Penpal

Content warning: This post includes a graphic description of reprisal violence.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the penpal a friend of mine had in high school. A number of us had penpals for a few years; this was right at the brink of the moment that the Internet exploded and the idea of a penpal became not just quaint, but anachronistic. I can’t remember which organisation we connected with our penpals through. I do remember that mine, Tashi, was from Tibet, and we stayed in contact until I was in college.

My friend’s penpal was from Sierra Leone. I’ve forgotten his name. He wrote now and then, mostly about life in Sierra Leone, and occasionally about the things he wanted to do later in life. And then, one day, he sent her a very peculiar letter. She brought it to school and she said ‘I don’t really know what to do with this,’ and I don’t blame her.

The letter was fairly casual and matter of fact, talking about various things that had happened in his village, and then he mentioned that a militia gang had gone through the village and one of the things they did was cut his sister’s hands off because they thought that his family was helping another gang. This sort of thing is, in point of fact, not uncommon, and in fact I’m sure we had talked about similar reprisal actions in class not that long ago. It’s just that there is a huge difference between reading about something in class and seeing it in a letter from someone you know, you know?

This letter also included a packet of photos. His family house, village scenes. Cattle. And then, a picture of a young woman lying on dirt and straw, clearly in agonizing pain, stumps on the ends of her arms wrapped in filthy bandages. A hand. Lying next to her. ‘My sister,’ the back of the photograph said.

I think he sent her that picture for a reason. Not just because she was his penpal or because he thought that she wouldn’t believe him, but because he wanted that picture to get out. To circulate. He wanted some high school students in a small town in Northern California to be enraged and horrified, to talk about that picture in class. He wanted us to send angry letters. And we did all of those things. This is true.

She never heard back from her penpal. She wrote him a few more times, and then gave up. I don’t know what happened to him, or his family. If they lived or died, if the militia came back and killed them. I don’t know. And it troubles me. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I remember his neat handwriting on that thin ruled paper and that photograph.

One of the things about the Internet is that it allows us to instantly share things like this. I have seen people uploading images and video in the immediate wake of catastrophes, attacks by militias, acts of violence. I’ve read writings from people in places far away talking about terrible things that happen. And, like my friend’s penpal, the goal of such acts of sharing is to raise awareness. To speak. And, in turn, to ask that people not remain silent and that they take action.

But none of these things affect me quite as much as that picture.

I thought about the effort which must have been involved. He had to find a camera to take those pictures; I suspect that he probably borrowed the camera and shot the roll in a day and that day happened to be the day that the militia came. And then he had to get that film developed. He had to pay extra postage to make sure that the letter would reach the United States. He had to wait, and hope that the letter arrived. And maybe he never found out that the letter did arrive and it was read and the picture was seen. I have no way of knowing, because it’s like he dropped off the face of the earth.

That photograph felt like an intensely personal connection to me. I looked at it and handled it and felt like I had been jolted with electricity. I could not forget it. I have seen some pretty terrible things online, indeed, I have probably seen worse things, and I have also seen some truly horrific things in person, but it’s that picture which lingers with me. I can close my eyes and visualize it. The exact shade of the dirt floor, the shadows, the red plaid in the corner of the image which I think was probably his sleeve.

I love that the Internet allows us to publicize these things. That we can shame the people who commit such horrific acts, that we can draw attention to them, that we can make it clear that the international community is watching. I wish that we didn’t have to do these things, that people could treat each other with decency without needing to be reminded that people are watching them. And it troubles me, sometimes, to see images in which it is clear that the people depicted lacked the capacity to consent to having those images distributed.

It disturbs me because I think that people should have a choice. I don’t know if his sister chose to allow that image to be included or could really have exercised choice about whether or not it was even taken. And that bothers me. For those who are willing to have these incredibly vulnerable and terrifying images of some of the worst moments in their lives distributed and shared because they think it’s beneficial for a greater cause, that’s one thing. But I wonder, sometimes; the images of people I have seen, how they would feel, knowing that I looked at them.