A talk on torture and civilisation by Helen Bamber, followed by a drinks reception, seemed too good to miss. I didn’t go along just for the free wine, although that’s always a bonus, but because Helen Bamber is one of those people who has been around for some time and whose insight and experience are worth their weight in gold. The older I get, the more I realise that us younger folk (among whose number I still count myself), are missing a trick by being so quick to speak and so slow to listen to those who, humbled by lives of service and self-sacrifice, have so much wisdom to impart.
At 86 (not that you’d think it), Helen Bamber has spent her life as a psychotherapist working with survivors of torture. She began as a twenty year old who went to Belsen to care for holocaust victims, then moved on to work with Auschwitz orphans in the UK, got involved in the early days of Amnesty International and went on to pioneer a couple of different organisations which stand alongside people who have been through some truly horrific things. I came prepared to listen, to learn, and to be inspired by someone who, although she dismisses the word ‘extraordinary’ on the grounds that it lets people off the hook from pursuing difficult courses of action, is, nevertheless, bound to inspire.
Reflecting on this daunting-sounding career, albeit normal for her, she wanted to draw attention to two lessons of enduring relevance. Firstly, the need to bear witness. Remembering Belsen and her helplessness in the face of carnage, she spoke of a woman lying on the ground, like a scrap of material in the wind, who clung on to her and threw up her story like vomit. ‘I cannot bring back the dead, or change history,’ said Helen as she held onto this woman whose end was soon to come, ‘but I will be your witness and your story will be told.’ This led to a commitment to speak out in the face of denial and deaf ears, to not be a bystander or one who passes by but to be one who testifies.
The second lesson was how quickly compassion is born and dies. Survivors flocked to Belsen – to find family, to find solutions – and many stayed. By the time the camp closed in 1951, a whole six years after the war ended, its residents had ceased to be ‘victims’ and had, instead, been re-labelled ‘displaced people’. Subtle semantics, maybe, but a lesson to bear in mind as we consider the names we bestow upon those who are not wanted. ‘Asylum seeker’, along with the pejorative adjectives which often qualify that term, would be today’s obvious example.
During the question time, someone asked if there was ever really any hope, given that cruelty and torture persist in spite of all the legislation and humanitarian interventions. Is there any way of dealing with the fact that alongside people’s capacity for repair and compassion there persists the possibility of cruelty and the ability to inflict suffering on others? She explicitly dismissed the notion of human nature, arguing instead that it’s about politics, power and control. The required response is to save individuals and to put pressure on governments, an argument she made forcefully while also exhorting her listeners to think about what part they could play in this process. But, she suggested, we also need to understand our own desires for control and power; to look first of all at ourselves.
This was sounding remarkably like human nature, which she must have realised because she reiterated again a political solution. I take my hat off to a woman who is still fighting the powers that be and who isn’t prepared to stand by and keep silent. She models so much of what I aspire to in terms of plugging away at both the local and structural levels; a woman who has a big, strategic and sustainable vision yet who continues to see people as people and makes time to listen to their silences.
Yes, I admire and aspire to this kind of compassion, commitment and self-sacrifice which infuses the world with something new and transformative. But, at the same time, I look around at some humanitarian workers whose questions had pointed to a sense of hardening and disillusionment, of hopelessness and despair at the overwhelming injustices occurring under the sun. Bizarrely enough, as I left the event, it was the words of another 86 year old which came to mind; words from last year’s Christmas Speech which also sought out hope in adversity:
‘… although we are capable of great acts of kindness, history teaches us that we sometimes need saving from ourselves…’