'I Just Knew To Run To Save My Life': Nearly 125,000 Rohingya Flee Myanmar

A Rohingya woman rests for a moment with her children Tuesday after crossing into Bangladesh. She says she lost several members of her family in Myanmar, where a new spate of violence has sent more than 100,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing what they describe as certain death.

Bernat Armangue/AP

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Bernat Armangue/AP

In a span of less than two weeks, rampant violence has driven nearly 125,000 members of a Muslim ethnic minority from their homeland. And as the Rohingya cross the border from Myanmar into Bangladesh, they have borne little but the clothes on the back and their brutal stories of the systematic rape, murder and arson they escaped.

“My husband was shot in the village. I escaped with my son and in-laws,” a 20-year-old Rohingya named Dilara told the human rights agency at the United Nations, which released its estimates on refugees Tuesday. She had made it to Bangladesh with her toddler after a three-day walk, hiding occasionally to escape the gaze of Myanmar security forces.

“I don’t know where I am,” she said. “I just knew to run to save my life.”

Since a Rohingya militant group launched a short-lived assault on Myanmar military posts on Aug. 25, reports of the military’s violent reprisals on Rohingya civilians have streamed out of the country. Observers fear the assault, which was condemned by the U.N., merely exacerbated existing prejudices against Rohingya Muslims in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where they are viewed as outsiders without citizenship despite long roots in the country.

In the border state of Rakhine, home to roughly 1 million Rohingya, Human Rights Watch says satellite evidence suggests whole Muslim villages have burned to the ground.

Smoke and flames in Myamar are seen from the Bangladeshi side of the border on Sunday.

Bernat Armangue/AP

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Bernat Armangue/AP

“The brutality is unthinkable. They’re killing children. They’re killing women. They’re killing the elderly. They’re killing able-bodied men and boys,” Matthew Smith of the human rights group Fortify Rights told reporter Michael Sullivan earlier this week. “It’s indiscriminate.”

At the same time, international groups have protested that the Myanmar government is stymieing efforts to supply aid to the region.

“The Muslims are starving in their homes. Markets are closed and people can’t leave their villages, except to flee,” one humanitarian official said in an Amnesty International statement Monday. “There is widespread intimidation by the authorities, who are clearly using food and water as a weapon.”

Rohingya refugees from Myanmar’s Rakhine state walk the border with Bangladesh on Monday.

K.M. Asad/AFP/Getty Images

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K.M. Asad/AFP/Getty Images

Taken together, there are “clear signs that more [refugees] from Myanmar will cross into Bangladesh before [the] situation stabilizes,” Mohammed Abdiker, director of operations and emergencies at the International Organization for Migration, tweeted Tuesday.

Of those who are crossing the border, Abdiker says “many are vulnerable” and most are “women, children & the elderly.”

Most people crossing into Bangladesh from Myanmar are women, children & the elderly, many are vulnerable

— Mohammed Abdiker (@AbdikerM) September 5, 2017

The IOM has put out a plea for support, saying the settlements receiving refugees in Bangladesh are already reaching a crisis point.

“The new arrivals are putting immense strain on the existing support structures. These need to be immediately scaled up to ensure lives are not put at risk,” Sarat Dash, chief of the IOM’s mission in Bangladesh, said in a statement released Tuesday.

The group estimates roughly 400,000 undocumented migrants from Myanmar now live in Bangladesh, about half of whom are living in makeshift settlements in the border city of Cox’s Bazar alone.

A Rohingya Muslim helps his elderly family member and child as they arrive at a refugee camp on the Bangladesh side of the border Tuesday. The man said he lost several family members in Myanmar.

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Bernat Armangue/AP

Myanmar’s military, for its part, maintains that Rohingya militants are responsible for the burned villages — and that they are plotting terrorist attacks and bombings later this month. According to The Associated Press, a statement posted on the military commander in chief’s Facebook page alleged the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, or ASRA — the same group that launched the assault last month — was planning the violence to grab international attention.

The statement “gave no evidence to back up its claims,” the AP notes.

The military has also defended its restrictions on international aid by saying the supplies were finding their way into militant camps, suggesting support for the militants — an allegation Amnesty International vehemently denied.

“The accusation that international humanitarian organizations are supporting armed actors in Rakhine State is both reckless and irresponsible,” the group’s director for crisis response, Tirana Hassan, said Tuesday. “The Myanmar authorities must immediately stop spreading misinformation and circulating unfounded and inflammatory accusations.”

Beyond Myanmar’s borders, ire is coalescing around the country’s de facto civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. A Nobel Peace Prize laureate for her decades-long struggle for democracy in Myanmar, Suu Kyi has nevertheless remained conspicuously silent as the bloodshed has unfolded.

At a rally Sunday in Indonesia, demonstrators gathered to show solidarity with Rohingya Muslims in western Myanmar, splattering fake blood to protest the country’s “clearance operations” against the ethnic minority.

Dita Alangkara/AP

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Dita Alangkara/AP

As NPR’s James Doubek noted, Suu Kyi’s fellow Peace Prize laureate, Malala Yousafzai, called out the leader over Twitter this week, saying “the world is waiting and the Rohingya Muslims are waiting” for her to repudiate the violence.

Suu Kyi’s defenders argue the matter isn’t quite so simple, since the military remains in control of the country’s important mechanisms of power. Poppy McPherson, a journalist currently in Myanmar, explained on All Things Considered:

“Some people say she’s playing a long game. She’s trying not to do anything that would anger the military. There’s also the argument that, as we’ve seen by the reaction to this here in Myanmar, many people view the Rohingya as a security threat. They view them as illegal immigrants. So for Aung San Suu Kyi to come out in support of them could make her deeply unpopular domestically.”

That argument is no longer good enough for the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee. Suu Kyi may be “caught between a rock and a hard spot,” Lee said recently, according to The Guardian, but “I think it is time for her to come out of that spot now.”

That sentiment has been echoed by several Muslim-majority regions around the world, which have been watching the situation with particular interest. CNN reports that in Indonesia and Malaysia, Pakistan and Chechnya, demonstrators have taken to the streets in recent days to protest the Rohingya’s treatment.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said “hundreds of thousands” of protesters gathered in the capital, Grozny, to “demand the guilty to be prosecuted and an international investigation launched” into the “genocide that’s going on in Myanmar.”

A post shared by Ramzan Kadyrov (@kadyrov_95) on Sep 4, 2017 at 9:06am PDT

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters “we are facing a risk” of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, according to The Guardian. “I hope we don’t get there.”

To that end, he said in a statement he has written to the Security Council about the situation — and that includes what he called “the root causes of the crisis.”

“It will be crucial to give the Muslims of Rakhine state either nationality or, at least for now, a legal status that will allow them to have a normal life, including freedom of movement and access to labour markets, education and health services.”

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Protests In D.C., Denver, LA, Elsewhere Protest Rescinding DACA

Juliana Torres, 16, left, and Micaela Lattimer, 16, both of Baltimore, rally in support of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA, outside the White House, in Washington, on Tuesday.

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Jacquelyn Martin/AP

President Trump’s decision to rescind an Obama-era policy deferring action against children of undocumented immigrants is drawing scattered protests around the country.

Hours before Attorney General Jeff Sessions made the widely anticipated announcement to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, better known as DACA, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the White House. They shouted “We are America” and “We want education. Down with deportation.”

The Defend #DACA protest in Washington DC: “Move Trump, Get Out of the Way!”. Beautiful. ❤️👊 #RESISTpic.twitter.com/Yntr6hM4V7

— Ricky Davila (@TheRickyDavila) September 5, 2017

The marchers then proceeded to the Department of Justice, where the announcement was made, and to the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Ave., where they staged a sit-in.

In announcing the policy change, Sessions called DACA an “unconstitutional exercise of authority by the executive branch.” The president issued a statement saying: “I do not favor punishing children, most of whom are now adults, for the actions of their parents. But we must also recognize that we are a nation of opportunity because we are a nation of laws.”

Outside Trump Tower in New York, where some 400 protesters briefly blocked a stretch of Fifth Ave., police handcuffed and removed about 30 people.

Two OurRev staff with DACA were arrested today outside of Trump Tower in civil disobedience: “We’re not going to back down.” #DefendDACApic.twitter.com/OhAxtjEzpj

— Our Revolution (@OurRevolution) September 5, 2017

In Denver, hundreds of students at multiple schools walked out of classes to protest the move shortly after the announcement. KUSA reports that many of them carried messages that read “Defend DACA” and “Our Dreams Can’t Wait.”

INSPIRING SUPPORT FOR DREAMERS! ✊

RT to show SUPPORT for Denver STUDENTS who have WALKED OUT of school to protest Trump #DACA announcement. pic.twitter.com/FOqoFk2fPy

— The Hummingbird (@SaysHummingbird) September 5, 2017

Other DACA rallies were planned for Colorado Springs, Boulder, Longmont and Glenwood Springs, KUSA reports.

The Associated Press says teachers and students also demonstrated near Metro State University against the policy change.

DACA supporters in Phoenix protest outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office shortly after the announcement that DACA would end in six months, barring action by Congress.

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Matt York/AP

There were also protests in front of Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices in Phoenix and in Miami, where young immigrants from Honduras, Mexico and Colombia are expressing shock and sadness, the AP says.

In Los Angeles, marchers gathering in various parts of the city.

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Lee Relative Who Denounced White Supremacy Resigns As Pastor Of N.C. Church

The Rev. Robert Wright Lee, a relative of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee IV, resigned on Monday as pastor from a North Carolina church. Above, Lee speaks at the MTV Video Music Awards last month.

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Matt Sayles/Invision/AP

A descendant of a nephew of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee announced yesterday that he had resigned as pastor of his church in Winston-Salem, N.C. Robert Wright Lee IV, who came to national attention denouncing his relative’s legacy on NPR and elsewhere, said his decision came after Bethany United Church of Christ moved to vote on his tenure there.

“We are all called by God to speak out against hate and evil in all its many forms,” he wrote in a blog post. “There are so many good things going on with this congregation and I do not want my fight to detract from the mission. If the recent media attention causes concern with my church, I reluctantly offer my resignation.”

A week after violence rocked Charlottesville, Va., Lee spoke to NPR’s Weekend Edition about his famous u, many generations removed. He said he thought the statues of his relative should be removed.

“I do think they need to come down,” Lee said. “I think it’s time that we have a conversation about how to remember our past without commemorating our past.”

He said his objections to his uncle’s legacy were rooted in his Christian beliefs.

“[T]his is a form of idolatry, very plain and simply,” he said. “We have made an idol of Robert Edward Lee. We have made him an idol of white supremacy. We have made him an idol of nationalism and of bigotry and of hate and of racism. And that’s unacceptable. And not only as a person of goodwill but … as a Christian, I can no longer sit by and allow my family’s name to be used as hate-filled speech.”

NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro asked Lee how his parishioners were responding to his message.

“Well, I would say it’s not the message that we’re used to hearing from our pulpits,” Lee replied. “But maybe now is the time to start having those messages. … We have not spoken out for people of color, and we have to start doing that if we want to make a difference in this world and if we want to be relevant as a church in the 21st century.”

The following week, Lee addressed MTV’s Video Music Awards and struck the same chords.

“I call on all of us with privilege and power to confront racism and white supremacy head-on” – Robert Lee IV #VMAspic.twitter.com/ko4SM9VnaU

— MTV (@MTV) August 28, 2017

“We have made my ancestor an idol of white supremacy, racism, and hate,” he said. “As a pastor, it is my moral duty to speak out against racism, America’s original sin.”

“Today, I call on all of us with privilege and power to answer God’s call to confront racism and white supremacy head-on,” he added. “We can find inspiration in the Black Lives Matter movement, the women who marched in the Women’s March in January, and, especially, Heather Heyer, who died fighting for her beliefs in Charlottesville.”

But not everyone in his congregation approved of Lee’s message.

Yesterday, Lee said his resignation was tied to the attention he attracted at the VMAs.

“A faction of church members were concerned about my speech and that I lifted up Black Lives Matter movement, the Women’ s March, and Heather Heyer as examples of racial justice work,” he wrote. “I want to stress that there were many in the congregation who supported my right to free speech, yet were uncomfortable with the attention the church was receiving. The church’s reaction was deeply hurtful to me.”

Lee began serving as the pastor at Bethany in April; it was his first job after graduating from seminary at Duke Divinity School.

Calls by NPR to a listed number for the church on Tuesday were not answered.

“A theologian I admire speaks of costly grace and sometimes speaking up costs more than we could have imagined,” Lee said in a statement to a Charlotte television station. “I love my church and will always have fond memories there for my first pastorate.”

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Nicole Werbeck Returns To NPR As Supervising Editor For Photography

NPR Director of Visual Journalism Keith Jenkins shared the news of Nicole Werberk’s hiring in an email to staff earlier today.

Hey there,

What a summer it’s been! Lots of news and lots of change at NPR Visuals. Today I am very pleased to announce that Nicole Werbeck, former digital editor here at NPR, will be returning to the NPR Visuals team as the Supervising Editor for Photography.

For the past four years, Nicole has been a Senior Digital Photo Editor at National Geographic. While there, Nicole managed a team of 5 photo editors, assigned and edited photo and multimedia stories from across the world to publish online and in their prestigious magazine, and helped run NatGeo’s social media accounts. Nicole worked with veteran National Geographic photographers and editors as well as recruited new photographers in to the fold. Nicole helped bring Agile methodologies into the NatGeo newsroom and worked as a multimedia coach for the Society’s grantees and explorers.

As many at NPR may recall, Nicole broke much ground here as part of the NPR homepage team that helped develop the website’s look and feel, breaking news capacity, and multimedia storytelling. Nicole was an editor and writer, trainer, and, along with the other homepage editors, served as the template for the engagement staff we have today.

Prior to joining NPR, Nicole spent 10 years as an editor at The Washington Post. Nicole was a Projects Editor, Photo Editor, and Deputy News Editor. She worked on a variety of important stories, from the September 11, 2001 attacks to Hurricane Katrina. While at The Post her duties included managing photographers on their multiple Pulitzer Prize winning staff, art directing the Sunday Outlook section, and working with the executive editor to select stories for the front page.

Nicole brings a world of first-class experience to her new role here at NPR and I’m thrilled to have her join at a time when NPR’s Visuals has more aggressively and innovatively stepped up to bring the very best visual storytelling to our news coverage. This summer, we’ve seen distinctive work on the video side from Skunkbear and the eclipse, for example. And our photographers Claire Harbage and Ryan Kellman deployed right alongside other reporters in Houston to show the scale and humanity of the Hurricane Harvey disaster. And we couldn’t have done it all without Emily Bogle very capably coordinating our coverage behind the scenes.

Nicole gets to work on the first Monday in October; please join me in welcoming her when she arrives.

Keith W. Jenkins

Director of Visual Journalism

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Seeking Shelter, Harvey Evacuees Stay In State Parks

Susan Arawley (left) speaks with Jamie Creacy, superintendent of the Lost Pines Complex, which includes Bastrop State Park. As Hurricane Harvey hit, Arawley tried picking up supplies and got stuck in rising flood water. After sleeping in her car four nights, she decided to head to Bastrop State Park, where she could take a shower.

Katie Hayes Luke for NPR

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Katie Hayes Luke for NPR

Erik Ryan and Mia Reynolds from San Leon, Texas, sit at the picnic table at their campsite in Bastrop State Park. Reynolds, who is currently on hold with FEMA, says that she has been through storms before.

“I did not want to wait around for a politician to tell me to evacuate. I saw the storm on the news and had a bad feeling. That’s when I decided to rent a U-Haul truck and pull out.”

Reynolds pauses as a an electronic voice comes over the phone: “Your wait time is now 154 minutes.”

Erik Ryan and Mia Reynolds from San Leon, Texas, wait on hold with FEMA at their campsite at Bastrop State Park in Texas on Sunday. Running out of money and resources, they were relieved to hear Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s announcement that Texas State Parks were open for the month of September for evacuees, free of charge.

Katie Hayes Luke for NPR

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Katie Hayes Luke for NPR

Ryan and Reynolds, who live in their Airstream Trailer, took one and a half days to pack up their homesite and move vehicles to higher ground ahead of the storm. Their first stop was the Houston West RV Park in Brookshire, Texas, west of Katy. After five days of rain and water levels rising, Ryan and Reynolds realized that it was time to go again. Running out of money and resources, they were relieved to hear Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s announcement that Texas State Parks were open for the month of September for evacuees, free of charge.

Erik Ryan and Mia Reynolds evacuated San Leon, Texas, with their two chickens and are currently staying in Bastrop State Park in Texas.

Katie Hayes Luke for NPR

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Katie Hayes Luke for NPR

“It has been great to see the overwhelming response from the local community,” says Evans.

Roughly 7,500 people have sought shelter at Texas State Parks since the state parks opened to evacuees on Aug. 24, before Hurricane Harvey made landfall, according to Stephanie Garcia, a representative with Texas Parks & Wildlife.

Sergio Gil Jr. and Susan Arawley’s car is packed up with all of their supplies. The two are from Pearland, Texas. In response to Hurricane Harvey, the Texas State Parks opened their doors to evacuees free of charge through the month September. As of Labor Day, about 7,500 individuals have taken shelter at Texas State Parks.

Katie Hayes Luke for NPR

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Katie Hayes Luke for NPR

At Inks Lake State Park volunteers currently provide two meals a day and basic services to the 40 evacuees staying at the park, down from 120 evacuees a week after the storm. A doctor from Scott & White, a chain of hospitals and clinics in the area, answered medical questions and representatives from the local school district informed parents about how to enroll students into the local school system.

As the flood water in the coastal cities recedes, so does the need for shelter at the State Parks. People are returning to their homes and surveying the damage. Evans expects that some of those who have left will return if there is no home to go back to.

Leonard Turner, 81, evacuated before the storm made a direct hit over his town of Rockport, Texas. Turner, a retired Bastrop police officer, left his home with a few days worth of clothes and his favorite John Wayne tapes.

Sergio Gil Jr. paints to pass the time at Bastrop State Park on Sunday.

Katie Hayes Luke for NPR

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Katie Hayes Luke for NPR

“I knew that it would be bad, but I still thought a few things would survive. My house was built in 1952. I know that it did not have a chance,” says Turner.

After four days of sleeping in his truck in Bastrop, Texas, he heard that the State Parks were open to evacuees and he made his way to Bastrop State Park. He now knows that his house was totally destroyed by the storm.

“I knew what was going to happen even before it happened. With 135 miles per hour winds, nothing else could happen,” says Turner.

Baylee Jackson (left) and Kyle Proctor, evacuated from Corpus Christi on Aug. 25, as Hurricane Harvey was making landfall on the Texas coast. The couple, who are expecting their first child on Sept. 20, say that the people at Inks Lake State Park have been very helpful. Volunteers have brought baby clothes and have helped the couple find a doctor for Baylee.

Katie Hayes Luke for NPR

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Katie Hayes Luke for NPR

Katie Hayes Luke is a freelance photojournalist and multimedia producer based in Austin, Texas.

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Novelist John Le Carré Reflects On His Own 'Legacy' Of Spying

A Legacy of Spies

If John le Carré’s espionage novels seem particularly authentic, it may be because the author has first-hand experience. Le Carré worked as a spy for the British intelligence services MI5 and MI6 early in his writing career, and only left the field after his third book, 1963’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, became an international best-seller.

Le Carré’s latest book, A Legacy of Spies, revisits some of the characters from his earlier novels, including his most famous protagonist, George Smiley. It follows a protégé of Smiley’s, Peter Guillam, as he re-examines some of his actions from when he was a Cold War spy, including his role in the deaths of another agent and a recruit.

The novel mines the moral tension inherent in espionage — a tension le Carré himself remembers. “I felt I had to suppress my humanity,” he says of his time as a spy. “The lies straight into the face, the befriending, the false befriending. … I suppose I’ve been a lot of people in my 85 years, not all of them very nice people.”

He describes his path from spy to novelist as a “zig-zag journey,” but notes that, ultimately, fiction writing has helped him understand himself better.

“When you really have to put a character together piece-by-piece, what makes it work is a piece of yourself,” he says. “And until that happens, the character doesn’t really have a being at all. So the real joining in fiction writing is that sense of finding all the possibilities of your own character and awarding them in an organized way to the different characters of your creation.”


Interview Highlights

John le Carré attends the 2011 London premiere of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, a film adaptation of his 1974 novel (which also features George Smiley).

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Sang Tan/AP

On how his characters are less ideologically driven than they used to be, and how that’s a reflection of the times

Back then, we had a clear philosophy which we thought we were protecting, and it was a notion of the West — it was a notion of individual freedom, of inclusiveness, of tolerance. All of that we called anti-communism. That was really a broad brush, because there were many decent people who lived in communist territories who weren’t as bad as one might suppose.

Now, today, this present time in which these matters are being reconsidered in my novel — we seem to have no direction. We seem to be joined by nothing very much except fear and bewilderment about what the future holds. We have no coherent ideology in the West. And we used to believe in the great American example; I think that’s recently been profoundly undermined for us. We are alone.

On his feeling that Brexit is a mistake

I feel most strongly about the timing of Brexit, which is appalling. At the very moment when Europe needs to be a coherent single block able to protect itself morally, politically and, if necessary, militarily, we’ve left it and we’re stuck in the Atlantic and — as George Smiley remarks himself — [we’re] citizens of nowhere at the moment.

On whether he looks back on his intelligence career with regret

Yes, I do. I regret in my student days posing as a crypto-communist and trying to attract Soviet recruiters in those days. I was sort of half successful — I got picked up and flirted with by a Russian recruiter in the Soviet embassy in London, and it all came to nothing. Perhaps I wasn’t clever enough or perhaps I was compromised by somebody else. But in the course of posing as that person, I had to sign up as some kind of secret communist, and that meant deceiving my colleagues and my fellow students, and looking back on that I feel very queasy about it.

On the compromises he made as a spy

Where I was asking people to do things, I tried to persuade them that they were doing it for the greater good and I was doing it for the greater good. Where I had to deceive people, I felt I was doing that for the greater good, too. But then you get alongside the borderline of how much of this stuff can we do and remain a society that is worth protecting. … I did what I think was probably, in the end, the right thing. We expect intelligence services to deliver, but then when we’re asked to get our own hands dirty, we get squeamish about it.

On growing up with a con man dad, and how his childhood prepared him to be a spy

My father was a compulsive liar and in and out of jail, and the people around him were tremendously colorful, amusing people. … I think my own alienation from my environment left me solitary and more reflective; more watchful of other people around me. I think survival, early survival, requires that you have a quick read of people — you can understand them quickly, relate to them quickly, you can scent them in an almost animal way, perhaps sooner, more quickly, than people who had a more settled childhood. So you understand people’s defenses better. …

At the age of 5, my mother disappeared. And after that, it was living in the wake of this maverick fellow, who often was enchanting, for a long time. That was my world. … I spent a lot of time, if he left the house, going through his pockets and things, trying to figure out what was going on. We were displaced repeatedly by angry debtors. For quite long periods he was on the run. He was on the run in the United States even, wanted by the forces of the law.

He filled my head with a great lot of truthless material, which I found it necessary to check out as a child, with time. Yes, in that sense, these were the early makings of a spy. … His great passion, which he achieved, was to turn me into a seeming gentleman.

Sam Briger and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

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Whatever Happened To … The Mission To Get Rid Of Rwanda's Dirt Floors?

After an earthen floor is put down, it is covered with an oil-based floor sealant that hardens and makes it easy to clean.

Jacques Nkinzingabo/Courtesy of EarthEnable

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Jacques Nkinzingabo/Courtesy of EarthEnable

Three years ago, we published a story about a small start-up in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, that was seeking to make homes more sanitary by replacing dirt floors with sealed earthen floors, which are up to 80 percent cheaper than concrete. Recognizing that dirt floors can make people sick — insects, parasites, and germs in the dirt cause diarrhea and other diseases — EarthEnable had come up with a low-cost way to create safer floors, trained 20 masons and tested its method in seven Rwandan homes. The group’s challenge was to expand its service, maintaining quality while keeping up with demand. What’s happened since?

“Where to begin?” says Gayatri Datar, with a laugh. In three years, the startup this Stanford M.B.A. graduate co-founded has grown fast. It’s provided floors to 9,800 people and hired 200 staff, including masons, sales representatives and support staff. It perfected its proprietary, oil-based floor varnish and sealant. Meanwhile, it also expanded its area of service to four districts within Rwanda and expects to start working soon in neighboring Uganda.

About This Series

Goats are curious animals and “Goats and Soda” is a curious blog. Over the next week, we’ll be looking back at some of our favorite stories to see “whatever happened to …”

In the first year or so, demand grew fast. Datar and her team had to learn as they went along. “It helped us maintain our accountability and launched us forward,” she says.

As early as 2015, she says, EarthEnable was getting 80 to 100 contracts per month. “It was a lot, really quickly,” she says.

Datar and her colleagues struggled to keep up. They trained more masons, but the logistics of delivering truckloads of sand, gravel and other earthen flooring materials — not to mention shovels — to multiple sites in rural Rwanda presented a challenge.

They came up with the idea to train customers to prepare their own floors using materials they could obtain from shops stocking the right materials — a do-it-yourself option that would cost less.

The concept started to take off, Datar says, “but not as we envisioned.” She and her team noticed that these customers began outsourcing the floor-building to masons unaffiliated with EarthEnable. “People don’t really want to build their own floors,” she says. “They don’t have much time. They’re quite busy in rural communities.”

So the group ran with the idea, training and certifying the masons in its flooring practices — and instituting what Datar calls an “Angie’s List model,” in which customers rate the masons after their work. “They’re held very accountable to customers,” Datar says.

This decentralized model has become the most popular EarthEnable flooring service, costing about $80 and accounting now for 90 percent of business. But the group still offers full-service floor installation (called “Damarara” or “treat yourself”) for $150 and a DIY “self-reliance” option costing about $50. Another model, a variation on the most popular option, would allow customers to use an EarthEnable compactor to prepare and compress the base of their floor and then bring in a mason to finish the job. “We are constantly pivoting, piloting and innovating,” Datar says.

The group, which has received support from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Mulago Foundation, Echoing Green and others, is one of five finalists this month in the Netherlands Postcode Lottery Green Challenge, an annual “sustainability innovation” competition with a 500,000-euro prize.

EarthEnable is a hybrid business, incorporated as a nonprofit in the U.S. but operating for-profit in Rwanda. It provides a small number of floors for free when testing new methods or floor colors.

“Treating people as customers and not as beneficiaries has shifted the whole way our business is done,” Datar says. “From the customers’ perspective, the experience is quite different.” If people were receiving floors for free, she says, “They would not hold us as accountable for quality.”

A call center and a customer service department provide additional support and have helped EarthEnable gain a reputation as being responsive and quick to fix problems, Datar says.

Last year, the group moved its headquarters out of Kigali and into a village in the rural area it serves, about an hour’s drive away. Datar realized it was better to be near customers.

And earlier this year, demand started to emerge in Uganda, Rwanda’s neighbor to the north, in a region experiencing infestations of parasitic chigoe fleas known as “jiggers” — a notorious problem with dirt floors.

Improving health was the impetus for starting EarthEnable, and the group is gearing up to begin work next year on a formal, randomized controlled study measuring the health effects of its floors in homes that previously would have been impossible to keep clean.

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