Bronx Rapper Cardi B Became a Pop Sensation; Will She Make it Last ?

On the strength of her quirky, vivacious personality, a fantastic head bop of a beat, and fun, post-feminist, sex-positive lyrics, Bronx born hip hop artist Cardi B took her single “Bodak Yellow” all the way to the top of the Billboard Hot 100. She unseated Taylor Swift for the number one spot, and became the first female rapper to sit atop the chart with a solo record since 1998’s “Doo-Wop (That Thing)” by Lauryn Hill. 

Allison P. Davis profiles Cardi B for New York Magazine, capturing the artist between appearances, feeling anxious about recording her full length album. Davis has a way of seeing the Cardi B moment for what it is, and for understanding what the rapper means to her audience, beyond the flash of celebrity:

Cardi B is, considered one way, only the latest bombastic, came-up-on-a–New York–block female rapper to fascinate the world with her sharp lyrics, sharp six-inch acrylics, and grab-you-by-the-balls sexuality. Before her were Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, Remy Ma, Nicki Minaj, forgotten groups like HWA (Hoez With Attitude). All share an insistence on demanding, over hard-rap tracks, what their male counterparts demand — money, power, respect, quality oral sex — from the female point of view, in the face of criticisms of everything from their overt sexuality and their weaves to their perceived lack of talent.

But if you think of Lil’ Kim and Minaj as the queens of New York rap (or the king, as Minaj often prefers to call herself), each can be understood as representing the rap Zeitgeist of a decade: Lil’ Kim brought a gangster-rap authenticity in the ’90s; Minaj’s savvy image-making, entrepreneurial ownership over herself as a brand, and impenetrable air of control were indicative of the genre’s maturity ten years on from that. And now, one decade later, we have reached, for the first time in history, hip-hop–R&B beating out rock and pop as the dominant music genre in the U.S., according to the 2017 Nielsen midyear music report, and so Cardi has a certain competitive advantage over her predecessors. She can seem almost like a caricature of a female rapper who has remixed the vibes of those women who came before her. (Cardi wouldn’t be pleased to hear this — the only conversation she dislikes more than “which female rapper she’s beefing with” is “which female rapper she’s most like.”) She’s taken the concept of “ratchet” — a southern rap term, first used as an insult akin to “ghetto,” that evolved over the years to mean “raw” — and played with it to her advantage. She’s an adroit creature of the media she’s been saturated by growing up; like all of her age mates, she is highly self-aware, referential. She understands on a cellular level what might go viral, how to craft something for social media, how to speak in sound bites, and how to reveal enough of herself, seemingly unfiltered, to be interesting. But that’s not the real charm or genius of Cardi, which is her ability to not let all of that get in the way of what and who she actually is: funny, a little neurotic, unabashed in her ambition and desire for money, and yet sincere in her attachment to how and where she grew up.

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Parenting Class Dropout

Paulette Kamenecka | Longreads | November 2017 | 13 minutes (3,271 words)

In the early months of my pregnancy, when practical concerns still floated out on a distant horizon, Matt and I talked endlessly about our first official parental duty: Selecting baby names. We understood that whatever name we chose would plant a flag in the soil of our daughter’s life, binding her to a set of associations that would follow her around for the rest of her days. Matt, Matt, the big fat rat, and Paulette Portolette would strive to choose a name that would be nearly impervious to ridicule and would guarantee our child was well liked by her friends.

We tried family names, like Royal, after Matt’s beloved grandfather and Sophie, after my grandmother. We toyed with Summer or Alabama because they seemed cool. Walking around our apartment, we repeated our favorite names, one after the other, to hear what they sounded like coming out of our mouths. Part of what I enjoyed about this game was that it allowed us to jump past the pregnancy to some point in the future when we were already a family of three.

But just after the six-month mark, things went south. We learned the baby girl I was carrying had a rare, life-threatening heart condition, and suddenly our attention jerked sharply from issues of social ease to survival.

* * *

After we learned about our baby’s condition, I worked hard to shut out all thoughts about what life would be like with a baby. When this pregnancy was over, we might not have a baby.

In our compromised state I avoided any topic that implied a future. Even after I’d had a couple of months to process the diagnosis, each new detail became a weight that got heavier with time. Because the nerve that set her heart rate had been destroyed, our doctors didn’t understand why her heart was beating at all. They expressed their uncertainty by repeatedly predicting her imminent death.

I spent a fair amount of time in my own mind, the last refuge of the truly desperate. I became superstitious, and worried that picking a name might tip the delicate balance between getting to cuddle a dew-scented newborn and facing a nearly full-term stillbirth, the image of which would be burned into my memory for all time.

One night on a slow walk home from dinner, under the canopy of bare branches that hung over our street, Matt suggested the name Grace, saying it meant undeserved mercy. To me mercy implied a sort of compassion bestowed upon someone who was struggling. The name Grace accurately described how we’d come to think of the baby’s continued endurance. Although I’d imagined that our future daughter’s name would honor a relative from one of our family lines, now it made more sense for her name to honor her own short time in the womb.

Wading into an actual name prompted me to consider other practical issues we might get to address, like the skills required to tend to a baby. I hadn’t changed a diaper since I was 9 and that attempt, as I recalled, ended with a naked baby crawling away from me. I’d never bathed a baby and knew even less about swaddling. I had a sense that Matt was equally inexperienced. I thought it might be a good idea for us to attend the parenting class offered by the hospital.

After six months we learned the baby girl I was carrying had a rare, life-threatening heart condition.

At my appointment with Dr. Gonzalez, the fetal cardiologist, I soft-shoed around the parenting class issue.

“I saw a flyer in the hospital advertising a parenting class,” I said. “Do you know anything about it? I was thinking that maybe Matt and I should attend something like that to get ready for the baby.”

“No,” she said. “Don’t go to that class. Trust me, it’s not for you.”

Shut down so decisively, I didn’t press the issue. I already felt as if I was treading in uncomfortable territory. We might not even need to know the kinds of things that new parents needed to know. Maybe being shown the ins and outs of bathing or feeding an infant would make things worse.

But as the day of the class drew near I had second thoughts. Since I hadn’t pushed the doctor for a reason, I didn’t really know why she thought the class wouldn’t suit us. I reasoned that I would surely engage in some form of preparation for any other job I would take. Why wouldn’t I prepare for attending to a baby? Dr. Gonzalez had probably overestimated our competence when it came to managing a newborn. My ability to hold back tears at our weekly appointments may have left her with an impression of an effectiveness on my part that didn’t translate neatly to other areas of my life. But almost any tips would be useful to two people with so little experience.

Looking back I can see that I’d talked myself into going to this class because I craved normalcy. Everything I’d read or seen about pregnancy described it as this benevolent transformation in which the mother discovered new aspects of herself, new powers even. In the place of any new powers, all I had was overwhelming anxiety.

I imagined that pretending to be normal for a day — attending a class that one might encounter in the course of a routine pregnancy — would allow me to feel normal. I imagined it as a break from the stress of our actual pregnancy. Our attendance would also allow me to entertain the hope that in a month or so I’d be someone who would require this kind of training. Maybe I was reading this fate thing all wrong. Maybe my job wasn’t to carefully tiptoe around our desperate desire to save this baby. Maybe I was supposed to shout it from the roof of the tallest building.

* * *

At the hospital we followed posted signs that led to the Parents-to-Be class. Matt pushed open the door to a room that was set up like a classroom. A big white board commanded the attention of chairs equipped with their own wrap around desks. It was the kind of furniture a pregnant woman had to shimmy into strategically. The robust-seeming pairs of parents-to-be that had already arrived sat next to each other whispering under the hum of fluorescent lights.

Aside from us, there were nine other couples and a very pregnant girl, who couldn’t have been older than 17, on her own. Each participant, save the teenager, looked to be about our age. They were invariably nicely dressed. Most of the men wore some version of khakis and a collared shirt. Most of the women wore sweater sets with ballet slippers and projected that telltale glow of pregnancy.

I became superstitious, and worried that picking a name might tip the delicate balance between getting to cuddle a dew-scented newborn and facing a nearly full-term stillbirth.

The class opened with a video featuring a woman in active labor, sweating and screaming through the birth of her baby. I’d seen a birth movie before and watching it a second time I was reminded that while, as a whole, birth inspired awe, in its particulars it had a sci-fi feel to it. Growing another person inside my body, whom I would later release into the world, seemed like a marginally believable plot authored by someone who wouldn’t be forced to physically experience it firsthand.

After this video, I thought, that’s probably when the useful hands-on part of the class kicks in.

But the hands-on part was not next on the menu. After the movie, we pushed aside the chairs in the room to make space for a more intimate arrangement of couples on the floor. This required the very pregnant women, myself included, to awkwardly get ourselves down on the ground next to our significant others. The group was encouraged to sit in a circle like the school children we all imagined we’d have someday. The next item on the class agenda was “sharing” time.

“This trip that you all decided to take, to start a family, is wondrous and challenging,” intoned the teacher. “It’s completely normal to have concerns about what lies ahead. And likely you will find that you and your neighbor here share a lot of the same feelings,” she added, looking around the circle of couples, tracing it out in the air with her outstretched hand. This was the starting bell for a group discussion about the concerns each couple might have about entering parenthood.

I couldn’t draw a straight line connecting my prior ideas about what this class would offer to the trajectory we seemed to be on. The suggestion that the couples in this group would share our concerns now seemed preposterous. I’d imagined this class only in terms of its informational content, as if it were some kind of job training. This path we seemed to be on was confusing to me. I held out hope, though, that the teacher still had time to whip out a doll and show us how to swaddle it, or feed it or change it.

I had an inkling of foreboding as we were all settling in on the floor. I realized that when Dr. Gonzalez discouraged me from coming to this class, it didn’t sound like she thought the class was poorly organized or lacked educational value. It was obviously something else.

I didn’t have to wait long for my sense of unease to take a more defined shape. The first speaker, a woman with long dark hair, looked shyly around the circle, and quietly voiced a worry she and her partner shared. “We are not sure if the baby will be a boy or a girl,” she said. “But, we are excited and nervous to find out.” Other members of the group shook their heads in agreement. The woman sitting next to us took her partner’s hand and gave him a knowing look.

Next a man sitting in a stiff cross-legged position, knees up high, introduced himself and admitted, “We know that we’re having a girl. But I’m from a family of boys, and I wonder if I’ll know how to be a father to a girl.” This concern was received by the group with vocal affirmation and head nodding from some of the men in the circle.

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Although these were completely legitimate concerns, I could feel a sob working its way up my chest. This was what normal people worried about? I’d been estranged from any sense of normalcy for long enough that I couldn’t remember what it felt like to think about the more abstract issues of parenting. The thoughts and feelings that come with a conventional pregnancy had vanished instantly when we got the diagnosis — like waking from a vivid dream and immediately losing its thread. I leaned into Matt and through clenched teeth whispered, “Maybe we should go.” He squeezed my hand tightly and cocked his head to listen to the next speaker.

As we continued working our way around the circle one member from each couple brought up an issue they had carried with them to this class.

“We’re having a boy. Can we paint his nursery yellow, or is that still a girl’s color?”

“We don’t want to hurt any of the grandparents’ feelings. Should we name our baby after my father, or after my husband’s father?”

The emotional distance that separated us from these future parents grew with each contribution.

But our turn was coming.

I’d never bathed a baby and knew even less about swaddling. I had a sense that Matt was equally inexperienced. I thought it might be a good idea for us to attend the parenting class offered by the hospital.

The pregnant teen was two couples away from us and she was speaking. She had long chestnut hair, and unlike the rest of the group, was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, all of which made her seem even younger. In a strong, steady voice she said, “I’m worried that the father of this baby won’t be around and I’ll have to raise this baby by myself.” Her fear was launched, and met with a profound silence. No one in the group had shared a concern that was quite so serious and in need of advice. With her contribution, the single, very pregnant teenager paralyzed the entire class. No one said anything, or even moved.

Maybe she forced the other couples in this circle to reflect on the strength of their own relationships. Or maybe her candor forced everyone to think about the pregnancy concerns they were not willing to share with a group of strangers. Either way, I felt for this girl. Like us, she was not of this group. In lieu of offering any useful insights, we all sat awkwardly looking around the room or at the floor. When it became obvious that no one would leap into the silence with a suggestion the teacher offered the teen a private discussion after class, which she accepted.

This seemingly successful exchange had just enough momentum to start the circle up again. Another member of the class stepped in to offer one more fairly bland concern that the others had in common. Our turn was fast approaching. Matt leaned over and whispered in my ear, “When it gets to us, you should yell, ‘The fucking heart! The baby’s fucking heart isn’t working!’” I laughed despite myself and looked at him as you would at an unruly child. My heart was pounding.

If I hadn’t felt my composure was held together with tape and gum, I would’ve offered a substantive issue — at the very least to cast a line to the teenager. Some version of me was burning to say that we’d lived the past two months praying that our baby wouldn’t die before she was born. We were hoping with everything we had that she didn’t die during or just after her birth. Because her life-threatening heart problem was created by my immune system, I felt inordinately responsible for her. If my body killed her while she was still in the process of becoming, there was a real chance I would completely unravel — unable to separate myself from my subversive chemistry. One of the concerns I brought to this class, and everywhere else I went, was that we’d never become parents. Few things seemed certain to me at that point, with the noted exception that her death would drown my will to ever risk getting pregnant again.

But I’d buried this version of myself. Saying these thoughts out loud would bring them to life in a way they weren’t yet. I wanted to leave them safely folded up in a corner of my brain.

I also knew that honesty would lead to sobbing. I’d learned that I couldn’t afford to cry in public. My distress prompted sympathy, or worse, comforting. In the few instances in which I’d leaked any information about the pregnancy to someone outside my circle, the listener invariably said some version of, “I bet it will all work out.” Despite the good intentions, this suggestion was so at odds with the facts that I could only understand these words as an attempt to placate my massive fear, like trying to put out a conflagration with a baby wipe. It made me want to tear out my hair.

Beyond saving myself, I couldn’t be honest because it seemed cruel. Sharing anything about our pregnancy was sure to scare the crap out of the healthy parents-to-be. We were the living embodiment of their worst fear; something significant was already wrong with our baby. It was one thing for Matt and me to look over the hedge at them, and another still for them to see us.

Doing my best to contain the sob now lodged in my throat, when it was our turn, I punted. I said, “We don’t have any specific worries. We’re just excited to have a baby.” The contrast between what I looked like and what I felt qualified, in my mind, as Academy Award winning stuff. I turned my head to the fair-haired woman on my right, signaling it was her turn to speak. My neighbor hesitated to take the floor, waiting to see if I couldn’t find something, anything at all, to share with my peers in the class. But I held firm. Saying nothing was absolutely the best I could offer this group.

Superficially we looked the same: a bunch of youngish pregnant couples sitting on the floor of this classroom. But in a few weeks the differences between us could be dramatic. The other couples would give birth to boys and girls, Ians and Julies, babies they would take home to fill Moses baskets and bassinets, babies that would be fawned over by newly minted grandmothers and grandfathers. We’d give birth too — to a Grace — but there was a very good chance that we’d leave the hospital with an empty car seat and a giant hole in our lives. Our world and theirs might never intersect.

The distance we’d traveled away from an ordinary experience of pregnancy wasn’t apparent to me in my everyday life. I’d been sequestered with the other struggling pregnant women at the fetal cardiology and high risk practices for almost two months.

Waiting on the outcome of this pregnancy had changed me enough that I couldn’t conjure even the smallest sliver of normalcy. I was completely shaken by this realization. The distance we’d traveled away from an ordinary experience of pregnancy wasn’t apparent to me in my everyday life. I’d been sequestered with the other struggling pregnant women at the fetal cardiology and high risk practices for almost two months. I used all my energy in these emotional spaces to keep the loud, pained sobs from forcing their way out of my body. This was my normal. I was so focused on stringing together my waking hours, and then each day, day after day, that I hadn’t spent much time thinking about what could’ve been and what we’d already lost.

But sitting for a while with alternative versions of ourselves — confident pregnant parents, something we would never be — was crushing, like the loss of something so ordinary, so expected, it never occurred to me that I could lose it.

After the class I understood that we were on a different trajectory than those healthy couples. The hopefulness inherent in making plans for a baby’s future — her name and the particulars of her room, her imagined preschool classroom — had drifted off, dissipated in the distress that enveloped me, leaving me to focus on what was important now: Survival. We never went back.

* * *

Grace’s heart was still beating at 34 weeks, and at 36 weeks.

Once we confirmed that her lungs were “mature enough,” a C-section was undertaken at 37 weeks.

Two days after she was born, as a six-pound neonate, she underwent open-heart surgery. Today, she is 15.

* * *

Back then, I’d assumed that we’d never be like those other parents in the class. A decade-and-a-half later, I see it all quite differently.

Over the years I’ve come to understand that those days, under the influence of my fears, my view of “us” and “them” had been too simple. With a baby who had heart issues, we flickered between a world of our own and what I could only assume was their world.

Back then, I’d assumed that we’d never be like those other parents in the class. Fifteen years later, I see it all quite differently.

In some ways we never will be like those parents. Unlike them, for our daughter’s health, we will forever be dependent on the latest advances in cardiac medicine. We have boundless gratitude for all those we have already exhausted, and wait with baited breath for breakthroughs in organ development and nerve regeneration.

In some ways, though, we’ve become just like those other parents. We struggled under the tyranny of naptime and the push for solid food. We were overwhelmed by the joy of her first laugh and every laugh after that. We watched with some level of wonder as our daughter magically transformed from someone we read to into someone who could read, and most recently into someone who, in a few years, will go away to college.

Like them, I imagine, we feel exceedingly lucky.

* * *

Paulette Kamenecka is a writer interested in health and the mysteries that persist about the human body. This essay is a chapter from her manuscript, Homunculus Angry: My Cage Match with Autoimmunity, out on submission to various agents.

Editor: Sari Botton

from Longreads

Brit Bennett Reflects on Living the Past Year in “Trump Time”

On the night Trump was elected president, I sat at home alone feeling winded; just hours earlier, I’d been at a polling site in Bed Stuy where black and brown people, many of them women, smiled and waved and high-fived each other, certain that we’d soon be celebrating a national milestone just like we had eight years before.

Writer Brit Bennett, whose debut novel The Mothers will be adapted for film with actress Kerry Washington as producer, reflects on her experience of reality in the past year since President Trump’s election in a poignant personal essay for Vogue. Back to back scandals, large and small explosions of racial animus, and the whiplash-like event of Trump following the nation’s first black president have “compressed time,” Bennett writes, and have made the author, and her mother, who grew up in Jim Crow-era Louisiana, question the notion of progress.

In Trump Time, the clock moves backward. The feeling that time itself is reversing might be the most unsettling aspect of a most unsettling year. What else is Make America Great Again but a promise to re-create the past? Through his campaign slogan, Trump seizes the emotional power of nostalgia, conjuring a glorious national history and offering it as an alternative to an uncertain future. He creates a fantasy for his base of white Americans but a threat for many others. After all, in what version of the past was America ever great for my family? “The good ol’ days?” my mother always says. “The good ol’ days for who?”

Last September, I traveled with a publicist who is also black to a warehouse in Westminster, Maryland, in order to sign books. As we left Baltimore and headed toward a city that is, according to the latest census, 87 percent white, we began to see red Make America Great Again signs on lawn after lawn. “When I see those signs, I feel the same way as when I see a Confederate flag,” I said. She understood what I meant—that visceral sense of dread. Both symbols represent a racialized nostalgia that, to me, only evokes fear.

I did not realize then that, within the year, those two symbols would collapse into each other.

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Unreal Estate: A Reading List on Our Shifting Vision of “Home”

Does anyone still remember Unhappy Hipsters, a Tumblr blog born in 2010, just months after the Great Recession officially ended? The concept was simple and irresistible. Each post contained a photo of a domestic interior from a Dwell-like magazine (or, just as often, from Dwell itself), and the photo had to include a person: a teenager lounging with a book on a nordic-looking wooden bed, a couple having a silent breakfast in a vast, concrete-floor kitchen. A caption accompanied each image, projecting a mix of smugness and existential angst onto the people occupying these impossibly streamlined spaces (“So focused on erecting a structure that would be impervious to atmospheric whims, he’d forgotten the obvious: an exit,” read a caption below an image of a man standing on a balcony of a glass-and-steel stilt house).

There’s nothing new about wanting to catch a glimpse of other people’s (nicer-than-yours) houses; what Unhappy Hipsters deftly added was an extra layer of vindictiveness to an otherwise common, aspirational voyeurism. Revisiting some of these old posts today, they feel at once naive and prophetic. In the intervening years, owning a house and designing one’s own space haven’t lost their allure as class markers and so-called #lifegoals. But they’ve also acquired a tinge of bitterness: you either can’t afford it (millennials, meet avocado toast!), can’t do it right (unlike everyone on Pinterest, Instagram, et al.), or risk trying too hard (at which point: surprise! You’re the Unhappy Hipster — in 2017, when both “unhappiness” and “hipsterism” have lost just about all meaning).

The way we organize and reshape our living quarters has always reflected, in some way, desires, hopes, and anxieties that transcended individuals. It was true when married couples started sharing the same bedroom and outhouses began to disappear in favor of indoor plumbing; it’s true today when we buy a vintage lamp or encounter a luxury bathroom almost the size of the bedroom it adjoins. Where does the current unease around the spaces we inhabit come from? What is unique about our attitude toward a supposedly universal concept like “home”? Here are four recent reads that try to address these questions.

“McMansion, USA” (Kate Wagner, Jacobin Magazine, November 9, 2017)

The Great Recession was supposed to cure Americans of their appetite for huge, showy, aesthetically confused houses — entire neighborhoods full of foreclosed specimens stood empty and dilapidated less than a decade ago. And yet, McMansions are still with us. Kate Wagner, whose own (addictive) blog, McMansion Hell, has been deconstructing the architectural horror of this style for more than a year, makes some eye-opening points in her essay. Perhaps the most intriguing is her observation that these supposed emblems of economic achievement — if one owns a turret, one must’ve arrived — actually represent the failure of consumption to satisfy.

In previous eras, people remodeled when needed, replacing worn items, structures and appliances. The idea of total home transformation essentially emerged alongside mass production, which brought down costs. Even so, whole-home redecorating was mostly a pastime for wealthy families. The growth of specialized electronic media was key in fostering today’s remodeling culture. HGTV is one example, but internet sites like Pinterest, Houzz, and Dwell keep people transfixed with the consumption of home improvement and decoration as a permanent hobby and pastime, regardless of whether individuals plan to sell their home. Home decorating trends, which were seen in the twentieth century as changing on a decade-by-decade basis (a relatively rapid pace, thanks to mass media), have been changing in today’s era of hyper-consumption at an observable rate of every two to four years.

This rate of consumption is, of course wasteful and unsustainable, as is the McMansion itself — isolated from public life, requiring long commutes by car (with an interior plan that isolates members of the household from each other), large quantities of natural resources to build, and energy to heat and cool. Apart for the Hummer, there are few clearer examples of conspicuous consumption.

“‘Tiny House Hunters’ and the shrinking American dream” (Roxane Gay, Curbed, October 25, 2017)

If McMansions’ giant footprints occupy one end of the contemporary housing spectrum, the opposite end seems to be taken by tiny houses — the environmentally aware, millennial-friendly answer to the excesses of decades past. Analyzing this recent phenomenon through the lens of HGTV’s Tiny House Hunters, Gay shows how the picture is more complicated than that — in fact, “people with tiny house budgets often have McMansion dreams.” You also leave her piece feeling ever more aware of the short life-cycle of cultural trends: within the span of a couple of years, tiny houses have morphed from joyful expressions of self-sufficiency and self-control into yet another symptom of a broken American dream.

There is no shame in any of this, none at all, but when we talk about the American dream, we never talk about what that dream costs. We never talk about how so many Americans are one financial crisis away from losing their savings or their homes. And we don’t talk about how the American dream should not be grounded in material things like large homes or fancy cars rather than, say, single-payer health care, subsidized child care, or a robust Social Security system.

“Beware the Open-Plan Kitchen (Caitlin Flanagan, Vulture, September 20, 2017)

McMansions and tiny houses have another thing in common besides a complicated relation to post-subprime-crisis real estate. They’re both being pushed and aggressively branded as aspirational by HGTV. Flanagan patiently pieces together the channel’s paradoxical worldview — reproducible authenticity at all costs! — and focuses on the narrative and aesthetic elements that make shows like Fixer Upper so binge-able. She also draws our attention to the ways in which the channel’s obsession with endless cycles of renovation triggers the very instincts that created the housing-market mess last time.

We are supposed to be in rehab from our housing binge of ten years ago, the one that nearly bankrupted the country. We are supposed to be in a state of contrition. But our national love of HGTV suggests that the dream won’t die. The longing it addresses is impervious to market corrections, or personal financial realities, and as economists continue to explore the true causes of the 2008 financial crisis, they are beginning to suspect that some speculative Americans acting on that longing got us into that mess as much as — or more than — unscrupulous bankers or Wall Street. In fact, the network may now be tempting its millions of fans to dip their toes back into the most dangerous waters of the past crisis: flipping.

“Welcome to Airspace” (Kyle Chayka, The Verge, August 3, 2016)

Around the same time that the financial crisis hit the markets in the summer of 2008, a new startup was launched in San Francisco, one that would soon transform the ways some of us travel, homeowners monetize their property, and — perhaps most insidiously — interior spaces are designed. Airbnb now provides its users with an opportunity to inhabit spaces that would previously only be accessible to them in magazines (or the blogs that lampoon them) — an aspirational voyeur’s dream. In the process, however, Chayka suggests that something may have gone terribly (or at least disappointingly) wrong. Everything has started to look the same — like one HGTV-inspired design project after the other.

In 2011, a New York artist and designer named Laurel Schwulst started perusing Airbnb listings across the world in part to find design inspiration for her own apartment. “I viewed it almost as Google Street View for inside homes,” she says. Schwulst began saving images that appealed to her and posting them on a Tumblr called “Modern Life Space.” But she had a creeping feeling something was happening across the platform. “The Airbnb experience is supposed to be about real people and authenticity,” Schwulst says. “But so many of them were similar,” whether in Brooklyn, Osaka, Rio de Janeiro, Seoul, or Santiago.

from Longreads

The Lost Genocide

Doug Bock Clark | Longreads | November 2017 | 6,868 words

From his tent in the illegal shantytown carved out of a Bangladeshi forest, 25-year-old Abdul watched as men, women, and children limped into the refugee camp, gaunt from not eating for days. They were his people, the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority that has been widely called the world’s most persecuted people. Abdul had arrived in the camps ten months earlier, when 66 thousand refugees fled the neighboring country of Myanmar in the last months of 2016. Nearly a year later, the Rohingya were once again on the run, with hundreds of thousands fleeing to Bangladesh through grooves worn in the swamps made by the more than 1 million refugees who had preceded them over seven decades.

The most recent violence began on August 25, 2017, when armed Rohingya groups attacked as many as 30 Burmese police and military posts near the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. The army’s retaliation had been swift, with soldiers razing more than 200 villages, causing about 600 thousand Rohingya to flee. The refugees told stories of Burmese soldiers ambushing their villages, raping the women, and shooting the men or decapitating them with knives. They described landmines being laid along the well-known escape routes. Each morning, corpses of Rohingya who had drowned trying to cross the mile-wide Naf River, which divides Myanmar from Bangladesh, washed onto the shore where they had once sought safety.

Abdul called the new arrivals into his shelter, which was made of discarded plastic stretched over bamboo slats, though all he could offer them was a spot on the red-clay floor. Soon, 30 people were occupying just 80 square feet. But they counted themselves lucky: Most new arrivals slept under monsoon-season skies. Nearly a million Rohingya now crammed into a narrow peninsula on the southern tip of Bangladesh, almost all of them in squatter settlements ringing the U.N.-run camps, which have been at capacity for decades. Eventually, Abdul’s tent became so crowded that he had to bed down at a nearby mosque. But having made a similar escape with shrapnel embedded in his shoulder just 10 months earlier, Abdul felt he had to help.

I had met Abdul in February, at the end of the wave of attacks that began in October 2016. I’d come to investigate the story of a single village — Pwint Hpyu Chaung, his home — to establish a clear narrative in what had been a messy war. At the time, violence against the Rohingya had been an underreported story, downplayed by the Myanmar government as a justified response to a small-scale insurgency. The Rohingya, they said, were burning down their houses to win international sympathy. For years, Myanmar’s military has refused to let outsiders into the region, making refugees’ stories almost impossible to independently verify. I hoped that by cross-referencing the accounts of dozens of witnesses in the camps with the testimony of sources inside Myanmar, I would be able to establish what had happened in Pwint Hpyu Chaung.

Getting into the unofficial refugee camps wasn’t a problem: The miles of tumbledown shacks lining the road proved too much space for the Bangladeshi military to patrol. Once I was inside, everyone wanted to tell their story. In a stifling tarp tent, a 12-year-old boy told me of watching his mother be raped by soldiers while he hid in a paddy, and then later finding his father’s bound and charred corpse among the ashes of his house. Men pulled up shirts to reveal crater-like bullet wounds, and women unraveled headscarves to show off raw burns. Ultimately, I managed to track down 21 Rohingya from Pwint Hpyu Chaung and neighboring villages, including Abdul, who I’ve given a pseudonym to protect his safety. They presented a consistent and detailed narrative of a harrowing November 2016 massacre.

Their stories represent just a fraction of the atrocities that the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has said seem “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” and which other observers have labeled genocide. What to call this violence remains a matter of debate. Under international law, the words “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” have slightly different meanings. “Ethnic cleansing” was coined during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s to describe Serbians employing mass murder and rape to drive non-Serbians from their nascent “ethno-state,” and as such describes the forced exile of a people. In contrast, “genocide” is a legal term that describes “acts committed with intent to destroy [italics mine], in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group,” according to the United Nations Genocide Convention.

The Genocide Convention was established in 1948, when the members of the newly established United Nations declared that “never again” would they allow the systematic slaughter of whole peoples like they had during World War II. The Convention created a legal definition of genocide that includes acts of killing, prevention of births, and “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction,” among a long list of other violations. Genocide was now an international crime, punishable by international law. Most importantly, the convention required that all signatories act to “prevent and punish” any in-progress genocide. It was a utopian response to a seminal horror, an expression of the belief that by working together nations might prevent the gravest of tragedies. Today, more than 140 nations have ratified the document, including Myanmar and the United States of America.

To Abdul and other Rohingya I spoke with in the refugee camps, the injustice being perpetrated on them is self-evidently genocide. When Abdul arrived in Bangladesh in late 2016, he was sure that the community of nations would not allow the violence to continue. But as months passed, diplomats and experts argued over semantics: Was it an ethnic cleansing or genocide? Actions at the United Nations that could have helped address the crisis were jammed by the bureaucratic machinations of Myanmar’s allies. In 2017, the Trump administration proposed several travel bans targeting Muslim refugees and began a slow and deliberate dismantling of American diplomacy, withdrawing the State Department from its traditional role defending human rights worldwide, including for the Rohingya. In March, the United States failed to support a U.N. Commission of Inquiry into the violence that had displaced Abdul.

Ultimately, the factors paralyzing the international response to the Rohingya crisis are complex. But what matters to Abdul is a simple question: Why has the international community allowed the Rohingya to be slaughtered and expelled from their land when a legal framework exists that compels them to act?


Abdul was seven years old when he began to understand his government wanted to exterminate him. The realization came slowly, over the nights he stood watch as a sentry for his hometown, Pwint Hpyu Chaung — a string of three hamlets that sheltered more than 1 thousand Rohingya in a marshy river valley in Rakhine State, in the northwest corner of Myanmar. The year was 1999. Abdul was supposed to watch the roads for trouble from Buddhists settled in nearby “model villages,” a program conducted by the Myanmar government to essentially drive the Rohingya out of their homes.

The clash between the Muslim Rohingya and the Buddhists in control of Myanmar’s government had been going on for decades, fueled by religious and ethnic tensions. In the early 1990s, the government continued a policy of confiscating Rohingya land and building these model villages: basically, Buddhist outposts in Muslim territory. Model villages were populated with the Rohingya’s age-old adversaries — the Bamar, the dominant Buddhist ethnic majority that controls Myanmar, and the Rakhine, a local Buddhist ethnic group — to help the government control the Rohingya.

First-hand descriptions of model villages are rare because the government exercises authoritarian control over areas where the Rohingya live. But a previously unpublished U.N. report describes the program in detail: Model villagers were often convicts and marginalized people like the homeless, relocated from overcrowded parts of Myanmar. The government moved the settlers into houses on Rohingya farms, dispossessing them of both home and income. Sometimes the Rohingya were even forced to build the model villages that displaced them. In one case, Burmese authorities conscripted more than 1 thousand Rohingya from 17 nearby villages, including hundreds of minors, to work until 11 at night, beating anyone who worked too slowly. Model villagers regularly set up checkpoints to extort money from their Rohingya neighbors, stole crops and animals with impunity, and formed paramilitary units that assaulted them

Why has the international community allowed the Rohingya to be slaughtered and expelled from their land when a legal framework exists that compels them to act?

But during Abdul’s sentry shifts, the danger from the model villages never materialized. Instead, he spent the lonely hours looking at the glow from electrified Bangladeshi towns across the Naf River. Pwint Hpyu Chaung, with its wood huts thatched with dried palm leaves, and the surrounding Rohingya villages remained dark. Little that was modern had reached Abdul’s home, which lay in the most tightly controlled corner of the country. In 1999, Myanmar was one of the earth’s most isolated countries, ruled by a notorious military dictatorship. There were no TVs, and Abdul had learned only basic Burmese at school, so he could not understand Burmese radio or newspapers. He knew almost nothing about the outside world — except that across the river lights shone.

Abdul had left the local Islamic school around the fourth grade to work in his father’s paddies, expecting to spend his whole life as a rice farmer like the rest of his male relatives. His favorite pastime was stalking egrets with his slingshot at night in jungle streams, breaking a bird’s wing with a sun-baked mud pellet, cutting its throat, and then blessing it to make it halal so his family could eat it.

As he grew older, Abdul began to venture outside of Pwint Hpyu Chaung. It was not unusual for Burmese or Rakhine to catcall him, “Fucking Bengali!” — a reference to the Burmese belief that Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh — or for soldiers to slap him, even after he paid the mandatory bribes. His father warned Abdul that if he was struck, he must not fight back. The retribution would only be worse.

Conflict over whether Muslims or Buddhists were the original inhabitants of the jungles around Pwint Hpyu Chaung has been going since at least the sixteenth century, when Islamic and Buddhist kingdoms were in conflict over the land. But despite Myanmar’s protestations to the contrary, there is strong evidence that the Rohingya have long inhabited what is today Rakhine State. In 1799, a Scottish explorer described meeting the “Rooinga” there. Though there has been some debate, most experts identify this group as the modern Rohingya.

The British Empire unified the area in the 1800s, tamping down conflicts between Muslims and Buddhists, but during World War II, the Rohingya sided with their colonial British overlords, while the Rakhine and Bamar allied with the invading Japanese. Both sides committed massacres. After the war, the populations separated. The Rohingya fled north while the Rakhine and Bamar withdrew south. When Myanmar became independent from the British Empire in 1948, the new Bamar Buddhist government did not recognize the Rohingya as an official minority. After a slow-burn rebellion throughout the 1950s, the Rohingya won limited recognition and self-governance, but it was short-lived.

A boy carries another child in Kutapolong Refugee Camp. In this unofficial camp, tents are constructed with plastic tarps that had been used to evaporate seawater. (Doug Bock Clark)

In 1962, a military coup replaced Myanmar’s elected government with a cadre of Bamar generals who viciously oppressed the country’s autonomy-seeking minorities. They labeled Rohingya illegal immigrants from Bengal, and in 1978 launched the first major “immigration” enforcement campaign, driving 200,000 Rohingya over the border, a journey on which thousands starved. In 1982, the government passed a law that effectively stripped all Rohingya of citizenship, making them stateless.

Abdul was born around 1992, when about a quarter of a million Rohingya were fleeing to Bangladesh during another immigration sweep. The forceful expulsion of the Rohingya was proving a messy business for Myanmar’s government. The United States, flush from its ideological victory over the Soviet Union, had voiced strong objections to the regime’s human rights abuses, and Islamic countries had raised an outcry over the mistreatment of the Rohingya. So instead of all-out war against the Rohingya, the government decided to covertly and bureaucratically exterminate them.

A few years earlier, in 1988, Myanmar officials had begun crafting a secret program to legally subjugate the Rohingya and eventually drive them out of Myanmar. The eleven-point scheme detailed in a government report was titled “Rohingya Extermination Plan,” according to documents published by the International State Crime Initiative, a London-based organization dedicated to researching state-sponsored human rights violations. “Mass killing of the Muslim is to be avoided in order not to invite the attention of Muslim countries,” the report explained. Instead, according to the first point of the plan, the Rohingya were to be labeled “insurgents” and thus denied status as citizens. Next were listed the restrictions that would define Abdul’s life, limiting his ability to travel, make a living, get an education, own property, and even marry and have children. The plan ordered judges to rule for Buddhists over Muslims, and it suggested that Muslims should be converted into Buddhists. Myanmar’s government would be able to get exactly what it wanted without international pushback.


Abdul grew into a handsome, muscular young farmer with a guarded smile. He prized the motorbike he had assembled out of second-hand Chinese parts. He mostly shrugged off the state’s restrictions, at least until 2010, when he turned 18 and his family arranged for him to be married. The village’s imam sanctified the union in the Rohingya community, but in order to comply with a law enacted in accordance with the Rohingya Extermination Plan, Abdul then had to ask permission of local administrators to legally marry. The administrators told him that if he wanted to wed, both he and his wife would need identification cards, for which he would have to pay a bribe of about $100. It was a massive sum — Abdul and his family earned only about $1,000 a year selling rice — but it was a standard extortion for Rohingya seeking marriage licenses. When he brought the money, Abdul was informed that the identification cards would list him and his wife as Bengali, not Rohingya. He had no choice but to agree. He could not write, so the administrators filled out the forms for him.

Even with the papers signed, Abdul and his wife still could not legally cohabitate. Authorities maintained a list of who lived in each house in Pwint Hpyu Chaung, and they demanded $600 for Abdul to transfer his wife to his home. One night, police caught him staying at his father-in-law’s, and he was taken to the local jail and beaten with a stick until his father rushed over with the family’s savings, $200, knowing that to let him languish was to risk him becoming crippled. It took Abdul a year to collect enough money so his wife could live with him.

Abdul spent the next two years quietly farming, trying to avoid attracting attention. In 2012, he heard rumors of Rohingya villages being burned near Sittwe, a large coastal city that is also the capital of Rakhine State. He decided to stop his bird hunting, knowing it was too dangerous to be outside the village at night. On May 28, 2012, a group of Rohingya men were accused of raping and murdering a Buddhist woman in Sittwe. Over the next week, machete-wielding Rakhine mobs torched nearby Rohingya villages. Soldiers and police stood by, and by the time a state of emergency was declared two weeks later, 98 people had been killed, more than 5,000 homes burnt, and more than 75,000 Rohingya were displaced. Violence flared up again in October, during which 68 Rohingya were killed, 3,234 homes burned, and 32,000 more people were displaced. In retaliatory attacks by Rohingya, 26 Rakhine were killed and 42 of their homes were burned. International investigators later found that the violence against the Rohingya was highly directed, with busloads of Rakhine men driven in to participate, and suspicion fell on extremist nationalists allied with the military.

A family with their newly constructed shelter outside Balukali Refugee Camp. (Doug Bock Clark)

Because Sittwe is far south of Bangladesh, Rohingya displaced there could not flee over the border. Instead, the government interred about 120,000 of them in concentration camps that were described in 2014 by a U.N. official as “appalling.” Today, conditions have not improved, and opportunities for education and employment are severely limited. Rohingya caught by the police outside the camps can be imprisoned for three months. If they are discovered by Rakhine, they could be lynched.

By 2015, thousands of Rohingya were paying smugglers to cram them by the hundreds into leaky fishing vessels to escape the camps and Rakhine State. When the boats landed in Thailand, the government towed many of them back out to sea, leaving more than 8,000 Rohingya stranded without food or water. The United Nations estimates more than 1,000 people died before Indonesia and Malaysia reluctantly accepted some refugees.

At the end of 2015, free and fair elections were held in Myanmar for the first time in half a century, and Abdul began hoping that life might improve for the Rohingya. He wanted to vote for Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning democracy activist, who was considered a saint by citizens of all ethnicities for standing up to the junta and enduring 15 years of house arrest over two decades. But Abdul could not vote because he was registered as a Bengali. And although Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won a landslide victory, Rohingya hopes quickly faded. Under the new constitution, the military retained effective control over the Rakhine State, and Aung San Suu Kyi had no formal control over the military, so almost nothing changed.

In 2016, Abdul had his first child, a son. It was the only child the government would allow. Rakhine administrators had made Abdul and his wife’s marriage license contingent on the couple only having one child. Regional authorities had issued population control policies for Rohingya in 1993 and 2005, the later of which decreed that families that had more than two children — and women who gave birth out of wedlock — could be jailed for up to 10 years. Abdul saw a bleak future for his son, but he also felt a new father’s thankfulness. He hoped his child might get a basic education and one day escape from Myanmar. He could not help dreaming that if he did not live in Myanmar, he would become the patriarch of a large family.


For years, experts had warned that the disenfranchisement and abuse of the Rohingya could lead to extremism. After 2000, several ineffectual rebel groups with weak ties to al-Qaeda trained Rohingya men in the Bangladesh refugee camps, but the first major attack came shortly after midnight on October 9, 2016. More than 100 Rohingya swarmed three police posts wielding knives, at least one homemade pistol, and ginkali, slingshots that fired iron bolts. They killed nine policemen and wounded five more before looting about 50 guns. A newly formed Islamist Rohingya insurgency, later called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, claimed responsibility for the attack. The International Crisis Group released a report suggesting the group had trained hundreds of Rohingya in guerrilla warfare, and the rebels claimed to be funded by individuals in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Shortly after daybreak on October 10, Myanmar’s army retaliated by burning the village nearest the overrun outpost. Then, according to local inhabitants, they drove north on the only paved road in the valley, arresting and torturing men by the dozens. One survivor described to me being bound and having his beard burned off with a lighter. Environmental satellites designed to detect forest fires began to track conflagrations in Rohingya villages. Using these images, Human Rights Watch tallied more than 1,500 buildings destroyed over the next two months, though they warned the true number was likely higher, as tree cover made it difficult to see every structure.

Abdul told me that Pwint Hpyu Chaung lay on a dirt track off the main road, so it took a few days before the army entered the town. He and the other young men fled into the hills fearing they would be arrested. Village leaders swore to officers that there were no insurgents in the village and they did not know where the young men had gone. Normally, the army demanded small gifts like goats, but this time they insisted on $500. Each family in the village pitched in to assemble the money.

Abdul had his first child, a son. It was the only child the government would allow. Rohingya that had more than two children could be jailed for up to 10 years.

Every few days, the army returned along with model villager paramilitaries and extorted the Rohingya again. By early November, the village had run out of money. When the village could not pay, soldiers drove off the village’s livestock, including Abdul’s seven cows and eight goats. That night, the villagers slaughtered three cows that the army had missed and divided the meat, a pound a family. They prayed that since they had nothing left to steal the army would finally ignore them.

When Abdul heard distant machine gunfire and saw smoke towering over the hills to the south on November 12, he ordered his parents and wife to run to a nearby village with his infant son. Village leaders asked some men to stay behind and stand watch, so Abdul huddled with several friends in his house on a hill above Pwint Hpyu Chaung.

About an hour passed before Abdul again heard the gunfire. He sprinted outside just in time to glimpse a half dozen projectiles, glowing pink, rain down on the village. The mortar shells bowled over bamboo houses, setting many aflame. Then he saw about 20 Burmese troops advancing through the rice paddies and betel nut fields, displaying the red bandanas Myanmar commandos wear on the frontlines. He rushed inside his house just as a mortar round exploded right next to him, knocking him out.

Abdul regained consciousness in the smoldering ruins of the house. His ears rang. An ankle-deep crater smoldered just outside. His stepbrother was tearing strips from his own black sarong to bind Abdul’s bleeding shoulder. Abdul could not move his right arm. A metal spike protruded from the joint. Someone told him, “You’re only hit in the shoulder. You’re lucky. Some were hit in the chest and died on the spot.” His stepbrother dragged him to his feet and supported him as they staggered away. He was bleeding so much he feared that he would die.

All across the village, soldiers were gunning down fleeing Rohingya. Rather than using rocket-propelled grenades as they had in neighboring villages, the commandos preserved ammunition by igniting the thatched roofs with bamboo torches. One survivor described watching an attack on the town’s elderly religious leader as he was being carried from the flaming village on his son’s back. Soldiers knocked the son down, and then four of them grabbed the imam by his limb. They rocked back and forth to start the old man swinging and then hurled him into the inferno. Three villagers I spoke to confirmed this account of his death. Other survivors told of gang rapes, of babies hurled into fires, of families locked into their burning homes. Their stories echoed those of similar atrocities described by survivors in a report released this past February by the United Nations, compiled from more than 220 interviews with refugees. Satellite images would later confirm that Pwint Hpyu Chaung had been leveled. A senior village administrator would count dozens of buildings burned, with only a fraction of houses remaining.

Abdul was still bleeding when he reached the nearby village of U Shey Kya, where his parents, wife, and son had taken refuge. There, he was taken to a local healer who was unable to extract the shrapnel or provide medicine to lessen the pain. There were no licensed doctors in the Rohingya villages, but Abdul knew that Doctors Without Borders ran a medical clinic in Bangladesh. The next morning he wept as he said goodbye to his parents, wife, and infant son. They would remain in U Shey Kya, hoping as Rohingya have hoped throughout the decades that the conflict would eventually blow over.

After two days of walking, careful to keep his arm from jostling in its sling, avoiding scorched ruins filled with newly feral dogs, Abdul reached the Naf River. He had only his clothes and a Nokia cellphone. A boatman took pity on him and smuggled him across for free. In the refugee camps, a faith healer excised two fragments of shrapnel from his shoulder without anesthesia. Soon his family called. U Shey Kya had been attacked. His father had been beaten. Soldiers had ripped out his sister’s nose rings and earrings, tearing her nostril and earlobes, and knifed her cheek to make her ugly. Several days later, his family arrived in the city of tattered tents. Abdul held his infant son again and wept. The family agreed their life in Myanmar was over.


Veiled women in the new settlements outside Balukali Refugee Camp. Nearly all recent refugees live in squatter settlements surrounding the U.N.-run camps, which have been at capacity for decades. (Doug Bock Clark)

The official U.N. refugee camps had no space for them, so Abdul walked into the woods, cut down a tree, and constructed a tent of his own. He used black plastic tarps that had been used to evaporate seawater and harvest the remaining salt, so the tent looked like it was covered with giant tear stains. At the beginning, Abdul’s tent stood at the edge of the improvised camps, but within a few weeks, the nearby forest had been felled for construction material and firewood, and newly built shanties surrounded his home. During my visit, I watched a whole neighborhood spring up in an afternoon, its tents roofed with teak leaves until their inhabitants could get tarps.

As the months passed, Abdul’s wound healed. Unconsciously, he massaged the scar. Pain shot down his arm whenever he lifted it, leaving him unable to work for slave wages in the Bangladeshi paddies. Instead, he occasionally sold vegetables in the public market, earning about $30 a month. The family’s only food was the 25 kilograms of rice the World Food Program provided twice a month. There was no water and little sanitation. Abdul, his wife, and son were all losing weight. His son cried constantly. He had nothing to do except loiter, retelling his ordeal to men who recounted their own traumas.

One morning, after listening to refugees recount their escape, I walked to the top of a hill and was confronted with a panorama of ragged tents that stretched to the horizon. It seemed to me that part of the tragedy was that each person’s individual grief had become almost indistinguishable from the affliction of an entire people. Those already deprived of everything did not even seem to own their singular despairing stories.

Abdul hoped desperately that the international community would somehow restore his home. But older refugees, including some who had been in the camps since the 1970s, were cynical about the possibility of return. They had become fathers and grandfathers during the cycles of violence, watching the fleeting international attention and the inevitable return to the status quo. The only way it would end, some of them thought, was if the government completely erased the Rohingya from Myanmar.


At the beginning of 2017, something could have been done. By February, diplomats from the European Union were pushing for the creation of a U.N. Commission of Inquiry (CoI) as the first step toward international action. CoIs are the most powerful type of investigation that the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) can commission and can lead to prosecution by the International Criminal Court. After a month, the E.U. began pressing for a UNHRC resolution proposing a CoI, but behind the scenes, Myanmar, China, and several Southeast Asian countries were lobbying hard against it.

In mid-March, China blocked a statement by the U.N. Security Council, the most powerful body in the organization, voicing concern about the situation in northern Rakhine State. Many Asian nations, especially China, do not want to endanger their access to Myanmar’s large reserves of timber, gemstones, and gas. China also has geostrategic interests in keeping Western nations from exerting too much influence on its neighbor, which it has long regarded as a “little brother.” When I spoke to Roland Kobia, the E.U. Ambassador to Myanmar during the negotiations over the CoI, he explained that “some countries have taken a much more pragmatic position towards the events in Rakhine State to promote their economic and political agendas.” China’s pragmatism has been expressed in its efforts to promote likely infective talks between Myanmar and Bangladesh instead of a CoI, and its consistent threats to veto U.N. action against Myanmar. Because of China’s permanent seat on the Security Council, a U.N. resolution imposing sanctions is virtually impossible in the face of its opposition.

This was not the first time the Rohingya had been sacrificed for diplomatic expediency. Tomás Ojea Quintana, the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights to Myanmar during the violence in 2012, told me about his frustrating experience trying to effectively address the crisis. “I felt that some nations did not push Myanmar as hard as they could have for fear of endangering their economic interests or hampering the democratic transition,” he said. One week before the session debating whether to establish a CoI ended, the E.U. allowed a significantly less powerful investigation to be proposed instead. An uproar followed from human rights advocates and Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee, Quintana’s replacement. But they lacked a key supporter — the United States.

The Trump administration had recently come into power and had rapidly begun shifting U.S. foreign policy. I was in the refugee camps, listening to Rohingya men and women desperately ask if America would help them, when President Trump signed an executive order to indefinitely halt the entry of Syrian refugees, describing their presence as “detrimental to the interests of the United States.” The Rohingya were incredulous that anyone could think of refugees as a threat.

Over the next few months, the State Department under Secretary Rex Tillerson scaled back its operations, cutting budgets, laying off career foreign service bureaucrats, and leaving high-level positions intentionally vacant. The Trump administration continued to enact its “America First” policy, which would have the country take a less active role in world affairs and focus on its self-interest.

Instead of supporting the CoI, the United States suggested offering international help to a Myanmar-led investigation, which had been widely panned as a mouthpiece for the government. Experts believe that many Western diplomats are nervous about undermining Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, which has been making progress on other human rights issues and which is viewed as a fragile democracy. Because of the structure of the country’s constitution, Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government has little effective control of Rakhine State, which is instead administered by the military. As Scot Marciel, the U.S. ambassador to Myanmar, explained to me earlier this year, “Sometimes what sounds morally good is not the most effective way to help the Rohingya on the ground.”

As the vote on the CoI approached in late March 2017, it looked as if any hope for an impactful U.N.-based investigation had been lost. But after an intense lobbying effort from Special Rapporteur Lee and human rights advocates, the resolution was strengthened at the eleventh hour to include an independent multinational fact-finding mission, which was adopted at the end of the month. However, a fact-finding mission has less scope and resources than a CoI. As Matthew Smith, the CEO of the human rights watchdog group Fortify Rights, told me shortly after the approval of the fact-finding mission, “This was quite literally the least the international community could do.”

Part of the tragedy is that each person’s individual grief has become almost indistinguishable from the affliction of an entire people. Those already deprived of everything do not even seem to own their singular despairing stories.

The establishment of a fact-finding mission is no guarantee that anything will be done for the Rohingya. The United Nations was created as a response to the genocide of the Holocaust and other horrors of World War II, but after 72 years in existence, accountability within the organization has become a grand, geopolitical game of passing the buck. If the Human Rights Council ever does deliver its report, it will lack the power to enforce its recommendations; that responsibility lies with the Security Council. If the Security Council were to consider suggestions of peacekeepers, sanctions, or the establishment of an international criminal tribunal, permanent members allied with Myanmar, like China, would almost certainly veto them.

The United Nations was created as a diffuse system of checks and balances in order to persuade the world’s diverse nations to buy into a new kind of international law, despite their competing interests. But because power is spread so thin, it is often impossible for the organization to prevent genocide — even when that’s what many of its constituents want. Political logjams have kept the international community from acting effectively since the Genocide Convention in 1948. One scholarly estimate suggests that in the half-century between 1956 and 2016, 43 genocides took place, killing about 50 million people and displacing the same amount. But only three cases of genocide have been prosecuted since 1948 — in Rwanda, Serbia, and Cambodia — and even then only long after the killing had stopped. 

Some experts feel the Rohingya’s plight is another case of the United Nations failing to recognize a genocide as it is defined by the Convention. In 2015, before the last two cycles of violence in Myanmar, an international human rights clinic at Yale Law School released a report suggesting the persecution of the Rohingya fit the legal definition of genocide. That same year, the International State Crime Initiative issued their report based on months of undercover investigative work in Myanmar that also concluded that what was happening to the Rohingya constituted genocide, though it used a wider definition than the legal one. Both reports made their cases not just by documenting military attacks, but also by investigating the legal controls that Myanmar has built up over decades to impoverish, disenfranchise, and limit the population growth of the Rohingya, in accordance with the Rohingya Extermination Plan.

Under the Genocide Convention, it is not just outright murder that constitutes genocide, but actions such as preventing births and “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction.” As Penny Green, the International State Crime Initiative’s director, told me, “It’s clear that what’s being inflicted upon the Rohingya is genocide.” But even if what is happening to the Rohingya falls under the legal definition of genocide, chances are slim that the international community will call it that or act. David Simon, director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University, explained, “A genocide is taking place, but there is little chance that the international community will mobilize effectively to stop it. Questions of national sovereignty and self-interest have almost always trumped international concerns about human rights.”

The hang-up for most nations in calling out genocide is a clause in the Convention that requires them to “prevent and punish” it. “To use the word ‘genocide’ to describe a situation may create a legal obligation under the Genocide Convention to take preventive action,” said James J. Silk, a professor of international human rights law at Yale Law School who oversaw the school’s report on the Rohingya crisis. “Many nations, including the United States, have shown themselves to be reluctant to commit to such a complicated and politically difficult course.” If the United States were to label the attacks against the Rohingya as genocide, it could potentially commit the Trump administration to using the American military to defend Muslim refugees at the same time it is trying to ban them from entering the country. (Previous administrations, including the Obama administration, were no more enthusiastic about committing large-scale resources to the situation.)

Ultimately, most nations have failed to call what is happening genocide, though a small set of Islamic countries, including Malaysia, have adopted the term, and French president Emmanuel Macron used the label to describe the most recent wave of violence. The United States, which has previously shown great concern for other human rights abuses in Myanmar, has pointedly avoided calling it genocide. On October 26, in a phone call to the chief of Myanmar’s army, Secretary Tillerson expressed “concern about the continuing humanitarian crisis and reported atrocities in Rakhine State,” and the administration said it would push for sanctions against particular army officers who participated in the violence.  During a brief visit to Myanmar on November 15, where he met with Aung San Suu Kyi, the secretary told reporters at a press conference he thought there had been “crimes against humanity,” but was against “broad-based economic sanctions.”

“Genocide” can only be legally declared after litigation at the International Criminal Court. While reporting this article, governmental sources I spoke to from the United States and Europe referred to genocide as the “g-word” — often unwilling to even speak it fully in informal conversations — because of the potential consequences of using it should a legal case be set in motion. And yet, even though the word was so powerful that senior diplomats could not utter it, it had been effectively neutered by many nations’ fear of harming their self-interest and by the United Nations’ bureaucratic maneuvering.

Without any danger of effective legal action, Myanmar flouted the Human Rights Council fact-finding mission, continuing to deny it access to Rakhine State through the summer and into the fall. The fact-finding mission wasn’t the only United Nations investigation into a possible genocide that was downgraded during this time: A CoI examining the civil war in Syria was unraveling as its high-profile lead prosecutor quit, saying, “I give up. The states in the Security Council don’t want justice.”

During a brief visit to Myanmar in November, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged “crimes against humanity” had taken place, but discouraged broad economic sanctions against the country. (Doug Bock Clark)

But Myanmar’s army’s brutal response to the attacks on their outposts at the end of August 2017 obviated the fact-finding mission. As more than half a million Rohingya fled to Bangladesh, the U.N. Security Council unanimously expressed concern about what was happening in Myanmar for the first time in nine years — but it was just a slap on the wrist without any peacekeeping actions or sanctions associated with it. When Egypt tried to introduce impactful language to the resolution guaranteeing the Rohingya the right of safe return to Myanmar, it was blocked by China. A senior Myanmar national security official explained to an international news conference that Myanmar was coordinating with China and Russia to block any sanctions with teeth, declaring, “China is our friend and we have a similar friendly relationship with Russia, so it will not be possible for that issue to go forward.”

In early September, Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s leader whom Abdul had hoped would save the Rohingya, refused to condemn the military, instead describing the international outcry as caused by “a huge iceberg of misinformation calculated to create a lot of problems … with the aim of promoting the interest of the terrorists.” In doing so, she was echoing the words of the generals who had imprisoned her for years. Several of her fellow Nobel Peace Prize winners openly criticized her, and there were calls for her award to be rescinded.

In the camps, all was chaos. One translator there told me as few as 30 percent of the new arrivals were getting rice from the World Food Program, and the rest were starving or scavenging off others. In mid-September, a woman and two children died in a stampede for aid. Though Abdul tried to focus on sheltering newcomers in his already overcrowded tent and to remain hopeful, his belief in the international community had faded.

When I first interviewed Abdul in January 2017, I had arranged for him to be smuggled out of the camps to a nearby Best Western hotel in the dingy resort town of Cox’s Bazar, where most aid workers stayed. I wanted him to have the privacy and focus that was impossible in the overcrowded plastic tents. After seven hours of talking over two days, Abdul seemed nearly giddy with hope. On the Internet, I had shown him how stories of the Rohingya were spreading across the world, and he said, “I want you to tell my story so that everyone in America knows what’s happening and the international community can do something about it.” He had been awed by the multistory hotel and its air conditioning, and he was certain that people with such unimaginable power and wealth could not fail to save the Rohingya. But when I got in touch with Abdul in October, after he had spent nearly a year in the camps, his support for a diplomatic solution had waned. “If we don’t fight for our freedom, who will?” he asked. “I’d consider joining the rebels if we had sufficient guns and bombs to fight back.”

What had never faded was Abdul’s desire to return to the paddies that his ancestors had tilled, that he had once expected his son to plant after he was buried beneath them. There was little chance of forging a happy life in Bangladesh. One of the world’s poorest and most overpopulated countries, it denies the Rohingya any chance at citizenship because it cannot support them. Bangladesh’s reluctant response to the crisis was to announce plans in mid-October to force the million or so refugees into a new camp, which they would not legally be allowed to leave, making it effectively a prison. Sometimes to dull the hunger or lessen the pain in his scarified wound, Abdul imagined rebuilding Pwint Hpyu Chaung. Freed from the restrictions imposed by Myanmar’s government, he had recently had another child. He wanted to one day show the newborn his home.


Doug Bock Clark’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, GQ, WIRED, The New Republic, Mother Jones, Foreign Policy, and other publications. His first book, about a hunter-gatherer whaling tribe, will be published next year by Little, Brown.

This article was written with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.


Editor: Michelle Legro
Photographer: Doug Bock Clark
Fact checker: Matt Giles
Copy editor: Jacob Gross

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The Memoirist’s Dilemma

I’m an unrepentant memoir junkie. For some reason I have always favored true personal stories over fiction, and this year I finally completed a proposal for one of my own.

I say “finally” because it has taken years. Decades, actually. I’m terrified of the repercussions of exposing myself and friends and family members who might prefer to stay off the page. I’ve spent many hours talking with memoirists about this, asking them how they found the courage to reveal so much, and what their personal philosophies are regarding other people’s privacy.

At The New York Review of Books — in an essay about the lingering effects, 14 years later, of having written a memoir, The Devil That Danced on the Water, about the political hanging of her father in Sierra Leone — novelist Aminatta Forna writes about dealing with some of these fears herself.

The writer of a memoir must necessarily reveal a great deal about herself or himself, and often about other people, too. You sacrifice your own privacy, and you sacrifice the privacy of others to whom you may have given no choice. They may enjoy the attention or be enraged by it. “People either claim it or they sue you,” the head of press at my publisher told me in the weeks before my memoir was published. I knew who might sue or come after me—members of the regime that had killed my father. I comforted myself with the belief that they had for the most part been exiled or discredited, or had gone underground. The only person I allowed to read the unpublished manuscript was my stepmother, because I was concerned about her safety even more than my own. She still lived in the country, and the violence can ricochet for months after a civil war.

In the final draft, I changed one name only—of the man who had betrayed my father for the promise of money, agreeing to give false testimony at his treason trial on behalf of the regime. He admitted this to me during our interview. I despised him and I knew other readers of the book would despise him, too. He had a pitch selling Lotto tickets in Freetown, a small city. Anyone could find him just by asking around, as I had done. Already, one or two one or two suspected former rebel soldiers had been lynched in the city.

For this reason, I changed his name, and privately decided that I would change any other names that my stepmother wanted me to. But without saying this, I let her read the book. When she gave it back to me, she made no comment. On the final page, I found a checkmark and the words “Well done, darling!” Later, she elaborated: if we were going to do it, we would go all the way.

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Albania’s Blood Feuds

Our neighbor accidentally drove over our lawn, dislodging a decorative boulder that I put in, but he never mentioned it. We could see the tire tracks from his side of our shared driveway. He probably saw me digging another hole to put the giant rock back in. It was just a boulder, but his un-neighborly silence irritated me. We avoided a feud because I decided an apology didn’t matter as much as our peaceful relationship. So I forgave him, and he kept being his painfully shy anxious self, gentle and unable to deal with the challenges of sharing a driveway. Forgive and forget, I figured. Not in the Balkans.

For Virginia Quarterly Review, Amanda Petrusich traveled to mountainous northern Albania to examine its culture of vengeance. For some Albanians, forgiveness is shameful. Someone must die to right a wrong, and families go on and on for generations, murdering the murderers or the murderers’ relatives, only to get shot themselves and continue the feud. Many blood feuds start over trivial acts, like refusing an alcoholic beverage. Feuds have killed an estimated 12,000 Albanians in the last 25 years. Traveling the region’s rough roads, Petrusich spent time with a negotiator whose job is to facilitate a détente between various parties. Some negotiators get murdered, too.

Per ancient edicts, the avenging family should hunt only an able-bodied adult male (the elderly, women, or boys who are too young to carry arms are excluded), though in recent years those dictums have relaxed, and it is no longer unusual to hear about the retaliatory murder of a young boy or girl. Feuds can begin over most anything, though a high percentage seem to involve property disputes. Despite earnest intervention by the church and the government, reconciliation between feuding families is rarely (if ever) brokered without blood, and the object of a feud—and his family members—are forced to spend decades barricaded inside their homes, hiding. To venture beyond the property line could mean a forceful and immediate death: sudden bullets from on high. Children are pulled from school; jobs are lost. Untethered from the rhythms of a regular life, and unable to conceive of a peaceful future, people drift into depression. Life is at once terrifying and terrifically boring. Families rely on donations to survive. Maybe friends bring food, boxes of groceries. Everyone watches a lot of television. Suicide is not unheard of.

That sounds like a horrible way to spend your life, and for what? Vengeance  seems to only bring more pain. Petrusich looks deeper to understand why this practice exists here and what retribution gets people. Albanian vengeance isn’t lawlessness. It’s an ancient code, so was there something in the exchange that made sense, something that connects back to humanity’s most basic collective unconscious? Most people don’t want to discuss resolution. They want revenge, and targets, as one told Petrusich, just wait for the bullets.

Despite believing these feuds to be barbaric and philosophically flawed—savage by any Western standard—I wondered if the blood feud was also the purest distillation of justice as practiced by a modern society, the least complicated restoration of some essential psychic balance. Blood let for blood let. By any accounting, it was a cathartic reckoning, to avenge a crime properly. It surely facilitated a particular kind of healing. Besides, what did it mean to witness and absorb something wicked, but not to correct for it yourself? Intellectually, I understood it was a mark of maturation and empathy and civilization to defer justice to a court, to some impartial entity separate from the family. But I thought, too, of the political philosopher Michael J. Sandel and his book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? “The conviction that justice involves virtue as well as choice runs deep,” Sandel writes. Was justice not, at heart and freed from any attendant subtext, simply a faithful restoration of equity?

Vengeance is not merely prevalent in rural enclaves here; the notion of vigilante justice is threaded into Albanian culture. In 2015, Armando Prenga, a Socialist lawmaker and an elected member of Parliament, was arrested after getting into a barroom scrap with a sixty-six-year-old fisherman named Tom Cali. When members of Cali’s family went to local police to report the incident—Cali had been badly pistol-whipped—Prenga burst into the station with his brother and a cabal of associates, discharging several rounds of gunfire and hollering, “We will eradicate your tribe!”

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