When I look outward, beyond what has happened to me, I create opinion pieces and essays. In 2022, I began publishing op-eds in American newspapers.
In November 2017, I published the disturbing essay Bearing Witness to Anna -- based on work I had done as an interpreter in Berlin -- in an online magazine called Novelty. The issue was entitled "Spinning Stories," and the piece was published under my pen name. Unfortunately, the magazine has been offline since 2020. I am reposting it here.
Bearing Witness to Anna
Four of us sit in Herr M.’s office at Berlin’s State Office of Criminal Investigation, a massive, rundown thirty-year old building of steel and glass: Anna, who is being heard, accompanied by Monika, a social worker from “Solidarity with Women in Distress”; Herr M., the detective; and myself, an interpreter whom the police call in maybe six times a year. I will transform Anna’s spoken English words into written German in a transcript to be sent to the public prosecutor if the questioning results in a case. As always, before we start I know nothing about what we will discuss.
Herr M. begins by asking Anna to give us a sense of her background: her home and family situation, what things were like for her growing up. Anna comes from the capital city of a large East African country. Her mother works a small farm in a village in the countryside, and she has five siblings. She attended thirteen years of school, three years of university and started working as a teacher in 2006.
I’m surprised—all that schooling, and more than ten years ago? Looking again, I see she is indeed in her mid-30s. The details emerge slowly, as if Anna has buried her early years. She tells how teaching at private schools was preferable to state schools because you earned more, but you had to pay bribes to get those jobs. The short-term teaching contracts she got over a few years barely sufficed to live on.
Herr M. pushes for facts to better substantiate her story. “What is the name of the school where you taught?” Anna starts to list them, but “there were too many; it’s hard to remember them all.”
She began working in the beauty business, opening a hair salon with her school friend Belle. She and Belle also lived together. Herr M. types the name and location of the salon. When asked the street address of their apartment, she waves her hand: “It’s not like here. You don’t have a contract. You stay in one place, then another.”
One day in 2013, out of the blue, Belle said: “I’m leaving tomorrow. For Europe.” Everyone Anna knew dreamt of travelling to Europe. Those who’d returned from overseas could afford to build nice houses and live well. In her country it’s difficult to make ends meet. Belle headed to the countryside to say goodbye to her family. Her phone was turned off, and the two didn’t speak again.
Months passed. Then Belle called to say she was in the Netherlands, studying and working too, everything was very good, but she had to keep things short as it was a borrowed phone. Later she called again, saying she’d been helped by her uncle, Mr. K., who wanted to help Anna get to Europe too. That he was a good man: he travelled regularly between Europe and their country, and would contact her the next time he was in the capital. (A little voice in Anna’s head said, “I’ve known Belle all my life. Uncle? I don’t remember her mentioning this uncle.”)
Mr. K. said he regularly obtained scholarships to study in Europe. Her dream had been to study medicine, but she’d had to become a teacher. Training in Europe to become a nurse? What an opportunity! She agreed that he should apply for a visa for her.
At irregular intervals, Belle’s “uncle” called Anna, and they met. He requested that she introduce him to her mother and siblings back in the village: to be able to contact them, he said, should anything happen to her in Europe. Late in 2014, she was issued a visa by the Italian Embassy. It would automatically be switched to a student visa, he said, and there was a place waiting for her at a university. She didn’t ask details about the country or the university—she simply trusted Mr. K.’s expertise in these matters.
When Anna left the room briefly, Herr M. asked me whether I was as surprised as he was that an educated woman hadn’t wanted to know more details about her future university. The detectives often ask my opinion of what we’re hearing. I said I wasn’t sure.
Mr. K. repeatedly told her how easy it was to get work in Europe—taking care of old people or children, even cleaning the streets. “Just imagine what 100 or 150 Euros could buy at home!” Though Anna longed to study, she was willing to work on the side. She’d do what was necessary.
Anna speaks softly and deliberately with some hesitations, as if she believes her words have great significance. Her English is excellent and we understand each other well. Herr M. types the German version I dictate to him, sometimes adjusting my wording. I’m uncomfortable when he is typing, as I don’t know where to rest my gaze.
Upon leaving the Embassy, Mr. K. placed Anna’s passport with the brand-new visa in his own pocket “for safekeeping,” as he said. Though she spontaneously thought, “If I had it, I could travel to Europe without him!”, she told herself he knew how these things are done.
Anna is a woman of medium height, with beautiful, curly, shoulder-length dark hair and mocha-colored skin. She’s dressed in sturdy casual clothes that fit and look quite new; I imagine they were provided to her by Monika’s organization. As the hours pass, I become annoyed by Monika, her sanctimonious way of phrasing her words to Herr M. in a small-town southern German accent, how she fussily crosses her legs—what a self-righteous do-gooder! But at the same time, I’m irked by my own discomfort with Monika: Anna obviously trusts her. Why am I being so petty?
Her voice cracking, Anna tells us that something happened on the way to the airport: “He drove me to a shrine. I’d never seen anything like it before. We Christians don’t believe in witchcraft. But we’ve seen it work. And we’ve heard stories of animals being sacrificed, children being sacrificed. ...”
Herr M. asks her, “What do you mean by witchcraft? What do you mean, you believe it works?” She said there’d been many news reports on incidents of sacrifice and kidnapping. After the session I read online, horrified, that many children had indeed been kidnapped and even sacrificed in the 2010s in her home country, that the BBC and others had reported on the subject: “black magic priests” had led gullible nouveaux riches to believe these sacrifices would help them get richer. My quick-fire skeptical reaction had been unfair: the issue was genuine.
“We went through dark rooms, through passages, until we came to a man, a priest. And then they did a ceremony using my fingernails, my toenail, some of my hair—I wouldn’t let them cut into my head and draw blood. They smeared medicines on me. Mr. K. yelled at me, full of rage—never in our encounters had he been like that—‘You owe me so much money for everything I’ve done for you. I’m going to make sure you pay me back. I’ve helped so many people—and when they get to Europe, they disappear. I know where your family lives. I’ll kill you. Or I’ll hurt them. When we get to Europe, you’ll have to work to pay me back!’”
As they headed to the airport and flew from Kampala to Berlin, Anna had a sinking feeling she was in big trouble. Mr. K. said that the plane ticket had cost more than $1,000—and he’d done so much else besides, filled out the forms, introduced her at the Embassy. He had her passport; he knew how things worked abroad. She tried to appear confident and reliable nevertheless.
They got off the plane, took a train, then a taxi to a house. Everything Anna experienced was completely new. They arrived at an apartment where she slept for many hours. When she awoke, she looked around, surprised not to see Mr. K.’s wife and children—hadn’t he led her to understand that he lived with them in Europe? Later Mr. K. cooked, saying, “People usually cook for themselves here. Eating out is very expensive.” Two West Africans arrived—she recognized their English accent from films. Mr. K. didn’t involve her in the conversation, and she felt out of place. She went back to the small room containing a single bed, a clothes cupboard and a small table.
Suddenly, the three men burst into the room, and Mr. K. yelled, “From now on, you will do exactly what I say. You belong to me. I know where your family lives.” At this point the two other men began pulling her clothes off.
Herr M. asks what, in my experience, policemen always ask: “Did you put up a fight? Did you defend yourself?”
Bristling, Anna says, “Of course! I yelled and tried to get away. But what could I do—one woman against three men?”
And then, Anna reports, the men began to alternate taking her by force, raping her. When one was finished, another came in. Sometimes she could sleep for a few hours. It went on and on, endlessly, for two or three weeks. She didn’t eat much, just drank a little water. At some point Mr. K. started bringing paying clients.
Describing what happened in her first weeks in Europe, tears run down Anna’s face. I ask Herr M. and Monika, indignantly, if someone can please provide a tissue to this poor woman, who is by then choking on her tears. The detective stands up and walks next door to get a pack of tissues.
Herr M. shifts to question mode: Didn’t you say you had to work in a brothel, in various brothels? Where were they, did you see any signs? Did you catch Mr. K.’s real name or the other Africans’ or anyone at the brothel? Can you describe the place? Usually there’s a bar in front—do you remember the person who worked behind it?
And what about the money? What about the prices? Didn’t you have to agree the price with the johns before anything took place?
By now we’ve been working for close to five hours, and the whole thing is obviously taking an emotional toll on Anna. We agree to continue two weeks later.
At home it occurs to me that her plane flight to Berlin should be traceable, so I call Herr M. again. He expresses his frustration that Anna has given him no leads he can follow, and “What does that tell us about her?”
“But she’s an educated and articulate woman!”
“Yes, yes,” he says, “but she wants to become a nurse, she says. Doesn’t a nurse sometimes need to remember a list of medicines?”
It hits me how poorly equipped a policeman is to deal with trauma. I feel frustrated about my insignificant role in helping to catch the men who’ve caused Anna to suffer. We’re getting nowhere. I can’t actually help her. And she doesn’t recall enough for them to investigate.
At the second appointment, Monika confirms when Anna is out of the room that, “Victims of such sexual abuse usually prefer not to recount the details of what they’ve experienced. It plunges them back into a very dark time. They need to focus on finding themselves again. She has embarked on a recovery process. This is taking her back.”
Herr M. begins by asking Anna whether anyone could confirm her personal details, meaning, I presume, her name and birth date, perhaps her university studies. (Anna has, of course, no passport or ID card from home, only the substitute German ID cards the organization has helped her obtain since running away.) She looks at him, eyes wide—is he disbelieving of her story? He suggests: “We could call your mother, for instance, from this office. She could confirm some things, for instance when you left the country ...”
To my surprise and relief, Anna bursts out emphatically: “If I were to talk to my mother—and I have not talked to her at all since any of this happened—I would have to tell her everything that brought me to this place. And I am not comfortable with that, not at all.” I’m proud of her outburst, glad she has the drive to resist him.
“Yes, okay, I just thought ...” the detective responds, dropping the subject.
Anna tries to recall the neighborhood, the apartment building and its layout. Herr M wants to know about artwork, photos, personal objects—anything to distinguish the apartment should an opportunity arise to conduct a search.
Again he asks about the transition to working as a prostitute: had Mr. K. or one of the others explained the process, the pricing to her? “No,” says Anna, “it wasn’t like that. I think the rape was to break me in, to get me used to the ‘action’. There was no formal transition: I just said that last time because it was easier to explain. Never did I see any money. I assume they were bringing the men to my door and collecting money from them, that at all times at least one of the three men was in the next room. I have no words for the filthy things those men did to me. I never looked them in the eyes. I never had any eye contact.”
My job is to help Herr M. put together a case, not to pose questions. But, curious, I ask Anna whether the men were black or white.
She answers: “Both. Mostly white.”
Is my question interfering with Herr M.’s criminological dramaturgy? Finetuning some wording on the desktop computer, he doesn’t even notice.
Anna thought that the woman who came occasionally to bring her clothes and do her hair could have been enslaved in a similar way. She asked her a few questions, hoping to evoke solidarity and perhaps come up with a plan to run away. Instead, the woman must have gone directly to Mr. K. and intimated that Anna was conspiring to leave. He and one of the others beat her violently, kicking her when she was on the ground. She begged to be allowed to call her mother. That’s when Mr. K. said: “I already did, I told her you’re fine.” At that moment, Anna understood she was in a hopeless situation, and she lost consciousness.
Herr M.: “Could you tell us who of the three was the ringleader? Who gave the instructions, who followed?” Anna looks at me with eyes wide again. I attempt to explain his question: did you get a sense that one gave the orders, that the other two were hurting you because he compelled them to? Perhaps you observed the power dynamics among them?
She shakes her head, saying: “How should I know?” And more emphatically: “Tell me, how should I know that?”
I feel shamed by her: what a luxury to think about such subtleties. Anna is fighting to regain a sense of her self—and we are asking her about psychological observations. At the same time I hear how little Herr M. has to work with.
A shift took place in Anna’s treatment after the beating, two to three months after her nightmare weeks of rape. Mr. K. started saying: “You’re my girlfriend now. I want you to dress nicely.” Anna told us incredulously she couldn’t fathom his use of the word ‘girlfriend’. Not content with leading men to her small bedroom, he started driving her to brothels (“in a nice car with tinted windows, maybe a BMW”; Herr M. would have preferred she remember the license plate). He issued threats: “The people here in Germany are cold and distant. Don’t even try talking to the neighbors.” And: “Don’t think of jumping out the window. They just sweep people up off the sidewalk here.” For a long time she undertook no further attempt to escape.
I didn’t learn how her second attempt succeeded, as it’s not relevant to the criminal case. She broke out of the house, and somehow made it to Solidarity with Women in Distress, who have supported her over the past months.
During both sessions Anna expressed frustration with her memory— “I wish I could remember more. I wish I had noticed more.” But “it was a nightmare, and I never knew what terrible, painful things could happen next. I was always aware that they could kill me.
“After our first session here at the station, I asked Monika to keep her phone on at all times, just in case I needed to call her. I’m not sure why it’s worthwhile to keep living. I’m always scared.”
Herr M. hopes she’ll be able to remember details of the car, the drive, the brothels, names that were uttered around her. But she may not be able to dig more out of her consciousness and still maintain her will to live.
I’m not sure if Anna can return to Uganda. When she had a health scare recently, she called her closest brother, the first sign of life towards her family in close to two years. He told her, “Mr. K is looking for you everywhere; he keeps calling and asking me where you are. Where are you, actually?”
When we are finally done, I want to reach out to her—she has such a pleasing presence, and has been through so much. I imagine inviting her over, loaning her English novels from my collection. Then I consider that bringing her into my comfortable life with my husband might alienate her. In addition, can I break my professional code, one day supporting the cops in finding the perpetrators of an ugly crime, the next reaching out a friendly hand? It isn’t allowed; it isn’t done.
I think of meeting at a neutral place—a walk in the park, a café. But then I think that’s presumptuous of me—just because I like her doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for me to imagine us as friends hanging out. I have experienced nothing comparable to the trauma in her life. Who am I to think that we have actually made a meaningful connection because she has a gentle manner and seemed amused by my occasional sarcastic asides?
I ride my bike home, open the door of the apartment I own with my husband, and try to write Anna’s story.
This impassioned short personal essay--intended as an op-ed for a major American newspaper--did not find an external home. Thus, I am proud to publish it here.
NEVER AGAIN ANTI-HUMANITY
My friend and I leaned in, looking around to ensure there were no disapproving Germans near us in front of the Berlin cinema. “This new war is shocking,” I said. “Yes, and that Israeli military officer in a dapper uniform stating that the Palestinians have brought this on themselves …” “The children in Gaza, are they responsible for what parents they were born to? No one is!”
She and I are both more German than any other national identity—my friend immigrated here with her parents at the age of four; born American, I became a naturalized citizen after thirty years of residence and taxpaying. Our concern about being overheard has to do with the overwhelming messaging we perceive from all public levels of German society: every politician, every public figure has been super-quick to announce their solidarity with the Israelis, to say “Never again!” with serious, shamefaced expressions, to speak out against any signs of anti-Semitism.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz flew to Israel before all other world leaders to show solidarity and support in the face of the surprise Hamas attack. President Frank-Walter Steinmeier told demonstrators gathered on Sunday in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin: “It is unbearable that Jews are living in fear again today—in our country of all places. Every single attack on Jews, on Jewish institutions is a disgrace for Germany.”
An acquaintance on LinkedIn thanks someone for his “clear words”: “What happened on Saturday surpasses what was done in the Holocaust by Nazis to Jewish babies, children, and young people. Not in terms of quantity, but in brutality …” Jumping to publicly state one’s on the right side—that virtue-signalling irks me.
A few days ago, I helped an academic putting together a small, international seminar. When a Palestinian artist wrote that she was scared of the racism she might encounter in Berlin, the professor hastened to confirm that the mood here was “heated, almost hysterical.” The university administration edited the phrase out.
I admired how the UK’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was able, after expressing his solidarity with Israel and with the Jewish community in the UK, to state to the British Parliament in an unagitated way: “I also recognize that this is a moment of great anguish for British Muslim communities, who are also appalled by the actions of Hamas but are fearful of the response. … let us say it plainly: we stand with British Muslim communities, too.”
I wish German leaders were able to speak with similar clarity. No prominent German would stand up now and say the same thing as unequivocally, despite some 7% of Germany’s 83 million residents being Muslim. A newspaper editor writes that—unfortunately—any Palestinian intellectual asked what they now think must first follow three rules: distance yourself from Hamas terrorism; prove you have nothing to do with the Israel boycott movement; and state you explicitly believe in Israel’s right to exist.
An estimated 200,000 Palestinians live in Germany, one-fifth of them in Berlin. An article captured the current confusion and ambivalence of Palestinian Germans. An 18-year-old: “It’s being discussed in Germany like all Palestinians support Hamas. That’s crazy—of course I find Hamas awful.” A 19-year-old says people write her on Instagram that they should take away Palestinians’ passports, not even let them into Germany. “I’m happy to discuss it with them, but it’s so exhausting.” She has decided to use social media only to share information from the United Nations or charities.
A 28-year-old says she worked as a teacher in the “difficult” areas of Berlin with a mixed population of migrants from many places, and saw how helpless the teachers were to deal with the realities of Palestinian schoolkids. “In the Middle East conflict there was no room in class for stories outside Germany; the focus was very much on Germany’s responsibility to Israel as the land of the perpetrators of the Shoah.”
In Tel Aviv last week President Biden said: “I caution this: While you feel that rage, don’t be consumed by it. After 9/11, we were enraged in the United States. … we also made mistakes.” Zeit author Lenz Jacobsen considers the passage an eloquent warning against self-righteous anger, and called attention to the damage that had arisen from stressing the “clash of civilizations.” He continued that, “Blanket bans of Palestinian demonstrations are wrong—even if some Hamas supporters yell out their anti-Semitic hate,” as is forbidding the wearing of keffiyehs at Berlin’s schools, since school should be a protected space. Yet, “in both cases, moderate positions are considered evil.”
And that’s what’s making me uncomfortable too: the self-righteousness, the lack of willingness to express the historical awareness that Palestinians have suffered greatly since the founding of the Israeli state, the kneejerk, “Never again anti-Semitism!” words that don’t acknowledge in the next breath that the situation is very complicated, that urging 700,000 poor people in northern Gaza to flee immediately so that their neighborhoods can be bombed is a terrible, immoral idea.
October 28, 2023
In 2020, like so many of us, I was thrown by the pandemic and lockdowns and wrote a couple of impassioned blog entries. My readers wrote me: “a super text,” “fantastic,” “I empathized,” “beautiful and thought-provoking,” “nuanced and thoughtful,” “a wonderful take on complex feelings,” “so eloquently written,” “as always, great writing and right on!” “open and multi-faceted,” “broadens horizons and adds depth to insights.”
My COVID blog
capturing voices from friends around the world in March and April 2020
I published my initial reactions in German as well: Berliner Gazette