by Anushka Joshi
Khulka, Who Had Been to School
Inspired by the story of one of the Yazidi women kidnapped by ISIS.
After all the men, and elderly
And children had been taken away
The women from the mountains
Were taken to Raqqa, delivered
In ice cream trucks to prisons.
People on the street looked away
They scratched and bloodied themselves
In the dark of the crowded cells
So no one would buy them.
And Khulka, who had been to school
And knew how to read and write,
Used a needle
She had smuggled into jail
To tattoo the names of her husband
And father on her arm, so that
Her body would be recognized
If she was killed.
She used ash to do this,
And milk from another
Woman’s breast, which,
They all knew by this time,
Would not be needed anymore.
Elena Says No
Elena had been told by friends
And family to say
“No” to whatever the immigration
Officer asked her.
If she said yes, it would mean
A return to Reynosa
And the man waiting to kill her.
As they sat in the small room
A blue table between them
The officer asked Elena,
“Do you have anything to declare?”
Elena said no.
The officer asked Elena
“Are you carrying any items
Containing dairy products?”
Elena said no.
The officer asked her,
“Have you ever been charged
With a felony or misdemeanor?”
Elena said no.
Finally, he asked her:
“Would you be harmed if you returned
To your home country?”
Elena hesitates, feeling along
The words of a new language,
Like a blind woman reading
Braille for the first time,
Unsure. Then, as she has been told to,
Elena says no.
The Rohingya Refugee Camp’s Lost and Found
The mosque microphone
Once used for prayers
Announces found children
With lost parents.
They do not speak Bengali
And so the sign has many mistakes:
“If you lost your familys any members
Than you can publicity here without
It is written in the handwriting of
A child, for other children.
Fatima prays five times a day,
As she always has,
But now each time is for a person
Children who had just learned
To walk, are told to crawl
So the soldiers will not see them
Behind the tall grass.
When she is full,
How she lost her sister
In desperation, running
Towards the trucks that were delivering biscuits.
How I Came Here from Myanmar
They say how did you
Come all the way here
Alone, across continents
They burnt my family
And in the flames there was a map
They cut my sister to pieces with a machete
And each slash was a compass arrow
They destroyed my home
And the ghost of that wood became my boat
When you see neighbors losing limbs
Your limbs run of their own accord
I say you cannot get lost
Once you have lost everything
Swaad, Who Lives in Damascus
Inspired by a case in Ann Jones’ book War Is Not Over When It’s Over.
Swaad, who lives in Damascus,
Says that her daughter Rita
Is almost four, and has never
In her life spoken, except once
When they went to the UNHCR
Center, to register themselves as refugees.
Perhaps the girl felt the need to speak,
To prove the reasons behind her silence,
So many silences
Compete in that line
To be registered.
All of a sudden, she said:
“My father is dead. They
Shot him in the stomach and face,”
The man behind the counter
Went pale, but Swaad,
Numb to the words,
New to the voice,
Was crying with joy.
Hospitals in The Congo
There are hospitals in the Congo
Where the doctors know which group
Committed a rape based
On the wounds, like autographs, one says,
Left on the body-
Some prefer knives, some fire, some bullets.
The hospitals are so full that
The women do not have beds of their own,
And are forced, once again,
To share their bed.
And those who are embarrassed by their stories
Ask that their files be buried.
These files detail what happened, whether it
Was being stopped on the way home from school,
Or having their mouth cut off with a machete (for refusing to
Or having been gang-raped on the orders
Of their husband’s first wife (who was
Abandoned in the first place because she was raped).
Some have no chance of burying what happened,
Like the eleven-year- old girl who is photographed
Looking away from the camera, holding twins.
She knows she will be “made fun of” by her neighbors,
She no longer expects her friends to play with her.
But those who do ask, the ones with wounds
Too far inside them to be visible,
Have their files placed in a green bucket
By aid workers.
It is lowered into the contested soil,
Like a bucket being lowered into a well
And never brought up again to quench
A thirst which will never be quenched.
One can only ask,
As each rape takes root,
What flowers will grow
From these seeds of war?
Ameena on the Fourth Floor in Ghouta, Syria
“Sarine is a colorless,
Odorless, tasteless liquid
Which evaporates through the air,
It inhibits the acetylcholinesterase enzyme,
Causing the heart and other muscles to spasm,
Death by asphyxiation happens within minutes.”
Ameena only understood what it was when
She saw that the daughter who
Had always asked to borrow her lipstick
Had lips that were turning a clear blue.
And the infant with reddened eyes
Had not been crying at all,
As she thought he had.
And that the dog was not foaming because
Of rabies, because her son was foaming too.
When she heard the explosion,
Ameena had looked around, and seen nothing,
Felt nothing, and thought-
“I have heard the bombs so much
I am imagining them now.”
And just before she died a colorless, tasteless
Death, she saw the grandmother,
Perched in her chair, not yet awake,
The one who, ever since the war began, had prayed
To die in her sleep.
The family next door had heard the bomb
And rushed to the basement
Thinking it was a bomb like any other.
(They always were faster
Even to the ration lines)
They had died a few seconds before Ameena
On the fourth floor did:
“Heavier-than-air sarine” sinks to the bottom
An Old Man Remembers the Partition
An old man remembers when he was a boy.
When electricity came to the village,
The mothers and fathers would tell them
To stay away from the wires.
When freedom came to the country,
They heard it on the radio, it arrived
Through the electricity wires; freedom
Has a crackling sound, it breaks, resumes, then breaks
He remembers when those of the other religion
Were said to be approaching the village.
Some women threw themselves in the wells,
Some burnt themselves or buried themselves alive
With the aid of those they loved.
(The religion that burns the dead and the religion
That buries the dead, both did this to their living women
To protect them from the other).
His mother and his sister stood by the electrical
Wire, their hands closing in on it,
Their last touch; these two who had danced at weddings,
Danced in agony at the moment of their death.
Those of the other religion never arrived.
Sometime after that, there was rain,
The electricity went away;
Prayers for the women
Were said in candlelight.
I don’t remember when I stopped
Visiting my relatives in San Antonio.
They were the kind of immigrants
About whom our family said,
“They should have stayed back.”
The mother prayed. The father
Went to work at Taco Bell
Wearing a Mexican vest every morning,
An absurd cowboy hat, boots,
And the hope of being accepted.
He never had garlic for breakfast.
I wanted to tell him that his co-workers would
Still never speak to him, but I was as ashamed
Of the truth as he was of garlic.
His daughter led me by my nine-year-old hand
To the Subway where she worked,
Gave me her free Sub of the day,
And watched me eat with the eyes of one
Who knows this is the only she might ever be able to give.
Five years later she would drive at three o’clock
In the morning from Dallas back to San Antonio
To escape a bad marriage.
The son was the only one who fit in. One night,
Someone had stepped into the gas station where he worked,
Put a cold gun to his head, and asked him to empty the till.
Over the years I would retain pity and lose memory of them,
As one does of unhappy relatives and the poor.
But I would remember how he told this story,
Someone in whose life the only novelty was a brush with death,
Someone in whose life the most exciting thing
Had been being robbed.
I would remember the American phrase-
Which mistook permanence for happiness:
“Are you staying for good?”
And think that for my relatives in San Antonio
And for their children, who took up their friends’ jobs
In fast-food restaurants when the friends went to college,
“Staying forever” and “staying for good” would always
Mean two different things.
To those who tiled the earth of this country
With a mosaic of blood and brains
To those who swept it aside,
Planted fields and proclaimed this prosperity,
To these all we can say is:
To forget a crime against humanity
Is one in itself.
Do not ignore the aches of these acres,
Do not close your windows
Against the wounds of the dead
Which whisper like crickets
Their skins are your curtains,
Do not close them to the truth.
Remember that this happened
Not long ago,
And the fly which buzzes in your ear
Might have lingered on a corpse,
It bothers you, I know,
But listen to what it says.