Dear Alexandre, Dear Sam,
Here I am on the sixth floor of the Wisma Syahida in Jakarta. My bed is pale blue with large, dark blue roses and a big yellow heart in the middle with the word Happiness written across it. I’m nibbling on crackers called “Oops.”
So much has happened since my last letter I scarcely know where to begin. When I last wrote to you, our first workshop had just come to a close. I spent the following day planning another workshop with the same participants, only this time, they are the ones who will do almost all the work. There were people from six different countries, and it seems like everyone wants to have the training in their own country.
The following day began at 6 in the morning and never really ended for Bing and me because we were up the whole day. We drove to a place called Kandy, which looks close enough to Colombo on a map but nonetheless took over three hours to get there. One of the participants, Lucille, took us to see Fr. Nandana. I’d last seen him six years ago during the program we have at John Abbott College.
|With Fr. Nandana and Bing in Kandy|
He welcomed Bing and me as if we were old friends. He began by talking about the work he does in human rights. He has an office called the Human Rights Office, and he helps people who are tortured in prison or by police officers. The word torture is not one I have ever explained to you, but I guess you will hear the word some day if you haven’t already, so here goes. When I was your age, I used the term to exaggerate something bad that one person would do to another. For example, when Uncle John would sit on me and laugh, I told Grandmamam that your uncle was torturing me. Some people who have heard me sing call that a form of torture as well. At your age, my understanding of what torture really meant was fuelled by cartoons and comic books depicting torture devices from the Dark Ages hundreds of years ago. Long tables where people would be stretched by their hands, or shackles would suspend a person for hours or even days from a ceiling, or a person’s head would be shoved underwater to scare them into thinking they will drown.
Torture is a form of punishment to force people to admit to things they have or have not done – sometimes they admit to the truth, sometimes they lie just because the pain is too much to handle. Fr. Nandana told us many stories of innocent people who were captured by the police and tortured in the nearby prison. As Fr. Nandana spoke, I became more and more upset and the stories he was relating. He told us the story of one young man who was tortured so badly that he lost sensation in one of his arms because his nerves were damaged. He’s since been released from prison, and we met him when we were invited to Fr. Nandana’s church; he cooked two delicious meals for us, and he is now studying to work in the hotel business.
Torture affects not only the people who are hurt but also their friends and families, and sometimes it takes a long time for people to recover. One of the things Fr. Nandana does is bring people together to express their feelings about being tortured and what it was like for their loved ones. These gatherings are called “Testimony therapy for the holistic wellness of our ex-prisoner survivors.” He invited Bing and me to attend one of the sessions in the afternoon, after touring a beautiful Buddhist temple and forcing us to rest at a convent for an hour (the chance to rest was desperately needed and much appreciated).
|Dancers participating in the therapy testimony|
We were ushered into the room in which the testimonies were to take place, two empty chairs waiting for us up front. There were two sets of testimonies that day. The first was from a young man named Benedict and his family. Benedict had wrongly been accused of doing something very bad to a friend, and because of this he was put in jail. He was eventually proven innocent and released, but he suffered a lot while in jail, and so did his family. Their testimonies – or stories, if you will – were read out loud to all of us after a ceremonial lighting of an oil lamp. Another set of testimonies came from the family of a man named Chithrakuma, and while he was not present, his mother, wife and two young children – younger than you – arrived to tell their stories. In between the stories were beautiful dances by young girls all dressed the same.
It’s when I saw Chithraluma’s children sitting there, the younger one asleep in his mother’s arms, the older one sitting quietly next to her, that I thought you would be ready to hear about the meaning of torture. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I figure you might as well hear about torture through the efforts of the people in this world who are trying to fix the broken lives of those who have been hurt by others. What greater gift can a victim of torture receive than the chance to express themselves to others about their feelings, about the struggles they faced, and how they overcame the most painful of situations imaginable? What greater gift can you offer these victims other than to listen to their stories with compassion and empathy?
It is rare that I have the opportunity to see the work our former participants do, and I am very happy I took the time to pass through Kandy. If only you were here, Alexandre and Sam, the things you would see, the people you would meet, the stories you would hear, and the kindness bestowed upon you would leave you with nothing short of a sense of wonder and profound appreciation of the kindness of others.
I’ll stop now. I need to get ready for the second day of our Play It Fair workshop for teachers here in Jakarta. I’ll write more about that when I can.
Je t’aime, alexandre, je t’aime Sam, bonsoir.