A Silent Witness Is Not Enough

February in 1992 I was waiting to cross the road to my UN peacekeeping job in a very small Bosnian-Croat village when 3 men in uniforms pulled a lone man out of his old Yugo, pummeled him with their fists then tossed him into a snowdrift before driving away in his car. I watched the whole thing in silence.

I crossed the street as the bloodied man pulled himself out of the snow and walked on. Fighting sobs, I flashed my ID at the distraught Danish UN soldier who was manning the gate and by UN rules was only allowed to use his gun for self-defense. I recognized his tears of shame – we’d watched and done nothing. We followed the rules. Of course this event was benign compared to the atrocities perpetuated under our watch during the Balkan wars.

It happened so quickly. That’s one thing I can tell myself but it doesn’t make me feel better. I was silent. I did not yell or curse at the bastards. Shock? Fear? I can’t recall. But here’s what I do remember: the shame of my silence, of being a small part of that terrible chapter of Peacekeeping history.

I feel it again, that sick feeling, as if I’m standing on a corner watching while history repeats itself faster and faster. Now it’s not even days but hours between white men in uniforms killing innocent black men while we watch. Now, it is being part of my race that causes me shame.

I try to distance myself, prove that I am not racist, that I’m different because I come from generations of leftists including my grandmother who voted for Jesse Jackson back when he ran for President. I can tell you how I proudly live in an economically and racially diverse community, how I struggle financially and raised my daughter on my own after losing her father to addiction and suicide. I will tell you that to distance myself from the oppression, to let you know that mine has not been just a life of privilege since I am a woman. I will tell you these things as if to prove I am an okay-white person. But how ridiculous – I will do this to make myself feel better. It doesn’t let me off the hook from the collective truth.

I am waiting to cross while the street is exploding.

And I just don’t know what to do.

9 thoughts on “A Silent Witness Is Not Enough”

  1. Good to hear your voice again. Yes to what you’re saying. Again yes. I have no other words. I think about this being silent too, whether I’d speak up when it’s important. Sending along a hug.

  2. Powerful. Awful. Oh the things you have seen. Things we thought were history – terrible lessons that we hoped would make the future better, make us better, because we’d seen their horror and learned, as if jolted with electricity, to behave otherwise. Chilling that we have not.

  3. Helplessness in the face of horror–I think more when it comes from someone else’s choice than from a natural or random catastrophe–is overwhelming. I picture times when I could have said something at no cost to myself, but this was different: you couldn’t have changed what happened with the peacekeeping forces and someone else even could have been hurt if you had intervened. At home I’m glad to be reminded we can be important voices against the ugliness and violence.

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