Martin Luther King once said, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” He died 40 years ago, but this statment rings even truer today.
In early September, at the United Nations Headquarters, the Secretary General convened a Symposium on Supporting Victims of Terrorism: 18 victims and 10 experts from around the world had an opportunity to speak and break the wall of silence which often confines them behind after the clamor of terrorist attacks.
The media is frequently more interested in finding a voice or a statement from the terrorist group that committed the attack. But for the victims, when the lights go off, nothing is ever again as it was before.
The international community is still in search of a common definition of terrorism, but this event was an opportunity to veil, for one day, the political disputes around the subject and to unveil faces and stories of the people involved. People who did not have anything to do with terrorists, people who, in fact, were not the real target of the attacks.
The victims, a few from each continent, had their own personal history, the history of a life, which was changed forever by the attack, but was worth remembering for what it was before the attack. Carie Lemack, the daughter of one of the 9/11 victims said that “Sadly too many terrorism victims are remembered not for how they lived their life, but for how their life was taken from them”.
One of the symbols of this day was Naomi Kerongo, a Kenyan survivor of the 1998 United States Embassy bombing in Nairobi. Her voice cracked while she was remembering the horrific attack that had not killed her, but had nevertheless destroyed her life. She had spent the two years following the attack in a mental institution and she is today, 10 years later, among countless other survivors struggling with lingering psychological trauma and physical complications. Constant medical attention had reduced her and her family to destitution.
“I spent two years in a hospital, recovering from my physical and psychological wounds. In the course of the long recovery, I lost my job and this was like a second bomb for me. Then, I was also evicted from the government house that I was occupying. One day I found my children sitting on the stairs and my luggage out of the door. I asked the people who fired me: do you want me to commit suicide? I was a single parent with 5 children. I became a zombie, a destitute. I had to move to Mukuru slum on the outskirts of Nairobi, placing my five children in the care of relatives and friends. In our country the survivors are treated as history: it is not a political statement, it is true.”
In a country where more than half of the population was already struggling against poverty, the situation of the survivors and their families was akin to a death sentence.
While nothing could take the survivors back to the day before the bombing, “something can and must be done to heed our call for help” concluded Miss Kerongo “We need all the support from the UN: we don’t need charity but justice.”
The special guest of the event was Ingrid Betancourt, the Colombian-French politician, former senator and activist, held in captivity for 2,321 days by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and freed in a successful, peaceful operation by the Colombian army in July this year. She opened the event by stating “For a victim of terrorism, the greatest danger above all is to be forgotten.” She remembered her experience where “Trapped within a world that exists outside the law, a world without rights, without protection, your only recourse is moral resistance. And you can only find the strength to resist if you are supported by the voices of those outside. And above all remember that we are not statistics, we are not numbers, we are people who suffer.”
Ms. Kerongo and Ms. Betancourt’s experiences mirrored those of other speakers, including Ben Borgia, who emphasized the mental trauma and social estrangement he had felt in the wake of the 2002 bombing in Bali, Indonesia, that had killed his mother and teenage sister. Most speakers urged more global cooperation to combat terrorists, and underscored the need to create networks of support for the families of the victims, protect them, give them aid and understand that they are our best ally in the struggle against lawlessness.
Victims did not meet at the UN HQ only to claim something, but also to demonstrate how they act in the wake of the event. They provide a model of strength. Haji Angus Bambang Priyanto shared his experience as an “ordinary citizen” moved to organize and lead volunteer evacuation measures after the 2002 terrorist attack in Bali. Many ordinary citizens had provided private cars and motorbikes to transfer victims to nearby hospitals. As the bodies continued to mount, he had sent volunteers to nearby homes to find sheets and clothes to cover the deaths. Some six years later, the horrific scene, with jawbones, fingers and other body parts strewn for miles around, was difficult to forget. “To hear the screaming and to see people burnt alive is unforgettable,” he said, lamenting that the bombings that had tragically taken the lives of nearly 250 people had ruined the image of Bali as an island of peace, and harmony.
Françoise Rudetzki, seriously wounded in 1983 when a Paris restaurant was bombed while she and her husband celebrated their wedding anniversary, after the attack had to have 66 operations to reconstruct her legs. During a blood transfusion, required for her first surgery, she contracted HIV. But all these unfortunate experiences did not prevent her from fighting hard and finally ensuring that the French Government adopt a Solidarity Fund for Victims and a national law declaring terrorism a new form of war.
Saneta Sabanova, a girl of 14 years old, found the courage to talk about her experience in Beslan, Russia. In an apparently normal day, she and other hundreds of children were taken hostage in a school and, after a three-day battle, 189 of them died. She simply asked for help for the children who suffered and asked that something like that never happens again.
It is easy to think that for a victim who suffered an act of violence, the desire for justice is parallel to the desire for revenge. Instead, several victims agreed that they did not wish anybody to suffer the same, neither from other terrorist attacks nor as a result of collateral damages in a war on terror.
Victims have finally spoken on an international stage. They finally had the opportunity to make their voice heard. They appealed to the international community, and asked for them to take the next step.
Francesco Candelari is a Junior Fellow and the UNICRI liaison at the UN Headquarters in New York.