This is Otholi Okwot. In front of him are a few items from his ancestral homeland Gambella in south west Ethiopia.
When he and his family were still living in Ethiopia, Otholi’s wife Ariet had decorated these objects with traditional Anuak beadwork. One day, the guns didn’t stop and the smell of burning huts filled the air. In haste, Ariet packed some food, and this jug, bowl and cup, before the family ran into the bush.
I’ve previously blogged about the discovery of oil in the homelands of the indigenous Anuak. The Ethiopian federal government disagreed with local leaders about where to build the oil refinery. After months of talks, a truck on a lonely road was ambushed. The driver and all the passengers were killed. Even though there were no known eye witnesses, the government blamed the Anuak. Retaliatory attacks followed.
(Sound effects bbc.co.uk - © 2018 copyright BBC)
‘So from that time December 13, 2003, they start going hunting all these men from their home. When the government just put it in other way, they just mobilise the civilians, and let the civilians do this because if the government is started, they thought the government would be blamed. So they incite the civilian, and the civilian come up with all the machete, knife, and all sort of weapon, they start going, hunting for Anuak.
So when you run, running fast to escape, the soldier know that you are going to escape, and they will shoot you. After they shoot you, those civilian they will come with a knife and machete. They will cut where the bullet wound, cut it with the knife, so that when the investigation come, people will know that this is not the bullet, this is the knife or machete.
So our people started now to realise that something is going on, the people start burning the housing of the people, the people run away. So only during that day, December 13, 2003 four hundred and twenty five people were killed.’
Otholi’s family travelled through South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and were fortunate to finally find safety in Australia.
It is easier on our collective conscience to forget such stories. But to forget would be travesty, and one day, surely, selective-amnesia will catch up with us. Perhaps it already has.
We must not forget, but how should we remember? Is it OK to talk about the past? What if trauma is involved? Can forgetting sometimes be a blessing? To talk about trauma is to risk stirring up strong emotions such as hate and fear, loss and grief. But if we hear the stories of others, we will never understand them and will remain isolated from one another in our silos of polite avoidance.
There’s also the ingredient of time to consider. Yesterday might have been too soon. But today, his or her face may be open, inviting conversation. Memory-lands where trauma has taken place is fraught territory. Can the retelling be cathartic rather than hurtful? Does a sympathetic listener make a difference? Is there a way to tell stories and to listen to them so that we work towards healing, individually and collectively?
I’ve tried to answer some of these questions using ethical storytelling, but there is so much more I would like to know. Because of this, I am very much looking forward to chairing a session on the Psychology of Trauma at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas this Sunday, 15 July.
The session will be a conversation between Professor Alexander McFarlane AO and Gary Outten. Professor Alexander is director of the Centre for Traumatic Stress Studies, Adelaide University. Gary Outten is a counsellor who works with survivors of torture and trauma. He worked in the Nauru and Manus Island off-shore detention centres from 2012 to 2017.
The program reads: ‘Trauma is a big word, and we all have some experience to attach to it. Refugees, however, bear more than most of us can understand. They flee their own country and often feel unwelcome (or worse) where they seek refuge. Each refugee’s experience in unique, so we should attend to each story.’
I love the verb ‘attend’ in that last sentence. It speaks of care. I picture someone bending down, a listening ear carefully positioned to hear even the smallest voice, the frailest whisper.