I hesitated. JP stood in front of me with a half full glass of red wine in his hand. He was barely taller than me with deep Cocoa skin. He had no visible scars or missing limbs. His eyes were full of kindness and warmth. A far cry from what I had envisioned an ex-child soldier would look like but even so, there he was, a glass of wine in his outstretched hands playing the good host.
I quickly surveyed the apartment. His roommate's Femi and Morrison stood together in the kitchen cooking Cassava Leaves, my favourite Sierra Leonean soup. FIFA was paused on the PS4 and the remotes carelessly discarded on the couch. I had been to this apartment twice before with JP’s cousin Amadou but today felt different. The air was thicker, my thoughts were muddled and breath shallow.
I nodded and reached for the glass. I made my way through the living room and sat down at the dining room table. JP poured himself a glass and slumped down in the seat across from me.
“I need to prepare myself for these questions,” He laughed and the trained his shifting gaze on me.
I flashed him a non threatening smile.
“I just want to hear your story”, I said gently. He grabbed his glass and took a huge swig of wine. I followed his lead, threw my head back and chugged the crimson liquid. I guess we both needed to prepare.
“Ok. We can do the interview in Femi’s room after I smoke. Do you smoke?” He asked while rummaging through his black vest. I shook my head and chuckled. He shrugged, fished out a small bag of weed and discarded the baggie onto the table.
“Femi, do you have papes?” He called towards the kitchen.
“No we don’t”, Femi’s voice boomed back.
“Fuck. How am I going to roll with no papes?”
He huffed, reached for his hat and wallet then turned towards me.
“Sorry. I’ll be right back. I’m just going to go downstairs and grab some papes. Do you want anything? Chocolate?”
I shook my head again and reached for the bottle of wine. My heart refused to settle in my chest. I pulled out my notebook and reviewed the questions. Each passing word sharpened my fear. Would I be able to ask these questions or hear his truths? An ex child rebel soldier and a girl who watched a rebel kill her Uncle.
“I wanted to play soccer because that was the only thing I knew. It was the only thing that could get me through and push me to the future. So during wartime the team manager would take me away from my uncle’s house for 2 to 3 days and pay him to let me play. But this time the trip didn’t end up so well.
“We went to a town named Tombo to play a tournament and everything was going well. All of a sudden you see everybody start running around because they heard gunshots. As a team we don’t run around we stay together and see what’s going on not knowing these guys were here. There was no turning back. That was the turning point. All you could do is just join them. There was a path for me; everything else was closed. Everything I knew was gone. I had to survive. I had to. We didn’t have the knowledge to do it. We were scared. There was gunpowder and we used something hard to push it into our skin and mark ourselves. You can still see the marks. I was nine years old. They shipped us to Freetown. The war was escalating. I don’t want to talk about it today but we ended up having to surrender our guns.
I came to Canada when I was 13 and lived with my other uncle. My mom raised their daughter so they brought me with them. When I came everything was wonderful. I was getting paid to play football. I travelled to different cities. At 16 I found out that I was having a baby and my life ended. I ran away at first. Moved to Edmonton and I started doing coke. My past in Sierra Leone, having a child, losing my scholarship all of it devastated me. I saw my friends partying and thought that the coke would help me. I didn’t know how hard it was on the body. The paranoia, the sleepless night. It was like I was a zombie. My mom begged me to come back. I got a second chance to do things right when I came back to Toronto but I just went back to what I was doing. I ended up getting arrested and was on probation for two years. I used all of the money I had to get out. I had no place to sleep. I would go from couch to couch.
I have to do better…” JP’s voice faded into a simmering silence. He let out a shaky breath as if the act of breathing only now occurred to him and whispered, “Can I... umm, have some water?”.
The cold water trickled down my hand. I absently poured out the overflowing water and refilled it again. The cup thudded onto the counter as I leaned against the fridge and gave way to a heavy sigh. Images of JP’s tormented face flashed through my mind. I squeezed my eyes shut tight against the memory. I hated having to make him relive those memories but also knew, all too well, there was no escaping them. I looked at the time on the stove and waited another minute. The weight of the unknown dragged at each of my steps as I trudged towards the bedroom.
“Here you go,” I offered breaking the silence.
“Sorry,” he muttered.
“No no! Don’t apologize.” I responded quickly.
The silence stretched out long past the period of comfort. I wiggled awkwardly trying to find purpose as he slowly sipped his remaining water. His face was etched in a grimace as if he was recalling painful memories and shifting through what he could or could not voice. My thoughts came to a crashing head.
“Have you forgiven yourself?” I blurted out unsure of why I had even asked.
He tilted up his head and stared at the ceiling. His body rose and fell before turning to fix his haunted gaze on mine. The guilt crashed into me full force.
“Why does everyone ask me that? How do you do that? Forgive yourself,” he said softly. His eyes focused on me.
I chewed my bottom lip, glanced at the door, shifted on the bed and settled my eyes on his unwavering gaze. ‘Could he truly see me,’ I wondered. The nausea rolled through my gut. I cleared the trepidation from my throat, it was time for me to meet his truth with my own honesty.
“When I was back in Sierra Leone and again when I moved here, I was molested and raped,” I stated calmly my own voice sounding both distant and eerily steady. My heart thumped rapidly, bile coated the back of my throat as regret stole my words. His eyes did not move. I let my truth sit in the space between us only accompanied by the raging silence of the room.
Rape was taboo in Sierra Leonean culture, no one ever spoke about it, let alone admitted to being raped. I met his steady gaze expecting to find the familiar shift of discomfort but instead I found a softness that I had never seen. His head bobbed ever so slightly as he gently reached for my hand. The sudden touch loosened my frozen lips, freeing a cascade of unspoken and unprocessed words.
“I blamed myself for a long time,” I stuttered, “until I understood I was a child and it was their place to protect me and not take advantage of me. Then I thought about my little sister and I knew if she had gone through what I did I would never blame her or want her to blame herself”.
He tossed my hands anxiously between his palms.
“You were a child,” I announced to the entire room of two, “...there was no one to protect you. You deserved more,” I repeated desperately.
The silence smouldered.
“Would you blame your son,” I asked persistently, “if he had been the one to go through everything you went through, would you blame him?”
His eyes drifted towards the carpet as his hands fell into his lap.
“No. But I don’t even know how to start” he whispered.
I inhaled sharply.
“ You have to learn to love yourself first. If that’s not there then there's no point. Do you… love yourself,” I asked softly.
JP slowly peeked up at me, tears brimming from his bloodshot eyes, jaw clenched and veins popping from his forehead. He shook his head. Then let out a strained gasp as tears trailed down his cheek. He shook his head again as if he had just heard the question over again.
My heart clenched in my chest, tears stung my eyes and the lump in my throat burned. He was 32 years old but all I saw was a broken child, just like me. I reached across his back and pulled him in tightly. His body trembled in my arms. He smothered his tears on my shoulder and with a sharp inhale immediately straightened up his back as if willing himself to face the world unflinching.
“When I was back in Sierra Leone”, he paused and looked at me, “I was living on the streets for a while. I was so hungry and so desperate for food. A man told me he would give me food if I followed him”. JP's eyes left mine and fixed on the space between us.
My breath caught in my throat as I waited for him to finish. He clenched a hand full of the bedding and dug his fist into the mattress. His body rocked viciously as he fought back tears. Before I could fill in the dead air he forced the words out between shaky breaths, “He took me to his car and just pulled down my pants. It hurt. It hurt so bad. I can still feel his hair on me. I can still feel him. Just for bread. I thought he was a holy man...I thought...I just want to know why. Why would he do that to me? I want to look him in his eyes and ask him, why? Maybe I deserve it. I don’t trust people I can’t. I’ve shot too many guns… I’ve shot... I’ve seen too much. My own family hasn’t heard half of what I’ve told you. They have no idea. I’m so angry all the time. Sometimes I just switch and no one knows why. I hate myself”. He spat the words out like acid.
Tears blanketed his cheeks and his eyes burrowed into mine. Did I see him? He surrendered his anger, softened his face and forced a smile. I didn't.
“I’m sorry I didn’t want to make you cry,” he said while mopping up his tears with his sleeves.
I recognized that smile. I had given that smile. I immediately reached up and wiped my own selfish tears away. I inhaled deeply searching for the strength I needed to be present and bear witness to someone else's pain. He was trying to comfort me, despite the discomfort faking a smile may have caused his soul.
“Oh no! Please do not apologize to me! You don’t ever have to pretend around me,” I rushed, my words flowing unpredictably, “...if you can’t forgive yourself yet then I will forgive you for whatever sins or baggage you're holding...... I forgive you” I repeated softly.
Was it even my place to grant him forgiveness? Maybe like my tears my forgiveness was selfish too. I understood something then simple but revolutionary. He was human. Just like me and everyone else, he was human. I forgave him then, a man I had not seen since I was a child.
JP's eyes softened and his forced smile relaxed.
“Thank you” he whispered.
"No, thank you" I replied,“..keeping these things in is like poison to your soul, you know. It will kill you. Trust me...trust me".
“I know" he said and looking into his eyes I knew, that he did.
"I told myself if I turned 30 and I wasn’t where I needed to be I would kill myself,” His words sliced through the room.
“You-” I began. JP quickly cut me off with a warm smile.
“Don't worry, I don't think like that anymore,” he laughed. I studied him intently.
“I’m back in school, I have a job and I have my own place. In 8 months I'm going to graduate. I'm going to do better” he beamed,“...honestly this has helped so much. Thank you for listening. I think.... I need to talk to someone, a doctor or something”.
JP cocked his head to the side, flicked exhausted eyes towards me, exhaled and said, “You’re right. I have to tell my story... you know get the poison out. Maybe then I can forgive myself. When I’m ready, please help me write it.. my story”.
I am an empath and a writer called to witness the stories of my generation. Born to document the beginning, middle, end and facilitate its most intimate connection. I write to make sense of the world and make legible the most vulnerable parts of human nature, our inner truths.