I am a fortunate woman. In a privileged, and in some ways sheltered life, I have not lived with the terror of war surrounding me, or with the spectre of unlawful arrest. I was brought up in places where I, as a white child, was the minority, and I grew up surrounded by people of every shade.
In a world often marred with violence I have only twice seen brutal acts first hand. The first occurred many years ago in Malaysia on a long and lonely road with jungle on one side and the regimented lines of a rubber plantation on the other. I was with my parents, heading away from the humidity of the plains to the Cameron Highlands. The windows were down, to let cigarette smoke out and air in. Rushing in with the wind was an eerie keening sound. Rounding a bend in the otherwise straight road I saw a cowering woman, her long black plait held high by a man hammering punches down on her face and body with his free hand. I screamed. And then as my father sped past, I screamed again. I could not understand why he did not stop. Did not stop the beating. He told me, over my sobs, that despite the fact a man should never hit a woman, we lived in a country where things abhorrent to us were acceptable in another culture. That was the day I realized my father could not fix everything.
Fast forward many years to Equatorial Guinea, and the day after an attempted coup d’etat. The market was closed. The streets were cordoned off. The city was on lock down. The police and military presence was high, and rumours of multiple arrests, particularly of Africans from other countries, were rampant. We lived on the edge of Malabo, the capital city. Our house was at the end of a steep mud track. We had jungle on one side, and on the other was a walled compound with a central paved courtyard. This I could see from my bedroom window. Our neighbours, a number of women with small children, and a couple of men, were from Cameroon. The women were prostitutes who, on occasion, we would see in local bars. This though was their home and not their place of work. Shouts, screaming and crying sent me to my window, and from it I could see uniformed personnel forcing entry to the compound, pistol whipping and punching men and women in front of hysterical children, then hauling many of the adults into canvass-sided trucks backed up to the gate.
I sobbed but did nothing. I could argue I would only have inflamed the issue. I could argue my role as British honorary consul, which was to help British and unrepresented Commonwealth citizens, would be compromised had I intervened. But at the end of the day I did nothing. It is not something I am proud of. Over the next several days a couple of our neighbors reappeared, and one of the women told me most had been deported after a few nights in jail. As tensions eased, they returned to the compound from across the Gulf of Guinea, and life continued.
I have not watched the videos of ISIS beheadings. I will not add to their satisfaction at the number of views. Or maybe I just do not want to see horrific violence.
But this morning I did watch a Facebook video posted by a woman I know and respect. It was of, yet another, arrest of a seemingly innocent black man. He had been travelling in his car with his wife and children. He obeyed all the police officer’s instructions. To exit the vehicle. To lie face down on the road. To put his hands behind his back. He cried he was being hurt as handcuffs were roughly snapped shut. He was given no reason for his arrest. The wife, yelled and screamed at the white officer that she was filming all this, that she had seen the videos of police brutality, and that he’d better not kill her husband. Sirens blaring heralded more police. They attempted to lessen the volatility, telling the woman to see to her distraught children and to get back in her car. Eventually a black officer arrived and he managed to calm the situation, and the screen went blank.
The dreadful thing is that we are becoming immune to the violence. YouTube is full of such videos. But it is the faces and the sounds of the children witnessing these acts that should truly haunt us. One moment a little girl safe in the car with her family, the next, beads at the end of her corn rows hitting the sides of her face as she cries frantically, seeing her father violently arrested. The image is one she will probably see for the rest of her life. It may make her determined to fight for a more just society. Or it may drive her in a different direction, dissolving any trust she might have been forming of a fair and honest system.
Human rights are abused all over the world. Nothing is ever merely black and white, but we should all be ashamed about the violence to which our children are exposed, wherever we live.