Neither Alive Nor Dead

Neither Alive Nor Dead

Coming back to my reading of Jean Delumeau, and medieval/early modern myths of the Danse macabre or Dance of Death, and the view that death is one-way and inevitable….

As a journalist, I sometimes covered situations, where people were neither alive nor dead.

This may sound like a contradiction.

In reporting on disappearances in Argentina in the 1980s, then hostages in Lebanon in the 1990s, I investigated situations where families were struggling to bring loved ones back from the abyss. Their loved ones had been snatched by the Argentine military junta or Lebanese private militias against their will, and had then been concealed, put in chains, brutalized, tortured, bought, upgraded, traded, sold and/or smothered.

In speaking to me, the families knew they were taking a huge risk. By publicizing their struggle, they realized that identifying who had committed the disappearance or hostage-taking, and who was now holding the victim, could lead to the destruction of evidence, i.e. the victim being murdered. In investigating such situations, I shared some of the risk with the families.

In Argentina, I did stories on the Abuelas or Grandmothers of the Plaza, whose grandchildren had been bought and sold by the military junta, like commodities. First the junta kidnapped women, for whatever reason. If the women were not already pregnant, soldiers impregnated them. Some of the grandchildren were born in captivity, their mothers thrown out of military aircraft high over the South Atlantic, and the babies then offered to powerful friends of the junta as war booty. Some of these grandchildren are still alive today. In Lebanon, I investigated several hostage-takings that resulted in poor souls being held captive for long periods of time in private homes, underground parking-lots, military barracks at Baalbek and other places with enclosed spaces like cupboards that could be treated as cells.

While reporting on human-rights cases like these, I got to know one former hostage in the UK who had been held in his apartment in Beijing for two years and subjected to mental torture by fanatical Red Guards during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. I met another former hostage in the US who had been drugged and transported in a coffin from Lebanon to Iran.

The point of their being taken hostage was to depersonalize them, denying their humanity: they were treated as mere ideological symbols, maintained in a constant state of terror, and subjected to grisly rituals of human sacrifice.

I worked with families to obtain proof of life, or proof of death. But getting direct information is such cases was extremely difficult. The information needed to be gathered without putting anyone at risk, and it needed to be rigorously evaluated.

We could not be gods and bring the dead back to life, but as a journalist I could offer public acknowledgement and dignity to grieving families, which was a consolation of sorts.

This was a dark kind of no man’s land, a gloomy in-between place, like an induced coma, but full of danger. I was never sure which way things were pointing, whether towards death … or back towards life.


The dramatic photo at the top of this blog is Lightning Strike in Missouri, by Gregg Williams.

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