On a Group of Displaced Persons

The concept of displaced persons is not new, although the designation of them as such is. As this is being written, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians are on the move. Ethnic cleansings have taken place throughout history, most recently in the Balkans and even going on today in parts of Africa and South America. Groups can be displaced due to wars, famine, acts of nature, and even sickness. Sometimes, people are displaced because other people want their land. This is one of those stories.

In this case, over 60,000 individuals were forced off their land in the years between the ’30s and the ’50s. The land was going to be used for resettlement purposes. The people behind the removal felt that God had ordained that they be granted the land, and, as you know, when people are convinced their cause (whatever it is) had some sort of divine imprimatur behind it, there’s not much that can be done to change their mind. Sadly, the displaced persons in this case had no power behind them to thwart the encroachment on or the removal from their land.

They argued that the land had been something they lived on for, well, as long as anyone can remember. This displaced group tried taking their case to both international and national tribunals. And, even though they won some of their court cases, those in charge of the removal of the displaced persons had a powerful military behind them. And, as you know, might makes right–even if what is “right” is not actually the moral or ethical thing.

Force is employed by oppressors, and these specific displaced persons had been subjugated by this group or that for centuries at the point of their displacement. History, again, is filled with such stories. Look at the removal and relocation of Palestinians, the pursuit by the European powers of their colonialization in the past 600 years, at the pursuit of empire throughout the millennia by every group from the Sumerians to the Americans, and even the movement of religious and ethnic minorities by both the Nazis and the Soviets.

This specific displacement of the more or less 60,000 families, individuals, children, old people and the housewares and animals they could carry with them looms large today because of where and how it occurred. It’s difficult today for us to think of a time when people had no choice about leaving houses, farms, businesses, and their ancestral homelands for an unknown place the military forced them to walk to. Many of them died enroute from disease, malnutrition, and even simply fatigue.

A Frenchman who witnessed the removal could not believe his eyes. “In the whole scene there was an air of ruin and destruction, something which betrayed a final and irrevocable adieu; one couldn’t watch without feeling one’s heart wrung. [The people] were tranquil but somber and taciturn. There was one who could speak English and of whom I asked why they were leaving their country. “To be free,” he answered, and I could never get any other reason out of him.”

Yes, we can look at this clinically and call it forced displacement.

For the 60,000 and their families in the decades since, they know it as the Trail of Tears.