Eyes flicking from side to side, I conjured up a recent image from my nightmares: ‘There’s a prison cell in Syria, eight or nine people crowded in the dark. There isn’t enough air, they are suffocating.’ Tears rolled down my cheeks, I refocused on the face in front of me. ‘I don’t think this is working.’
My therapist, Ruth, agreed. She had been attempting to use eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing [EMDR] with me for a number of months. I’d been reluctant from the start. I couldn’t bring myself to focus for long on the violent images that so troubled me – memories from my decade of writing about the most horrific abuses.
Promoted to the role of editor at a large human-rights charity in my early 20s, my daily work consisted of sifting through survivor testimonies, deciding what was fit for public consumption, and tidying up researchers’ work into neat, publishable reports. Sometimes the survivors’ stories were accompanied by photos and video evidence, much of it considered too gory to be released to the outside world.
Following the Arab Spring in 2011, I was drafted in to cover emerging violations in the Middle East. Torture, rape, bombings, unspeakable cruelties of every kind. Over several years, as the conflicts spread, images of suffering crowded my days and crept into my nightmares. I stopped sleeping, became withdrawn and anxious. After a diagnosis of PTSD, I sought help from a private trauma therapist. It took several attempts to find the right person, someone willing to tackle the problem head on.
At first, I wasn’t sure that Ruth was the right therapist for me either. She was convinced of the merits of EMDR, whereas I wanted tools to allow me to continue working on human-rights issues without being constantly re-traumatised. I wanted to stop feeling the burden of responsibility for those people whose lives had been destroyed, people I felt I could help if only I worked harder. ‘You leave your own human rights at the door when you come to work here,’ a researcher on Central Africa once told me. ‘Out there, people are suffering worse than we can even imagine. What right do we have to complain?’ I felt this keenly – the guilt at letting down the victims, the survivors, their families.
And so, Ruth worked hard to come up with new solutions, new ways to help me let go. ‘Draw a circle on a piece of paper,’ she said. ‘It’s a pie chart. We are going to assign responsibility for those prisoners in Syria.’
I started to divide up the circle, giving slices of the pie to governments, the international community, warring factions in a far-off conflict. When my chart was complete, Ruth said: ‘And what percentage is your responsibility?’
It was so simple; I saw it at once. It was not my fault that these people had suffered; I had very little influence over the outcome. It simply wasn’t within my power. It was like seeing a photo of the Earth taken from space – I realised my own insignificance, and it was surprisingly comforting.
Back at work, I did request changes to my workload. I felt able to refuse subject matter that I knew would be particularly upsetting. Everybody has their limits, their individual triggers. But for the rest, I now see that my 9–5 work is enough. Yes, by documenting these crimes, compiling the evidence, I can play a small role in a huge system that might one day change things for the better. But I bear no responsibility for those lives lost or ruined. My contribution is small but significant in its own way, and it is the most that I as an individual can do. And that’s all you can ask of anybody.
Saphia Fleury is a writer and editor specialising in international human rights law. She has commissioned, co-written and edited numerous books and reports on human-rights issues and holds a degree in human-rights law and practice from the University of London and in linguistics and literature from the University of Hull. @SaphiaFleury on Twitter.