February 14, 2014

The legacy of Reeva Steenkamp

Today, a year ago, on what the world calls Valentine's day, the day of love, a beautiful woman in South Africa lost her life. The beauty she held is documented not only in the good looks the world talked about, but in what she said and wrote and what family and friends recount in loving memory. Reeva Steenkamp to many was the model, the TV personality-to-be, the girlfriend of the so called blade-runner, Oscar Pistorius. In November 2012 she had first appeared publicly at his side and her words to the camera about him where carefully chosen, as makes sense at the beginning of a new relationship. After all, Reeva, whose strikingly warmhearted smile had become a trademark, had not only positive experiences in what is deemed love. She had suffered for years in an abusive relationship and had come to Johannesburg to reshape her life.

On Valentine's day 2013, barely four months after the relation had started, Reeva wanted to make the day special for her new boyfriend and for herself. But as she was not only about herself, as some might have thought, Reeva had also intended to make this a day for others, to speak about her struggle against life's odds and domestic violence to pupils at the Sandown High School in Johannesburg. She wanted to be honest about the abuse she knew and encouraging to young people and especially girls to become proud adults who would not ever be humiliated by anyone, let alone by male violence.

She never got to speak at Sandown. While staying the night at her boyfriends house she was shot dead by him shortly after 3 am in the morning, locked in a toilet cubicle where four bullets that her boyfriend shot at the door took her life.

Much has been written about this fatal moment, about how or why Oscar Pistorius drew the gun on her, on whether, as he states, this was an accident, or as the state prosecution in the charges say it was murder. The trial is set to begin on March 3. And no matter what is written or said, the answer to this will only – hopefully – come to light in the hearings. To the family and friends who loved her dearly it will be the hardest time to endure after 13 months of feeling the loss.

The woman who cared for victims of domestic violence

Reeva Steenkamp was blessed by nature with looks which made it to the cover of magazines and she knew how to strike a good pose. She was starting to develop a promising career as a model and her smile and blonde hair made everyone believe that this was what she was all about: modelling, beauty, the feminine touch. Few knew that the woman behind the poses was a hard working law-graduate about to engage in her Bar exam. With 30, a birthday to come up in August last year, she wanted to have reached her goal of being a qualified legal advocate defending the rights of those who couldn't defend themselves.

When in the Cape Province 17-year old Anene Booysen was brutally gang-raped and slashed to death by her rapists and on February 9, 2013, the teenager was laid to rest, it was Reeva who remembered her on her twitter account:

she wrote, ignoring that such a topic was not the in-thing to care for in a world of glamour and bright lights.

But the model who was the star of scene parties and always a good shot for high-key photography didn't keep in those circles in her mind. While she was fashionable and for many simply a symbol of good looks, there was a serious thinking person behind the cover the others wanted to see only. Her troubling experiences in her own relationship many years ago had made her lose her self-worth heavily. She did a lot of soul searching to remind herself of her value in the world, started to get back on her feet and work hard in a business formerly unknown to her, and while her fame rose and the offers came rolling in more and more, she never forgot that there was more to life than just good looks, fashion and partying. There was a message for the students at Sandown High that she spelled out in writing, but never got to tell them in person:
"Be brave. Always see the positive. Make your voice heard. Your physical seen. And the presence of your mental you felt. It's that culmination of your person that will leave a legacy and uplift."

A day after the funeral of Anene Booysen, on February 10, Reeva Steenkamp, once more ignoring who her followers could be on social media, wrote on her instagram account:

Little could she know that only four days later she herself would fall victim to male violence and the comfort of the happy safe home was exchanged for death.

“Reeva held a passion for women’s abuse issues and frequently spoke out against domestic violence. She intended to one day open an establishment where abused women would be cared for", her parents said in a statement a few days ago. Once the trial is over they intend to start a foundation "honouring Reeva’s passions”.

The trial is about truth and justice

After the funeral - candles in the sky
For those who loved her the trial is both a promise that the terrible time of uncertainty about what exactly happened that fateful night at Pistorius' house will finally come to an end, as well as the hope to find closure in a loss that one way or the other will stay with them for the rest of their lives. It will be a troubling time of battling emotions, and the press will take any chance to show a crying mother or a bereaved friend. That Reeva was killed is no news to them anymore. It has been reported numerous times now and fails to capture the imagination of editors who want new points of interest to catch their readers and viewers. And while to the family and friends of Reeva Steenkamp the trial will be all about her, the burning pain of having lost her and the love they forever hold for her, others will see it only as a chance to get headlines and news stories to serve a never ending hunger. It is, sadly, the way the media world works.

And yet – thinking of Reeva Steenkamp and the compassion she held for others, the hope goes out that just this time the media will tread softly and value the pain over a loss that to this day for many cannot be understood. They want this trial to happen, yes. But they don't want the frenzy that will go with it. For the family and friends this trial is about truth, about knowledge and about justice served for a woman whose smile and heart went out to so many and could have still done so much good, had her life not been cut short.

Those who loved her will do so long after the trial is over and the flashlights have found new objects of interest. Getting through it is a tribulation they endure for her and for her only. The intimacy of grief they still posses to this day is theirs, and it gives way to a vulnerability that should never be exploited. The world and the media must respect this at all costs and thus honour the legacy of Reeva Steenkamp.

The woman who showed compassion for Anene Booysen while others only wanted to see glamour deserves nothing less.

February 03, 2014

Letter to my Avatar – My dear little Omar Salah ...

one year ago to this day you were selling sweet potatoes on a street in Cairo near the U.S. embassy. It was not something you did out of choice, but because your family is poor and needs you to help secure an income. There was nothing special about this February 3rd, 2013, Cairo was calm and sunny, and nothing prepared you, when you left your home in the morning, for what was to come.

It was about noon, when a soldier came up to your cart and demanded from you to sell him two potatoes. You urgently needed to go to the bathroom at that moment and told him you would attend to him right when you would be back. The soldier did not accept this and threatened you with his gun saying he was going to shoot you if you didn't serve him immediately.

You were just a 12 year old boy. What could you know about the defects of human minds or the willingness of adults to be vicious? You did not believe him and in the innocent mind that was your right to have with 12 years of age you replied: "But you can't shoot me!"

To this the soldier replied: "I can't?" And then he pulled the trigger and shot you twice in your little heart. You were dead immediately.

The shock this had on those who witnessed it around you, was profound. The other children street vendors cried out and emotions ran high while your blood was spilling onto the street of Cairo. Amongst the soldiers, heated discussions started and the whole situation quickly became a mess.

The U.S. embassy tweeted that there had been an 'incident' in front of their gates but gave no details. For quite some time no one was aware what horror had just happened under the sunny sky of Egypt. And with the first shock subsiding that you indeed were dead right there on the street and for all to see, the military and police started frantically to do anything they could to cover up this horrific crime against you.

While your mother and father sat at home unaware they had lost you forever, the army took your little body to a morgue and covered you hoping that no one would find you and no one would find out. For accepting that one of theirs had killed you in cold blood and take responsibility for this action is not on the mind of the army of Egypt.

You must know, little Omar, that you are not the only one they killed, and not the only one they did not care for after he was dead. Over a year before you left us they had shot dead many protesters at Maspero and ran others over with heavy APCs. Again, later, they killed many at the Cabinet clashes. And so it goes on and on until today, for killing someone is the job of an army, they think. And they don't differentiate between borders or cities, it doesn't matter where they use their guns, they always think that they are in the right to kill. For no other but them has any right to a life. Only a right to be disrespected when – in the eyes of the army – the situation calls for it.

Of course, on that day one year ago, your killing had nothing to do with defending anybody. The soldier who killed you did not feel threatened or feared for the safety of Egypt. He simply expressed what he had learned as a conscript: that you as an Egyptian human being were not worth anything and that your life was cheap enough to be destroyed.

After your father had frantically tried to find you, aided by friends and NGO workers, your little blood stained body was finally found in the morgue. At first again the army tried to deny it had anything to do with this. But as pressure mounted and more and more witnesses spoke up to what they saw that day, the spokesperson felt it would hurt the army more to stay cowardly quiet than to come out with it and he put a statement on their Facebook page declaring your death an "accident" for which he offered your heartbroken parents his "apology".

The story goes that the soldier did not really mean to shoot you. He had thought that his gun was empty – because apparently Egyptian soldiers don't learn how to find out if their gun is loaded or empty and never load them themselves. It must be some hidden force that either loads their guns or not and then falls silent on the matter so that a soldier who carries his gun through Cairo is never aware whether he can actually use it or not. It seems an odd way to run an army or a disturbing way they play games, but then, my little Omar, there are so many odd things surrounding them that one does not wonder much anymore these days. Of course, after the soldier fired the first shot into your heart realising the gun was loaded after all, he had to fire a second time into your heart just to make sure he wasn't mistaken. That we understand. The army is a responsible body and what must be done must be done to make certain that facts are facts. Even in accidents.

Shortly after the world learned what had happened to you on that wonderful sunny February day in Cairo, a video surfaced on YouTube showing you only a few weeks earlier when you were interviewed on the street by an organisation helping needy children, checking whether you might be eligible for their projects.

You were humble and well-mannered but a little shy and uneasy what they would come up with and whether you would be good enough for what they were looking for in you. You told them quietly that you had to sell sweet potatoes because your family was poor and your father had wanted you to support the family. And in all shyness you disclosed into the camera that you would love to go to school and learn to read and write.

When the interviewer asked what you're dreams were, you looked away and were uneasy on this. And then you answered him. You said: "I cannot afford dreams, Sir." And you looked into the camera and then down again as if you were ashamed for this that was none of your fault.

Seeing this video of you, dear little Omar, broke many peoples heart. Hearing that you could not afford to dream, which is a basic human right for a child, and knowing you were not even allowed to live, was unbearable to witness. Seeing your wonderful eyes, your look of modesty, shyness and subdued hope, your life might one day, just might perhaps change for the better in some far-away future after all, teared us apart. It was then that I took your picture and made it my avatar on twitter. I wanted to give you your face back that had been left so sad and soiled and empty of life after the soldier had shot you dead.

There was no justice for you after all this. On public pressure of human rights activists and your family that the army tried to silence with money, a military trial was finally staged that we all never had any witnessing to. Only afterwards we were told that the soldier who shot you dead – just like that, on a sunny day in a street of Cairo – received a sentence of three years by the military judge.

Imagine that, Omar, three years for killing you and destroying your life forever. Do you know that Ahmed Maher and Mohamed Adel, activists of the January 25 revolution, got just the same sentence of three years for allegedly staging a protest without a permission? So killing you, in the eyes of the army, apparently was not worse than going out to protest without requesting a permit. You see what I mean when I say, we do not understand the ways of the army, but we trust they know well what they do?

One year on, my dear little Omar, I have thought long and deep over whether I would let you rest now in your little grave and put a shroud over your wonderful eyes that I see everyday on my twitter timeline. On twitter people have not a very long attention span, you must know. They easily get bored seeing the same avatar over and over for months and need changes a lot to be easy. And many times when I write critical tweets, some tweeps who do not know me or you come and slam me with words like: "Shut up, kid" – actually thinking, I was you and not a grown up man with 35 years working experience. They don't take my words seriously, because – just like the soldier – they think, a young boy has no value and no meaning and must not be respected. l cringe sometimes when I read their "kid", knowing they mean you, and feel the pain of your death they are unaware of and don't understand, and then I tell them to read my profile and come to the conclusion that whoever has no heart for you in his reaction is not worth thinking about anyway. And leave it at that.

It would be so much easier now to let you rest, my little friend, after this long year of tears and pains and death that has sweeped Egypt empty of so many hopes for a decent life, for justice and freedom and bread. On twitter they would jubilate to see a fresh face. The army would love to not have to see you anymore in the public sphere. The tweeps I criticise would not be able to slam me anymore with calling me 'kid'. We would all be so much happier, dear little Omar, if we forgot about what happened a year ago and that we can't change what happened to you after all.

But then, Omar, what can we change if we don't remember? What possibilities will we manage to create if we fall silent and look away and pretend it is all not as sad, not as bad, not as tragic as it actually is? Since your death more than a thousand Egyptians were killed, and they give us many reasons why that, different to you, was not an accident but needed to happen. But apparently they can 'live' with it just as easily. A strange tale has crept into the narrative that pretends that destroying Egyptian lives is inevitable and must be accepted, as if death more than life was the natural thing of the world that one can shrug off to return to the daily pleasures and chores. With every death of human beings falling bloodied in the streets of Egypt we are told to believe that nothing of this can be changed because it is the way of the world. And when we look away and shut our ears to the cries of the mothers and fathers of Egypt who, whether they agreed with their children or not, break down over losing what was precious to them forever and think they just cannot go on anymore, we change the world for the worst, where dying becomes the natural thing and living is just a luxury granted by some in power – whether we are lucky or not.

It must not be luck, little Omar, whether we live. It must be a right, a birth given right that no one must be allowed to take from us. Not with any form of being deliberate, calling it an accident to fool us or an inevitable need to fool us twice. If we don't insist on this, that life is the right and death is the wrong, we have lost everything that makes it worth existing on this planet we call the earth.

You had no dreams, Omar, because we did not allow you to be able to afford them. On that already we all failed you miserably. Your parents to this day cry over your death and will not forget the pain in their heart. Your eyes look at me on my avatar with all the shy innocence that was you in your modest way and I think of the narrative that all this has to be, is inevitable and not worse than going to a protest and forgetting to get a permission. So your killing has the value of a petty crime and your death is worth as much as not filling out a form. And I look at your eyes and mine fill with tears.

Let them laugh about it, for all I care. The other day I saw your picture on the internet, just the one that is my avatar that I see every day. But when I saw it, my little Omar, my heart stopped still. Like yours did on that fateful February 3rd a year ago, when a soldier thought you were worth nothing and could be done away with. When I recovered from this shock, that did not seem to make any sense, I knew I would not fail you and not leave you until justice is served. To you, Omar, who could not afford to have wishes and were not allowed to have hope – and to all the others that have lost a life that was dear to them when others decided it was not.

You will stay my avatar, my little Omar. I will tell you when Egypt is ready that we can part. Just now is not yet the time. Be patient. It will still take a long time. But where life is at stake, you know it well, time and patience means nothing. Life means all.