Poems of Conflict

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

Somewhere,

The women from the mountains

Were taken to Raqqa, delivered

In ice cream trucks to prisons.

People on the street looked away

From them.

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

1.

The mosque microphone

Once used for prayers

Announces found children

With lost parents.

 

2.

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

Any money,”

It is written in the handwriting of

A child, for other children.

 

3.

Fatima prays five times a day,

As she always has,

But now each time is for a person

Killed.

 

4.

Children who had just learned

To walk, are told to crawl

So the soldiers will not see them

Behind the tall grass.

 

5.

When she is full,

Jasminara remembers

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

A child

Come all the way here

Alone, across continents

I say

They burnt my family

And in the flames there was a map

I say

They cut my sister to pieces with a machete

And each slash was a compass arrow

I say

They destroyed my home

And the ghost of that wood became my boat

I say

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

Say yes)

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

Than Ameena,

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

First.

 

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

Again.

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.

 

 

San Antonio

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.

 

Listen

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

Tonight,

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.

 

 

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