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A Stark Portrait of Refugees : With Its Gripping Pictures, a New Book Confronts the Realities of Global Turmoil

Times Staff Writer

You become accustomed to it. You even see people killed in front of your face, shot by the big gun or blown up; you see it all the time. Your eyes see, but your mind, it’s not like a human mind anymore, it doesn’t care what it sees. I even see a head come off a body.

--Phat Mohm, 10-year-old girl, Cambodia, from “Forced Out”

There was really very little reason for Carole Kismaric to give much thought to the plight of refugees around the world. She had a nice place on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She had a husband with a good job as an illustrator of children’s books. She had lots of nice clothes, friends and a successful career as an editor of photography books.

Saw Refugees on TV

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She dutifully skimmed the newspaper stories and watched television documentaries about people displaced from their homeland, but until she agreed to work on a book about people who had fled their homelands, “I really didn’t have any inkling what a refugee was,” Kismaric said. She did not know, for example, that of the world’s 14 million refugees, only 1% return home, and 1% settle in a new country. The other 98% wander, or live their lives in camps.

“It sounds corny, but I really think I am not unusual in that way,” Kismaric said on a visit here last week.

That day I got up, as usual, at 6 a.m., and after breakfast my friends and I went singing along to the big tents in the camp’s center that serve as our school. It was 7 a.m., and the bell had just signaled the start of classes. We were lining up when suddenly we heard a noise in the sky. There were planes dropping things and we said: “They are sending us more rations.” A tragic mistake. These objects exploded as they touched the ground.

--Koini Idete, Namibian, Kassina camp, South Angola, from “Forced Out”

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For Kismaric, a former editor at Time-Life Books and editorial director of the art photography publisher Aperture, the issue moved closer to the center of her consciousness when she applied to the J. M. Kaplan Fund three years ago for money for an unrelated project about Northern Ireland. Joan Davidson, president of the New York-based foundation, rejected that suggestion. But Davidson had an idea of her own, a book about refugees, and when she met Kismaric, she knew she had found her editor.

The book that became “Forced Out,” to be published April 10 by an unprecedented coalition of four major New York publishers in conjunction with the Kaplan Fund, “was sort of stewing around in my brain,” Davidson said in a telephone interview from New York. The more she attended meetings of the Human Rights Watch organizations, the more she felt certain that a book could help break the public barrier of awareness about what is happening to the 14 million people dislodged from their native countries.

“It seemed to me maybe, maybe if people could see it, they could understand it,” Davidson said. “You read these endless stories in the newspapers. You see the numbers, ‘millions’ of people. Who knows what a million is?”

Months went by as Kismaric explored various approaches to the subject. The parallels that people at the Kaplan Fund and Human Rights Watch groups kept offering her were to the way Eugene Smith used photographs to chronicle the sadness of rural America, or the way the now-classic “Family of Man” captured the unity of mankind more than 25 years ago.

But Kismaric felt stymied. “One after the other, I discarded my own ideas,” she said. The vastness of the world refugee situation continued to elude her. “There was something going on that took me quite a while to understand.”

Finally the concept clicked for Kismaric. She was sitting in her living room, not far from Fifth Avenue, poring over files of refugees’ experiences. They spoke of impossible hardships, of starvation and sickness. They spoke of constant movement. They spoke, finally, of cannibalism.

Our food and water ran out. No ship rescued us. “Please wait until tomorrow. I’ll die. Then you’ll eat me,” said Dao Huo Cuong. Three of us pulled Cuong out of the cabin and held his head in water.... I remember we prayed to the Lord before we killed Mr. Cuong.

--Phong Quang Minh, Vietnam, from “Forced Out”

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“I was reading these horrible, horrible experiences. I was physically repulsed,” Kismaric said. “And then I realized that I could do a book that would have that same impact.”

The information came to her in a “confrontational” fashion, she said. With its oversized format filled with shocking, full-page photographs and bold declarations by the refugees themselves, “Forced Out” requires its readers to confront through stark words and visual images the realities they may have avoided in dull news stories and boring government reports.

“I guess I just decided, one of the ways to get to the obstinate reader, the defended reader, was to make it experiential,” Kismaric said.

“I knew I didn’t want to use corny pictures of people with their hands out, looking like victims,” she continued. In search of urgency and directness, she turned to news photographs, pictures taken by journalists from all over the world, to convey her message: the increasingly worldwide character of the phenomenon of political refugees, and how the movement of these people is changing the quality of everybody’s life, all over the world.

We were deported from the United States to Korea on March 29. The next day Korean Airlines took us to Taiwan and then to Hong Kong. Hong Kong refused us and sent us back to Korea. The Koreans then sent us to Sri Lanka and told the Sri Lankan authorities that we should be sent on to Afghanistan. The Sri Lankan government refused to accept us and stated that sending us back to Afghanistan was against all human rights principles. So Korean Airlines took us to Saudi Arabia.

--Amanullah Obaidi, Afghan refugee in orbit

There were no “worst” stories among refugees, Kismaric discovered. As she sifted through photographs and shuddered over diaries from refugees, “there was nothing that dulled my sense,” she said. “Each was more horrible than the one before it.”

At times there were what she calls “light bulb lessons,” moments of epiphany about the subject she was immersed in. The first was “the discrepancy between my life and theirs, the old notion of an accident that puts us in two places.”

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She became possessed by a notion that recurs throughout the book, that “no one wants to leave home.” Refugees, she said, “were not the dreck that gets washed ashore.” They were pawns in huge political chess games, Kismaric said, native-born tenants evicted by their own government landlords.

Finally Kismaric was struck by the cultural shift caused by refugees.

“Like geology,” this movement of people is “imperceptible,” she said, “and it is changing the character of everything.”

We love our land very much. Since those people tried to take our land away, we have grieved very much. My grandfather used to cry bitterly and say: “In the past no one person owned the land. The land belonged to everyone. There were no boundaries.”

--Rigoberta Menchu, Indian leader, Guatemala

As the book took shape, excitement about the effort grew among members of the Human Rights Watch groups. Founded in 1978 by the Fund for Free Expression, Human Rights Watch branches into regional committees that monitor human rights activities in Africa, the Americas, Asia, the Soviet Bloc and the Middle East. While Davidson had envisioned “Forced Out” as “a useful document that could be used by the Human Rights Watch as part of its arsenal,” Roland Algrant, a member of the executive committee of the Human Rights Watch, saw the project in broader terms.

Algrant, who is also the managing director of Hearst Books International, the parent company of William Morrow & Co., approached fellow publishing executives at Random House, W. W. Norton & Co. and Penguin Books Ltd. Soon the four houses were contributing the same amount, $25,000, to help enlarge the scope and distribution of “Forced Out.”

In his original memo to his colleagues and competitors alike, Algrant observed that “the problem with this scheme is that it’s so simple, no one will accept it.”

“But anyway,” he said by phone from New York, “they did accept it. It’s never happened before,” Algrant said of this odd temporary marriage of four large publishers on a single book. “One may wonder whether they really know they’re doing it.”

The book, a coffee table-sized paperback priced at $19.95, has an ambitious first print run of 30,000. Through the distribution networks of the four publishers, it will be on sale worldwide.

For Kismaric, the success of this three-year endeavor will rest in large measure on whether “this passive object,” a book, can “get to people” and awaken them from what she calls “moral laziness” about the fates of humans ruptured from their homelands. She will feel she has succeeded if some readers regain the world view she feels “we have all lost.”

But Joan Davidson has bigger expectations for “Forced Out.”

“I think we will all be very sorry if everybody says ‘Oh yes, nice book,’ and then nothing happens,” Davidson said. “I think we all feel that action has to follow.”


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