October 7, 2001 - Albany Times Union - Kindness from a world that's been there

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Headlines: Peace Corps Headlines - 2001: 10 October 2001 Peace Corps Headlines: October 7, 2001 - Albany Times Union - Kindness from a world that's been there

By Admin1 (admin) on Wednesday, October 10, 2001 - 8:58 am: Edit Post

Volunteers who were serving in 1963 remember the outpouring of shared grief when Kennedy was assassinated. Read this story by a volunteer who was coming home from Uzbekistan to see the similarities in the aftermath of the events of September 11.

Kindness from a world that's been there

Kindness from a world that's been there

Oct 7, 2001 - Times Union-Albany NY Author(s): Jessica Barnes

For the rest of our lives now, we'll talk about where we were on September 11, 2001. Here's my story:

I was trekking in the Annapurna region of the Nepal Himalayas, having just completed my Peace Corps service in Uzbekistan.

I was sitting in a lodge with two Australian men, a Swiss couple, two American women and my two American trekking partners. One of the Australians was listening to his short-wave radio through a headphone, and then he said what you never want to hear from someone listening to news: "Oh my God! Oh my God!" And then everything changed: The United States had been invaded.

The 11th was one of the first really clear nights at the end of the monsoon, and we all poured outside to look at the stars, achingly beautiful above the faintly glowing outline of the Himalayas. I thought of the broken towers, and our broken untouchability as Americans, and the stars, and it seemed impossible that all three existed in the same universe at the same time.

That's where I was.

And this is where I'd come from:

I'd left Central Asia about three weeks before, and spent a night in Karachi on my way to Katmandu. I'd completed two years of Peace Corps service and I was wondering if I'd really accomplished anything at all.

I was thinking that I am more cynical than I ever wanted to be at 25. I'd realized in my time in the Peace Corps that being one of the healthiest, best educated and most privileged people in the history of the world doesn't mean I understand the world or how to fix its problems. We realized on Sept. 11 that being the only superpower doesn't make us invulnerable to invasion. Innocence is shed all around.

When we finished our trek and stepped out into the rest of the world, we found it different from the place we'd left. Everyone talked about the attacks on the United States.

People from all countries who heard I was American would ask about my family and tell me how awful it all was. The owner of the hotel where I was staying e-mailed a letter of condolence to my parents.

A woman who lived in a Tibetan refugee camp told me those in the camp had spent a day in silence for the victims of the attack on the United States. The same United States that granted most favored nation status to their oppressors. Their goodwill was embarrassing.

I thought of the terrible tragedy the Tibetans have known in their own homeland, how they have lost the rights to their religion and their culture, and uncounted lives, and how they are struggling to maintain some sense of identity. Yet, they feel sorry for us? I wondered how many Americans could even find Tibet on a map, never mind be able to talk about what's happened there.

All the tourists to whom I spoke in Nepal have known devastating tragedies in their motherlands: Israelis, Indians, Britons. Since the Civil War, we haven't had anything with which to compare to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the natural disasters that claim tens of thousands of lives in India, or even the Blitz in London.

Maybe that's why we pay so little attention. Newsweek featured Nintendo on its cover the same week that 30,000 Venezuelans died in mudslides. We do very little mourning for anyone else. But now it seems that everyone is mourning for us.

About two weeks after Sept. 11, the Peace Corps evacuated all its volunteers from Uzbekistan. As a volunteer, I'd come to see myself as a link in a chain: You don't change the established order of things all by yourself. You just do a little bit and the next volunteer takes over where you've left off.

Now that the chain has been broken, I wonder what will happen to my students who want desperately to learn English but have no English speakers with whom to practice. When I left, about half of them spoke English better than any of the teachers at their school. I'd started an English club that wasn't nearly ready to sustain itself without a volunteer to run it.

I'd left an overbearingly long list of "advice" (or "orders") for the new volunteer, a person who was at one point very real in my mind and who may never materialize. It's heartbreaking to wonder what will happen and not be able to do anything about it.

More than ever, I'm wondering what it was all for. When I think of the past two years, I'm as confused as I was looking at the stars over the Annapurnas. I don't know yet how to make any sense of it all.

But, being American, I can't quite leave it at that. We are, after all, the ones who built the World Trade Center: 110 stories on the edge of an island, standing in defiance of everything that said a building shouldn't be so tall -- gravity, natural disasters, everyone with narrow minds and limited imaginations. We'll build it again.

If I can believe this, I may also come to believe that things will work out for the people I most loved in Uzbekistan. When I ask myself, "What did I accomplish in the Peace Corps?" I'll come up with an answer.

The Tibetan woman who kept silent for our dead knows already that any tragedy that strikes humans is a tragedy for all of us, to be mourned by all people. The world is big, and we, within it, are not untouchable.

But neither are we alone.

Jessica Barnes of Galway recently completed an assignment with the Peace Corps in Uzbekistan. She is writing an occasional series on her experiences.

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