April in Washington, D.C., is normally the month of nature's renewal—and my favorite—for the pastel blossoms of azaleas and tulips, the shades of green in new grass, the warming temperatures, and the soft light that lingers into evening. This spring, the window is the prism of human existence—looking through the glass and waiting for the pestilence to pass. From my window, I can see a pear tree shedding white flowers to make way for sprouting leaves. Little else is happening on the other side of the pane. As eerie as this spring has already been, Surgeon General Jerome Adams warned on Sunday that this week will be "the hardest and saddest" in most Americans' lives. "This is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment, only it's not going to be localized. It's going to be happening all over the country," he said, on Fox News.
I began to wonder how much the human spirit can endure—and for how long. We're only in the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, with a second wave expected in the fall. "Catastrophizing is really bad for your mental health," Samuel Paul Veissière, a co-director of the Culture, Mind and Brain Program at McGill University, told me. "You bring depression into being by worrying. And that has an impact on quality of life and immune functions." To circumvent the numbing fear of becoming the next numeral in a running tally of cases, I started playing a mental game—identifying the people I've known or covered who were imprisoned, isolated, or banished in far worse conditions. Covering the world's wars and political hellholes, there have been many—some famous, many little-known. Each of their stories reaffirmed what humans are capable of bearing—and eventually overcoming.
In the nineteen-seventies, I covered the apartheid era in South Africa, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated in a damp concrete cell on Robben Island, a former leper colony converted into a prison. "I could walk the length of my cell in three paces," Mandela recalled, in his autobiography. "When I lay down, I could feel the wall with my feet and my head grazed the concrete at the other side. The width was about six feet. That small cramped space was to be my home for I knew not how long." Mandela's prism on the world was a small window with six bars but little to see. Robben Island was five miles off the coast. He didn't have access, as we do now, to newspapers, telephones, and a television. He once wrote the warden begging for pajamas that only white prisoners received. After his wife was arrested, in 1969, he wrote his children, "For long you may live like orphans." In 1988, he developed tuberculosis, another highly contagious airborne virus. Mandela was imprisoned for twenty-seven years; he was seventy-two when he made his famous walk to freedom. He went on to re-create a nation and win the Nobel Peace Prize. I saw him twice after he was elected President, in 1994. He was never self-indulgent about his confinement, the conditions of life during isolation, the separation from family and society—or his disease. He endured, brilliantly.
In 1992, exactly twenty-eight years ago this week, I flew with Elie Wiesel to the Nobel Peace Prize Forum, an annual conference held in the Midwest to honor the laureates and highlight human rights. Wiesel had won the Nobel six years earlier. Wiesel was a child when his family was confined, first in Auschwitz, where his mother and younger sister were killed, then in Buchenwald, during the Second World War. There's a haunting picture of Wiesel packed with other men and boys on wooden planks, shelves, really, that were stacked in four rows on top of each other, floor to ceiling, in Buchenwald. The men were all skeletal. They had no windows to the outside world.
My father fought to liberate Ohrdruf, a subcamp of Buchenwald and the first Nazi camp seized by the U.S. Army, in April of 1945. I still have his letter to my mother about the horrors he found. On our flight, Wiesel and I talked about our fathers' experiences in the camp. He told me a longer version of what he recounted about his father's fate when Elie returned to Buchenwald, in 2009. "The day he died was one of the darkest in my life. He became sick, weak, and I was there," he said. "I was there when he asked for help, for water. I was there to receive his last words. But I was not there when he called for me, although we were in the same block; he on the upper bed and I on the lower bed. He called my name, and I was too afraid to move. All of us were. And then he died. I was there, but I was not there." Wiesel was sixteen when Buchenwald was liberated. He came out of his imprisonment an orphan, a pauper, and stateless. Yet he survived another seventy years, wrote remarkable books, lectured around the world, and became a living reminder of the Holocaust. He made his life a testament to the human spirit.
In 2017, I met Mansour Omari, a Syrian journalist who chronicled the Assad regime's arrests and human-rights abuses during its ruthless crackdown on Arab Spring protesters—until Omari, too, was arrested, in 2012. He was locked up in a filthy underground cell with so little space inside that the prisoners—the number in his cell fluctuated from sixty to more than eighty—took turns sitting, standing, squatting or sleeping. They shared a single toilet and a sewer hole to defecate—with no toilet paper. Bugs and mites were pervasive; cases of scabies were common. "The smell was unbelievable," Omari told me. "People were, almost all of them, sick. All of them had blisters or wounds. It's infections that eat your flesh so quickly." Omari lost seventy-five pounds. Prisoners used salt to treat each other's wounds after beatings or torture. "This is how we healed each other," Omari said. "Sometimes it worked. Sometimes not."
Omari's cell had no windows. The prisoners had no communication with the outside world. Many of their families didn't know where they were—or even if they were alive. Omari came up with a scheme to write the names of the prisoners—using a quill fashioned from a chicken bone and ink blended from rust chipped from the cell bars and blood squeezed from the gums of prisoners diseased by malnutrition. With no paper, they wrote the names on small strips of cloth torn from a shirt. The prisoners wrote eighty-two names on the strips of cloth and then sewed them into the collar and cuff of a single shirt—using a sliver of chicken bone as a needle. Whoever got out first would wear the shirt and be responsible for informing the other prisoners' families. Omari was the first one summoned for transfer. He wore the shirt—only to be sent to one prison, and then another. The names began to fade from moisture and perspiration; half the names were lost. After he was finally released, Omari fled to Turkey, then Sweden. I met him in 2017, when the little blood-stained cloths were exhibited at the Holocaust Museum, in Washington. He told me that he managed to reach thirty of the families of the men imprisoned with him in Syria. Three of the five in the group that assembled the list of names—including the tailor who sewed the strips back into the shirt—died in jail.
Omari and I are now friends on Facebook. I messaged him today, to say that his story of isolation—and his ultimate resilience—inspired a sense of hope about the resoluteness of the human spirit. I noticed that he had recently changed the picture on his home page. It features four first responders—their faces imprinted with the ridges of masks and goggles worn while they work with those infected with COVID-19. The caption reads, "Protectors of humanity."
Omari messaged me back that the prisoners kept their sanity while isolated from the outside world by showing solidarity. "Unity was best shown when we all knew that if any one of us 'violates' the jailors' orders, like to speak loudly, we will be beaten collectively," he wrote. "If we did not clean the floor of the cell twice a day our wounds and infections will get much worse. We all had to check our clothes and bodies for bugs and kill them twice a day, because if one did not do that, the bugs from his clothes will move to the detainees next to him." The key to survival, he said, was that "suffering the same situation gave us unity and sympathy."
Amid this weekend's dire forecasts and calls for isolation, I telephoned Haleh Esfandiari, my friend and the former director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, in Washington, D.C. She is an Iranian-American who left Tehran during the 1979 revolution but returned regularly to see her widowed mother. During one visit, in 2007, Esfandiari was stopped en route to the airport to return to the United States. She was initially barred from leaving Iran, put under virtual house arrest with her ninety-three-year-old mother, and summoned daily for long interrogations. After several weeks, she was taken to the notorious Evin Prison. Her small cell had no furniture; she bundled two chadors together to sleep on the floor. It had no toilet; she had to summon a prison matron to use a communal hole in the ground. With nothing to do, she pleaded for books; she was given a Quran, a book of medieval poetry, and a copy of "The Last Temptation of Christ." Her only view of the outside world was through two small barred windows eight feet from the ground; she could see nothing but a sliver of the sky. "The third time I saw the moon, I knew I had been there for three months," she told me. She spent a hundred and five days in solitary confinement.
"Oh, there was no comparison with then and now," she told me, when I asked her to compare her confinements. "I can read. I can write. I'm with my husband. I'm not worried for my safety or my future. In Evin, no matter how much I wanted to, I couldn't open a door and walk out even into the prison corridor, let alone into the open air. In our self-imposed quarantine, I can always open the door of the house and walk out." And, someday, we will.