“You have to be there to understand it…”

This past month has been the most difficult for me as of yet in India. I’ve been pretty sick and stressed, physically and emotionally. Last week, I experienced something that was truly life changing. Initially, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to share such candid details on our AIF blog. But I think that many of the fellows can identify with my story and, maybe, my entry could even help some of the fellows cope with their own issues. In an effort to connect with the fellows on a personal level, I thought I’d share this email that I’d written to my family last week:

Hey guys,

How’s it going? Sorry I’ve been so MIA these past few days. Today was a really tough day for me at work. I can’t even begin to describe how I’m feeling right now. I was called into the field this morning to document an incident that occurred in one of our operational villages. A few villagers were attacked by another group of villagers earlier that morning; one of the victims was the husband of a member of Swayamsampurna, our NGO’s microfinance federation. I went to visit the victims with one of the supervisors of our Women’s Rights Program and two members of Alor Disha, a group of volunteers who actively campaign and handle cases of violence against women in the villages. When we arrived at the scene, there were a group of villagers waiting for us at the entrance. I immediately noticed two of them were covered with bloodied bandages and had blood spattered all over their saris and dhotis.

I was not sure what exactly had happened but from what I gathered from my briefing, one of the victims was the father of a girl who was murdered a few months ago in the village. The parents believed the man she was seeing, who also lived in the village, killed her. When they tried to file an FIR at the local police station, they were told to write “abetment to suicide”. The accused, Samir (name changed), ran away from the village but they knew where he was hiding and informed the police. The police did nothing to protect the family. Samir and his family were not only wealthy, but had strong political connections. The police were on his side.

Samir returned to the village and threatened the family, demanding them to withdraw the FIR. When the mother refused, Samir went back to his home and returned with a few family members, all armed with weapons. Six men and two women were injured; of those 8, four suffered fatal injuries.

After the assault, the villagers retaliated by attacking Samir’s compound. We visited the crime scene to gather details about the incident. I found broken furniture and electronics in the courtyard. There was a lot of tension in the air, as the victims’ family members and villagers demanded justice for what had been done and attackers’ family demanded the arrest of the victims for attacking their home.

Amidst the chaos, I tried my best to gather all the facts with what little Bengali I understood. Some of the women thought I was a journalist and wanted me to note down their names, as witnesses to the incident. I noted their names and followed them around in the heat, hoping to get some more clarification on the details. The police had arrested Samir, his father and his uncle, but according to the women, they could be released on bail. My NGO planned on taking a group of women to file a formal FIR at the local police station, and protest the bail. The victims were also asked to join the group.

The physical and emotional pain that these victims had gone through was heartbreaking to witness. I do not mean to be graphic but the father had lost a few fingers during the attack. Someone was carrying around the dismembered fingers, hoping that doctors could reattach them. They were all in dire need of medical attention.

I know this was probably a lot for you guys to take in. I didn’t realize how much of an effect the incident had on me until I returned to work later that day. I was speechless, exhausted and overwhelmed. I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. I was still processing everything. I was quiet all day, even at home. I sat in my room, angry at the world for the injustices I just witnessed. But I kept on telling myself that I was strong enough to deal with it, like the other activists were. But I wasn’t. When Krupa asked if I was okay during dinnertime, I just burst into tears.

Uncontrollable tears flowed as I tried to make sense of what had happened and why it happened. I wasn’t sure if I could even tell you guys about it because it was so difficult to describe. I was angry, scared and traumatized. I couldn’t really talk about it in a phone conversation, so I emailed a friend and wrote out how I felt. I needed to understand what was happening to me. He wrote back to me:

“It’s a traumatic experience to suddenly understand that we’re not as safe as we thought we were….But it’s also a really important step in understanding how important what you’re doing is. It’s not just articles and videos anymore, is it? It’s     real. And you’re gonna be a better person – a better advocate – for having seen what you saw today.”

I wanted to stop working on this case, and give up human rights altogether. It was too much for me to handle and I couldn’t stand the fact I couldn’t do anything about it. In response to this, my friend told me that,

“…it’s good to be upset. You wouldn’t be human if you weren’t. But use that anger to refocus yourself, instead of letting it turn you away from your calling.”

His words made me stronger. That as much as you want to give up, because it’s not what you want to see, it only makes you want to see more, because you were blind this entire time. The initial shock factor is always difficult. But after it happens, you realize: this sh*t is real. This wasn’t a segment on BBC TV or a YouTube video on Facebook. This stuff was real, and I was there.

If I gave up now, who would be able to tell their story? How can I truly understand the complexities of humankind, if I was not there to witness its horrors?

Joao de Silva, a Portugese wartime photographer who worked for the New York Times and, tragically, lost both of his legs in Afghanistan last year, described his experience below:

“It’s been an amazing experience. One would not choose to go through it, but I’ve gone through it. It happened. My time came, I guess. From the very moment that I stood on that land mine, that morning on Oct. 23, 2010, I was pretty pragmatic about the whole thing. So many people had been killed around me friends dying at my feet, no exaggeration that when it happened to me, I was like: “O.K. My number came up. It’s time to move on…

….It’s been an amazing voyage of learning learning about myself, learning about the resilience of the human body and the resilience of the human spirit. Because you just don’t know how strong you truly are until you get pushed to that point where if you go any further you’re not going to come back.

What’s happened to me is nothing new. Journalists have been dying and being injured for time immemorial. Ever since a camera was first taken onto the battlefield, journalists have been killed and hurt. I’ve had the misfortune of falling into that category.

It’s been nine months. It’s going to be probably another year before I’m fully functional, where I’ll get to the point where I’ll be able to run. Ultimately, the goal will be to get back to work. Without a doubt, life is strange. Everything has changed. But I hope to pick up from where I left off, to a certain extent. In the meantime, I just take a little more courage and a little more perseverance and quite frankly, take as many drugs as I can.

… I think people think you have some sort of fascination with death. Let’s put it out there. It’s exciting. You’re doing what you love doing. But ultimately, I’ve always seen my role as being a messenger. Documenting history. Trying to bring the reality of war to those who are fortunate enough not to live in a war zone.

I’m a historian with a camera, and hopefully my pictures use the medium to capture history, or to tell a story, or to highlight somebody else’s suffering. That’s ultimately why I continue doing it, and why I want to continue doing it.

As I said right in the beginning, it is fun. There’s a camaraderie with your friends, your colleagues. It’s a bond; it’s a brotherhood. You have to be there to understand it, but it’s real. There’s the excitement of the unknown; every day is new. You never know what might be waiting around the next corner, not only in terms of the sense of danger but also photographically. Every day can be a voyage of discovery, and you grow as a human being.”

 Echoing his words, I leave you guys with the following:

You have to be there to understand it.

Love, Jenn


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