Week 3 has been one of new experiences, learning, and growth. I learned how to change a flat tire (this is a hard lesson to learn when you can't find anyone who speaks English!), how to find my way through small townships without street signs, and how to sit with people in their pain.
The week started slow, and I spent Monday and Tuesday pouring over South Africa’s criminal law, various UN Treaties, and international law. I have been spending a lot of time researching the reconstructive justice efforts taken by Argentina, as their country experienced similar widespread enforced disappearances. The pace began to pick up at the office on Wednesday when a group of graduate students from NYU came to Khulumani. I was excited and nervous when our director asked me to give a presentation on the work I’ve been doing. I have learned that one of the biggest barriers to change is lack of awareness, so it was the perfect opportunity to continue spreading the word about disappearances in South Africa.
This week I also interviewed four more survivors of gross human rights violations. On Thursday I interviewed a woman who was shot with rubber bullets from a helicopter during an uprising, and is now living with a bullet still in her head. When I asked her if she ever received reparations, she reluctantly told me that by the time she even knew the Truth and Reconciliation Commission existed, it was closed. I have learned that many other countries used South Africa’s TRC model in their own efforts to achieve justice, post-conflict. But other countries did not close victims off from reporting their stories less than two years later, as South Africa did.
On Friday I interviewed three more women who lost family members during the Apartheid regime. When I met the niece and sister of a man who disappeared when he was 18 years old, I asked a question that I ask each person I interview: What is it that you wish to see happen? I was moved when his sister replied, “We aren’t asking for anything. We don’t want money. We just want his body back.” They explained that they had been told to just let it go, move on, and accept that his body is buried somewhere in Ladybrand. The family will not accept this. It is an important part of their culture to give their family members a proper burial. Otherwise, they believe that the deceased person and the family cannot be at peace. As I so often am in this country, I was blown away by this family’s refusal to give up. As the interview came to a close, his niece looked at me and said, “His parents died not knowing where their child was. I told them I will never stop looking for him. Until I die, I will never stop looking.”
Later that afternoon I interviewed a woman who lost her 14-year old son in the struggle when he was killed by the military. She and her son were both members of the African National Congress, which at the time was an Anti-Apartheid liberation group. She told me that her child died with purpose, and that even though there has been no justice for his death, she is thankful that children today live in a different way than they did when her son was alive. She explained to me that it was because of her son and his sacrifices that I was sitting in her home. She went on to say that thirty years ago I would not have been in her living room; she and I would never have stood in the same house because I am white and she is black. She hugged me and told me she was so thankful that things have changed.
When I interview survivors and families, I often find myself at a loss of what to say. How do you express how sorry you are for the pain and suffering they experienced? I have learned that you don’t. I can’t fix their situations with apologies, and they don’t want me to. Instead, this week I learned the importance of giving people the space to share their struggles, and then being willing to sit with them in that pain. After allowing the time for things to “just be,” for the words to settle, I ended each interview by explaining the work that I’m doing. I told each person about my research, the new blog, my efforts towards ratification of the Convention, and my hopes for concrete change. I told them that Khulumani isn’t giving up, that I’m not giving up, and I asked them to do the same.
After a week that was equal parts rewarding and challenging, I spent the weekend remembering how to relax. I explored a farmers market with new friends (who knew that they make such amazing burritos in South Africa?), went on long runs in my favorite park, and hiked to a beautiful spot with a view of the whole city.
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