Richard Benson craned to see the approaching faces, but he couldn’t get a bead on them beyond a blur of dark hair. The sun was blasting his eyes, and the waves were tossing the dinghies like a stomach trying to expel a bad meal. By the time the inflatable convoy motored onto land, the men were green from the brief journey, gill-sick, and a few were sunburned, too. Benson congratulated himself for ordering a lifetime supply of SPF 70.
The guards helped the men from the dinghies and removed their plastic cuffs. Their garb surprised Benson: he knew they wouldn’t be in orange jumpsuits—those were so 2002—but he hadn’t expected the khaki pants, light blue shirts, and loafers, all vintage L.L. Bean, before him. The men looked like professionals, like Benson himself, out for a weekend stroll. Only their discarded wraparound sunglasses, lurking like crabs on the sand, suggested otherwise. Blackout goggles: the camp commandant must have insisted on them for the trip.
The men stood on the rocky beach like chess pieces waiting to be moved. A few shuffled a bit, then braced for the guards to yell. Soon enough one did.
“Go on!” bellowed a burly buzz-cut. “You can do anything you want, goddamnit. Go, go! You’re free!”
“We can’t yell at them anymore,” Benson told him. “They’re no longer prisoners. Besides, they still need their orientation.” He had it all planned: the tour of the island, the name games, the trust exercises. They had to learn to trust again—they might as well start with each other.
The word “orientation” spread an oily smirk across the guard’s face. “Trust me, yelling’s the best thing we can do for them,” he said. “They haven’t shit in six years without someone telling them to and then watching them do it. You expect them to just waltz”—he pronounced it “walls”—“off and decide if they want to grill steaks or go to a movie? Free will’s a muscle, dude. And theirs is as weak as your biceps.”
As Benson gave thanks this guard wouldn’t be staying, two of the men began running back and forth along the beach, screaming, whooping, flapping their arms. They veered toward Benson, canine snarls issuing from their throats. He stepped back in fear and yet felt a small thrill: they grasped his power.
The guards stepped in front of him and cocked their M-16s.
“We want to go home,” he heard in accented English. “We want to go home.”
“You are home,” Benson called out over the hedge of olive-green backs.
TO: THE DEPARTMENT
FROM: RICHARD BENSON
The youngest was 21; he had passed almost a third of his life in The Prison. The oldest was 61; he had turned gray there. Once they had been Yemenis, Uighurs, Uzbeks, Algerians, Tunisians; sheepherders, doctors, mullahs, and cooks; educated and illiterates; men and boys; but those distinctions had been so thoroughly ironed out at The Prison that the men themselves no longer remembered.
There were 82 of them. All told they had clocked some 500 years in captivity, waged and survived a half-dozen hunger strikes, sat through hundreds of combatant status review tribunals, endured thousands of hours of isolation. The more these numbers grew, the more the men shrank, and as a result, although Benson was only five-foot-six, he towered over them.
Six years after being declared the “worst of the worst,” the men had been found to be, well, not so bad.
He was 32, unmarried, with five years in the Foreign Service. He spoke some Arabic after a posting in Egypt, and this, along with a capacity for endearing himself to his superiors, was perhaps his chief qualification for his new role. But he was wary at first. He’d never heard of a country called Freedom.
“That’s because it’s brand new,” explained Janice Milkowski. She’d been assigned to brief him at The Department.
She walked him through Freedom’s history, which didn’t take long. Six years after being declared the “worst of the worst,” the most dangerous terrorists on the globe, so evil they had to be imprisoned on an island beyond the reach of American law, the men had been found to be, well, not so bad. They were free to leave The Prison, but they had nowhere to go. Every country on earth—the ones where they were born or migrated to, the one that imprisoned them—refused to accept them, barring a few that promised to torture them.
The men’s plight became a public relations problem so severe it reached even the president’s ears. “Find a solution,” he told his Cabinet secretaries, that surly edge in his voice. “I don’t care what it is. Just find it.”
As the story went—every country needs its founding myths—the president’s interest inspired unprecedented interdepartmental cooperation. The Committee on the Status of The Cleared worked round the clock. It made no progress; even Albania balked at taking more detainees, despite large pledges of aid. “We need to start a new country—it’s the only way,” Milkowski said late one night, so tired she could barely keep her eyes open. Years later she would say that Freedom had been a joke.
For a young foreign-service officer, there couldn’t be a lowlier post than a country so fresh from the womb. But looked at it from the angle Benson chose, he was a viceroy—master of the antipodes, lord of this human Galapagos. That first glimpse of his men, Freedom both their new status and new nation-state, fostered an almost paternal desire to make a home for them.
The Department had contracted a private firm to scour the globe for a site for Freedom. They found it in the South Pacific. The Solomon Islands, just hit by a tsunami, needed the money, and America needed the real estate. Fatutaka was the easternmost island, and the most remote; for the Solomons, it would be like losing a toenail. It was .625 square miles, which still allowed room for growth. The landscape was rocky—an extinct volcano—but it would do. The tiny island would swallow an outsized problem and, everyone hoped, not choke on it.
The same contractors who created Baghdad’s Green Zone and Kabul’s behemoth embassy built Freedom. Sparing America’s taxpayers no expense, they broke rocks and imported tons of soil, sand and concrete. They planted trees and laid roads, although the only cars would be golf carts. They built a gym and a restaurant, a medical clinic, a community center with a library, a post office, and a mosque. When they finished, 82 small homes, 1,222 square feet apiece, awaited their occupants. A suburban subdivision of cul-de-sacs: barring the sea view, it could have been the Inland Empire. Benson’s house—also 1,222 square feet; no grand viceregal residence for him, that would be un-American—was set in a different “neighborhood,” a gated community really, that had been built for The Department’s personnel and the “security managers,” as the guards were called. Freedom was a friendly country, but at the outset it was thought prudent to treat it like an enemy one.
From the files, Benson learned that some of the ex-detainees had grown up without electricity, clean water, or toilets. He guessed many of them had never had a room of their own, other than their prison cells. To be given a whole house with the most modern infrastructure—it was like winning the lottery. The men were set for life, which was not just an expression. The condition for a ticket from The Prison to Freedom was that they never try to leave. They would be exiled from their own countries, from every country, until their deaths.
The Department hired an employment placement firm specializing in tough cases to provide exit counselors. They flew to The Prison carrying 82 questionnaires, translated, as needed, into Arabic, Urdu, Uighur.
“You may soon be granted your freedom,” the first page read.
The United States of America is a generous country, and will assist you with planning for the future. You can re-launch your career, or perhaps get the fresh start you’ve dreamed of!
-Please check which of the following areas best describes your previous line of work:
-Please describe your work history prior to 2001.
-Please list any skills you have.
-Please list five occupations that sound appealing to you. (Examples: nutrition counselor, landscape architect, social worker.)
-Your new home will have the following occupational needs. Do any of them sound appealing? Please let us know!
—post office (LITERACY REQUIRED)
—clothing procurer (familiarity with the costumes of the Muslim world an advantage)
—grocery store manager
—librarian (LITERACY REQUIRED)
—HEALTH CLUB manager
—cook (not short-order, not fine cuisine—level of Olive Garden)
—waiter (see above)
—doctor or nurse
The questionnaires came back torn to pieces.
The orientation did not go as planned. At roll call, the men didn’t respond to their names, and Abdullah, a gaunt young man with onyx eyes and decent English, came forward to explain. At The Prison they had been given Internment Serial Numbers. They wanted to keep them. He would answer only to Abdullah237.
The only initiative they displayed was to request plywood and steel mesh for home improvements.
This minor recalcitrance barely registered with Benson, who was otherwise occupied. The Department had hired a public relations firm to spread the word about Freedom’s virtues, and after creating Freedom’s slogan—“As good as America”—it arranged for hundreds of international news crews to visit the island. Benson gave 811 interviews. He made sure the ex-detainees, whose privacy he wanted to protect, gave none.
It was some time, then, before he got around to observing his charges, before he understood that the freed man is qualitatively different from the free man. Freedom’s residents rarely stirred before noon. They demanded every flavor of ice cream, every kind of bread—or else forgot to eat. A few of them didn’t talk at all, except to themselves. The only initiative they displayed was to request plywood and steel mesh for home improvements. Some rarely bathed, developing a stink so profound Benson couldn’t stand within six feet of them. He took to coughing—“can’t shake this virus,” he would say—into an Old Spice-scented handkerchief.
TO: THE DEPARTMENT
FROM: RICHARD BENSON
Think island mood would benefit from psychiatric counselors or, barring that, medication.
Only the Uighurs were industrious. They set up a furniture workshop, fashioned exquisite joints. Knowing how eager The Department was to promote free markets, Benson proposed exporting the Uighur’s products, believing the same type of customer who bought coffee harvested by pygmies or necklaces hand-fashioned by Romanian street children would covet chairs made by ex-detainees. But The Department deemed the security concerns too great—who knew what messages could be embedded in a table leg? Milkowski pronounced the enterprise too reminiscent of prisoners making license plates.
The Uighurs were unfazed, as if accustomed to denial. To Benson’s surprise they continued building the same objects again and again, trying each time to improve on the last. As the houses filled up, furniture sets began to appear around the island. Benson, on a stroll, would come across a table for ten; empty armoires; rows of bare bed frames, as in a hospital ward awaiting patients. It gave him the creeps.
The other men, for the most part, spent their time spinning sand through their fingers or bobbing, like corks popped to irrelevance, in the blue lagoons.
Abdullah237 had once been a waiter—in London, which explained his good English—and on Freedom he became one again. A waiter: the job title became literal in the customer-free hours at the Salaam Café. Each morning Abdullah237 would take the chairs down from the tabletops and set each table with napkin, fork, knife, and spoon. He would place a water glass at each spot and fill each glass. Then he would sit and read, or chat with the cook, also an ex-detainee. The only customers were Benson and his security coterie. They quickly worked their way through the menu—the chewy pizza, the over-boiled pasta, the hamburgers that never came cooked the way they asked—as the fans turned desultorily overhead. The hours stretched like lengthening shadows, and at closing time, which crept a little earlier each day, Abdullah237 would empty the water glasses, wipe the silverware down, set the chairs atop the tables, sweep the floor, and pretend to count his tips. Benson asked him one day why no one came. Abdullah237 shrugged. They had been forced to eat so many meals alone at The Prison they’d gotten used to it.
Benson tried to keep Abdullah237 talking. He told himself he was cultivating intelligence—not an informant or informer per se, just someone who would provide information—but the truth was he was eager for friendship. Abdullah237 struck him as bookish, intelligent—the light in those dark eyes, the refinement in those long fingers—but at every conversational foray Abdullah237 clammed up like Benson was an interrogator.
Benson began to obsess over the country’s poor morale, even though he knew The Department didn’t care if Freedom was a happy place as long as it looked like one. The Prison’s dark lore he had seen as a bodily cavity where he had no business being, but now he decided the past needed a colonoscopy. Using encounter groups, one-on-one “entry” interviews, memoir-writing classes, a “wiki-history” of The Prison, he tried to get the men to disgorge their experiences. Nothing worked. Their memories were locked away, hoarded, and so, to the man trying to pry them loose, golden. He dug into the files from The Prison, and in the cool of his living room, paced off the dimensions of a cage seven feet by eight. It was small.
The post office had mailboxes for each Freedom resident and slots for outgoing mail. All it lacked was honesty: the men’s outgoing letters went through the slots and into the waiting hands of the security managers, who sent them off to The Department for translation.
Before coming to Freedom, Benson had been trained in how to escape a minefield, although this challenge seemed peripheral at best to his station. Still, he had played along, learning how to inch forward on his hands and knees and very gently insert a pen into the soil, circumnavigating any spot where it struck something hard. It occurred to him, as he practiced on a small dirt patch, that if you managed to avoid the hard object, you would never know whether it was a mine or a rock. Screening the letters for danger felt the same way, right down to the pen with which he underlined words, unable to tell if they were inert or explosive. When Abdullah237 said he was bored, was that a signal to launch a rescue? When Salman765 wrote about craving his wife’s stuffed peppers did that have some more nefarious meaning (or, as Benson thought more likely, a sexual one)? Had Waheed004 embedded—enjambed—a clue to Freedom’s location in his poem, which began:
The sun shines 365 days a year
But it is always winter here
They tried every code-cracking technique. The sentences promised knowledge and delivered mystery. Where did literal speech end and metaphor begin? Every phrase seemed to contain the potential for double, or triple, meanings; all language took on the complexity of wartime maneuvers. The letters, The Department ruled, could not be sent.
But Benson believed the men needed communication or the illusion of it. So, late at night he took on the personages of mothers and brothers, wives and children, and wrote replies. Because the residents of Freedom would never return to the external world, it didn’t matter what happened there. Benson eliminated all pain and suffering, all loss and cruelty, from the responses. Salman765’s mother, whose health her son so fearfully inquired after, made a full recovery. Hamid, Jamal202’s little brother, was accepted to university, praise be to God! Praise be to God: Benson wrote that phrase a lot.
Benson suggested that they play games for prizes like towels and toothpaste. It would pass the time, of which there was so much to be passed.
The letters were translated, forged in the handwriting of the Freedomites’ relatives, and given to the men. All this epistolary ebullience, un-redacted, made them suspicious, but they had no way to challenge the version of events on the page, no channel through which to fact-check. To Benson, this was a benevolent subterfuge, an improvement on anti-depressants: rather than trying to regulate the human reaction to difficult events, he had rewritten the events.
Benson suggested that they play games for prizes like towels and toothpaste. It would pass the time, of which there was so much to be passed. Explaining bingo’s rules, he imagined the community center echoing with the joyous chorus of called numbers. But the men announced a boycott of The Liberty Games. This time their spokesman was Yusuf55, a hollow-cheeked Yemeni cleric who addressed Benson only in Arabic. Even without money, the games were gambling, Yusuf55 insisted, and thus un-Islamic. Benson argued, without success, that any game with toilet paper as a prize could not be un-anything.
The boycott worried Benson—the unanimity, the hint that the fundos held sway. A garden of beards had sprouted on the island, and the men had begun to proselytize him. Benson had argued against allowing Christian missionaries to preach to Freedom’s 82 captive, unsaved souls. He didn’t like the discovery that he was the captive soul, in more ways than one. At orientation Benson had taught the men charades, and now they began to play. They mimed sticking feeding tubes down each other’s noses and fingers up their anuses, the men roaring with laughter and weeping like babies and rocking like asylum inmates all at the same time. They hurled phantom fecal cocktails in Benson’s direction. They limped like they were shackled and reenacted their tribunals, four judges looking stonily past a frantic man collecting papers to prove his innocence. That little tableau always ended with the four judges shaking their heads “no,” in unison.
One day Abdullah237 asked if English had a word for a place where everything was perfect, but you still felt miserable. The question unsettled Benson. What if you made it to heaven but felt like hell? Could hellish memories travel with you through the pearly gates, leak into the firmament? These thoughts plagued Benson’s nights until something else erupted to disturb them.
The men began blasting music—to Benson it sounded like drowning gypsies—from the edge of his “neighborhood,” even after the security managers asked, then ordered, them to turn it down.
“It’s a free country,” said Abdullah237, betraying Benson’s hopes for him. “Our country.”
The music came the next night and the next. Every time Benson drifted off, it would start up, as if they were watching him. And each morning before dawn, Yusuf55 began wailing the call to prayer over the megaphone Benson had obtained for bingo.
Four sleepless nights left him a mess. It occurred to him that Freedom had no laws, no regulations, occurred to him as well that order was more easily enforced than happiness. He instituted a sonic buffer zone around all “neighborhoods.” Violators would be subject to a mandatory six hours in the community center listening to Verdi at high volume. This was not, strictly speaking, a punishment. Snacks would be provided, and no civilized country could ever call opera torture.
TO: THE DEPARTMENT
FROM: RICHARD BENSON
Have begun to construct the skeleton of a legal system.
The men had promised never to try to escape Freedom, but suicide was not forbidden. The first one tied a stack of library books to his back and walked into the sea. The books floated him, then, once soaked, sank him. Suicide by book—Benson had never heard of such a thing. The evidence, sodden and ruined, was brought to him—a real waste of a good encyclopedia set. If he had monitored the library records, he would have smelled something amiss. The man couldn’t read English.
TO: THE DEPARTMENT
FROM: RICHARD BENSON
Have had to create a cemetery. The contractors neglected to. RB
“La makan.” No place.
“La bilad.” No country.
“Halfway—we are halfway to freedom.”
“Al Qae-.” Cackles, swallows the rest.
“Al Wayl.” Misery.
“Al A’raf.” The place between Paradise and Hell.
“It’s a black site—no, not black . . .”
“Gray. A gray place. Al Ramadi.”
“Khara. Shit. America shit us out. This island’s a turd.”
This one really rankled Benson. How could they say they were forgotten? The global press corps had visited. Poor people from across the planet were writing The Department to ask if they would get houses with electricity and water if they moved to Freedom. Political dissidents were asking whether they could seek asylum here. Beacon: what was the Arabic word for that? By the time the men approached to say they wanted to rename Freedom, Benson had readied a legal defense. Wiping Freedom from the map by changing its name constituted an attempted escape and thus grounds for return to The Prison.
Benson decreed the Qur’an so valued on Freedom that for the sacred book’s own protection, all copies would be locked away, just as America’s Constitution was.
He had watched their whole discussion via the closed-circuit television system he’d set up after a second suicide attempt, this one by razor. (He’d missed the signs again: the man had a beard down to his breastbone; what did he need with a razor?) Displeased at this “mutinous self-mutilation,” as Benson described it, The Department demanded unspecified “preventive measures” against further suicides. And so Benson, inspired by an episode of Real World Miami on his satellite television, chose surveillance. On his instruction, cameras were embedded in trees around the island, concealed in bedroom ceilings. He felt a new closeness to the men. Each night he waited for the Freedomites to curl into their fetal positions before turning in himself. Seeing that they had hemmed themselves in—seven feet by eight—with the steel mesh and plywood, he grasped how, after years of confinement, the open space, open sky, open sea, and open time of their new home must have terrified them. The less they did the more he watched: nothing matched a man sitting on his bed and staring into space.
The closed-circuit system, designed for the men’s protection, had ancillary benefits for Benson. At night, he discovered, Yusuf55 was running an Islamist indoctrination course with a radical bent, undoing Benson’s own daytime instruction in moderate Islam. Benson promptly decreed the Qur’an so valued on Freedom that for the sacred book’s own protection, all copies would be locked away, just as America’s Constitution was. The confiscation happened before the men could react. In the community center the Qur’ans were displayed behind glass like babies in a nursery and rendered harmless, opened only to the benign suras Benson used for his class. They had lost the ability to turn the page. Many of the men knew the Qur’an by heart, but Benson’s reeducation campaign made them mistrust their own memories.
TO: THE DEPARTMENT
FROM: RICHARD BENSON
Islamist indoctrination underway. Have devised means to monitor. Am inclined to let it play out as test of extremist recruitment in a free society.
The Islamists won.
Knowing that democracy-promotion remained in vogue at The Department and that a success, however small, wouldn’t hurt his career, Benson had decided to make Freedom a democracy. Perhaps, he thought, giving the men some control over their destiny might ease their sense of being condemned by fate. But destiny was a devil: the hard-liners came away with a majority on the governing council, whose powers were as yet unspecified.
Still, he had a council to write home about—“the world’s smallest Muslim democracy”—even if its decisions were necessarily subject to his veto, which he used, with regret, on the winning entry in the competition to design Freedom’s flag. Jamal202 was a talented artist, but a snake, coiled in the shape of a crescent, behind barbed wire? This would not play well on the world stage, or, more pertinent to Benson, the Washington one. Like dogs hemmed in by an invisible electronic fence, the men had to learn their limits.
TO: THE DEPARTMENT
FROM: RICHARD BENSON
Preventive measures in place, but tensions remain high; I believe they are sexual. The detainees have been without women for seven years. They need wives.
Benson’s message provoked consternation at The Department. The U.S. government could not procure concubines for Freedomites. But it also couldn’t afford to lose the island’s entire population to self-inflicted attrition. The men were not “temporary” detainees, as they had been at The Prison, but permanent residents of Freedom. The government could hardly mandate that they live as bachelors, celibates, forever.
But then someone—Janice Milkowski, always the clever one—pointed out that maybe Benson had omitted a word by accident. Maybe he meant to say, “They need their wives.” This the government could do, indeed should have done. Family reunification. They could send the wives and children to the island. This decision was dispatched to Benson, who—despite concerns about having his forgery operation exposed—dispatched it to the men.
It was decided, after constructing a rationalization connecting connubiality and mental hygiene, to find the unmarried men wives.
When Abdullah237 came the next day to say the men didn’t want their families joining them, Benson sputtered in shock. They had pined for their wives—their children!—for more than six years. Wasn’t he desperate to be with his son, who had been just two when his father went to The Prison? The extremists must have forced him into this.
Abdullah237’s black eyes glistened. No one had forced him into anything, he said. He didn’t want his son breathing Freedom’s air.
TO: THE DEPARTMENT
FROM: RICHARD BENSON
The men have rejected family reunification. Appears to be a case of manipulative self-deprivation. Please advise.
The Department couldn’t force the men’s families on them, but it could dangle an alternative. It was decided, after constructing a rationalization connecting connubiality and mental hygiene, to find the unmarried men wives. Benson offered this option to the married ones, too: second wives, or third, for those who already had two at home. This they accepted, seeming to have no problem with strangers breathing Freedom’s air.
A new questionnaire was drawn up. This time all 80 were filled out and returned:
Please list some of the qualities you seek in a wife: (Examples: good cook, intelligent, tall, good dancer, religious.) We aim to please but there are no guarantees that we can match your preferences!
-PREFERRED AGE? (MUST BE 18 OR OVER)
-ANY ABSOLUTE NOs? (FACIAL HAIR, BODY MASS INDEX OVER 25, PREVIOUS MARRIAGES)
The Department hired a marriage-by-mail broker who placed discreet ads in newspapers around the world, seeking women interested in marriage abroad. Inquiries from Moldova, as well as Romania and Albania, flooded in, although some of the women withdrew when they learned more about their husbands. Still, it was surprising how many women would forsake homeland, family, and history for a place they had never seen and could never leave.
The broker sent dossiers on the women to the island. As warned, they did not match the men’s preferences: facial hair abounded, for instance, although no one had requested it. Benson, feeling both squeamish and efficient, decided to organize a lottery-cum-bazaar for the men to choose. He spread the photos and bios on the tables in the community center. The men drew numbers, and the highest lots got first dibs. As the trading waged, the center hummed with the happy activity he’d envisioned bingo bringing.
They came wafting from the sky like snowflakes. The men stared up with their mouths open, as if to catch them. The plan had been to bring the women by helicopter from Guadalcanal, but a budding cyclone thwarted their landing. The women were lowered in giant slings, with security managers on the ground easing their final descent. Trina, Katarina, Amina, Ayesha, and more floated into new lives from which floating would be the only way out. Out of respect the closed-circuit system was turned off for the weekend.
The first pregnancy provoked all the excitement—and surprise—that greets rare pandas conceiving in a zoo. Somehow The Department hadn’t anticipated that coupling men and women would produce offspring. The babies were cute, cuddly, their names less so. The first child born was named Osama, and he was not the last. There were Jihads, Zawahiris, too, not a Richard among them. Qutb. Who names a child Qutb? Benson’s only revenge was to announce that these toddling mockeries would learn at a school named for himself.
And so his farewell to Freedom was held in the auditorium of the Richard Benson Academy. The Department, counting Freedom a success, was promoting him, but for the first time in his life, he wasn’t anxious to get ahead. To go from a place where you made the rules, invented the protocols, back to a world where you followed them—it was like being sent to a kind of prison.
He was posted to Cyprus, Sri Lanka, Great Britain. From time to time he dreamt that he stood before a panel of four Freedomites who made outlandish accusations based entirely on circumstantial evidence. His protests of innocence went unheard, as if he were speaking in thought bubbles. He would wake in a sweat, shocked not to find himself shackled.
His friends at The Department copied him on the correspondence from his replacements on Freedom. Death and disease, divorces and remarriages, children’s report cards, a teenage pregnancy, fights, seven more suicides, a murder—with time and distance Freedom became as good as America after all. Fourteen years after his departure came a message with an extra note: “RB: This one may interest you.”
Over the years Freedom’s children had made repeated requests to leave the island and always been refused. But now the security managers had gotten wind that they were building boats and preparing to launch them. The Department was in a state. Could it prevent their escape? The lawyers pronounced the attempted egress legal. The conditions attached to the fathers’ freedom did not apply to their children.
“Go, go!” the guard had yelled on Freedom’s first day. A generation later, they were going. They weren’t interested in shrinking their horizons, as their fathers had. Like teenagers anywhere, they wanted to blow them out.
Benson used every chit he had to get unscheduled leave and permission to join the surveillance flight. Through the plane window he saw clouds hunched in a corner of the sky. Did these kids know anything about navigating? The nearest island was more than 35 miles away, its people unlikely to let them land.
The pilot circled the island twice, looking for activity near the water’s edge. At last their quarry emerged: six dozen teenagers tugging four huge boats.
The parents followed them, and through his binoculars Benson picked out not just his old friends—Abdullah237, Yusuf55—but the new gray in their hair. The young people and their fathers pushed the boats into the sea, the teenagers clambering aboard, the fathers wading in to their knees. When the boats began to float, the adults returned to shore and waved as if seeing off a cruise. The teenagers rowed hard, looking like minnows against the whale of the sea. Specks.
The plane followed and descended for a clearer view. The teenagers looked up and shook their fists. A few gave the finger. Then they turned away as if they no longer could be bothered.