I had a fever and my nose was running. I felt all my defenses and protection had been washed away, and that didn't seem to matter anymore. I sat on a mattress in a 120-degree room while an older woman with shaking hands was telling her story.
"They came, a group of them, into our neighborhood. They took my first neighbor, my best friend, into the street. There were fifteen soldiers. There in front of her husband and children and neighbors they raped her one after the other until all fifteen had raped her. They did this in front of all of us. They did it to teach us a lesson.
"Please, tell people in America what happened here. We want them to know what happened here. We do not understand how they have abandoned us."
I asked her then, "Tell me, were they successful? Did the Serbs make the Muslims feel bad about being Muslim? Did they take their dignity and self-esteem?"
"No," she said. "No. Not. They raped many women. Twenty-two thousand women. They did not take our dignity though. They did not touch it. The women who were raped did not lose their dignity. What they lost was their minds."
I looked around and I realized a lot of us were crying, sweating, melting. In that moment I loved these Bosnians completely. I loved their stove-made bread and their meat-filled peppers that they cooked for us each day in the heat. I loved that they had survived and their hearts were intact and their kindness was so deeply present even now after everything. We got lost in each other's arms, we grieved their losses. We raged at the cruelty they had suffered. And in the center of this weeping, in the center of this sweating and running nose, I found an odd, perfect strength. It is the strength that comes from surrender, from dissolving.
I returned to the States on a plane that nearly crashed over the Atlantic. In midflight it simply dropped thousands of feet out of the sky. Passengers went flying, luggage was released from the overhead compartments, and objects were hurling through space. Parents were rocking their children. Many were praying and chanting, some were crying, others were perfectly still. The woman next to me took my hand and said she needed to tell someone goodbye. We were walking through our final moment. Then somehow the falling stopped, the plane got caught on some ledge of air.
Flight attendants had brain concussions. Passengers had spiritual experiences they felt compelled to share with strangers.
Eventually I came back to earth -- well, the plane landed. In fact, something crucial inside me had changed. Sure footing was gone. I had seen how easily neighbors and supposed friends could turn against their friends and neighbors. I had seen how in a split second a comfortable life could become a nightmare. I had seen how quickly fascist thugs could rise to power by manipulating the people with tactics of racism and terror.