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Why I Go
Not long ago, you posed a question of me which I had been both dreading and expecting. You are only six years old, so the details of that query may be lost to you but I'm sure the emotional response lingers--as does my guilt.
I was preparing for a particularly grueling journey to the Democratic Republic of Congo to report on war-related rape. The word "grueling" is appropriate because the physical and emotional drain were going to be great, and I knew I really wasn't up to the task. How could I tell you, Mariella, that several hundred thousand Congolese women and girls have been sexually assaulted since this civil war began. Fifty a week in some communities. These numbers would seem as distant to you as Africa herself. They would do little to answer the questioning plea of a daughter asking her father, "Daddy, who do you go? Why do you leave me?"
I have written and re-written this letter since the day you were born because I knew that your arrival would change my world. Knowing that you are at home waiting for me, I'm sobered each time I board an airplane bound for a war zone. As someone drawn to crisis, I constantly face compromises over how long to stay in a dangerous place, what degree of personal risks are acceptable. Years before you were born, when I began this life journey to shine light on the invisible, the silent, the broken, there were two promises I made to myself. First, I would never knowingly do anything that would make you an orphan. The other was not to remain silent if I see an injustice. Just as you have questions for me, I have many for myself. Is it worth it? Will she understand? And most important, will she forgive me for not being there?
The more I travel the more I I'm reminded that a majority of horrible, tragic acts perpetrated by human beings against each other are directed at children-or committed by them. Knowing this, my hope and faith in humanity, in our future-in your future-is constantly threatened. So I go away with the promise of renewing myself, searching for LIGHT IN THE DARK HUMAN SPIRIT.
The world in which you were born is not one that always loves little girls. I know this from having spent time with girl soldiers in Colombia who've fled their military commanders for fear of having the babies in their wombs destroyed, since being pregnant isn't synonymous with being a good soldier, even if it was a fellow soldier who impregnated you in the first place. These girl soldiers, these "lost girls," are a hidden part of the violence puzzle, rarely exposed as much as their male counterparts.
How can I help you to understand that there are children your age and slightly older who are forced into indentured servitude or sold outright as slaves? These are the stories I would not tell you, my daughter. The orphanage I visited in Bunia, D.R.C., where rebels have attacked eaten children. The images of infants as young as eleven months old who were raped by "big people" and later died from their wounds? Someday, you may look at your mother who couldn't tolerate me constantly leaving, and try to imagine her being raped and then shot while you watched. They you may understand why I go.
There was hope in Afghanistan. Shortly after the United States invaded and overthrew the Taliban, in the heady rush of a post-9/11 world, I spent several months with young people-including girls and women-awed by their courage in throwing off their hijabs, strolling in public with men who were not husbands or relatives, going to university, participating in the reconstruction of their country. Abbreviated freedom is a bitter taste; today, these same women are covered head-to-toe, without identities, faceless. The most desperate try to escape by setting themselves on fire; others remain and risk honor killing or acid attack.
These are just a few of the wars women fight.
I go, because these experiences must be recognized, must be honored. On one of my first trips to northern Uganda, an elderly man told me that if a dying person tells you their story, and it's not passed on, you'll be haunted. Well, I do pass on every story that I hear but the knowledge, the awareness, remains to haunt me.
You cannot read anything I have written, Mariella, of course. It will be some years till your judgment of me as a father, as a man, comes to maturity-when these struggles and sacrifices are put into context. When that time comes, please know that I tried to be the best that I could-though I faltered sometimes-that I wanted to make a better world not just for my daughter, but for all the daughters and sons of all the fathers and mothers; that I carried you in my heart everywhere I went; that when I walked through refugee camps, hospitals, schools and saw the eyes of curious child fighters, I saw you. You were with me everywhere. And seeing you, knowing my love for you, I held to the faith that a world could exist where I would want you to live, where men stand up for the women they love.
That is why I go.
Jimmie Briggs, a former a reporter with LIFE magazine, is a New York-based writer, teacher and freelance journalist. Over the last decade, he's focused professionally on child soldiers and the lives of war-affected children in writing for publications such as The Village Voice, The Source, El Pais, People, Essence among others. A National Magazine Award finalist and recipient of honors from the Open Society Institute, National Association of Black Journalists, Alicia Patterson Foundation and Carter Center, among others, his book on child soldiers and war-affected children, "Innocents Lost: When Child Soldiers Go To War," was published in 2005.
A native of St. Louis, Missouri, Briggs is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. He is a frequent speaker at colleges and universities. Briggs presentations on civil rights and diversity issues, human rights abuse in war-affected countries and child welfare have brought considerable attention to issues often discarded in the general media. Briggs has worked for the UN Special Session on Children and Seeds of Peace in both New York City and Kabul, Afghanistan, among other organizations. He has received several fellowships for his writing and advocacy. Briggs's work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, People, Vibe, Bust, and Fortune, and he has served as an adjunct professor of investigative journalism at the New School for Social Research.