The images of women survivors of war, rape, displacement, poverty, and violence have often been confined to only that of the victim. And of course war and violence cause pain and damage bodies and souls, and in that sense, they create “victims,” but the story does not always end there. And, of course, the story never begins there. Those who suffer violence, poverty, and loss live with feelings of pain, but unlike the pictures of them taken as others choose to portray them, they sometimes manage to overcome that pain with great triumph and joy, sometimes they live on tolerating the pain, and sometimes the pain anchors them and defines their identity. In all these scenarios, a person’s encounter with darkness, in the form of war, violence, or poverty, is never a static or finite experience. Rather, it is an evolutionary experience that takes one on a journey of discovery—a discovery of one’s own strength, beliefs, values and dreams, and of love, anger, and hope. War, as a Bosnian journalist once said, shows you the worst acts of humanity and shows you the best acts of humanity all in one moment. And the process of encountering misfortunes, as I have learned in my life, often leads to one’s fortune. Life is an evolving process of discovery, so why, when it comes to the “other”—to women from the so-called “Third World” or the “Developing World” or in conflict zones and post conflict settings—are their images two-dimensional and frozen in the time frame of their victimhood. What if she is not only a victim in her story? What if she is much, much more than that?
That question brought me to this book. If You Knew Me, You Would Care
is a journey that took me and photographer Rennio Maifredi to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Rwanda to explore women’s stories in their fullest, revealing the layers that often go unnoticed in the telling of their “victim story,” and uncovering the individual woman as she exists as a whole. All interviews were conducted in the spirit of what the Dalai Lama once said in a small private gathering of those who have dedicated their lives to service and social work: “If you can’t respect the people you are serving, than better not serve them,” he told the gathering. This resonated with me so very deeply. Throughout my years of work in conflict and post-conflict areas, delivering humanitarian aid and development programs through Women for Women International, I learned that a vulnerable person may take what is provided to her in times of hardship but that does not replace her need for respect and for maintaining her own integrity and dignity in the process. Hunger may force an individual to eat whatever is in front of her, be it food donations, leftovers, or even stolen food. But those who give that food should not confuse their giving with loving or respect. Giving our secondhand clothing or extra money to charity is kind and generous. But there is one more step needed to complete the process of reaching out and building bridges of peace in the world—to look past that person’s victimhood and see their personhood.
It was with this spirit in mind that I conducted each interview. I was propelled by a curiosity about the woman being interviewed—I wanted to understand who she was as a person, beyond her story of victimhood. I wanted to spend time delving back into her childhood memories, and more peaceful, carefree times, when she felt the freedom to dream without limits. Time was spent on memories of love and joy, happiness and health, and then the other stories came out—the stories that every interviewee was shocked to have encountered—rape, displacement, loss of loved ones, bombardments, among so many others that bring anger, and even hate, to one’s heart. In the process, I encountered giggles when women talked about their first loves and visible frustration when talking about their relationships with their husbands. I met women who were still very attached to their anger at how their lives were destroyed and others who have magically found peace in spite of all the odds. “Peace,” as Nabintu from Congo said, “is inside our hearts. No one can give it to us. No one can take it away from us.” I call Nabintu my Dalai Lama.
The women featured in this book went through all kinds of emotions and life experiences and they evolve and continue to evolve every day. But we miss out on knowing, really knowing who they are when we focus only on their victimhood. Because their stories have an intensity that seems unique to their cultures, it is easy to feel disconnected from these women and see them as “the other” rather than “like me.” The marginalization of women happens in all parts of the world —developed and developing, poor and rich—though their form and degree may vary from one culture to another. When it comes to war, all aspects of life intensify deeply in a short period of time. War, as I see it, is simply a microcosm of life in peace. The good, the bad, and the ugly all exist in war as they do in peace. They just exist more intensely and in forms we don’t readily recognize. We all experience life with its ups and downs. In peaceful countries, it may take a person a lifetime to experience what a person living in a war experiences in a matter of months or a year—the ups and downs, the beauty and ugliness of humanity, the hope and the hopelessness. All this is to say there is no “us” and “them.” We are all part of the one existence. If I can only see that she is me in so many ways and I am her in so many ways, I can see how we are all part of the one. If You Knew Me You Would Care
is a journey that tries to see women who have survived war, violence, and poverty for the stories they have beyond their tears. Some interviews lasted hours, involving many exchanges of stories; others were simply asked about their definitions of war, peace, and their hopes for their future. All interviews were kept with the women’s own words intact, so you can hear their stories as they told them. Rennio Maifredi and I are nothing but messengers for the women we encountered; I captured their words and he captured their images. I hope one day you will get the chance to visit the lush green and great lakes of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Congo is a country which, despite its captivating beauty, is in many ways still the “heart of darkness,” haunted by a war that has lasted since 1998, that has taken the lives of at least 5 million people, and caused the rape of about 400,000 women. Life is raw in the Congo. One sees life and death every day. And in the midst of the cruelty caused by the war, I had the chance to dance fiercely with women who have survived absolute horrors and still have the strength to sing and smile. In the Congo, to dance and to sing are to be resilient. When I think of the Congo, I think of Honorata, who showed her resilience by breaking her silence and telling her story so that other women would not have to go through what she had been through. She understands the powerful connection between her individual story and the collective story of women and I am forever grateful to her for teaching me that.
And there is of course Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country that inspired the founding of Women for Women International with its rape camps and concentration camps operating in the heart of Europe between 1992 and 1995. I will never forget the first time I visited Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was in the midst of an awful war, during which more than 200,000 people were tortured and killed in concentration camps and 20,000 women were held captive in rape camps and gang-raped for months. When I asked the women I met what I could bring them on my next visit, they were quick to answer, “Lipstick and underwear.” I was surprised by their request but soon learned that looking beautiful was part of their resistance; it was their way of keeping life going. One woman told me, “Every time I leave my home, I make sure that I put on good underwear and wear lipstick. I think to myself, I want that sniper to see he is shooting a beautiful woman. And if he does shoot me, I want to make sure that those who treat me or wash my dead body know that I was a clean woman.” The spirit of resistance often manifests itself in these small ways and this spirit still exists among Bosnian women nearly two decades after the war ended. And so it was Bosnian women who taught me the importance of looking beautiful no matter what, and to never forget the power of beauty to open people’s hearts. Artists in Bosnia continued to make art in spite of the war and Bosnian women continued to put on their lipstick in spite of their hunger. When I grew up during the Iran-Iraq war, my mother would tell me that when the artist dies, everything dies. My work in Bosnia taught me to hold on to our beauty no matter what, for it is an essential part of life.
And of course there is the beautiful and amazing Afghanistan, whose beauty is hidden in the mystery of people’s homes revealed through the deep colors of hand-woven carpets and the vibrant flavors of deliciously rich food. And like all countries that have suffered war, the hope one finds is hidden in women’s hearts, the embroideries of their colorful cloths under the obliqueness of the burqa, the crescent-moon shape of their eyebrows. I will never forget Zarghuna, who has accomplished much as a woman and as a mother, and is proud of her accomplishments, even though she was promised to be married at the age of 6 and became a widow and single mother at the age of 16. Zarghuna rebuilt her life with the utmost integrity. When I asked her where she got the courage to stop a member of the Taliban from beating her in public, she said it was “because the pain of humiliation is worse than the pain of the whipping.” I love that woman’s courage and have such deep respect for her that I find her story to be my source of inspiration time and time again.
Lastly there was Rwanda, the country of a thousand hills where every inch of every hill is planted and where the lakes and the waterfalls fill one’s heart. It is the world’s loss if we only ever think of Rwanda as the country that witnessed a genocide that killed nearly 800,000 people and saw the rape of half a million women in 100 days in 1994. Rwanda is realizing the importance of women in rebuilding a nation and recognizing that investments are important for the future of their country, not charity. I will never forget Aloisea, a dear friend, who has taught me the power of gathering women and listening to what they have to say no matter their level of education. Each expresses herself in different ways and in different languages. We should not mistake a lack of education for a lack of wisdom; rather we should listen, for there is much wisdom in her accounts of her life experiences and much clarity in her description of what she wants from life. Thank you, Aloisea, for teaching me how to listen.
They say a woman is like cotton and a man is like a diamond. When a piece of cotton is stained, it can’t be cleaned. But when a diamond is stained, all you need to do is clean it up and it’s back to being the original clear diamond. I first encountered this saying in 1993 when I was doing research about the use of rape in wartimes. It was so revealing about how societies treated women who endure rape and torture, as compared with how they treat men who endure the same. As Bosnians used to say during the war, when a man comes back from the frontline injured he is treated as a hero, but when a woman returns from prison camp she is viewed with a stigma. After 18 years of traveling to various conflict areas and witnessing women’s stories, I came to the realization that women are the diamond, for themselves and for their societies. Through female storytelling we keep history’s lessons alive, so that maybe future generations will not have to go through what we went through. I learned that through the process of sharing our stories, we draw inspiration from each other and offer a ray of hope about the possibility of change. If a diamond resists all forces to break it, so does a woman.
I am deeply touched by, and honored to have witnessed, so many women’s resilience, to keep on going against the odds, for her children and for loved ones. A Congolese woman who was raped in front of her children, watched her husband beaten to death and her 9-year-old son shot to death when refusing to eat his mother’s severed and cooked leg, once said to me, “What I worry about the most is not my ability to stand up back on my feet and rebuild my life so my children can continue to go to school and get a better life. What I worry about the most is the hate in my children’s heart at their father’s and brother’s killers and how I can transform this hate and anger towards love, so my kids don’t end up being killers.” If this woman is not aware of how to build a peaceful society for the future, I don’t know who is. And if she is not the most capable of doing that, I don’t know who else is. She managed to get herself back on track, earning an income from a small business, sending her kids to school, and even joining the Run for Congo Women in eastern Congo to show her determination and resilience. If she can run, who are we not to run? If she can smile, who are we not to smile?
Though the point of this book is to feature women’s stories in war zones to portray who they are with their joy and their pain, it does not dismiss their need for support, be it an educational program, vocational skills, an opportunity to sustain an income, emotional support from another woman, financial support, or legal protection, so that they can rebuild their lives with their integrity and their dignity intact. Each of the women featured in this book was sponsored by another woman in a different part of the world through Women for Women International. Her “sponsor” sent her financial support and exchanged pictures and letters with her, and in this way, supported her as she underwent an intensive 12-month program that taught her rights awareness and vocational and business skills—tools with which to rebuild her life and stand on her own two feet. The goal is for each woman to be well, connected to social support, to become decision-makers in their household, and to be in a position to earn an income upon graduating. Each woman is empowered and helped to recognize her value to herself, her family, and her community.
In the process of doing this work, I learned that the sponsor and the sponsored, the giver and the recipient, the saver and the saved, are interchangeable roles. Whatever our background or our story, we can engage in a process of hearing each other, respecting each other, celebrating with each other, supporting each other, and together writing a new story for women everywhere—a story that is based on our collective wisdom and attachments, not to the past and the pain, but to the future and its possibilities. It took me 18 years to finally understand the Buddhist saying: “by serving others you serve yourself.” Writing this new story for women everywhere starts with examining oneself and seeing others more clearly. May this book and the women’s stories help you in your life journey; they are remarkable women whom I thought I was serving, but who have instead hugely impacted my life and taught me that the assistance has, all this time, been mutual.
Excerpted from If You Knew Me You Would Care by Edited by Zainab Salbi, Photographs by Rennio Maifredi. Copyright © 2013 by Edited by Zainab Salbi, Photographs by Rennio Maifredi. Excerpted by permission of powerHouse Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.