Hear the Voice of the Voiceless
(2007 - 2014)
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For THEIR Sons and Daughters
The young man waited eagerly for civil war to ignite. When it did at last, he jumped at the opportunity to fight for the freedom of his people. His mother knew she could not stop him. She could only pray - pray for his safe return. It did not matter to her which side would win, as long as her son came home.
“A bullet went through his heart. There was nothing we could do to save him.” The news penetrated her heart as if her life also had ended. Yet another dawn seeped into her room through the closed curtain. A tractor stopped at her door as usual to take her to the hospital where she worked. Along the road, she saw decaying corpses of enemy soldiers. At the hospital, crippled or wounded young men looked at her through their agony and despair. They all reminded her of her son - the waste of life, inevitable byproducts of war.
One evening the fighting came closer to her home. After the shooting had long ceased, she dared look outside. In the twilight, she saw the vague shadow of a fresh enemy corpse. Soon the darkness engulfed it, but the image remained vivid in her eyes. She cried for her son again.
At dawn her lone figure, illuminated only by candlelight, approached the corpse.
One hundred years ago in New York City, a fire ignited on the 9th floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. The doors were locked, and the workers, mostly teenage girls, were trapped. Some of them jumped off the burning building so that their families would have the bodies to properly mourn for. One hundred forty six perished.
The tragedy of the Triangle Factory is repeating one hundred years later. In Bangladesh, garment factory fires have been claiming young lives - over 300 since 2006. The locks that hinder both theft and escape demonstrate how expendable the labor sources are to the employers. When young girls, who have no choice but to work in sweatshops, leap to their deaths from the blaze of injustice, their voiceless cry echoes. “Notice us! We are also humans.”
* "Triangle Returns." Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights. 16 Apr. 2013 <http://www.globallabourrights.org/campaigns?id=0033>.
Many foreigners have the impression that the radiation leak has turned Fukushima into a contaminated wasteland. However, close to 2 million people, including children, still reside in the prefecture. “At least all the little ones should evacuate from there,” was the comment I heard from three different non-residents. It sounded like a condemnation of the parents for exposing their children to the harm of radiation. The decision to remain at home was viewed as uncaring.
One mother told me that her children, then 8 to 16 years old, wished to remain in Fukushima after the accident. Before deciding whether to respect their wish, she wanted to understand the current situation and the future effects of the radiation. She attended several lectures presented by NGOs, after which she realized that even after they moved away, the risks of radiation exposure could not be eliminated. Thus, the family decided to remain. They knew they would have to live with invisible contaminants. In order to minimize their exposure, they could no longer live nonchalantly as before. The children now limit the time spent outside. They do not go to bushes where the radiation level could be high. When they come home, the first thing they do is wash their hands. They took classes on radiation effects at school. The mother said, “We watch what we eat, and we conserve electricity as best as we can. Can you still call us uncaring?”
Even well-considered words of concern, when lacking understanding, can embed a thorn in someone’s heart.
He did not want to shame his family. That was the only reason he obeyed the draft order. When he joined veteran soldiers at a mass execution site for the first time, he was horror-stricken by his fellow countrymen’s bearing. They were snickering at the prisoners. Their eyes shone like tigers, as if thirsting for more blood. Suddenly, someone pushed him forward. Now he had to kill the enemy civilian in front of him. Beads of sweat began to form on his forehead. His arms and legs shook convulsively. The tigers’ eyes were ridiculing him. His stomach clenched and he vomited. The tigers’ laughter roared over him. Feeling faint and defeated, he aimed the rifle at the motionless victim, and pulled the trigger.
Killing got easier. He had been transformed into a killing machine. At the bottom of his heart, he still detested merciless killing, but he became used to it and laughed at those who showed signs of cowardice. He said to himself, “This is war.”
In deep mountains, he was finally captured by a guerilla band. As the bearded men dragged him onto bloodstained soil, he showed them a photo of his children and pled for their mercy. Panic-stricken, he failed to see that his effort was in vain. Their eyes, too, were like those of tigers. Their hearts had long ceased to hear the cry of their captives.
Her husband’s parcel of land was too small to feed the growing family. The government’s promise of “a vast land with fertile soil” could have been a windfall for the young family, but the dreamland was a lie. The native inhabitants resisted the establishment of new settlements. Repeated floods and frosts brought one failed crop after another, and all able-bodied men were taken away to fight in the losing war.
Starvation slowly crept up on the family. First, the two-year-old died in her mother’s arms; six days later, the six-year-old; and the next day, the four-year-old. The mother had already exchanged her wool undershirt for 13 eggs. Five more - all dying skeletons - sat hopelessly in the numbingly cold shack.
“I took the clothes off the dead bodies of the children and laid them naked in the earth. What else could I do? Their tiny clothes would buy some millet to feed their brothers and sisters. Then, I tossed frigid dirt over their naked bodies. Forgive me. Forgive me. Forgive this awful, AWFUL mother!”
The lament of mothers who were “used” by the powerful to achieve their selfish ambitions, still blows in the wind over the wasteland.
* Iide, Magoroku. Owarinaki Tabi: “Chugoku Zannryu Koji” no Rekishi to Gennzai. Tokyo; Iwanami Shoten, 1986. P229.
Tribute to Okawa District
Sunflowers welcomed my arrival at a tsunami-ravaged town in Japan. As the plant is known to grow well in salt-laden soils, locals and volunteers had sown the seeds hopefully. My senses were awestricken by this bursting force of life in the sea of ruins.
The children, like sunflowers, also carried this force of life to the evacuation centers, where their energy and laughter lifted the spirits of the adults.
In Okawa District, the tsunami snatched away the adults’ vigor. This was compounded by certain school officials having made the deadly error of choosing the wrong evacuation route for the children. The school’s delay in apologizing for their terrible error further heightened the seriousness of the disaster, angering the survivors. Some parents wondered whether they should accept this as an inevitable consequence of a natural calamity and move forward, or should they sue the school? Their opinions divided, their wounds deepened.
In the midst, someone suggested that they plant sunflowers at the school ground. Initially the young plants did not thrive. The fathers hauled in water and new soil. The mothers weeded. As they tended the plants, they realized that their children would certainly not wish them to bury the rest of their lives in blame and regret. For the sake of the children, they were to LIVE fully.
That summer, the symbol of resilience grew strong stems and blossomed toward the sun.