I like to think I am tough. Practical. I am not a crier. (I should add “usually” for those of you who know the exceptions.)
I started reading human rights literature when I was 17, the result of wandering around Dublin into an Amnesty International bookshop. I have read about many of the major human rights atrocities in the 20th century. I lived in one of the poorest countries in the world (Mauritania) for two years, travelled around West Africa, visited Zimbabwe. I have seen poverty.
So when the Advocacy Project invited me to spend the summer in Sri Lanka, I thought great. I will be able to help. I can go into the worst situations. I can hear the worst stories, and because I am tough, I will not fall apart.
Imagine my surprise when a month into my fellowship, I find myself overcome with emotion at random moments, having nightmares, needing a few minutes alone to regain my composure. I thought all of the books I have read would prepare me for what I would see and hear. But the reality is far worse.
I never would have thought it would be this stressful, this hard to simply listen.
A few days ago a boy came into the office and told his story of being abducted and tortured for several days. He spoke of being beaten and thrown from a moving vehicle, and his wounds are still visible.
Last week I read a letter from one of HHR’s clients to his lawyer. The man is starting his 15th year in prison for a crime he did not commit. I can’t print the letter here, but I assure you reading someone’s description of his mental anguish in such a situation is almost unbearable.
The unspeakable cruelty and humiliation that one human being can cause another is now imprinted on my mind and stays with me 24 hours a day. I feel guilty for taking a lunch break, for checking my e-mail, for leaving the office at 5pm when these men will never escape their living nightmares.
I spent last weekend in a town called Unawatuna, one of the more popular beach destinations in Sri Lanka. It was also one of the towns hit hard by the tsunami on December 26, 2004. 30,000 lives were lost that day in Sri Lanka alone. Life is measured not according to 9/11, as in the States, but according to the tsunami: My son was 9 months when the tsunami struck. Where were you that morning? Before the tsunami, after the tsunami. And so on.
Not having known anyone personally affected by that day, I asked the owner of the guesthouse I where I stayed about his experience. “The first wave was . . . very powerful. . .” Damika’s voice trailed off as if he was lost in a memory.
“Within seconds, our house was gone. My father was in there.” He touched the wall of the building next to us. “My uncle and brother were over there. Gone in seconds. We had to start our lives over. The government gave us 250,000 rupees ($2,500)– barely enough to bury my family. We rebuilt with some donations from friends in the States and Europe. 2005 was ok. But when the conflict started again last year, everyone left. You are the only guest right now.”
You can read a personal account of the tsunami here, as written by Damika’s friend for the New York Times.
My first thought was to offer to patronize his guesthouse every weekend for the rest of the summer. Then he adds, “It’s like that for everyone around here.” I think of the couple dozen guesthouses. I think of the men desperately selling coconuts on the nearly empty beach. I could buy a coconut from each of them, but then I would have a dozen coconuts. I don’t even like coconuts.
I think of the entire Sri Lankan coastline and the many other countries affected by the tsunami. 250,000 people killed in all, millions displaced or homeless. Then I come back to the man sitting across from me.
“I’m so sorry” is all I can say. A pathetically inadequate offering.
I thought of where I was when the tsunami struck — my Mauritanian village, Aioun. Aioun is not exactly a mecca for international news, so I didn’t hear about the tsunami until three days later while on vacation with friends in Bamako, the capital city of Mali. We were eating breakfast at a pastry shop when we saw a television. We were shocked and upset of course. We checked the news a few more times and read the papers, but we were on vacation, after all, and returned to having fun as we hiked through Dogon country.
All of that as Damika was burying three family members, and one of his guests buried an 8 week old baby.
I am still doing the work I came here to do but now with a sense of humility, for I am not nearly as tough as I thought. Accompanying that knowledge is the nagging self-doubt that what I am doing will never be enough.
As I am leaving the guesthouse to return to Colombo, I see Damika’s son. Nine months old when the tsunami struck, now 3 years, the kid is truly adorable. He laughs and waves goodbye. Quite the survivor.
Back at the HHR office on Monday morning, I feel ready to start another week. As always when confronting a threat larger than oneself, it feels better to work as a team.
Posted By Madeline England
Posted Jun 24th, 2007