Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Twenty Years

Twenty years ago, yesterday, was the beginning of the Rwandan genocide. I was eight when it happened; I knew Africa existed, but only in a lion, zebra and elephant sort of way. Bill Clinton was the president. But this week, I just can't stop thinking about what happened twenty years ago.

You might not think that this has a lot to do with H Street, but it does. It does because the waves of suffering that systemic violence cause radiate to every corner of the world, and sets off ricochets of suffering for decades, perhaps centuries. So, even though I was an eight year old, blithely living my life when those atrocities happened, as an adult, I've seen the ricochets of the genocide slash through lives here in Washington. And while they are a pale shadow of the immediate violence, they weren't pretty.

After college I worked at an anti-torture non-profit which had two basic tasks: advocate against the use of political torture by the US government, and offer immediate help to survivors of torture. Often, people would just show up at our door with their every possession in a plastic shopping bag. It was a miracle they found us at all, tucked away in a hard to reach spot in NE DC, but they did. TASSC was and still is a small operation, but we did our best to help them find proper psychological care, pro bono lawyers, and a safe place to stay. Petitioning for political asylum is its own sort of hell, as it can take years, and involves telling your story over and over again -- the very story you are trying to move past. Not to mention the difficulties inherent in coming to a new country with nothing. All of a sudden you can't speak the language, the culture makes no sense, and you find yourself impoverished and disempowered, unable to work for fear of being deported back to the country that tortured you.

And so the survivors came, from all around the world. The old-timers who stopped by to check in from time to time were mostly Latin Americans, but we would get new survivors every week, often from different countries in Africa or the Middle East. Most plentiful were those from the horn of Africa, Ethiopians and Eritreans, well connected in DC, and often sent to us by their clergy. There were others from Cameroon, Mali, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, the Congo, the Sudan, speaking of TASSC by word of mouth, each connecting to one another when they somehow made it to DC. 

Every survivors has his or her own story, but each country's violence had its own distinctive stamp on the survivors. Those who shared the same language, who grew up in the same culture, and who endured similar treatment had a bond that went beyond even the deepest trust issues. Again and again I was amazed by the compassion and courage of survivors, especially as they worked to help each other out, listening to each other, offering space in their already crowded apartments. Despite the ugly reason that survivors found themselves at TASSC, the human spirit and grace was palpable. 

The exception to this rule were the Rwandans. Not that they didn't also evince spirit and grace in their own way, but because the violence came from within their own communities, and not from an outside force in the shape of a autocratic government, the devastation of the soul was far more complete. Instead of finding hope and solidarity, these survivors feared other people who shared their culture, who shared their language, who shared their identity. Not only did they have to deal with the "normal" issues survivors face, but they had to deal with that, too. The Rwandans broke my heart. At least to me -- and what do I know?-- it always seemed as though that the genocide survivors were the ones we were least able to help. And these people, and the children of these people, continue to live with the fallout of what happened twenty years ago. Because DC is a city of the world, they live here,  too, among us who never knew such trauma, bearing the scars on their hearts, living with the ricochets of the violence. 

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