Firsthand Account

Victims would sit before me, tears streaming down their faces as they recapped horrific stories of rape. Sometimes, the victim would be a man.

One morning, aptly punctuated by torrential rains, I was sitting sheltered in a cubicle where refugee interviews took place, and a middle-aged, Congolese man with a small stature, stepped out of the rain and presented himself. It was only by chance that he found his way to my cubicle, rather than to the cubicle of one of my colleagues, for he held a wooden block with the number that was next on the list inscribed into it. I happened to become available at the precise moment his number was called.

Sitting before me, he removed his tattered cap, now dripping wet, and divulged a dark, painful secret. As if his cap had held this secret captive for years, he set the cap on the rectangular, wooden table separating us and began to speak. He annunciated each word with palpable precision, leading me to wonder later if his tongue had wished to hold onto each thought and its corresponding meaning for a fraction of a second longer, if perhaps he was in fact not ready to let go of this story. Yet, it was a story that tortured him and still tortures him now. After all, stories of victimization don’t just go away. They remain forever, deeply entrenched within one’s body and mind, as emotional scars etched in the memories of our minds and in the memories of our cells.

But, on this day, he gave himself permission to dislodge the timeless horror and deep repulsion he felt. Somewhere within him, he found the courage to describe to me the day he was forced, at gunpoint, to violate his own mother. And, now that this dark secret had been dislodged, it seemed to be suspended in the air, just above the table separating him from me.

Gender and culturally ascribed roles would claw at him, insisting that he remain a “man” whilst regurgitating this atrocious act he was forced both to endure and to commit. And, until he sat before me, those ascribed roles would have misled me into believing that his story was less valuable, less plausible, than that of the woman who had come before him. Yet, while her story was no less atrocious, no less convincing, the details of her story have escaped my mind. Undoubtedly, they were similar to the details of many other stories I’d heard and which, by then, had all blended into a single story. That single story had become a unifying force, for it had grown into a story that concluded with a powerful and callous sentiment embodying the pain we all feel when hearing such stories as well as the anger that was brewing within me. I had heard far too many similar stories of the agonizing pain endured by women under the undue dominance of men.

I had come to believe all men could be lumped into the same, collective category – a category based on their quest for power, a power that often comes at the expense of women.

No matter the story, no matter the victim, each one pained me and left me with a dispiriting perspective on humanity, a dispiriting perspective on men. I vividly recall the day that I consciously realized that I was disengaging myself from these stories. By then, I had simply heard too many, and it seemed the right thing to do. I was protecting myself from the pain and, ultimately, from vicarious trauma. But, detaching oneself from raw human reality is a difficult skill to master.

The rain drops pelted the tin roof hovering over the entryway to the interview cubicles, the echo of each strike sounding and resounding within our cubicles. Refugee women and children, representing various African nations, pushed past the door of my cubicle, their sopping wet, colorfully decorated pagnes tightly hugging the skin that, in turn, hugged their frail bones.

Despite the chaos outside my door, a silence heavy with sorrow hung in the air inside my cubicle, as this man excavated the sludge of this memory deeply entrenched in his soul. As he recounted the day he raped his mother, this man sobbed. This man, this presumed “bastard”, sat before me as tears rolled down his leathery cheeks. They slid into the long dimples lining each side of his mouth like ravines and, then, plunged to the table where his fingers nervously maneuvered the puddle where his tears were collecting. No amount of training or self-talk could have resulted in a “professional” response. I stared back at the dark, sullen eyes of this man and wept.

My tears created a small puddle on my side of the table, but it was still my side of the table. It was as if the two puddles were there to remind us that, no matter what our genders, our cultures, our backgrounds, our experiences still separated us. I should have broken down the barrier. I should have reached across the table and quietly embraced him. I should have soothed him, reminded him that he was not alone, reminded him that the world is not right.

But, I didn’t. I couldn’t. He had raped his mother.

Two and one-half years later, the tears returned as the Ethiopian Air plane carrying me lifted off the ground, transporting me far from the red clay earth of the Great Lakes, far from the makeshift nomadic tents dotting the Sahel, and, I feared, far from the raw, intimate moments I had shared with these beautiful, pained individuals. Somewhere, beneath me, there was a small wooden table in a cubicle where rain pelted against the tin roof in a thunderous chorus. But, even a thunderous chorus could not compete against the silent pleas of injured souls trapped in bodies of victims who could neither escape the hardship of the desolate region below, as I could, nor of their painful stories.