For the survivors. Your strength and resilience continue to inspire. It is a privilege to know you.
SOMETHING ABOUT AINA puts me on edge. This is an aura, the tidal wave of electrical activity before a thunderclap headache.
“Hi.” As she extends her hand to shake mine, her smile appears forced.
“Hi, Aina. Glad to meet you.”
She smiles again, smoothing the creases of her jeans with both hands. I continue to gather my papers together, inattentively. My discomfort is growing, waiting for me behind my eyes. It is a storm.
As I uncap my pen, I know what it is. She seems familiar. I am sure we have not met, but we could have. Easily. She is near my age—26. She speaks English fluently, clearly with very little accent, and what’s more, she is quite articulate. I prefer the comfort of interpreters, of halted English, foreign dress—all of this makes what happened to the survivors seem like a dream, a smear on the horizon. I can keep their stories behind the bars that they were kept behind. I want to feel them, but in measured amounts. Not too much. Please.
With a clinical tone as forced as her smile, I shove these feelings down my throat: “Aina, take whatever time you need to tell your story. If you need to take breaks, that’s okay. I’m going to be writing what you tell me so we can figure out if our center is the right place for you. Is that okay with you?”
She straightens her posture until only a slight, graceful arch remains in her spine. This is normal, what we call ‘physiologic’ curvature. Most young, healthy people my age have this. Including me. I’m trying to distract myself.
She begins to speak, slowly and deliberately, as if she has practiced explaining this before. “I am from Afghanistan. That is my home country.”
She glances at the stained glass of the window, the reds and blues like venous blood, deepening with what remains of the sky’s light. It is near dusk. “There was a bombing. There had been many bombings. Always one and then another. The terrorists. I was nearby when one of the bombings happened, and so they took me to prison.” She glances quickly at me, as if anticipating something.
As I sit facing Aina, what I think I know about terror feels like a childhood habit on the edge of breaking. When I look up at her eyes, at the dark, radial strokes of the iris, what I know does not help me at all.
I put down my pen, ill at ease. “Do you mind if I ask, who took you to prison?”
She nods. “It was the militia—Afghani. They thought I knew something about the bombing.” She pauses, and then continues, with force. “I didn’t know anything. None of us did.” She sighs. “My husband asked me to come here. He thought you could help.”
This should be the moment when I ask if she wants to be here. But I’m not sure if the answer really matters. It’s probably not even the right question.
“Sometimes when I get upset, I don’t sleep well—I don’t know I’m doing this…” She trails off. I can tell there is some hesitation. Or fatigue. Maybe. “I throw my body against the wall very hard, and then I wake up not much later. I’m confused.”
She sounds irritated. Uninterested, even. This is her version of getting up in the morning to drink coffee, of taking out the trash. She is convincing me, without effort, really, that this is all par for the course. And I believe her.
Aina adjusts her posture again. She does not break my gaze.
“What you hear about in the news—that happened to me. The soldiers did things to me.”
I feel sick. Again. But there is no more anticipation. I know what happened to her. Part of me can breathe. I am a case manager at a federally funded treatment center for survivors of political torture, and Aina is about to get a check in the ‘eligible’ box.
And then she continues, her tone like a metronome, systematic: “The American soldiers did these things to me also.”
No. Please. I am not ready for this. There was nothing, not a book, not a moving TV special, not a speech by a reporter with a tone of fastidiously cultivated concern that could have made me ready. I had heard about my country and torture in the past, through the television glass. Changing the channel was simple enough. But today she ripped off my skin, and I am almost angry with her, feeling now what I should have felt then.
I look down at my paper and pretend to write, because my eyes are beginning to tear up and I can’t control anything. No, I scold myself silently, like an angry parent. You don’t get to cry. She is not sitting here crying. I feel outmatched.
As I continue to scribble on the page, there is a tide coming in, a very nasty sense of ‘we.’ She is coming here for safety and we—I did not make her safe. I want torture to be something other countries do, something that happens to other people who speak foreign languages and don’t look like me or sound like me. I don’t want to see that it crawled inside my bones long before today, and made a nest, with those claws, inside the marrow.
When I finally look up from my paper, my words sound anemic: “I’m sorry for what my country did to you.”
Her gaze is steady. “Thank you, but it’s okay.”
Aina speaks as if she had been etched by aching, slow fluid, over thousands of years.
“No one knew what to do about the terrorists. No one.”
I am sitting in this chair but I could be standing over her holding a black hood, and the difference is starting to feel like a roll of the dice.