing trees, building boats, pestling rice into flour, weaving sarongs, rocking babies to sleep, and recounting the stories of the ancestors. The songs are more than music—they are prayers. The Lamalerans believe that everything, from whales to the sun, has a spirit they must honor. The music entreats the winds to rise, the waves to fall, and the ghosts of the tribe’s dead, whom they worship according to a unique mixture of Catholicism and animism, to help the living. The Lamalerans believe that the ancestors send sperm whales to sustain the tribe and as a reward for following the old ways.

Ignatius Blikololong calls to the whales.

The group of téna converged on the whales like a wolf pack. Aboard the Téti Heri, Yosef Boko called out a rhythm and ten men with hand-carved wooden oars paddled in unison. When the boats were sufficiently close to the whales, which weighed dozens of tons each, Yosef Boko shouted, “Nuro menaluf!” (hunger spoon). Colloquially, it means, “Row as fast as you’d spoon rice if you were starving!” Or perhaps most accurately, “Row like you want to feed your families!”

On the hâmmâlollo, as his crew paddled furiously to bring him within striking distance, Ignatius readied his 15-foot bamboo harpoon, which was tipped with a foot-long iron spearhead, forged in the village. He got so close to his prey that he could see ellipses of O’s dimpling its gray snout, stamped by the suckers of giant squid the whale had devoured a mile below the ocean’s surface. Ignatius crouched low, his muscles quivering as he held his weapon above his head, then he dove off the hâmmâlollo with kamikaze grace, ramming the harpoon into his prey with the full weight of his body. The harpoon’s shaft shuddered, bent, and then straightened, stuck in the soft flesh two feet below the whale’s dorsal hump. Ignatius rebounded off the animal’s flank and into the sea, then frantically swam back to the Téti Heri.

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A harpooner jumps to spear a whale.

The Lamalerans’ strategy in a hunt is to land as many harpoons as possible. As a second lamafa (harpooner) from another téna added his weapon to the animal’s back, the ropes attached to the harpoons drew taut, and soon the whale was pulling the weight of both ships. Ignatius and the other hunters hoped that the animal would soon exhaust itself, allowing the men to swim alongside it and saw at it with their knives until it bled to death and they could drag it ashore. As the Téti Heri and the other boat harried their prey, the other four téna speared the remaining whales in the school, including a 30-ton female and a toothless, 10-foot infant.

At first the battle was close enough to shore that Teresea and the other hunters’ wives watched, as if Lamalera’s oceanside cliffs were bleachers and the sea a stadium. Whaling was always risky, with injuries and occasionally death resulting from the hunts, but it was also routine enough that any sense of danger was dulled. Before long two téna brought the female and baby whales to the beach, the crews singing gratefully to honor the ancestors. But the Téti Heri, along with three other téna, were dragged by their whales over the horizon. Teresea and the other women returned to weaving or cooking, keeping one eye on the sea.

By late afternoon, instead of the palm-leaf sails of the téna appearing again in the bay, a storm front arose. The ways of the ancestors forbade the use of engines on whaling boats, but the tribe did have two skiffs equipped with outboard motors, which it dispatched to find the hunters. Strafing rain turned the search party around. At dusk the downpour broke briefly, and the tribe lit signal fires on the beach to guide the whalers home. Fresh rain soon extinguished the flames. The weather made Teresea nervous, but hunts sometimes extended overnight. There was no cause for worry yet.

Through the night, Teresea crouched in her bamboo hut and cradled her pregnant belly. Her youngest son, Ben, slept on a mattress stitched out of old rice sacks and stuffed with corn husks; he had tried to maintain a vigil for his father and to comfort his mother, but eventually he had succumbed to exhaustion. Every so often, Teresea would rise and peer out the hut’s door and through the storm toward the thrashing ocean, wondering nervously whether the baby or Ignatius would arrive first.

Ignatius dove with kamikaze grace, ramming the harpoon into his prey.

Two whales had towed the Téti Heri and the other téna east. At first, Ignatius, Yosef Boko, and their fellow hunters had rested for several hours, confident that the combination of blood loss and the drogue of the boats would exhaust their prey. But as Labalekang, the volcano looming behind Lamalera, diminished from a mile-high peak to a thimble of dirt, the whales never faltered. As dusk drew near, the hunters decided that they needed to attack again.

The whale that the Téti Heri and another boat, the Kéna Pukã, had initially harpooned tore through their ropes and escaped. The men’s last chance to return to Lamalera with a catch became the whale lashed to the other two téna—and currently giving them hell. One of those boats, the Kelulus, had just been uppercut so hard by the whale’s tail that its crew was stuffing two cracks zigzagging through the hull with sarongs, trying to keep the sea from bubbling in.

As the Téti Heri attacked the whale to distract it from the listing Kelulus, Ignatius found himself confronting a grotesque beast: Its head and belly were streaked with white, as if it were partially albino, and half its lower jaw had been snapped off, probably during battle with another sea creature. When Ignatius embedded his harpoon, the whale began lobtailing—inverting itself so that its tail stood out of the water and its nose pointed toward the seafloor, then sledgehammering its flukes into the waves. Ignatius ordered his ship to flee, spooling out rope attached to the latest harpoon. To cover the Téti Heri’s retreat, the Kebako Pukã landed another spear, the tenth lodged in the animal; in retaliation, the whale stove in the ship’s bow strake. Half the crew stripped to plug the puncture with their shirts while the rest back-paddled.

Stymied, the fleet let its opponent take several hundred feet of rope, rowed close together, and conferenced. Some of the men said that, when they first attacked the school, they had seen a calf—the one that the other boats had slain and taken back to the village—suckling this whale. They guessed that it was a mother strengthened by a desire for revenge. Ignatius feared that she was not an animal at all but an unholy monster. Though she was only about 45 feet long, she had already done more damage to the boats than a bull whale could.

The sun crisped to an ember, and its last rays were blotted out by thickening clouds. As the whale drew them farther out to sea, Ignatius realized that they had not trapped the animal—it had trapped them. From the hâmmâlollo, he waved a two-foot flensing knife and addressed his fellow hunters.

“The time has come for us to cut our harpoon ropes and go home!” he shouted.

The other whalers responded, “Don’t let it go! We’ll take it tomorrow!”

And so they kept on.

Night soiled the evening. The men hammered sprung boards tight again with whetstones, roped shattered strakes back into place, and stuffed pith caulking into cracks. Lightning flared. Thunder drummed. Rain began to pellet the Lamalerans as waves tackled the téna. The men became so exhausted bailing water with halved coconut shells that they had to work in shifts. Ignatius labored stoically, not resting like the others, and tried to ignore his yearning for his wife, his worry that their child had been born, and his guilt for not being there.

Around midnight the storm subsided. The men bedded down atop wound ropes and furled sails. The fleet had rushed into battle so abruptly that they carried almost no food or drink, so the men wrung rainwater from their hair and clothes into their mouths. Yosef Boko stowed his steering oar but remained awake, tracking the whale’s movements as they were telegraphed through the harpoon ropes. As the tiller man, it was his job to guide the whalers home, and even if he could not steer them to safety right then, he felt a responsibility to keep watch. He trembled with the premonition that this whale would defeat them. When Ignatius had offered to cut the ropes, Yosef Boko had silently urged him on. If he was lost at sea, who would care for his family?

By the time dawn pearled, the broken-jawed whale was hauling the Lamalerans through sea beyond the sight of land. Ignatius called the téna together and announced, “We must have offended the ancestors yesterday for the whale to be so fierce. We must all clean our mouths so that God will entrust this whale to us and the village can eat.” The hunters prayed.

Soon after, it seemed that at last the whale’s strength began to wane. She no longer surged forward, instead paddling tiredly along the water’s surface. Rather than fountaining, she spouted only light mists in quick bursts, as if hyperventilating. Believing her to be weakened, Ignatius did not select a harpoon from the weapons rack for his next move. Instead he tied a rusty boat hook to a bamboo pole and ordered his men to row quietly forward. He slid the hook into the whale’s blowhole and yanked back.

The colossal head turned. An eye judged Ignatius.

The whale geysered, dislodging the hook. Then she head-butted the Téti Heri so hard that caulking popped out from between its boards, and the Savu Sea began trickling in. A terrifying possibility dawned on Ignatius: Perhaps the whale had only been playing weak, trying to draw in the fleet to destroy it. No blood reddened her spouting, which meant that the harpoon strikes had failed to penetrate her vital organs. Her wounds were only skin-deep.

The whale battered the Téti Heri with its tail until the téna retreated. Next it broke off the hâmmâlollo of the Kéna Pukã and rammed open the bow of the already hobbled Kelulus.

In a desperate sortie, the lamafa of all four ships gathered in a phalanx on the prow of the Kebako Pukã, the lone undamaged ship, and attacked together. But no matter how much pink blood poured from her lacerated hide, the whale’s spouting remained pure.

Ignatius was sharpening a lance with a whetstone for the next assault when the Kebako Pukã’s hull leaped beneath his feet, nearly catapulting him into the sea. The whale’s flukes tore open the bow, so that its halves only connected like a clamshell at the keel. The men fled the wreckage, swimming to the Téti Heri. The whale lobtailed, as if challenging the Lamalerans to return to the ring.

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Whaling boats at dusk, with raised palm-leaf sails.

Ignatius, Yosef Boko, and many of the other men were now convinced that their opponent was an evil spirit. The hunters finally agreed to cut the ropes that bound them to the devil whale and return home without a catch. But the harpoon lines were not disposable factory-made ropes: They were the leo, the spirit ropes of the téna. They were woven from jungle cotton and the bark of gebang palms and hibiscus trees, representing weeks of communal work in the village. They could not be carelessly trashed. It was decided that someone would swim to the whale, through the shark fins now razoring the bloody ocean, and cut the lines near the harpoon heads, to save as much of their length as possible.

Fransiskus “Frans” Boli Bediona, a stocky 36-year-old with a wild beard and mane, who served as the backup lamafa on the Kelulus, volunteered for the mission. As one of the tribe’s shamans, he participated in the hunting with a religious fervor, and he had been one of the strongest voices urging the fleet not to give up the day before. Now he was sure that the ancestors were testing the mettle of their descendants, and he meant to meet that challenge.

As Frans pulled himself along a harpoon rope with one hand and clutched a knife in the other, he kicked the hammerhead and tiger sharks that zipped in and nosed him like dogs. The Lamalerans believe that a shark will not hurt a man with a pure heart, and Frans knew himself to be righteous. As he drew closer to the whale, the sharks peeled off to avoid the reach of its tail. He got within a few feet of the whale’s flukes, then hacked through the harpoon lines. The ropes were reeled in, and Frans hitched a ride on the last one.

The whale stroked away, shadowed by dorsal fins. Then she spouted, raised her flukes—either in threat or farewell—and dove. She did not resurface.

The Lamalerans believe that a shark will not hurt a man with a pure heart.

The Lamalerans set about improvising what repairs they could. The crew of the Kéna Pukã winched ropes around its prow, squeezing the boards tight enough to prevent the boat from taking on more water. It was in bad shape, but many men loaded into it, for the Kebako Pukã and the Kelulus could now support only skeleton crews. Then the whalers lashed their fleet into a line, with the Téti Heri in the lead. Abandoning the damaged téna was never discussed, for the Lamalerans believe whaling ships have spirits just as men do. Frans felt that the Kelulus and the Kéna Pukã, both ships he often served on, had mothered him through trials “like a hen protecting her chick.” Now he had to protect them.

With clouds smothering the sun and land hidden by the horizon, the Lamalerans were unable to track north toward home. To save their flagging strength, they decided to play the lottery of the wind. The crew of the Téti Heri stood up a 20-foot bamboo mast and unfurled a sail made of dried palm leaves quilted across a grid of ropes. Once, entire fleets had sailed the Pacific using such sails, but these were probably among the last in the world. The Lamalerans rotated the fabric around the mast until it caught a zephyr, and the téna skidded together over the waves.

By midafternoon, palm-fringed hills edged above the southeastern skyline like a cloud bank. It was Semau Island. The Lamalerans had located themselves, but the discovery was not a happy one: Semau lay more than 100 miles from Lamalera. Rather than try to make landfall, they decided to direct themselves homeward.

As a second evening neared, another storm swaggered toward the boats. The two damaged ones, tugged along by the functional pair, were slowing progress, so the men of the Téti Heri told Ignatius to ask the other crews to let them go ahead alone. Ignatius strained his sandpapered throat to make himself heard over the groaning squall. “May we go?” he asked. “The wind is strong. We will tell the village what has happened and where you are.”

Frans was enraged. It was unthinkable that the crew of the Téti Heri would even consider leaving: That was not the way of the Lamalerans. The most important directive of the ancestors was that the unity of the tribe was paramount. All fathers taught their sons a saying: Talé tou, kemui tou, onã tou, mata tou—one family, one heart, one action, one goal.

“We live and die together!” the men in the damaged téna answered Ignatius. “You can’t go ahead!”

The waves were sharpening into whitecaps. The crew of the Téti Heri urged Ignatius to try again.

Contradictory feelings roiled his heart: He would never abandon his tribesmen, but would not they all have a better chance of survival if the Téti Heri raced ahead? There was no point in solidarity if it meant his children, including his unborn baby, would lose their father. Ultimately, even if he wanted to remain with the fleet, he could not overrule his crew, yet he wanted the other tribesmen’s blessing to leave.

“May we go first so the village knows we are not all dead and can send help?” Ignatius shouted. Again he was rebuffed.

Only this time, as he was calling to his brethren, his crew untied the rope linking their boat to the others. Unburdened, the Téti Heri shot ahead on the turbulent sea. The other téna shrank to three bobbing figures. Then the lowering heavens curtained them off. Ignatius could not control his tears. He felt as if he had been forced to forsake his tribesmen. And he knew that the ancestors always exacted revenge for such failures—on individuals and on the tribe as a whole.

The Téti Heri could not outrun the latest gale, and before long the storm threatened to use the boat’s sail like a lever and flip the craft over. It took Ignatius and two other men to dismantle the mast, though usually one man could handle it. The tempest seemed to double the darkness of the night, and it whirled the boat and heaved the sea over the outriggers. Men slumped against the thwarts, bailing desultorily, and those too exhausted to work crawled under the sail. Five times Ignatius gathered the crew and led them in prayer, until the accumulating water forced them to resume bailing.

We are all brothers, Ignatius thought. It would have been better if we had died together. Lord, at least bring us to shore, so our families can find our bodies and give us proper funerals, and we can join the ancestors.

We are all brothers, Ignatius thought. It would have been better if we had died together.

That night the eighth child of Ignatius and Teresea came crying into the world. Even though she was a girl, she was named Ignatius Seran Blikololong Jr. Christening her with her father’s name was a way of summoning his lost soul home.

The next morning, a Saturday, dawn flickered behind wet clouds like the flame of a whale-oil lantern sparking to life behind a bamboo lampshade. Maria, Frans’s wife and Ignatius’s sister, had slept on the beach to tend the signal fires, and she woke with sand in her hair. Nearby, Fransiska, Yosef Boko’s wife, refused to eat and ignored her grandson, who cried and pawed at her for attention. The women were joined in their vigil by nearly 50 other wives, and the group watched as the village’s fleet launched to locate their husbands. The 17 boats dispersed toward every point on the compass, carrying fresh coconuts, water, and rice wrapped in banana leaves, to feed the men if they were found.

The Savu Sea is not wide; on a clear morning, it is possible to glimpse the peaks of Timor Island, situated on the other side of the expanse, from Lamalera’s cliffs. Even if the téna had been dragged south into the Indian Ocean, they should have been able to navigate back to where search parties could spot their sails. That two full days had passed without a sighting meant that the likelihood of a safe return was swiftly diminishing. The men might be added to the list of the Lamalerans, more than 39 in all, lost at sea in the previous century. Every year, the village’s priest inaugurated the hunting season by reading each name aloud.

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Faces of Lamalera.

The elders gathered under the banyan tree in the village square to try to ferret out the crime that the ancestors must have been punishing them for in sending so many men to a watery demise. A runner was dispatched to the island’s capital, a 30-mile trek over the mountains, so that government authorities could broadcast a radio message to alert ships in transit to look for the missing téna. Then the tribe gathered on the beach for a religious service.

Shortly thereafter, as if by the grace of God, someone spotted a diamond sail splitting the horizon. A motorboat was dispatched to run supplies to the téna. A man with binoculars announced to the crowd on the shore that the Téti Heri was coming in. A rumor circulated that a corpse was aboard. The whalers had been nearly three days at sea without food and water, after all. Teresea, Maria, and Fransiska wept, knowing that Ignatius and Yosef Boko crewed the Téti Heri.

When the téna made landfall, its crew was so sunburned that skin from the men’s chests and thighs had peeled away. Their lips were puffed and blistered. Bloodshot, their eyes seemed to glow. Even supported by a man on either side, the returned could barely walk.

Tribesmen had to coax Yosef Boko to let go of the tiller oar. He had barely slept the entire journey, believing that as long as he held the oar, he was protecting his crew. When he stepped out of the boat, he embraced Fransiska; though both normally prided themselves on their reserve, they were racked by sobs. At their house, Yosef Boko washed the salt water off his body with a bucket shower, devoured a plate of rice, and fell into a sleep that would last nearly a full day.

While the rest of the men were surrounded by their families, Ignatius walked down the beach toward his hut. Fear unmanned him. Where was his wife? Had something gone wrong with the pregnancy? A female relative, whose husband was aboard one of the boats still at sea, approached and slapped him on the shoulder. She cried, “Where is my husband? Where is my husband?” His throat was so dry Ignatius could not speak; he had been unable to stomach the water and mashed bananas delivered to him by the motorboat. How could he explain to this woman that they had left her husband behind?

Then he spotted his eldest daughter, who pushed her way out of the crowd and hugged him. “You have a daughter!” she said of the new baby. Ignatius croaked an apology for not being there when the baby arrived, but his daughter laughed. “The important thing is that you’re home!” she said.

Once the happy families had returned to their abodes, only the disappointed wives of the men still at sea were left to build a bonfire on the headlands. Maria threw deadwood onto the flames as if making an offering or willing the desperate light to beckon Frans home. She was increasingly sure that her husband was dead and that she was now a widow, a status every Lamaleran woman fears, not only because of the loss but because the tribe’s faith forbids remarriage. If Frans did not return, she and her three children would have to subsist on charity.

Every few minutes, eerie trumpeting echoed from the darkness like distant, mournful music. After the crew of the Téti Heri had admitted to leaving the fleet in hopes of sending help once they got home, the motorboats had been dispatched again, this time with conch shells, which could be heard over a great distance. Between calls made by the motorboats’ crews, Maria and the other yearning wives listened for any answer. Around midnight the motorboats returned alone. The wailing of the women woke the village.

For days afterward, Maria waited on the beach for sails that never came. Eventually, when all hope was lost, the village sent divers to retrieve nautilus shells, their delicate whorls bent into the shape of eternity. The tribe buried the shells in place of bodies.

Maria threw deadwood onto the flames as if making an offering or willing the desperate light to beckon Frans home.

After the Téti Heri had untied itself, Frans had furiously watched Ignatius, his brother-in-law, and the other betrayers go. It felt as if the abandonment took a long time. Each time the fleeing téna sank into a trough between waves, a moment later the tip of its sail would reappear as the ship was lofted by a roller. Frans thought of his three children, especially his infant daughter, only nine months old, with her sweet, bubbling laugh. The ancestors had granted him barely any time to get to know her. He tried not to brood on the hardships his children would endure without a father to protect them. He hoped at least that Ignatius would step in. Almost all his other male relatives—men who could have provided for Frans’s family in his stead—clung to the wrecks of the three téna.

Eventually, the Téti Heri’s sail did not rise again.

The remaining men were in desperate condition. Frans had caulked a breach in the Kelulus with his shirt, and he wore only shorts; already his chest and shoulders blazed and prickled with sunburn. Thirty-four people were crammed onto the Kéna Pukã, which comfortably held no more than 14, and it rode so low that waves spilled over its railings. The other two boats were attended by a single bailer each to keep them from swamping. The whalers could have lightened the load of their sinking ships by discarding equipment, but they believed that the leo had souls and the sails were the ships’ sarongs. Without them the boats would be naked.

Swept east, the men glimpsed the bent tip of Labalekang. The volcano, which towered above their village, provided some small hope. They began to paddle weakly, taking a few strokes and then resting. Black clouds avalanched toward their backs. Soon night hid Labalekang and brought with it a new storm. Despite having to furiously bail, Frans was thankful for relief from the torturous sun and the nourishment of the rainwater.

Dawn emerged bluebird clear, hazeless. Labalekang had vanished. The crew had lost all sense of position in the night. No one possessed the strength to lift a paddle. Some men’s speech began to slur. Frans told himself that he must not cry; he needed the moisture.

Late Saturday afternoon, not long before Ignatius and the crew of the Téti Heri would arrive home, the abandoned whalers spotted a pair of cinder-cone volcanoes to the east. The sight crushed Frans: It was Flores, two islands west of his home. The latest storm had swept them dozens of miles off course and outside any area that a Lamaleran ship would search for them. They tried to maneuver north and east, but the wind was against them, driving them farther from the Savu Sea and into the wilderness of the Indian Ocean. Some men tied themselves to their ships so that if they died, their bodies might one day be found. Frans was not ready to do that, not yet.

That night rain came again—without a storm, for once. The men suckled from their shirts, their beards, and the sail. Once they had rehydrated, some began chewing their clothes. One thin hunter gorged himself on dried tree pith. Except for a few noodles of seaweed plucked from the ocean, they had eaten nothing in three days. With too many men for everyone to lie down in the hulls of the boats, they took turns slumping over the thwarts or sprawling on the hâmmâlollos.

Frans fever-dreamed about God, heaven, hell, and his family. At a vague hour, the cloud cover momentarily parted to reveal the star-encrusted sky. The Southern Cross was staked there. Frans knew this constellation as the Pointer, since from the Savu Sea it always aimed toward Lamalera. For a moment the way home was revealed. If they could just follow that course, Frans might survive and once more balance his daughter atop his head while she screamed with laughter and pulled at his hair. But then the clouds returned and stole the knowledge of the direction where his family lay.

By Sunday morning, the Kebako Pukã was taking on so much water that the other boats could no longer pull it. The craft would have to be abandoned. Its captain, Fransiskus “Sisu” Bataona, volunteered to go down with his ship, but the others told him it was not necessary. Instead, he climbed atop the hâmmâlollo, now jutting just above the waterline. Sisu felt like a leaf at the end of the dry season, withered and about to fall. He addressed the spirit of the téna: “We now have no more strength. It is better that you go before us and wait for us on shore.” He invoked a ceremonial leave-taking sometimes used to say goodbye to the dead.

Frans fever-dreamed about God, heaven, hell, and his family.

The other Lamalerans wept. They knew everyone shared responsibility for abandoning the sacred téna. The disappointed ancestors would surely exact their vengeance.

By the time that Sisu disembarked for another boat, the currents had started to take the Kebako Pukã. The boat swiveled, its hâmmâlollo grazing the harpooning platforms of its two fellows as if in farewell. Waves edged up the prow. Soon the ocean swallowed the ship. A hoarse wail burst from the Lamalerans.

Throughout Sunday afternoon, the Lamalerans hallucinated, imagining they saw signal flares on Lamalera beach and paddling as hard as they could toward them. The extinguishing of the sun ushered in yet another night at sea and demolished the whalers’ fantasies: There was nothing ahead but darkness. The men lay still as corpses in their ships. Frans thought some of them had already died. Still, he did not lash himself to the thwarts. He could endure a little more. If morning dawned hopelessly, he would tie himself to the téna. It would be as God willed it.

A little before midnight, Frans stirred from his fugue to one of his shipmates croaking. The man was pointing a finger. Frans followed the man’s direction and saw a row of halogen-lit windows floating above the Savu Sea, framing fancily dressed men and women with pale skin. A thick beam of light roved across the waves, blinding him when it settled on the téna. Frans suddenly understood why the ancestors had teased the whalers with the phantasm of home: They had been encouraging the crews to cling to life for just a few hours more.

A metal vessel four times as long as a téna, with the words Spice Islander painted across its hull, chugged toward the Lamalerans. Salvation had arrived in the form of a cruise ship.

Hauling a whale ashore.

Frans had glimpsed modern ships while hunting, but he had rarely seen one this close. When a metal arm lowered a speedboat into the water, he thought he was delirious. The speedboat zoomed up to the Lamalerans, and its crew tied on to the téna in order to drag the bewildered whalers to the Spice Islander. Promises of food and water enticed those crew members who had prepared for death to untie themselves and climb aboard.

As the Lamalerans stepped onto metal stairs lowered from the bow, 40 or so foreigners lined the railing, aiming strange metal boxes that emitted white flashes. The hunters leaned against the sailors, infantile with weakness. The white-skinned men and women shook the Lamalerans’ hands and gave them plastic water bottles, which the men struggled to open until someone showed them how to unscrew the caps. The tourists made them pose and held up the metal boxes once more. Frans was too tired and thankful to care.

The captain of the ship, a man named Sebastianus, led them to the mess hall. They were served coffee sugared with condensed milk, along with crumbly slices of white cake, which tasted bitter to Frans and which Sebastianus told them was called bread. The captain was from Larantuka, the largest city in the archipelago where Lamalera is located, and he had met members of the whaling tribe before. His eastern Indonesian accent and familiarity with their culture put the men at ease. Sebastianus explained that the Spice Islander had been cruising from the Komodo Islands, home of the legendary dragons, to Timor, where the tourists would fly home, when he heard a radio bulletin about lost ships. His marine radar soon pinged two unidentified vessels adrift off normal shipping lanes, and he set out to investigate.

At the end of the meal, Sebastianus apologized that the two surviving téna would have to be scuttled. Frans and the other Lamalerans begged him to save the boats, explaining their spiritual value. He agreed to try. Using the onboard crane, his crew winched the Kéna Pukã onto the cruise ship’s deck, where its hull, ravaged by the whale, was bared for all to see. But when the Spice Islander’s crew tried to lift the Kelulus, the damaged vessel began to break apart.

The Lamalerans beseeched Sebastianus to drag the Kelulus to the nearest island, where they hoped to stash the wreck until they could return for it. But he explained that doing so would take them many miles out of their way, and he had to get the foreign passengers to their destination the next day, lest they miss their plane. “The law of the sea is to save people,” Sebastianus said, “not boats.”

Until then, a sole Lamaleran had remained aboard the Kelulus to protect it. Now he was brought onto the cruise ship, carrying the leo. The téna’s sail and harpoons were left for the ancestors, who would row it in the watery underworld. The floodlights of the Spice Islander illuminated the Kelulus as it began to sink. “You go ahead and wait for us on shore,” a Lamaleran cried out. “Soon we will join you!”

The rope between the Kelulus and the Spice Islander was unknotted. A whaler declared, “It’s better that I go with my téna!” and tried to climb over the railing, but other men restrained him. Many Lamalerans wept hysterically. Others covered their eyes, unable to watch the sinking of the second ship they had lost in a single hunt. Frans tried to face the tragedy unblinkingly, but inside he grieved as if he was watching the drowning of a family member.

Every téna had an eye painted on either side of its bow. As the Spice Islander motored away, its wake spun the Kelulus to face the departing Lamalerans. As the two vessels separated, the Kelulus never broke eye contact. Frans was sure that its spirit was bidding him a personal farewell. The tourists photographed the spectacle.

The Lamalerans slept that night on nests of blankets and pillows piled on the viewing deck. Frans was so exhausted he could not help but sleep, but he kept waking abruptly to unquiet thoughts. What would have happened if the Spice Islander had not discovered them? And how would the ancestors judge them for losing the téna?

“The law of the sea is to save people, not boats.”

The next morning, Frans was thrilled and unnerved as he explored the cruise ship. He had never been on a vessel that did not rock in the waves before. The air-conditioning baffled him. He was amazed by the miniature waterfall that poured from a bathroom ceiling to clean him. He was amused that the tourists pooped in a chair; Lamalerans use squat toilets. When he glimpsed the queen-size beds and ceiling lights of one of the tourist’s cabins, he could not help but wistfully compare it with his mattress stuffed with corn husks and his tiny brick house with no electricity.

Sebastianus had radioed ahead, and a crowd of government officials, journalists, and expat Lamalerans thronged the wharf of Kupang Harbor on Timor. Behind them, sunlight glittered on thousands of corrugated tin roofs, TV aerials, and radio antennas. Frans had only ever traveled to the rural islands neighboring Lamalera to fish; he had never seen anything like this. His first instinct was to hide, but he had no choice except to confront this brave new world.

As he and the rest of the whalers waited for a ferry to take them back to Lamalera, Frans wandered Kupang’s dusty lanes. He saw the impending future: multistory concrete buildings, TVs blabbing about Indonesia’s president, radios playing Ace of Base, motorbikes zooming across newly built asphalt roads. Here were more than 100,000 people who had forgotten their ancestors and abandoned the sacred past for a future that, to him, seemed cheap, chaotic, and unfulfilling. That made Frans yearn for home.

Finally, after several days, the Kéna Pukã was loaded into the cavernous metallic hold of a ferry. The tribe had been alerted by then to the survival of the men, and it sent a message directing the ferry to drop them at a neighboring village, where they had to wait several days while the nautilus shells were dug up and a shaman reversed the funerals that had been performed for them. Later, Frans would help lead a separate mystical rite to recall the souls of the sunken téna.

Yet there was no ceremony to remedy the unprecedented betrayal by the Teti Heri’s crew. It had rent the unity prescribed by the ancestors: talé tou, kemui tou, onã tou, mata tou. The ancient Lamalerans had considered this oneness so fundamental that they did not leave instructions for how to heal a break.

The tribe rebuilt their fleet, and the whale hunts continued. Frans reconciled with the men of the Teti Heri. Still, an existential rupture remained, like a leak in a téna. Over the coming years, Frans would sometimes find himself staring at the western horizon, remembering the alien world beyond it. He wondered with trepidation when it would arrive. He knew it would not be long.

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Fransiskus “Frans” Boli Bediona takes a break from work.

Epilogue

Two decades later, when I met the Lamalerans, they were engaged in a desperate battle to preserve their traditions against the overwhelming pressures of globalization, which had already extinguished many indigenous cultures around the globe. Ignatius was striving to teach his son Ben how to whale, but Ben was making secret plans to run away to the tourist mecca of Bali and become a DJ. Ben was not alone among the new generation yearning for a modern life, casting doubt on the survival of the ways of the ancestors. And yet some of the tribe’s youth still fought to continue the traditions. Even after a whaling accident in 2014 almost killed Jon Hariona, the grandson of Yosef Boko, he kept striving to become a lamafa, like his ancestors before him.

The full story of the Lamalerans’ struggle to forge a place for their way of life in the new millennium is told in my forthcoming book, The Last Whalers.

The Long Shots

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The Long Shots

A sports phenom shunned for drug abuse, a strongman down on his luck, and the leap of faith they took together. 

by Luke Alfred

The Atavist Magazine, No. 83


A journalist for two decades, Luke Alfred has served as sports editor and senior cricket writer at the Sunday Times in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is the author of books about cricket, rugby, and the lost art of walking.

Editor: Jonah Ogles and Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl
Illustrator: Allegra Lockstadt

Published in September 2018. Design updated in 2021.

I.

John McGrath was hunting a ghost: a man more than two decades his junior who seemed to melt into thin air. Every few days in the spring of 2013, McGrath, a 46-year-old native of Ireland, climbed into his black Jeep and drove ten miles from his home in the city of Paarl, South Africa, to Mbekweni, a predominately black township. He guided the thick tires of his vehicle around the potholes and puddles dotting Mbekweni’s narrow streets. He drove past small shops and roadside kiosks selling apples, potatoes, cigarettes, snuff, and gum. McGrath kept his window rolled down so that he could ask passersby if they had seen the phantom he was looking for: Luvo Manyonga, a young man full of possibility.

McGrath knew a thing or two about possibility. A strength coach for competitive athletes, he’d recently spent 18 months training the South African women’s tug-of-war team for the 2013 World Games, an event held every four years featuring sports that aren’t part of the Olympics. The women weren’t expected to do well—other countries had far better teams—but McGrath cared little for odds, records, and other supposed predictors of athletic success. He believed in hard work, hope, and surprises. Six-foot-six, with a chiseled torso and sculpted arms, he embodied the principles of his training methods. He’d weathered personal obstacles to become a rower and, later, an old-fashioned strongman, bending steel bars and other unlikely objects in front of stunned audiences. With his guidance, South Africa’s tug-of-war team won the bronze medal at the World Games.

The games were the reason McGrath had first heard about Luvo Manyonga. As part of his preparation, he’d attended a two-day symposium of coaches, trainers, and members of the South Africa Sports Commission and Olympic Committee (Sascoc). The meeting was held at a hotel in Johannesburg, in a conference room where the walls were lined with life-size posters of South African athletes in action. One of the images showed Manyonga in midstride, as if running on air. He was long and lithe, his legs extended and arms spread wide, as if every muscle in his body were pushing, propelling, willing him forward. He was jumping because that’s what he did best: Manyonga was one of the most promising long jumpers the world had ever seen.

McGrath found himself staring at the image, but not because of Manyonga’s height, form, or technique. “It was something about his eyes that pulled me in,” McGrath told me. “I recognized something in his face.” What, exactly, McGrath couldn’t quite say. But he was transfixed.

Despite Manyonga’s prominent photograph, South Africa’s top sporting authorities only rarely spoke about the young man anymore. He’d broken the country’s long-jump record at the age of 18 and had won international medals. He’d been on track to compete at the 2012 London Olympics, but his demons had gotten the better of him. He’d tested positive for methamphetamine and been banned from competition for 18 months. Sascoc, which determines which South African athletes compete for their country on the global stage, had all but turned its back on him.

Squandered talent, delegates of the Johannesburg meeting told McGrath, shaking their heads. Their resignation sparked his interest. He decided to find Manyonga and offer to train the athlete widely considered too toxic to touch.

Tracking Manyonga down wasn’t easy. He was still using drugs and sometimes pawned his cell phone for cash, which made him difficult to reach. So McGrath went looking for the athlete at his family’s home in Mbekweni. Manyonga lived in a four-room house on Machule Street that was hot in summer and cold in winter. It had been built atop the ruins of another structure destroyed by fire. McGrath parked his Jeep and walked up a path strewn with rubble, the remains of the other home, to the back door. He was ushered into the cramped living quarters by Manyonga’s mother, Joyce, a short, gospel-loving domestic worker in her sixties, and Vuyiseka, his elder sister.

Joyce and Vuyiseka said they had no idea where Manyonga was. They rarely did. Around Mbekweni, the would-be track star was known to scrounge and steal to feed his habit. If McGrath wanted to find him, he could try two of Manyonga’s preferred hangouts—the community center and the railway station—or linger through the night at Rennie’s Corner, a dingy nightclub.

Or, Joyce offered, McGrath could talk to Eugene Maqwelana, who ran Living Hope Ministries, a local evangelical church. Maqwelana’s father had once played rugby with Luvo’s father. As a respected pastor, he was well-connected and heard almost every shred of gossip that circulated through the 30,000-person township.

When McGrath reached out, Maqwelana was surprised. White men with blue eyes didn’t appear in his church very often. The pastor knew that Manyonga, who sometimes attended Bible classes held by Living Hope Ministries, was sliding quickly toward rock bottom. “Luvo was so raw,” Maqwelana told me. “One night in my Bible class, I asked if anyone would like to say anything, and he said yes and stood up and asked us to pray for him. After that he just wept. You could really see that this boy was broken.” Any punt on the township’s pride turned prodigal son seemed worth taking. Maqwelana promised McGrath that he’d find Manyonga and set up a meeting.  

Through other youth in the Bible class, Maqwelana got word to Manyonga that his presence was requested at the community center, to meet with the pastor and an Irishman. In the township, if a pastor says he wants to see you, he isn’t giving you a choice. Social custom dictates that you show up looking your best—clean pants, pressed shirt, shined shoes—and listen respectfully to what he has to say.

Manyonga did one better, arriving at the appointed time with a white Panama hat on his cleanly shaven head. Maqwelana interpreted the dapper accessory as a signal that the young man was eager to impress, even if he wouldn’t admit it. Maqwelana believed that deep down, despite being 22 and cocky, Manyonga wanted salvation.

The pastor introduced the two men and then left McGrath to make his pitch. Manyonga slumped slightly in his chair, wearing the neutral face he reserved for the authority figures in his life—teachers, parents, and Pastor Eugene. Sensing his audience’s unease, McGrath turned his wooden chair around so that he could straddle it and lean his thick forearms atop the back. The posture was informal and friendly; it also took the edge off the perpetual pain in McGrath’s back, the result of injuries sustained over years of athletic competition.

“Listen, Luvo, I know where you’re at,” McGrath began, his voice thick with a liquid Irish brogue. “I believe you can be an incredible jumper, and I believe I have the skill to get you going toward your dreams.”

McGrath was careful not to wag a finger or spout holier-than-thou warnings and maxims. He didn’t want to come off as judgmental. He didn’t give a damn if Manyonga liked to get high, but here was the thing, McGrath said: Manyonga had the sort of talent that comes around once in a blue moon. There are precious few people who have both the ability and the opportunities necessary to become a Michael Phelps or a Usain Bolt. The track world had for all intents and purposes abandoned Manyonga. His family was worried sick. He had everything to gain. What was there to lose?

“So how about you come and train with me then, Luvo?” McGrath asked.

Manyonga pursed his lips and moved them sideways, screwing up his face as he mulled over the question. Finally, his mouth broke into a half-grin, charming yet boyishly shy.

“OK,” he said. “When?”

McGrath raised an eyebrow. “Tomorrow. I’ll pick you up at 10 a.m.”

“Get ready,” Manyonga said, “because I’ll show you who’s boss.”

“I know you will, Luvo,” McGrath replied.

With that, Manyonga stood up and walked out. McGrath watched him and his Panama hat go. He could only wonder if the long jumper would actually show up to train, but he knew that the stakes felt sky-high. By the age of 30, McGrath thought, either Manyonga would be standing on an Olympic podium or he’d be lying in a gutter, dead from an overdose. What McGrath didn’t know, and perhaps couldn’t, was that the choice Manyonga made that day would shape the course of the Irishman’s life, too.

II.

Manyonga had sports in his blood. His mother grew up in the dusty Eastern Cape village of Dordrecht, where she sprinted and played netball, a game similar to basketball. His father, John, was willowy and long necked and became a rugby winger—a position often given to the fastest athletes—for teams in upcountry mining towns.

The couple moved from their rural home to the growing sprawl of the Western Cape in 1977, settling in Mbekweni, a township of concrete houses and tin shanties. Joyce got seasonal work picking grapes, and John operated a forklift and played for the local rugby team, Paarl Blues. Things were tight for the growing family even before John lost his job. By the time Manyonga was born in 1991, during the waning years of South Africa’s apartheid regime, John was consistently unemployed and frequently absent from home. Joyce took up the financial slack as a domestic worker for an Indian woman in Paarl, a town of vineyards and whitewashed houses.

Manyonga was a solitary child. He spent much of his time watching television by himself, pencils in hand, re-creating what he saw on the screen on scraps of paper. He drew cartoon figures, some of which still hung on the walls of the family’s Machule Street home when McGrath visited years later. “He was very quiet. He never had friends,” Vuyiseka said of her baby brother.

The only time Manyonga seemed to find his place in the neighborhood was when he played a game called three sticks, or drie stokkies in Afrikaans. Jumpers took turns hopping over the sticks, which were placed at regular intervals and moved farther and farther apart with each round. Anyone who couldn’t clear all three was eliminated. Manyonga was always the last one standing.

As he grew, so did Manyonga’s enthusiasm for jumping. He began leaping over random objects—car tires, plastic crates, cardboard boxes—lying around Mbekweni. By the time he was a teenager, he attracted street-corner audiences who clapped and gasped in admiration as he cleared long lines or tall piles of stuff. Jumping made him feel free and at peace. “It is as if when I jump,” he told me years later, “I am just in heaven.” It also gave him something to do so instead of getting into trouble with his chommies, boys he knew in the township.

In high school, Manyonga joined the track team. His school didn’t have the facilities or coaching to help him nurture his natural ability, but once or twice a season the team competed in regional meets at Coetzenburg Stadium, about 20 miles from Mbekweni, on the quiet, tree-lined campus of the University of Stellenbosch. It was at one such meet in early 2009 that Mario Smith saw Manyonga perform the long jump.

Smith was the no-nonsense, chain-smoking head of the university’s athletics department. “He’s a guy who looks at the data, runs the numbers, and keeps his emotions in check,” said Shaun de Jager, one of Smith’s track and field athletes at the time. What Smith witnessed in Manyonga was a body moving with such casual grace that it was almost scandalous.

The long jump dates back as far as the first Olympic Games in ancient Greece. It involves an athlete taking a running start, reaching a takeoff point, and leaping as far as they can into a narrow sand or dirt pit. When Manyonga prepared for a jump, he stood up straight, his head tilted toward the sky. As he hurtled down the runway, he adjusted his stride pattern so that he’d launch from his left foot, departing earth for air. At the apex of the jump, Manyonga’s favorite part, he seemed to yearn for his legs to grow just a little longer. Often, in that moment, he flashed his teeth, giving the impression that he was on the brink of a raucous laugh.

What Smith witnessed in Manyonga was a body moving with such casual grace that it was almost scandalous.

Smith approached Manyonga and asked to be his coach, even though Manyonga wasn’t a student at the university. It was a canny move: Smith recognized that he could do something for Manyonga and that the reverse might be equally true. Manyonga, a world-class talent, could make Smith’s name as a coach outside university sports, maybe even outside South Africa.

There were complications from the start. Athletes of Manyonga’s caliber typically adhere to a strict daily training schedule, but money for transportation from Mbekweni to Stellenbosch was in short supply. “Luvo couldn’t be there every day,” De Jager told me. Still, the young man’s ability blossomed. “The amazing thing was that Luvo could understand immediately what Mario said,” De Jager observed. “What took other athletes weeks took him days. I’ve never seen anything like that before.”    

The first major test of Smith and Manyonga’s partnership came in July 2009, when they traveled to Mauritius for the African Junior Athletics Championships. Despite having worked with Smith for only a few months, Manyonga jumped 7.49 meters and came in third. Before long he was hitting 8 meters in practice, good enough to put him in medal contention at the Olympics, should he ever get there.

In July 2010, at the World Junior Championships in New Brunswick, Canada, De Jager figured it was a no-brainer that Manyonga would seize gold. But it wasn’t so easy. Competitive long jumping has two rounds, a qualifier and a final. The top 12 jumpers in the qualifier advance to the finals, where each takes three jumps. The top eight then take another three turns. The person with the best distance across those six jumps wins. At the junior worlds, Manyonga’s only real competition was Spain’s Eusebio Cáceres, and after five jumps, Manyonga held the lead at 7.7 meters. Then Cáceres posted a 7.72, leaving Manyonga one last turn to retake the lead.

Smith, known for his cool, clinical demeanor, pulled from a blue packet the latest of many Rothmans cigarettes he’d smoked during the finals. He lit up in the warm Canadian evening. Manyonga stepped to the line, sprinted toward the pit, and lifted off. When he landed, he’d smashed Cáceres’s distance, jumping 7.99 meters.

“Mario just freaked out,” De Jager recalled. Smith dashed toward Manyonga and grabbed him in a hug. “Luvo is just one of those super energetic guys, bouncing all over the place,” De Jager explained, so his joy came as no surprise. Smith’s, though, was a departure. “It was nice to see Mario go across like that and get all emotional,” De Jager said.

With Manyonga’s gold in hand, there was no question: The long-legged boy from Mbekweni was causing a stir in the track world. His future, personally and professionally, was wide open.

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McGrath knew what it was like to use sports as an escape from a troubled childhood. In the 1970s, he grew up in a working-class family of six—mother, father, and four boys—not far from the country towns of Tallow and Cappoquin in County Waterford, Ireland. Home life was tough; McGrath’s dad had an unpredictable temper. His mother, who worked as a confectioner, was softer. McGrath sometimes picked blackberries that she baked into pies and wedding cakes.

He and his brothers played rugby and hurling, an Irish game similar to field hockey. After school they earned money harvesting onions or doing other odd jobs. McGrath put the money aside for his first bike, a red and white Raleigh with a fancy white seat. When he came up short on a down payment, his father, who could be generous when he wasn’t angry at his sons, made up the difference. McGrath rode it in ever wider circles around the house each day, venturing as far as he could before he had to turn around and head home for dinner.

One summer afternoon in the late 1970s, while learning to swim in a municipal pool, McGrath was approached by several members of a local rowing club running a recruitment drive. Would he like to join? His face dripping wet, McGrath looked up from the pool and asked when and where he was wanted.

Rowing provided an even greater escape than McGrath’s one-speed Raleigh. Soon his younger brother Oisin joined the club, too, and they traveled to Limerick, Cork, and Dublin for regattas. McGrath wasn’t a fluid rower, but he was powerful, a dynamo with the oars. He discovered that he loved the calm of the Blackwater, a gloriously wide tidal river next to the club’s boathouses. He could lose himself in the steady rhythm of pulling the oars and the labor exerted by his legs and lower back.

Over a decade of competition, with calm deliberation, he and Oisin powered past some of the best rowers in Ireland. In 1992, they competed on a four-man team in a qualifier for the Barcelona Olympics, breaking the course record by five seconds—only to have a Cuban team break it by six, dashing the McGraths’ hopes of advancing to Spain. “That race was the greatest of my life,” McGrath said. “I’ll never forget the exhaustion of coming in second.”

Not long after the head-to-head battle with the Cubans, disaster struck: McGrath was exercising when he felt a sudden sharp pain in his back. It was a prolapsed disc. Rowing became impossible, and within a year, he’d drifted away from the sport entirely. He took up martial arts like kickboxing and hapkido, among other disciplines that didn’t make heavy demands on his back. He grew fascinated by strength and conditioning, how it could help athletes of all skill levels. In 2002, he became the strength and conditioning coach for Mount Sion, a hurling team in Waterford.

The same year, McGrath picked up a hardback copy of a book called The Mighty Atom, by Ed Spielman. It tells the story of Joseph L. Greenstein, born premature and asthmatic as Yosselle Greenstein in the Polish border town of Suwalki in 1893. Doctors predicted that he would die before adulthood, but he survived and, of all things, joined the circus. Despite his diminutive size, Greenstein apprenticed with a wrestler and strongman called Volkano. In 1911, he came to the United States, where he reinvented himself as the Mighty Atom. Greenstein performed at Coney Island, slamming nails into plywood with his palm and flexing his pectoral, trapezius, and other bulging upper-body muscles to break the links of metal chains crisscrossing his chest. “The Modern Hercules,” a promotional poster for the Mighty Atom declared.

McGrath identified with Greenstein’s restlessness and self-sufficiency. He also shared the Mighty Atom’s views on the benefits of vegetarianism and avoiding alcohol. “No doubt about it,” McGrath told me. “The Spielman book changed my life.” In his free time, McGrath read about the lost tradition of Irish strongmen—performers and itinerants like Michael “Butty” Sugrue—and started training to bend horseshoes and tear telephone directories in half with his bare hands.

By 2008, McGrath had met a woman named Elke who was originally from South Africa. They lived on a farm outside Waterford called Bawnfune House, complete with prefamine sheds amid rolling green fields. Then the Irish economy fell off a cliff: Property values declined by more than 60 percent, and interest rates skyrocketed. Suddenly, McGrath couldn’t pay his mortgage. The bank took the farm. “I was in a horrible corner,” McGrath recalled.

McGrath started training to bend horseshoes and tear telephone directories in half with his bare hands.

Amid the mayhem of the crash, Elke announced that she wanted to return home to Paarl. McGrath followed, partly out of a lazy sense of adventure, and partly because he had few other options. He flew to South Africa with some clothes, two rolled-up paintings by a favorite Waterford artist, and two hurling balls, called sliotars, from his days training the lads at Mount Sion.

McGrath found Paarl alien. He didn’t understand a word of Afrikaans. He stood out as a tall, bulky foreigner with a funny accent. He longed for the fish and chips shop near the Mount Sion grounds and the grassy islands that run down the middle of Irish country roads. But he did his best to make a go of it. He picked up odd jobs performing vaudevillian feats of strength in school gymnasiums or delivering motivational speeches about the power of dreams and positive thinking. “I love the performance aspect of it,” he said of being a strongman. “But finally, it’s only a tool to prove to others that anything is possible. Bending paradigms is more important than breaking chains.” He coached two local rugby teams and helped some fellow enthusiasts build a Marine-like outdoor obstacle course called Die Pyntuin (the Garden of Pain).

None of it paid well, though. He and Elke began to grate on each other’s nerves. They fought, blamed each other for fighting, then fought some more. They soon separated.

McGrath scraped the money together to rent an empty warehouse on the industrial side of town; he wanted to open a strength and conditioning gym. The building was dark, drafty, and worn around the edges, but it was his. Bit by bit, McGrath attracted clients. The national women’s tug-of-war team was his first big get, and their medal at the World Games boosted his credentials. He was still in an existential breach, but he was determined to claw his way out.

III.

In some ways, it was success that led to Manyonga’s downfall. Although he received no prize money to go with his gold medal at the junior worlds, sponsors began reaching out. Adidas paid for his kit, training shoes, and spikes, and he received a small stipend from Sascoc. In local terms, he was rapidly becoming a meneer (big man).

Smith persuaded Manyonga to live in a communal athletes’ house in Stellenbosch to focus more on his training. Doing so would mean dropping out of school before receiving his qualification—the South African equivalent of a high school diploma—but Manyonga didn’t mind. “At that time, Luvo, he was just flying,” Vuyiseka told me.

Manyonga shared the house with four other track and field athletes. He had his own room and a little privacy, two things he’d rarely experienced in Mbekweni. The five housemates spent weekends hanging out, eating Smith’s decadent homemade pasta dishes. But during the week they trained hard. Manyonga made steady gains in strength and technical acumen. Before long, Smith felt that Manyonga was ready to jump against anyone in the world.

Athletics South Africa, the country’s governing body for track and field, entered Manyonga in the long jump at the World Athletics Championships in South Korea. Though he placed fifth, he earned a $5,000 check, almost as much as the average annual income for black South Africans. Upon his return home, Manyonga, who was 20, set out to impress. He bought new clothes and attracted a group of friends who were happy to let him pick up the tab whenever they went out for meals or drinks. He disappeared from the training house for days at a time and stayed out all night at clubs in Mbekweni and Kyamandi, a township outside Stellenbosch.

Many people in these clubs used crystal meth, which had started flooding into South Africa from Nigeria in the late 1990s and was soon produced locally. One morning, after a night of partying, Manyonga woke considerably worse for wear. He pulled on jeans, splashed water on his face, and headed to Kyamandi. He had heard from a friend that tik, the local name for meth, was a cheap cure for a hangover, and he thought he could find someone dealing in the township.

Smith called to ask why he was late for training. Manyonga hung up.

Manyonga bought a small baggie of meth that day. When he smoked it, he heard a tik-tik-tik as he inhaled the heated lolly, or pipe; the sound was the source of the drug’s name. He loved how meth made him feel. The sensation of being high was nearly as good as jumping, he would later tell me. He didn’t have to worry about Smith pushing him, shouting at him to do better during training. He didn’t have to worry about fitting in at the athletes’ house as a township boy who hadn’t completed his exams. He didn’t have to worry about pressure or expectations or anything else. For a few hours, he didn’t have to think at all.

Soon the other athletes at the house noticed that personal items were disappearing. Money went missing from a wallet; cell phones mysteriously vanished like socks in the dryer. His housemates suspected Manyonga was taking things of value that he could trade for drugs. As they were cooling down after a training session without Manyonga one day, they brought the subject up with Smith. The conversation was amiable enough, but the young men felt that their coach didn’t take what they’d said to heart. “It felt like Mario didn’t want to see what we were seeing,” De Jager said. Still, Smith recommended that Manyonga visit a Stellenbosch-based sports psychologist named Dawn Saunders. “It was my impression that Mario sensed something wasn’t right,” Saunders told me. “It was almost as if he wanted me to confirm his suspicions.”

Busy with his new social life, Manyonga cut back on training, but he continued to compete and even to excel, a matter of enduring frustration to his less talented housemates. Though he underwent random drug testing before some meets, Manyonga didn’t get caught. Tik is detectable in a person’s system for only about nine days after use, and Manyonga would abstain from smoking just long enough to avoid testing positive.

On March 20, 2012, less than five months before the London Olympics, there was a meet scheduled at Coetzenburg Stadium, Manyonga’s home turf. He hadn’t planned to compete, so he’d snuck out of the house the day before to smoke a tik pipe in Kyamandi. Irritable with Manyonga’s wanderings, Smith decided to force the long jumper to participate, no matter how tired or unprepared he was. “Mario was pissed off,” said De Jager. “He put pressure on Luvo to compete. He always knew that if Luvo just hit the plank, the chances were good that he’d put in a good jump.”

Following the meet, a mere 24 hours after smoking tik, he was selected for a drug test. When it came back positive, Manyonga was immediately prohibited from further competition pending a hearing before the South African Institute for Drug Free Sport (SAIDS), scheduled for a month later. Depending on what the panel decided, Manyonga faced a ban of up to two years.

Manyonga was devastated, and Smith was irate—at his star jumper but also, in De Jager’s telling, at himself. Smith insisted that Manyonga voluntarily enter an outpatient rehab center near Cape Town, in the suburb of Hout Bay. For several weeks, Manyonga spent his days at the rehab center, going through counseling and working on strategies to avoid a relapse. When he next visited Saunders, “he was upset and disappointed,” she recalled. He also “didn’t deny anything.” During their talk, Manyonga was deferential and apologetic, less a meneer than a frightened kid, scarcely out of adolescence. Jumping had been his source of power and his escape. If he couldn’t jump, what would he do?

When Manyonga was scheduled to appear in the suburban Cape Town offices of SAIDS, Smith went with him, and the coach asked Saunders to come, too. The London Olympics were less than three months away. Saunders, like Smith, felt strongly that Manyonga was a young man from difficult circumstances who’d made a mistake; she understood how rare his talent was, how limited his support system, and how easy it must have been to get caught up in the culture of tik. As they prepared to enter the SAIDS offices, Saunders asked Manyonga how he was feeling.

“Mum can’t be proud of me now,” she remembered him saying. “I’ve brought shame on my family.”

Jumping had been Manyonga’s source of power and his escape. If he couldn’t jump, what would he do?

At the hearing, Manyonga, Saunders, and Smith sat on one side of a large boardroom table; on the other was a panel of four administrators and lawyers (three of them white, one Malay) who would decide his fate. Manyonga accepted strict liability—he didn’t dispute that he’d tested positive—but otherwise spoke little. Saunders and Smith did most of the talking.

Saunders described the long jumper’s background, his dysfunctional home life, and the rigors of Mbekweni. Manyonga had shown contrition, Smith added, and voluntarily sought out treatment. His mother earned 120 Rand (roughly $9) per week as a domestic worker; his dad rarely had work. If Manyonga didn’t jump, he would have no income, and his family would lose his financial support, too. He needed only one more jump to qualify for the Olympics.

Some of the panelists teared up or blew their noses. “So you believe, Mr. Smith,” asked Andrew Breetzke, the chairman, “the athlete has the potential to become one of the world’s great long jumpers?”

“I do,” Smith replied. “He’s my most gifted athlete. He can hurdle parked cars.”

After approximately three hours, the meeting was adjourned. The panel would deliver a verdict within two weeks. The mood during the car ride home was somber. Smith drove and Saunders sat in the front; Manyonga was in the back seat. Saunders heard sniffling coming from behind her at one point but didn’t turn around.

As they rolled down the N2 highway toward Stellenbosch, Saunders noticed the shanties of Khayelitsha, the largest township in South Africa. She had seen it many times before, but the sight now shamed her. The lingering divisions of apartheid, between the haves and have-nots, was as much a part of the South African landscape as the breathtaking silhouette of Table Mountain and the fields of grazing rhinos in Kruger National Park. And just like the townships, Manyonga personified the raw injustices of his country.

Saunders started to cry. She looked across the car and saw that Smith was crying, too. “What a bugger up it was,” she told me. “I don’t know if another nation can understand this—that this is what it means to be a South African.”

Two weeks later, the verdict arrived: Manyonga was banned from jumping for 18 months. The mitigating factors of his background and home life meant that he didn’t receive the maximum two-year sanction. Breetzke told me that he felt bad about the whole situation—a “quintessential South African tragedy,” he said—but rules were rules.

Over the next year, Manyonga disappeared from Smith’s radar. He bounced around Mbekweni, from club to club, aimless, often high—until the day he met John McGrath.

IV.

At 10 a.m., the time they’d agreed to meet to begin training, McGrath pulled up in his Jeep at Manyonga’s Machule Street home, vacillating between hope and doubt that the young man would even be there. To McGrath’s relief he was, though he’d ditched his Panama hat for a black tracksuit. McGrath got out of the Jeep, and he and Manyonga bumped fists and snapped their fingers in greeting. Then they both got in the car and headed to the gym.

To start, McGrath wanted to establish a baseline for Manyonga’s natural gifts. He had the young man hold a broom across the front of his thighs, the handle horizontal to the ground. He asked Manyonga to jump over it from a standing position, then, with the handle pressed to his hamstrings, to jump over it backward. The exercise was nearly impossible; McGrath had seen it done successfully only a few times in his career as a coach. Manyonga did it ten times in a row.

Still, there was room for improvement. Manyonga was naturally supple, but he wasn’t nearly as strong as he could be. A long jumper needs the explosive power of a sprinter to fly down the runway and maximize his launch. Manyonga could run 100 meters in 10.5 seconds; McGrath told Manyonga he could get that number down to 10 if he wanted to. The young athlete also needed better stability in his ankles, so he could withstand the bone-jarring force of his takeoff without injury.

McGrath concentrated on exercises that would strengthen Manyonga’s core and thighs without sacrificing his natural speed and agility. Manyonga rode a stationary bike. He worked with weights and medicine balls. He did one-legged jumps onto raised blocks. Days turned into weeks, weeks wheeled into months, and Manyonga became stronger and fitter.

Sometimes they were joined in training by Ryk Neethling, a freestyle swimmer who had won a gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics as part of South Africa’s 4×100-meter relay team. The three men quickly established a rapport. They were relentlessly competitive, challenging each other to acts of strength and endurance. Manyonga was easily bored, so they devised games to keep things interesting. Sometimes they’d race around the facility’s perimeter, pushing wheelbarrows full of weights as fast as they could. “Somehow,” McGrath recalled fondly of the competitions, “Ryk would always start before I said go.”

As Manyonga put on muscle, McGrath did, too. Within a few months, he realized that he had never been in better shape and that he was having more fun than he’d had in years. After workouts during which they blasted songs by Lil Ray Jimenez, McGrath and Manyonga would go to Paarl for coffee or a shake and a burger. They were an unusual pair: McGrath was the pale white of the sun-shy Irish, while Manyonga was a lustrous black. McGrath was like a brick wall of solid muscle, while Manyonga was narrow and agile. He walked on his toes, not the soles of his feet, giving the impression that he was always about to take flight. They joked with each other and talked about women and music. Manyonga loved R&B and a South African genre called gqom, which mixes rap and house music. McGrath’s tastes inclined toward heavy metal, Irish folk, and the Ramones. “We were very equal,” McGrath recalled of their relationship. “I talked about Ireland and the Irish weather. He talked about going swimming in the dams behind Mbekweni.”

As they became closer, there was one subject that Manyonga didn’t seem comfortable discussing: his relationship with Mario Smith. From the little Manyonga said, and from what McGrath heard from other athletes, it was clear that the coach-athlete bond had become a strained one.

McGrath’s and Smith’s paths seldom crossed—they moved in different athletic worlds—but he empathized with Smith, because he had frustrations of his own with Manyonga. Sometimes the long jumper skipped training sessions and would be unreachable because he’d sold his most recent cell phone. Things went missing from the gym, like a mountain bike and thumb drives of music. While McGrath didn’t have proof that Manyonga was to blame, he’d also never lost things like that before. McGrath let it go. “Some battles you fight,” he told me. “We were in a delicate phase. I suspected that he was still smoking tik but looked the other way. I couldn’t be with him every hour of the day, and I didn’t want to go down that particular rabbit hole.”

McGrath knew that Manyonga needed Smith’s expertise on the technical aspects of jumping to compete again, so when Manyonga’s ban expired, in September 2013, the Irishman arranged a three-way meeting at Val-de-Vie, a luxury golf estate where Ryk Neethling worked when he wasn’t swimming. The gathering, McGrath announced after they’d all sat down, was about leaving the past behind and finding common ground. “I made it quite clear,” McGrath said, “that no one person would help improve Luvo—it was going to be a joint effort.” They agreed to put the ban behind them and set their sights on the Commonwealth Games, scheduled for Glasgow, Scotland, in July 2014. It was the ideal venue for Manyonga to return to international competition: high-profile but not exceptionally so.

To get there, the trio established a daily protocol. Manyonga would train with McGrath in Paarl in the morning, then with Smith in Stellenbosch in the afternoon, before returning to Mbekweni at night. Smith would either pick him up or see to it that a car came to fetch him. The routine would give Manyonga structure and support at every turn, along with a new goal to replace his dashed London dreams. Whatever bad habits the young man still had, Smith and McGrath hoped to keep them at manageable levels.

The coaches decided that Manyonga would compete at a meet in Coetzenburg Stadium in March 2014, just two days before the cutoff date to qualify for the Commonwealth Games. Manyonga wasn’t quite in peak shape, but Smith and McGrath hoped he would qualify with one of his early jumps, before he got too tired. He reached 7.65 meters on his second attempt, more than enough to make it to Glasgow.

But there was a hitch: Afterward, Athletics South Africa claimed that the jump was never reported and therefore couldn’t be ratified—meaning that Manyonga hadn’t officially qualified. When Sascoc announced South Africa’s Glasgow team on June 11, 2014, Manyonga wasn’t on it. All his hard work had been wasted effort. His official ban had ended nine months prior, but now it seemed to have been informally extended.

According to McGrath, Manyonga took the news in stride. “I was more freaked out than Luvo was,” McGrath told me. Perhaps, he mused, Manyonga had already “had to take so much shit” in his life as a poor black man in South Africa that this felt like business as usual. Then again, Manyonga wasn’t one to be open and honest about his feelings. Playing tough was an act of youth and a product of circumstance.

Manyonga’s official ban had ended nine months prior, but now it seemed to have been informally extended.

One night, two weeks after Sascoc’s announcement about Glasgow, Smith was driving from Stellenbosch to Paarl in his battered Opel Kadett when an oncoming car came over a rise and hit him head-on. Both vehicles immediately burst into flames, killing Smith and the other car’s four occupants.

The news spread quickly, and the athletes Smith had worked with most committedly took it hard, like the loss of the family member who’d been the glue holding everyone together. “We had a really good training group,” De Jager said. “The fact that Mario died broke us apart.”

Manyonga had known Smith for five years. The coach had given him a shot—twice—and been a father figure. Even during the painful months of the ban and the distance it had created between them, he’d loved the man.

After the accident, Manyonga drifted back to Mbekweni. When he and McGrath saw each other or spoke, Smith’s death wasn’t mentioned. “Luvo didn’t reveal too much of his pain to me,” McGrath said.

On the day of Smith’s memorial, Manyonga put on slim-fitting red pants, a crisp shirt, and pointed black loafers. He left his family’s home intending to catch the train to Stellenbosch, where the service would be held. But he got waylaid: He ran into some friends, smoked a tik pipe, and never caught the train.

V.

The day of Smith’s funeral was when I met McGrath and Manyonga for the first time, though it wasn’t an easy undertaking. On a work trip to the Western Cape, I’d heard about an Irishman who’d befriended a long jumper with talent to burn, now ostracized from the South African track community because he used drugs. My interest piqued, I’d contacted McGrath, who explained Manyonga’s tendency to disappear. On the day of the memorial, we chased him for five hours: An acquaintance on the street said they’d seen him an hour or so prior and pointed us to one of Manyonga’s haunts, where the scenario repeated itself, before we finally found him at the train station.

Exhausted—and irritated—by the search, we went looking for something to eat and somewhere to talk. I learned much about Luvo that day: the purity of his potential, the depth of his relationship with McGrath, and the intensity of his love of tik, which he described to me with rapt attention to detail. He also talked about his drive to succeed. “I want to be someone in life,” Manyonga told me, “not a hero or a millionaire. I want to be a normal person with a family, a person people look up to and say, ‘One day, I want to be just like him.’”

The product of my reporting was an article, “The Impossibility of Loving Luvo,” published in South Africa’s Mail and Guardian in August 2014. The wheels that the story set in motion were slow but powerful. The African National Congress, the country’s governing party, reached out to its Mbekweni branch, and Manyonga and McGrath were invited to a parliamentary meeting in Cape Town. The two men explained the long jumper’s predicament. The lawmakers said that while they couldn’t make any decisions about Manyonga’s fate, they would call people who could.

Within a few weeks, McGrath’s phone was ringing. Sascoc was interested in Manyonga again. The committee offered to enroll him at the High Performance Centre (HPC) at the University of Pretoria, better known as Tukkies. The HPC was the best athletic center in the country.

“I want to be someone in life, not a hero or a millionaire. I want to be a normal person with a family, a person people look up to and say, ‘One day, I want to be just like him.’”

On the heels of Smith’s death, McGrath felt it was the right move for Manyonga. “Never,” he told me, “have I seen someone as straightforwardly gifted as Luvo.” McGrath didn’t want the young man to pass up a chance to get his talent back on track.

In June 2015, a year after Smith’s accident, Manyonga moved to Pretoria to train. He wasn’t thrilled about the HPC’s insistence that he submit to random drug testing, but he was glad when, one sunny winter morning not long after he’d arrived, he met someone eager to be his new coach: Neil Cornelius, a trainer at the HPC. “I knew of his troubles and his past,” Cornelius told me, but “there was never any doubt” that with work, Manyonga could “break barriers.”

Not that Cornelius liked everything he saw. Manyonga still walked and ran on his toes and needed to get out of the habit during his jumps, Cornelius told him, because placing a full foot on the ground would give him a firmer takeoff. Manyonga also admitted to his coach that, because he was scared of heights, he closed his eyes after launching into the air. Cornelius urged Manyonga to keep them open. “I told him that if you close your eyes, you are losing control and direction,” Cornelius explained. “If you don’t have visual feedback, you don’t know where you are going.”

Under Cornelius’s tutelage, Manyonga gained in confidence and strength. His technique became more precise and his jumps progressively longer. With dedication, on the right stage, he could possibly break American Mike Powell’s world record of 8.95 meters, set at the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo.

McGrath was nearly 800 miles away in Paarl, but he tried to visit Manyonga regularly. When he flew up from Cape Town for work, he would arrange his schedule to spend at least half a day with his friend. They would meet and shoot the breeze over a cappuccino or a meal. “Luvo had a fierce appetite, that I can tell you—he’d have mighty breakfasts,” McGrath recalled, “and a good conversation with the waitress as well.” They went to rugby matches and, once, to watch a motocross race. “That was probably the last uncomplicated visit we ever had,” McGrath said.

The complications didn’t stem from an argument or disagreement, which McGrath and Manyonga rarely had in earnest. The problems were subtler and more frustrating. Manyonga moving to Pretoria, far from the trauma he’d endured and the mistakes he’d made, created a rift between the life he’d lived and the one he wanted to build. McGrath sat on the far side of that divide, a reminder of a past self that Manyonga wanted to shed like old skin. He was young, gifted, and impetuous. His friendship with McGrath seemed better set aside with a gentle hand than dragged along with him into the future.

When I spoke to McGrath on the phone, I asked if he felt hurt by the growing distance between him and Manyonga, but he insisted that nothing was wrong. “This was how it was meant to be,” he’d once said of Manyonga’s move to Pretoria. In another conversation, he noted, “My motive was always to get him on his feet and get him going again.” On another occasion, McGrath added, “I was always gunning for him to get away. I was never going to carry his suitcase around the world.”

In March 2016, Manyonga’s rehabilitation reached a critical moment. At a low-key meet at Pilditch Stadium in Pretoria, he jumped 8.2 meters. The distance guaranteed that, after years of hardship and uncertainty, Manyonga was finally able to go to the Olympic Games for his country. McGrath wasn’t at the meet, but when he heard about Manyonga’s victory, he texted his friend, “Show the swagger.”

A month later, Manyonga was set to appear at the South African Athletics Championships. It was the country’s biggest stage, and Manyonga hoped to wow audiences with further evidence of his comeback. McGrath and Manyonga’s family were in the stands at Coetzenburg Stadium. Manyonga had jumped there hundreds of times before; it felt like a spiritual home. Cornelius whispered in Manyonga’s ear that he was on the cusp of becoming a legend in front of the entire country.

Manyonga’s first two jumps in the qualifying round were massive, but officials deemed them foul, meaning Manyonga’s toe had passed the edge of the takeoff plate. His third attempt was an utter failure: a negligible 6.7 meters. Manyonga didn’t advance to the final round and ultimately finished 13th. A victory might have established Manyonga as a favorite at Rio. Instead, he would be entering sports’ biggest stage as an inconsistent underdog.

When it was all over, Cornelius took the athlete aside.

“This is the last time this happens,” he growled. “The last time.”

“Yes, coach,” Manyonga replied, looking at his feet.

“Time is running out, Luvo,” Cornelius said. “Carry on like this, and medaling at Rio is just a dream. You with me?”

“I am, yes. It won’t happen again.”

VI.

McGrath was nursing a secret. He was injured, badly, and had been for months. At first, in 2015, he thought the pain running like a hot wire down his left leg was a pulled muscle, but he soon realized that it was the recurrence of his 25-year-old rowing injury, which affected his fourth and fifth vertebrae. “It robs you of joy, an injury like that,” McGrath told me. “It was hell to sit and difficult to walk. The only thing that really helped was to lie down.” He felt alone; he’d been separated from Elke for years, and while he had clients at the gym, none gave him purpose like Manyonga had. Friends told him that he should consider moving back to Ireland.

Instead, McGrath focused on the thing that had pulled him through other dark times: training. He had a bag full of grip exercisers called Captains of Crush. He could use them to maintain the strength in his wrists and forearms without compromising his damaged back. He started with a relatively easy gripper, equipped with 140 pounds of resistance, and worked his way up to 300. He squeezed the devices for an hour each day, swapping hands and pausing occasionally to rest his aching arms. It was a solitary activity, physical meditation of sorts. As he clamped the handles of the grippers together again and again, his mind meandered into daydreams. “That’s where I conjure up the feats that I’m going to do,” McGrath told me.

Sometimes he imagined performing in front of the Association of Oldetime Barbell and Strongmen, an international group dedicated to preserving the tradition that had made the Mighty Atom famous. McGrath had appeared before the association once before, in 2011 in Coney Island, where he’d done two tricks. The first was a complicated maneuver in which he bent a steel bar into a curlicue; the second involved bending a bar by clamping the middle between his teeth and pulling the ends downward. But he wanted to do more, including bend nails. The feat held a certain cachet in strongman circles. The Mighty Atom had done it. The Atom’s most ardent disciple, Slim “the Hammerman” Furman, had too. Because of their short length and the bender’s diminished leverage, nails are more difficult than steel bars. Among the most challenging to manipulate are what are known as red nails: seven inches of steel, five-sixteenths of an inch in diameter, that have been cold rolled, or processed at lower temperatures to make them stronger than standard nails.

In early 2016, after months of minimal exercise beyond just gripping the Captains of Crush, McGrath grew impatient and decided to push himself. He picked up a steel bar one day and tried to bend it. Immediately, pain coursed through his back. He was nearly incapacitated. He took anti-inflammatories and other painkillers, but nothing helped. Around the same time Manyonga headed to Rio, McGrath finally admitted that he needed surgery. It was the only way to relieve pressure on a nerve near his spine.

The operation went smoothly, but as he recovered, McGrath’s doctors gave him some news he didn’t want to hear: He should never again bend a steel bar, let alone a nail. McGrath let their advice sink in as, lying on his back, he watched the Rio Olympics unfold on television. He was pumped so full of narcotics that he could barely muster the strength to shout when Manyonga appeared on screen, clad in his green, yellow, and white uniform, ready to jump.

Despite Manyonga’s lackluster performance at Coetzenburg, McGrath believed Manyonga could medal in Rio; so did Cornelius. But the rest of the sports world had lost sight of the promising South African during what amounted to a nearly five-year hiatus from high-profile competition. Manyonga quietly took fourth in the qualifying round and advanced. “Excited for tomorrow,” Cornelius texted him that night. “Sleep well.”

The long-jump final began at midnight in South Africa, where Manyonga’s family watched via a satellite feed their neighbors had pooled their money to purchase for the family. McGrath watched from a friend’s house where he was staying while recovering from surgery. As the competitors took the field, commentators described the fight for gold as a two-way race between Great Britain’s Greg Rutherford and America’s Jeff Henderson. When TV cameras focused on Manyonga, he did a buzzy little jig, his natural showmanship coming to the fore.

Rutherford went first and jumped 8.18 meters. Manyonga then hit 8.16. Henderson followed with 8.2. Manyonga’s next two jumps were ruled foul. Rutherford, meanwhile, moved ahead of Henderson with a jump of 8.22.

When it was time for his fourth attempt, Manyonga stood on the track, his eyes focused on the pit ahead. He leaned back, then sprinted and leaped into the air. When he landed, the number that flashed on the scoreboard was the best of the night: 8.28 meters. In his fifth jump he would surpass it, reaching 8.37 meters, a personal record in competition.

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Manyonga strutted toward the stands, his face breaking into a grin. On Machule Street, people screamed at the television and clapped their hands. McGrath, feeling a surge of pride even as he was unable to react with a physically taxing whoop or fist pump, was sure that the event was over. No one would beat Manyonga.

Henderson had one jump left, and Manyonga watched from the side of the track, where he sat on the ground, leaning back on his arms as casually as if he was at a picnic. Henderson rocketed toward the pit and soared into the air.

He hit 8.38 meters. Just like that, Manyonga was bumped from first place.

“I was so close,” he sighed to reporters afterward. “I had my hands on that gold medal.” Still, he’d won an Olympic silver medal, a feat that, just a year prior, had seemed all but impossible.

McGrath had once predicted that either Luvo would be dead from an overdose or he’d be standing on an Olympic podium by the time he was 30. At 25, Manyonga had fulfilled that prophecy. The Irishman shared the news on Twitter, posted a Facebook message, and sent Manyonga his congratulations. As the hours passed, his emotions mounted. “I stayed awake all night, and at around 5 a.m., it dawned on me what an achievement this was,” McGrath told me. He broke down crying.

VII.

Many people in South Africa had been sure that Manyonga would never live up to his potential. The long jumper had proved them wrong. McGrath wanted to do the same to the doctors who’d told him he’d never be a strongman again.

After leaving the hospital, he’d worn a back brace and used crutches. Once he ditched those, he embraced Pilates and yoga. He went to physical therapy and changed his diet, incorporating intermittent fasting like the Mighty Atom once had. Slowly, he began to exercise more rigorously. “I went by feel and trained around my injury,” he told me. “I did push-ups, pull-ups. I always took a safe position. I never picked up anything off the floor.”

Six weeks after surgery, he had the chance to do a paid strength performance for Adidas employees gathered at a Stellenbosch hotel. He couldn’t bend a bar by traditional means, so he bent one while holding it clamped between his teeth. He leaned his head back, raising his jaw toward the sky, while yanking down on either end of the three-foot length of steel. “Something must give in a situation like that—generally it’s the bar,” McGrath told me with a chuckle. “Your teeth crushing down into your gums feels wrong. It’s counterintuitive. The taste of steel isn’t particularly pleasant.” The performance went off without a hitch and with minimal pain.

In addition to a much needed paycheck, the event gave McGrath confidence. The Association of Oldetime Barbell and Strongmen was having its annual dinner in Newark, New Jersey, in October 2017. If McGrath trained hard in the year leading up to the event, he might be able to set a world record for the most red nails bent in under a minute. “Those nails are strengthened by a process that gives them approximately 500 pounds of resistance,” McGrath told me. “You’re not going to do more than seven or eight in a minute.” That became his goal.

Reaching it required a change of technique. He couldn’t bow his back to the same degree he once had, which meant he couldn’t manipulate a nail while holding it down in front of his torso. Instead, he’d have to bring it up close to his chin and bend it in half with a relatively straight back, providing the necessary explosive power with his shoulders, biceps, and forearms. All of his training was geared toward strengthening his upper body.

One day while McGrath was training, Pastor Eugene Maqwelana, the man who’d first introduced the Irishman to Manyonga, phoned. He was planning a men’s retreat in Paarl and inviting community leaders. The coaches of a rugby team would be there, and Maqwelana wanted Manyonga to come, too. Could McGrath persuade him to fly down from Pretoria?

McGrath called Manyonga, who agreed to come, though their conversation took a strange turn.

“I’m next-level now, John,” Manyonga said. “I need a bodyguard.”

“You what?” McGrath replied incredulously.

“A bodyguard, you know.”

McGrath thought Manyonga might be joking, playing up an above-it-all celebrity persona for laughs. But Manyonga’s tone suggested he was serious.

“You’re a fucking athlete,” McGrath replied, annoyed, “not Jay-Z.”

The strongman picked the long jumper up after his flight down south for the retreat. Following the event, they went to Bean-in-Love, a favorite coffee shop from their time training together at the gym. Back then they were just two friends stopping in for a snack; now everyone in the neighborhood knew Manyonga. “Walking back in there was kind of cool,” McGrath said. “There was a sense of achievement.”

But tension was palpable in what wasn’t said. The two men ignored the bodyguard conversation and its implications—namely, that the gulf between them was wider than ever.


Away from the streets of Mbekweni, Manyonga still struggled to cope with temptation. As he trained for the 2017 World Athletics Championships, scheduled for London in August, he was lured into the drug scene in Sunnyside, a Pretoria suburb. He went on a bender in July and voluntarily committed himself to rehab. “He was so weak he couldn’t jump,” said Danie Cornelius, who runs the track and field program at the University of Pretoria (and is also the father of Manyonga’s coach, Neil). While there, Cornelius said, Manyonga tested positive for cocaine. The staff kicked him out, but he was readmitted after authorities at the University of Pretoria pleaded for the center to take him back.

With three weeks to go before the worlds, Manyonga’s entourage was wild with worry. From afar, McGrath was aware of the troubles, but he was reluctant to interfere. When Manyonga arrived in London, his closest supporters held their breath, hoping his raw talent would overcome his recklessness. The young man exceeded even the most optimistic expectations: Sporting a pair of pale blue spikes, Manyonga jumped a whopping 8.48 meters early in the final round, literally drawing a line in the sand. No one else could match the effort. He was champion of the world.

After his victory, he called his family. “We cried a lot,” Vuyiseka said. “Mum was very happy.”

By that time, Manyonga had begun working with a new sports agent, a man named Lee-Roy Newton, who made it clear to reporters that he was going to rewrite Manyonga’s public narrative. He told The Guardian that sponsors didn’t want to go near stories with lingering negativity—stories like a sports figure who had struggled with a drug problem. (Newton did not respond to a request for comment about Manyonga’s 2017 experience in rehab.)

For McGrath’s part, he felt that Newton drove an even deeper wedge between him and Manyonga, a sense borne out when, while working on this story, I called Newton to set up an interview with Manyonga about his relationship with John. I wondered, however naively, if I might be able to help bridge the gap between the long jumper and the strongman. Newton told me that Manyonga didn’t want to talk; Manyonga thought McGrath was trying to take credit for his success and didn’t want to have anything to do with a story linking their journeys together.

It was a response that, to a certain degree, I understood. In South Africa, people who come from little are rightly protective of their success; others taking credit can feel like robbery of the worst kind. And people who offer a helping hand too often forget or gloss over the conditions that made assistance necessary in the first place. If Manyonga, blessed with innate physical brilliance, wanted to move through the world like a kid with diamonds on the soles of his shoes, that was his right.

Then again, McGrath seemed less interested in credit than he did in connection. Even as Manyonga continued to win meet after meet and title after title around the globe, McGrath kept visiting the young man’s family. He helped Vuyiseka pay for outstanding school fees and sometimes pitched in for groceries or the odd bottle of wine. “We lost Mario,” Vuyiseka told me, “and then came John.”

At root the story of McGrath and Manyonga isn’t one of debts owed. It’s about two people from diverging worlds pushing the limits of what’s personally and humanly possible, who for a brief but glorious time labored side by side in that effort. They were changed by it. Then, as quickly as they’d met, they burst apart, burning bright in different directions, but with a single contrail in their wake.


On October 21, 2017, after months of preparation and planning, McGrath took to a small, wobbly stage in a conference room at the Marriott Hotel in Newark, New Jersey. It was a Saturday afternoon, and golden leaves were falling from the trees outside. The audience was small, no more than 50 or 60 people, devotees of the sport that strongmen like to call the Iron Game.

The room was better suited to a dentists’ convention or a gathering of financial brokers. The carpet muffled sound, the wallpaper was tasteful, and the light fittings were demure. Even the doors seemed to close with a plush murmur. It was not a place for the savage grunts of bar-bending men, yet there they were, grunting away.

Throughout the afternoon, men in leather waistcoats and boots stepped forward to bend steel. Others forced rods into improbable shapes, full of curlicues and rococo flourishes, called iron butterflies. One man, Eric Moss, lay on his back between two chairs, a concrete paving slab balanced on his stomach. His partner climbed the rungs of a nearby ladder, a kettlebell in hand. Once he was sure of his balance, the partner dropped the weight onto the paving stone, which cracked with a thud. A plume of dust rose from the slab. Moss jumped up and blinked, to thunderous applause.

Next it was McGrath’s turn to bend red nails. He and a friend had been wrapping the tips of nails in blue Cordura for hours. Combined with chalk, the cladding helped his grip. Once McGrath was on stage, a 60-second stopwatch started and he was handed the first nail. He pulled it close to his chin and dealt with it easily. He was given a second nail, then a third. His technique was uniform: Stepping forward slightly, he’d seize the nail, and once it was solidly in his grip, he’d push and grimace with all his upper body’s might until the nail’s two ends nearly touched. Then he’d toss the narrow U-shaped piece of steel to the floor.

As he moved through nails four, five, and six, his pace slowed imperceptibly. By nail seven he was struggling, and there were only 20 seconds left on the clock. The audience took a collective breath as he made no initial impression on nail eight. Finally, with much effort, he managed to bend it. By the time the ninth nail was in his hands he was spent, his arms like jelly. McGrath had bent the last nail only partially. “Your power system is gone,” he told me later. “I thought I might have had time for another one, but I didn’t.”

After review, the result was seven nails fully bent; two didn’t make the cut because they weren’t the right shape. Still, it was one more nail than the previous world record. In the small universe of strongmen, McGrath was a victor.

It wasn’t quite the Olympics; there were no television cameras in the room, and I was the only reporter present. As McGrath gulped air and accepted compliments and backslaps from the audience, I couldn’t help but think of Manyonga. I wondered if McGrath was thinking about him, too. Did he want to tell his friend about what he’d achieved—how he, too, was a world champion after overcoming so much? Did it hurt to know that Manyonga might never learn about the scene at the Marriott?

I asked McGrath what went through his mind when he knew he’d set the world record. He didn’t answer immediately. In the radiating satisfaction of his achievement, he paused in thought. Finally, he said that he wouldn’t change anything about his journey at all.

Axes of Evil

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Axes of Evil

Four days, two murders, and one poplar tree that almost ignited World War III.

By Josh Dean

The Atavist Magazine, No. 81


Josh Dean is a correspondent for Outside, a frequent contributor to Bloomberg BusinessWeek, GQ, and Popular Science, and the author of The Taking of K-129: How the CIA Used Howard Hughes to Steal a Russian Sub in the Most Daring Covert Operation in History. 

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Daniel Moattar

Published in July 2018. Design updated in 2021.

1

The poplar was a problem. One of the few survivors from a deciduous forest bombed into oblivion during the Korean War, the tree towered 40 feet over a stripped, scrubby landscape; in the summer, its leaves formed a thick green crown. A stranger to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the skinny belt of no-man’s-land that has divided the Korean peninsula since 1953, might have seen this as evidence of nature’s resilience. To the U.S. soldiers patrolling the area, however, it represented a conspicuous security risk.

That’s why, at 1030 on August 18, 1976, a 2.5-ton truck—a deuce and a half, in U.S. Army lingo—rolled up to the poplar and parked in its shadow. Out climbed a crew of five civilian maintenance workers, all of them Korean, and a ten-man security platoon led by Lieutenant Mark Barrett, a South Carolinian who’d been in Korea only a few weeks. Barrett’s boss was there, too. Captain Arthur Bonifas had arrived in a jeep and now stood to the side as the workers ascended the tree with axes and clippers and began to cut the branches.

A cheerful, devoutly Christian native of Newburgh, New York, and a father of three, Bonifas was in the final days of his deployment to Korea. The 33-year-old West Point graduate was known among his men for being very smart—he’d once taught math at his alma mater—and impeccably polite. Soon he’d be off to a new post, in Georgia, where he’d be promoted and placed in command of an artillery unit. In fact, Bonifas had already ordered the uniforms and shoulder boards that would reflect his new rank as an Army major.

The job in Georgia would be less unpredictable than the one that had brought Bonifas to the foot of the tree in Korea. Here he was second-in-command of a complex military entity known as the Joint Security Force (JSF), comprised of three platoons of American and South Korean soldiers who served as guards in the Joint Security Area (JSA). Situated in the heart of the DMZ, the JSA was also called Panmunjom, after a tiny settlement that once stood in the same spot, or simply the truce village, because it’s where the armistice that froze the Korean War was reached. Just under 900 yards across at its widest point, the JSA was supposedly neutral and the only place where soldiers from the Korean People’s Army (KPA) and the Republic of Korea (ROK)—north and south, respectively—stood face-to-face, while keeping watch over various ornamented buildings frequented by tourists and government officials. In reality the plot of land, which on a map resembled a slightly squashed circle, was one of the tensest places on the planet.

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To monitor pressure in this geopolitical tinderbox—that is, to keep tabs on bad behavior exhibited by KPA guards—U.S. soldiers manned various checkpoints and guard posts. Everyone’s least favorite assignment was Checkpoint 3 (CP3), positioned at the foot of the so-called Bridge of No Return, which traversed the narrow Sachon River. Halfway across the concrete span was the North Korean border. Some U.S. guards feared being kidnapped and dragged across that invisible line, in which case they almost certainly would not be rescued, because Pyongyang would deem movement by U.S. forces into northern territory to retrieve prisoners an invasion. The North Koreans constantly harassed and intimidated the men stationed at CP3; they’d even erected two unauthorized checkpoints in close proximity just to impede access to what the Americans took to calling the loneliest outpost in the world.

Soldiers at CP3 took some comfort in knowing that, 600 yards up a nearby hill, their platoon mates at Observation Post 5 (OP5) had eyes on their position—except in summer, when the pesky poplar, in glorious bloom, blocked the sight line.

Almost anywhere else in the world, a military order to trim a tree for security reasons would have been considered uncontroversial. In the JSA, however, everything was disputed. The first attempt to tackle the poplar’s branches had been foiled by KPA guards who insisted that security officers from both sides of the JSA would need to approve any landscaping. A maintenance crew tried again on August 17, this time with a larger number of guards in tow, but the mission was rained out. On the third go, Bonifas decided to supervise, to ensure that the job got done. The operation would likely be his last in the JSA, and he wanted to be there in case the KPA caused trouble again. “Make sure you’re firm,” the JSF’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Victor Vierra, told him.

Special activities in Panmunjom were always filmed in case of incident. As Bonifas’s crew got to work, Captain Larry Shaddix, the JSF’s logistics officer, took up a position on a platform outside OP5. Shaddix raised his 35-millimeter camera’s telephoto lens and began to shoot. For a few minutes, there wasn’t much to see. The work was going according to plan, until Bulldog arrived.

Bulldog was Lieutenant Pak Chul, a rabidly patriotic North Korean platoon leader notorious for his provocations in the JSA, like the time he kicked an American guard in the groin during a scuffle over photographs. Bulldog strutted around, trying to make small talk with Captain Kim Moon Hwan, Bonifas’s Korean translator and the ranking ROK officer at the scene, and offering unsolicited advice to the civilians in the tree, some of whom had been on the scene last time, when their work was halted by KPA guards, and so were unnerved by Bulldog’s arrival.

Then, for no obvious reason, Bulldog changed course. He ordered the civilians to stop cutting—and threatened to force the issue, even shoot the workers, if they didn’t obey him.

Bonifas had seen enough. He strode forward and announced that the work would continue, period. The trimming was a legal, peaceful matter—a “routine action,” a Pentagon report later stated—that had been announced in advance. Besides, it would be over soon. Bulldog responded by muttering something to one of his guards, who ran off across the bridge and came back a few minutes later in a truck with reinforcements, bringing the number of KPA soldiers at the tree to at least 30. The North Koreans now outnumbered Bonifas’s men three to one.

Bonifas wasn’t about to be intimidated. Aware of the power a gesture can wield, he turned his back to Bulldog. That’s why he didn’t see the KPA leader calmly remove his watch, wrap it in a handkerchief, and put it in his pocket. Another North Korean officer rolled up his sleeves like a Mafia heavy preparing for a fistfight. Then Bulldog attacked Bonifas from behind, screaming an order to his men as he hit the base of the American’s skull with an open hand. The command meant, Attack the enemy and kill them!

On any other morning, Mark Luttrull would’ve been at Bonifas’s side. The , who was on his second tour in the Army after a brief, unsuccessful stint in college, had served as the captain’s personal driver for the better part of a year. Luttrull adored his boss, in no small part because the first duty Bonifas had given him was to escort Miss Rhode Island into the JSA as part of a USO tour. Luttrull especially liked driving Bonifas to security meetings in Panmunjom. The captain would ask Luttrull to drive fast while he rode in silence, studying his notes.

On August 18, however, Bonifas had asked Luttrull to stay behind at Camp Kitty Hawk, the JSF’s home base about a mile south of Panmunjom, to prepare his field gear to be turned in at the end of his deployment. Luttrull was sitting in the camp’s administrative office when he saw Kim, Bonifas’s translator, stumbling up a hill from the direction of the JSA, covered in blood and mumbling something that Luttrull couldn’t make out until the ROK captain was a few feet away.

As soon as he understood Kim’s words—“Captain Bonifas! Captain Bonifas!”—Luttrull ran for a radio and paged his boss. Then, as his call echoed from the camp’s tinny loudspeakers, a piercing siren began to wail.

U.S. military bases along the DMZ had two sirens: one for exercises and one for actual emergencies. This was the latter. It signaled for every man, from the infantry to the cooking staff, to drop what he was doing, throw on fatigues, a flak jacket, and a steel-pot helmet, and run to the armory for weapons and ammunition. Luttrull did exactly that.

John Pinadella, a 20-year-old private from New Jersey, had just come off a rotation in the JSA. Shifts in the zone were 24 hours each, from 0800 to 0800, and Pinadella’s last task before leaving Panmunjom that morning had been to open CP3 for the day. He’d thought it odd when three soldiers, instead of the usual two, showed up for the shift. Why did the checkpoint need reinforcing? But no matter—Pinadella had his sights on a little R&R. After a daylong stint with the Quick Reaction Force (QRF), the first-response team for incidents in the JSA, he’d get 24 hours off.

QRF duty was usually boring. The men sat around cleaning weapons, reading pulpy novels, bragging about their Korean girlfriends, and thinking about the leisure time that lay ahead: a full day of pickling themselves with booze in the nearest town, then sleeping it off before the whole cycle started over again. Pinadella was also crossing boxes off his calendar. He was the “shortest” guy in his platoon, the one with the least time remaining in Korea. He had just 98 days and a wake-up left before he went back to the United States.

Pinadella was reading mail on a cot in the unit’s Quonset hut when his platoon leader barged in, alarmed. Something had happened in the JSA. The lieutenant ordered Pinadella and the other men to gear up and get ready to go back, possibly into danger. “Get on the trucks!” he barked.

Half of the troops in the QRF, including Pinadella, were loaded into the open bed of a truck. These men were riot control, under orders to stop whatever was happening in the JSA, and they carried pickax handles. According to the terms of the armistice, soldiers on both sides could wield only batons and sidearms in Panmunjom, and U.S. commanders insisted that their troops stick to these options—unless there was an extraordinary escalation of violence. If Pinadella’s group couldn’t quell a crisis, or if the situation went truly, terribly sideways, then the other half of the QRF would be sent in. Those men would have M16s.

Just accessing Panmunjom, however, posed a problem. The moment the QRF entered, the United States would technically be in violation of the armistice. No more than 35 armed soldiers—30 enlisted men and five officers—from each side of the DMZ could be in the JSA at a given time, and that day’s rotation of Americans and South Koreans was already in place. Only the commanding officer on the scene was authorized to call in additional manpower. That was Bonifas, and no one could reach him.

Frustration built as the men of the QRF sat in their trucks waiting for information. They moved forward, as far as Checkpoint 2, just outside the gate to the JSA, and were sitting there as fellow soldiers on duty in Panmunjom began to straggle out. The men looked dazed; some were bleeding. There’d been a fight, they said, a bad one.

The exiting soldiers who weren’t hurt were asked to regroup and serve as backup for the QRF. Two of them refused, and Pinadella was stunned. Whatever had happened inside the JSA was so horrible that members of an elite U.S. force couldn’t face the scene again.

Finally, orders came down from Lieutenant Colonel Vierra to deploy the riot squad. As his truck rolled through the gate, Pinadella didn’t know that Bonifas had already been evacuated to the medic’s station at Camp Kitty Hawk, where Luttrull, his stomach in knots, was awaiting news. The medic on duty sought out the specialist, whom he’d heard was looking for Bonifas. Luttrull demanded to know what had happened to his boss.

“I tried to save him,” the medic stammered. “It was too late.” Bonifas was dead of catastrophic blunt-force wounds, including one that had split his helmet, and his eyeglasses, in half.

Map of the Joint Security Area. (Wikimedia Commons)
Map of the Joint Security Area. (Wikimedia Commons)

Shaddix, the logistics officer with the camera, had captured the murder in still frames. After Bulldog struck Bonifas on the back of the head with a karate-style chop, the captain fell to the ground and never got up again. At least five KPA guards immediately set upon him, kicking and hitting his head and body.

“Jesus Christ!” another American at OP5 yelled. “They’re killing him!”

Around the poplar, all hell broke loose. The civilian workers leapt out of the tree and ran, dropping their clippers and axes, which became weapons as North Korean soldiers snatched them up, encircled the guards who’d come to protect the tree trimmers, and commenced swinging and hacking. Shaddix’s photos would show outnumbered U.S. and ROK soldiers trying to fend off the attacks without resorting to firearms. An after-action assessment found that the men “reacted to a surprise, unprovoked attack with restraint and self-discipline.” Not one of them ever drew a gun.

The fight was brief, no longer than a few minutes, but furious. “There wasn’t time to be scared,” one of the U.S. soldiers later observed. “I was just trying to survive.” When Pinadella and the riot squad arrived, less than 30 minutes after Bulldog had initiated his assault, the scene was eerily calm. The North Koreans had retreated across the bridge or gone back to their stations inside the JSA. With no fight left to join, the QRF evacuated the men at OP5, including a rattled Shaddix. Inside the truck, someone pulled a fire extinguisher from its mount, and Shaddix gripped the canister tightly, ready to use it as a weapon if any North Koreans tried to stop the vehicle.

When the Americans and South Koreans regrouped outside the JSA for a head count, Bonifas wasn’t the only officer missing. There was no sign of Lieutenant Barrett, the man in charge of the security team at the tree, either. The last time anyone could remember seeing him was behind a retaining wall above a ditch near the poplar, where he’d apparently run to help a soldier who’d  been surrounded by KPA guards.

The QRF’s riot-control team piled into their truck for the second time and drove back through the JSA gate. The vehicle went straight to the tree, and as soon as it screeched to a halt, the men scrambled out and began to search for Barrett. Pinadella jumped over the retaining wall and down into the ditch, where he found the lieutenant lying on his back, covered in mud and blood. Ax wounds riddled the young officer’s body from head to toe, and Pinadella was afraid to touch him, lest he make the lieutenant’s condition worse. He reached down tentatively to check for a pulse. Oh, my God, Pinadella thought when he felt a faint beating. He’s alive!

The young soldier choked back a wave of nausea and put his minimal training in field medicine to work. He screamed for help and cleared Barrett’s airway with his fingers, which allowed the injured man to cough and breathe a little better. When another private slid into the swampy depression and saw Barrett, he unleashed a primal scream; he seemed ready to charge up the hill at the nearest KPA checkpoint and attack whoever was there. Pinadella told the private to channel his adrenaline into getting Barrett out. Together with two other soldiers, they carefully lifted the lieutenant out of the mud, carried him to their truck, and gently laid his body down in the bed.

The men assessed Barrett’s injuries as the unit sped out of the JSA. There were deep blade wounds in the lieutenant’s chest, and blood was pouring from them. It pooled and quickly congealed in the thick August heat, causing boots to stick to the vehicle’s floor. One soldier attempted mouth-to-mouth, but it seemed futile; more air was exiting the wounds on Barrett’s head and neck than was reaching his lungs.

Barrett was transported to a helicopter that would carry him and several wounded ROK soldiers to a hospital in Seoul. As the chopper rose into the sky and shrunk out of sight, Pinadella made his way back to barracks. He changed out of his blood-soaked fatigues into a clean uniform, then he grabbed as many clips for his .45 semiautomatic pistol as he could carry. If there was about to be a battle with the North Koreans, he wanted to be ready.


That afternoon, all U.S. soldiers were ordered to convene in the mess hall at Camp Kitty Hawk, where Vierra, their gruff, square-shouldered commanding officer, addressed them. By then word of Barrett’s fate had arrived: Despite the efforts of Army medics aboard the helicopter, the young lieutenant had succumbed to his wounds before reaching Seoul.

Vierra assured his men that retaliatory action would be taken, and soon. He was awaiting orders.

“We’re going to feed you now,” the colonel told Pinadella, Luttrull, Shaddix, and the other confused, angry soldiers, “because we don’t know when you’re going to be able to eat again.”

197608180-1532974022-94.jpg
The trimming of the poplar tree on August 18, 1976. (Courtesy of Wayne Johnson)

2

A U.S. soldier stationed in Panmunjom hadn’t been killed in almost a decade. The last was in April 1968, when North Korean guards ambushed a truck en route to the JSA, leaving two Americans and two South Koreans dead. “About 20 bullet holes could be seen in the shattered front windshield of the truck,” the military newspaper Stars and Stripes reported. “Both headlights were blasted out. Three of the tires were punctured, and at least 40 rounds had ripped through the truck’s rear canvas cover.” An observer commented, “I don’t see how anybody survived this.”

In the years that followed, the JSA reverted to its norm: an uncomfortable state of high alert and suspicion. “The combination of physical, psychological, political, diplomatic, and military stresses,” George Chobany, the officer who led the QRF on the day of the ax murders, later wrote, “made duty in the JSA unlike duty just about anywhere else in the world.” Only certain men were chosen for the job. Members of the ROK contingent, known as the Korean Augmentation to the United States Army, tended to come from influential South Korean families and performed well on English tests. On the American side, recruits had to score more than 110 on the Army’s General Technical exam, an academic-aptitude test, and ideally have no black marks on their disciplinary record. They also had to be at least six feet tall—for maximal intimidation factor—and have a mellow temperament.

When men arrived on deployment in Seoul, an Army representative referred to as the turtle catcher sought out the tallest among them who met other basic requirements and asked if they’d like to volunteer for special duty. Those who said yes were taken north for further interviews and tests—for instance, soldiers screaming at them suddenly and for no apparent reason. The idea was to see how they might handle being cursed at and spit on in the JSA, because that would absolutely happen. North Korean soldiers in Panmunjom were instructed to be provocative, while their U.S. and ROK counterparts were under strict orders not to take the bait.

North Korean soldiers in Panmunjom were instructed to be provocative, while their U.S. and ROK counterparts were under strict orders not to take the bait.

Much of the resulting gamesmanship was childish. Technically, the JSF fell under what was called the United Nations Command—another bureaucratic by-product of the armistice—and when leadership put floodlights on the exterior of the UNC headquarters, North Korea responded by erecting bigger, brighter lights at its main station. KPA guards sometimes taunted African American soldiers with racist gestures and placed boards covered with nails, pointed ends up, along the routes of UNC vehicle patrols. A stranded jeep was an opportunity for harassment, so if tires punctured, drivers were told to continue driving on flats.

U.S. soldiers weren’t innocent of mischief. They liked to play hopscotch on their half of the Bridge of No Return, drop their pants to moon guards on the other side, and sneak up on the KPA barracks in the middle of the night to pound on the walls until everyone inside was awake. On winter nights, they sometimes poured water on the steps of North Korean checkpoint buildings, so that the guards who arrived the next morning would slip on the ice.

By 1976, however, fatuous competition and pranks were giving way to renewed KPA aggression. In June of the previous year, a North Korean journalist spat on U.S. Army major W.D. Henderson as the two men sat on a bench arguing. When Henderson struck the man, KPA guards surrounded the major, stomped on him, and crushed his larynx, necessitating his evacuation from Korea. Several months later, a JSF guard on jeep patrol, Michael Brouillette, was assaulted when he took a detour near the Panmungak pavilion, North Korea’s main building in the JSA. Brouillette’s arm was broken, and he was later awarded a Purple Heart.

Keeping cool in the face of violence was a matter of U.S. policy, but that didn’t mean that the Americans simply turned the other cheek. In early 1976, at the suggestion of a soldier in , led by Lieutenant David Zilka, night patrols began carrying larger clubs—ax handles instead of riot batons—for protection. At the next joint security meeting, the North Koreans ranted about “Zilka’s Mad Dogs, who patrol the JSA at night and carry big sticks!” Second Platoon proudly adopted the Mad Dogs nickname.


Major General John Singlaub was in a staff meeting of the Eighth Army Command in Yongsan, a garrison in Seoul that served as the U.S. military headquarters on the Korean peninsula, when he got word by phone that two Americans had been killed in the JSA. Singlaub, who’d cut his teeth parachuting behind enemy lines during World War II and now wore two stars on his uniform, knew that nearly every U.S. official required to initiate a response to the murders was currently out of the country. General Richard Stilwell, the commander of all U.S. forces in Korea, was in Japan, making his last official visit before retiring from the Army after 38 years and three wars. Stilwell’s deputy, Air Force lieutenant general John Burns, was logging his monthly flight hours. And the American ambassador, Richard Sneider, was on holiday in the United States. “I was the man on the spot,” Singlaub later wrote in a memoir.

Singlaub sent a jet to Japan to retrieve Stilwell, then called the general to let him know that a plane was en route. “Sir, I think you should return to Seoul immediately,” Singlaub said. Stilwell considered the minimal amount of information he was able to receive over the unsecure line and asked his chief of staff to do two things while he flew back to Seoul. The first was to request an urgent security meeting for the following day, so that he could deliver a message to Pyongyang that its aggression would have swift, severe repercussions. The second was to prepare all units in Korea for a shift to Defcon-3, should the order come from Washington. Defcon, short for defense readiness condition, ranges from 5 (normal) to 1 (nukes are flying). Defcon-3 would involve American forces gearing up for possible combat.

The North Koreans were already broadcasting their version of events via Radio Pyongyang. “Around 10:45 a.m. today,” a bulletin announced, “the American imperialist aggressors sent in 14 hoodlums with axes into the Joint Security Area to cut down the tree on their own accord, although such work should be mutually consented beforehand. Four persons from our side went to the spot to warn them not to continue the work without our consent. Against our persuasion, they attacked our guards en masse and committed a serious provocative act of beating our men, wielding murderous weapons, and depending on the fact that they outnumbered us. Our guards could not but resort to self-defense measures under the circumstances of this reckless provocation.”

Barely five hours after the killings, North Korea showed its cards to the world. Pyongyang had sent a delegation to a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement—a collection of countries that never officially chose a side in the Cold War—which was being held at the time in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The North Koreans distributed a document to the gathered representatives describing the fight in the JSA in terms similar to those used by Radio Pyongyang, then introduced a resolution calling on the conference to order the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Korean peninsula. It passed easily.

To American leaders, the timing was hardly coincidental. Singlaub considered the response from Pyongyang to be “clear confirmation that the murders had been part of a carefully planned campaign designed to force American troops out of Korea.” A memo prepared for the deputy national security adviser suggested that the highest levels of the North Korean regime had likely approved the attack at the poplar tree. The goal, the memo stated, may have been to provoke American troops to “over-react with firearms,” creating an international incident that could influence world opinion and the upcoming U.S. presidential election, which was less than three months away. A CIA report titled “DMZ Incident,” delivered by the agency’s director, George H. W. Bush, to secretary of state Henry Kissinger, described North Korea’s endgame: “If U.S. forces withdraw, if U.S. resolve appears seriously weakened, we believe the North might well act on its overriding goal of unification and seize the opportunity to achieve it militarily.”

The scary thing was that, given the opportunity, North Korea might well succeed. In 1970, a U.S. intelligence assessment had found “general parity” between North and South Korea’s military forces. But four years later, analysts noticed that North Korea was diverting concrete and steel into new, unknown military developments—a worrying development that, with the Pentagon’s attention focused on Vietnam, had gone largely unnoticed. Further review of satellite imagery led to a “horrifying” revelation, as the officer at the National Security Agency assigned to solve the mystery put it. Somehow the intelligence establishment had missed an enormous military buildup, despite U.S. armed forces being parked right next door.

Somehow the intelligence establishment had missed an enormous military buildup, despite U.S. armed forces being parked right next door.

Every line item stunned the Pentagon. North Korea’s armored divisions were 80 percent larger than those described in the 1970 assessment, and the country didn’t have 21 divisions of 10,000 combat troops each; it had 41. The intense, increasingly aggressive Kim had at least 2,000 modern tanks and 12,400 artillery pieces, most of them deployed to fortifications along the DMZ, within easy firing range of U.S. and South Korean forces, as well as fighters and bombers parked in hangars constructed inside mountains and reinforced with all that concrete and steel—save the portion used to build an extensive series of tunnels under the DMZ itself, including one big enough to accommodate a full combat division, with artillery.

According to Singlaub, the United States was forced to accept the “troubling, seemingly unbelievable conclusion” that “Kim Il Sung was poised to invade South Korea,” perhaps by engineering a false-flag attack. Kim may have been telegraphing this fact when he told a Japanese journalist five months before the ax murders that his country planned to “stir up world opinion more vigorously” by publicizing America’s “criminal barbarities.” The CIA believed Pyongyang would use the publicity around the JSA fight to garner allies and sour the American public’s view of the country’s military presence in Korea, to the point that U.S. forces would leave, clearing a path for the north to invade the south. There was reason for Pyongyang to think that possible: The long, bloody slog of Vietnam had worn thin Americans’ patience for war, and on the presidential campaign trail, a Georgia peanut farmer named Jimmy Carter was agitating to withdraw American soldiers from Korea.


General Richard Stilwell (U.S. Government)
General Richard Stilwell (U.S. Government)

When Stilwell landed at Kimpo Airport in Seoul, Singlaub met his boss and briefed him in the car on the way to Yongsan. The two had known each other for 25 years, since Stilwell ran the Far Asia division of the CIA and Singlaub served under him. When Stilwell got his fourth star and was given the prestigious Eighth Army Command, he picked his old friend to be his chief of staff. Now the men sped toward base, discussing how to respond to the murders. As Stilwell saw it, there were relatively few options—three, really. The United States could do nothing, but that would be seen as weak. It could launch a massive retaliatory response, with bombs and rockets, but that might start World War III. Or U.S. forces could do something “meaningful,” an action that sent a message but wouldn’t result in American casualties. Stilwell favored the third option, but what meaningful thing could U.S. forces do? And what if the North Koreans overreacted, igniting the very war Stilwell had hoped to avoid?

By the time Stilwell arrived at the newly designated war room, a concrete basement at Yongsan, it was 2040 on August 18, and he had a plan in mind. U.S. forces needed to reassert control before the situation in the JSA slipped further into chaos. Because the fight had started at the poplar tree, Stilwell reasoned, the response should be focused there, too. “That damned tree must come down,” he told Singlaub. Not only that, but the JSF needed to destroy the two checkpoints near CP3 that North Korea had installed without approval. They’d stood long enough.

The mission was a matter of both tactical necessity and principle, and in theory it could be done quickly and in a way that appeared to respect the parameters of the armistice. But there was a way to make a louder point, too. Chopping down the poplar would be a real threat if, in Singlaub’s words, it was accompanied by a “massing [of] American air, ground, and sea power to remind the North Koreans of the nature of their opponent.” Stilwell had the perfect name for the mission: Operation Paul Bunyan.

3

The security meeting that Stilwell had ordered Singlaub to organize was held the morning after the murders. It was a gathering of the Military Armistice Commission, comprised of North and South Koreans, Americans, and neutral-nation observers—Czechs, Poles, Swedes, and Swiss—who oversaw implementation of the peace agreement and mediated disputes in the JSA. The MAC headquarters, a narrow, single-story building with blue walls, parallel banks of windows, and well-worn office furniture, had seen its share of one-upmanship and sabotage. In the early days of the armistice, each side had attended MAC meetings with a progressively bigger flag to place before its delegation, until they could no longer fit comfortably in the room. More than once KPA soldiers were seen shining their boots with an American flag. Later the U.S. side assigned guards to protect its microphones, because the American delegates were concerned that the North Koreans would cut the cords.

The meeting on August 19 was different, because the stakes were unprecedented. Normally, a U.S. honor guard attended in Class A uniforms: white helmet, blue satin sash, polished boots. That day, members of the JSF had been on alert for nearly 24 hours. They were dirty and sweaty, wearing combat fatigues and scuffed boots, and they were seething at the deaths of Bonifas and Barrett. According to one observer, they “marched in with a force and purpose like never before,” forming a cordon as Rear Admiral Mark Frudden, the senior U.S. representative at the meeting, strutted from his car to the conference room in impeccable dress whites.

Press swarmed and flashes popped as Frudden and other officials arrived. A TV camera panned the tense scene, pausing for a moment on the exhausted face of John Pinadella, who was  a member of the honor guard. Later that night, when the footage played on the evening news across America, Pinadella’s father would relax for the first time since the announcement the previous day that two unnamed soldiers had been murdered in Korea. His son was not one of the dead men.

Frudden opened the meeting by delivering a written message from Stilwell. “The UN Command views this brutal, vicious act with gravity and concern and warns that such violent and belligerent acts cannot be tolerated,” Stilwell wrote. “North Korea must bear full responsibility for all consequences.” As expected, emissaries from Pyongyang pushed back. North Korea had fully denied the 1968 killings of the men in the truck, and this time, too, it claimed innocence. American soldiers provoked the violence, the country’s representatives said. This was often how it went at MAC meetings: The Americans complained about KPA aggression, and North Korean envoys pretended nothing had happened—or flipped the blame back on their adversaries.

This time, though, the Americans had evidence of murder: the photos that Shaddix had taken from OP5. Shaddix had used Ektachrome, a high-end Kodak color film, and because there wasn’t a single facility in South Korea that could process it, the Army had overnighted the film to Japan with orders that it be developed and returned by the following morning, in time for the MAC meeting. Now an aide spread the damning pictures out on the table as Frudden read more of Stilwell’s message. “Your guards took the very axes meant for peaceful uses,” it said, “and turned them into instruments of death.”

“Your guards took the very axes meant for peaceful uses and turned them into instruments of death.” 

South of the JSA, U.S. staff sergeant Charles Twardzicki of the Second Engineer Battalion was summoned for a special assignment. It was Twardzicki’s 25th birthday, and he was supposed to have the day off. Instead, he and a lieutenant would drive north, change into a uniform from one of the JSA’s neutral nations, and go on a recon mission in Panmunjom. Their task: to get a good look at the poplar and decide how to chop it down. There wouldn’t be enough time for measurements, so the men would have to suggest a plan after merely eyeballing the tree.

The lieutenant was supposed to brief various commanders, but he got caught up in another meeting, so Twardzicki, an enlisted man, was tasked with delivering the intel to a room twinkling with brass. The sergeant stood sweating as generals and admirals—“lots of stars and eagles,” he recalled—breezed past him into the meeting room, where they aired their opinions on how best to take down the poplar. “The Navy said, ‘We can come in close with a battleship and drop a round right in there,’” Twardzicki recalled. “The Air Force said they could smart-bomb it, and I think the Marines were of the mentality that, ‘We’ll low-crawl in and use our bayonets and whittle it to the ground.’”

Finally, attention turned to Twardzicki. What did the engineer think?

To sever the tree at its trunk, he replied, would require a large saw powered by air-compressors, which would mean transporting heavy equipment to and from the JSA. If Stilwell was looking for speed and stealth, though, the engineers could work the old-fashioned way: by climbing into the tree and using chainsaws to cut the branches where they forked until only the trunk remained. The job wouldn’t be pretty. Saws would break, but the engineers could bring extras.

What about a backup plan, the commanders wanted to know—how long would it take for the engineers to set charges on the tree and blow it to smithereens? Twardzicki, an explosives expert, said that he could prepare satchel charges and rig them in the crotch of the tree in about two minutes. The engineers wouldn’t have much time to exit the blast zone. “They’ll be pulling toothpicks out of their butts,” Twardzicki told the room. He felt as if he were spitballing—there was, he later said, a “pull-it-out-your-butt fudge factor” to the whole conversation.

Later that day, one of Twardzicki’s platoon mates, Bruce Simpson, was also called in for his opinion. Simpson was a 23-year-old specialist who had worked for a landscaper back home in Massachusetts, making him the only guy on the engineering squad with actual expertise in cutting trees.

“How long will it take?” an officer asked, referring to Twardzicki’s plan.

Simpson considered the question for a moment. There was driving and parking and setting up a ladder and climbing into the tree and starting the chainsaws and accounting for a few of them conking out. Then, once the branches fell, the men would have to cut them into pieces and drag them off the road, so that they didn’t give the North Koreans another reason to complain. Finally, the soldiers would have to drive out of the JSA.

“Probably 45 minutes,” Simpson answered.

Was he certain of this?

“Yep. I can guarantee it,” Simpson said, even though he couldn’t.

This was good enough for the brass.

At 1300, Kimpo International Airport was closed for an hour for a somber event: a memorial service for Bonifas and Barrett. Stilwell presided over a short ceremony, during which Bonifas was posthumously promoted to major and both men received Purple Hearts. Afterward the caskets containing the men’s remains were placed on a plane and sent home. Stilwell then flew north, where he presided over a second memorial service at the officers’ club at Camp Kitty Hawk. The general stood next to Bonifas’s and Barrett’s boots, which were on display in front of a small altar, and as he finished his remarks, he told the troops who packed the room that something big was going to happen—an important action, which they would lead. On that ambiguous note, he headed to the helicopter that took him back to Seoul, where the plans for Operation Paul Bunyan were quickly filling up a binder.

Singlaub wrote, “The key elements were surprise, speed of execution and withdrawal, and avoidance of direct engagement with North Korean troops.” The job of cutting down the tree would fall to a pair of eight-man teams from the Second Engineer Battalion, Twardzicki and Simpson’s unit, and they would be protected by two platoons of U.S. and ROK infantrymen and a contingent of South Korean special forces. Behind them, just beyond the JSA border, would be an ROK recon company reinforced with U.S. anti-tank missile teams. An infantry company of about 150 men would hover in 20 Huey helicopters, with 12 AH-1G Cobra gunships flying alongside them. Tank-busting F-4 Phantoms would fly in slightly higher orbit, and F-111 strategic bombers would orbit higher still, visible on North Korean radar.

Forces would mobilize on the ground, too. Three batteries of American 105-millimeter howitzers would move across the Freedom Bridge, the only permanent span over the Imjin River, which skirted the southern edge of the DMZ. Twardzicki and other engineers had already wired the bridge for destruction in the event of war. On the opposite side of the Imjin, three more batteries of ROK heavy artillery would be placed in clear view of North Korean positions. Lastly, at the moment the tree-trimming convoy rolled into the JSA, “a massive flight of B-52 bombers from Guam would be moving ominously north from the Yellow Sea on a vector directly to the North Korean capital,” Singlaub wrote, while the USS Midway carrier group, which would have moved to Korea from its base in Japan, “would launch 40 combat aircraft” to “vector north above international waters.”

Once the plan was complete, Stilwell needed Washington’s approval, but he was worried about D.C. officials’ penchant for micromanagement. He’d watched politicians muck up numerous operations in Vietnam, and his deputy, Lieutenant General Burns, had seen it first-hand in 1975, after Khmer Rouge soldiers in Cambodia seized the container ship SS Mayaguez, prompting an infamous botched rescue mission. Burns was in Thailand, overseeing air support for a Marine assault on the island where the Mayaguez hostages were thought to be held, when the White House had intervened, using a command-override channel to reach the helicopters directly. According to Singlaub’s account, Air Force pilots were shocked to hear their controllers’ voices replaced by that of a civilian—specifically, Henry Kissinger, who had no direct authority over a military operation. Singlaub claimed in his memoir that Burns was about to order the Marines not to land on the island, where an ensuing battle and chopper crash killed 41 U.S. soldiers, but couldn’t because of the override. “Kissinger bypassed the entire local command structure and fouled up the operation,” Singlaub wrote. “We were determined this would not happen to us.”

Stilwell dictated the memo for Operation Paul Bunyan over a secure line to the Pentagon, and he chose his words carefully. This was not the starting point for a conversation—it was a final document that didn’t require further comment or conversation. He described the range of North Korea’s possible responses: It might do nothing, which he hoped would be the case; it might react with small-arms fire, which could be met with mortars and gunfire to cover an evacuation of U.S. and ROK forces; or Pyongyang could panic and stage a larger attack. “We would then have to be ready for more important actions,” Stilwell said. “In between the two extremes are a legion of possibilities which could make precise control of escalation difficult to manage. We will need good local communications, cool heads, and thorough understanding of the mission.”

Stilwell waited until late at night Korea time to send the message. He knew the Ford administration was eager to move quickly, and he wanted to limit the amount of time for possible meddling, so he requested a green light within 24 hours. Once he got it, the mission could launch at dawn on August 21.


When top national-security officials met at the White House to discuss the ax murders, Ford wasn’t there—the president was in Kansas City, Missouri, for the Republican National Convention, facing supporters of an ornery upstart challenger named Ronald Reagan. Ford wasn’t the only top decision-maker absent: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was also at the convention, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was traveling, forcing the deputies for both to take their seats at the table in the Situation Room.

Kissinger dominated the meeting, expressing frustration that the U.S. soldiers at the poplar hadn’t fought back. “If I had been one of those men and was being beaten to death,” he remarked, “I would have used a firearm.” Now he firmly supported retaliation. “If we do nothing, they will think of us as the paper tigers of Saigon,” the secretary of state said. “There may be another incident, and then another.”

“If we do nothing, they will think of us as the paper tigers of Saigon. There may be another incident, and then another.”

Some officials went so far as to suggest dropping smart bombs, staging B-52 attacks, and coordinating assaults by Airborne Rangers. The acting chairman of the Joint Chiefs floated a plan to use a submarine or Navy SEALs to blow up an “industrial site” at a North Korean harbor, but he backed off the idea after assessing that the chances of pulling it off without casualties was slim. Ultimately, none of the men wanted dead Americans on his conscience, nor did he want to be blamed for starting yet another war in Asia.

According to a declassified transcript of the meeting, the advisers decided to “seek presidential approval of a military action to cut down the tree and try to do it in such a way as to avoid confrontation.” This was the basic premise of Operation Paul Bunyan, and like Stilwell, the men in Washington wanted to do more than merely dispatch soldiers with hedge clippers—they, too, wanted to demonstrate military might. “It will be useful for us to generate enough activity so that the North Koreans begin to wonder what those crazy American bastards are doing or are capable of doing in this election year,” Kissinger said. Yet he was as wary of Stilwell as the general was of the secretary. “We are not going to let Stilwell run loose,” Kissinger warned.

While Washington spent the day reviewing the memo for Operation Paul Bunyan, armed forces in Korea were ordered to go to Defcon-3. It was the first time the U.S. military had raised its alert status in the region since the Korean War. Washington also launched a military mobilization of breathtaking scale. The Pentagon staged an “exercise” that routed B-52s armed with conventional and nuclear weapons uncomfortably close to Pyongyang. A squadron of F-4 fighters flew from Kadena Air Base in Okinawa to Korea and was joined by a squadron of nuclear-capable F-111 fighter-bombers dispatched from Idaho. The USS Midway was sent toward the Korean peninsula from elsewhere in the Pacific, while RF-4D reconnaissance planes and Wild Weasel air-defense-suppression jets arrived from bases in Japan and the Philippines after flying within range of North Korean radar. Two infantry divisions, one American and one South Korean, were pushed forward from their bases south of the Imjin River to the DMZ, while conventional and nuclear artillery and missiles were moved into concrete bunkers built in preparation for precisely this kind of emergency scenario. Every military unit in Korea was abuzz with activity; cargo helicopters shuttled munitions and equipment out of Seoul, and truck convoys clogged the roads heading north.

The armed forces also planned for a worst-case scenario. SR-71 Blackbird surveillance jets took off from a base on Taiwan to take detailed photos of North Korean military movements and identify the coordinates of anti-aircraft radar, which lit up as the jets screamed past 80,000 feet in the air. Intelligence analysts would use the coordinates to pre-target Nike Hercules missiles and then, if necessary, launch them in advance of U.S. bombers raining fire north of the DMZ.

The Blackbird was, and still is, the fastest manned plane in history, so there was no reason to be secretive about its mission. The jet was too fast to shoot down—or do anything about, really, other than complain. That’s what the North Koreans did, issuing a proclamation over state radio about the “military provocation” and the drumbeats of war. “The U.S. imperialist aggressors should be clearly aware of the fact that they will never be able to avoid the grave consequences that might arise from such reckless provocations of violating the armistice in Korea,” Pyongyang warned. “They should act discreetly.”


The clock was ticking toward Stilwell’s deadline for a green light. The general was surprised when he received a communiqué asking if it would be possible to mount Operation Paul Bunyan sooner than he’d suggested; the Ford administration wanted it over and done with. Sure, Stilwell replied, he could do it, but the operation would be “ragged,” because he’d have less time to prep his men and move equipment. “We are aware of our solemn responsibility to accomplish the mission with minimum jeopardy to our forces,” he replied. Stilwell reiterated what he’d said in his memo: 0700 on August 21 was optimal. His men could roll in and, if Simpson’s guess was right, cut down the tree in 45 minutes, finishing before 0800, when KPA guards would drive across the Bridge of No Return to assume their positions in Panmunjom for the day.

On the night of August 19, Ford accepted the Republican nomination for reelection, telling the crowd in Kansas City that he was “proud to stand before this convention as the first incumbent president since Dwight D. Eisenhower who can tell the American people, ‘America is at peace.’” The line was written for cheers, and Ford paused to take in the applause of some 2,000 GOP delegates, none of whom had any idea that, halfway across the world, the United States was preparing for war.

Kissinger had flown to Kansas City to brief Ford in person, which he did in a back room of the convention center. The president was nervous about coming off as too aggressive, but he agreed that the United States needed to make a point.

On the morning of August 20, Washington dispatched the order to execute. The message reached Stilwell at 2345 his time, 15 minutes before the deadline. Just under the wire, Operation Paul Bunyan was a go, with only one addendum from Washington: Kissinger insisted that, should the tree mission draw North Korean fire, America would get revenge by destroying KPA barracks near the JSA. Stilwell didn’t like the idea—for one thing, the strikes would land uncomfortably close to the camp housing Swiss and Swede observers of Panmunjom—so he added a caveat: The bombing of the barracks could be executed only on his direct order.

4

Secrecy was paramount. The only way for Washington to monitor the mission in real time was by secure phone, and Stilwell, with the Mayaguez fiasco very much in mind, used this to his advantage. He allowed only two secure lines out of Korea, both connected to the Pentagon. One of them was at his desk in Yongsan, and the other was at his forward command post, where he’d relocate during the mission. From each of those locations was a secure line to the operation task force in the DMZ. In practice this meant that the only way for Washington to communicate with forces in the field was through one of Stilwell’s offices, and the only way to contact those offices was through phones located at the Pentagon. If Kissinger wanted to talk to someone in the DMZ, he’d have to go to the Department of Defense in Arlington, Virginia. Stilwell exerted further control by directing Singlaub and the rest of his staff to leave the lines to the Pentagon off the hook. When his staff needed to speak to Washington, they would initiate the conversation, and when it was over, they would cover the mouthpiece with a Styrofoam coffee cup so that it sounded like they’d hung up.

Singlaub assumed the job of choking off Washington’s access with gusto. He informed his communications officer, a colonel charged with manning the phones in Korea and delivering messages to and from the Pentagon, that his “entire future in the U.S. Army” depended on following the order that “under absolutely no circumstances whatsoever” should he allow “any direct communication from a higher headquarters” to bypass Yongsan. “I don’t care,” Singlaub told the officer, “if President Ford himself is on the other line.” In the event of objections, which were inevitable, the colonel was to say that, unfortunately, the communications system in Korea was incompatible with the one back home, preventing him from patching calls through to the front. This was a lie, and technicians would likely know it, but Washington was half a world away, with no way to open additional lines to Korea. Officials might get mad, but they wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.

A half-hour after receiving this order, the colonel returned with a message. Washington wasn’t happy; it wanted a direct line to the front. The colonel returned again to report that officials in the U.S. capital wanted to know how old the tree was, a pointless question that boiled Singlaub’s blood, and then a third time to say that the lieutenant general in charge of worldwide military communications was personally demanding a secure line to the DMZ.

“I told [him] to talk to you, sir,” the colonel told Singlaub. “He was not exactly pleased.”

“Don’t worry, colonel,” Singlaub replied. “I’m your rating officer, not him.”

There would be no sleep that night, but there would be more bureaucratic conflict. Around 0400, Ambassador Sneider finally arrived in Yongsan, after a daylong flight from the United States. As Sneider entered the war room, Stilwell was on the phone with the commander of the task force. When Sneider realized who was on the line, he reached for the phone. The muscles in Stilwell’s arm clenched as the ambassador grabbed the receiver, and the two men engaged, according to Singlaub, in a “ludicrous tug of war” that the general ultimately won.

“Was there something you wanted me to ask?” Stilwell said politely, if smugly, after hanging up.

Sneider was miffed and reminded the general that he was President Ford’s personal representative in Korea. If Ford had questions for “my field commanders,” Stilwell replied, “I’ll be happy to relay any.”

Stilwell was on the very edge of retirement and so had little to risk in the way of his career by placing obstacles between Washington and the DMZ. His top priority was to not introduce any unnecessary risk into an already sensitive mission. When he met with South Korean president Park Chung Hee to discuss Operation Paul Bunyan, he agreed outwardly with Park’s optimism that the tree would come down and that Park’s hand-selected ROK commandos, who were masters of martial arts, could take on KPA soldiers if it came to that. In truth, Stilwell thought there was a strong chance the North Koreans would fight back—hard—and once the bullets were flying, it would be difficult, maybe even impossible, to stop the fire from becoming an inferno.

In the war room, Singlaub was thinking about extreme measures. “It was my estimate, shared by many of the staff, that the operation stood a 50-50 chance of starting a war,” he later wrote. “We might be teetering on the brink of a holocaust. If North Korea did invade, we would have no choice but to request authorization for the first use of nuclear weapons since World War II.”

Just before dawn, Singlaub took a moment to find a quiet corner and pray.

Members of Third Platoon. (Courtesy of Wayne Johnson)
Members of Third Platoon. (Courtesy of Wayne Johnson)

At 0500, members of the JSF were awoken and instructed to move “as quietly and expeditiously as possible” to a barracks. Once they were assembled, groggy-eyed, the briefing began. Before them stood their platoon leaders and captain Ed Shirron, who’d replaced Bonifas. Shirron announced a surgical mission into the JSA to cut down the poplar tree, backed up by tremendous force. “The way it was explained, it sounded like it was going to be the most carefully staged and concentrated display of power since D-Day in World War II,” then private Bill Ferguson recalled.

The mood was heavy, the room silent. After nearly 48 hours of wanting revenge but being allowed to do nothing—of wondering what was going to happen along one of the world’s most precarious military fault lines—the JSF was being asked to finish the job that had started the crisis. The plan was invigorating, and also terrifying. Every man who worked in the JSA knew the rumor that, by taking up his post, he was automatically known to the Army’s Graves Registration Service, which handled retrieval, transportation, and burial of soldiers killed in the line of duty; that way, if the North Koreans ever launched a fusillade and wiped Panmunjom from the map, the Pentagon would know who’d been killed without having to identify them. Now, with Operation Paul Bunyan, the Army was rolling the dice on the men’s lives. “My life expectancy if anything happened,” Ferguson said, “was extremely short.” After the briefing, he wrote letters to his family members, just in case.

The operation would begin at exactly 0700 and involve all three U.S. platoons in the JSF, plus select troops from the Second Infantry Division, the only other American unit based north of the Imjin River. The JSF guards were told that they could take only the most basic defensive gear, including flak jackets, ax handles, and their .45 handguns, which were meant for close range and would be virtually useless against an attacker more than ten yards away. With no idea of what lay ahead, the men snatched up whatever rudimentary weaponry they could hide in their boots and pockets: knives, shoestrings, socks stuffed with rocks. “If there was the slightest chance that we somehow survived,” Ferguson said, “we at least wanted some kind of fighting chance to not become prisoners.”

Twardzicki, Simpson, and the other engineers who would cut down the poplar gathered their chainsaws—about a dozen in all—and piled into two dump trucks to head north. Their commander briefed them one last time.

“If the North Koreans go to stop this thing,” he said, “you know what they’re going to shoot at.”

“The guy with all the stars, right?” Twardzicki replied.

“No, the guy with all the chainsaws.”

At 0648, as the sun was rising, 23 vehicles loaded with soldiers rolled toward the JSA. At the same time, the 20 Huey helicopters carrying the Army rifle company took off and began circling above the DMZ. Cobra gunships, armed with Gatling guns, Hydra rockets, and anti-tank missiles, joined them.

The soldiers sat quietly in the trucks. Ernest Bickley looked at the stitches in his right hand, which patched a wound he’d suffered in the fight that started this whole mess. He wasn’t a smoker, but when an ROK Marine offered him a cigarette, he took it and smoked for the first time. In another truck, two thoughts ran in a loop in Ferguson’s head, both of them from movies. One was a quote from the 1970 western Little Big Man: “Today is a good day to die.” The other was a song lyric from Paint Your Wagon, the Clint Eastwood musical: Where am I going, I don’t know / When will I get there, I ain’t certain / All I know is I am on my way.

Mark Luttrull, Bonifas’s former driver, was a late addition to the unit. He’d told Vierra that he wanted to be at the tree when it came down, and he’d been called to meet with Captain Shirron at 0300. “I’m looking for a radio operator,” Shirron told him. It had to be a volunteer, because the job was dangerous. In battle, the guy with the antenna standing next to an officer was always among a sniper’s first targets.

“You’ve got only a 50-50 chance of returning,” Shirron told him.

“I’ll take the job,” Luttrull replied. Now, in the back of a deuce and a half, he thought mostly of Bonifas, and he wasn’t afraid.

The last stop before the gate to the JSA was Checkpoint 2, where John Pinadella was waiting. Pinadella had a special job: Just before 0700, he was to walk into Panmunjom and observe KPA activity. What was the size of the North Korean force? Had any guards showed up early that day? Pinadella did as he was told and saw nothing out of the ordinary. He returned to the checkpoint and used a field phone to call back to base.

“Go,” he said.

Then Pinadella opened the gate to let the trucks through. In the basement of his checkpoint were ten M16s and 3,000 rounds of ammunition. Pinadella’s instructions were to use them to cover the trucks if they came streaming back in retreat. By then soldiers stationed at camp would be igniting fuel cans and explosives positioned at the door of every building. The camp would go up in flames, ensuring that nothing of strategic value would be left behind for the North Koreans to seize as the men of the JSF fought for their lives.

The camp would go up in flames, ensuring that nothing of strategic value would be left behind for the North Koreans to seize as the men of the JSF fought for their lives.

The first deuce and a half roared through Panmunjom’s gate, turned left, and headed for CP3, the loneliest outpost. It stopped at the poplar long enough for the guards in back to jump out and take up defensive positions around the tree, then the driver backed up onto the Bridge of No Return and parked, effectively blocking any KPA vehicles from crossing. A second truck arrived with a platoon of ROK commandos in civilian uniforms, and they spilled out into a half-circle around the tree. Finally, in a dump truck came the engineers, who immediately pulled out their ladders and saws and got to work.

The chainsaws weren’t prime specimens; they were Vietnam surplus and ran well only when held straight up and down or dead flat. Hold one at an angle and it got wonky. Twardzicki and Simpson prayed that the machines would work well enough. They didn’t want to deploy the backup plan of loading the tree with explosives and running like hell.

Twardzicki mounted a ladder and began sawing into one of the poplar’s three main limbs. He cut a wedge out of the far side, a trimmer’s trick to make sure the branch didn’t fall back on him, then commenced furiously sawing. He was too busy to wonder whether someone somewhere had a sniper rifle aimed at his head. Twardzicki knew that there were layers of security around the tree and up in the air, including the B-52s now circling the scene, their bellies loaded for bear with bombs.

It seemed like no time before the first branch came down. The mass of wood dropped with a thud onto the engineers’ truck, denting the hood. “I vividly remember the crash it made as it fell on the truck, and the cheers we all made—raising our ax handles and yelling,” Ferguson recalled. Engineers on the ground then cut the limb into smaller pieces and threw them into the ditch where three days earlier Pinadella had found Barrett on the brink of death.

By then the KPA had received a communiqué from the UNC, sent strategically—on Stilwell’s orders—at 0705, after the trucks were already in the JSA. It stated that a UNC work party would “enter JSA at 0700 in order to peacefully finish the work left unfinished by the UNC work detail which was attacked by your guards on 18 August.” As long as the KPA didn’t engage, the message said, there would be no violence.


Ferguson and his platoon mates near the tree gripped their ax handles, keeping one eye on the engineers’ trimming and the other on the activity across the bridge. At first the North Korean guards reacted as Stilwell hoped they might. The KPA closest to the bridge appeared confused, and when backup arrived, those soldiers also seemed like they didn’t have orders to follow.

But then a group of KPA guards ran from their barracks to an observation post built on a hill. They set up a machine-gun nest, with barrels aimed across the river. A few minutes later, a makeshift convoy of vehicles—trucks, buses, a clunky old East German sedan—arrived, and about 150 reinforcements with small arms jumped out, taking positions along the Sachon River.

The Americans were prepared for this. A second platoon of men, poised up a hill near OP5, moved forward to reinforce the guards near the poplar. Meanwhile, soldiers from the Second Infantry who’d been waiting near the gate to South Korea moved ahead, too. In full battle rattle, they fanned out along the JSA’s main road, clearly visible to the North Koreans.

The Americans were merely showing force in numbers. Several ROK soldiers, however, reacted differently to the sight of KPA guards taking attack positions. They ripped open their shirts to reveal Claymore anti-personnel mines strapped to their chests. Each man clutched a detonator in his hand and waved it in the direction of the KPA soldiers, yelling at them to cross the bridge and face certain death.

ROK men wearing explosives and howling at their enemies shocked forces on both sides of the river. Luttrull yelled to Captain Shirron, and the unit radioed Vierra at his command post outside the JSA: “Be advised that the ROK special forces have Claymore mines!”

Vierra was furious. This wasn’t just a violation of the armistice; it was a reckless action that put his men, and the entire operation, in jeopardy. To him it seemed that “they had their own plan—to cause the KPA to do something.” He wanted to scream into his command channel for someone to rein in the South Koreans immediately, but he knew that had to be careful with his words. He was already concerned that, if hostilities broke out, he might not be able to control the ROK. “I did not know whether they would follow my orders,” Vierra said. “I did not know their orders.” He held his tongue.

At the tree, Ferguson froze at the sight of the ROK soldiers. Time seemed to warp. “Some things appeared to be in slow motion,” he said, “and other things seemed to happen faster than my eyes and brain could register them.” Then he heard a faint rumble in the air—a thump, thump, thump coming from the south. He looked up. It was a gray day, with a low ceiling of clouds, but not so low that he couldn’t see the source of the sound: a phalanx of U.S. helicopters rising up over the horizon line and hanging there, “seeming to stretch for over a mile.”

Ferguson was suddenly hyperaware of his tenuous place in the world. “Nukes in the air, who knows how much artillery from both sides concentrated on our location, crazy guys with mines on their chests yelling at the North Koreans to come on over, the KPA less than 100 meters away with machine guns trained on us, and me and my buddies are standing around with ax handles and .45s,” he said.

Ferguson took a breath and waited for the rifle crack or puff of smoke that would signal the end. “All I’m thinking,” he recalled, “is that I hope I can take a couple [KPA] with me.”

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Staff Sergeant Charles Twardzicki (right) at battalion headquarters. (Courtesy of Charles Twardzicki)

The engineers in the tree didn’t feel the gathering storm. They were busy wrestling their unwieldy chainsaws through gnarly wood, their arms burning with lactic acid, then trading off the job with other men. Twardzicki in particular was having problems. His chainsaw had stalled. He yanked on the starter once, twice, several times. It flooded. For four or five minutes passed, which felt like hours to everyone watching, Twardzicki fumbled with the machine. “What the hell is going on?” he heard someone ask. Finally, the saw wheezed and whirred back to life, and Twardzicki finished off the stubborn branch.

But there was still more to cut—one last big branch, high up the trunk and difficult to reach. Simpson was standing on top of the dump truck’s roof and leaning out as far as he could without toppling over so that his saw could reach the limb. He was visibly tired from the labor, but he had to keep going; the 45 minutes he’d promised were all the engineers needed would soon be up.

Just then an engineer named George Deason bounded over to the tree. A lieutenant, he’d been with the unit tasked with tearing down the KPA’s two illegal checkpoints. That work had been easy enough. The men had wrapped heavy chains around each structure’s gates and posts, attached the chains to a truck’s bumper, and given the driver a thumbs-up. Now Deason wanted to make his fresh arms useful at the tree. He hopped on top of the truck and took the saw from a weary Simpson. Standing on his toes, with fellow soldiers spotting him, Deason finished off the branch.

With that, the poplar was no more. Its foliage and limbs lay in chunks on the ground, and what remained standing was a sad, serrated trunk in the shape of a fork.

As soon as the final limb was cut into pieces, the engineers jumped back into their truck and drove away. His work finally done, Twardzicki took in the scene and was stunned by one particular sight: a group of ROK commandos, at least a platoon’s worth, emerging from near the Sachon River, where they’d apparently been hiding in dense brush since infiltrating the JSA the night before. They wore camouflage face paint and carried guns and grenades. “They were armed to the teeth,” Twardzicki said. Their covert placement was yet another decision the South Koreans had made without U.S. knowledge.

The first branch fell at 0718, and the last soldiers were leaving the JSA by 0745. Since the convoy had rolled in at 0702, after Pinadella opened the gate, Operation Paul Bunyan had technically lasted 43 minutes—two less than Simpson had predicted, making him look brilliant. When the engineers arrived back at camp, Twardzicki spotted Stilwell. He walked over and handed the mission’s architect the small wedge of wood he’d cut out of the first branch. It was the only piece of the poplar any of the men carried out of the JSA.

5

The North Koreans hadn’t reacted in real time. A U.S. intelligence analyst listening to KPA tactical radio channels later observed that the show of force “blew their minds.” There was no gunfire until 1015, when an overzealous KPA soldier took some pot shots at a U.S. helicopter circling the scene. That fire, Singlaub later wrote, “stopped abruptly when six Cobras banked line-abreast and swung into firing position, their twinkling laser sights directly on the enemy gun position.”

But the crisis wasn’t over. There was still a chance that Pyongyang was plotting a response—which could happen hours or even days later. In the meantime, the Americans had to go about business as usual in the JSA. After all, they’d told the KPA that the chopping of the tree was merely the completion of routine work. For the remainder of August 21, after the helicopters and planes and infantry brigades had pulled back, Pinadella and other guards were left on duty in checkpoints and observation posts, watching their KPA counterparts and analyzing every move. “Those were the scarier moments,” Pinadella said. “The task force was gone, and now we were just out there by ourselves listening to the North Korean tanks rumbling off in the distance.”

U.S. and South Korean officials held their breath waiting to hear what Pyongyang would say about Operation Paul Bunyan. There was mostly silence, even on propaganda channels. Then, around 1200, an urgent request arrived: The North Koreans wanted a meeting of the MAC.

The body convened late that afternoon, and because the meeting had been called so suddenly, there was less pomp than normal. According to U.S. embassy reports summarizing the event for Washington, the atmosphere was “calm and quiet.” The KPA delegation seemed “chastened,” as one diplomat put it. There was no bluster, no talk of imperialist aggressors or imminent war. In fact, the only people in the room who seemed peeved with the United States were the neutral-nation observers, who’d been given no advance warning of the operation. They “were cold and refused to acknowledge the U.S. rep’s salute,” a CIA report noted.

Pyongyang’s senior representative glumly read a message from Kim Il Sung. The note expressed “regret” over the August 18 incident and stated that it was Kim’s hope that both sides would make efforts to prevent anything like it from happening again.

Luttrull was on guard outside the windows of the conference room that afternoon and watched the exchange. He saw Pyongyang’s emissary, his head bowed in contrition, pass the note from the Supreme Leader across the table to Admiral Frudden, who shot back, “That is not enough!’” Luttrull felt the same way. Bonifas’s killing haunted him, and he regretted that he hadn’t been at the tree when Bulldog attacked. “I might’ve fired,” Luttrull said. “Even though I knew that was against the rules, and I could’ve started a war, I might’ve done it.”

Later that day, a press officer at the State Department echoed Frudden’s retort, telling a reporter that the message from Pyongyang didn’t go far enough to satisfy the United States. At the very least, Washington wanted a full public apology. But Kissinger, conscious of the president’s desire to end the crisis and move on to dealing with his reelection, quickly walked the statement back. “We consider this a positive step,” the State Department clarified.

Certainly, the North Korean response was unprecedented: It was the first time Pyongyang had expressed any responsibility for violence in the DMZ. The message from Kim was also the first that North Korea’s leader had personally sent to the UNC in its 23-year history of enforcing the armistice.

In the days that followed, stress in the JSA remained high. Every man was aware that the mission could have ended differently, with twitchy ROK commandos or KPA guards opening fire at their enemy. “The scuttlebutt was that they already had the telegrams printed to our parents and loved ones,” Pinadella said. Amplifying tension was the fact that American forces were still at Defcon-3. “They flew the B-52s for days afterward,” Pinadella recalled, and the JSF guards knew that the planes’ silhouettes, tens of thousands of feet in the air, preoccupied the KPA. “We’d be close to the North Koreans, like a couple of feet away, and we’d point up in the sky,” Pinadella said. “I used to point and do a whistle, like a bomb’s sound, and say, ‘Kaboom!’—North Korea gone!”

The next MAC meeting, on August 25, provided the balm that Panmunjom needed. This time the North Koreans proposed something historic: a permanent barrier, which neither army would be allowed to cross, to be erected along the international demarcation that cut through the JSA, ending almost a quarter-century of free movement. The UNC supported the idea, and it was formally adopted on September 6. Two days later, the Joint Chiefs of Staff reverted troops to Defcon-4, and the USS Midway departed Korean waters for its base in Japan. There would be no World War III over a tree.

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Private John Pinadella (top) in the remains of the tree. (Courtesy of John Pinadella)

Stilwell retired as scheduled, on November 1, 1976, and he always spoke in rote, soldierly terms about the dramatic mission to chop down the poplar. It “was a simple military operation performed with precision and discipline,” he once told an interviewer. Singlaub was more reflective. “The only reason Kim Il Sung finally backed down,” he wrote in his memoir, “was that we made him understand the danger he faced.” In the summer of 1976, North Korea’s leader was arguably bolder and more powerful than he’d ever been on the international stage, and he used the dispute over the tree to flex his newly honed military muscle. But Kim underestimated his adversary—in particular, its willingness to resist aggression with threats of its own.

The men who participated on the ground in Operation Paul Bunyan went back to their regular deployment duties, and later to their personal lives. Twardzicki saw a story in Stars and Stripes in which the wife of an F-4 pilot told the reporter how worried she’d been about her husband during the mission, flying 30,000 feet over Korea. Oh really? Twardzicki remembered thinking. How about the guy with the chainsaw? Looking back, he said, “that one event probably made my career—to be the guy who cut the tree down. I didn’t know whether they expected me to be expendable or important.” Pinadella, meanwhile, learned that his mother, a lifelong Democrat who’d been campaigning for Jimmy Carter in 1976, cast a vote for Ford that November “because he didn’t escalate” in Korea.

Ford lost the election, and in 1977, when Singlaub publicly opposed President Jimmy Carter’s proposal to remove troops from Korea, the general was relieved of his duties in Yongsan. Two years later, facing political pressure and intelligence reports of Pyongyang’s continued military strength, Carter relented on his plan, and U.S. soldiers stayed in place. By the 1990s, South Korea had assumed sole responsibility for defending its side of the DMZ. American guards remained close by to serve as reactive support if necessary. They are still there today, stationed at a base rechristened Camp Bonifas.

The concrete barrier requested by Pyongyang went up in the JSA in the fall of 1976. More than four decades later, it was at this divider, erected because of Operation Paul Bunyan, that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in met to discuss bilateral relations and denuclearization. On April 27, 2018, the sworn enemies strode to the barrier, stood on either side, and shook hands. Then Moon invited Kim to step over the curb into South Korean territory—the first time a North Korean head of state had crossed the border since 1953.

The poplar tree is gone, even the trunk. Its former location is marked with a stone memorializing the deaths of Captain Arthur Bonifas and First Lieutenant Mark Barrett. The tree, though, never really went away. A week after Operation Paul Bunyan, Larry Shaddix took a crew into the JSA to retrieve the poplar’s dismantled branches, which were still lying untouched where the JSF had left them. The men secured the trees remains in a fenced lot that the Army used for storage; only Shaddix had a key. “The tree became very popular after the incident,” he said.

Pieces of the poplar ended up in various hands, but the chain of custody—exactly who got what, when, and where they took it—isn’t always clear. Several soldiers assigned to the JSA took thin slices, which they shellacked and mounted in offices and homes. Bruce Simpson’s hangs above his desk at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.

The section given to Stilwell, who died in 1991, was hung on a wall at the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon, alongside a plaque reading, “This wood was taken from a tree at Panmunjom. Beneath its branches two American officers were murdered by North Koreans. Around the world, the tree became a symbol of communist brutality and a challenge to national honor. On 21 August 1976, a group of free men rose up and cut it down.”

Things Fall Apart

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Things Fall Apart

A feat of elegant design wowed elite architects and promised to bring education to poor children in Nigeria. Then it collapsed.

by Allyn Gaestel

The Atavist Magazine, No. 76


Allyn Gaestel is a writer based in Lagos, Nigeria. Her work in print and online has appeared through The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and Al Jazeera, among other publications.  

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl
Images: Iwan Baan for NLÉ; Allyn Gaestel
Drawings: NLÉ; Allyn Gaestel

Published in February 2018. Design updated in 2021.

Prologue

Kunlé Adeyemi hustled across the ballroom in Venice, Italy, with a wide smile on his face. He wore a tailored tunic and pants—classic Nigerian menswear—cut from glossy brown fabric. The staid crowd that had gathered to witness his coronation applauded politely as he beckoned his team to join him on stage. There Adeyemi embraced each member of the jury that had named him the victor and seized his prize: the Silver Lion, awarded to a “promising young participant” in the International Architecture Exhibition, better known among the global design elite as the Venice Biennale.

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It was May 2016, and the Biennale’s theme was “reporting from the front.” To curator Alejandro Aravena, “the front” encompassed spaces both literal and figurative. Aravena was the most recent recipient of his field’s top honor, the Pritzker Prize, and he designed buildings that prioritized public interest and social impact. He wanted his Biennale to crack open assumptions about architecture by drawing on the talent, knowledge, and imagination of those bearing witness to the world’s most pressing problems. “We are not interested in architecture as the manifestation of a formal style,” Aravena said before the exhibition, “but rather as an instrument of self-government, of humanist civilization, and as a demonstration of the ability of humans to become masters of their own destinies.”

Adeyemi, at whom Aravena beamed with pride during the award ceremony, was one of the Biennale’s darlings. The 40-year-old Nigerian was given his prize for designing a school in Makoko, one of the largest slums in Lagos. Described by the Silver Lion jury as “at once iconic and pragmatic,” the school was meant to serve poor children whose neighborhood the government wanted to demolish. What made it singular was its location: The school floated on the water that envelops much of the coastal megacity. The structure suggested an alternative to tearing down slums to make way for development, a new approach for elevating instead of erasing the poor. Thanks to Adeyemi’s innovative design, the children of Makoko had a space in which to expand their minds and horizons.

In his acceptance speech, Adeyemi compared his project’s setting to the Biennale’s. “It’s said that the early settlers of Venice were fishermen in the marshy lagoons, not very different from the people of Makoko,” he said. “It’s a great honor to be standing here representing the intelligence of the people of Makoko as well as countless waterfront communities all over the world.” The crowd standing before him could see the Makoko Floating School for themselves: A replica, called MFS II, sat between brick arches and white Istrian columns in the Gaggiandre, a 16th-century Venetian dockyard. Built specifically for the Biennale, the structure included a buoyant platform, on top of which blond wood beams crisscrossed into triangles that formed a classic A-frame.

MFS II projected a sharply modern geometry onto the still surface of the ancient canal. To rapt Biennale participants, it also reflected the far-reaching potential of Adeyemi’s design. Built in ten days by four Italian woodworkers, MFS II had been “adapted for easy prefabrication, rapid assembly, and a wide range of uses,” according to the architect and his team. Inside the replica, Adeyemi hung maps of coastlines from around the world. Pushpins designated construction projects in “water cities,” the coastal metropolises likely to bear some of the most drastic impacts of climate change and rising sea levels. With the floating school, Adeyemi wanted to spark a conversation about how cities like Lagos can adapt to their shifting environments and set examples for sustainable design.

It was a beautiful pitch, and Adeyemi is a gifted orator. When he spoke to reporters, he was articulate and self-assured. Before the Biennale, the school in Makoko had made headlines in The New York Times and The Guardian and been featured in segments on CNN and Al Jazeera. After Adeyemi’s victory in Italy, the accolades continued. On social media, the architect shared an image of his Silver Lion nestled in the grass of a Venetian park and another of a barge tugging MFS II into the Gaggiandre. Congratulatory notes littered the comments of both photos.

Then, suddenly, the praise evaporated. Shock and censure took its place. One week after Adeyemi claimed his statuette, the Makoko Floating School collapsed. All that remained of the structure heralded as a bellwether of change for a slum and its inhabitants was a flattened pile of planks adrift in the waters of a polluted lagoon.

What follows is an account of the school’s stunning rise and fall. Though it deals with the question of who is to blame for what happened, it is ultimately a parable of complicity. It is about the myths that people want to believe about the world, noble intentions sullied by ego or derailed by the mundane, the intractability of parochial politics, and the ethics of social experimentation. It is about gossip and spin, the spectrum between honesty and deceit, and the dilemma of who can speak for whom. It is also about the moral of the empty barrel—the emptier it is, the louder the echo—and bad belle, a Nigerian term for jealousy.

Stories that seem simple aren’t always so. Heroes and villains are rarely pure. In the case of the Makoko Floating School, the truth is shambolic, the characters changeable. It is fitting that our story takes place somewhere fluid.

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One

Lagos is shaped by water. Its name comes from the Portuguese word for “lakes,” and the city is situated on the western and southwestern shorelines of a 2,500-square-mile lagoon. The water abuts a swathe of mainland before splitting into serpentine channels that flow between several small islands and empty into the Gulf of Guinea. The islands house Lagos’s business districts and elite neighborhoods, while the mainland is where government offices and the airport are located. It’s also where most of the population lives. No one is sure how many people are in Lagos; official estimates range from 14 million to 21 million. Thousands more arrive each day seeking economic opportunity. Many wind up in the city’s slums.

Kunlé Adeyemi didn’t live in Lagos until he was a young man. He grew up in Kaduna, an industrial city in northern Nigeria. His father was an architect who constantly amended his family’s house. Adeyemi followed in his father’s footsteps, studying architecture at the University of Lagos (Unilag) in the late 1990s. In the design world, it was an era of grandiose projects and personalities, of “starchitects” like Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid. Structures were celebrated for their hyper-visibility. A loud, iconic statement was as valued as functionality. Buildings weren’t just buildings; they were triumphant displays of vision.

During Adeyemi’s studies, Rem Koolhaas, one of the period’s most famous architects, came to Lagos for a research project. Koolhaas was known for his global media presence, conspicuous constructions, and sweeping philosophical missives on urbanism and space. While scholars and policymakers tended to frame Lagos in apocalyptic terms—too big, too dirty, too frenetic—Koolhaas saw purpose in the city’s chaos. “In terms of all the initiatives and ingenuity, it mobilized an incredibly beautiful, almost utopian landscape of independence and agency,” he later told The Guardian. From his research, which involved design students at Unilag, Koolhaas produced a documentary that showed Lagosians moving through their rapidly growing city, utilizing its spaces and navigating its economies.

After graduating, Adeyemi got a job at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, Koolhaas’s renowned design firm in the Netherlands. For several years, he worked within an organization known for long hours, radical dreamscapes, and savvy publicity. He participated in projects in Doha and Seoul. When he set out on his own, launching the firm NLÉ in 2010, its main office was in Amsterdam. He later opened a second, smaller branch in Lagos.

Adeyemi wanted his firm to shape the future of developing cities, particularly in Africa, through projects that created affordable housing and common-use spaces. This philosophy was captured in his firm’s name: Nlé means “at home” in Yoruba, the dominant language in southwestern Nigeria. “‘Home’ is much more than walls, floors and ceilings,” the company’s Facebook page reads. “It refers to the fundamental building blocks of the city, to everyday life and the uses of public space in the emerging and endlessly complex urbanisms of developing regions.”

In Lagos, one place drew Adeyemi like a magnet. For years he’d seen it from a distance. Like many Lagosians, he glimpsed it to the west every time he crossed the citys’s lofted, curving Third Mainland Bridge. That place was Makoko.


The slum looks now as it did then: distinctive and arresting. Many of its shanties jut out from the mainland, transforming the appearance of the shoreline. Resting on stilts sunk into the lagoon’s muddy bed, they form jagged rows that seem to hang over the water’s surface. This ad hoc characteristic predates colonialism and forms part of Lagos’s architectural heritage. It is also vulnerable to the elements and the pressures of a swelling population: Makoko is home to an estimated 100,000 people and counting.

The structures wooden walls are waxy with wear. Denizens move between them in canoes. So do hawkers; unlike their land-dwelling counterparts, who tote wares in round bins balanced on their heads, the vendors of Makoko array hair accessories, tomatoes, sodas, and fried snacks in their laps as they ply the neighborhood’s channels. In other parts of Lagos, there are honking horns, rumbling exhaust pipes, and roaring engines, but in the slum you hear only the hum of human voices and the occasional quaking of a generator. Water imbues the scene with a preternatural serenity.

The government has long thought of Makoko as a festering eyesore. “It’s shameful, it’s embarrassing, you don’t see this in Europe, in the U.S.,” a state press liaison told me, his voice lowered to a conspiratorial whisper. But journalists, photographers, and urbanists come to the slum with the zeal of explorers. There is a messy mystique to the place: It is at once inspiring and upsetting, intriguing and shocking. The permanent haze that hovers overhead, a mix of smoke, dust, and fumes, imbues Makoko with a beguiling light. The bright colors of patterned clothing pop in photos, and the visual drama is deepened by the blackness of the lagoon.

When Adeyemi latched onto Makoko as a potential project site, friends in Lagos’s design community suggested that he talk to Isi Etomi. A young architect with an ebullient laugh, Etomi is a native Lagosian who values pragmatism and restraint. While studying architecture at Canterbury University in Great Britain, she wanted her senior project to be “a realistic proposal that someone could take to the government and say, ‘This is how you solve a problem’”—not one of the “fantasy projects, up in the sky, in the clouds” that many young architects prefer. She scoured her memory for a candidate in her home city and recalled Makoko. She’d never visited, but she’d smelled its scent, which wafts up to the Third Mainland Bridge: smoked fish, fresh sap, diesel fumes, and unprocessed sewage. “It’s not particularly off-putting, but it is memorable,” Etomi told me. Her two-volume thesis, which drew on Koolhaas’s research and comparative examples like Brazil’s favelas, proposed a new market and a gradual upgrading of the slum, one row of shanties at a time.

When she moved back to Lagos, Etomi began a year with the National Youth Service Corps—compulsory for university graduates—and requested placement in Makoko. She taught at one of the neighborhood’s only Anglophone schools, called Whanyinna (Love). Adept at navigating their unusual neighborhood, students scurried along beams suspended over the lagoon to get to their classes, which were held in derelict rooms spruced up with red flowers hand-painted on the walls. The school was a charity project of the Lagos Yacht Club, but the funders hadn’t allotted money for teachers’ salaries or even toilets. The building’s foundation was submerged underwater and rested on sand fill. Sometimes when it rained, the interior flooded. Whanyinna was also overcrowded, with a waiting list for admission. “The project failed practically and socially,” Etomi noted in a report she wrote about the school. “Unsupported capital investments simply add management burdens to already under-resourced communities/governments and end up wasting the capital investments.”

In a serendipitous twist, actor Ben Stiller visited Makoko and met with Noah Shemede, the school’s director and a native of the slum. When Shemede mentioned that Makoko’s children needed more classroom space, Stiller offered to fund construction through his philanthropic foundation. Etomi began working on a feasibility study for an extension of Whanyinna’s original structure. At the same time, she drafted and completed a smaller-scale project: a shelter for people awaiting canoe taxis at one of Makoko’s watery intersections. “It’s something that makes life a little easier in a discreet kind of way,” she told me. It took two days to build.  

Whanyinna’s extension was still in an early drafting phase when Etomi and Adeyemi met. They discussed their shared interest in Makoko and brainstormed designs for the school. In Etomi’s mind, this was “charity work, a community project,” and she was “not thinking of anything further than that.” Adeyemi started on the same page. His early ideas were straightforward: a two-story, open-plan structure, with a playground downstairs and a classroom upstairs.

Around the third draft, though, Adeyemi hit on a new idea: What if the school floated in the lagoon? That would make it resistant to flooding, he hypothesized, and speak to the growing threat of climate change. It could be shaped like a triangle, with sloping walls that enabled drainage into the lagoon. It would be a beacon of invention among Makoko’s dilapidated stilt structures and a “reusable modular building prototype.” In an early rendering, Adeyemi labeled the structure with the words “indigenous, ecological, local materials, self sustaining, economical, adaptable, movable, safe.”

In a 2012 budget prepared for the Stiller Foundation, Adeyemi estimated the outlay for his project at about $130,000, including what amounted to $13,000 for him to fly business class between his home in Amsterdam and Lagos. Etomi balked at the price tag, which was roughly seven times the cost of Whanyinna’s original structure, and at the idea that the building would be replicable. “It cannot work, because they cannot afford it,” she told me, referring to the slum’s residents.

Etomi and Adeyemi debated the matter in text messages, which were obtained for this story from a third party. “You can provide a higher standard of building but it need not be so… elaborate,” Etomi wrote in one exchange. “The simplest solutions are often the best.” Adeyemi replied, “I’m surprised u don’t see the simplicity in the new proposal.” Etomi also worried that the structure wouldn’t be able to withstand storms. “I keep thinking about driving rain,” she texted. “Driving rain is a detailing issue,” Adeyemi responded.

In an early rendering, Adeyemi labeled the structure with the words “indigenous, ecological, local materials, self sustaining, economical, adaptable, movable, safe.”

There was also the matter of the project’s visibility, which Adeyemi wanted to maximize. Makoko residents live under constant threat of eviction, which has a long, brutal history in Lagos. Many of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods sit where slums once did. In 1990, a single mass eviction affected some 300,000 people. The area was covered with sand and, later, McMansions. Eko Atlantic, a luxury district built on land “reclaimed” from coastal erosion through dredging and specialized infrastructure, displaced a poor community on the fringes of Bar Beach. Evictions are often violent affairs; bulldozers and armed police plow into communities with little or no prior notice. Etomi feared that a high-profile project intended to help and celebrate Makoko’s residents risked making them targets.

Adeyemi told Etomi that she was behaving like a “side critic” who wasn’t “actually properly engaging with the work.” She decided to back out of the project. “I just didn’t have any confidence in it,” she told me. Stiller’s foundation stepped away as well. (It didn’t reply to a request for comment.)

Adeyemi looked for other funding and secured it from the United Nations Development Program and the Heinrich Böll Foundation, which funds environmentally friendly projects worldwide. Noah Shemede, the school’s director, wondered what had happened to the other collaborators, but the project was gaining momentum. “All I needed was a school to put the students in, so I said no wahala,” Shemede recalled, using Nigerian slang for “no problem.”

He showed Adeyemi around the neighborhood and welcomed the architect into his home. The men traveled together to neighboring Benin to observe other water-based architecture. The future looked bright. Then came a searing reminder that, in Makoko, daily life is a precarious balancing act.

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Two

On July 12, 2012, Makoko residents woke to find the slum papered with flyers. Printed on letterhead from the Lagos State Ministry of Waterfront Infrastructure Development, they accused residents of continuing to “occupy and develop shanties and unwholesome structures on the waterfront without authority,” which “constituted environmental nuisance, security risks, impediments to economic and gainful utilization of the waterfront such as navigation, entertainment, recreation, etc.” Residents were given 72 hours to vacate.

A few days later, police raced into Makoko on speedboats. They cut homes down with chainsaws. Shacks were reduced to haphazard piles of broken beams. Displaced residents drifted in canoes with whatever belongings they could salvage, or they crammed into the already crowded homes of sympathetic neighbors. Activists sprung into action, imploring the government to cease demolition and alerting the press. Adeyemi joined in by posting updates on NLÉ’s Facebook page. He shared aerial photos of the slum, delineating the parts that had been destroyed and those that might be next. Bright yellow text overlaying the images read “Save Makoko.” When the police shot and killed a local leader, the outcry from residents and activists forced the government to back down, at least for the time being. The campaign had lasted five days. The next one, locals feared, would be worse.

Adeyemi folded the event into his pitch for the floating school. Suddenly, the project was about more than a place where children could learn. It was a redemptive emblem for a threatened community. That October, NLÉ shared an image on Facebook of Adeyemi sitting at a conference table with the government’s commissioner of the environment, discussing plans for the school. It was one of many events that Adeyemi documented for public consumption. On social media, he posted photos of kids jumping and kicking a soccer ball on a test raft, a platform of wood planks resting on recycled blue barrels lashed together and bobbing in the lagoon. He shared images from a local lumberyard where he procured wood for the school’s frame and from meetings with community members where they reviewed diagrams and designs.

The most important liaison in Makoko was Shemede, whose life story became another thread in the compelling narrative of Adeyemi’s project. The youngest of 22 children, Shemede has soft features and deep-set eyes. His father was one of Makoko’s six traditional leaders, called baales. Shemede was the only child in his family to make it to high school. He hated it, but his mother and siblings forced him to go, sometimes with beatings. When he grew up, his mother said, he should start a school to share what he had learned. As director of Whanyinna, Shemede was deeply proud—of the school and his home. “Makoko is very fine. It just needs improvements,” he told me once. “If you put a fish on dry land, can it survive? That is the way we people here are like. We cannot live on land. Living on water is part of our culture.” The comment reminded me of a quote by Langston Hughes: “Misery is when you heard on the radio that the neighborhood you live in is a slum but you always thought it was home.”

Local builders were hired to erect the floating school in late 2012. The process took a few months. The final design included three floors: a bottom level of more than 1,000 square feet where children could play and community members could gather, and two upper floors that would house classrooms. There were louvered windows for shade and ventilation, a sleek blue roof, and plans for systems that would harvest rainwater and compost waste. With its A-frame shape, low center of gravity, and base of more than 250 blue barrels, the school was supposed to be resilient against storms and tides.

In an interview with Fast Company in February 2013, as construction was nearing completion, Adeyemi said that the school was “very stable” and that kids in Makoko loved it. “It has been exciting for them since we built the first platform,” he said. “They are always around it.” It was for the benefit of children, Adeyemi noted, that he’d embarked on the project in the first place. “I was inspired, shocked, and motivated by the environment,” he explained. “I asked if there was anything I could do, and they said the school was always flooding, and they needed an extension. So that’s what we did.”

With its A-frame shape, low center of gravity, and base of more than 250 blue barrels, the school was supposed to be resilient against storms and tides.

NLÉ celebrated the school’s opening in March 2013. Residents raced fishing boats along the slum’s central channel, as if parading down Main Street. Courtesy of the design firm, people wore bright yellow headscarves and custom-printed polo shirts with the “A” of Makoko fashioned into an icon of the school. More than 200 people packed the structure: NGO workers and students, community leaders, journalists, even an envoy from the Ministry of Environment, despite the fact that the government still hadn’t given the school its official blessing. “The ‘boat’ remained steady while the event rocked,” NLÉ wrote on its Facebook page.

The firm brought Iwan Baan, one of the world’s foremost architecture photographers, to shoot images of its creation. The results were triumphant, hopeful, and gorgeous. Baan’s images capture children in crisp blue and yellow uniforms riding in a boat near the school, climbing the open-air stairs, and peering out at the lagoon from the classrooms. They show fishermen using the lower platform as a space to mend their nets, while canoes angle off the structure like the limbs of an asterisk. The photos ran in The New York Times and other internationals outlets.

Adeyemi plugged the images into PowerPoint presentations and took his story on the road. At conferences and universities around the globe, he presented his project as a collaboration with the people of Makoko and a case study for a future in which rich countries take cues from poor ones about sustainable ways to cope with inequality, population growth, and climate change. Rather than pity, there would be solidarity. Computer-generated images of the school were clustered onto photos and maps of various locations around the world; Adeyemi suggested that entire neighborhoods might one day float. He described his project as “a seed that actually addresses issues of urbanization. It grows. We’re hoping it can be cultivated to create more.”

Media attention exploded abroad and echoed back to Nigeria. Adeyemi’s school offered a refreshing, accessible counter-narrative to the relentless poverty porn streaming out of Africa. Many Nigerians were glad to read about something other than terrorism and corruption. Adeyemi was portrayed as a visionary—a fluent spokesman for Lagos, for the wider continent, for coastal cities, and for the poor. Features about the school appeared in magazines and design journals from South Africa to the Netherlands, Italy to the United States. The Architectural Review praised the project’s “determination and ingenuity in harnessing the transformational potential of architecture to address an extreme social context.” It also remarked that while the building was to “serve primarily as a school,” its design was “scalable and adaptable for other uses, such as a health center, market, or housing.”

Makoko was suddenly on the map, not as a hotbed of squalor but as a site of innovation. Many Lagosians felt proud of their architectural monument, whose blue roof they could spot from the Third Mainland Bridge. Isi Etomi told me that, although she still had reservations about the project, she “had to eat humble pie” whenever she ran into Adeyemi. Ultimately, she told herself, all that mattered was that the school served its intended purpose. “If it was good, then fine,” she said. “I’ll put my hands up.”

There, however, was the rub. Beneath the projections and pride was an uncomfortable truth: The famous floating school was not a school at all.

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Three

Empty classrooms dot the landscapes of poor countries like the skeletons of do-gooders’ shallow or disingenuous objectives. Infamously, the Central Asia Institute, cofounded by Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson, built schools in Afghanistan but didn’t invest in sustainable operations; the structures were left to languish while Mortenson promoted his book and its sequel. The Makoko Floating School was supposed to be different, less complicated, an extension of an existing school rather than one started from scratch. But what I saw when I visited for the first time in 2014 was alarming. The gap between the gloss presented to the world and the reality on the ground was vast.

At the time, I was reporting on slum demolitions, tromping through soggy neighborhoods listening to people describe their experiences of violence and anxiety, protest and resistance. In Makoko, locals insisted that I visit their prized landmark. By then it was one of the most famous contemporary buildings in Nigeria. When I set foot inside, children were sprawled across the deck playing with a balloon. They were relaxed and enjoying the view of the lagoon, but they weren’t studying. Upstairs, in the classrooms, beams were splitting. The floors were covered in dust. Desks were shoved into a corner. I soon learned that when the school had opened the previous March, toilets and blackboards hadn’t been installed. Since then not a single class had been held.

When the school opened, toilets and blackboards hadn’t been installed. Since then not a single class had been held.

What explained the false impression of success conveyed to people around the world? Noah Shemede told me that, to keep the project’s reputation intact, he sometimes moved desks into the school when Adeyemi warned him that journalists were coming. I also spoke to Andrew Esiebo, a photographer who shot footage of the school for Sweden’s arm of the United Nations Foundation. He recounted how he’d ferried kids to the structure and filmed them running gleefully up the stairs. “We staged it,” he said, to evoke the school’s intended purpose. Esiebo’s video was later published on The Guardian’s website.

Media outlets rarely mentioned that the school wasn’t in use. When they did, it was usually in passing, excused with a wave of blame aimed at the government. In September 2014, a few months after my visit, Al Jazeera premiered an episode of its series Rebel Architecture that profiled Adeyemi. Clad in a white shirt, dark jeans, and designer glasses, the architect rides in a canoe around Makoko. When he arrives at the school with Shemede, he seems surprised to find that the ceiling on the second level is crumbling. “Quite a bit of repair work to do,” Adeyemi says, noting that some overhead lights are detached from their wiring and mounts. “So what I think we need to do is to take out, just replace this—very, very easy,” he continues, hurried and reassuring. The episode then cuts to an interview with Shemede, who explains that the school is “in neglected condition” because it hasn’t received approval for use by students; the government still considers it an “illegal structure.” When I spoke with the office of Lagos’s commissioner of the environment, a representative told me that Adeyemi “did everything in his power to get government buy-in into that school but was not successful.”

Behind the scenes, other factors were eroding the project. Shemede cut a controversial figure in Makoko. If Adeyemi was the project’s international ambassador, the school’s director was its man on the ground.  With his new fame, Shemede fashioned himself into a local oga (boss). On behalf of the Nigerian Field Society, a cultural association for which he’d long run tours of Makoko, he took visitors to the floating school. A guided slum visit cost about 4,000 Naira, or $30. Shemede told me that he used his cut to pay teachers. Given the small amount of money in question and the lack of codified records, it’s impossible to verify this claim. When tourists or other visitors were moved to donate to the school, Shemede told them to pay in cash or make checks out to him; he promised to allocate the funds appropriately.

Shemede’s stature was often as isolating as it was empowering. Although the school project was supposed to be collective, benefiting the entire slum, some leaders in Makoko didn’t see it that way. “They gave it a community name, but it is more or less an individual affair,” said Ayeseminikan Bawo, who runs a private school in Makoko. It didn’t help that Shemede often referred to it as “my school.”

He and Adeyemi had agreed that, over time, the Makoko community would take ownership of the school, including its maintenance. But the baales felt sidelined and weren’t compelled to contribute. For two years, the onus fell on NLÉ to fix problems like rotting planks and leaky roof panels. Shemede was frustrated that, while the school sat empty and deteriorating, Adeyemi was off globetrotting.

Finally, in the summer of 2015, there was some positive news. The government was including the school in a plan to regenerate Makoko. NLÉ framed this acknowledgement as the long-awaited signal of official approval, even though the government still hadn’t explicitly given it. The firm also formally transferred control of the school to Shemede, which it viewed as a clear line in the sand: From there on out, the Makoko community would be in charge of all upkeep and NLÉ would no longer send maintenance workers to the site. That fall, two and a half years after the school opened, Shemede moved two classes, 49 students total, into the building.

In December, there was another gesture of good will from the government. Folorunsho Folarin-Coker, then Lagos’s minister of tourism, was tired of seeing “the same smog-filled, gloomy” view of Makoko each day. So, as part of a holiday celebration called One Lagos Fiesta, Folarin-Coker agreed to provide solar panels and external lights for the floating school. “You know, Christmas lights in Makoko,” he explained to me. He clarified that he saw the donation as “an act of kindness,” not of government recognition. “If there’s anything I can do for those people, I won’t turn my back,” he said.

NLÉ hired a photographer to shoot the installation. In one image captured at night, a child steering a canoe is silhouetted against the glow of the lights reflecting in the rippling lagoon. “#MakokoFloatingSchool lights up the Lagos waterfront with #solar power! Thnx to #Lagos State Govt’s #onelagosfiesta initiative,” read the photo’s caption when the firm posted it on Facebook.

Shemede wasn’t impressed. “Is it solar panels we need?” he asked angrily when recounting the installation. Thieves sometimes stripped wiring and other materials from the building to sell for cash. The panels, which were more valuable, would likely have to be guarded.

For Shemede, keeping an eye on fancy technology was asking too much. He was already dealing with what he considered to be more than enough trouble. Water sometimes breached the school, and wind shook it violently. Students were scared, and parents complained. “If you have children, can you allow them to go to schooling like that?” Shemede asked me later. In March 2016, just over four months since they’d been relocated, Shemede moved the students back to the original school building. There wasn’t any space for them there, so they squeezed into Shemede’s office for their lessons, bumping elbows at shared desks.

Adeyemi’s account of all this was recorded in an email sent to Shemede on March 19. He said that the situation wasn’t his firm’s fault. He also expressed concern that some of the chains anchoring the school were “missing/stolen”:

We cannot continue to carry out repairs on the building, particularly with little or no efforts or contributions of time or resources from you or the community. The structure belongs to you and the community. It is your responsibility and it is up to you to manage it as we have discussed many times extensively.… Please be advised that the current state of the structure is dangerous and at risk of causing major damage to properties and lives.

No repairs were made. A few weeks later, the school detached from its mooring and drifted across the lagoon, colliding with several shacks. Adeyemi sent money for improvements, along with another frustrated email begging for Shemede to invest in maintaining the school. For his part, Shemede felt that he didn’t have the resources, expertise, or support to do so.

Around the same time, a reviewer for the Aga Khan Award visited Lagos to assess the school, which had been shortlisted for the prestigious architectural prize. Tomà Berlanda, director of the School of Architecture, Planning, and Geomatics at the University of Cape Town, met with Shemede, toured the school, and discussed the project with NLÉ staff and Makoko residents. In his report, Berlanda acknowledged the school’s “state of abandonment.” He noted sympathetically that, “given the very limited resources which are available in the community, it is understandable that repairs have not been kept up to speed.”

“Given the very limited resources which are available in the community, it is understandable that repairs have not been kept up to speed.”

Adeyemi was out of town when Berlanda visited, but the two men had communicated earlier on Skype. In their conversation, Adeyemi repeated the concerns he’d shared with Shemede but stood by the existing structure. He didn’t mention plans for renovations.

All of which made a press release that NLÉ issued a few weeks later very peculiar. Adeyemi was fresh from his triumphant appearance at the Venice Biennale. The release clarified why the building that the architecture world was feting had suddenly ceased to exist: “After 3 years of intensive use, and exceptional service to the community, the first prototype structure Makoko Floating School has come down on June 7, 2016. Following its decommission since March, the structure has been out of use in anticipation of reconstruction.”

The language was a spin on what, by the time the release landed in journalists’ inboxes, was gist (gossip) all over Lagos: The school had collapsed.

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Four

The storm on the morning of June 7 was strong, but it wasn’t the worst of the season. Makoko was accustomed to torrential tropical downpours. Wind whistled through the cracks in the shanties’ walls and whipped at their stilts. Shemede stood outside the original Whanyinna building in the pounding rain.

The floating school stood tall in the distance, a promise just out of reach. Then it began to shake. In a matter of seconds, it came down in a terrific crash of wood, metal, and plastic. Shemede shouted in alarm, and some of his staff ran out of Whanyinna to join him on the edge of the lagoon. They stood gawking at what was now an absence on the horizon.

Word swept outward via WhatsApp and text message. I heard the news from an architect. “Holy shit, I’m going over there now,” I wrote back. I wanted to see the pancaked structure for myself. I met with photojournalist Sulayman Afose Senayon, who lives in Makoko. I followed him through twisting alleyways down to the muddy shore, where we caught a canoe into the lagoon. On the way to the school, we stopped so that Senayon could climb onto the second-story balcony of a shack and speak to Shemede’s older brother, a baale. When Senayon descended once more into the canoe, he repeated what the baale had told him: Adeyemi had called and said to stop journalists from going to the wreckage. Senayon argued that, as a Makoko resident, he could go wherever he wanted. So we continued.

What was left of the school was both tragic and anticlimactic. Here was an internationally lauded feat of design undone by the very forces it was supposed to resist. Here, too, was a neglected, dysfunctional building that had finally fallen down. The lagoon was placid; the rain had passed. Senayon and I were among the very few people who’d paddled to the site to observe what was left of the school. Makoko residents, I realized, had already given up on it. For them there was nothing to ogle.

Here was an internationally lauded feat of design undone by the very forces it was supposed to resist. Here, too, was a neglected, dysfunctional building that had finally fallen down.

That night I met Shemede at a bar. His voice was tired because he’d been talking all day. Distant believers in the floating school had contacted him to express their dismay. He’d fielded phone calls from journalists, donors, and former volunteers at Whanyinna. Sipping a Guinness, he told me that he felt particularly obligated to engage with the press. After all, reporters had been good to him for years. “When the school was progressing, journalists were the ones that made people know about it,” he said. While we sat talking, his cell phone continued to buzz.

“The school collapsed. Nobody did it; the school collapsed by itself,” Shemede said at one point. “Everybody that comes to that school appreciates it, like, ‘Oh wow, it’s a good building,’ but nobody knows the inside, what is going on. We that are living there, we are the ones that know.”

When he talked of Adeyemi, Shemede sighed dejectedly. “Kunlé,” he said. “Kunlé is for Kunlé.”


The NLÉ press release went out the next day, bearing the headline “Makoko Floating School Comes Down for Upgrade.” According to Shemede, that an upgrade was in the works was news to him. So was the release’s mention of the school having been “decommissioned” in March. “I decided to move the students from the school myself,” he insisted. A few days later, Berlanda wrote in The Architectural Review that Adeyemi “had ostensibly been silent about the decommission.” He also described the press release’s headline as “worryingly misleading.” Berlanda said, “The fact is that the prototype’s load-bearing structure fell apart, and with it the hopes of the community.” A Guardian headline expressed similar concern: “Does Makoko Floating School’s collapse threaten the whole slum’s future?”

Other reactions were more pointed. James Inedu, a fellow architect, wrote in a scathing opinion piece, “All the school did was to blow up the designer’s ego and to give him highly coveted international attention.… It was simply bad architecture done iconically. Privately, Isi Etomi compared the situation to The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Through all this, Adeyemi remained mostly silent, giving only a few interviews in which he reiterated the language of the press release. He sent the document to journalists, colleagues, even his old mentor at Unilag, who had reached out by email to urge his former student not to be discouraged. When I contacted him, Adeyemi agreed to meet for an interview on June 17. The night before, when I called to confirm, he said that he couldn’t make it—he’d be traveling. “I don’t really have anything to say,” he added. I sent a text the following week, which he didn’t answer. I asked friends of his whom I knew to put in a word; that didn’t work either.

Several months later, NLÉ published a 24-page document entitled “Why Did Makoko Floating School Collapse and Other FAQs.” It addressed everything from who was responsible for maintenance (from 2013 to 2015, the design firm; after that, Shemede and other Makoko leaders) to what happened to the school’s materials after the collapse (Shemede’s brother had “led the disassembly and recycling,” collecting equipment for “reuse in future reconstruction”). In the appendix appeared the press release and the emails exchanged between Adeyemi and Shemede regarding upkeep.

Shemede aired feelings of betrayal and sadness to the press. He talked of doubting the structure’s integrity months before the collapse. The FAQ addressed some of Shemede’s criticisms directly. “His comments about the long-term relevance of the structure were mostly personal and understandably, expressed in grievance and defense of his responsibilities. It is unfortunate that his views were reported as a victim or antagonist of a personalized situation,” the document read. “Noah Shemede’s position on the project has been overplayed and misrepresented in the media,” the FAQ continued—a characterization that would seem to contradict NLÉ’s own description of Shemede’s role, provided just a few pages earlier. “He was responsible for the operational, maintenance, financial and management of the structure,” it read.

The FAQ was what Adeyemi directed me to when, a year after the school’s collapse, I began to put this story together. I replied with a list of detailed follow-up questions, to which a manager at NLÉ responded, “Unfortunately, due to numerous inquiries, we are at this time unable to provide individual responses about Makoko Floating School.” The manager then pointed me, circuitously, back to the FAQ.

In September 2017 and February 2018, I reached out to the architect and his firm again. My requests for an interview were declined. At the bottom of the emails sent by NLÉ were links to adulatory press for the firm, including two articles about the floating school. Both were published before the building’s collapse.

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A local man looks at the collapsed school. (Photo: Allyn Gaestel)

It is essential to probe beneath the defensiveness and finger-pointing to take stock of the Makoko Floating School’s dimensions of failure. The project failed as a school, housing classes for only about four months in the three years that it was moored in the lagoon. It failed as a sustainable structure, sliding into disrepair and then falling victim to a late spring thunderstorm. It failed as a collaboration between an artist and members of a community.

From a more abstract perspective, however, it’s arguable that all wasn’t lost when the school fell. As Berlanda wrote in The Architectural Review, the project showed how architecture could be “a vehicle for a message of resilience towards both climate change, and the growing project of inequality that is increasingly marginalizing poor communities.” This was the idea that Adeyemi embraced more than ever in the wake of the collapse. In July 2016, while presenting at a conference, he described the school as “a temporary structure that is designed as a catalyst to stimulate and think about different ways of building, to innovate, to address issues of adaptation, climate change and for education.” Later he responded to critics by saying, “The most important part of this is the structure is really a prototype, a pilot project.”

Residents of Makoko never saw it that way, however. They expected functionality and permanence from the beautiful building that drew so much attention to their home. Which raises the question: For whom is there benefit in trying and failing, particularly in marginalized communities? Reams of scholarship have been dedicated to the terrible global legacy of experimenting on the poor, including in Nigeria. It is one of three countries in the world that hasn’t eradicated polio, partly because of fears and myths surrounding the vaccine that are informed by a history of clinical trials carried out on citizens without their consent.

For whom is there benefit in trying and failing, particularly in marginalized communities?

There is a persistent risk of doing harm, dashing hopes, and eroding trust with trial and error, no matter how virtuous the objectives. It is the duty of the powerful to minimize that risk as much as possible. “It was supposed to be innovation, but now we’re being told it was experimentation,” Papa Omotayo, a Lagos-based architect and friend of Adeyemi’s, said of the floating school a few days after the collapse. “The issue is, can you experiment in a community like [Makoko] knowing things like budget, like social issues, and more importantly knowing that children are involved?”

A final layer of failure pertains to the damage done by storytelling. Makoko is a place where the nearly unfathomable poverty and inequality that underlie our global economic order are glaringly visible. When confronted with these dynamics, outsiders are prone to transmuting it from place to concept—a mental backdrop for dreams, arguments, and theories, a chance to make readers and viewers feel better about the world. Members of the media and design circles slipped all too easily into this trap, stripping Makoko of its specificity and its residents of their humanity, rendering them symbolic, and placing faith in what promised to be shiny and new. They stuck with what was digestible: a narrative of Makoko redeemed.

A lie is an intentionally false statement. It is also, according to Oxford Dictionaries, “used with reference to a situation involving deception or founded on a mistaken impression.” This last phrase neatly describes the myth of the Makoko Floating School. The project was a chimera composed of flawed and superficial ideas and curated by deflection, obfuscation, and overestimation. The people who wanted the illusion to be real allowed it to spin unchecked—until a precipitous void made it impossible to believe. “Falsehood flies,” Jonathan Swift once wrote, “and truth comes limping after it.”

Epilogue

In March 2017, the replica of the floating school in Venice was disassembled and put in storage. By then, Adeyemi had been named the Aga Khan design critic in architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. He’d received grants to continue researching water cities, an outgrowth of the Makoko project, and he was constructing another school, this one on terra firma, in Tanzania.

Today, his NLÉ bio includes a personal quote, part of which reads, “In each project the essential needs of performance, value, and identity—critical for success—are fundamentally the same for me. Although quantitatively different from place to place, the responsibility of achieving these needs at maximum, with minimum means, remains the same.” The bio also describes the Makoko Floating School, in the present tense, as “acclaimed” and “innovative,” even though it fell short of Adeyemi’s own metrics and was never reconstructed.

In the slum, concerned parties have returned to the drawing board. Three days after the floating school buckled into the lagoon, Etomi and a friend set up a GoFundMe page with a goal of about $40,000. “We want to focus on a more basic, grassroots approach than the floating school and enable the community to do what they’ve already taken ownership over rather than building a second ‘fancy’ structure,” the campaign’s explanation read. The organizers’ aim was to improve  Whanyinna’s condition and construct the long-awaited extension with Shemede’s guidance. The campaign raised about one-fifth of its target, but Etomi was pleased. It would be enough to give the children of Whanyinna a durable solution, which she hoped would include a board to oversee the school’s management and curriculum and a trust for its finances.

Shemede, however, disagreed with Etomi’s approach. He thought he should make the decisions about what to do with the school and the donated money. “I am the one that has been controlling it before,” he told me, “and the way their own things are going they would now be the one.” The project stalled while Shemede vied for a seat in the local government. (He wound up with an appointed supervisory role.) Afterward he and Etomi debated some small-scale investments, such as fortifying the school’s foundation to mitigate flooding. As of this writing, they’re still assessing how to proceed.

This ending is unsatisfying, poetic, and true. Change is never linear, humans are ever contradictory, and answers are rarely easy. “The money is literally just sitting there,” Etomi told me. Meanwhile, in Makoko, school years pass; children grow.

The Old and the Restless

The Old and the Restless

An indecent proposal, a crime of passion, and legends of murder in an enclave of bohemian retirees.

By Chris Walker

The Atavist Magazine, No. 75


Chris Walker is a former staff writer at Denver alt-weekly Westword. Prior to living in Colorado, he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for NPR, ForbesThe Atlantic, and Vice. His website is chrisallanwalker.com


Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Tekendra Parmar
Illustrator: Bijou Karman

Published in January 2018. Design updated in 2021.

Act I

Ajijic. Such a strange word, Jackie Hodges thought as she rode in a Porsche convertible through a stretch of lush, rolling mountains in central Mexico. The 45-year-old American knew virtually nothing about the small town where she was headed, including how to pronounce its name. “Ah-hee-heek,” locals would patiently repeat again and again after she arrived. In Mexico’s indigenous Nahuatl tongue, the word means “place where the water is born.”

It was the fall of 1969, and Hodges needed a distraction. Her second marriage was coming apart at the seams. Eager to get away from her home in Pasadena, California, she’d seized upon an invitation to visit Lona Mae Isoard, a friend who lived in Ajijic. Hodges had always puzzled over Isoard’s decision to move there. A talented painter who liked to wear her gray hair in a French twist, Isoard was a seasoned traveler who’d lived in Paris and Rome. Why settle down in a Mexican pueblo of barely 5,000 people just south of Guadalajara?

The environs were pretty, at least. Hodges spotted Ajijic as the Porsche, in which Isoard had picked her up at Guadalajara’s airport, crested a mountain pass. She took in the expanse of Lake Chapala, Mexico’s largest freshwater lake. It stretched some 11 miles south and 50 miles east to west. Dotting its northern edge were picturesque fishing communities, one of which was the women’s destination.

They wended their way down the highway until the convertible’s tires met cobblestone. The Porsche rattled into the heart of Ajijic, where blue tin placards proclaimed the narrow streets’ names, children ran around shoeless, and bare-chested men hawked fish pulled from the lake. Hodges spied a pig strung up outside a home, rivulets of blood running from a gash in its neck down its snout to the ground. Nearby a group of caballeros with spurs on their boots rode sidestepping horses. The women drove past the Posada, a lodge and watering hole that had served as the de facto center of Ajijic’s expatriate scene since it opened in 1938. Eventually, they came to a row of brightly painted brick-and-mortar homes, one of which was Isoard’s.

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“Rest up,” the painter told Hodges after they’d gotten settled. She would need energy.

The following evening, Isoard threw nothing short of a bacchanal. Some 60 people came, martinis flowed, and conversations slurred. “Have you met Jackie?” Isoard said to guest after guest, nudging the newcomer into the night’s starring role. The air was thick with smoke from Cuban cigars; a group of businessmen had just returned from Havana. At one point, they launched into a spirited argument with a couple of former diplomats over America’s embargo of the island nation. Rolling her eyes, Isoard directed a five-piece band she’d hired for the night to stand close to the men. Then she gathered up several women and displaced the debate with a dance floor.

Before the party was over, Hodges had a good if drunken understanding of Ajijic’s expats. Most of them were retired or nearly being so, but they refused to act like they were aging. Among them were many artists, writers, and actors—both has-beens and still-wannabes—who made the town feel like a Shangri-la for sun-setting bohemians. The wild party scene was fabled among those who’d experienced it, and some impressive names had made cameos. D.H. Lawrence wrote the first draft of his novel The Plumed Serpent while residing in the area in 1923. During the 1950s, Beat writers swallowed a drink or five at the Posada. Then came the hippies, who earned Ajijic a shout-out in Tom Wolfe’s 1968 book The Electric Acid Kool Aid Test as a stopover during a drug-fueled escapade by the LSD evangelists known as the Merry Pranksters.

The discomfiting contrast between their privileged existence and the substantially poorer one of the Mexicans they lived among didn’t seem to bother many expats. Ajijic’s low cost of living was a draw, along with its bucolic setting and temperate weather. To foreigners, whatever the town lacked—paved roads, telephones, TVs—it made up for with characters who embodied a popular saying: Once a private crossed the border into Mexico, he could be a general. People’s pasts became whatever they said they were. Take Zara Alexeyewa, known as La Rusa, who’d lived in Ajijic since the 1920s and claimed to be a ballerina from Russia. Over time local journalists and historians would uncover some 18 aliases she’d used and pinpoint her birthplace as New York. Alexeyewa fancied herself queen of the expats. Her attitude was imperious, and she was never seen walking anywhere. She rode around on a black horse, sitting sidesaddle in a long dress and wide-brimmed hat.

Hodges, a free spirit who’d always lamented that she missed visiting the Paris of Gertrude Stein by a generation, was enamored. After her visit with Isoard, she returned to Ajijic for longer stretches over the next three summers. By 1972, she was looking to buy a casita. By 1976, she was divorced and living in Ajijic year-round. She began dating a housing contractor, got married again, and never looked back.

I know this because she’s my grandmother. Now 93, Hodges has lived in Ajijic all my life. The place has changed since she first arrived. Development has altered the landscape, and Mexico’s drug war has taken a toll. My grandmother, though, is a time capsule. A flamboyant raconteur, she embellishes stories of parties that evolved into orgies and acquaintances who turned out to be CIA spooks with dialogue she couldn’t possibly have been privy to. I take everything she says about Ajijic with a grain or two of salt.

In 2015, she told me a story I couldn’t shake, about a person she couldn’t shake. Around Thanksgiving, we were in her living room discussing the litany of outrageous people and situations she’d encountered. Short and rail thin, with a dyed platinum-blond bob, she gesticulated as she spoke. Suddenly, with dramatic flair, she declared, “I’ve only met one person in my lifetime that I thought was truly evil.” The way she emphasized the last word jolted me. She meant it.

That person was Donna McCready, a charismatic, controversial figure in Ajijic in the 1970s and 1980s. So incredible were the instances of seduction, betrayal, and violence in which McCready is said to have played a part that they are now the crown jewels of local lore. Many of the old-timers who got entangled in McCready’s web are long gone, as is the woman herself, but some are still alive. I sought them out to hear their accounts, which added layers both macabre and poignant to the story my grandmother told me.

It boils down to this: In Ajijic, Donna McCready’s name is synonymous with murder.

Act II

One balmy afternoon in late 1976, Judy Eager was sitting near the entrance of the Posada when she saw two women roar into view astride motorcycles. They were newcomers, sporting black leather jackets and stony expressions that seemed to say fuck you. Expats rolled into Ajijic all the time, usually in less dramatic fashion. Eager and her husband had arrived only two years earlier, on the recommendation of a cab driver in Guadalajara, where they’d been vacationing. Soon after, they moved to town and took over stewardship of the Posada. Slinging drinks at the bar, they got to know everyone.

In the pair of leather-clad women, Eager sensed trouble. They pulled up to the Posada and came in for drinks. Their names were Donna McCready and Lois Schaefer, they were from Sausalito, California, and they were on a road trip through Mexico. They were also dating. Ajijic hosted a sizable gay population, but its members tended to be discreet about their relationships. The women were anything but: At the Posada, they were all over each other. The “dykes on bikes,” as Eager described them, took a liking to Ajijic and decided to stay.

Schaefer was middle-aged and boisterous, while McCready was in her thirties—young for an Ajijic expat—and resembled a school-age tomboy, with a short, shaggy haircut and thick glasses. On first impression she was quiet, but she relished making a scene and telling shocking stories. According to one Ajijic resident, McCready and Schaefer once decided to get a drink at Azteca, a dark cave of a saloon on the town’s main plaza. It catered to blue-collar Mexicans and featured a trough under the bar where patrons could relieve themselves. When an inebriated man insulted Schaefer, McCready came at him swinging. The women were hauled off to jail on assault charges—which McCready later claimed were dropped because she gave the station chief a blow job.

Schaefer and McCready didn’t stay together long. Mundane arguments over things like doing the dishes could turn violent. After they split, Schaefer struck up a new romance with a blonde named Susie Emery. One night during a squabble, Emery pulled out a gun and shot Schaefer through the breast; the bullet entered one side and came out the other. Judy Eager recounted the aftermath in her diary, which she recently showed me. “They both ended up in jail, had to pay a large fine to get out, and were both on probation for three months,” Eager wrote. “They became lovers again. Lois had Susie’s name tattooed above the bullet hole.” In Ajijic, it was a characteristically crazy incident.

McCready, meanwhile, got around romantically, according to Jan Dunlap. The two women bonded over a mutual predilection for mischief. Dunlap had moved to Ajijic with her five kids in 1967, after federal agents raided her home in New Mexico as part of a crackdown on a marijuana-trafficking ring involving her husband. She later opened Big Mama’s, a bar located across the street from the Posada that quickly earned an unholy reputation as a site for drug transactions. (Dunlap swore she wasn’t involved.) In comparison with the Posada, where caballeros only occasionally engaged in pistol shootouts—Eager called them “misunderstandings”—Big Mama’s was a dive. Patrons stumbled between the two establishments every night, until someone drunkenly announced whose house everyone could migrate to for a party.

McCready came by Big Mama’s alone around 11 a.m. most days to have a nip of tequila and chat with Dunlap before checking her mail at the post office. The women traded gossip, and McCready talked about her recent flirtations and sexual conquests. No one was off limits. McCready even propositioned Dunlap one day. “I already tried that once and didn’t like it,” she replied with a hearty laugh.

McCready wasn’t beautiful, in Dunlap’s opinion, but she could switch seamlessly from controlling an interaction with her charm to listening with apparent sympathy. Dunlap suspected that McCready’s savvy was why some people were drawn to her. Others thought it signaled a proclivity for manipulation. “If you studied her closely, her cold gray eyes gave away the secrets of a hard diabolical mind and a mean spirit,” reads the treatment for an unpublished screenplay about McCready, written in the 1990s by a former actor and Ajijic resident named Bob Jones. “The time left to her would be littered with victims.”

Around 1979, McCready began working as a home nurse for Steve and Pat Harrington, an older couple who owned a large estate on a hill above town. The home had a private drive, up which expats climbed to attend lavish parties—the sort that made other locals, who thrived on a culture of one-upmanship when it came to entertaining, green with envy. Steve had developed a serious heart problem that required constant care. McCready landed the job by claiming to have nursing experience. (No one I spoke to could remember whether she really did.)

As the weeks passed, McCready spent increasing amounts of time at the Harringtons’ tending to her sick charge. She also spent a lot of time wooing and then sleeping with Steve’s wife.

When Dunlap heard about the affair, she thought it fitting for McCready and her scorn for social mores. Dunlap would later recount it when crafting her own screenplay about McCready, called With Money Dances the Dogs:

PAT

Kiss me, DONNA. I need your arms around me.

DONNA caresses PAT. She has her hands inside PAT’S clothing, fondling her breast. One hand moves further down. PAT is in ecstasy, forgetting everything. DONNA is being very methodical, she knows what she’s doing.

Steve’s health declined quickly, and before long he died. According to Mexican law, a body must be buried or cremated within 48 hours of death. Unless there’s suspicion of foul play, autopsies are not routine. Steve was interred, and that was that.

McCready and Pat soon went public with their romance. For some residents, especially those who’d been friends with the Harringtons for many years, the affair was terribly gauche. When Judy Eager heard the news, she was angry. How could Pat move on from Steve just like that? Was she lonely or confused? My grandmother visited Pat, whom she considered a friend, and noticed that she’d undergone a makeover intended to take years off her appearance. She wore a pink dress and had curled her hair. “She was flitting about like a little kid,” my grandmother recalled.

Gossip began to swirl, including the conjecture that Steve may have succumbed to a most unnatural death at the hands of his wife’s lover. It was the sort of gross speculation that expats relished, especially while sipping cocktails. “If you live in Ajijic,” Dunlap told me, “you know it thrives on scandal.”


The first time I spoke to Dunlap, she told me that, not long after Steve died, McCready arrived at Big Mama’s for one of her visits. The place was empty. McCready marched over to the bar and announced, apropos of nothing, that she’d killed Steve.

Dunlap stood waiting for the punch line, but it never came. Instead, McCready doubled down on her claim. “She said she smothered him with a pillow,” Dunlap recalled, “and that Pat was watching from inside the coat closet.” Later, McCready told Dunlap that she and Pat had plotted the murder in order to collect Steve’s inheritance, only to discover that he’d changed his will to give some relatives the Ajijic estate and most of his money. Perhaps he’d sensed something nefarious afoot.

In another interview, Dunlap remembered McCready jesting publicly about murdering Steve. “She used to brag about it at cocktail parties,” Dunlap told me. “She’d say jokingly, ‘Sure, I killed him.’ Everyone would just listen to her and laugh.”

Dunlap wasn’t sure what to think, much less say. Why would her friend admit to a crime and risk getting caught? Was she trying to deflect suspicion through morbid humor? On the other hand, if she was lying, it was a bizarre yarn to spin, even for someone with a devilish streak and a fondness for shock value.

In the absence of proof, Dunlap uneasily let the matter lie. Years later, in her fictionalized take on the story, she tweaked the narrative to depict McCready poisoning her elderly employer:

STEVE is in bed, reading a book. DONNA enters the open doorway and knocks.

DONNA

Stevie Poo, I’ve brought you a pot of hot tea, made English style. See, I’ve even added milk, just the way you like it. My mother used to serve it to me like this, she always said it made me relax and sleep better. Here’s hoping it does the same for you.

It would be easy to dismiss this as the stuff of cinematic melodrama, a scenario Dunlap dreamed up for her screenplay. (The script was never produced, but there is periodic chatter around town of Meryl Streep or Sharon Stone being attached to it—wishful thinking in a community of lifelong dreamers.) No one else I spoke to remembered McCready boasting openly of killing her lover’s husband.

Dunlap, however, wasn’t the only Ajijic resident to claim that McCready confessed in confidence to murder. Nor was Steve Harrington the only purported victim.

In 1982, at a New Year’s Eve dinner party at the Posada, a distraught-looking Pat pulled my grandmother aside. “I’m losing her, Jackie,” she whispered miserably. “Donna is in love with someone else.” She was right: McCready broke up with Pat, prompting the spurned widow to leave Ajijic for good. McCready then moved on to occupy one corner of another love triangle.

Dunlap wasn’t the only Ajijic resident to claim that McCready confessed in confidence to murder. Nor was Steve Harrington the only purported victim.

Like the Harringtons, the Taylors were a wealthy retired couple. Albert had been a producer of Broadway shows, and Hildegard was a former model. They maintained an aura of elegance—Albert often wore a monocle—and fawned over one another. When he developed dementia, however, Albert’s personality changed. Pamela Duran, who knew the Taylors well, described how Hildegard would take him to social gatherings, where he sat silently among friends as if in a stupor. In other instances, he grew abusive, yelling at his wife for reasons he couldn’t articulate.

Hildegard sought someone with nursing experience to care for her ailing husband, and McCready got the job. Given how sick he was, no one was surprised when Albert died. But Duran was stunned when, one afternoon, McCready sidled up to her on the Posada’s patio, where she liked to watch the sun set over the lake. McCready sat down at Duran’s table and admitted out of the blue to killing Albert.

According to Duran, McCready leaned forward so that other happy-hour drinkers couldn’t hear her. “I killed Albert by smothering him with a pillow,” she whispered. Duran could only stare at her blankly. “He just didn’t have any quality of life,” McCready continued. “He couldn’t finish a sentence. He peed on himself all the time. And he was mean to Hildegard, so I went in and put a pillow on his face, and I killed the old bastard.”

“You… you did?” Duran finally stammered.

“Yeah, I did.”

Duran told me that she didn’t reveal McCready’s confession to anyone. “I knew that if I did, she’d say, ‘Oh, I was just bragging. I didn’t do that,’” Duran said. “I knew she was telling the truth.” Jan Dunlap also said McCready told her about killing Albert, but by dropping a radio into a tub where he was bathing—and with Hildegard’s knowledge. No one else I spoke to had heard anything about Albert being electrocuted.

The verifiable outcome of his death was that Hildegard and McCready announced their relationship as if it were an engagement. “Everyone, I want to tell you something,” Hildegard said at a dinner party, after clinking her glass with a fork to get the room’s attention. “I am in love with Donna!” Once again, though, McCready’s relationship with a new widow didn’t last long. This time the reason was tragic. Hildegard developed a nasty cough, and when she and McCready traveled to a hospital in Houston to have it checked out, they learned that the cause was terminal throat cancer. Hildegard’s demise was fast and ugly. She had a tracheotomy, and McCready would indulge her requests at parties, which Hildegard still attended, to pour gin down the tube in her throat.

Hildegard died in March 1984. For a brief time, McCready’s spark for trouble seemed to dim. She wasn’t seen at many social gatherings, though she did host a prime-rib dinner in Hildegard’s memory. Some residents felt sorry for her. But when McCready received a sizable inheritance, including at least one property the Taylors had owned in Los Angeles, the cloud of suspicion around her darkened once more. She really is just a gold-digger, people whispered, some with genuine disdain, others with morbid glee.

By all accounts, McCready moved on, setting her romantic sights elsewhere; my grandmother claims that McCready once made a pass at her, right after her third husband died. McCready’s most fateful entanglement, however, was yet to come. It involved a couple with an outwardly idyllic marriage who kept painful secrets, and an indecent proposal gone horribly wrong. No one disputes that the affair ended in a brutal crime.

Act III

When Joe and Barbara Kovach decided to retire in 1980, they had no idea where they’d wind up. They just knew that they wanted to explore the world outside the Chicago suburbs where they’d spent most of their marriage and raised their daughters. Joe, 61, and Barbara, 50, had been movers and shakers in Bolingbrook, a small town Joe had helped to incorporate in 1965.

Joe spent his days behind a typewriter as editor in chief of Beacon, a local newspaper. Barbara ran the paper’s sales department and was active on the board of Bolingbrook’s library and park district. When they decided to leave, the Kovaches wrote a farewell column:

We have lived here for 17 years and have been publishing Beacon for 16 years. Without qualifications, this has been the richest and most rewarding time of our lives, and it has been our friends, associates and readers who have made it so. We will be going to warmer climes and will be facing new challenges and experiences, but leaving will not be easy…. The only way to say good bye is to say it. Good bye. We love you. JJK and BAK.

Then the Kovaches made that classic American move: They bought an RV, which they christened the Pinta, and decided to drive until they felt like staying somewhere. Over several months they headed east, then south, sending their adult daughters postcards from a hit parade of monuments and museums. They crossed the border into Mexico and, like my grandmother more than a decade prior, eventually came upon a panoramic view of Lake Chapala. “Barb, I don’t know about you,” Joe said as they looked at the water, “but I’m never leaving.” It was December 1980. They settled in Ajijic, sold the RV, and rented a house.

The couple came with extra baggage—the emotional kind. Joe wasn’t faithful. He was always flirting with other women and had even made public gestures that landed him in hot water with Barbara. He’d had trouble explaining why, when he’d met a woman in Bolingbrook who owned a cherry tree that wasn’t producing fruit, he’d bought two pounds of cherries and individually tied them to the tree’s branches. Then there was the period when he spent weekends in Indianapolis, supposedly to get better acquainted with a son from a previous marriage whom Barbara had never met. When the son called the Kovaches’ house one day and announced that he was trying to establish contact with his absent father for the first time, it became evident that the tall, slender man with whom Joe had taken pictures in Indianapolis wasn’t really his son. Presumably, the photo was part of a scheme to cover up the fact that he was visiting another woman.

Barbara nearly left Joe a couple of times. Once, she packed her bags and bought a plane ticket to Miami to stay with her sister-in-law. Joe convinced her to let him drive her to the airport and, before they even reached the terminal, to cancel her ticket. It wasn’t wholly surprising; she’d always been susceptible to his persuasions. The Kovaches had met in 1950 in Boston, where Barbara grew up and was studying at the Massachusetts School of Physiotherapy. Joe, born in Hungary, had come to the United States as a child and wound up in Boston after his first marriage ended. He was six foot two, strapping, and a real charmer. When he began courting her, Barbara was dating a doctor, so Joe sent her a case of apples with a note attached: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

When he began courting her, Barbara was dating a doctor, so Joe sent her a case of apples with a note attached: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

Joe’s charisma, however, was a facade that shielded troubling behavior from public view. To his four daughters, Kitt, Karen, Kim, and Kandi, in order of age, he could be a tyrant. He was obsessed with instilling an appreciation for the arts, literature, and history. Most family dinners took place at 6 p.m. sharp and began with a quiz. Joe asked trivia questions, and if one of his daughters gave the wrong answer, he replied with cutting commentary like, “You need to worry about getting married, because you’re clearly not going to make it in school.” As the girls grew up, small infractions of house rules could trigger disproportionate responses. Once, Joe woke Kandi up around midnight and made her hand-wash every dish in the kitchen because she’d put one back in the cupboard with a trace of food on it. Another time, Joe had her spend an entire Sunday walking back and forth across the street in front of the house because he’d caught a glimpse of her forgetting to look both ways.

When tragedy struck, Joe was similarly controlling, and Barbara went along with him. Kitt developed leukemia when she was a young teenager. Her parents decided not to tell her that she was dying; in fact, they told no one except Kim and Karen—their youngest was spared from the news—and a few close friends. They claimed that they didn’t want Kitt to fear dying and acted as if her nosebleeds and waning energy were nothing to worry about. One day in 1968, when she was 15, Kitt went to the hospital for a particularly severe nosebleed. She never came home. After her death, the Kovaches grieved and continued to celebrate her birthday privately, but Joe and Barbara also insisted on keeping a stiff upper lip. “It was as though, if you didn’t talk about it, it didn’t happen,” Karen later told me.

Setting out in the RV a dozen years later was a chance for the Kovaches to put the past behind them. Barbara saw it as an opportunity to move past Joe’s affairs and reset their marriage. But things didn’t exactly work out that way.


Ajijic had always had painful colonial undertones: foreigners staking their claims to various pieces of property and hiring locals as their gardeners, drivers, and maids. The extent to which the two worlds—white and not—meshed depended on what sort of life an extranjero (foreigner) envisioned on the shores of Lake Chapala. Each of the Kovaches had different priorities.

Barbara committed to learning Spanish and hoped to model herself on longtime expat philanthropists like Neill James, who after arriving in the 1940s supported aspiring Mexican painters and donated to the Lake Chapala Society, which provided funds and school supplies to area children. Barbara’s good works took the form of cooking and delivering meals to residents, both foreign and Mexican, when they were sick. To bring in additional income, she worked as a cashier at a clothing boutique that catered to wealthy tourists and Mexican vacationers.

Joe, by contrast, didn’t bother to learn much Spanish. He started running bridge games and organizing luñadas, guided nighttime horseback rides that promised a dude-ranch-like experience with meals cooked over a campfire. The moonlit trips quickly became popular among extranjeros, who put a wild spin on them. One night, after swigging vodka atop their horses, two women charged into the streets of Ajijic like cavalry, announcing themselves as “the rowdy bunch.”

Where the Kovaches had a shared interest was parties. They cultivated a reputation in the town’s Rolodex of social hosts and wrote letters to their daughters back in the States saying that retirement was the most fun they’d ever had. They had so many friends, they held a small “practice party” the night before throwing a big shindig, inviting B-level acquaintances who wouldn’t fit in their house for the main event.

By the mid-1980s, McCready had also jumped into the hosting game. Her signature was a lobster feast. She would travel to Mexico’s Pacific coast and come back with at least a dozen crustaceans, which she then served to impressed dinner guests. Also impressive to inebriated crowds was the pet duck she kept in the swimming pool in her front yard. “Donna was now the hostess with the mostess,” reads Bob Jones’s script treatment. “She developed her own fan club, of which Joe and Barbara were her key members.”

McCready and the Kovaches also got to know each other through the Lakeside Little Theatre. The nonprofit organization, founded in 1965, organized productions of classic English-language plays, as well as scripts written by expats. Joe was an actor, while Barbara worked behind the scenes fundraising to secure the company a permanent venue so that it could stop staging shows at the Posada. McCready was the theater’s treasurer and also directed plays. In December 1985, she helmed Send Me No Flowers, a comedy about a man who thinks he’s dying and tries to find his wife a new husband; the movie version starred Rock Hudson and Doris Day. Joe had a small part in the show as a salesman of burial plots.

At cast parties, according to one Ajijic resident, McCready displayed a “cruising mentality” as she eyed potential love interests. Joe gave her a run for her reputation. Retirement hadn’t cured his wayward eye as Barbara had hoped it would, and he garnered a social profile as an arrogant, irredeemable flirt. At one of Joe’s luñadas, my grandmother recalled, a woman fell off her horse and broke her arm, after which he showed up at her door with flowers and profuse apologies. The woman found the gesture kind, but when he kept coming back day after day, she told him to stop or she’d have to call the police.

Joe and McCready eventually—some might say inevitably—collided in a scenario so bawdy that it seemed yanked from the pages of Shakespeare. In late 1986, after deciding he was attracted to McCready, Joe asked her to have an affair. If she had sex with him, he claimed, she’d never want to sleep with a woman again. Amused and not entirely opposed to the idea, McCready made a counterproposal: First she’d whisk Barbara away on a trip. If she couldn’t seduce Joe’s wife, then she’d sleep with him.

Joe agreed to the wager, and the women went on the trip. What exactly transpired, no one who’s still alive knows. But McCready won the bet—and more. After the women returned to Ajijic, Barbara had news for Joe: She was leaving him, for good this time, to be with McCready.

Joe and McCready eventually—some might say inevitably—collided in a scenario so bawdy that it seemed yanked from the pages of Shakespeare. 

At first the Kovaches didn’t tell their family about the separation. Letters they wrote in late 1986 make no mention of McCready. One such missive was the couple’s Christmas letter:

This month marked our sixth anniversary in Mexico. How time does fly. We have been living in our present home in Ajijic over two years and plan to stay here indefinitely. The place suits us to a T and there is just enough work and gardening to do to make it interesting and not tedious…. Perhaps in the near future you will head down our way. It is still the best bargain vacation spot.… Just give us a little notice to make sure the casita is available. Again, a merry Christmas and a happy new year. As ever, Barbara and Joe Kovach.

Privately, however, losing Barbara drove Joe nuts. He was feeling particularly vulnerable because he’d just learned that he had prostate cancer and would need surgery to remove the tumor. He’d started taking medication to relieve his pain and counter erectile dysfunction—an insult to his bruised sexual ego. In desperation, Joe faked a suicide attempt to get Barbara’s attention. He called her at McCready’s house and begged her hysterically to come home, claiming that he’d taken a bunch of pills. The ploy didn’t work.

Joe, Barbara, and McCready kept their strife under wraps. The wider expat community was unaware of the disintegration of the Kovaches’ marriage and McCready’s role in it. Not even the troupe at the Lakeside Little Theatre knew. Only very close friends were told what was happening. In retrospect, this may have been because Barbara and McCready hoped to slip out of Ajijic without much of anyone knowing.

In early January 1987, they told Joe that they were moving to California to start a life together. McCready would sell property in Los Angeles that she’d inherited from Hildegard and use the money to buy a house in Palm Springs. The women elected not to cut off contact with Joe, operating on the shaky understanding that they could all stay friends. In an undated letter to the two women, which I obtained from the Kovach family, Joe kept a cordial tone as he addressed their pending departure:

It is evident that you will have to stay at Donna’s house for some time to take care of some practical matters which concern all of us, mostly Barb and I. Following are a list of these matters, though I doubt if they are all inclusive.

Notifying our kids and your parents and other relatives. I will offer no objection on how or what you tell them but for the sake of consistency I should get a copy of these letters. Perhaps the same should hold true for mutual friends in the states. You will also be giving explanations to your co-workers and our mutual friends in this area.

I still think it is very important that you and Donna make some arrangement for your benefit if things do not work out for you. You know you can always come back to me but feeling the way you do about me I do not think you would. Rest assured however, that if you want to come back and I am living with someone else at the time, that person will know that you have first priority because it is you that I love.

In any case, I believe we should all get together at our house after work tomorrow, sober and calm, and discuss all this. You will want to pack your bags in any case.

The women agreed to meet with Joe but flipped the invitation, asking him to McCready’s house for dinner on the evening of January 9. Two days later, they planned to drive away for good.


The gathering began smoothly enough. Joe arrived at McCready’s house at 7 p.m. He and Barbara poured aperitifs as McCready readied the meal. The trio made it through at least a couple of drinks and accompanying niceties before the conversation went south.

Joe had come prepared with a Hail Mary appeal, as he had when he’d dissuaded Barbara from leaving him on the way to the airport many years prior. Couldn’t the women delay their departure, at least until he had his prostate surgery in Guadalajara? McCready said no. But how could they just abandon him like this? They’d be kicking a man who was already down. McCready again flatly refused. She and Barbara were leaving, she told Joe, on January 11.

That’s when Joe lost it. He yanked out a hunting knife that he kept tucked inside one of his boots, common knowledge to anyone who’d seen him use it during the luñadas. According to what Barbara later told friends, he lunged toward McCready, who yelped and dived underneath her dining room table.

Barbara threw herself in front of Joe. She could feel McCready’s arms wrap around her legs as she faced down her husband.

“Go ahead and kill me!” she screamed.

“I would never kill you, Barbara!” Joe yelled back.

Barbara kept her gaze locked on her husband and his hunting knife. Then the thought occurred to her, Why isn’t Donna helping me?

She felt her lover’s grip weakening on her legs and heard a gurgling sound. She looked down and saw that McCready’s neck had been sliced open. Joe had managed to do it when he’d first come at her with the knife. McCready was bleeding out on the Turkish rug beneath the table.

She gasped for air a few times through her punctured trachea, then stopped. She was gone.

“You see what you’ve done?” Barbara cried.

“Yes, I’ve killed her!” Joe responded. “And they’re going to hang me for it.”

Joe didn’t chase Barbara as she burst out of McCready’s house and ran a block to the home of her friend Kathy Curtis. “Joe just killed Donna,” she blurted out when Curtis opened the door. Curtis brought Barbara inside and called the police. When they arrived, they took Barbara to the station to be interviewed. Then officers walked with Curtis over to McCready’s house, where a crime-scene investigation was already under way.

By the next morning, the news had spread. As expats ran into each other in Ajijic’s main plaza and tight lanes, there were hushed conversations, and some not so hushed ones. The rumor mill went into overdrive. One version of the story involved Joe beheading McCready. A neighbor claimed to have heard Joe sharpening a knife before he left for the dinner. Could the murder have been premeditated? When my grandmother heard the news, she was shocked by the barbarity of the crime.

Barbara didn’t want to talk to anyone. After leaving the police station, she holed up in McCready’s house, which hadn’t been scrubbed of her lover’s blood. Joe was nowhere to be found. Clothes, cash, and his yellow Volkswagen bug were gone from his house. He’d fled in the middle of the night.

The buzz continued at a long-planned bake sale to benefit the Lakeside Little Theatre. Every gringo in town seemed to be there. Cookies, bread, and pastries exchanged hands as people shared information and opinions about the murder. There was shock, along with speculation that Barbara might have helped Joe escape. They were still married, after all, and he was the father of her children.

The gossip also contained a heavy dose of she had it coming, which calcified as the days and weeks passed. Xill Fessenden, an artist who moved to Ajijic in 1985, remembered people talking about how McCready had stolen three wives and probably killed two old men. “So many people came to the defense of Joe,” she told me. “People kept saying that Donna deserved it.”

“I mean, she may not have been the nicest person in the world,” Fessenden added, “but who deserves to be murdered?”

Act IV

Interest in that question evaporated quickly. After McCready’s death, there were new scandals for expats to fixate on, like the revelation that a couple of their own were CIA operatives associated with the Iran-Contra affair. “The thing that people always said about the stories that came out of Ajijic was that, once all those stories were collected, no one would believe them,” Ron Wallen, a former resident, told me. “Because that’s what Ajijic was: one unbelievable story after another.”  

No one heard from Joe again. Barbara organized McCready’s cremation and remembrance, to which none of the deceased’s family came. Then she found herself marooned. Joe had taken the checkbooks, the Social Security payments they received were in his name, and she didn’t qualify for any of her lover’s estate. A stipulation in McCready’s will assigned her assets to her most recent “live-in” spouse, and when lawyers asked Barbara for mail sent in her name to McCready’s address, she couldn’t provide any.

Some townsfolk who felt sorry for her offered distinctly Ajijician gestures. One artist invited Barbara over to unveil a large painting that depicted the murder. In the work, Joe loomed over McCready’s crumpled body, clutching a bloody knife in one hand. The artist thought that seeing it might be cathartic for Barbara. Instead, she started crying and asked to leave.

By 1989, Barbara had saved up enough money selling textiles and working as a caterer to move away. She headed to Barbados, where she worked at a bed and breakfast, then to Maine to care for her elderly parents. She remained in contact with a few people in Ajijic but never set foot there again.

“That’s what Ajijic was: one unbelievable story after another.”  

Over the years, the absence of key players in the crime, combined with many locals’ aging memories, distaste for McCready, and fervor for juicy lore, allowed falsehoods to become accepted fact. Joe cutting off McCready’s head, for example, hardened into the plot. Paradoxically, the effect of countless retellings was reductive. Characters were essentialized—the wily predator, the long-suffering wife, the jealous husband—to support the tale’s operatic scaffolding. The internet and the ability to scout for information about the event and the people involved didn’t become part of the cultural mainstream until well after 1987, making it easier for the story to remain cocooned.

Separating myth from truth meant diving into a murky quagmire of loose ends that most Ajijic residents had never been concerned with. Why did Barbara enter into a romance with a woman who’d used her as a sexual bargaining chip? How did Joe evade justice? Did the Kovaches ever meet again? And, above all, did anyone know the truth about Donna McCready?


First I traced the Kovaches’ trajectories to find out where they’d wound up. In December 2016, I tracked down their daughters, all of whom live near Phoenix. At Karen’s house, we sat in a ring around the dining room table. The women all possessed the same almond-shaped eyes and easygoing smile, which looked a lot like Barbara’s, based on pictures of her that I’d seen. I explained how I’d first heard about Joe’s crime and produced a copy of Jan Dunlap’s screenplay, which they didn’t know existed. They eagerly paged through it. Kim read some of the dialogue aloud:

BARBARA

I’ll go home and talk to JOE. It may take a while, so don’t get all bent out of shape if I don’t come back until tomorrow.

“Oh, Mom would never say that!” Kim declared with a laugh. Her sisters agreed.

Collectively, the women then shared what they knew about the events that transpired after McCready’s murder. Some of it their parents had told them; other details were divulged in family letters.

After leaving McCready’s body on the dining room floor, Joe decided that he had to get across the U.S. border as quickly as possible. His yellow Volkswagen was a fugitive’s nightmare, but he got behind the wheel anyway and headed for the safest place he could think of: his sister Ann Garey’s house in Berkeley, California, some 1,800 miles north. During a pit stop in Puerto Vallarta, he called Garey. He refused to explain what had happened but said that he would be at her door in a few days. He continued driving north, then ditched his conspicuous coupe before leaving Mexico. He worried that border security might have been told to look out for it. Joe walked into America.

Whether he took a bus or hitchhiked north, no one can remember. By the time he arrived at Garey’s home, he was a wreck: paranoid, haggard, and lacking a plan for what to do next. He told his sister, who’s now deceased, that he’d killed a woman in Ajijic. She was horrified, but Joe swore that he’d acted in a moment of madness. McCready drove him to do it, he said, by mocking him.

In a letter to the Kovach daughters dated February 6, 1987, Garey wrote that Joe was heading to a local hospital for his prostate surgery:

Emotionally, of course, he is still in sad condition, but physically he at least looks much, much better than when he arrived. We all know that this is not the kind of thing Joe would do if he were rational—no matter what she [McCready] said. Something inside him must have snapped and who can say what it was. It’s such a terrible thing to have happened—to everyone concerned. Unfortunately there is no way to undo it—so it seems we all have to go on doing what we are doing—each in their own way—and that is coping and trying to make the situation as bearable as possible.

By then, Kim and Kandi had traveled to Ajijic to be with their mother. They were stunned by everything they learned. They’d known very little about McCready before her murder, and they had no idea Barbara was interested in women. They were told about the bet that had initiated the affair; Barbara had been angry about it, but not enough to ignore her attraction to McCready. As for Joe, he was a philanderer and a cruel father, but he’d never been physically abusive. That he could murder someone seemed unthinkable to his daughters. By his own confession, though, he’d done it.

In Berkeley, Garey found Joe a therapist and a lawyer. Harold Rosenthal was the attorney; he’s retired now. When I spoke with him, he said that he received at least half a dozen calls from the FBI regarding Joe in the winter of 1987. There was no formal charge against his client, but the agency wanted him to “answer some questions.” Rosenthal advised Joe, whom he found to be a “very, very nice man,” not to agree to it. Meanwhile, Rosenthal focused on readying a defense, operating on the assumption that the FBI would eventually obtain a warrant and arrest Joe.

That never happened. Months passed, and the FBI stopped calling. Rosenthal finally decided that there must not have been enough political will or interest to mount a transnational legal case. (Though the U.S. consulate in Guadalajara reportedly cooperated with local authorities immediately after McCready’s death, no one I talked to at the State Department, including representatives of its historical archives, could find any documentation to that effect.) Joe could live his life having gotten away with murder.

Joe’s therapist was named Richard Delman. He’s still in practice near San Rafael, just north of San Francisco. Delman described Joe as “regretful and remorseful about the death of Donna.” He also said that Joe “desperately wanted to be rescued” from the situation he’d dug himself into but refused to pay for intensive psychotherapy. Joe was shocked by the cost of treatment and talked about how everything was cheaper in Mexico, where he’d grown accustomed to the peso. The best Delman could do was recommend that Joe establish regular routines for himself rather than worry about whether he’d find himself in handcuffs on any given day. “He suggests I try to get back into the same kinds of things I’ve been doing: bridge, theater, etc.,” Joe wrote to Kim on February 23, 1987. “This is exactly what I would like to do after getting settled down and getting a job.”

More than anything, Joe wanted Barbara. “That is still the most difficult part for me, not hearing from Barb,” he wrote to Kim. “I’m 67 and feeling old for the first time. I just hope there is enough time left for her to forgive me before it is too late. Thirty-four years and four children is a lot to throw away because of one moment of insanity.”

According to their daughters, Barbara and Joe never saw each other again. When they signed divorce papers in 1989, they did so separately. It was Barbara’s decision. She ignored Joe’s pleas for forgiveness, which he expressed in letters as he moved from California to Arizona, then to Illinois, and finally to Budapest, his birthplace. In a missive dated December 1, Joe wrote:

Dear Barb,

Another year older. Two years ago, I did not think I’d last this long. Even a year ago I had doubts. Strangely enough, I feel quite well, mentally and physically. Have not had a depressed period for over a month or more. Have put on a few pounds. Nightmares are much less frequent and I often sleep through the night. My guilt feelings have not abated, and I suppose they never will, but I am learning to live with them. Why this discourse? Well, Hon, I still entertain the thought that you still retain enough feeling for me to be glad to know that I’m feeling and doing better. Perhaps you do not care at all, which is probably closer to the truth. I find it so very difficult to cling to the hope that you are concerned. I love you so very much.

She didn’t respond, and Joe eventually gave up writing to her. But he frequently asked his daughters how Barbara was doing, including when they hosted him in their homes. He wore out his welcome in every instance, proving the same overbearing presence he’d been in the women’s childhood. “He’d blame my kids for everything,” Kandi told me. Karen wondered where a man who’d murdered someone and destroyed his marriage found the audacity to return letters she wrote to him with grammatical corrections appended.

Kandi and Karen severed contact with their father in the final years of his life, as he lived off $900 a month in Social Security checks and whatever he made occasionally writing for Hungarian newspapers. Only Kim stayed in touch with him until he died in November 2011. She was the one who broke the news to her family, including Barbara. Her mother hardly reacted. “She was emotionally and physically divorced from him,” Kim recalled.

Joe’s body was donated to science. No funeral was held.

By then, Barbara was living in Phoenix to be close to her daughters and grandchildren. She avoided talking about what had happened in Ajijic. Kandi brought up McCready with Barbara just one time.

“Mom, do you think you’re a lesbian?” she asked tentatively. “Do you want help finding a partner?”

“I think I was just lonely,” Barbara responded, then changed the subject. She never spoke of McCready again before dying of pancreatic cancer in December 2013.

For three decades, the woman their mother loved and father killed had been a lingering mystery to the Kovach sisters. They listened with rapt interest as I described my grandmother’s proclamation that McCready was evil. They’d never heard the rumors about her murdering Steve Harrington and Albert Taylor. In fact, they’d talked to very few Ajijic residents who knew McCready or their parents.

It wasn’t entirely a surprise, then, when Kim offered to join me in Ajijic as I looked for evidence of McCready’s life. She wanted to find it, too, and share it with her sisters. We agreed to meet in Mexico in August 2017.


Ajijic no longer feels like a secret. Cheap flights arrive regularly in Guadalajara, and snowbirds—people who travel south to escape the winter in second homes along the lake—are more common than ever. The breathtaking natural views that lured my grandmother and many others have been irreparably altered. Development has been swift and aggressive. There are power lines, radio towers, and rambling McMansions in the foothills above the water. Along the lakeshore are crowded bars, convenience stores, and a Domino’s Pizza. In 2008, Walmart set up shop on the highway leading to Guadalajara.

Juxtapositions define Ajijic. On my first day there, I went on a stroll and passed a parade of horses and a brass band—a funeral procession. Then I turned a corner and saw a Google Street View car, bumping along the cobblestones with its roof-mounted camera.

Longtime expats bemoan this state of affairs. A friend of my grandmother’s blamed NAFTA. “We began to get satellite TVs, telephones, imported items, and all sorts of creature comforts that you wouldn’t have here before,” she told me. “Plus, there were no gated communities. Now people can close the gate, and they’re in Mexico but they’re not really here.”

“There were no gated communities. Now people can close the gate, and they’re in Mexico but they’re not really here.”

Like many foreigners in the community, she was quick to gloss over expats’ complicity in the disparities between the lives of foreigners and natives. It’s true, however, that the days when residents ran into each other on a daily basis in a handful of haunts have all but vanished. Big Mama’s is gone; Jan Dunlap, the onetime proprietor, now lives in California. The Posada moved in the 1990s, and the new version just isn’t the same.

When I pressed locals for their memories of McCready, I found their recollections similarly diminished, save those pertaining to her love affairs and death. People who talked with authority about her as a local legend knew remarkably little about her life, particularly before she came to Ajijic. It was as if she had only ever existed in a paradisiacal version of the town and become fossilized as a social upstart with an untamable libido.

Even residents who kept notes about life in Ajijic had little to share. When I met Judy Eager for coffee at the new Posada, which she now runs with her son, she produced a large bound diary. The only entry Eager could find about McCready from the years leading up to her death described her arrival with Lois Schaefer in 1976. It said that the women had lived together “for eight years” in California before relocating.

Schaefer died in 1988, but her son, Ed, lives in the Bay Area. We spoke on the phone, and he remembered McCready, whom his mother met in 1965 or 1966, shortly after she split with Ed’s dad in an acrimonious divorce. Ed spent summers with the two women at their home in Sausalito, and he said McCready, whose background was a mystery to him, “wanted nothing to do” with a kid. She and Schaefer drank heavily, hosted large parties, and sometimes got into scary arguments. Once, they came home “drunker than skunks,” and when McCready noticed that Ed hadn’t done the dishes, she threatened him with a butcher knife. Ed stayed outside wearing only his underwear until his mother had calmed McCready down enough that it was safe for him to go back into the house. Another time, he came home and noticed three fresh bullet holes in the side of the house.

“To me it was no big deal,” Ed said. “It was like water off a duck’s back, because it was always crazy,” meaning life with his mom. Before we hung up, Ed confirmed the story about Schaefer being shot through the breast by a lover in Ajijic.

One afternoon, I paid a Mexican driver named Chevy, who patiently ferries elderly expat women around town, to take me to McCready’s house. We talked in Spanish, and I told him I was working on a story about un asesinato (a murder). This didn’t faze him. Today there are a number of sensational murders associated with Ajijic. In 2000, an American couple, Norris and Nancy Price, were shot to death in their home. Police suspect that it was a contract killing, ordered over a land dispute. In 2005, authorities arrested Perry March, who was living with his young children and father in Ajijic, for murdering his wife in Tennessee a decade prior. He was convicted the next year. In 2012, hit men from a drug cartel killed, decapitated, and disposed of 18 Mexicans just outside town.

McCready’s home on Avenida las Robles was painted bright blue and orange and surrounded by a wrought-iron fence. The pool where her pet duck once swam was still in the front yard. When we pulled up, Chevy instantly knew whose murder I was interested in. “Oh!” he exclaimed. “Señora Donna!”

It turned out that when he was a teenager, McCready had hired him to wash her car every weekend and deliver copies of the local newspaper to her doorstep. Chevy said she was always very nice to him.

My conversation with Chevy led me to Carlos Hernandez Del Toro, a local attorney who also knew McCready. He was wary of talking to a reporter but said that McCready came into his life when she and Pat Harrington organized a drive to collect supplies for his high school. McCready took a liking to Del Toro and eventually supported him through law school in Guadalajara. He went on to represent her interests and said she was like a godmother to him. As with Chevy’s recollections, the generosity Del Toro described was absent from most expats’ depictions of McCready. But anything he knew about her personal life Del Toro wasn’t willing to discuss. As soon as I mentioned Hildegard Taylor and the property she’d left to McCready, he blurted out, “I have no interest to talk to strange people I do not know!”

I then turned to public records in search of McCready. The only news item I could locate was the dramatic 1987 article about her murder in a Mexican newspaper, accompanied by her obituary. It said that McCready was 45 when she died, that she kept “manikins in her home she used for target practice,” and that she was originally from North Carolina, where she attended “the state university.” I called the registrars at both of North Carolina’s main higher-education systems and found no record of her attendance. Through searches of government databases, I found a Donna L. McCready, which seemed promising, given that the newspaper article about her death had said that McCready’s middle name was Leason. But the birth year (1936) and location (Los Angeles) of the person I’d found conflicted with McCready’s obituary. I emailed a surviving brother of Donna L. McCready and one of his sons, who replied, “Donna never lived in Mexico, hope that helps you.”

I couldn’t help but wonder if McCready had used her real name when she was in Ajijic and before, in Sausalito. Maybe she was someone else entirely. Given her affinity for stirring up intrigue, it didn’t seem out of the question.


The most revealing insights about McCready came from a small cluster of people who considered themselves her friends. They don’t run in the same Ajijic circles as my grandmother, and their take on what happened 30 years ago is different from prevailing opinion.

Helen DesJardins and Joan Gamma have lived in Ajijic on and off since 1983. When I met them at their home, a short walk from Lake Chapala, they told me that the rumors about McCready murdering the husbands of her lovers were ludicrous. “Donna wasn’t like a lot of people thought she was. She was very loyal,” Gamma told me. She would know: Gamma was with McCready at the hospital in Houston when Hildegard Taylor succumbed to throat cancer. Gamma described her friend as devastated by the loss.

She also dismissed the idea that McCready tried to seduce women for financial gain. “If she was all out for money, then why did she end up with Barbara?” Gamma asked. “Barbara had no money.” She and DesJardins hadn’t known about the bet with Joe Kovach when it happened, but they were certain that no matter how it was formed, the bond between McCready and Barbara was genuine.

“Donna was a somewhat tragic figure,” Gamma continued. “She had a rough childhood. She had a terrible stepfather, and her mother was dead.” I asked for more details, but that was all she knew.

It wasn’t the only reference I heard to McCready having a traumatic history. Jan Dunlap said that McCready once described an uncle sexually assaulting her when she was just eight or nine. But Dunlap’s knowledge ran no deeper than Gamma’s. McCready, it seemed, hadn’t liked to talk much about her early life, and no one pushed her to reveal more than she wanted to. In Ajijic, after all, a person’s past was whatever they said it was.

Gamma suggested a connection between McCready’s younger years and her liaisons with married couples. “What she wanted was a family, so she would come into a family of people—husband and wife—and she would love them both,” Gamma explained. “She wanted to be accepted by them.” If true, it would mean that Steve Harrington and Albert Taylor dying in succession, with McCready in their employ and sleeping with their wives, was mere coincidence. In which case people’s assumptions about McCready’s ulterior motives might have derived from astonishment that Pat and Hildegard would take a female lover.

“What she wanted was a family, so she would come into a family of people—husband and wife—and she would love them both.”

Toward the end of my trip, Kim Kovach arrived in town. Together we met with Estela Hidalgo, an artist and sculptor who was a friend of Barbara’s. The encounter started out awkwardly, as Hidalgo didn’t mince words about Joe. “I’m sorry,” she said to Kim, “but I didn’t like your father from the first moment I met him.” Hidalgo described Joe as “rude” and said she knew people who wouldn’t invite him to parties because his womanizing made guests uncomfortable. “I know,” Kim replied.

Then Hidalgo pivoted to talking about Barbara and how deeply affecting the events of January 9, 1987 must have been for her. “She loved Joe and Donna, so she lost two people in one second,” Hidalgo said. As for McCready, Hidalgo said, she “looked for trouble. There were dinners when she tried to seduce two or three women in a single evening.” When she fell for Barbara, though, she changed.

“When she was with Barbara,” Hidalgo said, “it was only Barbara.”


What I came to realize was that when McCready was alive, prejudice ran deeper in Ajijic than its carefree expats were willing to admit. It carved lines around crowds and cliques on the basis of class and identity. These borders were largely invisible to the people they divided; everyone mingled at the same parties and bars and dinners, because that was life on the shores of Lake Chapala. Still, social and cultural rifts defined the local appetite for gossip—in particular, what sorts of behavior were considered beyond the pale and who was cast in the recurring role of the town villain. When I regaled my grandmother with Gamma’s and Hidalgo’s theories about McCready, she balked. “I don’t buy it,” she said. Never mind that, as she eventually admitted, Hildegard once wrote her a letter rejecting outright that McCready had killed Albert. (My grandmother said she later lost the letter.)

When Ajijic’s old-timers pass away, the legend of Donna McCready will slip quietly into oblivion. It’s vexing not to have an answer to every question about the enigmatic woman. Yet it also feels fitting for someone who enjoyed inspiring a mix of ire, suspicion, and yearning. Even in death, McCready wreaked havoc.

The morning before we left town, Kim Kovach met with Gamma and DesJardins to pour a vial of Barbara’s ashes, which she’d brought from Phoenix, into the lake. They did it at the end of a pier next to Ajijic’s esplanade. “It was lovely,” Kim later told me. Gamma and DesJardins mentioned to Kim that, over the years, they’d scattered several friends’ ashes on the lake. “You should write a book about all of them,” Kim told the women, “and you should call it Our Friends in the Lake.

Among those friends was McCready. Her memorial wasn’t lovely, I learned, but it was perfect.

On a January day in 1987, Barbara and a few friends gathered on the same pier where Kim later stood. After a wine toast, the executor of McCready’s will, a retired lawyer from California, inverted a plastic bag containing her ashes in order to dump them in the water. Just then there was a gust of wind. The executor lost his grip on the bag, dropping it into the lake, and a portion of the ashes blew over the small crowd.

“She was all over everybody,” one of the attendees told me. “Donna got the last word and the last laugh.”


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