How A Hero in New Orleans After Hurricane Katrina Was Arrested, Labeled A Terrorist And Imprisoned
By Abdulrahman Zeitoun
28 August, 2010
Today, a personal story of a national tragedy. Five years ago, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-born New Orleans building contractor, stayed in the city while his wife and children left to Baton Rouge. He paddled the flooded streets in his canoe and helped rescue many of his stranded neighbors. Days later, armed police and National Guardsmen arrested him and accused him of being a terrorist. He was held for nearly a month, most of which he was not allowed to call his wife, Kathy. Today, in a rare broadcast interview, Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun join us to tell their story, along with the man who chronicles it in the book Zeitoun, Dave Eggers. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: It was five years ago that Hurricane Katrina was barreling towards the Gulf Coast. Today, a Democracy Now! global broadcast exclusive: we spend the hour on the story of one family from New Orleans, the Zeitouns, not only experienced the widespread displacement caused by the storm, but they were also victimized by the so-called "war on terror." Their story forms the basis of the critically acclaimed novel Zeitoun by the celebrated writer Dave Eggers, who just won the American Book Award for his book.
Abdulrahaman Zeitoun is a Syrian-born immigrant to the United States who lived in New Orleans with his wife Kathy, an American convert to Islam, and their children. Together, they ran a successful painting and contracting business and are well known in the local community of New Orleans.
As the storm approached the city in late August 2005, Kathy and her kids fled to Baton Rouge to her sister’s house. They then proceeded to a friend’s home in Phoenix, Arizona, where they waited out the storm. Meanwhile, Abdulrahman Zeitoun was ready with his sixteen-foot aluminum canoe when Katrina made landfall as a Category 3 storm on August 29th.
The book tells the story of how Zeitoun spent days rescuing people stranded in the storm, until he was picked up by an armed squad who accused him of being a terrorist. He was held for three weeks without any contact with his family. They thought he was dead.
In an exclusive broadcast interview, I spoke with Abdulrahman Zeitoun and his wife Kathy yesterday, as well as the bestselling writer, publisher, Dave Eggers, whose numerous works include A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, also the founder of the independent publishing house and literary journal McSweeney’s.
I began the interview by asking Dave Eggers to explain how he first came across the story of what the Zeitouns went through in the aftermath of Katrina.
DAVE EGGERS: At McSweeney’s, we have a small publishing company in San Francisco, and we have a series called Voice of Witness that uses oral history to illuminate human rights crises around the world. And the first book in the series was about the wrongfully convicted and exonerated here in the US. And right when that book was coming out, Katrina hit, and so we talked to a lot of friends that we had in Houston, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Atlanta, and people fanned out and began interviewing New Orleanians who had fled the storm. And when we started getting the transcripts back and the tapes back from the interviewers, I saw the story of the Zeitouns, and I was struck by it on so many levels. And so, the next time I was in New Orleans a few months later, I met the family, and we spent many hours together, and I got to know the kids.
And I think even—you know, I was struck by it on this—on the level of—you know, I don’t think many of us knew of this intersection, this improbable intersection of the war on terror and Katrina, and how the folding of FEMA into Homeland Security affected the response to Katrina. And there were so many sort of political aspects of it, and I was interested in it on a journalistic level. But it was also getting to know this family that I connected to almost immediately. And also, you know, their story goes so deep, you know, and Zeitoun’s family story in Syria was so fascinating. And Kathy’s conversion to Islam was, I think, a really valuable way to introduce Islam to readers that might not know too much about it.
And so, they’re this all-American family. They encompass the immigrant experience, the American Dream, all these all-American values in New Orleans. And then, at the same time, you know, he was put in this moment in time where he rose to a challenge and became a hero. And then, of course, something terrible happened that I hope could never happen again in this country, that it was a moment in time when we didn’t live up to our highest values and aspirations. And so, there were so many aspects of it that interested me. But again, most of it was a personal connection to the family, that, you know, now it’s five years on, and we’re inextricably woven together and very close. And so, it was their faith in me and their trust in me and their courage in telling their story that made it possible.
AMY GOODMAN: Dave Eggers, could you tell us a little bit of what you just told us in shorthand, where Zeitoun—where Abdulrahaman Zeitoun was born, how he grew up, how he ended up here and then went from the horror of the storm to the horror of the prison, after being considered a hero?
DAVE EGGERS: Well, you know, some of the—one of the great parts of researching a book like this was to go back to his hometown of Jableh on the coast of Syria and see this—what was, at the time, when he was growing up, a pretty small fishing village. And it’s grown somewhat since then. But I was able to meet his brothers and sisters, all of whom—or most of whom are still there, and also see their—his grandmother’s home town, which is on an island called Arwad Island, which is just off the coast to near Tartus, and get to know everybody and see, you know, and get to know generations of the Zeitouns. And they—it’s an incredibly illustrious family that has—you know, they’ve achieved so many things. You know, they’re professors, and they’re principals of schools and doctors, and, you know, his brother Ahmed is a ship captain, and I got to spend time with him in Spain.
And so, you know, Zeitoun grew up there, and he eventually became a merchant sailor, sailing around the world on many different vessels, helping to load and unload. And he saw the world that way and finally stopped in the US. You know, he first settled in Baton Rouge, and then New Orleans. And he built this business from scratch, because he had grown up around a lot of different trades, and he got to know masonry and painting and carpentry. And he was—you know, he worked for a lot of other contractors, and he was the hardest working guy that they had ever seen. And so, pretty soon he had his own business. Soon after, he married Kathy, and they built this business together as, like, equal partners in, you know, handling different sides of the business.
And so, in every way, they really do embody the American Dream: hard work, family and a dedication to one’s neighbors. You could see how one of the reasons that he stayed behind when the storm hit was to take care of his clients’ homes. He has keys to every one of them. He’s got, you know, hundreds of keys to homes all over the city, because he’s taken care of these houses, and so—and everybody trusts him with them, so—which makes it all the more tragic, I think, and exasperating that he is the model citizen in so many ways and he was victimized this way.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about that day, September 6th, and the different men who, oh, Zeitoun had been going around with, helping others with. Talk about Nasser and Todd and, from your research, what happened that day.
DAVE EGGERS: Well, Nasser was a friend of Zeitoun’s who also was Syrian, and he—they had gone back. They knew each other for many, many years. And he had been living in the city as a—you know, first came here as a graduate student at Tulane. And they ran into each other after the storm. And Nasser helped distribute supplies with Zeitoun in the canoe, and they spent many days together. And Nasser was living at that house on Claiborne, too. And then, Todd Gambino is a resident there, and he—you know, a whole book could be written about Todd, because he saved many, many lives and—going around on a motorboat. And then there was this relative stranger named Ronnie that none of them knew, but who had stopped by once or twice to use the phone.
And, you know, after all of this happened, I was sure—I got a copy of the arrest record, and I wanted to see who the officers were on the arrest record. There were two there. And so, I tracked down both of them, one of whom was a veteran officer from New Mexico who had come to New Orleans after the storm, and then the main officer was a New Orleans police officer who had been going around up and down Claiborne and had been—he says that he—in my interview with him, he said that he observed them looting, all four of them looting a Walgreens. And in the end, there was no evidence of any looting. He didn’t recover any stolen goods at the house or anything like that. And so—but he went to Napoleon-St. Charles, where many military and other officers were gathered, and he got a team together, and then they came into the house and raided it and arrested all four of them. And so, I found it totally important to interview these two officers.
And I think, you know, had the whole system been working, had there been due process, had there been public defenders available and a rational bail set and phone calls available to people and people being able to be visited by or contact their relatives or family, and had any of these other things that we take for granted been in place, a lot of the injustices would have been mitigated to some extent. But none of these were—none of these systems were working. And so, once they were arrested and brought, you know, in this van, driven by our National Guardsmen, brought to Camp Greyhound, they got lost in the system. That’s when the system was broken down. And even if the arrest had been wrongful and the evidence wasn’t there, under normal circumstances, they would have been free on bail, and the charges would have been dropped momentarily. But in this case, because none of these other systems were working, that’s how they and hundreds of others were lost in the Louisiana prison system. And, you know, Todd Gambino did many months in prison, and Nasser did many months in prison. And hundreds of others did what was known as "Katrina time," where they were lost in the system. Records weren’t kept. Some people weren’t allowed to make phone calls or meet with lawyers—or anyone—for upwards of a year. And so, it was a complete meltdown of the system, unfortunately.
AMY GOODMAN: Dave Eggers has just won the American Book Award for his book Zeitoun. He’s joining us from New Orleans. We’re going to come back to Dave, but before we do, we’re going to hear from the Zeitouns themselves in their own words. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: In this Democracy Now! global broadcast exclusive, the first time Dave Eggers and the subjects of his book, the Zeitouns, have joined together in a studio to tell their story. It’s the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. And we go to Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun themselves. Abdulrahman is known in New Orleans by his last name, Zeitoun. I spoke to Zeitoun and his wife Kathy yesterday. i
AMY GOODMAN: Describe the day that life as you know it completely changed. Of course, life had already changed. You were alone there trying to help people, your family in Baton Rouge.
ABDULRAHMAN ZEITOUN: This day, we come from around—around noon, like maybe around 3:00. And I got to the house, and I go to the bathroom, and I open the water, and I see the water running. You know, before one week, don’t see water running. And I jump, take a shower right away. And I have the couple guys—there was one guy, apart from me, from other place, and I tell him, "Go ahead. Jump in the shower, because I have water running." And I got outside and start making my phone calls. And he got out, and someone started talking to him. I can’t see who’s talking, but I hear just somebody talking. I say, "Who’s outside?" He said, "Someone ask us if we need any water." I said, "Tell him we have enough, and maybe somebody else need it more than us."
And this guy—I mean, he uses the way, if we need water, to keep coming to the house. And the guys keep talking and come closer slowly to the house. And I see five, six guys, military, with the policemen, jump in the house with all the weapon. And the guys ask us, "What you guys doing here?" I says, "It’s my house." He says, "You have ID?" I say, "Yes." I show him my ID. I don’t think he have enough time to see—to read my name. He just saw my picture and, like, sees a strange name, and he said, "Go to the boat." On the table in the middle of my room, I have my note with my wife—where she’s staying, phone numbers. Only way in touch with—only way I can touch with her, because the cell phone doesn’t work. I can ask him if I can get the note. He said, "No, just go on the boat." I tried to get it anyway, and he is appearing to shoot. And I said, "OK, this is not good."
And I got to the boat, and then he’s—I have other two guys there also. Say, "All of you get on the boat now." Happened that Gambino, he’s outside, coming from somewhere. And then, as I get there, he asked, "What? How? What’s going on?" He said, "Who are you?" He said, "I live here." Said, "Get on the boat." And they brought him with us. And—
AMY GOODMAN: Their guns are drawn?
ABDULRAHMAN ZEITOUN: Yes, have an army ready to shoot. You know, have a, like, military, like, ready—like these guys coming for—like prepared for war. And brought us to St. Charles and Napoleon. As soon we got there, we have like, every one of us, being five, six guys jump on him and tied him down. Like I saw something like only thing you see it in the movies. Anyway, brought us to one van—
AMY GOODMAN: That they jump on each one of you and tie you down.
ABDULRAHMAN ZEITOUN: Yes. Yes, ma’am. I mean, I don’t know what happens in these guys’ mind. I feel something not good. And after, brought us to the van. Before that, when we were in the boat, I said, "Where are you taking us?" He said, "You know, just we take you, talk to our boss." When we got there and see this motion action, where we in the van waiting, have one guy come behind the wheel. And I ask him, "What’s going on? What’s wrong?" He said, "We’re from Indiana. We’re doing our job." That’s the only thing he have to say. And I stay quiet almost like for fifteen minutes, we sitting and waiting. After that, he got the order to move. He brought us to the bus station there and processed us—
AMY GOODMAN: The Greyhound station.
ABDULRAHMAN ZEITOUN: Yes, the Greyhound station. And we stay almost like hour in the lobby there, where—and taking pictures and checking us and strip us naked and, I mean, then all the kind of—and have guys surround us like with the dog and the sort of like security, very high security, you know? I don’t know how to describe it. I was just very—we can’t move. We have to stand, our leg open and our foot in place and our arm on the seat. I mean, you can’t have any movement.
And after we finish, brought us to the—where the bus line up, have like—been designed like Guantánamo Bay jails, you know, like wire and like fence wires and almost like, I think, fifteen-, twenty-foot-high, and we have like cages. Brought us ourself with one of the cage. The first—I remember exactly first cage, I got next to the station, next to the engine for the train. We stay next to the engine three days, right in our ears. I mean, I think I’m becoming deaf after that, because imagine you be three days next to the engine running, because the engine generates electricity for the station.
AMY GOODMAN: Zeitoun, just to understand here, you had been looking for help to save your neighbors, over these days that you were saving people. Now you were brought to the Greyhound station, and you say it was built like Guantánamo, which means they must have been spending time since the storm turning this bus station into a prison. You had been traveling a lot in your canoe. Had you seen this happening?
ABDULRAHMAN ZEITOUN: No, because I never got this close to the bus station, although what I saw over there, have not just—I mean, I spend some time. You have all kind of very high-tech equipment there, have a lifter, a crane, have a machine with big wheels to prepare to drive in the water. I mean, very high-tech equipment there, and this can be used to rescue people, better to build a jail. I mean, I was surprised. I mean, all kind of machineries you can imagine is there.
AMY GOODMAN: Why did they tell you you had been arrested, you had been detained, that you were stripped naked, that you were being imprisoned with the other men that you had been traveling around with to help others? What was your crime, did they say?
ABDULRAHMAN ZEITOUN: This is what I tried to find out. Every time we asked someone, and they start to throw a name at us: "You guys Taliban. You’re al-Qaeda." I mean, each one guy is passing by, give us, like—I don’t know. Is it like he throw it like a joke or like a serious? We don’t know what this—you know, been telling us like that. And I finally had discovered—
AMY GOODMAN: They said you were Taliban and al-Qaeda?
ABDULRAHMAN ZEITOUN: Yes, this is what they were accusing us for at first. And this is why, when first day we In the bus station, these people called—what you call it, the Homeland Security on us, and have two guys come there, interview us inside. And this guy, like, shake his head, and he left. He said, "We don’t have nothing with these people." You know, just left. That’s why these guys think he have like when brothers from there have a big fish. And I don’t know what this guy is thinking.
And also, after three days, we’ve been tranferred to Baton Rouge, also have to, after like a week from being transferred to Baton Rouge, we have FBI or some high official guys, very, very, very intelligent people come to us and interview me and other—my friends. And he tell maybe like that. He said, "Look, we don’t have nothing on you. We never have anything on you. Just up to these people, you know, what they do." He asked me, "What I can do to help you?" And I request for him to call my wife, tell her I’m OK. And he did. And the people in jail in Baton Rouge—and anywhere in New Orleans, too—nobody give us chance to call or just to pass message to my wife to say I’m here or I’m alive. Every time I ask somebody, "Please call my wife," he say, "We can’t do that." "Give me—let me make phone call." "We can’t let you do that." And it happened almost like three weeks. I never have a chance to call my wife, let her know where I am.
AMY GOODMAN: Kathy Zeitoun, talk about this time, from September 6th, when you stopped hearing from your husband, for these weeks. Where were you when the calls stopped? And what happened to you and your kids afterwards?
KATHY ZEITOUN: At this time, we were in Arizona, Chandler, Arizona. I kept waiting for him to call. He didn’t. Every time the phone would ring, I would rush to the phone hoping that it was him. It wasn’t. By the next day, we didn’t hear from him. Then we went to the Red Cross building, and then we put in a missing person’s report. And also, we put our name over at—I think they have a coliseum over there. We had to go there and file a missing person’s report over there, as well. And his brother at this point was calling, asking if I had heard from him, because he could no longer get in touch with him, as well. So then we had his brother and then the rest of his family calling, because they couldn’t get in touch with him, as well. And everybody was worried about him at this point.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, at what point did you start to give up hope? And what were you telling your children?
KATHY ZEITOUN: I think by the second week, I was really horribly nervous. And I would just tell my children, when I saw that it was affecting them so horribly at this point, I was telling them—they would hear me speak with my sister, and it was affecting them, especially my youngest daughter. It affected her horribly. I mean, she stopped eating. She wasn’t sleeping very well. Her hair was falling out when I would brush it. You would hear her talking to her cousins. She would say, "We have so much water in our house and in so much of the street, and we don’t know where my dad is." So, finally, when I saw that my emotions are playing on my children, then we just had to tell them, "No, I heard from Daddy. Daddy is with a friend. He’s going to be home soon." But maybe they believed it, maybe not. It didn’t settle her nerves any. So that’s—it was a really bad time for all of us.
AMY GOODMAN: You were a well-known developer in New Orleans. How is it that no one knew you, from all the houses you had built and rebuilt and rented? Who were these people who were holding you?
ABDULRAHMAN ZEITOUN: All of them not from—not from our town. I think most of them come from—what’s call it?—Angola, what I heard, and other people. The military people from Indiana, that’s what he tell me. Say, "We from Indiana. We’re doing our"—
AMY GOODMAN: Angola, meaning the prison in Angola, Louisiana?
ABDULRAHMAN ZEITOUN: Yeah, Angola prison. Yeah, this what I heard this, the people around the prison in New Orleans from Angola, Angola prison. And also, the most of the military, the one pick me up is from—the guy tell me, "We’re from Indiana." This is what he say we do. "From Indiana. We’re doing our job." I don’t think anybody from our city around.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the man, the old African American missionary, who was giving out Bibles at the Hunt prison, who finally you got to make the critical call to Kathy.
ABDULRAHMAN ZEITOUN: Yeah, believe it or not, anybody pass by me, I will, you know, try to just encourage him to make this phone call, not just him. I have everybody, includes, you know, the lady, she distributes the medicine for the people with the prescription or the—and also I have one lady in security. I say, "Well, man, this lady maybe have softer heart from the guys. Let her try." I try. Well, say, "No, I can’t." I say, "I don’t want you to—just call my wife and tell her I’m here, I’m alive. That’s it." She say, "I can’t do it." And we—I’m talking about we’re in Baton Rouge, and I know—I heard people making calls from there. Just for us, she said, "The phone broken." Never let us—you know, every time call for phone.
After three weeks, gave us chance to make phone call, and when I go to make the call, because only number I have, my wife’s cell phone—I don’t know where she is. The number she’s staying, the land phone, I don’t have the number, because I left it on the table in the house where I used to be. And he gave me one chance to make phone call, and we can’t call a cell phone. We have to be land phone. And I come back with empty-handed.
AMY GOODMAN: But this man did make the call to Kathy?
ABDULRAHMAN ZEITOUN: No, this man—yeah, this man, when he passed by, and, you know, I just—this guy, you know, giving religious advice and things, and I asked him if he can do this call for me. He say, "OK," and he writes the number. And, I mean, I’ve been trying everybody. I mean, I give up. Just, I keep trying. And he did. And days later, when the government official come and interview us, and he asked me if I need any help. Well, even I don’t want him to take me out, I don’t ask him to get me outside, I just go, "Call my wife." I mean, he’s—I mean, if he want to take me out, I’m sure he can, because this is, you know, one from high position, officer. And all I ask him, just—because I know if I get out, nothing to do. All I need is to my wife to know I’m safe.
AMY GOODMAN: Kathy, when you got that call—Kathy, when you got that call, what did it mean to you? And how did you begin to track down your husband? You didn’t still—you didn’t know where he was.
KATHY ZEITOUN: No, I didn’t know where he was at the time. When I got the phone call, it was a big relief. I didn’t want to let the man off the telephone, to be honest. I tried to hold him as much as I can, ask him as many questions as I could. But in reality, I think we were only on the phone for like a few minutes. And he told me, "Don’t worry. Everything is going to work itself out, and most likely the charges are going to be dropped." But not too long after that, Homeland Security called me, as well, and told me, "Look, your husband is here. Don’t worry. The charges are going to be dropped. We have no interest in him. We’ve never had any interest in him. And don’t worry. Everything’s going to be fine soon. You know, just all the charges are going to be dropped. Don’t worry. He’s here."
As soon as I found out where he was, I called the lawyer, Raleigh Ohlmeyer. And we started trying to track him down. You know, it was really hard to track him down, even though we knew where he was, because they didn’t have the names of the people in a computer. It was just on a piece of paper on the side of a desk or in a file. It wasn’t—I mean, I would call the prison and try to find out what kind of rights I would have. They’d say, "He’s not our prisoner." So, I guess because he wasn’t their prisoner, FEMA was paying them to keep him there. He did not have the same rights as everybody else had. He didn’t have the right to the phone call or medical or visitation or proper eating. So it’s really sad that the system shut itself down so bad at this time of need.
AMY GOODMAN: And Kathy, your feelings today, after having gone through this experience, from your husband being considered an American hero for so many to being called a terrorist and being imprisoned? That’s five years ago. This is today. How do you feel?
KATHY ZEITOUN: Well, we don’t feel that he’s actually a hero. We just feel that he’s a man who was at the right place at the right time who did the right thing. As far as what happened to him, it’s very disappointing, and it’s very sad, you know? But things happen and, God willing, people will learn from them. And hopefully these mistakes won’t happen again.
AMY GOODMAN: Are you suing?
KATHY ZEITOUN: We are. From the beginning. Because I was so angry. I was—I can’t describe the feelings that I had. And again, I thought it was revenge that I wanted, but it really wasn’t revenge. It was justice. But I think we’re at peace with it now. I think—I’m not angry anymore about it. And we still don’t know what’s going to happen with the lawsuit anyway. I know they threw it out one time, and it was brought back in. I mean, they could still throw it out. Who knows? We don’t know what’s going to happen with it. It’s just sitting there, just like my husband did.
ABDULRAHMAN ZEITOUN: The main reason the story got out, because our lawyer, because he wanted her—
KATHY ZEITOUN: Yes.
ABDULRAHMAN ZEITOUN: —to put everything on paper.
AMY GOODMAN: And what do you hope to accomplish with the lawsuit?
KATHY ZEITOUN: Well, I think some things have already been accomplished, thank God. I think they learned their mistakes from Katrina. I saw that with Gustav. They did things a lot of differently—a lot differently, actually. I would hope that they wouldn’t stereotype as bad. I think there was a lot of stereotyping, intentionally or not, unfortunately. It did happen. And I say this because my husband was at this house, our house, and he was arrested, and our neighbor across the street, who was at his house, he was picked up and sent to a different place, wherever he wanted to go. So, unfortunately, there was a lot of stereotyping, and I hope that they learned their lessons, at least from this story, that—you know, don’t judge somebody just by appearance.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Zeitoun, has it shaken your faith in America?
ABDULRAHMAN ZEITOUN: Not—I mean, the life, I think, moving forward, because now the life getting better. Now we have—we see a lot of improvement in the city. And the children—I mean, for me, like myself, I like to forget all about it now. I keep look for in the future to—with a smile, because—I mean, and the past doesn’t take us anywhere. We should just go ahead, focus about rebuild, do right things and build relationship with everybody else, especially with—we have a new—a lot of new people in the city. And we have some—I mean, most of the original people back. We have, like now, in my neighborhood, we have plenty new neighbors, we have the original neighbors. We back together, and everything go back close to normal.
AMY GOODMAN: Abdulrahaman and Kathy Zeitoun, speaking to us from New Orleans. When we come back from break, we’ll return to Dave Eggers, the celebrated writer who chronicled their story in his latest book Zeitoun. It just won the American Book Award. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We return now to our global broadcast exclusive. We go back now to writer Dave Eggers, whose nonfiction work Zeitoun tells the story of Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina five years ago—Zeitoun going from American hero to terrorist in the eyes of the US authorities. I spoke to Eggers Thursday and asked him to describe the conditions under which Abdulrahman Zeitoun was held when he was arrested in New Orleans in the aftermath of the storm.
DAVE EGGERS: The prison had been erected by trustees of Angola, and the guards were manning it along with it being a home base for a lot of National Guardsmen. And so, once they were handed off, that was the last the arresting officers saw of them. And then they were in the hands of this whole other body that took a look at—our assumption is that they took a look at the last names and origins of Nasser and Zeitoun, in particular, and thought, “Huh, we might have something really interesting on our hands.” And so, that’s when there were visited by Homeland Security representatives, and that’s when they had a very strange circumstance where another man was put in their cage and sort of—in an attempt, Zeitoun believes, to get them talking, would try to provoke them with anti-American rhetoric. It was very strange.
But I think that this—again, the successive nature of handing them off from one body to the next, and once they were put on a bus and sent to Hunt Correctional Facility, then they were lost even deeper in the system. No one was really tracking them and others, because very good record keeping was not being kept. And they weren’t subject to the same rights of prisoners at Hunt, who had been processed adequately.
And so—and I think that, you know, you take a lot of National Guardsmen, many of whom—and military personnel—many of whom had been in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many of whom were believing the hype, that the city was out of control and that they were entering a war zone. And it’s no wonder that they would say to Zeitoun and Nasser, “You guys are al-Qaeda, you guys are Taliban,” and suspect them. And I think that that climate right then was very troubling, and so it led to this military solution to a humanitarian problem. And I think that there was paranoia in the air that didn’t serve anybody very well. And Ralph Gonzales, one of the arresting officers from New Mexico, told me—he said he had been led to believe that they were entering a war zone and that what they were sent there to do, fully armed with machine guns and body armor and, you know, armed to the teeth, was an operation for command and control. But what they found, within hours of landing in the city, was that they were needed mostly for search and rescue. And so, I think that as much as so many agencies tried to do their best, I think that the climate and the misinformation and the misplaced priorities led to some very unfortunate results.
AMY GOODMAN: Zeitoun got very sick in the jail and in the prison.
DAVE EGGERS: Yeah, you know, first he had, you know, a very bad cut on his foot, and it was getting infected while he was at Camp Greyhound. And here’s a guy—he’s old school. He’s incredibly resilient. He’s not one to complain about an injury. But he couldn’t get help. Doctors would go to and fro, and they wouldn’t stop to help him. And then, once he was at Hunt, he couldn’t get any help at all, and he was—he felt like he had an incredible pain in his side that was eating away at him, and he didn’t know what it was. And so—but, of course, he got no medical attention there. And, you know, again, he was left there to think, because nothing was improving, he had no reason to believe that he might ever be released. If you haven’t gotten adequate legal representation and you’re not able to contact your family, what reason does he have to believe that he will ever get out? And I think a lot of the prisoners that did Katrina time were in the same circumstance, where none of the rights that we expect were there. And it turned into a Kafkaesque situation.
AMY GOODMAN: Dave Eggers, when Kathy finally learned that he was alive and then started to make calls and even had a lawyer and even knew he was at Hunt, but told he wasn’t, how long was that time, from when he had been picked up, September 6th, to when he was finally released?
DAVE EGGERS: It was three weeks before she heard from him. That was when the missionary who Zeitoun had given his phone number to called Kathy. And that’s when she first knew that he was even was alive. And what was interesting was that, even then, it was extremely difficult to extract him from Hunt. And it was only because they had means to hire a private lawyer, they had a property that they could put up against the bail and—because they had set bail for all of those charged after Katrina with minor offenses—looting or, you know, stealing a sausage in one case—the bail was astronomical in some cases, $100,000 for stealing a small piece of food. And so, this was the case with Zeitoun, too. The bail was, I think, about $100,000. And so they had to put up their office building as collateral to get him out. And even then, when there was a court hearing finally set, Kathy wasn’t told where it was, couldn’t find where the courthouse was, where they were holding these hearings. And when she called to find out, they told her that she couldn’t be told where the court hearing would be, that that was, quote-unquote, "private information.”
And iIt’s interesting that what Kathy says is that after all of this and all that she went through, it was that moment that really broke her, that she knew that her husband was alive, finally, and all she wanted to do was reach him and be able to see him again. And that’s when, even then, the bureaucracy and this sort of humanity and this callousness sort of prevented her from doing so, and that they wouldn’t even tell her where he was, you know, where the trial would be held. And so, I think—you know, I do hope that everybody learned something from this. But I think it’s a lesson in how sort of everyday inhumanity or everyday—you know, what might seem like small abuses of power or the lack of recognition of our common humanity can cause incredible suffering.
AMY GOODMAN: How is it that Todd Gambino and Nasser ended up in prison for so many more months, up to, in Todd’s case, a year?
DAVE EGGERS: They didn’t have the—they and hundreds of others didn’t have the money to hire private lawyers. And without that, they didn’t have a prayer. There were a lot of really great public defenders who took it upon themselves to search out these prisoners who were lost in the system and to try to track them and find out what they were charged with and give them representation, but that took many, many months to sort out. And the Zeitouns did what they could for their friends, but it was—you know, there’s only so much that you can do, and there were so many others that wee in the same situation. So, you know, Todd is out now, and he’s doing fine. He’s actually working in a shallow oil rig off the Gulf, just work that he had done before. And Nasser went back to Syria. And it’s a shame, but there are hundreds of other stories like it.
AMY GOODMAN: And now, the lawsuit, to—as Kathy said, to bring some kind of justice to stop this from happening again.
DAVE EGGERS: Well, what one lawyer said was that they had better get in line. There are thousands of civil suits against the city, the state, FEMA, Homeland Security, government. And there isn’t a whole lot of movement with any of these civil suits. The most famous among them is the case of the two men who were shot on the Danziger Bridge and the officers who are being held responsible for that. Obviously that case is moving forward on both levels, on a criminal level and a civil level, but I don’t think—I don’t have—I’m not holding my breath that the rest of these civil cases are going to result in compensation or any sort of, you know, satisfaction anytime soon.
I think that the Zeitouns have put it behind them, and I think that telling their story created, I think, a sense of peace and closure, if you will, and also the fact that, you know, they helped create the Zeitoun Foundation, which has been able to give grants to a number of nonprofits all over New Orleans that, like themselves, are helping rebuild the city. And I think that that gives them some sense of wholeness, too. And so—but the civil suit, I think we could find ourselves ten years from now saying the same, and it would not have moved a great deal. But I know that Kathy, especially, wanted to do it as a gesture just to make sure that this wasn’t forgotten.
AMY GOODMAN: Dave Eggers, you certainly will ensure that this story is not only not forgotten, but is learned about, is read, all over the world, both with Zeitoun and also with Voice of Witness. I’m wondering, as we conclude—we’ll lose the satellite in a minute—how you fit the story of Zeitoun, of the Zeitouns, into all your Voice of Witness series—Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives, Surviving Justice: America’s Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated, Out of Exile: Narratives from the Abducted and Displaced People of Sudan, and, of course, what we’re talking about today on this fifth anniversary, Voices from the Storm: The People of New Orleans on Hurricane Katrina and Its Aftermath.
DAVE EGGERS: Well, I think—I just believe in the right of people and, I think, the need for people to be able to be heard. I think that what we found with Voice of Witness is, again and again, when you give the opportunity to people to tell their story from beginning to end, from—we ask them, “Where were you born? What were you like as a child? Who were your friends? What was your family like? What was your home life like?” We go all the way from birth to where they are now. And I think that when you give people control over their story a bit and you give them a sense of ownership over their story, and that we’re not going to publish it until you’ve approved of every word and make sure that it’s completely accurate and that we fact-checked it independently, I think that, again and again, you find people that have been victimized and who have, you know, suffered a good deal—when finally they can get their story on paper, on the record, completely right, I think that there is an incredible sense of relief that comes to them. That’s what we—our narrators tell us again and again. It’s like finally this burden that they’ve felt for so long, this story that they’ve carried around, is finally out there. And maybe those who are responsible for this might be less likely to do it again, or the system that’s responsible might be closer to being corrected or addressed, because they spoke up.
AMY GOODMAN: Dave Eggers, author of Zeitoun. It just won the American Book Award. He’s also founder of the independent publishing house and literary journal, McSweeney’s. The book is being adapted into an animated movie, directed by Jonathan Demme next year. On Monday, we’ll continue in New Orleans to mark the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.