Some Interesting Locations That I Didn't Visit:
• The All-American Toxic Ghost Town Love Canal, New York
• Keeper of the Light Estevan Point, British Columbia (Canada)
• Big Mountain Stands Coal Mine Mesa, Arizona
• The Old First Ward Buffalo, New York
• Tomb Guarding Hebron, the West Bank
• Against the Slave Raiders Northern Bahr el Ghazel, Sudan
• Farming With The Enemy Harare, Zimbabwe
• The Dead Zone Chernobyl, Ukraine
• Hiding in Pristina Pristina, Kosovo
• Monastery Under Siege Tibhirine, Algeria
The All-American Toxic Ghost Town: Love Canal, New York
Seventy-three year old Chester Pysz can't understand why they call the five-block area at the heart of Love Canal the "Uninhabitable Zone" - namely because, he still lives there. True, he may be the only man living on his street, the front lawns of his "neighbors" may be three feet high, and the pizza delivery boy may never deliver to his door; but as far as Chester is concerned, this burgeoning wildlife refuge is eminently livable. There was a time when he did get a bit nervous. Chester remembers when the toxic ooze began to seep into people's basements, when the vegetables in his garden began to wither, when his neighbors began to get headaches, kidney disease, and respiratory infections. A panic came over the town, and within a year or two, almost all of the town's 900 residents were evacuated. But Chester never left. Now, twenty years later, he and another man of ninety-five are the Zone's last inhabitants. And some days, when the winter wind howls down these unplowed streets, it feels like they are the last two men on earth.
The canal itself is a dead end water route, a narrow 3,000 foot-long pond, which made for a picturesque landscape until the government discovered it was filled with 22,000 tons of liquid toxic waste. After the evacuation, the whole area was deemed off limits for roughly fifteen years. Then, quite unexpectedly, the EPA announced that while the southern part of town (where Chester lives) was still "non-inhabitable," the northern side of town was now safe to resettle. Almost overnight, real-estate developers turned this area into a glistening two-hundred-house suburb, and renamed it "Black Creek Village." Many of the first people to buy homes here were the former Love Canal residents who had fled some fifteen years ago. For them, despite all of the public outcry over the town's reopening, this was a joyous homecoming.
Tracy Simpson, president of the Black Creek Block Club, says now her biggest concern is the stigma of being associated with Love Canal, even if the name has changed. Some of their cousins refer to them simply as "the neon people." The Simpsons remain unfazed. They call the Uninhabitable Zone their "own private Eden" - it's a place where they can pick wildflowers and walk their dog without a leash. Occasionally they encounter Chester Pysz, who remains more determined than ever to ignore the EPA's seemingly arbitrary distinction. There is little to say these days. His house sits just fifty yards from the edge of Black Creek Village, but as far as all of them are concerned, it's a different world.
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Keeper of the Light: Estevan Point, British Columbia (Canada)
Dave Edginton lives at the seas' edge in a gothic tower that shoots up from the rocks like a petrified geyser. All night long as huge rolls of seawater slam against its base, Dave sits perched on the tower's peak, peering through the zoom of his binoculars. He's staring out into what many call the "Graveyard of the Pacific," a turbulent expanse of sea whose floor is strewn with the carcasses of hundreds of wrecked ships. Tonight, more than anything else, Dave hopes to find a ship in need of help - then he can scurry down the tower's dizzying spiral staircase, hop in his speedboat, and cruise out into the whitecaps. Even the most intrepid lighthouse keepers of years past would regard such hopes as foolhardy, but for Dave Edginton, this may be the only way to keep his home.
Life has never been easy for lighthouse keeper on Estevan Point. Almost fifty miles from the nearest road, the station's lone tower is a monumental embodiment of stand-alone courage. At the turn of the century, when the structure was first built, keepers had to wander for days through the forest to reach civilization. "Think of it," says Dave Edginton. "No safe boat landing, no roads in, just a trail the work gangs hacked through the forest and maybe the odd mule or something. It just goes to show you how tough the old boys were at the turn of the century." Often the isolation proved unbearable. Before the advent of radios, one B.C. lighthouse keeper wrote a letter to his supervisors that conveyed this point exactly: "Would you please send someone up here at once as my wife has gone crazy and I want to get her to town at once."
Today, Estevan Point is definitely more accessible. While there are still no roads, Dave is able to get in and out by seaplane. Needless to say, Dave and his wife still live in isolation; and somewhat ironically, it's the loss of this isolation that now constitutes his biggest fear. Like many lighthouse keepers along the coast, Dave is facing replacement by an automated counterpart. Now his best hope for keeping his home is doing the one thing mechanized lighthouses can't do - save sailors lives. A handful of lighthouse enthusiasts have successfully lobbied to keep stations manned for exactly this reason, and now it's up to Dave Edington to prove his worth. There are only a handful of manned lighthouses left in all of North America, and Estevan Point is one of them. For two decades Dave has been pulling sailors out of the sea. It's a dangerous way of life, but Estevan Point is Dave's home, and now more than ever it's imperative that he earns it.
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Big Mountain Stands: Coal Mine Mesa, Arizona
On a Tuesday in late February of 1999, thirteen armed officers from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) drove through a bleak expanse of Arizonan dessert until they came upon a rickety hut at the foot of Big Mountain. The BIA officers were looking for "Navajo resisters," who refused to relocate despite orders from a federal judge. Slowly two elderly women emerged from the hut. They were sisters, Anna and Ella Begay. Like most Navajo Indians, the women never kept track of their age in years, though both of them were probably well over eighty. Together they eked out a hermit's life with half a dozen weather-beaten sheep, three donkeys, and an arid field that spat out a few dependable prune-like vegetables each week. It wasn't an easy place to live, but the Navajo had been doing it for hundreds of years, and the Begay sisters knew how to make it work.
Politely, but firmly, the BIA officers demanded that the sisters handover the three little donkeys. This was a virtual eviction. No one was going to force the two women to relocate at gunpoint, but without these donkeys they were unlikely to survive the winter. The BIA hopes that such "livestock raids" will encourage the several hundred remaining Navajo resisters to leave Big Mountain once and for all. Technically the land belongs to the Hopi Indians, who in turn, have leased it to Peabody Coal (the nation's largest strip mining company). Basically the Navajo are in the way of a lucrative mining deal, and it has fallen upon the BIA to clear them out. At first the Navajo were offered various incentives to move - like brand new homes - but a handful of stalwarts have refused to budge and the outcome has been a ten-year standoff. Those who stay do so on principle; Big Mountain is a Navajo holy site, and they know that their relocation will assure its destruction.
Big Mountain has never been an easy place to live, this is one of the reasons the government made it a reservation in the first place. Flanked by the Grand Canyon, the Petrified Forest, and Sunset Crater - Big Mountain is one of the least accessible places in America. There are no paved roads, and getting there involves grueling hours of desert trailblazing. Despite these obstacles, once year a band of almost one hundred volunteers comes in by caravan and delivers roughly twenty-five tons of food to the remaining resisters. The caravan, which has been running for nine years now, is run by a mishmash of students, environmentalists, new agers. They are Big Mountain's tenuous lifeline.
Stranded with no donkeys to till their field or haul their firewood, the determined Begay sisters can do nothing but await the next caravan.
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The Old First Ward: Buffalo, New York
Potatoes brought Jack Britzzalaro's family to Buffalo, or to be precise, the lack thereof. Like most of the Irish immigrants who first settled here in the mid 1800's, they were fleeing a brutal potato famine, and hoping to find some honest work in the city's burgeoning steel mills. They settled in the city's First Ward, a swampy wasteland sandwiched between a forest of ever-rising grain elevators. Former townsmen tended to stick together - folks from Limerick settled on Ohio Street, those from Cork took Louisiana Street - and in so doing, they kept the old world together as best they could. As time passed, the First Ward came to resemble a normal neighborhood with paved streets, green parks, and single-family row houses. When the unions took hold, jobs really started to pay well (sweepers started at $17 an hour), and even the most nostalgic old timers had to admit: things were looking good. Then the steel mills shut down.
Jack Britzzalaro was one of the lucky ones. He got a new job with the U.S. postal office and was able to meet his mortgage payments. Most of his neighbors did not, and they soon found themselves heading off to new cities, once again in search of a better life. Within a few years the First Ward turned into a virtual ghost town; nature began to retake its inevitable course, as thick moss covered sidewalks, vines overtook houses, and fledgling forests sprouted on vacant lots. As if overnight, Jack found himself living in the wilderness. An odd lawlessness followed. Streets stopped being plowed, homes were broken into regularly, and at night you could see the bonfires of vagrants (reputed to be devil-worshipers) gathering beneath the old grain elevators. On the way home from the neighborhood's last functioning Irish pub, Jack could literally see tumbleweed blowing across the street, followed by shootouts in front of any number of crack dens. The First Ward was falling apart and he knew it - Jack was a mailman - he knew what a normal neighborhood looked like.
When news arrived that the Buffalo Zoo intended to buyout a large tract of the First Ward for its new location, Jack knew this would be an easy, pride-saving out. But he and a handful of remaining Irish-American residents wanted nothing of it. They had worked too hard to relocate now for a few zebras, and after a series of heated negotiations, the Zoo agreed to adjust it boundaries to accommodate the Ward's remaining residents. Jack's new home may soon be tightly flanked on three sides by prairie dogs and antelopes, but he isn't going anywhere.
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Tomb Guarding: Hebron, the West Bank
Sarah Niskin must have felt strange the first time she took the public bus from Jerusalem to Hebron - she was the only passenger not carrying a machine gun. And as her bus rumbled out of the station, Sarah may have noticed the bus' windows were made of inch-thick, bulletproof glass. It had to be shocking, traveling amidst a platoon of Israeli soldiers. Just several months earlier Sarah was a senior at Miami Beach High School in Florida. Now she was headed towards her new home in Hebron, one of the most fought-over towns in the Middle East, and quite possibly the world. But this wasn't a problem; in fact, this was exactly what she wanted. For Sarah, this was a dream come true.
Sarah is one of several hundred Jewish settlers in Hebron. By almost any measure, Life in Hebron is wretchedly hard. Many families live in crowded tin trailers, surrounded by barbed wire fences and watch posts. The yeshiva (a Jewish school) is built deep into the ground like a bunker. The main temple is protected by a series of metal detectors and soldiers wearing flack-jackets. Car bombs are a regular occurrence. And the reward for survival is the unrelenting hatred of Arabs and Israelis alike. All of this begs the question: Why?
For the settlers the answer is simple: They were on a mission, and that mission is to guard a tomb in the center of town where Abraham the Patriarch is allegedly buried. Because Abraham was the first Jew, the settlers have come to believe that this cave is the very source of Judaism. In their minds, this is where it all began, which makes moving to Hebron the ultimate homecoming. "I feel lucky to be here," avows Sarah. And the truly crazy part is - she is lucky. There is a very long list of people who would love to be in her shoes. But they'll have to wait until an apartment opens up, which often only happens after someone is murdered. It's a grim prospect, but when space is limited, you'll take what you can get.
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Against the Slave Raiders: Northern Bahr el Ghazel, Sudan
They come each dry season, pounding through the dessert on horseback, in search of the region's most valuable commodity: human bodies. They sweep through villages by the hundreds, slaughtering the men and snatching up woman and children. Then they drive their catch northward like cattle, where they sell them into one of the world's largest remaining slave trades.
Apuk Apec was captured on such a raid, but managed to escape. After a few years of servitude, in which she was repeatedly gang raped and then threatened with genital mutilation, she is finally home. Unfortunately, she is once again in harm's way. Apuk lives in the slave-belt, a mountainous area in southern Sudan often raided by horsemen from the north. The slave raiders will be back. Apuk may very well be recaptured. There are other villages just a week's journey to the south where she would be much safer; but Apuk refuses to leave - even if the cost is her freedom. Within the last several years, an organization called Christian Solidarity International (CSI) has intervened in Sudan and bought the freedom of some 15,000 salves through the use of Arab "retrievers" who work as middlemen. Other humanitarian groups have criticized this practice, claiming that it perpetuates a lucrative slave trade. As UNICEF spokesman Peter Crowley points out: "A person can be freed today and captured again tomorrow." On top of that, some slaves are captured at such a young age that they can no longer recall where they're from. After being freed they often wander aimlessly for years until they are recognized in a village that turns out to be their home. But just as often they stumble into the hands of slave-raiders, and resume a life of servitude.
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Farming With The Enemy: Harare, Zimbabwe
One August morning just a few weeks ago, Paul Stidolph stepped onto his front porch and found a band of fifty angry black men armed with clubs, crossbows, and sharpened bicycle spokes. Paul recognized them almost immediately - they were his neighbors. For almost a year these men had been occupying the back half of his farm, and Paul knew it was only a matter of time before they wanted his half as well. Today, however, they had just dropped by to deliver a message: Get back to work.
Paul Stidolph had decided to shut down his tobacco farm for a one-day protest in solidarity with white farmers across Zimbabwe. They were protesting the government-sanctioned land seizures that have been occurring for almost two years now. The shutdown was just a symbolic gesture, but Paul's disgruntled neighbors didn't appreciate it. Meanwhile the Stidolph family got on the short-wave radio and sent out a distress signal to their nearest white neighbors, who soon arrived by plane and joined the quickly escalating standoff.
Confrontations like this one have been occurring with increasing regularity in Zimbabwe. The heart of the problem is that a handful of white farmers own most of the nation's best farmland. The system implemented by the British colonists is still very much in place; and understandably, Zimbabwe's black majority wants serious land reform. Such reform has supposedly been underway for twenty years, since apartheid ended in 1980. During this time the government has tried to buy back thousands of farms, but the program has been plagued by corruption and seems to have done little good.
Tired of waiting, many black Zimbabweans have begun to take over white farms by force. The countryside is full of fields that are tilled only in lulls between standoffs. Farms like Paul Stidolph's exist in a perpetual state of turmoil. Yet Paul, like most of the nation's white farmers, refuses to leave. He has moved off two plantations already - both of which he has sold to the government - and he vows he not to move again.
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The Dead Zone: Chernobyl, Ukraine
Last fall, Maria Savenko took her first breaths of life in the middle of a withering, radioactive wasteland. She was the first child to be born in The Dead Zone, a twenty square-mile expanse of scorched earth that wraps itself around the remains of the world's most infamous power station: the Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor. No one is meant to be here. The ground itself is poisonous, and anything that lives off it - be it plants or people - will be contaminated in turn. The area is so deadly that the government has surrounded it with a giant wall and a small army of guards. This line of defense has kept people out for almost fifteen years, but slowly it's starting to fail. On the night the nuclear plant melted down, people living near Chernobyl crowded on to their balconies to see the breath-taking, even majestic colors given off by the burning reactor. The terraces were so full it was feared they would collapse. Most onlookers didn't understand what they were witnessing. And today most of them are either ill or dead.
Maria Savenko's parents are among a handful of people who survived the meltdown and have now snuck back into the Dead Zone to forge a new life. They come at night, creeping along old partisans' paths, past guard posts and barbed wire. Life inside isn't easy. Hordes of wolves roam through wilting forests where leaves turn brown by mid spring. But those who have returned are undeterred. "Even if it is poisoned with radiation, it's my homeland," one explains.
At first the police tried to remove these secret squatters, but eventually they turned a blind eye to the nearly 1,000 "samosiolis" (home comers) who now live there. For a few years there has been an unwritten code that no children are to be born there, but now even this is changing. When the government heard of Maria Savenko's birth it immediately offered the family a home in a town outside the Zone; but they refused.
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Hiding in Pristina: Pristina, Kosovo
It's the deadliest senior citizen home in the world. "We cannot go out, it's like a prison," explains Milosava Kastratovic, one of roughly 200 elderly Serbs living in this small enclave. Once there were more than 30,000 Serbs living in Pristina, Kosovo's beleaguered capital. Now almost all of them have left, except a small band of old-timers who are set on staying, even though they're too afraidto step outside. They hide all day long; and at night, gangs of vengeful Albanian hoodlums hunt them down.
"Old Serbs are now the main targets of violence," says Brian Johnston, a sergeant major in the Royal Irish Regiment of the Kosovo peacekeeping force (KFOR). Since Johnston first arrived in Pristina, Serbs have been murdered at a rate of several a week. To stop this genocide, KFOR troops have organized "granny patrols" to protect elderly Serbs, like Milosava Kastratovic.
In the nearby town of Luzane, another KFOR regiment stands guard with two tanks beside the house of Godsa Draza, an elderly Serb woman who was murdered the day before. "My soldiers are all extremely upset about this," explains Nick Perry, a British Captain who came to know the victim well. "Grandmother Draza was one of the kindest ladies we met and she had tried to protect the homes of her Albanian neighbors during the war. She was the only Serb left for miles around but she refused to go and we respected her for that."
Back in Pristina, Milosava Kastratovic knows there is no end in sight. Serbs and Muslims have been fighting in Kosovo since the early 1400's - it's an age-old conflict. Now all her hope is vested in the granny patrols, which check in on her daily. Milosava waits behind a door blockaded with furniture. "Even if all of them leave, I will stay," she insists.
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Monastery Under Siege: Tibhirine, Algeria
"It is true that we found only their heads," explains Monsignor Henri Tessier, Archbishop of Algeria. "Three of their heads were hanging from a tree near a petrol station. The other four heads were lying on the grass beneath." This is all that was left of the seven monks who were abducted from a small French monastery near the town of Tibhirine, in May of 1996. They were the latest victims in a holy war declared by the Armed Islamic Group, an extremist faction that is hell-bent on ridding Algeria of all foreign influences - especially the French clergy.
Monsignor Tessier was horrified by the sight of the hanging heads, but not entirely surprised. In the fall of 1993 these same militants abducted three French nationals at gunpoint, then released them on the condition that they read this address to the country's expatriate population: "Leave the country. We are giving you one month. Anyone who exceeds that period will be responsible for his own sudden death." Within a matter of days over 3,000 foreign nationals left the country. When the deadline passed, a gradual slaughter began. Some of the first victims were a band of four French monks who were killed by militants posing as police officers. The massive doors to the French monastery in Tibhirine are now firmly bolted shut, but inside a small band of monks continue to stay. All signs indicate that they should leave. The French government has asked them to. The nation's Catholic population has shrunk from almost a million to fewer than twenty thousand. Hardly anyone converts. But none of this, or even the murders of their eleven brothers, has persuaded them to leave.
At night, the monks in Tibhirine eat together in silence, sharing awkward glances when the walls of the abbey creak tiredly with age. There is nothing to do but wait.
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