In the Heart of Life: Living by Forgiving

I knew I could never forgive the Somalis who killed my son. My journey to forgiveness was long and painful, but one incident was to change forever the trajectory of my life.
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Following the murder of my son Dan, a young photojournalist who was killed while on assignment for Reuters News Agency, I was distraught. I knew I could never forgive the Somalis who killed my son. My journey to forgiveness was long and painful, but one incident was to change forever the trajectory of my life. My daughter Amy and I were on our way to the United Nations for a screening of Dying to Tell the Story, a film about journalists at risk, when I met the man who taught me to forgive.

It took five months to edit the film, interweaving old video clips of Dan with Amy's interviews and the material we had shot in Africa. One of Amy's jobs was to review hundreds of hours of war footage. She grew increasingly disturbed by endless images of violence, blood and despair she was witnessing until she discovered a reflection by Winston Churchill that seemed to make her feel better: "We shall draw from the heart of suffering itself the means of inspiration and survival."

She described her own emergence from the horror of Dan's death in an article about her brother in a Boston University publication:

"Over time, I found that pain visited less frequently and when sorrow washed through me, it wasn't as deep or intense as it had once been. When I felt happy it was bliss, because I had known the extremes of sadness. My worst nightmare had become a reality, and I survived -- reborn through my grief, profoundly aware of how precious life really is."

Once our film, Dying to Tell the Story, was delivered, we waited on tenterhooks for the verdict on our efforts. We were floored to learn that the first screening would be in New York -- at the United Nations.

At five o'clock on Nov. 10, 1997, Amy and I had just finished dressing for the UN event, sponsored by the Overseas Press Club of America. When the front desk called to say that Mr. Mohammed Shaffi was waiting for us downstairs, we hurried out of the room and into the elevator. I surveyed Amy, standing beside me in a silver-blue tunic and narrow silk pants with a soft scarf draped over one shoulder. She appeared radiant and calm, although she said she felt more nervous than the morning we flew into Somalia. She peered at me closely, licked her finger and rubbed a speck of mascara from my cheek.

We were both laughing as the elevator doors opened and we spotted Shaffi, handsome in a dark suit and tie, standing in the center of the lobby. Smiling broadly, he enveloped us in a double bear hug. Amy asked about his family, and he confessed that he had seen little of them, for his job always seemed more important. However, he said he was proud that the work he had done in Africa had saved lives and added, "Now I have the rest of my life to make up with my children."

He handed his camera to a passing stranger and asked the man to take a picture of the three of us together before he was escorted to his car. That photo was to become a precious memento, for two years later, at age 49, gentle Shaffi died of a massive heart attack while on assignment in Jerusalem, leaving behind his wife and four children. His death, like that of Carlos Mavroleon, shattered Amy and me, because we had come to love him like a brother.

Outside the hotel, the doorman saluted as he hailed a cab. Amy and I piled in, talking excitedly about the evening ahead. When the driver turned to ask where we were going, I drew a sharp breath and stared at his proud, finely sculpted nose, his skin the color of bronze silk and his dark, hooded eyes. Seeing my reaction, Amy gave our destination. She and I exchanged glances. Of the thousands of cabbies in New York, ours was clearly Somali.

"Where are you from?" I asked, knowing the answer. He told us his name was Ebrahim and that he was from Mogadishu.

"What a coincidence," Amy murmured.

I told our driver about Dan's love of Somalis and what had happened to him. Ebrahim listened carefully, and when we stopped at a traffic light he turned and told me, in his heavy Somali accent, that his family, too, had suffered losses in the fighting.

"I know all about your son and the journalists who died with him," he said gravely. Startled, I wondered what he thought of the incident but wasn't sure I wanted to know. When we arrived, he spoke again, choosing his words carefully.

"Your son and the journalists should not have been killed," he said. "It was a terrible mistake. The people of Mogadishu are ashamed of what happened." He paused, as though uncertain whether to continue, then looked me in the eye. "On behalf of all Somalis, I ask your forgiveness."

From somewhere inside me, I remembered what Dan's Masai brother, Peter Lekarian, had written in his letter to me: "The world is Somalia and needs redemption." In that instant I realized that if the world is to change, it is we, as Gandhi once said, who must change first.

"Thank you, Ebrahim," I answered simply. "I hate what the Somalis did, but I understand why they did it. I have forgiven the Somali people." I had no idea that these words would come out of my mouth, but the moment I had spoken them I knew they were true, and to be able to say them was a blessing.

When I tried to give Ebrahim money for the fare, he waved his hand. "Friends don't pay in this cab," he said, shooing us away.

Amy and I joined the stream of people flowing toward the scores of flags fluttering in the brisk November wind beneath the soaring facade of the United Nations. Pausing for a moment, I recalled Brenda Lawrence's prediction that Amy and I would one day stand here together. We strode inside and entered the vast hall, filled with an audience of eight hundred diplomats, journalists, and heads of media organizations from around the world. When they had settled in their seats and the lights had been dimmed, I braced myself to introduce the film, a story that Dan and so many of his brave colleagues had died to tell.

Excerpted from Kathy Eldon's memoir, In the Heart of Life, published by Harper One

Kathy's TEDx: talk: "The F-Word Revolution"

Link to "Living by Forgiving: Lessons From Kenya, Somalia, Pakistan, and Beyond"

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