At Seven Years Old:
“The best thing you can do when you find death all around you is to soar to great heights.”
I returned home after spending the past few days at a military base with military officers from countries in Africa, South Asia and Europe. I facilitated discussions on a number of topics including civilian-military relations, human rights and establishing rule of law in countries emerging from war. The military officers were lawyers. As lawyers, I find that we often hide behind the laws and the structures as a way to stave off and try to control the chaos and unpredictability of life. During my work, I try to break through those barriers and connect to the humanity of what we do. So, during one of the sessions, I organized a showing of “Confronting the Truth,” a powerful documentary that my peace institute put together with independent film makers York Zimmerman.
The documentary tracks the efforts of Peru, East Timor and Morocco as their societies struggle to find ways to reconcile and move forward after horrific human rights violations (torture, rape, murder) by the government or, in the case of East Timor, a foreign government, against its people. As with many people who work in countries ravaged by war and who have witnessed the depravity of humans and the brutality that humans wreack upon each other, I carry with me always the faces and stories of so many people whose lives have been forever altered by war. Their faces and stories are indelibly imprinted upon the fabric of my own life’s story.
Viewing the documentary brought to the forefront of my mind the faces and stories of those who have shared their painful tales with me, touching off a whirlwind of emotion. Seeing the clips of Peru immediately transported me to just this past August when I was in Ayacucho, Peru, where I interviewed a group of Quechuan women. (The Quechuan speaking people, called “peasants” by those in the Peruvian capital of Lima, suffered at the hands of the Mao-inspired and brutal Shining Path movement, as well as the Peruvian military that was working to crush the movement.) Typical among indigenous populations the world over, the Quechuan found themselves caught in the middle of the competing sides of Peru’s bloody civil war, and suffering disproportionately as a result of their ethnicity.
The Quechuan women’s experiences were etched on their faces and reflected in their eyes as they described the horrors of what they experienced at the hands of both the Peruvian military and the Shining Path. Their testimony so heart-felt and compelling, I felt that simply bearing witness and being present was far more important than having the discourse interrupted with frequent translations, so it was decided my colleague would capture the women’s stories on the audio recorder and provide the translations after the actual event. Despite my being unable to comprehend the words, I was able to “feel” their story as it unfolded by their body language and facial expressions alone. As a woman and a mother, I could feel their pain.
As the other women conveyed their stories, one woman sized me up and stared at me with great reserve and suspicion. At one point, she interrupted another woman and addressed me. She said, “I am sorry that you do not speak our language so you cannot understand what we are saying.” Our eyes locked and I said, “I do not need to understand your language in order to understand your story. There are other ways to hear what you have been through.” At that moment, everything changed. We instantly understood one-another and that understanding was conveyed on a much deeper level than I can transcribe. Throughout the interview, she grew more open and took every opportunity to connect her gaze to mine and despite my own the discomfort, I did not shy away. After the interview, she grabbed my arm and resisted letting it go when it was time for me to leave. All these months later, I still have that connection, and I doubt it is one I will ever lose.
So as yesterday’s airing of the documentary drew to a close, a natural heaviness surrounded me. In an effort to find a lifeboat in this sea of darkness, I recalled Calvin’s words a few months ago, “The best thing you can do when you find death all around you is to soar to great heights.” I told myself that I can either sink in the depths of darkness or, as Calvin suggested, soar beyond them. So I shifted my focus to the resilience of the human spirit and focused on the stories of hope and rebuilding that I heard in Peru. I focused on how the Quechuan women I met had moved forward and rebuilt their lives. And how they had the strength to share their stories with me, a stranger. They did so with the hope that the world would bear witness to what they experienced and perhaps learn from it. As I have.