470400175_2f182d012e_zIn her 1996 collection of short stories, Krik? Krak!, Edwidge Danticat presents a story of Haitians fleeing upheaval in their country on a flimsy boat across the Caribbean. She writes:

They say that behind the mountains are more mountains. Now I know its true. I also know there are timeless waters, endless seas, and lots of people in the world whose names don’t matter to anyone but themselves. (“Children of the sea,” 3).

This is how the sea becomes a site of mass atrocities. The picture above is the Mediterranean, where the International Organization on Migration fears up to 30,000 people might die this year given current trends. In one incident alone, over 800 people drowned on a ship full of desperate migrants making their way from North Africa to Europe. The blue waters fading into a blue sky could also be the seas off the Burmese or Thai coast, where Rohingya have been dying in droves in their attempts to escape relentless oppression in Burma/Myanmar. Human Rights Watch wrote:

Interviews with officials and others make clear that these brutal networks, with the complicity of government officials in Burma, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Malaysia, profit from the desperation and misery of some of the world’s most persecuted and neglected people.

But in the circumstance of deaths at sea, too often the “perpetrator” is able to masquerade as natural phenomenon–it is storms, waves and rocks that cause death. Mass atrocities, we assume, require intent, focused violence, and usually a gun. When the seas become mass graves, the trail back to a source of violence or outrageous inequity is frequently an abstraction. “Traffickers” or “immigration policies” are to blame–a “perpetrator” as nameless as its victims. The people, as Nick MacWilliam writes, describing an incident where a smaller boat was rammed by a larger one, merely disappear:

We can only imagine the terror and suffering as the boat sank and people fell into the water, desperately trying to stay afloat and hold onto their loved ones. The few who made it did so by clinging on to bits of flotsam until passing ships finally picked them up. The rest perished, undocumented and nameless. We don’t know who they are, where they came from, or exactly how many of them there were. But regardless of nationality, they are the disappeared of Europe.

There is one way to understand mass atrocities that helps us place these disappeared in context of the campaigns of violence that usually characterize its objects of concern. Stripped of the many qualifiers that we do need to study and direct policy to effective ends, mass atrocities in their simplest form are nameless death.

In Danticat’s story, the main character drafts a love note to the woman he left behind on ever smaller scraps of paper as the boat slowly takes on more water. A fellow passenger, an illiterate old man, makes a final request: to record his name before he dies. “I asked him for his full name. It is Justin Moise Andrew Nozius Joseph Frank Osnac Maximilien. He says it with such an air that you would think him a king” (27). The story ends back on land, where the man’s beloved seems to somehow know his moment of death:

last night on the radio i heard that another boat sank off the coast of the bahamas. i can’t think of you being there in the waves. my hair shivers. from here i can’t even see the sea. behind the mountains are more mountains and more black butterflies still and a sea that is endless like my love for you. (29).

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