Firsthand Account

The sound of my shrill voice pierced the night air only to be swallowed by the crashing waves of the Indian Ocean. Inside, beams of light frantically penetrated the tiny cracks of all five wooden doors leading to my one-room villa, slicing through the room’s darkness where I stood cornered. With the hotel guard tied and gagged just outside the main door, the putrid stench of death filtered into the room. The hinges, previously gripping the frame of the main door, finally gave in to the relentless strikes of a black leather boot. Armed only with a woman’s razor, a nail file and a metal chair, I suddenly found myself up against a group of hooded, masked men in camouflaged dungarees with pistols pointed and knives clutched. As they burst into my room, my memory briefly lapses.

Once an oasis for “rest and recuperation”, the boutique hotel in which I was staying abruptly morphed into a living hell. As a UN aid worker, I was there for a week-long reprieve from the country’s unforgiving civil war in the North, only to become the victim of a violent, pre-meditated assault. As my eyes scanned the room, my notes on human rights abuses scattered across the floor, I realized I had unwittingly brought the conflict with me.

Perhaps it was bound to happen. I had adapted with ease to the most diverse communities and naively believed this rendered me immune to the dreadful circumstances that befell others. I was “one of them” – whether working with at-risk American youth who had committed heinous crimes and still ported the ankle monitors to prove it, or with the unfortunate victims of civil strife abruptly displaced from their homes in remote parts of Africa and Asia. Colleagues in Niger joked that, if I were deposited by parachute into the most isolated part of the Sahel, where only raging rebels dared go, I would be embraced. As a former anthropology student, these were words of congratulations and encouragement. I dreamt of arriving in such a hostile environment, being accepted by the most embittered, and using my unique position to mediate everlasting peace.

Convinced that such radical change was possible, I set off to test my skills in a South Asian country that had witnessed years of civil strife between two ethnic groups, one of which was strategically positioned at the head of its powerful, crooked government. Following nearly three years in Africa’s Great Lakes, Saharan and Sub-Saharan regions, where perhaps unfair biases had led me to expect violence, I entered this country where Hinduism and Buddhism were each embraced, naively believing that their peace-loving doctrines would protect me.

I would be living on the cusp of the conflict, assisting displaced individuals of the ethnic minority and reporting on human rights violations. As one of few internationals granted clearance from the Ministry of Defense to enter this desolate part of the country, I was afforded unique insight into the reality faced by the minority group. The war had recently swept through the region, emptying entire villages and sending hundreds of thousands of people on the run. Peering from behind the dusty window of a Land Cruiser, my eyes were met by the dark, piercing eyes of over-confident boys and young men, AK47s dangling over their shoulders. Like the gutted, pillaged houses, barbed wiring, sandbags and makeshift bunkers, these men dotted an otherwise barren terrain that had been stripped of its lush landscape previously replete with trees and greenery and left only with sandy plains and dusty dirt roads.

With insider access into this region, it seemed millions of dollars in external funding and bustling humanitarian activity merely served as a well-constructed façade enabling a corrupt government to pretend “good” was happening within its borders when, in reality, the government and its tightknit military would do anything within its power (and it had lots inside its own borders) to stifle any progress we made. And, stifle, it did. Just a short time before I arrived, nearly 20 aid workers were executed in one sitting.

At the same time as these aid workers were executed, others simply “disappeared” and still others wound up in jails where diseases festered, abuse thrived, and humans languished and ultimately often perished. Although “unknown assailants” were purportedly behind the persistent harassment and abductions of national staff that invariably ended with them behind bars, the government gained notoriety for denying entry visas to international aid workers, for not extending visas of others, and for forcibly evicting internationals from the country, often giving them just 24 hours to leave. The message was clear. We were not wanted.

It did not take me long to recognize that, unlike elsewhere, this was not a country where I would easily assimilate. Instead, I struggled with blatant oppression of the displaced and a coinciding abuse of power inhibiting our ability to protect them. No matter how hard we tried, it seemed we were bound to lose against the government and its military sidekick. And, eventually, I too was forced to come to grips with this reality.

I reported on numerous disappearances, abductions and murders, almost all of which fit the same description of perpetrators, carefully articulated by distraught families over and over again. Although national colleagues discouraged me from identifying the perpetrators, I thought – given some colleagues were former police and military – they might have ulterior reasons for withholding information. So, I did what I deemed ethically responsible. I reported precisely what witnesses described: The men who came uninvited to victims’ homes were invariably wearing military or police attire.

The night they arrived at my door would be no different.

His biceps, taut against my head, pulsated as his gloved hands forced a cloth saturated with ether over my nose and mouth. My mind flickered, as images and thoughts danced in and out, casually deriding me with the vicious reality of the present and the perversity of my past, now plummeting into distant memories.

My mind retreated to a refugee camp in rural Burundi. Makeshift tents of white plastic sheeting, smeared with dust from the region’s familiar red clay, lined the terrain and housed large-sized families in closet-sized compartments. My car was just entering the remote camp, but a group of Rwandan refugees had already spotted me; they were running toward the car, chanting “Sha-na-naa”, “Sha-na-naa” with rhythmic repetition. Overcome with joy, I broke into a bright smile and irrepressible laughter; there was nowhere else I wanted to be. Exiting the car, I was instantly smothered by refugees of varied ages, just as eager as I for our now daily group hug. They were numerous and pressed forward, like a mob, pushing me back toward the car door.

My attacker’s arms had gained a firmer grip around my face. I thrashed from side to side, trying to break free. He was behind me now, his body pressed firmly against my back, forcing me into a crouched position. With my knees jammed into the cement floor, a sense of rage overcame me. The razor, still tightly clasped inside my hand, sliced into his flesh, sending a steady stream of blood to the floor. My neck jerked back, as his bent arm forced me into a headlock, his bicep and forearm squeezing my neck like a vice. The plastic razor hit the floor, breaking in half under his black leather boot.

A nauseating stench of alcohol permeated the air, as he sputtered incomprehensibly into the air. His voice pricked at my ears, but I was no longer detecting words.

In a bitter act of self-protection, my mind had drifted once more. I found myself under water in my parents’ lake, a pristine natural reserve where I had spent my first 18 years. I needed to learn to hold my breath for increasing durations, or so my older brother said. I was gliding under the water, my feet serving as my propeller, when my shoulders became wedged beneath the makeshift, underwater bridge my brother had constructed.

My movements became frantic, inadvertently provoking my attacker’s biceps to press harder. As the smell of ether consumed my senses, I succumbed to the pull of death. It seemed bitterly ironic to die like this at the hands of the military in a country plagued by human rights abuses, many of them attributed to the military-backed government. But, smiling inwardly, I recalled my recent studies in meditation and thought it “Buddhist” of me to go so willingly despite my unconcealed distaste for both the local military and the government.

“Once the baby; always the baby!” my brother taunted me. With a flash of adrenalin, I swam to the surface, lifting a set of biceps that rivaled the size of my thighs, and hastily warned the masked men that they would face dire repercussions, given the connections I had, if they harmed me further. Remarkably, my attacker’s biceps released me for the first time in a nearly one-hour struggle, providing my eyes with the first glimpse around the hotel room.

My suitcase lay open, my clothes, books, papers and personal belongings scattered in a disheveled mess across the coffee table, desk and floor. Other masked men poked around, appearing to be searching for something specific, collecting what they deemed necessary for what was now clearly a pre-meditated operation. Pausing to remind me of their position of power, as figures of the male species decked out in military garb and hiding behind masks, they proceeded to forcibly kiss me through the small hole of the mask, tongues violently probing the inside of my mouth.

Proclaiming their self-awarded authority over my body and me, they did not stop there. Using my body as their battleground, they waged a small war, forever marking my comfort in my own, feminine skin. Although my body was spared the violence of rape, as rape is commonly understood, it was picked at like a slab of meat by a venue of vultures. As if seeking to mock or repress my confidence as a woman, their fingers were unrestrained, humiliating me and leaving me beaten both physically and emotionally. It was as if I no longer had thoughts or emotions. It was as if I were no longer a human being – whether to them or to myself. I had been reduced to an unfeeling, inanimate object. I had been stripped raw.

They left me there, in an isolated room a two-day’s drive from the desolate North, which – for me – had become “home”, and several hours from the capital city, where my friends and colleagues were peacefully sleeping in the enviable comfort of their residences. For the first time in my life, I was truly alone.

Collecting my passport and other essentials, I headed into the night, hoping to leave the struggles and pain of the last hour behind but, ultimately, leaving a much larger piece of myself in that room. As I stepped into the night air, the darkness swallowed my frail body, extracting any remnants of energy, exuberant naivety, and hope for humanity I had left. The warmth of the sea breeze enveloped me, but I was shattered. I looked up to the dark, immense sky, enclosing me within this suddenly unfamiliar world, and saw only the moon looking back.

A hotel some thirty kilometers away welcomed me, declaring itself a “safe haven”, but I could no longer be convinced, my faith in humanity defeated. The obscurity wrought by night-time’s early morning hours, introducing a fresh, new day with a perceptively dense darkness, left me feeling small, acutely aware of my insignificance in the larger universe. With my arms tightly clasped around my legs bent at my chest, as I waited seven hours for my office to send help, I rocked back and forth in a mixed state of shock and panic. Yet, this was only the beginning.

The blemishes around my mouth, left behind by suffocation, and the cuts and bruises now scattered across my skin, like splatters of paint on a canvas, had penetrated deeper than I could have known. While the physical wounds would slowly heal, disappearing within a few months, a rarely acknowledged emotional scar, better known as trauma, would persist.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an ailment that affects victims of events described by the National Center for PTSD at the United States Department of Veteran Affairs as “outside the range of usual human experience” and “markedly distressing to almost anyone”. While not everyone will experience PTSD, most of us, according to this center, experience trauma at some point in our lives. The Headington Institute, which strives to promote the well-being of humanitarian workers globally, notes that most aid workers confront at least one such incident during their career, due to the often precarious environments in which aid workers live. And, of those confronted by traumatic events, 25% will be affected by “trauma-related difficulties”, like PTSD, depression and anxiety.

Indeed, I had expected the ghosts to remain in that barren, war-stricken country where they belonged and I tried to retain a sense of normalcy in my life, but PTSD was an unsought souvenir slipped into my suitcase following what was meant to be a luxuriously tranquil vacation. And, it clung to me. Memories of that horrific night managed to creep into my everyday life, menacingly following me like a ghoulish shadow wherever I went, altering my personality and permanently staining my life.

For me, the symptoms manifested themselves first in the form of insomnia, plaguing me for several months after the attack. Flashbacks, hallucinations, and nightmares, distressingly similar to the assault itself, haunted me especially at night but also indiscriminately showed up at all times of day and without warning. My mind – no longer capable of distinguishing reality from traumatic response – was repeatedly triggered and retriggered.

Whereas, in actuality, I had endured the excruciating horrors of an assault just once, my mind re-created the event over and over again, propelling me into a persistent state of hyper-vigilance, anxiety and fear. Back in my home country, I awoke each night at precisely 01h03 to stare at my bedroom door and await a team of cowardly men who, hiding behind masks, hoods and camouflaged pants, would kick down my door to lay claims to any remainder of my innocence, my idealism and my femininity. They never returned in physical presence, but the manifestations of them in my repeated nightmares, flashbacks and hallucinations tormented me.

Surviving solely on animal instinct, I raced to defend myself from attackers presumed to be hiding behind closed doors, reflexively punched friends who affectionately touched my face, impulsively reprimanded my nieces and nephews for jumping from their carefully selected hiding spots in an effort to startle their previously playful aunt, and irrepressibly plummeted into fits of rage – most often directed at no one in particular, just those whose masculinity I viewed as threatening. The only solace I found was in the moon, the light of which helped me to feel protected during months of dark, sleepless nights.

Friends and family painfully watched as their friend, daughter, sister, and aunt transformed from an engaging woman eager to help the world to a spiteful, unconfident woman crippled by a single event. Unable to live on my own, they also embraced me, invariably gaining insight into the disturbing reality of assault victims. They watched wide-eyed, as my eyes glossed over and I momentarily left the room to confront those merciless men again, staring back at me piercingly and with malice from the dark holes of their masks. Just when my loved ones would coax me back into the room and into the present moment, I would be up again, repeating the same motions, as if rehearsing a military exercise or preparing for a theatrical debut. In an effort to sooth me, security would be called only to probe the room and declare it empty. “There is no one here, Miss. I’m afraid it’s all in your head.”

And, indeed it was. Or, at least, once that horrific night had disappeared into my past, it was. As outlined in Edward L. Schmookler’s Trauma Treatment Manual, those who have experienced a traumatic event “live in emergency mode” and are “jumpy, looking constantly for dangers, and easily startled”, as “their minds [are] invaded by thoughts of the events and [they are] tortured by them.” I desperately ached to shed myself of the painful memories eating at my core, wishing at all costs that I could return to the sense of normalcy in which I perceived the rest of the world to be relishing.

Understanding the impossibility of erasing that dreadful night, I began to fear myself almost as much as I feared my attackers. And, for the first time in my life, I despised my own being, even regretting that I had survived and feeling overwhelmed by the burning desire to simply disappear. I stared at the moon, sometimes for hours, wishing that I could escape to it, perceiving it to be the only place I could be understood. It was, after all, the only one who stood by me while I was viciously assaulted, as both an unfortunate onlooker and a solemn protector, and which remained at my side thereafter.

Colleagues confronted by similarly life-altering experiences were likewise plagued by a deep sense of loneliness and uncontrollable side effects. Some described being depressed for years, even locking themselves inside their apartments for days at a time in an effort to escape what they now viewed as a horrifying world that could not be trusted. Others daydreamed of entering a hotel room and never resurfacing . . . at least, not alive. Still others, like I, described their rage toward men and their inability to maintain relationships with the opposite sex.

It seemed unfair that we should be spared death only to confront the reality that humankind can be so vicious, forced to recognize on an acute cellular level that the humanitarianism we were advocating in the field was somehow a farce. Struggling to come to grips with this conflicting reality, I no longer knew how to move forward within my profession.

I perceived myself as superficially proclaiming optimism in a world whose bitter reality I now knew firsthand. I tried to turn my back, dabbling in new activities, starting a support group for humanitarian “survivors”, screaming profanities into the air in hopes that these beasts of men might hear me, exercising excessively, and practicing yoga. Three years passed as I walked in endless circles, mulling over how I could return to myself. But, the problem was that a huge piece of myself lay in humanitarianism. And, nothing seemed to suppress this truth. Colleagues unfamiliar with the trying effects of trauma nonchalantly reminded me that some never return to work. But, my idealism and drive for a more just world had brought me here; how could I turn my back now?

If anything, I understand with much greater clarity the experiences of the forcibly displaced. As a refugee woman reminded me shortly after my assault, our bodies may be violated, but our spirit should remain unscathed. Although our attackers may have power over us for the duration of an assault, we must never allow them to control our lives thereafter. With this in mind, there is only one way forward: I must return to work. I am, after all, “one of them” – now more than ever.

Three months before attack:
“I feel like throwing my arms in the air and announcing that I surrender. The spunky girl with endless energy and attitude admits: She’s scared. If you’d like me to shut up, I will. Just stop scaring me. Last night, I hear indications that my phone may be being tapped and, then, my service is abruptly and temporarily cut – all while I remark about the situation in the North. Then, today, my staff tells me ‘that’s dangerous, very dangerous’ and encourages me to keep my mouth shut and to tell my family to do the same when on the phone with me. Then, a driver is shot and an international staff person is abducted in a nearby country. Sometimes, I have to ask myself ‘Is it worth it?’”

3 weeks after . . .
“It’s been three weeks now. Three weeks since I was attacked by a group of hooded, masked men. Three weeks since my life came to an abrupt halt. Three weeks since my spirit, my humor, my energy, and my trust were stripped from me. They took a piece of me with them. Not a piece; it was a chunk. And, they didn’t take. And, I didn’t give. They robbed me of them. They fucking stole them from me – from the little girl who remained within me. Those bastards robbed me of my youthful trust and appreciation in other people. They make it so difficult now for me to imagine working in the same environments I’ve been working, so tough to immerse myself into unfamiliar terrain and still feel at ease, so tough to be myself again. I want to reclaim me so badly, to return to being myself and living and loving freely. But, it feels so fucking difficult right now. So foreign and so incredibly impossible. I’m uncomfortable now, fearful, all out scared. I’m breathless and anxious. Arghhh…. I feel so unlike myself.”

3 weeks after . . .
“I don’t remember key aspects of my life. I am so outrageously forgetful. I am attempting to cry myself to sleep. This follows a day of chest pain and shortness of breath. It felt like the worst day of asthma in years. I had incredibly labored breathing while trying to exercise. I feel so ridiculously frightened . . . so scared to be sitting here alone. I feel I’m being watched. I feel incapable of sleeping lest I be suffocated. . . . I’m fucking tired of this – of not being myself, of being grumpy, of taking it out on my poor mother, of living in fear, of arguing with my employer, of feeling pressured to return to [country of attack]…. The very thought of that country, of its people, of its culture, of my time there makes me anxious and short of breath. I feel so out of control. The idea of returning certainly seems impossible.”

3.5 weeks after . . .
“I’m being coaxed and prodded back into the real world. It’s an entirely different world than I’d seen before. As if I’d been wearing blinders all the while. Or, I’ve just purchased special lenses with which to view the world. It’s a scary, sad world now. Or, it’s scary and I’m sad. I’m sad because I can’t enjoy it as freely now, as openly, as liberally. I was always so happy to be alive and to live each day to the fullest – often to the most reckless point possible. But that, for me, was life. And, it was fun. And, it was free. But, now, naivety and freedom are gone. Fun is gone. Silly humor gone. Arghhh. It’s an entirely different world, a foreign place – the first I’m less interested in exploring. And, yet, I must push open the door and step inside . . . .”

“Heavy breathing, tightness in chest, asthma, nerves, anxiety, headaches, fear, debilitating fear, hallucinations, nightmares, heavy breathing, anxiety, fear, fear, fear. Respire, respire. Breathe in, breathe out, inhale, exhale, concentrate on the breath as it exits your nostrils, focus on life and love and your appreciation you have for both, embrace them, embrace you, live, love, live and love again.”

1 month after . . .
“It’s amazing how much time has passed since I first came home following this tumultuous experience. I have done little since I’ve been home – aside from therapy, exercise and chiropractic appointments. I’ve simply been incapable of focusing on any one thing. My mind cannot focus. And, I am too distraught, too scared, too agitated, too fearful, and too alone in my experience. But, if there’s one thing I’ve done consistently it’s found myself looking around me – at my parents, my siblings, my nieces and nephews, my childhood friends, my photos, my childhood home, etc. and realized how much time has passed with me away, not noticing or really realizing the changes developing/evolving around me. It’s incredibly depressing to realize the brevity of life. This experience has forced me to confront this reality and also to admit that, while I thought I knew this already and, thus, was living my life to the fullest, I was doing so selfishly – in the absence of people for whom I care deeply.”

5 weeks after . . .
“This experience has provided me with the rich, delicious opportunity to reconnect with friends with whom I either haven’t been in close touch or whom I haven’t seen in some time. In that sense, it’s been – the post-experience part – invaluable. I have been in close contact with so many friends from around the globe, with college friends, UN friends, humanitarian friends, etc. They’ve all reached out to me and I to them. I’ve needed their support. It’s been touching and helped me to remember the close relationships I’ve enjoyed over the years and the support I still have.”

5 weeks after . . .
“Had another hallucination last night – a loud noise that seemed to be a gunshot. I sat in my bedroom, glancing around the room with the sound resounding in my head and an eerie silence plaguing the room.”

“Driving yesterday, I found myself dodging things in the road, instinctively thinking they were explosives/bombs.”

“Still awkwardly frightened because of men. Still freaking out when alone in bathrooms, alleys, hallways, anywhere. . . .”

2 months after . . .
“I’ve been assigned one more month of medical leave and, then, I will be re-evaluated. Arghhhhhhhh!!!! I’m tired of it. Moderate-Severe PTSD still. Yet, I just want to carry on with my life! I recognize that I’m incapable in many regards, that I’m depressed for the first time in my life, that I “see” the [country] military, armed alongside the road here, just as I did in [location of previous posting], that I feel claustrophobic and in danger of suffocation and that I may be targeted even on my family’s property. Life isn’t normal for me now and may never be again. Yet, all I seek is normalcy.”

2 months after . . .
“Still tense, untrusting, scared . . .”

9 weeks after . . .
“Last night, a repeated nightmare returned. Not the [country] military ones where they’re chasing me into muddy trenches, bunkers, outhouses, etc. but the one where I’m hurriedly trying to lock all of the doors and, just when I think I’ve secured the final locks, the door is broken down, I watch the latch bust off and suddenly men are on top of me, suffocating me. I wonder to myself if these nightmares will ever end or if I will be plagued by them eternally. I wonder if the horrific images remaining in my head – of masks and hoods, of gloves and suffocation, of violence and blood and the possibility of death – once completely unknown to me – will remain in my conscious and subconscious forevermore, resurfacing to freak me out and to keep me on edge. I wonder if the fact that my nightmares in the past always allowed me to surface as the “winner” is simply because – at that time – I didn’t know any worse. Now, I’m only the “winner” after a difficult struggle, after the fear of what I know is the worst possible scenario comes true, after I narrowly escape what has now laid claims to the status as “worst possible scenario”. Now, nightmares will take me that one step further to the brushing of death and, then, I will “win” and remain alive whereas before I won simply by reaching the locks on time and securing them before the “enemy”. Before, I only knew the fear of a possibility. Now, I know the fear and the struggle. I can only hope the nightmares, hallucinations, and flashbacks of what once was the unknown for me will dissipate and disappear.”

13 weeks later:
“The past few days have witnessed a resurgence of flashbacks and hallucinations and also brought with them the feeling that I’m going . . . or have already gone . . . completely mad following this awful experience. . . . Re-telling my story has proven far more difficult than I anticipated. As a consequence, I’ve had repeated sleepless nights again, been fleeing people who aren’t after me, seeing things, and generally freaking out. It’s been incredibly frustrating to feel a semblance of ‘normal’ for a few days only to return to this state again.”

14 weeks later:
“I still see the images – flashes of the images, flashes of memories, I suppose: Masked men, mouths open, coming at me and attacking me. And, I wonder if I’ll ever forget or if my brain will ever compartmentalize these images so I don’t have to see them with such regularity. I suspect yes – at least in ways. But, four months into my life post-attack, my life with PTSD, and I’m really not certain. I don’t know.”

“ I want to move on. I miss Africa. I miss speaking in French. I miss the linguistic and cultural stimulation of life abroad. I miss working and feeling like I’m contributing something to the world. I miss being me.”

Four months later:
“Still hallucinations and flashbacks but less often. Still nightmares, always the victim. Hyper-vigilance seems never ending. But, I made progress, significant progress to be where I am.”

9 months later:
Awoke in the morning to my boyfriend asking me if I recalled what had happened in the middle of the night. According to him, he had to wrap his arms all around my upper body and pin my legs under his to control me, as I was fighting something for several minutes. I do not remember any of this. I can only assume that many nights are like this, since I normally sleep alone.

10 months later:
I cannot remember: Was I awake, experiencing a hallucination? Or, was I asleep, experiencing a nightmare? I think it was a hallucination. It was so strong, so vivid, so palpable. But, I do not know anymore. I cannot remember. I was speaking with my boyfriend across Skype and, suddenly, I saw someone in a long, black hooded mask come up behind him. For me, he was there. That man was there, and he was about to suffocate my boyfriend. I tried to warn him. The next day, I assured him that this was a sign and that he needed to take precautions. He assured me that he was fine and that there was nothing to worry about. I am so tense and stressed out, knowing that he remains in an unstable location.

1 year later:
“Restless night of sleep, thinking someone was entering my apartment with every sound. Woke up repeatedly, very worried, anxious and hyper-vigilant.”

1 year, 2 weeks later:
Overcome by a major hallucination. I experienced nightmares all night for three nights in a row. The nightmares were consistently similar. Headaches recommenced following the hallucination, persisted through the nightmares, and remain now.

1 year, 3 weeks later:
Horrifying nightmare involving family and friends. I have the opportunity to speak with the attacker. He is deranged, laughs all the while. I am disgusted. I am horrified.

1 year, 1 month later:
Still questioning my role as a woman, my feminity, following my assault. Unsure if I’ll ever regain a sense of confidence as a woman, my comfort in my own skin.

1 year, 1 month later:
Still contending with fear of suffocation, translated into a fear of drowning and of water.

1 year, 10 months later:
“It is difficult to write children’s books when all you can think about is darkness and despair. It is tough to reconcile your past when you still hold vivid, perverse images of yourself donning hoods, masks, gloves, black, laced boots, and military garb and viciously ripping the testicles off 4-5 men and, then, holding ether-drenched cloth over their mouths to prevent them from breathing. It is tough to rest your mind and sleep full nights when your thoughts are still consumed by misery, a sense of hopelessness and despair. It is tough to be motivated by the future when you are immobilized by the past. It is tough to celebrate in the life and love around you when you are blinded by an insight into hell. It is tough to live when you’re confronted firsthand in the middle of your peaceful, naïve sleep with your worst nightmare. It is tough and it is unusual.”

1 year, 10 months later:
“Experiencing fear, true fear, presents the mind with a new sort of palette on which to work. Experiencing near-murder opens the mind up to a new way of thinking about and understanding the world, thereby enabling the minds of victims to create previously unimaginable scenes of death and destruction. Minds previously untainted suddenly imagine themselves lashing out and biting the fingertips off colleagues seated next to them, or friends or loved ones being mutilated. These are wrong. We know they are wrong. But, when we witness them or become the victims of them, we normalize them. And, from there, our minds know no bounds. We have to be re-socialized to restrain ourselves from going after our attackers and dismembering their private parts as well as from our own newly discovered self-hate.”

3 years, 8 months later:
Violent dreams throughout third year, usually war oncoming, sometimes direct fighting and I continue to play a more active role than previously, still visions of bizarre things happening to people in the streets

4 years later:
Violent dreams continue. The military is perpetually involved. They are perpetually coming after me, my family, my friends, my community, even "my country". I am always trying to escape, always trying to hide. They are consistently men, dressed in green camouflage, armed, looking for me. I cannot escape them. They will not leave me alone in my dreams. And, my dreams will not leave me alone.

Just one night of my life. Yet, I am left to wonder: Will I be forever tormented by these men?