Sometimes, an image sears itself into your brain — it becomes a snippet of a memory that comes back, flashes back, and horrifies you when you least expect it. These images come back to haunt you when you are lying down after a long day, about to sleep. When you take a brief respite from work and take a quick walk outside. When you are eating dinner. At the most mundane times, sometimes these images strike — and you feel like you’re back there again. Sometimes, there are moments you cannot forget, even if you wish you could.
For me, there are several images and snapshots of time that come back to me periodically.
For me, these memories come with flashes of guilt, of sadness, of helplessness.
On this sunny morning in Cambridge, on the day after America’s independence has been celebrated with fireworks and dazzling lights and red-white-and-blue clothing everywhere, I was taken back to a moment in Sierra Leone where a woman ran past our legal services office. She was crying and screaming, and stumbling on her way to the police station.
The minute I remember is when she turned around and I saw the other side of her face: blood was streaming down and there it was — a large, open wound on her head. Her face, covered with blood. Blood, entering her eyes and her mouth and dripping down her chin onto the ground.
I had never seen so much blood. Sure, I had met women with injuries before — I had interviewed numerous women, girls, and men who spoke of the domestic violence they had suffered — but most often, the violence was somewhat distant from me. There was a barrier in between, and the barrier was that of time and words. There was a comfortable distance between me and the violence. The violence was in homes and it was hidden. When I spoke to and interviewed survivors, I gained their confidence, their voices, their words, and their stories. And yet, their stories were always in the past tense, even if the past was as recent as “this morning,” or “last night,” or “last week,” or “last month, he strangled me in front of our children.” These words, these tenses, kept me at a comfortable distance from the violence. This invisible wall — this barrier — helped me continue those interviews, listen to those words, work with survivors of violence, and honor the confidence they placed in me. This wall allowed me to keep going, to not be overwhelmed by the violence, to somehow keep moving in the face of inexplicable tragedies. Over time, I had erected this wall to keep out some of the worst emotions, and to maintain the calmness needed to do this work day after day.
But this was here. The violence was happening. It was now.
There was no past tense in her words, in her blood, in her tears — this was the present moment. And so it was unavoidable.
The walls had been broken down.
Then, she turned again. I saw her tears, instead of blood. The next moments were also unforgettable: we attempted to help her as she relayed her story to the police. She had been beaten heavily by her husband, who took a large stick and hit her head after an argument. She tried to resist and push back, but he was relentless. She yelled and screamed, but her neighbors did not come to her aid. So she ran here, to the police, for help. The moments after this were still more imprinted in my mind. The police calmly took down her statement, informed her they would search for her husband.
We stayed with her while the police investigated the case, trying to locate her husband. In the meantime, they told us that if she wanted to pursue prosecution, she needed a medical examination by a police-approved doctor. We accompanied her while she spoke to her family members, but ultimately decided she didn’t have the money to even travel to the doctor for an examination, let alone pay the bribe that doctors often demand for such an examination.
The story mostly ended there. Despite consistent pressure on the police, they too lacked the resources to track down the husband, who by that time had supposedly fled to a nearby town.
There was nothing more to be done — to my horror.
This is one story of many, but one story that has seared itself in my brain. It is a moment in which all the walls were broken down — and I was confronted with violence in the present, before my eyes. It was something I could not escape.
It was a story too, of heartbreak and regret. Fear that I — we — could do so little for someone who had been through so much. Fear that there are too many barriers preventing her from having a better life: ineffective and resource-poor police; poverty; lack of healthcare; corruption; lack of financial independence; social stigma.
But a story of hope too — hope that if we identify and attack some of these barriers, change may be possible. And hope too — because her image is with me, and will always return to remind me of the incredible work that is to be done.
A story too, to remind me: why this is all worth it.
Sewa river, in the backdrop of our Salone town
The local court, where disputes are often resolved using customary and local laws