Lost on Earth: Nomads of the New World

Lost on Earth: Nomads of the New World

by Mark Fritz

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First Published in 2000. Routledge is an imprint of Taylor & Francis, an informa company.


First Published in 2000. Routledge is an imprint of Taylor & Francis, an informa company.

Editorial Reviews

Craig Seligman
Lost on Earth, Mark Fritz's survey of the lives of contemporary refugees, reads like a volume of beautifully imagined short stories, and its addictive quality makes me wonder whether I loved it for the wrong reasons. Of course, they're the right reasons, too. In showing us the people usually reduced to terrible statistics -- in the mid-1990s, Fritz reports, roughly one out of every 100 people on the planet was forcibly uprooted from home -- he makes all those foreign tragedies that clot the opening pages of the newspaper immediate and real. And he isn't simply compassionate: Beyond the gift of empathy he has an invaluable knack for liking his troubled subjects. As in Angela's Ashes, the sparkle of personality turns a book you might expect to be unrelentingly grim into one that you don't want to end.

Fritz's characters include the displaced as well as the bureaucrats and the aid workers whose sometimes hopeless job it is to help them out. He introduces us to a Mozambican guest worker in East Germany who finds himself the object of hatred when refugees start to flood the country, and to one of those refugees, a Togolese programmer fleeing the murderous wrath of his government, who is bewildered to find himself persecuted and despised in the land where he sought safe haven. He shows us the disaster in Somalia from the standpoint of a well-to-do Mogadishu contractor and of a nurse working under the auspices of Doctors Without Borders. He lays out the chaos in Liberia (somehow making sense of an almost laughably complicated war) as it's witnessed by an enterprising mechanical engineer whose career and family unravel along with his country.

Fritz depicts the horrors in Rwanda (his dispatches from that country for the Associated Press won him the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting) through the eyes of a Tutsi girl running from the slaughter in her village and from those of a soldier in the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front. His culminating chapter, on Bosnia, begins with a Muslim woman's memory of the bakery she worked in as a girl. One day an odd stranger came in; she turned out to be a native of Banja Luka returning to the town after many years, and she recalled for the girl the black morning that she came into the bakery and was told, "You cannot buy here because you are Jewish!" The girl can't imagine an era of such heartless bigotry. She has no idea, of course, that the day will come when she'll find herself in the old woman's shoes.

Fritz doesn't hector, but it's hard to argue with the dry-eyed humanitarianism of his view that "the fundamental problem [is] stopping the fighting so the noncombatants [can] simply stop running, and therefore stop dying ... Maybe the wisest solution is simply to step in fast, break up the fight and separate the combatants before too many people get hurt, rather than agonize over how they can be taught to live together. Because maybe they can't." How, you wonder after reading these stories, can we not intervene? Fritz doesn't strain for pathos or for any other effects. He's a gifted writer and his style is literary in the best sense, but he seems to have something more urgent than art on his mind, and to this end he avails himself of the ideal strategy for putting across his point of view: He shows that those others, those statistics, those faraway unfortunates, are no different, except in their circumstances, from you and me.

Douglas McGray
Fritz is at his best when he focuses on the personal lives of individual immigrants and refugees....[and at] chronicling the ways local communities respond to an influx of outsiders....[The book] erads less like a book of reportage than it does oral history, or even historical fiction....more collage than comparison. —The Washington Monthly
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Los Angeles Times correspondent Fritz presents a kaleidoscopic portrait of the world's new homeless--displaced by political upheaval or economic blight, by bloodbaths in Liberia, Kuwait and Sri Lanka, the breakup of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany or the conflict in what used to be Yugoslavia. Fritz, who won a Pulitzer for his reporting from Rwanda, writes from a refreshingly international perspective born of legwork rather than glib assumptions of a "global village." In a departure from his conventional reporting, these frontline dispatches are deliberately hard-boiled and ironic, unfolding like a series of loosely interconnected short stories. He writes with streetwise empathy for his dislocated subjects, among them a software expert from Togo who flees the dictatorship after his mother-in-law informs him that his wife has been murdered by state security goons and a Kuwaiti-born factory worker/computer student in Germany, ostracized by his Arab friends (even though he is of Iraqi descent) who buy into Saddam Hussein's propaganda as Iraq invades Kuwait. Fritz also dramatically profiles heroic interlopers like Viennese private eye Herbert Puchwein, who spirited a busload of orphans out of war-torn Sarajevo, and American relief worker Mary Lightfine, who plunged into Somalia's civil war. Faulting an "inherently weak" United Nations and a timid, reluctant-to-get-involved United States, Fritz boldly calls for the creation of a freestanding global police force, with international volunteers under U.S. command, dedicated to preventing future wars, genocide and forced migrations.
Library Journal
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, 50 to 100 million people have been displaced from their homes, the largest such migration in history, according to Fritz, a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. Uprooted by civil war, ethnic strife, or economic conditions, some are displaced within their own borders, and many others have left their home countries entirely. Fritz presents stories of individuals he has interviewed over the past decade. They include East Germans fleeing west, gypsies, Kurds, and refugees from the Yugoslav War, the Iraq-Kuwait War, and the conflicts in Liberia and Rwanda. A surprising number converged on Germany, which at first welcomed them but later closed its borders when too many refugees began to strain social and support systems. Other accounts describe the conditions in refugee camps. The stories are effectively told, but ultimately the book lacks analysis, leaving the reader feeling helpless rather than inspired. -- Marcia L. Sprules, Council on Foreign Relations Lib., New York
Boston Globe
This is an unpretentious book, but it brings out lucidly the moral and political problems caused by one of mankind's greatest migratory upheavals. `Lost on Earth' is a series of vivid dispatches from this shadowland of outlanders, and at their best they are the premier reports about the contemporary refugee.
Kirkus Reviews
A vivid account and thoughtful examination of history's largest human migration. According to Pulitzer Prize winner Fritz, national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, nearly 50 million people were forced to flee their countries by the mid-1990s as a result of the disintegration of the Cold War empire and the bloody civil wars that ravaged the former Yugoslavia and such African nations as Somalia, Mozambique, and Rwanda. Here he presents a compelling premise: while the refugee situations in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa have all been examined individually before, they had not, until now, been considered together as a representative late 20th-century phenomenon. Accordingly, the author seeks to convey the nature and magnitude of the problem, paradoxically, by focusing in on "how individual lives have been changed forever by abstract events." In short, Fritz locates the larger narrative of human flight in discrete and concrete tales of persecution, struggle, and escape. All too often, these are the stories that go ignored by the American media; one must praise Fritz for bringing them to light. Among the people he introduces are a woman who slips out from behind a dissolving Iron Curtain in the trunk of a car, an Iraqi soldier who deserts in the wake of the Gulf War, and others His is an ambitious book. Yet while the individual stories are powerful in themselves, the book doesn't quite work as a whole. The recollections of various survivors are often told from their point of view, and while Fritz is a top-notch reporter, this sort of novelistic approach-in which he takes on the voices of others-sits uncomfortably with the subject matter. More importantly, while thebook is interspersed with summations of each political situation and his own observations on the refugee problem, Fritz only pulls back to regard the larger subject in the book's beginning and end. Dramatic stories of individual suffering, but without the larger framework the author wants to convey. .

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Taylor & Francis
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New Edition
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5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)

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Chapter One

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The Gypsy opened the trunk of his car and Michaela got inside. She crouched sideways, hugged her knees and watched the lid come down on a sunny day. She didn't think about the danger. She didn't think about anything. She just gave herself up to this very strange moment. "Get in the trunk," he'd said. Yeah. OK.

The Gypsy got in the car and drove away. It was very hot inside the trunk. There was a little rust hole in the middle of the trunk lid, and Michaela peered through it, watching layers of forest fall away. After a few minutes, the car slowed to a stop, and Michaela heard the Gypsy talking to somebody, probably a soldier. She felt the car move again, then stop once more a few minutes later. The trunk flew open and the Gypsy looked into her wide green eyes.

"Run!" he shouted.

Michaela scrambled out of the trunk and saw she was in a field surrounded by forest. The Gypsy was pointing to a barbed-wire fence fifteen feet away. Beyond the fence was a low hill covered with brush. Michaela ran like a crazy woman. She got to the fence and climbed over it as carefully yet as quickly as she could. Then she ran up the hill, through the brambles that scratched her bare legs and snagged her black silk blouse, which had looked so pretty with the checked shorts she'd worn that day. Gradually, she realized that she was running through a vineyard.

She saw a woman standing in the distance. Michaela ran toward her, hoping.

"Is this Austria?" Michaela gasped.

"Yes," said the woman. "Are you from East Germany?"

"Yes!" Michaela said.

Michaela could barely think. She'd cleared the threshold. This woman seemed happy to see her. It was almost as if she'd been expecting her. It was like a dream.

Communism meant different things to different people, but to Michaela Woike, it was simply boring. There just seemed more to do in the West, at least from what she could see on West German television, one of the few outside influences the authorities couldn't filter out. Life seemed more, well, colorful, unrestrained. The fashions, the music. Of course, the political freedoms were nice, too.

Michaela had thought about escaping for years. Not just from East Germany, but from home. She had been born and raised in a beautiful little village called Zella-Mehlis, a postcard of a place snuggled high in the lush green mountains of Thuringia. Even when she was a child, Michaela had dreamed of fleeing its infuriatingly pastoral monotony.

And why not? Her father had abandoned the family when she was just three years old for reasons that never were quite clear. All she remembered was a tall man with a black beard, and the cryptic admonitions of her mom: "I forbid you to see him." Not surprisingly, Michaela didn't have a very good relationship with her mother. And she wasn't particularly close to her sister, who was seven years older.

All she asked out of life was the chance to live an exciting one, to travel to fantastic places, to have a career as an artist. But she knew even when she was a little girl that such a life was unattainable in her gingerbread village, which lay on the wrong side of the Fulda Gap, the strategic mountain pass that separated one superpower army from the other.

Still, Michaela experienced the sensation of freedom when she went off to nursing school after she turned seventeen. Her high school graduating class had been so tiny —thirty people —that only the top three students were given opportunities beyond a limited range of vocational choices. East Germany needed more workers than artists, it seemed. Since she wasn't one of the top students, her options were quite limited, which drove her crazy.

But at least nursing school got her out of Zella-Mehlis and into Suhl, a slightly bigger town a few precious miles from home. And then a year of nurse's training got her a job in a psychiatric hospital in a much more distant village, called Biesdorf, which just happened to be on the outskirts of the big city itself, Berlin.

Unfortunately, it was East Berlin. Life in a big Communist metropolitan area turned out to be just as static as life in a small Communist town. She lived in an apartment on the hospital premises and the work was quite dreary. Many of these patients were truly insane, while others seemed little more than chronic complainers and mere nonconformists, like herself. She worked all sorts of shifts, night and day. If she wanted to go into Berlin, it would take thirty minutes by train. It was hard to have an outside life, though she tried. She acted occasionally in community theater, because it was fun and she was pretty. She wrote and illustrated a children's book, though she couldn't find anybody to publish it.

But it wasn't enough. She wanted to travel. She wanted to go West. And it seemed like a lot of people her age felt the same way. One day, a friend told her some rather amazing news.

"Have you heard? The Hungarians aren't shooting people at the border anymore."

Michaela got excited. East Germans had always been able to travel to Hungary, a favorite holiday spot. And now, Hungary had apparently sprung a leak. It had relaxed its border controls. There was almost a hole to Austria, to the West. She told her friend, Thorsten, who lived in her building, that she was thinking of going to Hungary and making a break for the border. It was quickly becoming a thing to do among young people.

Michaela began to lay the foundation for her plan. She told her coworkers that she was going to take a vacation to Czechoslovakia and, ahem, Hungary. Another nurse, her friend Katrin, became suspicious immediately. In certain circles, a "vacation in Hungary" was becoming almost a code for escape.

"Are you going to defect?" Katrin asked.

"No," Michaela said. "No. I can't say."

Katrin asked Thorsten, "Is Michaela going to defect?" and he said, yes, he thought she was.

This made Katrin very determined. She invited Michaela to her parents' home in Weimar one weekend, and when nobody was looking she dragged her into the bathroom. One never knew what homes or rooms were bugged, so it paid to be careful. Katrin turned on the faucet full blast, then told Michaela that she knew she was going to defect, and that she wanted to defect, too. Why not do it together?

It was amazing how easy it had been to get visas to Hungary. The two women figured the authorities would be suspicious. After all, it seemed as though everybody knew somebody who had taken advantage of this new hole in Hungary. But there wasn't a problem at all. Trying to cover their tracks, they also got visas for Czechoslovakia and decided to spend a week there first. They packed lightly, like they were going on a short trip, not leaving forever.

Michaela didn't say a word to her mother, who was a member of the Communist Party. The less she knew, the better for everybody. Michaela and Katrin took the train to Prague. Needless to say, they played the part well. Katrin was tall and lean with a leonine mane of long black hair; Michaela was small and sassy with a reddish brown bob. They hit the bars, met people, tried to have some fun. They had been dreading the scary adventure ahead, and partying among the Bohemians in Prague was the perfect release. For a while.

They finally decided it was time to begin hitchhiking to Hungary, a method of travel that was pretty safe in the Stalinist world. They caught a few rides, but didn't dare tell anybody what they were up to, until the last guy, a Hungarian. He was driving and Katrin was sitting up front, chatting away, and it just sort of came out that they were planning to cross over to the other side. The Hungarian told them exactly where to go, outside a town called Sopron, right on the border, right where he was headed. Katrin wrote the directions down and the Hungarian drew a little map.

The city sizzled in the August heat and the tourists wore their skimpiest clothing. Sopron was filled with Gothic and baroque buildings that drew visitors from all over, but Michaela and Katrin were too nervous to notice. They were so paranoid that they even bought T-shirts with Hungarian writing on them —who knew what they said? —so they would look like tourists. Of course, they couldn't bring themselves to actually wear T-shirts with slogans. It just wasn't them.

At dusk, they went to the outskirts of town and began to hitchhike. An old man on a tractor stopped and offered them a lift. They told him they wanted a ride to the border. If he suspected something, he didn't let on. He just dropped them off on a stretch of forest road, the starting point on their homemade map. Katrin studied the directions in the twilight and away they walked, into the woods, terrified by their courage. They crept through the brush for a few minutes, then heard rustling in the distance. Then voices.

Michaela and Katrin dropped to the ground. They stayed there, absolutely motionless in the itchy weeds, for maybe half an hour, long after the muffled voices had drifted away. The weather was miserably muggy and the mosquitoes were ravenous. It was soon pitch dark. They got up and began walking again. They came to the edge of the woods and saw a huge field in front of them.

This wasn't right. The landscape wasn't matching the description that the Hungarian had given them. There was no way they could cross this field without being spotted. While they whispered about what to do, signal flares sailed over their heads. The young women froze.

"Halt!" somebody shouted.

Soldiers with dogs, big Alsatians, jogged up to them. Michaela and Katrin were petrified. But the soldiers, looking at the two pretty young things quaking with fear, could not have been nicer.

"Oh God," one said. "Why did you go this way? If you would have gone a little to the right, you would have made it."

"Why did you stop?" asked another. "Now our superiors have seen you and we have to take you with us."

The Hungarian soldiers put them in a truck and drove off. They stopped several more times for other soldiers who had seized other East Germans. The truck was full by the time it reached the military base, where another forty East Germans who had been caught that night were being held in a stockade. The soldiers put Michaela and Katrin in a cell with another young woman from East Germany. Katrin and Michaela were scared and started to cry, but the Hungarian guards were extremely nice. One of them brought Cokes and stayed around and smoked with them. He said it was his last day in the army. He figured what the hell, and told them how they could get into Austria. He told them to wait three days, then try again at a certain spot. He said if people were caught twice in three days, they were sent back to East Germany. But if you staggered your escape attempts, you were merely set free in Hungary to try, try again.

The next morning, Michaela and Katrin were interrogated by an officer. Nicely interrogated. Then, the Hungarians just let them go. Just like that, the two girls walked off the base to the main road. They were relieved but still somewhat rattled, not to mention terrified of attempting another escape. They decided to go to Budapest because they needed to get their visas extended. So they began hitchhiking. And the first driver knew right away what these two East Germans were doing in a Hungarian border town.

"Do you want to escape to the West?" he asked.

"No!" Michaela said.

"Yes!" Katrin said.

Both women were under considerable stress, and they weren't exactly getting along at this point. But Katrin was adamant about getting this escape over with and the man in the car —who was a Gypsy —was quite convincing. He said he knew a good place at the border. He would take each of them — one at a time —in the trunk of his car. Then, all they had to do was run a little.

"Let's do it!" Katrin said.

Michaela reluctantly gave in.

"Get inside the trunk," the Gypsy had told her.

"Yeah," Michaela had responded. "OK."

Michaela was sweaty and panting and scratched by brambles that had snagged the black-and-white shorts that matched her blouse. She was disoriented, almost delirious with adrenaline. The woman in the vineyard led Michaela to another woman, a farmer named Marie, and Marie got her car and drove Michaela back to the border to wait for Katrin. Finally, Katrin came running through the brambles, up the hill, into the vineyard. Apparently, the Gypsy had tried to get a little something from Katrin after he'd dropped Michaela off.

"Come over here, sweet baby," he'd said, putting his arm around her shoulder.

Katrin was a very tall woman, really strong, and she had gone a little crazy.

"Stop it! What have you done with my friend, you bastard!"

The Gypsy had backed off immediately, apologized profusely and then drove Katrin to the border and dropped her off. The two women would talk about it later, about how insane they had been to have accepted his offer in the first place. After they thought about it even longer, they didn't blame this Gypsy for making a pass at Katrin. He was just giving it a try.

The Austrian named Marie took Michaela and Katrin to her house, gave them lunch with wine. Two other East Germans were there, too. The village was full of them. A couple of days before, a crowd of them had simply stampeded through the fence. There was a new refugee camp in town and it was absolutely full. In fact, the government had set up daily shuttle buses to take East German refugees into Vienna. The refugees were like heroes.

Michaela and Katrin got on one of these buses and went to the West German embassy. They were given one hundred marks each —the standard amount that West Germany paid East Germans with the courage to defect —and put up in a hotel for the weekend. The place was full of refugees just like them, and they all swapped stories about their narrow escapes, the people they left behind, the amazing days ahead.

From Vienna, Michaela and Katrin were sent to a camp in West Berlin, the side of their city they'd never seen. It was overwhelming. Especially the little things. In East Germany, for example, if you ordered pizza, you got a little circle of tasteless dough with a couple of baked tomatoes on top. But when Michaela and Katrin ordered pizza here, it was a wheel of food so plentiful they couldn't have hoped to finish it. And the bathrooms, with the water that came on automatically when you stood over the sink. More than once Michaela drenched her handbag.

The West Germans were sort of amused by the people they dubbed, sometimes derisively, the Ossis, or "Easties." Michaela was in a supermarket once, trying to figure out how these people selected produce. They were putting their vegetables in plastic bags and then weighing them on a machine that spat out a sticker that they then affixed to the bags. Michaela was watching this one older woman when suddenly she swung around.

"Are you from the East? Do you want me to show you how this works?"

Michaela was mortified. Being out of sync like this was not a pleasant feeling for a twenty-one-year-old woman with a self-assured sense of style. It didn't take long to adapt, however. She found a flat in Berlin's Kreuzberg district, a charmingly blighted pastiche of ethnic restaurants, offbeat art houses, counterculture clothing shops and bars so progressive that they held special nights for lesbians, including people who were lesbians just on special nights. Michaela dyed her auburn bob a raven black and slipped into Berlin's bohemian underbelly. She also got a job as a nurse.

Meanwhile, the exodus of East Germans quickened and huge demonstrations broke out in the streets. Dissent was erupting all over Eastern Europe. Each regime reacted differently to the demands for the type of reforms that Mikhail Gorbachev had introduced in the Soviet Union. East Germany, for example, became even more doctrinaire. Poland gave up after a while and held a democratic election. And Hungary began cutting down the 160 miles of fence that separated it from Austria, from the West.

By the autumn of 1989, tens of thousands of refugees were racing for the widening hole in Hungary. Many were East Germans, but humanitarian agencies began noticing Soviets, Romanians, even Somalis fleeing something or other.

Then Hungary dropped all pretense at controlling the outflow of people. It announced that East Germans wouldn't need visas to transit Hungary into Austria. In other words, people like Michaela no longer had to cut through the woods. They could stroll through the checkpoint without any paperwork at all. Hungary transformed itself into a wide-open portal to the promised land. The border became a vortex. The entire region, the entire world, was put into play.

The coup de grâce was delivered by Gorbachev himself. He came to East Germany on October 7, the fortieth anniversary of the day the Soviet Union had forged the nation from the rubble of World War II. East Germany was hemorrhaging people. Huge crowds were marching in the streets to denounce party chief Erich Honecker. These same people turned out to cheer Gorbachev. "Gorby!" they shouted. "Help us!"

And Gorbachev was there for them. He admonished those who wouldn't change with the changing world. "Life punishes those who come late," Gorbachev told Honecker.

Honecker wouldn't listen. Nearly three decades before, as a party functionary, he himself had supervised the building of the Berlin Wall to halt the same sort of exodus, to imprison an entire people. Communism's gatekeeper was not about to let his people go. He was not about to give them the little freedoms they demanded.

So the escapes continued. Those who couldn't make it to Hungary flooded West German embassies in Poland and Czechoslovakia to plead for asylum. Within East Germany, the protests grew larger and spread to more cities. "We . . . are . . . the people!" the people roared, louder and louder. Less than two weeks after Gorbachev's visit, Honecker was deposed by his own Politburo.

His successor, Egon Krenz, tried to placate the people with a new law born of desperation. He decided to relax the travel ban on East Germans so they, like the Hungarians, could travel West and, presumably, return home again. A Politburo member read the resolution at a news conference. Radio stations broadcast it immediately. People who heard it poured out of their homes and moved toward the barriers. Could it be?

Michaela was having dinner with her roommate. She had actually come to regret her decision to slip through Hungary. She was missing these amazing demonstrations, this incredibly inspiring and rather stylish revolution against the old guard. And she never regretted it more than that day in November 1989, when she sat down for dinner. One of her roommate's friends, a West German, burst into their apartment.

"Turn on the TV!" she shouted. "The wall has fallen!"

They turned on the television set and there it was: Michaela's countrymen, joyous and disbelieving, pouring over and around and through the wall, heading West, heading right for the television cameras, right for their living room. The border guards had merely stepped aside. Michaela stared with disbelief at the ecstatic faces from her old world, crashing like a wave into her new one.

"Shit!" hissed her roommate's friend, either speaking without thinking or thinking far ahead. "The Ossis are coming!"

Then she looked at Michaela, embarrassed.

"You're not an Ossi, of course," she said.

Michaela just shrugged. Of course she was. She just hid it well.

She'd be gone from Berlin in just a few months. Romance and art school and a thrilling new world beckoned in London. But she was still, in her soul, an Ossi, an outlander, a seeker of asylum, a woman who had disappeared into a forest one day and emerged as a refugee on the other side. She had merely been a few steps ahead of the rest, as usual. She had been selected by circumstance to help unlock the gates, broaden the breach a bit, make it easier for the millions who would follow.

Meet the Author

Mark Fritz has won numerous prizes and awards for his writing, including the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of Rwanda, and his dispatches were selected for Best Newspaper Writing: 1995. He is currently a national correspondent for The Los Angeles Times, based in New York.

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