Speech Transcript

The Day After Yesterday: Notes from the Dark Side of the Mirror

Roger Cohen
Berlin Correspondent, The New York Times

Ten days ago I was in Ramallah, on the West Bank, with Adila Laidi, a straight-backed Palestinian woman dressed in grey and black. She was showing me around an exhibition called “100 Lives,” commemorating some of the victims of the latest Intifada.

For each of the dead, a photograph was hung on the wall accompanied by a relic in a glass case. These were contemporary relics: a Calvin Klein shirt, a soccer ball, a school book, a Nike cap, a badge saying “Love and Peace,” a boxing mitt, a shirt from “United Colors of Benetton,” a Game Boy, a wedding photograph, a cap emblazoned with the words “Jerusalem 2000.” The things had been presented by bereaved families; each of the objects was said to have been particularly dear to the dead.

The photographs, several of 14- or 15-year-old boys, showed adolescents earnest or whimsical, gentle or droll; they had in common, at least seen posthumously, a large dose of the trusting vigor of youth. “We just wanted to show lives, ordinary lives, lives now blotted out,” Ms. Laidi said. Her voice was without emotion, but in her dignity lurked a deep indignation.

The exhibition is destined to tour the West Bank and Gaza over the coming months, where it is likely to reinforce — if that is still possible — Palestinian anger toward Israel. The peace process is no more. In its place is a process involving the unraveling of whatever bonds, whatever elements of trust, were formed between Israelis and Palestinians since the Oslo accords. This is very painful psychologically: As I discovered in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war, hopes raised, then dashed, may be more devastating than a flat plain of despair.

The Day After Yesterday

But the resurgent violence of the Middle East, however dispiriting, is not my principal subject here. Nor was it as I gazed at those photographs. Rather, my concern is memory, individual and collective, and the violence that lies in it. I must confess that a fascination with memory has come to play an important role in my work. Standing there in Ramallah, I was wondering how these martyrs would be remembered over the decades and who might one day be killed in their name. And then Ms. Laidi, my host, said something that drew my attention.

She told me that things were so uncertain she did not know what would happen “the day after yesterday.” She meant, of course, “the day after tomorrow.” We laughed. But the slip was eloquent, for “the day after yesterday” is now — and now is when anything can happen on that sliver of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. And the “day-after-yesterday craft” would not be a bad description of journalism.

We deal with the beginning of memory: What is it then, this thing that first takes hold “the day after yesterday”? Pierre Nora, the French historian, defined memory thus in “Les Lieux de Memoire”: “Memory and history are far from being synonymous. They are, in fact, opposites. Memory is life, it is always carried by living people and therefore it is in permanent evolution. It is subject to the dialectics of remembrance and amnesia, unaware of successive deformations and liable to all kinds of uses and manipulation. Memory becomes latent for a long time and then suddenly revives. . . . It always belongs to our own time.”

Let me add a few other thoughts on memory, so often the kernel of conflict. At its most raw, it is the stuff of the blood feud, passed from generation to generation. With time, memory may be deformed as the initial offense — an orchard stolen, a family member killed, a house burned, a marriage broken — is magnified. Its barbs may be blunted by prosperity, just as they may be sharpened by poverty.

Escape from Memory

Distance may dim the flame of painful memory — for many people, this country has been an escape from memory. But if exile is to a seething refugee camp, it will only stoke the blaze. Three generations from the Palestinian “Nakba,” or cataclysm of 1948, it is safe to say that the fruits trees taken by Jews are more vivid, more fruitful, more bounteous in the imaginations of teenagers in Gaza than they ever were in reality to their ousted forbears.

Memory sustains identity — indeed national identity is inconceivable without memory — but it may also lapse or be manipulated into the myth or madness that sustain the frenzy of nationalism. Memory is shifting, uneasy, potent, felt in the mind but tied to the heart. It is no straight line but may turn in widening gyres. It is, as Nora notes, “the opposite of history,” in that history must at some level consist of a dispassionate search for the facts behind the commotion of memory. Dismayingly, for the modern world, memory has another central quality: it cannot easily be filmed or photographed.

And what of print journalism, particularly the journalism of war and conflict, the kind I have spents part of the last two decades practicing? In my view, it must concern itself equally with memory and history — the felt past and the factual past — in its attempt to paint the deepest, most truthful and most vivid of pictures. Yes, we must paint in words, but our canvases are worthless without those gifts of the Renaissance: perspective, depth. And who could say, gazing at an Uccello or a Piero della Francesca, that perspective is not a passionate thing?

I recall standing in 1994 with a Bosnian soldier on the front line near the northern town of Brcko. The Serbs were perhaps half a mile away. The scene, as so often in Bosnia, was bucolic: Fields and blossoming fruit trees stretching away into the haze.

Hopes of Home

But any urge to picnic was soon dispelled by a burst of machine-gun fire. The soldier, a young man, pointed out into the shimmering distance toward the bluish blurr of Brcko and assured me that he could see his own home and would one day return there.

Two years earlier, at the start of the war, Serb forces had swept through Brcko, throwing Muslims into concentration camps where many were tortured and some killed. This, the post-cold-war world soon learned, was “ethnic cleansing”; and Yugolsavia’s bloody break-up provided an initial lesson in the small wars that would in the 1990’s challenge western governments to reassess their conceptions of the appropriate relationship between morality and the national interest in a no long bipolar world of immediate, global images.

This soldier’s concern were, however, more immediate. He had been beaten by the Serbs before being pushed across the lines. “We will go home,” he said. “We will all go home. I can see my house and will not rest until I get there.”

He could not see his house, of course. Brcko was but a faraway smudge. In this sense, what he told me was not true. But he could see it in his mind’s eye, in his heart, in his memory; and this, it seemed to me, was the deeper truth of the situation.

So what was more important, journalistically speaking? The fact that this soldier was not telling the truth, or the truth of his feelings? Both were interesting, of course. But the kernel of the situation, in journalistic terms, was this: Beyond all the slogans, the myth-making, the nationalist clarion calls, this was a war to go home. Bosnian Muslim national consciousness was forged by such visions, however illusory, of the homes Milosevic’s marauders plundered. It proved potent, this nascent national consciousness, more potent than the dim imagination of Milosevic could ever conceive.

Do Not Fear Silences

I talked with this soldier for some time. It takes time to understand memory, for in memory, as I have suggested, lies identity. Memory is volatile and often tiresome in war; it may be exasperating to sit through the tirades that bitter memory tends to inspire, the speeches reaching back decades, even centuries.

But, please, do sit there. Go deep with one person. Given the choice between five hours with one person or an hour with each of five people, I choose the former. Do not be afraid of silences. Sit through them. Beyond a lull in the conversation may lie the clue, the truth you seek.

Understand one person’s psychology, his or her memories, and you may understand — or at least get closer to the psychology of — a nation and a conflict. In this, my understanding of journalism, there are no anecdotes. The anecdote is a facile shortcut. But there are no shortcuts to the psychology of a human being. Anecdotes are too often the stuff of what some news executives call “bang-for-the-buck journalism”: glib, quick, digestible nuggets in an ever-quickening profession confronted by an often uninterested public.

But try to avoid them. Go deeper — to character itself. Each person has his or her past and his or her memory. Watch closely how they interrelate — past and memory. Let the story be told to you, however slowly. The story then flows outward, offering its own architecture. This architecture cannot be imposed from the outside without deforming the truth.

Memories of Sarajevo

Sarajevans, besieged, had their memories. Of a mixed, moderately sophisticated city proud to have held the 1984 Winter Olympics, of using skis on the surrounding mountains rather than burning them to heat rudimentary stoves, of a time when candles were romantic rather than symbols of their degraded life without electricity. A city of Bosnians, not a city of Serbs, Croats and Muslims.

Then there was the other descriptions of the past — that of the nationalist prophets: Milosevic, Karadzic, Mladic and the rest. Their past was one of a long downtrodden Serbian people, a Turkish infidel occupying Bosnia in the person of the contemporary Moslem, a rampant “Islamic fundamentalism” threatening the Serb, severed Serbian heads skewered on stakes and so on. Memory as deranged myth — a potent thing indeed with disoriented, cowed people thrust abruptly from one ideology, communism, to another, nationalism. Disoriented people, as Hitler intuited, are the best of sheep, the easiest to steer and control through the rhetoric of revanchist rage.

So I found myself, in the Balkan wars, picking my way through a landscape devastated by the use and abuse of memory. Nora, as I noted, says “Memory becomes latent for a long time and then suddenly revives. . . .” Milosevic, Tudjman and the other nationalists had revived “latent memory” — a distorted version of the past shaped to stir the violence on which these leaders thrived. Their raw material was history — specifically the civil war fought within Yugoslavia during World War II and the unhealed wounds it left — and they twisted it to inspire new fear or terror.

The other faces of fear and terror are hatred and violence. Ordinary people, in this sudden storm, clung to the wreckage of their own memories — of hunting together, of fishing together, of marrying each other — across ethnic lines. The tension between these pasts — the imagined one of demonic myth and the real one of day-to-day mixing — was extreme.

Falling Shells and Tears

Extreme tension finds resolution in violence. Bosnian tension was expressed in the shells falling on Sarajevo and the tears filling rooms. It was expressed in hysteria, in people shaking their fists at the mountains from which the shelling came. It was expressed in the amount of blood it took to destroy Yugoslavia. I often thought that if Yugoslavia was really as unnatural a creation as the nationalists suggested, it would have died a lot more easily.

What I sought to do, in the midst of all this, was to express through people’s stories the tensions I have described between history, myth and individual memory. As I have said, memory cannot be photographed. That is one reason why I believe we stone-age men and women of the written word still have something to say.

But it can be a lonely road, as many of you know, getting beneath the surface of things. War is life on the dark side of the mirror: No reflection is clear. Images are distorted or obscured. Memories refuse to coincide or subside. War is consuming memory; genocide the attempt to eradicate not only a people, but also their memory. And where does memory’s lane lead on this dark side of the mirror?

You drive down a road and it’s a normal sort of road with other vehicles passing and nature there just being nature, and suddenly you notice that the picture has changed: The vehicles aren’t passing any more, the birds have gone silent (or did you just imagine them?) and the whole scene seems oddly to be waiting for something. What, you wonder, is this expectancy, this absence of calm even as nothing moves, this disquieting pregnancy? It is war’s caress.

Waiting for Hell

It is said you don’t hear the bullet that’s for you. But this is scant comfort. You press on, waiting for the waiting to end and all hell to break loose. To see and report what you see; this, in some way, is the gage of your honor. “In war,” said Martha Gellhorn, perhaps the greatest of the last century’s war correspondents, “I never knew anything beyond what I could see and hear — a full-time occupation.”

There is no substitute for what you see and hear, as Joe Alex Morris Jr., whom we honor and commemorate here today, knew. This is as true in the age of the Internet as before it — perhaps more so, because the temptations to shortcuts and the means to take them have multiplied beyond measure. “Man was born to live, not to prepare to live,” said Dr. Zhivago. Living is seeing, preparing to live is nexus. Joe Alex Morris lived — and lives.

I once drove a long road across the pampas in Argentina. There was no war there, but the “dirty war” had recently ended. Tens of thousands of youths had been “disappeared” by the military, some of them, as we now know, tossed out of helicopters into the Atlantic. Their shadow lay across the country. Memory, for many, was torture, the torture their children had suffered.

At the end of the road I found a man and a woman whose son was a “desparecido.” He had been at the university in Mar del Plata and then one day he was gone. His mother was trying to recall him to me but all she could do was cry. Memory requires closure, even if it is a coffin.

Her husband took me aside and told me he knew their son was dead, but his wife could not accept this and he could not bring himself to tell her. Then he told me he had a confession to make: The other day he had been listening distractedly to the radio and heard about a boat sinking with three survivors, now in Uruguay; and to his distracted mind it seemed the name of one of them was that of his son. So he told his wife he had to go on a business trip. In fact, he rushed to Uruguay on a mission to find his son that he knew was absurd, useless. The survivor, needless to say, was not his son.

Sorting Out Memory

Memory, as I have said, can be madness; and peace — for a person as for nations at war — requires a measure of forgetfulness.

Another of memory’s roads led me to what was one of the sleazier places on earth: Gen. Stroessner’s Paraguay. I’d met a man in Buenos Aires whose pregant wife had been “disappeared,” and he had evidence that, before being killed, she had given birth to twins. He thought he had traced these twins — his children — to a former Argentine army colonel now living in Paraguay.

With considerable difficulty, I found the colonel. As I approached his house in Asuncion, a very aggressive German Shepherd barked at the gate. What would I say if the colonel was at home? Excuse me, I’ve come to see if you’ve stolen a couple of children whose mother was killed by the Argentine army? Not really knowing, I rang the bell anyway. Surprises, after all, can also be pleasant.

I mumbled something about the strained ties between President Alfonsin and the military, and he invited me in; and before long, he was showing me photographs of his twins and his wife during the pregnancy. A bad conscience can also be a journalist’s friend, for a conversation with a stranger may also be a form of confession.

The thing was, the twins looked exactly like their real father back in Buenos Aires; and all the photos of the pregnancy seemed to stop in about the fifth month. Evidently, she had had a miscarriage. I wrote the story and the children were eventually returned to their father: Sorting out memory, the real past from the imagined past, can make a difference.

Stones and Graves

Nowhere is the past more entangled than back in the Middle East. Returning to Jerusalem from Ramallah on my recent visit, I gazed — as everyone who approaches Jerusalem from almost any angle does — at the stones and the graves. This preparation for the city, as a friend of mine remarked, is appropriate because it is a place where the dead are probably more important than the living. Amos Elon, the Israeli writer, has called Jerusalem a “necrocracy, the only place where the vote is given to the dead.”

Alas, this is so. Alas, it is also so that to be normal — that it is to say at peace — requires an escape from the domination of memory. That is why Adam Michnik in Poland has decided to draw a line over the past — including his regular imprisonment by the former communist regime — in the name of releasing his long-tortured state into what he calls “La Normalite.”

But where are a Middle Eastern Michnik or two? The weight of memory becomes ever heavier as The Holocaust on one side and The Nakba on the other are endlessly refracted on the dark side of the mirror, their competitive moral claims ever irreconcilable as the bloodshed mounts on contested land.

I have tried to elucidate memory in my work and so throw light on present conflicts. I suppose the hope is always that by making things clearer, you may make things better. Make a difference, as I said, by differentiating the true from the false.

Frustrated Hope

More often than not, this hope is frustrated: Memories prove irreconcilable or undimmable. But I do not believe that means one should stop trying.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., a former justice of the United States Supreme Court, wrote, “As life is action and passion, it is required of man that he should share the passion and action of his time, at peril of being judged not to have lived.” The correspondent’s great privilege, and burden, is to be close to such “action and passion” and try to make sense of it. This is, of its essence, a passionate task. The head is needed, but never, I say, divorced from the heart.

Back in Jerusalem, across the invisible but palpable line, I went to see Gabriel Bach. A German Jew, he was thrown out of Berlin with his family at age 11. Eventually, they reached Palestine. Later, in what became Israel, he was a leading prosecutor at the trial of Adolf Eichmann. He told me of his efforts to maintain his composure with Eichmann. This was not always easy.

At one point, Bach had been reading the book of Rudolf Hoss, the last commander at Auschwitz. Hoss confessed in the book that on some days as many as 1,000 Jewish children were killed and some begged on their knees to be saved. Then, Hoss wrote, his own knees sometimes went wobbly.

But later, after talking to Eichmann, Hoss felt ashamed of his weakness because Eichmann asked him: “How can you kill the parents when you do not kill those who potentially will avenge these deaths, those who will recreate the race?” Eichmann, as is clear from this, knew the power of memory. So he was determined to eradicate it.

Losing Control

“After reading this,” Bach told me, “I had to sit at the table with Eichmann and question him, and this was not easy. It required a strong attempt to keep calm.” But, I wondered aloud, did he ever lose control? Bach hesitated before saying he had. Once. It was during the trial itself.

A witness was testifying about his arrival at Auschwitz with his family. “The wife and daughter were shoved to the left,” Bach said, “and he was shoved to the right with his son. The SS man hesitated about what to do with the 13-year-old boy, but then sent him to the left, too, to be gassed.

And then the witness said his little daughter happened to be wearing a bright red coat that day; and as his family was consumed in the grey, condemned crowd, being kicked and beaten by the camp guards as they were herded forward, that little dot of red, getting ever smaller, that diminishing red dot, was the point at which his family disappeared from his life.”

Bach was silent again. The disappearing red dot hovered in the air between us. Eventually he continued: “It so happened that I had just bought my own little daughter a red coat, and this story cut my throat. I could not utter a sound. My heart was thumping. I was silent for at least three minutes.”

I, too, was silent. My heart, too, was thumping. We are the storytellers of the little red coats: That is our task, the day after yesterday. Bach had mastered memory: He had kept his head to make the case that sent Eichmann to the gallows of the Jewish state, and he was reconciled with today’s Germany.

Daily Confrontation

I live in Berlin, a daily confrontation with memory. It is possible to move beyond the past, even that past — not forget it, but move beyond it, to the terrain of hope. Sometimes, searching for what drives me, I think back to Faruk Sabanovic in Sarajevo in 1995, the last year of the war. I found him in the hospital, a young, fine-featured paraplegic.

He had been shot outside the Holiday Inn — long the least aptly named hotel in the world. Bosnia being a post-modern war, he had a video of the moment, a week before, when he had was shot. It had been provided by one of the TV crews stationed permanently at that intersection in search of “bang-bang footage.”

We watched it together at the hospital. It showed him walking briskly, his hair bobbing in the wind. Then the crack of a rifle; he falls; a UN soldier in his blue helmet, paralyzed with fear, watches him. Not until an armored car is brought around to provide cover is Faruk’s inert body retrieved.

This portrait of the modern world — well-meaning, visible, violent, craven — moved Faruk, even then, not to anger but to fortitude. Memory, for him, would not be the catalyst to a quest for revenge. No, memory would be fruitful, as we prove in our way here today.

“I will be better in my mind,” Faruk said to me, “better than the Serb who shot me and better than this dirty world.” Again, I was silenced.

It is for this passion of Faruk, this moral courage, this tangible lucidity that I believe we correspondents should strive as we seek to disentangle the dangerous threads of memory common to all conflict.