J. Malcolm Garcia, for the Pulitzer Center. Photos by Darren McCollester


Alil Ahmit raises pigeons in Chesmin Lug. He keeps them in a green shed and as the sun sets, opens the door to let them out. Dozens of pigeons soar into the air, flying in circles high over our heads.

Families collect around us, cup their hands over their eyes and watch the birds. Two of Alil's children have the highest lead blood levels in the camp, or so a doctor with the Institute of Public Health told his wife. He doesn't know. He supposes his birds too have lead but what of it? They can fly away while he and his family remain here on poisoned ground marooned by gravity and their need of one another.

Sometimes he thinks he should let the birds go for good. But then he would be denied the joy he feels with their daily release, the power that comes from knowing he alone can liberate them. Man is selfish, he tells me. Besides, they need him. They no longer think on their own like the feral dogs skulking around the camp fighting over scrap unaware they too are poisoned. Together, we watch the birds encircling the camp. A boy reaches up with his hands entreating them to return. Winged specks in the gray light of nightfall. Temporarily far from harm.