There’s a classic Twilight Zone episode called “A Kind of Stopwatch” in which a man comes into possession of a stopwatch that can stop time while leaving him free to move around the world unwatched and alone. He goes to rob a bank, but drops the watch, breaking it and thereby freezing time permanently. The episode ends with him desperately trying to reanimate the world and screaming “Somebody move!” But the world remains motionless, petrified.
I was reminded of the episode today while reading the late Anthony Shadid’s memoir House of Stone. It’s about the year his life basically collapsed around him and he moved to Lebanon to repair his great-grandfather’s ancestral home. But the book is mostly about war’s peripheral effects: an errant rocket landing on a roof, a centuries old olive tree caught in the crossfire and blown to splinters, and of course the refugees, both immediate and generational.
He describes the deep and prosaic trauma of war, “Old traditions that represent values, daily habits that calm the mind, are not perpetuated when war stops time,” he writes. For the long wars that seem more common recently, leaving millions displaced for years, this disruption of the routine grows more cancerous, “Life goes unattended. What might have been lasting is lost. The old ways of the Levant have dwindled down here, as war – or the threat of it, or the wait for it, or the loss that follows it – has become a way of life.” You can witness this dwindling everyday in the camps of eastern Chad.
Which brings me back to the man with the broken stopwatch. The terror of that moment makes the episode one of the series’ most memorable. I still remember that sense of desperation from when I watched it as a kid. There’s something of that timelessness and that terror in these camps even though the fighting (for now) remains far away. The threat and the wait is enough.
The new arrivals to camp Goz Amer. Photo: i-ACT/James Thacher