The Voluntary Victim: Bearing Witness in Worldwide Crises

By Alex Leblang

Can someone voluntarily become a victim? We have read accounts of people who suffered unbearably through no fault of their own. But what about people who thrust themselves into the middle of a crisis and lead a double life—seeing severe suffering while simultaneously secure and self-confident, knowing they will safely return home. Can they also become victims? Can they tell the same types of stories? And what can we learn about being a witness by talking to someone who has experienced not just one, but multiple tragic events all around the world?

In every crisis there are people who do not run away from the terror but instead choose to run toward these unspeakable events out of a sense of compassion and the acknowledgement that a human life wherever it may be and whoever it may be is worth the time and effort to save. These people are important, but not only do they bring relief, but in a global climate where victims’ voices are forgotten and not heard, it is the voice of the relief worker who can bring international recognition to these often horrible events. 

I was fortunate enough to interview Professor Rudy Levingston (a pseudonym), who worked in the humanitarian sector for over 19 years with the United Nations. While at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) she was stationed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, as an Emergency Officer;  in Khartoum, Sudan, to assist in food aid distribution and effectiveness; in Monrovia, Liberia, as a Humanitarian Field Officer to coordinate efforts in western Africa; in Indonesia and Pakistan dealing with the recovery from a devastating tsunami and earthquakes; and in Dili, Timor-Leste, coordinating emergency operations in the Asia-Pacific region as well as the Timor-Leste security crisis. She was then named Humanitarian Advisor to William Clinton in his role as UN Special Envoy for Haiti and ended her time at the UN as Chief of the Policy Analysis division of OCHA. Since the UN, she has held several posts at the American Red Cross. She spoke to me by phone on December 2, 2019, from her office at the University of Virginia where she is currently a Professor at the Batten School of Public Policy.

 Prof. Levingston has been involved in crises that sprang from natural disasters, famine, and conflict. Although not immediately apparent, in many cases humanitarian crises arise as a side effect of racial, religious, or ethnic conflict. Famine in Yemen? Houthis are blocking the port of Hodeida, and so emergency provisions cannot be landed. Earthquake recovery difficult in Pakistan? Military blocking non-government organization (NGO) access to areas in dispute with India. So the experiences of the few aid workers can reflect and amplify the experiences of the millions of those who suffer from all types of crises in silence, because they do not have the opportunity to provide witness themselves. 

I felt that it was important to understand how someone can move from crisis to crisis around the world, do her best to provide aid, communicate with her compatriots at the UN, figure out what can be done better in the future, and still be able to come home and live their lives with their families. If people with the  ability to bridge the gap between the horrors of humanitarian crises and the safety and security of their “home” lives did not exist, then humanitarian crises around the world would be worse, because aid, even if inadequate to address the enormity of the crises, would not exist. With much of the globe to cover I started off by asking, “Looking back, does any one event stand out to you?” 

This launched the interview. Over the course of our time talking, I learned how she coped with these traumatic events in a professional setting, and even more importantly, got to understand what it takes to become a witness. 

“I was deployed to different conflict crisis zones all over the world, and so in that I witnessed a lot of firsthand devastation: human, physical, environmental, and economic.” She paused and took a moment to collect her thoughts. “Nothing stands out, it [the devastation] takes on different forms. For example, the war in Liberia caused a lot of people to flee from the countryside. And so when I got to Monrovia there were  hundreds of thousands of people just sleeping in parking lots, in the stadium, in gas stations, in schools, just everywhere.” 

I had a hard time visualizing hundreds of thousands of people without homes. I thought of Stanford Stadium, filled with people sleeping everywhere, and with no food. As she continued, it became clear that the main concern was with providing food to all of these people, while not just one but two different rebel armies were advancing on Monrovia. “How did you mentally deal with this, with all the stuff that was going on?” I asked. 

“Well, my mind goes into how can I assist these people? What is a short term solution? What is a medium solution? What is the long term solution? What experts do I need to find to solve the problems: military logistics, medical, people who are distributing food to local groups.” She went on to say that over time she learned that she had to break the problems into small pieces and figure out who could tackle each piece. She said it is much easier to mentally handle the big problems, to compartmentalize and step back, so she sees the problem but not the people. But then she is back on the front lines, where the abstract becomes concrete. “I was spending time talking to these individuals, and could feel and understand the trauma of a mother who doesn’t know how she’s going to feed her kids.  It just feels really jarring.”

“In what way was it jarring, did it change you?” I prompted, eager to learn more about how this changed her.

“Well, you see whole communities living in these conditions, with no food, and we are trying to figure out how to get them even small amounts of food,” Prof. Levingston recalled, “and then I think back to home, to the high school and university cafeterias, and you know that what each kid throws out in a single meal is probably more than an entire family would have to eat in an entire day. It’s really the inequity in the world that makes the trauma hard, the difference between those who have and those who don’t.”

That made me stop and think of what I ate that day and how for me food trauma is getting hungry because I had late lunch. How much did I throw out? While I know that I couldn’t magically transfer that uneaten food to people without, I could start to understand the types of things that she was dealing with. I had to ask, “Were you depressed all the time when you were working?”

She thought about that for a long time before answering. “Well, no, otherwise it would be difficult to continue. I would see human resilience and compassion; a global community coming together to try to assist. There’s something really beautiful and motivating about that. So you’re not feeling constant despair and trauma, you’re also seeing the best of humans, people coming together for solutions and being resilient.” I thought that this was a good answer, but I wondered if that’s what she felt when she was there, or if time had tempered her thoughts, and so I asked if in the moment she thought that way. After considering my question, she said yes, but that there were specific instances that made her angry, but it was usually the uncaring responses of people who could be doing something.

She told me the story of seeing a former classmate after her first deployment to Ethiopia. He asked what she was doing, and after she told him, he said, “Do you ever think about survival of the fittest?” which got her furious, because here he was, from his position of wealth and comfort and food, talking about survival of the fittest, while Prof. Levingston  was thinking of a woman she worked with in Ethiopia, a woman who crossed a desert to get to safety, with six children, two of whom died on the way, and somehow got to the refugee shelter and survived. While her classmate, she thought, wouldn’t last more than half a day in the desert. So I realize that it is the compassion that keeps her going, and the anger isn’t necessarily directed at those who cause the suffering, but instead at those who not only don’t help, but who lack the compassion to even care.

“So,” I said, thinking about the difficulties of communicating to people who haven’t experienced or witnessed such suffering, “on the topic of global compassion, how do you convey the magnitude of the suffering to the people who weren’t there with you and hadn’t seen it?”

“That’s really the heart of the matter,” she said, as she continued to think aloud about how to communicate effectively. Some of her co-workers actually suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and there is a huge amount of burnout in the field, because the aid workers don’t want to think about what they saw, much less bear witness. Prof. Levingston said that usually when she returns from a trip and someone talks to her and asks her how it was, she says “terrible” and then switches the subject to something else, because she says that all too often it is too difficult not only to think about what really happened but to properly convey the severity and magnitude of such trauma to people who have not experienced it first-hand. Even when she was working for the UN, her reports were more factual and less descriptive, because it was too difficult to convey the magnitude of the horror. Only in retrospect does she now, as a professor working on humanitarianism, see the need to convey what she saw, and to teach her students what it was like. There is much truth when she said, “It is much more pleasant to just go to the mall with a friend than to relate the truth of what happened.” 

I thought about her statement, and about how I was learning about bearing witness. I realized that bearing witness is not just the ability to relate the facts, it is not just the ability to tell a story, it is not just the ability to connect with others. It is the ability to reach deep into yourself and to pull out memories of events so horrific that someone just wants to keep buried away; memories that can hurt just as much coming out as the body and mind hurt when they were going in. And so it takes a huge amount of courage and fortitude to become a witness and to share the horrors so that others may get just a small taste of what it must have been like. 

And so I bow my head in respect of all those who have had the inner strength to both survive and to tell their stories.




To my generation, the Cultural Revolution is the name that older generations always talk about at the dining table but we can never truly understand what it is. “I am the kind that is not suitable for politics.” As my maternal grandpa said this to me about his experience as a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, I was surprised by his optimism towards that crazy decade.

Since I was raised up by my maternal grandparents, I had heard stories about their early years including those of the Cultural Revolution.  The Cultural Revolution was a social-political movement led by Chairman Mao Zedong within the People’s Republic of China from 1966 to 1976. At the beginning of this movement, my grandpa volunteered to join a pro-Mao faction and became a Red Guard who followed Chairman Mao’s command “Bombard the headquarters,” which called for the overthrow of the corrupt bureaucracy. As the movement progressed, the situation turned worse in 1967 due to the army’s intervention which escalated the movement into a bloody campaign between the revolutionary and the conservative. Armed skirmishes broke out throughout the nation and countless peasants and students were killed or injured simply because of their allegiances. At present, the bloody campaign has been censored by the Party itself and those who experienced it avoid addressing this tragedy. I felt embarrassed when I called my grandpa for this interview. Surprisingly, my grandpa calmly accepted and insisted on being interviewed face to face. Though I was surprised by his demand, I agreed conducting the interview during the fall break. On October 16th, 2015, I interviewed my Grandpa in my dorm room. When my parents arrived at school with my grandparents on that morning, my grandma heard about the interview from my grandpa and wanted to engage as well. After me begging her not to participate, though I seemed spoiled, she accepted my proposal. Before the interview took place, I asked my roommate to leave the room and let my grandpa sit on his chair. As he seated, he took off his cap and tidied up his grey hair. Though wrinkles made his face look aged, his eyes remained young and vivacious. As we both seated, I placed my phone on the table near him and started recording.

“Grandpa, as I have told you, I will interview you about your experience during the Cultural Revolution.”

“Ok,” he replied while adjusting his sitting posture.

“The Cultural Revolution started in 1966 when Chairman Mao Zedong rallied the people, especially the students, to overthrow the corrupt bureaucracy. This catastrophe lasted for 10 years. I experienced many events and tragedies during that decade, so what event or period do you want me to tell you about specially?”

“From the time you became a Red Guard,” I responded.

“Ok, so now I know where I should start.”

He cleared his throat and started telling the story with a slow but clear voice.

My grandpa, Zonggui Zhao, was born in Harbin under Japanese-controlled Manchuria in 1943. When he was two, the Japanese surrendered and the Soviet Red Army conceded its authority in Manchuria to the communist-led Liberation Army commanded by Chairman Mao Zedong. He attended elementary school in the same year the People’s Republic of China was founded. During his 16 years’ school life, he witnessed life improving, encouraged by the victory from the front line in Korea. He was educated to become a skillful communist to help strengthen the mother nation. He became a faithful communist and was accepted to the nation’s best mathematics institute, Harbin Institute of Technology, to study advanced mathematics. Coincidentally, he skipped one year of college and graduated the year before the Cultural Revolution began. “I feel lucky that I graduated earlier, or my life would be ruined like those of my classmates,” he responded with sadness every time people asked about his college life. When Chairman Mao rallied the students to rebel, my grandpa just finished his graduation internship at the oilfield in Daqing, Heilongjiang Province. He was transferred back to Jinzhou, Liaoning Province, and worked for the research institute affiliated with the ministry of machinery and electronics industry to develop high-tech weapons for the army land force. After hearing Chairman Mao Zedong’s order to “bombard the headquarters,” those who just graduated including my grandpa gathered together and planned to “bombard” the government.

“What was your role in the faction?”

“Since I received a college education and was good at composing articles as well, I was elected to be the vice commander of the faction and my responsibility was to organize public rallies, writing denunciatory posters against the government, and most importantly, organize the daily routine of the faction.”

“Have you experienced any life-endangering situation and how did you respond?”

My grandpa paused for a moment.

“It was early 1968, the party shifted towards the far-left and chaos escalated into armed skirmishes. The military authorities were involved as well. In Jinzhou, the local military authorities chose to side with the conservatives and us, the revolutionaries, became their targets. During that period, the revolutionaries were also armed by the infantry academy which sided with us. When we had public rallies on streets, I was holding a rifle tightly and my eyes kept sweeping the surroundings because I was afraid of being attacked by the conservatives. In the middle of the year, the situation deteriorated further and the conservatives were planning on attacking our headquarters which was the commanding point of the city. When notified of their plan prior to the attack, I decided to withdraw my people from the headquarters and flee to Beijing, the capital city where no armed skirmishes took place. Though we survived, unfortunately, at least two of my colleagues who chose to stay died soon after our retreat. Even though the officials claimed they committed suicide, I suspected that they were shot by the conservatives and then hanged to pretend that they committed suicide.”

I stopped for a moment and did not know what to ask next because I have never expected my grandpa experienced such danger. The room was as silent as an empty one.

After I recovered from the shock, I decided to choose and ask questions with extra caution.

“What was the worst part of your experience?” I asked.

“It was during the Class Cleansing Movement and I was imprisoned illegally in a faction-owned prison for four months from August 17th to December 17th.”

“Why do you remember the date so precisely?”

My grandpa paused for a moment and took a slow but deep sigh.

“I was beaten by the man in charge often and was forced to do heavy labor work during the day. Life at the time seemed like hell.”

“Why did they finally free you?”

“Because after months of thorough investigation on me, they did not find any evidence that I had any ‘Three-Anti’ actions.”

“What do you mean by ‘Three-Anti’ actions?”

“‘Three-Anti’ is a campaign against corruption, waste and bureaucracy.”

My grandpa paused again for a few seconds, stared at the ground, and elaborated.

“Before I was freed, the chief secretary asked me to confess the crimes that another leading member of the faction had done and I told them absolutely nothing because he did not do anything against the party and Chairman Mao. However, by telling them nothing, I risked my chance of gaining freedom because they might keep beating me until I confessed.”

“What are the most vivid memories that stuck with you throughout your life of the Cultural Revolution?”

“During the Cultural Revolution, the evil side of mankind had been revealed directly and starkly.”

With a sigh of sadness, he continued.

“In order to avoid taking responsibility, my fellows gave up all the crimes they had committed to me.  I bore those charges instead of planting them on someone else, then I was put into a ‘Struggle-session’ that lasted for three days and nights with no rest at all.”

I could not believe what I heard and I could not imagine what my grandpa had suffered. After pausing again for a moment, I decided to end this interview by asking my grandpa the last question.

“How did your experience change you as a person?”

“It made me realize that I am the kind not designed for politics. I stayed away from any political movements and became devoted to my research.”

Before leaving for Los Angeles, my grandpa told me, “It was right to not let your grandma engage in the interview because she does not even know those experiences of mine which I shared with you.” I did not respond; instead, I prayed to God for not letting my grandma know her beloved husband’s tragic experience since it is hard to bear witness. Let it be sealed eternally.

I had been proud of my grandpa since I was a child and was glad to have this opportunity to know what he had experienced when he was my age. At the beginning, I was shocked by the atrocity he has witnessed, but my shock gradually vanished as the interview progressed and I was surprised by his strong optimism and determination during that chaotic decade. Instead of making him depressed, his experience motivated him to devote himself to his profession and achieve his great reputation in his profession. As the ancient Roman poet Horace stated, “Adversity reveals genius, fortune conceals it.” The catastrophe did not ruin my grandpa; instead, it promoted him to a great future.

Man of Higher Faith


“The trepidation, the awe of witnessing a man plummet off a skyscraper… I recall exactly what was running through my mind at this moment. But I’ll never know what was in their minds as they descended to their demise. Did they recall their sins? Any regrets? … I remember distinctly the sounds of their bodies smashing into the earth. This just isn’t something you can forget, or like make up.”

Today, Jay is a man of higher faith, but if I were to conduct this interview ten years ago, he wouldn’t be apt to talk about what he witnessed. He’d still be coping with his PTSD. He was only 21 years old when he experienced the events of 9/11 on the streets of New York City. For years after, he was tortured by the persistent and tantalizing imagery of the collapse of twin towers, as well as the suicide jumpers taking their own lives. In 2006, he moved to California to not only pursue career opportunities, but to escape from his past. He had to completely evacuate his hometown just to fix himself. There, he found solace in Christianity, where he became a devout Christian, which would aid him in his endeavors to jump the hurdle that was his PTSD. Fortunately for him, his faith seemingly cured the black shroud that would follow him around.

Jay, 35, is a successful banker. I was able to establish ties with him via my uncle, who is his lawyer. Jay has been my uncle’s client ever since he moved to California back in 2006. I conducted this interview over the telephone, as Jay is a very busy man. He chose not to reveal too much personal info about himself.  I was only able to gather that Jay has a family of three. He also preferred that I would not incriminate his real name. He told me to use the alias Jay. When I politely questioned his decision, he said, “I want there to be this sense of mystique to loom over the interview. I like the audience to conjure up images of how they think I look. I want this interview to read like a book, where you don’t know how the characters look, but you keep the image in your head about how they look.” Furthermore, I inquired whether or not I should describe his voice, because like a character in a book you don’t know how he or she sounds. He requested that I not describe his voice because leaving his voice ambiguous adds to the mystique of his presence.

I commenced the interview by asking Jay what his immediate reaction was to the event.  “I was scared shitless. Excuse my profanity. I remember being on the street and noticing how it suddenly became shady. And then – BOOM! I also recall seeing the first airplane mere seconds before it collided and disintegrated. I was with my girlfriend at the time, and neither of us could muster up the words to describe what we just saw. We cowered behind a car for fear of more attacks. And as you know, there were definitely more.”

To piggyback off his response, I asked him what were the most vivid memories that he could recall. “I saw the whole thing, you know. So I still remember most things pretty vividly. Like I’m never gonna forget the planes’ collisions into the towers. And the actual collapse of the towers, which was thunderous and deafening, is not a seamless sight to forget. But the absolute most afflicting and traumatizing event that I witnessed in the whole shtick was the suicides off the towers.”

I gently prodded him to elaborate on the jumpers. Luckily, Jay was more than happy to. “The trepidation, the awe of witnessing a man plummet off a skyscraper, is sickening to say the least. I remember it invoking feelings of nausea and insurmountable grief. I recall exactly what was running through my mind at this moment. But I’ll never know what was in their minds as they descended to their demise. Did they recall their sins? Any regrets? I don’t even know who these people were. But I was over encumbered with feelings of sadness for my fellow humans. I remember distinctly the sound of their bodies smashing into the earth. This just isn’t something you can forget, or, like, make up.”

What I found most interesting in his last response was that Jay questioned the jumpers about their sins. Upon first talking with Jay, he didn’t strike me as the type to be religious. So I asked him to talk about the tidbit about the sins. “Well, I’m a deeply religious man. I haven’t always been, but for the past nine years I have been a devout Catholic. I want to believe that each of those jumpers are up there with God right now, but it also begs the question as to whether or not these jumpers confessed their sins.” I pushed further by inquiring about his faith. Specifically, how he found his faith. He obliged. “For years after 9/11, I was struggling with major PTSD. My life was falling apart, as I turned to my personal demons to cope with the PTSD. After college, in 2006 I moved here to pursue not only work, but also a new beginning. One of my colleagues at the first bank I worked at introduced me to his church and I fell in love with it. My faith has really helped me overcome the PTSD induced from that horrific event.”

I find it fascinating and ironic how Jay found faith and guidance in the most liberal area of the United States. Here in California, most liberals associate Christianity with violence and corruption as history has proven. But in the standout case of Jay, one man found peace with his inner self from a religion with a bloody timeline. Even if you self-identify as an atheist, you have to respect him.

Moving on from the last series of questions, I questioned where Jay saw himself in the future at the time of 9/11. “Certainly not in California talking with a high school student over the phone about my experiences at 10:30 p.m. Like I said before, I turned to many of my personal demons to try to alleviate the PTSD. I was smoking, drinking, and bingeing on foods. I wasn’t worried about my future, and any motivations for success were killed off. But going along the road that I was taking, I’m not sure if I’d even be alive to tell you this.”

We both got a good chuckle out of his first sentence. I continued the interview by asking him if 9/11 changed the way he viewed members or organizations involved in the event. “I mean, at the time I think everybody was xenophobic to Arabs. I hate to admit it, but I was too. But in my defense, we were scared of the unknown. We had never been attacked on American soil up until that point. We had no idea if there would be a full-fledged invasion by the terrorists. Obviously now, I’m a changed man. My faith eliminated that fear factor and animosity towards Arab entities. And I think most people have moved on from that

Islam phobia. We as a society have embraced cultural sensitivity. It isn’t politically correct to have fear towards a Muslim.”

My penultimate and perhaps most challenging question entailed asking him if he thinks that witnessing this travesty has benefitted him. Jay went a little silent at first, perhaps contemplating his response. He responded with, “I think that’s a difficult question to answer. The events of 9/11 lead to the darkest and most recessive point in my life. And I will never forget that imagery of people falling out of buildings and buildings collapsing. So to say that I benefitted from that event, I’d have to say no. But I think for what it’s worth, I’ve benefitted with how I eventually coped after the event. Finding Christianity has led to the most expansionary period of my life. I’ve abandoned my personal demons, I met my wife at my church, and my son will be graduating kindergarten in May next year. I’m doing well for myself right now, and luckily I don’t think about 9/11 and obsess over it.”

I solicited my final question to Jay, which involved asking him if there is anything that he wishes he could tell his past self to mitigate the shock value of witnessing the events of 9/11. He simply replied with, “Just find God’s light.” I politely asked him to elaborate, but he wouldn’t budge. “I think it speaks for itself. If I found Christ earlier in my life, I wouldn’t have had to been setback by the PTSD. Simple as that.”

I thanked Jay for his time and apologized for taking so much time out of his night. It was 10:30 p.m. when I conducted the interview. It took an hour and a half to finish up. Thankfully, Jay thought nothing of it and claimed that he had enjoyed the talk.

It is absolutely crucial for every single American to never forget the events of September 11th. It can’t be forgotten because something of that ilk can easily happen again. And we must recognize the witnesses of this event, and not dismiss their stories because what they have to say is just as important as what those who died on 9/11 couldn’t say. This meant a lot to Jay because he was directly afflicted with the aftermath as he had sunk to new lows. But thankfully for him he found Jehovah in the darkest places of his life, and he bounced into a boom period. For those that read this interview, they could enrich their understanding of witness literature, and maybe even gain inspiration from Jay’s story. Truth is utterly subjective. Jay’s story reveals that everyone experiences things differently. Jay mentioned that he witnessed the event with his girlfriend at the time. He never exactly told me what his girlfriend’s emotions and reactions were to what was going on. And in light of Jay’s situation, it is important that we approach witnesses of horrific events with the utmost sensitivity. Because as we know, there was a massive PTSD factor in Jay’s story. There is quantifiable value in this testimony, as any one of us can one day become a witness. And any one of us can find God’s light if need be. Jay’s testimony grants every witness an option to overcome his or her obstacles.

A Daughter’s Revelation


“It became very messy. They had the higher ground and they had heavy artillery. They were shelling the city. There were snipers everywhere; they would shoot at ambulances. People couldn’t walk in the street without fear of being shot in the head.” My dad was very calm when he said this. I, however, was not. Internally I couldn’t help the twinge of fear and regret I felt for my dad as he recounted all the horrors he experienced as a Canadian UN peacekeeper is Bosnia Herzegovina.

It was October 10th when I finally conducted the interview. My dad suggested that we do it after dinner. I quickly agreed. He’s usually rather talkative after dinner, perhaps because he has usually consumed a glass or two of wine by then. Night had fallen when my dad finally walked into my room after dinner. He sat in my leather chair that tends to squeak if moved the wrong way, that I have in front of my glass desk. I sat on my double sized bed and faced him. I had wrapped myself in my duvet and set my laptop on my lap. I couldn’t help but wonder how this was going to play out. I knew that this was a difficult subject and that I needed to conduct an in-depth interview, but I was concerned because of my dad’s tendency to keep a lot of things to himself.

When the interview project was first introduced to us, I immediately knew who I was going to interview. I was going to interview Sidney de Fort-Menares the man who had been in both the Canadian and the Chilean army. That was the extent of my knowledge when it came to my dad’s history as a soldier. The only thing I knew was that he had been in two different armies. I saw the interview project as an opportunity to learn more about my dad’s past. My dad is a rugged looking man, a couple inches shorter than six feet tall. He has a beard that connects with a trimmed moustache. He has blackish brown hair that is littered with white. He has an interesting personality as he is very closed off and likes to be in control. He also has this tough-guy persona and is very set in his views, but he is a good dad, even though he and I are very different. I wanted to use the interview as a way of seeing and understanding another side of my dad. He never talks about his time in the army. The fact that he never talks about it, along with his sometimes difficult personality, made me wonder if he would take this seriously. I had my doubts, but those faded as soon as I asked my first question.

“Overall, is this a difficult subject to talk about for you?” I asked.

“It’s always a difficult subject to talk about, because you see a lot of terrible things. People die. That’s what combat is all about. People die, people that you know die … That’s a very sad looking plant.” As he said all this he hadn’t looked me in the eye once. He was looking at the orchid on my desk. The flowers were brown and crinkled, and he seemed to use it as an opportunity to steer away from the topic. I could already see that my dad isn’t as unaffected by his time as a soldier as I originally thought.

“Yeah, it died last week; it was really sad,” I responded. He quickly asked me to continue, perhaps not wanting to dwell on this for too long.

“Why did you join the military?”

He sighed as he responded, “Because my father was in the military, and my grandfather, and my great-grandfather, and my great-great-grandfather, we’ve always been in the military.”

“But did you want to join the military?” This is a question I asked for myself, because my dad had always seemed so tough and strong and was always so gung-ho about being in the military. I couldn’t help but question if that’s what he really wanted.

“I… when I was a young lad, I did not think I had a choice. I mean, it was expected of me.” I was shocked. I truly thought that he had joined the military out of complete desire. Perhaps I should have known; my dad was always a very bookish guy.

I continued by asking a very open-ended question, “What was your war experience?”

“In 1992 in what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina, I was in the Canadian army with the United Nations. I was a captain, Queen’s York Rangers, 1st American Regiment. It was raised to fight the rebels to God, king, and to country back during what the Americans call the American Revolution. We call it the American Rebellion.” I couldn’t help but smile and roll my eyes a little. There’s the dad I knew. Strong and very upfront about his beliefs, these are the kind of responses I was expecting when asking these serious questions.

He continued on giving me background on the conflict, “At one time there were around 30,000 people there. They were from many different countries. I was sent to a town called Sarajevo, which was the capital of Bosnia. I don’t know if you know this, but there was a country called Yugoslavia, the socialist republic of Yugoslavia which fell apart in the early 1990s. It was basically made up of several different small countries. It was a federation. There was the Croats and the Slovenians who were mainly Roman Catholic, there was the Serbs who were Orthodox, and there was the Bosnians that was divided into like three different groups: Catholics, Orthodox, and Muslims. There was Montenegro which was also mainly Muslim, but not completely; there was also Christians. And Macedonia which was mainly Orthodox.

“It was a mess. It became almost like a tribal war. The people were all mixed in. All of them were so mixed and they all had their own histories. The reason why they kind of got all mixed up was because they were invaded by the Turks in the 1450s, and it was part of the Ottoman empire for a long time. So when things fell apart and the government started to fall apart, all these people wanted to have as much land as possible, in what they considered to be their ancient lands. And they started killing each other and that’s why the United Nations eventually had to go in.

“At one time there were more than 1,200 Canadians. But we were split up all over the place. Most of us were in Croatia; some were in Bosnia. My job was coordinating. I had very few men under me. And the old part of the city was mainly held by Muslims, while the newer suburbs, across the river, were held by Serbian Orthodox. And it became very messy. They had the higher ground and they had heavy artillery. They were shelling the city. There was snipers everywhere; they would shoot at ambulances. People could not walk in the street without fear of being shot in the head…it was a mess.”

A shadowy look seemed to come over his face as he thought hard about what had happened. He continued recounting, “There were terrible things that happened there. You know, there was very little food, most of the things weren’t running, the hospitals were totally destroyed and overwhelmed. And, you know I remember one time, one of the few places that people could get food was an open-air market in the old part of town. I think it was a Sunday or something, you know, the Serbs shot a 120 mm mortar shell into it, a high explosive, and about 80 people died in the market. All women and children, pieces of bodies all over the place, you know, it was…a lot of civilians were being killed. This was not just two armies fighting against each other.”

I didn’t even have to ask my question regarding a vivid memory. I could tell that this for him was very vivid and very hard to talk about. He wouldn’t meet my eyes. He seemed to grasp is hands a little tighter. And I couldn’t help but widen my eyes in shock as he recounted the things that he saw. I wonder what he felt in those very moments when he saw the aftermath of that explosion. Even though I could tell this was hard for him to talk about, he still remained very calm as he continued narrating his experiences. I guess I didn’t really expect any less.

“They were burning down houses. If you were a Croat in a Serb area, they would burn down your house. If you were a Serb in a Croat area they would butcher your cattle and burn down your barn. You know, they were trying to move people by forcing them out of different areas.”

He impatiently asked, “What else?”

“Regarding the marketplace, were you there?”

“No, I got there afterwards. I probably wouldn’t be here if I had been there, Gigi,” he responded smartly. “I had to investigate what kind of weapon was used, how many people were killed, many, many, many of them were just families. They were all women that had been lining up for hours to get bread, bread and vegetables. We were also under constant fire. It was very difficult getting around the city. And the Frenchies got into real trouble, and we had to go and help them, at a bridge that crossed that river. The Serbs tried to sneak in using United Nations uniforms.”

“So, you said that you were coordinating? As in you were coordinating attacks?”

“No, we were trying to coordinate flights into the airport for food and stuff like that. Getting people out and trying to keep the peace basically. But, there really was no peace, because the Serbs were really intent on taking over Sarajevo. It was the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. And basically what I did was I counted battery fire, making sure they didn’t cross the river.”

“Do you feel like this experience left a lasting emotional effect on you?”

“Not, not really. I think that it taught me how ineffectual the United Nations can be. But then again I had served before with the United Nations, at the border between Israel and Lebanon, but I was there for a very short time.”

I couldn’t help but be surprised and admittedly unsatisfied by his response. Obviously, I don’t want my dad to feel emotional pain or grief. And I certainly wish he hadn’t seen the things he had seen. But I just didn’t want him to hold back for my sake, so I pressed on.

“So when you came back do you think that your life changed at all after seeing all that?”

“No, I’ve seen worse.”
I quickly asked if he could elaborate.
“I’ve seen worse in Africa. I’ve seen people hacked to death. Burned alive.”

He still seemed to avoid the deep emotional content that I was searching for. I was searching for a more emotional response after he revealed the more gruesome details of his experience. I don’t want to say that I was frustrated. But I couldn’t help but wonder if he would reveal more if someone else was interviewing him.

“Did that leave an emotional impact on you?”

“Never turn your back on people you don’t know,” he said almost hauntingly.

“Can you elaborate?”

“Uh, it teaches you not to trust humanity, Gigi. War either makes you stronger, or it breaks you, or kills you, one or the other. Do I worry about it? No. Do I wake up sometimes dreaming about it? Yes. I never suffered from anything like PTSD. I get nightmares about it.”

“Do you have —”

He interrupted me as he seemed to realize what I was searching for, “Well you know, there are things that I do that most people probably don’t, right? Well, when I walk outside, I always look at the rooflines.”

“Is that why you always sit facing the windows in restaurants?” I asked quietly.

“Yes, I like to have my back against the wall.”
He finally started talking about how witnessing these experiences affected his life. This is what I was searching for. I wanted him to share with me his emotional experience. Because it is those experiences that are the ones that witnesses do not want to forget.

“Do you have any regrets, or did you ever feel like giving up?”

“I never felt like giving up! We’re de Fort-Menares, for God’s sake, we don’t give up.” I smiled at that, as he said it with so much pride and his typical bravado.

“Do I have any regrets? Uh, I regret things that could have been done better. We had…I don’t know how many Canadians died over there. But I think we lost around 24 people. I knew a couple of them, yes. It was a land mine. They weren’t shot or anything, just their vehicle was blown up…I was attached to the Canadian unit, because my regiment was not there.”

“Is there anything that was really motivating you to keep going?”

“ The idea that I was getting paid, both by the Royal Bank and the Canadian government,” he said with a smirk on his face.

I groaned and laughed a little. I was hoping he was going to say my mom or the idea that he might start a family someday… .

“I was making extra money,” he said defensively.

“Anything else that may have been motivating you?”
This was my final question, so I was searching for something final. Something that would really encompass my dad’s experience.

“No, they told me where to go and I went. No soldier has ever tried to save the world, Gigi. Most soldiers just want to save themselves,” he laughed bitterly. “It’s not something that we’re, you know, I don’t think that most people that come from the middle of Alberta would know where the hell Bosnia Herzegovina was. But that’s where they ended up.”

Our interview ended with that. I feel like during that whole process I was searching for something. I was searching for more emotion. I didn’t want him to hold back. I knew that he did, because he’s still trying to protect me. Because that’s what dads do. Honestly, I was beginning to think that he wasn’t affected at all by the experiences he was recounting. He talked about everything in a very calm voice. There were times when he paused or didn’t look at me, and those were the only signs that gave him away.

Perhaps it was bit naive of me. But my dad has always seemed so unfazed and proud of his work as a solider. My dad’s my hero, so I’ve always seen him as somewhat invincible. But the little signs that he gave me throughout the interview revealed to me that he isn’t unfazed by what he has seen. For the majority of the interview, he wouldn’t look me in the eye. He never looked down though. He is a man of pride after all. He would also tighten his hands ever so slightly, and there was the tiniest difference in his voice that indicated stoicism and pain. But I think that overall, he’s just trying to not show weakness. This is very characteristic of him. It’s a part of who he is. This is why he was reluctant to talk about his time as a solider in the first place. And even though he didn’t burst out into tears, through little signs, I became aware of his true feelings. My invincible father wasn’t as invincible as I originally thought. And I see him as all the more stronger now that he’s shared what he’s been through with me.

Learning about my father’s experience in Bosnia Herzegovina was very interesting and emotional. This interview allowed me to hear my father’s story. It allowed me to hear a deep and personal account of a witness firsthand. And because this witness happened to be my father, I think it left a greater impact on me. The witness wasn’t just a faceless name in a book. The witness was my father. He bore witness to the atrocities of war and will forever carry that burden. And because my dad is who he is, he will insist on always carrying that burden alone. I am thankful that he opened up to me, and by doing so he has made me a witness; I hope that making me a witness alleviated some of the burden that he carries.


The Firestorm


Imagine your entire town suddenly bursting into an inferno in the middle of the night with many people running around and screaming because their bodies were engulfed in flame. That is exactly what happened when the United States firebombed Tokyo, Japan, at the end of World War II. They called it “Operation Meetinghouse,” and it was later estimated by some to be the single most destructive bombing raid in history due to the number of casualties and the huge damage caused. To make matters worse, the bombs were incendiary napalm bombs, which were intentionally designed to cause the Japanese houses, which were mainly made of wood and paper, to burst into flames. In the Tokyo Firebombing, it is estimated that well over 100,000 Japanese civilians, including women, children, and elders, were killed in the firestorm, and very many more were suddenly made homeless.

My Japanese maternal grandmother, Michiko Mizumura, is currently 82 years old and has lived in Tokyo for all of her life. I call her “Baaba,” which is a casual and friendly term that basically means “Grandma.” Due to her life-long residency in Tokyo, Baaba is a living witness to the events surrounding the Tokyo Firebombing, which occurred in March of 1945. After explaining my wish to interview her about the firebombing, Baaba agreed to share her memories with me.

Since Baaba lives in Japan and I live in California, we had to conduct this interview by telephone. Baaba speaks very little English, but fortunately, my Japanese is sufficient enough to understand and respond in conversations. My mother was also in the room to help with any communication difficulties. On the other side of the phone, I pictured Baaba sitting on a couch in the living room with the phone to her ear.

Initially, I began by generally asking Baaba to recall her life in Japan during the end of World War II. Baaba thought back and told me, “I was a young teenager, 12 years old, at the time of the Tokyo Firebombing. I lived with my family in the Ome region of Tokyo at the time of World War II. We had a large family with eight children, and my father’s family owned property with a large house and surrounding land for growing vegetables and fruits.”

I asked Baaba whether she had any family members that were part of the Japanese military. Baaba answered, “My older brother was in the Japanese military serving domestically within Japan during the last part of the war. He was not physically injured during the War, and he came back home soon because the war ended.”

I then asked Baaba to explain what she personally saw during the period of the bombings. Baaba recalled, “I saw many huge planes flying through the sky past our home on their flight route to target the main downtown Tokyo area. Also, I heard the sounds of many bombs, which were the oil-type that are designed just to start fires and burn wooden houses. I also saw bigger bombs designed to destroy taller buildings dropping from the planes in the far distance. I saw the flames over the train station area in our local town of Ome, Tokyo. Fortunately, our town was on the western edge of Tokyo, away from downtown, so the U.S. bombers didn’t attack our area as strongly as the downtown area.” For me, to think of this was horrifying. To have to hear the constant sounds of planes overhead and bombs exploding on a regular basis must have been terrifying.

Next, after I had asked her what she had seen, I asked Baaba to explain what she personally heard during the period of the bombings. Baaba recalled, “I often heard air-raid sirens and bombing sounds coming from off in the distance. Whenever we heard the air-raid sirens, we used to turn off all of the neighborhood lights and hide underground in a bomb shelter that we had built.” Again, because these air-raid sirens and bombing sounds were so constant, civilians had to be frequently prepared for the worst to happen.

Baaba and I then talked about her feelings during the time of the bombing attacks. Baaba simply said, “I was so very terrified. That is all. I wished the war would just finish soon. I guess that we were aware that Japan was eventually going to lose the war with America.” Her loss of words had startled me. And also, the fact that she had to live in fear of the Americans when she knew Japan was going to lose must have been very nerve-racking and hectic.

Baaba and I also talked about the aftermath of the bombing attacks. I was interested to learn that her family had taken care of refugees fleeing this disaster. Baaba recalled, “We accepted three families of refugees from the bombed-out area in Tokyo because I was from a well-off landowner’s family living a larger house. The children from the refugees then attended the local school with me. The refugee children were usually quite good at school. I remember that one father was commuting to downtown Tokyo by train every day for work. Mothers were trading their clothes for food, such as potatoes and yams, just to survive. When I think back now, I feel like crying just to think about the lives of these poor refugees.” When I had learned that she had housed families of refugees, this changed my view of her. I knew that Baaba was a kind-hearted woman, but to house strangers in need of help with scarce resources is so compassionate and humane.

I asked Baaba whether she wished that more people were aware of the devastation and suffering caused by the Tokyo Firebombing. Baaba didn’t directly answer my question, but instead said, “The Tokyo Firebombings were so destructive that the whole area of Eastern Tokyo became totally burned-out and flat except for the Imperial Palace. The surroundings of the Palace were not bombed. The Tokyo Firebombing was a major World War II event in Japan, similar in destruction level to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

Baaba and I talked about how the firebombings affected the Japanese people’s view of America and Americans. Baaba told me, “I saw America as an enemy at that time because of the ongoing war between the U.S. and Japan, but especially after the Tokyo Firebombings. That’s the way everyone in Japan thought at the time.”

My final question for Baaba was whether she has been able to forgive America for the suffering and tragedy endured by the civilian victims of the Tokyo Firebombings. Baaba ended our interview on a positive note and said, “When World War II ended, Japan had lost. We actually appreciated that the U.S. supported Japan very well after the total disaster of the war. I think that almost all Japanese think as I do. I feel friendly to Americans.” Luckily, Baaba does not have any feeling of resentment towards Americans at this time. However, although it is difficult to accept, some Japanese people still have a grudge against Americans for what they did.

Most Americans are familiar with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, it seems that fewer Americans have heard of the Tokyo Firebombings. For example, my father, who is fairly knowledgeable about international historical events, said that he was unaware of the horrors of “Operation Meetinghouse” until I researched this topic for my interview. This lack of awareness is surprising since approximately the same number of civilians was killed in the Tokyo Firebombings as in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

Many people question the morality of randomly attacking innocent civilians to achieve a military objective. Of course, Japan was not completely innocent, either. However, there were many casualties and tragedies on both sides, and it is therefore important to document the testimony of an actual witness to the Tokyo Firebombing, so that future generations of Americans, Japanese, and people of other nations, can learn from the tragic mistakes made in World War II, and hopefully avoid making these same mistakes again in the future.