Haunted. I am haunted by the human rights abuses to which I’ve become a witness. For years, through one-on-one interviews, I documented refugees’ flights from their homes. I became intimately familiar with who these people had been before they fled, why they had to flee their countries and under what circumstances.
Through their descriptions, refugees transported me back to the attacks on their villages. I heard the guns and the cries of community members who were captured by the attackers. I saw the houses set ablaze amidst rebels decapitating male neighbors and raping girls and women alike.
Some of those captured managed to escape, explaining how they outsmarted or successfully appealed to some remaining humanity within their captors. Most had scars of their encounters. These scars were sometimes visible signs of beatings. Some scars revealed themselves through the refugees’ eyes and voices. Some did not escape.
Sometimes, the pain of the person in front of me completely shattered the professional distance I strove to maintain in interviews. One such interview was with a Sierra Leonean mother of two young children. She sat in front of my desk stoically explaining the day the rebels attacked until she began to recall being ganged raped. At this point, the interview seemed to pause. Her mouth was open, but she could not form the sound of the number of men who had raped her. I bit my tongue to hold back tears. Not only was she traumatized by her past; one of her rapists was living nearby in her country of refugee. Her pain, mixed with a fear of further abuse, was so palpable. This pained woman and many other survivors of gang rape, including a number of former sex slaves I interviewed, remain ever present in my mind.
In most interviews, I maintained my composure and successfully detached myself from the details as they were told. Similarly, many of the survivors seemed to methodically discuss the details of their lives but with resolute detachment, trying not to reflect upon the reality of the crimes. For them and me, the crimes were simply too horrific. Nonetheless, vivid details of the persecution of these survivors and others remain with me as if I had heard them yesterday, even though more than ten years have passed.
Yet, it is not only the stories of victims that continue to torment me. Another individual, who dwells in my consciousness, is also a Sierra Leonean. But, as a young single male, his experience of the war differed strikingly from the woman whose story I had come to know. While seated before me, he recounted how, with a knife at his side, he cut off neighbors’ arms. While he spoke and was physically in front of me, his body seemed hollow. When I looked him directly in his eyes, I detected no soul.
I do not know if I interviewed those he amputated. But, I interviewed many who had survived such horrors. These scars needed no imagination to bring into graphic detail what had transpired. These were some of the most difficult interviews. And, at one point, after non-stop interviewing such cases, I began to see amputees everywhere. A person who was holding his arm in front of him became an amputee until he moved so I could see the other arm. A person whose one leg was invisible from behind became an amputee. When I reached such points, where images and thoughts of survivors and their stories overcame me, I would shut down, spending hours looking at a blank interview form that I needed to complete. On some occasions, I was unable to complete the forms for weeks, finding idle tasks to occupy me until I could resume the documentation process.
These visceral experiences also take me to other war-torn places where, despite not having spoken with nationals of such countries, I can easily imagine what they have suffered. The details may be different, but the horrors are the same. What is even more disturbing to admit is that such horrors have been plaguing humanity for centuries, and still there is no end in sight.
While no ghosts wake me up at night, the stories of survivors of extreme violence lurk in my subconscious. Such knowledge prohibits me from returning to any sense of naivety and tranquility I may have had as a youth growing up in a stable, prosperous country. At times, I wish I could return. Yet, this is not possible. In honor of the survivors and victims, both those I have met and the countless others whose stories I may not have heard but who contend with similar traumas, I allow their memories to be a part of what is now my memory. With their stories in my mind, haunting my memory, I find motivation from their survival to find ways to remedy the violations that have been perpetuated against them. -- Tammi Sharpe
Tammi Sharpe is presently on a sabbatical from the United Nations (UN) and is serving as the Human Rights Fellow at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Prior to her sabbatical, Sharpe worked for fifteen years with the UN in humanitarian protection, promotion of human rights and peace-building. Her main affiliation is with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees but she has also served with the Department of Peacekeeping and the Peacebuilding Support Office. The majority of her service has been in the field serving in: Angola, Iraq, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Senegal, and Sierra Leone. She also worked at Headquarters in Geneva and New York. Before joining the UN, she worked on immigration policy in Washington, D.C. and was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal. Sharpe earned a BA in Political Science from Columbia University and an MA in International Relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.