Monday, June 22, 2009


Confused and helpless: Displaced Tutsis at a refugee camp in Rwanda in 1994.
Although I was not in Mumbai on November 26, the memories of those ghastly days of watching and waiting affected me deeply. The rage I felt as I watched people stand by hoping and praying for their loved ones surprised me. For days later, my mind would churn out these painful images and fury would seep into my heart. I felt imprisoned by anger and unable to continue with my daily routine. Many people I spoke to felt the same way. Can we forget the heartbreaking scenes we have witnessed? Can those who were hostages ever forget the pain and suffering and loss they endured? What do we do with our tortured memories? The pain is raw; the heart bleeds; the mind is numb. How do we bring healing to such tortured memories? How do we transform destructive memory to life-giving memory? Painful memories need to be dealt with before we can even think about rebuilding peaceful communities. As we journey together in this column, exploring new ways of interpreting ahimsa in our 21st-century lives, let’s see if there is an ahimsa way of healing and dealing with our heartbreaking memories.

Inspiring examples

I remembered conversations I had with friends who had been victims of unspeakable brutality in Rwanda and Argentina and looked to them for inspiration. Some of them had a radiance and peace about them, despite their ordeals, that I envied. In Porto Allegre, Brazil, I was present at an interview given by the Nobel Peace winner Peres Esquivel from Argentina. He spoke of his years in prison where he and many others were regularly tortured. Although these memories were never forgotten, he was healed of that deep anger and his memories were not poisonous, but gave hope and new life to others. Almost all of them spoke about this “horrific” event in their lives which had become a turn-around point. The point at which they forced themselves to practise “active goodness” even though gut instinct told them to do otherwise. And in doing so again and again, lost the sting in their memories. Let me also share Madam Wangele’s story.

Mama Wangele is a widow, whose only son was killed in the Rwandan civil war. Filled with grief, she wanted to kill herself too, but her relatives wouldn’t let her. So she plodded on through life, angry and hard and miserable. One day, a worn-out, one-legged child soldier knocked on her door and asked for food. By the tribal marks on his face she knew that he was the enemy. She asked him very coldly, “Have you ever killed anyone?” “Yes, many,” he replied. Mama Wangele just banged the door shut on his face. She sat at her kitchen table and wept for her lost son. But something kept tugging at her heart. She followed this new stirring. She walked to the door slowly and opened it. She had no idea of what she was going to do. She saw that the boy had gone a little distance. “Mutabani,” she called. The boy turned back and saw her.

“Mutabani, come back,” she called. The boy was surprised. She asked him to come in and gave him some food and filled a tub of water for his bath. Then she brought out her son’s carefully preserved clothes and gave it to him. “These are my son’s clothes. He was killed in the war. But you can have them now, mutabani,” she said very quietly. The boy looked at her with tears…had she really called him mutabani? (Mutabani is the Luganda word for ‘son’.) As she related her story, Mama Wangele wiped her eyes. This was the beginning of healing for her, she said.

For most of us, the memories which need healing may not be of such violence. It may be a broken friendship or marriage; or of some injustice or a childhood scar or even just angry words thrown at us. However trivial it may seem to others, for us it is painful and so needs healing. Most of us hide our painful memories and hope that they will go away. But they don’t; they resurface when we least expect them and trouble us. Perhaps the first step on the journey to healing and wholeness begins when our memories are not borne in silence and hidden away, but are told, listened to with compassion and acknowledged as truth. In telling our stories, and listening to them, we learn how important it is to share, communicate and listen to each other’s sad experiences. We need to be witness to someone else’s painful memories, cry with them and feel with them and help them to recover.

Radha, a woman who was raped as a girl, found that her family hushed it up and pretended that it never happened. But it did. And she carried that memory and the anger and pain of it with her for years. It affected every relationship of hers — especially the one with her husband and her daughter. One day, at a woman’s meeting she stood up and spoke of her rape. Some of those who listened also gave voice to their own experiences. Those who listened, expressed their sadness, and comforted Radha. This sharing was the beginning of healing for her.

Willingness to share

As we reflect on an ahimsa way of dealing with life, there are two points to remember. One is of being an ahimsa person who is willing to share another’s painful burden to bring healing to him or her; the other is resolving and finding healing through being a medium of active goodness. Mama Wangele’s story shows a personal kind of goodness. Mr. Peres Esquivel, shared how for him it was the second way. Healing for him came through the act of solidarity with others, of listening to their pain, and sharing his again and again, however difficult that was and working towards a more just, humane society.

Both of them showed me the ahimsa way of dealing with all the horror life sometimes throws at us. If you have followed the ahimsa way of life which brings healing and wish to share your story