Standing in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, just beneath the western side of the S-Bahn rail station in West Berlin’s city center I responded to a dare that ultimately forced me from my age-appropriate, post-teen, self-absorption and delivered me to the stark recognition that not all people were born with the same human rights as I. Reason and fear had been put on hold as I swore to my mates that when the train stopped in an East Berlin port of entry I would saunter from the train, find the first guard or soldier available and exclaim with the audacity of a Daffy Duck inspired confession, “My papers are not in order!” Almost 20 hours later I was released into the negotiating hands of the American Embassy who “saved” me only to reveal the disreputable consequences I was to face. My gain was nothing more than peer respect; my loss was excruciating embarrassment and the threat of losing my passport. Thankfully, at that time American powers of discernment were lenient and somehow I walked away transformed forever, while pretending to have emerged unscathed.
Disrespectful as that caper was, the outcome, as well as the message eternally altered my every thought regarding individual freedom. Seemingly that single event saved me from what could have been a lifelong sentence of mediocre, placid and self-centered American life without much regard or concern for those born with only a dream of the dignity human rights afford. Conversely, thereafter I began a zealous campaign vowing passionately to always support equal rights while unabashedly proclaiming that we all must observe the Golden Rule. That simple task, that is to always treat others just as we ourselves want to be treated, is passed from generation to generation to just about every child, from every culture and every corner of the world long before they have time for extreme selfishness or hate. For sure that vow has never been ignored, especially when I was blessed with the responsibility of motherhood. From the beginning I faithfully imparted my irrepressible standards to my son, never allowing his voice, let alone his darling presence, disrupt others who were “renting” their place in public as were we.
Irony played its hand in that commitment and the gripping reality in which my son and I would soon be immersed, for when Peyton was only 12 years old we temporarily moved to East Africa. A year earlier a local Anchorage church hosted a Ugandan national whose church and mission they were sponsoring. I was introduced to the man and his wife who eventually hired me to teach grades two and three on site just outside Kampala, Uganda’s capital city. At that particular time several banks were under investigation for embezzlement and any business other than exchanging dollars for Ugandan shillings was considered a bit risky. Instead I opted to trust the minister and keep the money at the mission, as he advised. Less than two weeks after our arrival I fell ill with malaria, was hospitalized, and while away the minister stole the entire $6000 we had hidden beneath the floorboards of our room. Most would have hopped on the first plane out of there and returned to the safety of their own backyard. Nonetheless, that’s a long way to go only to return with our tails between our legs, especially while knowing in my heart that there was a higher reason for our move to Africa. Instead, I returned to my former profession and secured employment at a Kampala F.M. radio station as a presenter on their morning show. While making a fresh attempt to stabilize our lives we worked with both the American Embassy and local police to insure that justice would be done. There was an arrest and months later a trial ensued. As we sat in front of the judge that day, ingesting his corruption-coated verdict, we were devastated and enraged when the whole affair ended in bitter disappointment. The minister bribed his way free and his house keeper accepted blame and was put behind bars with an abbreviated sentence of three months.
My journalistic curiosity and access to government affairs through the media revealed Uganda’s callous and constant, shocking and brutal disregard for the most basic of human rights, which captivated both Peyton and me. Indeed, during those initial two and a half years we remained in Africa, many of our dearest friends and “family” members suffered in ways unimaginable practically before our very eyes. War, famine, disease and sheer corruption supplanted any rights those people would ever experience. While standing by helplessly I knew of only one way to counter atrocities we could never slight. As with most international journalists, I could only take up the pen and bring those storybook-like accounts to life with the American people as my recipients.
Once home the work that began in Africa intensified as awareness of the ever-worsening breech in global human rights weaved its sorrow of reckless neglect into my very soul. Too, common citizens in developed nation states–particularly within these United States–somehow manage to maintain a quiet distance that supports a convenient escape via ordinary ignorance. Speaking as an American, I consider the notion that we have become severely desensitized to such doings. Visual accounts of the Second World War and Viet Nam, accessible through advancements in filmmaking, along with grim images of brutal combat and spilled blood were transmitted into theatres and eventually into our living rooms through television. At the time, those initial portraits were received as nothing less than grueling horror—later revulsion. Now I wonder what it would take to shock even a first grader.
Continuing, a couple of years ago while in northern Uganda, I ventured into the depths of Uganda’s mixed refugee and Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) Camps to interview the people who lived there. I was literally stormed by women who assumed I was there to help in some measureable way. Sadly, I confessed that I was only one more of the many American visitors who had come to record and then relay their stories. They ardently believed I had come to make an immediate difference. Days later, while staring into the unresponsive eyes of a 13-year-old girl, who begged to tell her story, I ingested fiction-like accounts of rape and family murders that rolled off her tongue as though she were recounting scenes from a movie. But this was no movie, nor did a single tear fall from my eyes. I did as I was advised and showed no pain as she told her story.
Despite the omnipresent sorrow it has always been quite painful to leave our beloved African home, and after 11 years of somber departures we have had a lot of practice. To soothe our ailing hearts it became tradition to explore other nation-states as we methodically migrated back to the solace of our safe and prosperous little lives. What might have been little more than pleasure-seeking sojourns evolved into further inquiries and exploration into the history of human rights abuse and any perceptible differences the loss thereof could have made along the way. One of the world’s most graphic and powerful models of human degradation invaded our lives as we undertook an abbreviated tour of Eastern Europe, highlighting Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia. No doubt we reached a pinnacle as we respectfully toured various Jewish shrines, including several concentration camps, which amazingly stand in perfect condition having been meticulously preserved.
As we silently passed under the famed sign bearing the inscription, “Work Brings Freedom,” Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp guides led reverent processions of curious and wincing visitors from room to room. While mournfully surveying the largest concentration camp in all of Nazi Germany, we were lead to dozens of glassed showcases exhibiting an almost incomprehensible amount of human hair, spectacles, official papers, artifacts and photographs as we often felt our knees giving way, threatening our ability to stand erect. Gripping as those remains were, nothing could have matched the anguish that shocked both Peyton and I when we came face to face with the very ovens that once incinerated tens of thousands of prisoners. The narrow, metal cradles were effectively divided to facilitate two bodies at one time. Our English-speaking Polish leader, a granddaughter of one such prey, bitterly illustrated the gruesome method that was used to expedite the disposal of the endless parade of corpses. “It was simple,” she said. “They used a wooden mallet to crush the hip bones of every person as they were wedged into place and then burned.”
Wrapping our minds around such accounts challenged our imaginations and our ability to conceive of anything we were witnessing. As though one more exhibit could finally deliver us to such an unfathomable state of consciousness, we extended our investigation to the Birkenau sector of the same camp a few meters down the road. That tour highlighted life in the barracks where prisoners slept or spent quiet time as they hopelessly awaited their inescapable demise. Recorded stats divulged that every night as many as three dozen people were crammed into one cubicle measuring no more that 4 by 6feet, with a ceiling about 4 feet high. We were told prisoners took turns sitting while others stood bent from the waist, awaiting their turn to sleep. Tales of sickness recalled how the never-ending diarrhea, a symptom of extreme malnutrition, often dripped from upper holding pens onto the more unfortunate people below. A row of pit toilets typically split the room in half. The holes were to be used once a day and if you ended up somewhere near the last two-thirds of the queue, you either abstained in effort to wait for another evacuation call, or lost control while attempting sleep in a “holding” pen. As we strolled about the grounds we stood beneath guard towers that were built upon fragments of human bone that years of torture had left behind. Conversation was non-existent for the duration and even into the quiet of that night. We dared not reveal our thoughts of the vile devastation we had just witnessed.
More recently, while relaxing on Egypt’s side of the Red Sea, I overheard someone saying Jerusalem was only four hours away. No time was lost musing about extending our journey, and before we knew it we were bouncing up and down on tattered bus seats, blazing down the Sinai coast toward the Israeli border. Our intended two-day stay evolved into two-week excursion. Although Old Jerusalem complemented our personal Spiritual convictions and deepened our devotion to the man, Jesus, my commitment to journal the effects of lost human rights were seemingly etched into my very being when Peyton and I accidentally wandered into non-occupied Palestine. It only seemed fitting to end our investigation of that part of the Holy Land by visiting the nearby city of Bethlehem. When I inquired about which bus to take I was directed to the local #52. As it turned out, Israelis get quite the kick out of sending Americans into precarious sites that usually end up making them look like foolish tourists. This was no exception. The bus came to a halt once we had woven our way between and around cement blockades, overseen by dozens of Israeli guards. To our surprise, we had boarded the same bus that Orthodox Jews took to access one of the holiest of sites in all of the country.
After exiting the bus and following a guard to an underground temple, our part of the tour came to an abrupt end when I asked the guards within the shrine to unlock the doors and let us move along into the city of Bethlehem. Confused by their laughter and unable to speak Hebrew, we simply smiled and followed them to the impenetrable iron doors that, once opened, gave access to the streets of a typical Palestinian neighborhood. At the time we had forgotten that parts of Palestine were hostile and had long since held all Americans in disdain. Not until we eased past an enormous stone wall where the words, “Israel’s Apartheid, America’s money,” had been hand carved with chalk, did we sense danger. Fortunately within seconds we realized and braced for the consequences of what we had done. That was our only warning and suddenly a small group of adolescents had gathered and were preparing to stone us. As rocks began to fly just past our heads, one teen ran up directly behind me, grabbed my head covering and kicked me in the rear. We stood our ground, shouting threats of retaliation and anger, just as I have been taught in Alaska when a bear attack is inescapable. That display of self-protection apparently came as a surprise, which gave us enough time to create a ruckus that successfully solicited attention from Israeli guards. Just above the rolled barbed wire and blockades, patrols shouted at the perpetrators, pointing their guns at the gang while motioning for us to make haste and run to the nearby pathway that would secure our safety.
The most recent, Israeli “flattening” of Gaza served as the backcloth that a patchwork quilt is usually built upon. At first I questioned what some might perceive as my exaggerated grief response, tears included. Was I really abreast of all facts (that had, of course, been confirmed by at least three legitimate sources)? And if so, had I taken sufficient time to accurately assess the lot? Days upon days of film footage and written accounts helped me see my way clear. Yep, my reaction was appropriate.
As with most children, the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” was taught to me long before I was even in grade school. I’m sure that saying was reiterated countless times in so many ways throughout my life. However, without my intrepid and sometimes precocious ventures I wonder if today’s shameful violence in Zimbabwe, Congo, Somalia, Athens, China, or Gaza-just to name only few- would have impacted me in such a poignant manner. What I do know is that every time I peer deep into the eyes of anyone who has been victimized, their return gaze into mine often appears to be born from reciprocal understandings. In fact, with each trip back to my second home, Africa, I always hear someone say that there is no possible way I could empathize so deeply had I not felt the hurt of persecution in my own life. I confess… this is true. Without doubt my own personal pain (apart from anything mentioned here) is now a part of my soul, but because of it, I have a deep, fundamental connection to all those who are suffering. I intend to make use of that vital link while continuing to fully extend myself, pen in hand, offering all I have to give to all who have suffered the tragic loss of their precious, inherent human rights.