Saturday, April 3, 2010

In the Spirit of Redemption


For the past few years, this week has been a meaningful and reflective week for me. I see it as the culmination of everything I believe in: redemption, liberation, the foundation of joy and peace, and most of all, grace.

I have been trying to live this Lent season with more intentionality. I’ve been learning lessons about sacrificing my vices, and sacrificing Ego. I’ve been learning what it means to be unafraid, in the face of uncertain times. I’ve also been learning about healing. This week has really brought such lessons home, as I have spent some substantial time in the presence of former victims of torture and human rights abuse, listening to their stories. Allow me to introduce you.

Khadija Rouissi is one of the most well-known political activists in this country. I remember reading about her back in college, and being awed at her courage. Her brother, Abdelhak, was “disappeared” from their home, and his high-profile case is one of the 66 dossiers that remain unsolved by Morocco’s Human Rights Council. Since his disappearance, Khadija has fought for justice and was herself imprisoned. She later became the Secretary General of The Forum Verite et Justice and one of the 16 commissioners of the Equity and Reconciliation Commission (or IER, which is the subject of my Fulbright research).

When I arrived at her house, I was not expecting to find an adorably chic woman, wearing a Little Black Dress on a Monday afternoon. She invited me for tea, and as we sat down next to a drawn portrait of her brother, she told me her story and opinions of the reparations work that is being done for victims of the Years of Lead.

Khadija holds a portrait of her brother,

who is still officially amongst Moroccan's political desparus.

Her story was moving, but what struck me were her ideas of reconciliation. “We victims,” she explained,
“must be willing to sacrifice vengeance- which is rightfully ours- in order to restore peace and development to this country.” She and her family chose not to accept compensation from the State, because in her opinion, money cannot take the place of a human life. What she wants is closure for her brother’s disappearance. She had just received news that the forensic tests from the exhumation of a second unidentified corpse showed that the body was not her brother’s. He is still nowhere to be found, and she will continue looking.

The compensation she DOES want is governmental reform. This is the general sentiment that I hear from victims. In their testimonies, victims were never allowed to name the names of the perpetrators of abuse, unlike other Truth Commissions, such as in South Africa, where perpetrators were invited come forth and receive amnesty in exchange for fully-revealed truth. Thus, justice- in the legal sense of the term- has never been done, and some of these perpetrators are still in power. What Morocco needs, according to Rouissi, is a new social contract between Citizen and State.

I also spent time this week at the Medical Association for the Rehabilitation of Torture Victims (AMRVT) in Casablanca. Amazing. I thought I would just go chat with the director about the medical work they do for victims. Instead, I had a full interview where she explained their holistic policy of healing for torture victims and their families. Any Moroccan who has proof from the IER that they were imprisoned, tortured, “disappeared”, or arbitrarily detained, can come and receive free medical services for the rest of their lives. Beyond this, the Association offers free psychological counseling and “social reinsertion” programs, including job placement and education for those who lost jobs or were barred from going to school because of unjust State policy.

I met a H.H., who had been training to be a teacher, but was imprisoned 2 times, in 1973 and 1984, for his involvement in the Leftist Movement. During his time in prison, he caught chronic rheumatism, for which he comes to the Association for treatment. Also, the Association was able to help him finish his degrees and get a job as a high school teacher. He is positive about the work of the AMRVT, but still sees that institutional changes need to be installed.

M.A. is also willing to accept the medical care, which he calls a “symbolic apology” on the part of the State. The son of a state official, M.A. grew up in the royal palace in Fes. After the second coup attempt on the king’s life in 1973, his entire family was kidnapped from their home in the middle of the night and taken to a secret detention center where they stayed for one year. He was 13 years old at the time. M.A.’s father was sentenced to 20 years in prison, but he never said what really happened to him. I didn’t press the issue. Now, almost 40 years later, M.A. still suffers from the after-effects of this era of State Terror. He comes to get physical therapy for his scoliosis, as well as some psychological counseling. Is this system of reparation- what the King has called “restorative justice”- equitable for what M.A. and his family went through? What of the years that passed by without them having any official identity?

H.H’s wife, who had been speaking to me in polite French, probably assuming I was some Big Cheese from the US govt (as my interviewees often seem to do), surprised me at the end of the interview. All of a sudden, in perfect English, calm and sad, she said, “The dynamic period of our lives.”

“Pardon?” I faltered. It took me off-guard to hear English spoken so suddenly.

“For the dynamic period of our lives, we were taken and imprisoned.”

And that was all. And that was just it: an entire generation that lived in fear and mistrust of their own government had the youthful, vital years of their lives stolen or suppressed by an authoritarian regime. Nevertheless, victims have described over and over the sense of normalcy they tried to maintain, while living in uncertain times, carrying on with every-day duties, not knowing if they would be taken in the middle of the night. Obtaining degrees via distance education while in prison. Performing plays and celebrating birthdays while spending years as one of the “disappeared”. Singing nursery rhymes while being tortured, to keep from going crazy.

I’m reading an amazing book by Dr. Richard F. Mollica entitled Healing Invisible Wounds. He quotes an artist from Sarajevo, C. Boltanski, whose sentiments echo in the voices of these Moroccans:

“We often ask ourselves: if there would be a catastrophe, if our lives would become full of war and hatred, and if we had to be subject to that, how would we react? Citizens of Sarajevo were not prepared for that: as one would say, happy people, in a town both beautiful and quiet. No poverty, easily established and well kept relations between people; everybody thinking about their own work, their children, weddings and burials as the rhythm to existence; everything is simple, and then the horror happened. It’s like when you feel well, and then suddenly a doctor tells you that you have cancer- throwing you, in that way, to the world of illness and death.”

A.L. likened the Years of Lead, during which he was rounded up on the streets of Casablanca and imprisoned for 4 years, to a “nothingness, a death”. He is still fidgety and nervous, and suffers physically from the torture he underwent. I find that, generally, Moroccans of this generation live with a general mistrust of authority, and their children- my generation- are growing up in apathy and civic nonparticipation. True, I get the sense that young Moroccans like the current king, but don’t care one bit for the surrounding political system, which they see as ineffective and distant.

With a political history like this, I don’t blame them, but I don’t excuse it either. That’s why I’m so interested in the part of my research that deals with writing the Years of Lead into the history books, as they are starting to do now. But that’s a different story for a different time.

I plan to make weekly visits to the AMRVT in Casablanca and collect stories. Listening to personal stories has always been my favorite part of peace & conflict resolution methods. I don’t offer any counseling, but some subtle catharsis happens almost every time a victim is allowed to tell their story to someone who will hold it as valuable. And there are always, always little concussions of this in my own life.

These are just some examples of victims’ experiences. I will write more soon about the interviews I’ve been having with government officials and NGOs, which are equally as fascinating. Truly, I am impressed by the reparation work Morocco is doing, but there is always more to be done.

Going over these victims’ stories, I am always struck by their courage and resilience and hope….lessons that I’ve been personally learning too. And now it’s Easter. The perfect time to celebrate the triumph of the spirit.

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