Joy in the Midst of Trauma

by tuftsigl
Aug 01

Sabrina Ghaus is an International Relations major (A14) 


In the midst of trauma, poverty, and conflict aftermath, there is still a space for joy. Sometimes, I’ve realized, it just takes the right questions and a little love to discover.


I’m currently conducting an oral history project in Bangladesh, interviewing women who work in rehabilitation for survivors of sexual violence in conflict. In the process, of course, I’ve also met many of the survivors themselves.


For one interview I visited SUMS, an organization for survivors of sexual violence in the small town of Sirajganj, located on the banks of the Jamuna River. Twenty one women who survived rape and torture during the 1971 Bangladesh war for independence depend in part on the financial and emotional support provided by SUMS. When my translator and I walked through the doors of the building, we were greeted by the organization’s head, Safina Lohani, and fourteen survivors. Over the course of the next three hours, one woman after another would approach us, telling us – sometimes in graphic detail – what they had undergone in 1971.


I wasn’t there to interview them, but I ended up listening to their stories anyway. They called me their daughter, and in the humid heat of the morning they would lean in for hugs, touching my face, and I would stroke their hair.


Many people come to interview these women in Sirajganj, and the women have also marched in Dhaka’s Shahbag Square to demand harsher sentences for the perpetrators of civilian killings and rapes during the 1971 war. It seemed that they constantly wanted to tell me about the horrors of war, until at one point I started to ask about their childhoods, their faith, their sisterhood. That, I think, surprised many who thought I was only there to record their misery – and something in the air changed.


People started to laugh. These elderly women in their sixties and seventies told me about blindfold games, reaching over to cover my eyes. One got up from her chair and hopped about, demonstrating a game that resembled hopscotch. Another danced and sang kithoon, a type of Hindu religious song. Another told me about her little grandson, cradling her arms and smiling. They got up and hugged SUMS staff members, and I saw something that the head of SUMS, Safina Lohani, described to me during our interview.


“I have taken them inside my heart, and they have taken me inside theirs.”


It is true that all of the survivors supported by SUMS still live in awful poverty, and many still endure trauma from their experience during and after the war. Safina Lohani, herself, fought in the war with her husband. The place is damp with lingering sadness and ongoing hardship. But as a researcher, a historian, and a human being, I realized that none of us can be reduced to only our sorrows, that joy survives in the darkness, and that to acknowledge joy’s existence is imperative if we are to treat each other with compassion and dignity.


Thank you so much Sabrina, I had chills the whole time I was reading your piece. What you express gives me hope. I really think you're writing about this in the best way possible. To the persistence of joy!