Hurricane Katrina: jailed for helping people in New Orleans

Submitted by Matthew on 10 June, 2010 - 3:21 Author: Tom Unterrainer

As the eye of Hurricane Katrina passed New Orleans in late August 2005, Abdulrahman Zeitoun remained tucked in the relative safety of his daughters’ second floor bedroom. Around him were gathered the books, photographs, mementos and other less valuable but expensive-to-replace items from around the house.

Abdulrahman’s wife, Kathy, and children had already left the city with thousands of others. Despite repeated requests to leave, the “man of the house” remained. This decision was not just some macho reflex: Zeitoun sensed that he could be useful in the aftermath of the storm. He felt responsible for his neighbours and their properties, many of which he’d refurbished or repaired over time. He felt that he could make a difference, could cope with the challenges and danger … and do some “good”.

Zeitoun’s sense of human solidarity had immediate benefits in the storms aftermath. Whilst the State Governor, National Guard, Federal Government and police appeared to flounder in the face of the damage and the sometimes scattered, sometimes concentrated thousands of poverty stricken and immobile citizens who remained, Abdulrahman swung into action.

Traversing the destruction in his second-hand canoe, he saved more than one life, ensured that abandoned dogs got fed and checked on the state of friends’ houses.

Then one day, Abdulrahman’s house was raided by heavily armed men and women (some in official uniform, others not). He was taken to “Camp Greyhound” and then to a high security prison. He was not formally arrested, was not charged, did not get a phone call to either lawyers or family. He was “disappeared” and remained so for some time.

When Kathy eventually tracked him down, the Kafkaesque nature of this horribly real story snowballed. In some ways, though, the authors of Abdulrahman Zeitoun’s fate outdid the master of the absurd parable: at least Joseph K. in The Trial had a prompt hearing, even if the exact parameters of the charges remained unknown. Abdulrahman was kept isolated and abused at length.

So what did he do wrong? Why was he so brutally detained? What crime took place? What suspicions did this Syrian-American “Good Samaritan” arouse? Who did he worry? Why?

As George W. Bush’s government abandoned the poor and destitute to drown in their own homes, starve on their roof-tops and rot in the gutter, “National Security” concerns were addressed. Whilst Bush’s racist administration was willing to accept the deaths of mainly black Americans unable to flee the storm, they poured in police and armed forces from across the American South and hired private armies to deal with people like Zeitoun.

Bush and company feared that terrorists could use a natural disaster as cover for an attack: funds, personnel and time were invested in preventing this ‘risk’. Thousands rotted and hundreds disappeared as a result.

Dave Eggers’ fictionalised version of the story is masterful. His rendition of the nightmarish true story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun’s is equally powerful and heart-rending. This mode of writing, presenting political and human reality in an accessible, literary format, can have a special place in chronicling the times in which we live and indicting the powers that deform and destroy human lives. Let’s hope others take their cue from Eggers’ work.

Abdulrahman Zeitoun was not completely destroyed by his grotesque ordeal. Many thousands of lives were destroyed during and in the aftermath of the storm: if Katrina was a natural disaster, the consequences were a clear-cut case of callous racism by a capitalist state.

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