The Day of Atonement

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Africa » Guinea » Labé
September 28th 2009
Published: September 30th 2009
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I wake up at 7:30. I rush out of bed. I have to meet someone at 8. I quickly get dressed and run up to the roof of the Peace Corps office. I begin praying the morning service of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. The guard tells me later it's the first time he's ever seen a volunteer pray. I sneak glances into the courtyards of my neighbors. Women are getting water from wells. Men are in front of their houses brushing their teeth. Everything is quiet. Everything is calm.

A little after 8, my friend and I head into the heart of Labé. We're running some errands before our conference starts the next day. The market women have already laid out their goods, awaiting customers. Men are unlocking their shops. A motorcycle goes by here and there. Labé is waking up.

400 kilometers away, these daily routines are not being observed. It's September 28. 51 years ago today, Guinea defied France and chose to become independent. The people of Conakry have chosen today to demonstrate. Today they will march in the streets to show the entire world that they want change.

I head back to the office and steal envious glances at the other volunteers eating breakfast. I'm fasting. Ramadan ended just last week and after three weeks of fasting every day, Yom Kippur doesn't seem like that big of a deal.

I hang out and do some laundry. Eventually the other volunteers leave to go shopping and eat lunch. I'm alone now at the office. I'll be here for the rest of the day, waiting for the conference participants to show up and register. All I really want to do is take a nap.

By 11 AM, 50,000 people have gathered in a stadium. Among them, there are the leaders of the major political parties. From here, they will march together and demand that the military not participate in the upcoming elections.

However, their meeting hasn't gone unnoticed. Just last night, the government denied the group the right to assemble. So, shortly, a military presence begins to make itself known. They surround the stadium. A group of soldiers enters. Shots are fired. Not in the air, but into the crowd.

The first news report declares 10 dead, dozens injured.

More volunteers and some conference participants show up. The volunteers start planning for dinner. Ten brand new volunteers are with us so we want to have a nice meal for them. I'm told I don't have to cook, or do anything for that matter because I'm fasting. They'll save a plate for me if they're done before I'm allowed to eat.

I call my friend in Conakry. She says the military is combing the streets of the neighborhoods looking for demonstrations. She's heard four people have been killed.

The news changes tone. Now 30 people are reported dead.

Then it's released that the leaders of the political parties have been targeted. One has five broken ribs, another has a broken wrist. It's unclear whether they were just beaten up or shot at.

57 are reported dead.

The military makes an announcement saying all bodies should be brought to the military barracks, not sent to the hospitals.

The hospitals say the death toll is now at least 80.

The electricity has come on. This greatly facilitates the cooking effort.

The old Peace Corps safety and security officer comes and talks to us. He updates us on everything he knows. He tells us we shouldn't go to Conakry unless we have a good reason (read: medical emergency.) Otherwise our schedule is going on as planned. Tomorrow the new volunteers will be installed into their villages. And the conference isn't being cancelled.

With the electricity, the internet is turned on, so we begin taking turns checking our email on the one computer in the office.

RFI reports 87 are thought dead. At the end of the article they write that women have been "stripped and humiliated." This is later clarified as meaning that women were raped by the guns of the military.

By morning, 130 Guineans will be confirmed dead.

Sunset. Yom Kippur is finally over. I slowly drink water and eat my meal over the next hour, knowing that I'll get sick if I move at a faster pace.

Now that I'm not worrying about my stomach, I can't help but to try to understand the events of the day. What has happened? How could anyone let this occur? What's going to happen tomorrow?

For the past ten days, I've started each day asking for forgiveness. Repeating: " when we are tempted to suppress the voice on conscience, to call evil good and good evil." I can't help but think of this now in attempt to rationalize this violence. But my refrain for forgiveness has changed. Now, I've made sure not to forget the sins of complicity and silence. My job forbids me from making public statements on the political events of Guinea. I'm expecting a note that even this needs to be taken offline. This is all for my safety of course. But something needs to be said. Silence is never the appropriate response. Since I'm not allowed to speak, I'll borrow the words of another:

The young soldiers do not speak.

Nevertheless, they are heard in the still houses; who has not heard them?

They have a silence that speaks for them at night and when the clock counts.

They say: We are young. We have died. Remember us.

They say: We have done what we could but until it is finished it is not done.

They say: We have given our lives but until it is finished no one can know what our lives gave.

They say: Our deaths are not ours; they are yours; they will mean what you make them.

They say: Whether our lives and our deaths are for peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say; it is you who must say this.

They say: We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning.

We were young, they say. We have died. Remember us.

-Archibald MacLeish


9th June 2010

Hello Samantha
Hi Samantha, You know i am of the old school and find it so hard to follow-up with all these new programs. Anyway, today i find myself reading some of your blogs. They are quite interesting. I should have tried this long ago, but as the saying goes, better late than never. I hope to continue reading all the blogs i can get to. I just finished Andrew's. Bonne Chance!! Yvonne

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