Tuesday, January 15, 2008

That which we can never understand

"It seems that we are worthless, that we do not exist."

Five years is a long time. People fall in and out of love, change jobs, have kids, and travel. Lives grow, expand, develop, and sometimes, end. People experience both happiness and sadness, joy and sorrow, and everything in between. Ten years is even longer. It’s university and a PhD. It’s childhood to adulthood. It’s a first job to a career.

If one thinks back five years, ten years and all the things, both wonderful and awful, that have happened over that time span it seems a lifetime. And indeed, it is a lifetime. At no point, amidst the best or the worst, do most of us ever feel that we are“worthless,” that we “do not exist.” Even amidst heartache and painful decisions, we always have options, choices, possibilities.

The victims have none of these things. Instead life is the same every day. The only variation is what will come with the rice: beans, peas, lentils, or pasta. Long marches through dark jungles that look so similar one loses track of time, space, and direction in a heartbeat constitutes change. Swarms of stinging mosquitoes, dysentery and tropical diseases, deteriorating health and lingering weakness even in times of relative fitness marks the passage of time. The only link to something civilized, something human is a Saturday morning radio broadcast which, on occasion, will afford the opportunity to hear the voice of a mother, a father, a loved one.

“It is not the physical pain that wounds us, nor the chains on our necks that torment us or the constant sickness ... it's the mental agony of the irrationality of all this…"

Hopelessness. Despair. Loss.

These are emotions that we all grapple with from time to time. These are emotions that most of us can put aside and overcome. These are emotions that an untold number live with day in, day out.

And this harm is inflicted almost without purpose, without end in sight. The tormenter torments solely for torments sake. The jailor jails because he is ordered to do so, because he is trained to comply, yet never asks why, never questions the ethics or morality of his actions, all the while he kisses that crucifix hanging around his neck before battle and faithfully recites his Hail Marys and Our Fathers.

The warden taunts and threatens and throws snakes and tarantulas in their beds. “The jungle is dangerous,” he mocks, “don’t try to escape or you shall be eaten!” On another day he tells the prisoner that if the army comes, they will shoot and kill every hostage before one can be freed. The jailor would rather fulfill his mission to execute the innocent than take the fight to his “enemy”.

Not once does the jailor understand the struggle he is engaged in. Not once does he wonder if he can win this fight. Not once does the thought pass through his head that perhaps, just maybe, what they are engaged in is wrong, wrong on more than just moral or ethical grounds, but also wrong on practical grounds – that their struggle could never achieve anything more than bloodshed and lost lives, all the while fattening their Supreme Commanders’ waistlines and wallets.

"The only thing you can do is survive, because there's just nothing else to do."

Everything that it means to be human is stripped away, almost at once; yet still the survival instinct remains. Is it life? Can one who is chained to a tree, day in, day out, who is chained when using the restroom, when showering, when washing clothes, be called “alive”? The abject and insistent dehumanization of the victim continues every single day for weeks, months, and years without end.

Dehumanization is a fate almost worse than death. It is the prolonged feeling that no matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, your value will always be no more significant than that of a dog. But you try to hold on anyway. You try not to give up. You listen to the other victims, the soldiers and police that have been captive for longer than you when they say "take it one day at a time, focus on the now, ignore the future." Every day is a struggle, every day brings false hope of freedom, of relief, until finally, after long years, you find yourself wishing for death so as to end the permanent state of non-existence in which you survive.

And then, against all hope, you hear that two of your fellow prisoners have been freed. You feel grateful for them but hate them all the same for they have that which you long for so deeply in your soul that it hurts. They are free. They are human. And still you live in hell.

"I had to drag myself to the bathroom for my necessities through the mud with just the strength of my arms because I could not get up..."

The humanity of those who create and maintain such conditions has long such departed yet still we ask: Is there no humanity left in the captors? Are the captors so committed to dehumanizing their victims that they too are stripped of everything that it means to be human?

After 10 years in the jungle, after every possible infection and disease, at the point at which the captive has lost whatever possible value he could have had and is on the brink of death yet is still not freed, has the jailor lost all sense of compassion? Of humanity? Of strategy and sense of propaganda?

Perhaps the captor, in dehumanizing the victim, has permanently lost his humanity. Or perhaps the captor is afraid of his commander who doesn’t have to live with the collapse of humanism that is the jungle jail, a commander who is ruthlessly counting victims like chips on a poker table and judges that the loss of one chip is little more than the ante needed to get dealt a hand with the big boys.

“I'll put it in the hands of God”

They come to you. It is late in the term and the contractions have been coming and going all day, yet still the baby won’t come. You ask for a hospital, a doctor and they offer a nurse. Strangely, you see that as a sign of humanity. At least they offer you something. But then the nurse tells you the news. He will have to cut you open. He will have to take your baby from your stomach. There is no other option. He will use a kitchen knife. There is nothing else available.

You accept your fate and thank God that there is anesthesia. You pray silently but then there is nothing. When you awake in pain, pain that you can not measure, you are overjoyed. You are still alive and so is your son. You name him Emmanuel "because he was a gift from God," and you love him even if his father is a captor, a tormenter.

Eight months pass. Your son is sick and worsening. They come for him. You don’t want to lose him but you see death written on his face so you let him go. Then there is nothing. No news, good or bad, leaves you longing for something, anything. He is your hope and dream and he sustains you and even in the worst moments, you force his face into your mind and push through that which seems unbearable.

Three years pass. They come for you again. Freedom. It is yours if you can reach out and take it. They make you march. Twenty days through the same jungle you have spent the last 5 years. Twenty days in which every step takes you closer to home, closer to life. You pray this isn’t another taunt, another trick. You pray you will see your son again, hold him in your arms, and know that you accomplished the impossible. You survived. You emerge from the jungle, pale and weak but with a smile on your lips and hope in your heart. The tormenters leave you with a wave and a smile and you are both grateful and vengeful. The helicopter takes off and you return to life knowing that you will see your mother, your son.

Guilt touches your heart for those you have left behind. The sadness tugs at you and you feel a loss, an empathy that lingers and will never leave. You vow to do what you can to free those who still remain in the jungle, in the “people’s prison” all the while wanting to put those memories behind you forever. You do press conferences and interviews. You struggle and fight to stay strong. And you maintain the hope, the faith in your heart that came with your son. They will be freed. They must be freed.



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