An agonising void

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BY Tom Odhiambo

The world celebrates the International Youth Day in the month of August every year. In many parts of the world governments and institutions doing work related to the youth plan several activities to celebrate youth hood.

This year the focus was on ‘safe spaces for youth.’ In other words, can and do our youth live in neighbourhoods, go to school, walk streets, or play in grounds that are safe?

What would the millions of children around the world who feel unsafe or whose lives have been made unsafe through the actions of adults tell us about life? Shouldn’t we ponder a lot more about how children who have lost a parent or both will mark the week and celebrate this day? What does life mean to these children? Who replaces the lost parent in the life of an orphan? Would such children ever outgrow the loss? What does such a loss do to the relationship between the child and other members of her or his family?

These questions stare at the reader from the pages of Hisham Matar’s memoirs, The Return (Penguin Books 2017). This is a book that evokes a deep sense of loss, despair, pain, and helplessness but retains a solid hope in humanity. This is a personal story – very personal – but it is also a tragic narrative of what happens when the lives of a family and that of the nation intermingle, with deadly consequences for the family – arrest, imprisonment, torture, exile, or even death for individuals.

The Return is Hisham’s account of the search for his father. A once wealthy and happy family man ends up in the hands of a regime that kills its opponents. Like many others that the state turned against, he had been in the Libyan Army and even served as a diplomat. But after becoming “a successful businessman”, he is seen by the regime as a “dangerous enemy”, according to Matar. This was in the 1980s, when Muammar Qaddafi was slaying, imprisoning or forcing into exile his opponents.

Hisham’s father, and many others who were opposed to Qaddafi, formed the opposition against the regime and even had a rebel army based in Chad, Hisham tells the reader. The family was exiled after escaping Libya in 1979, living in Cairo, Nairobi, Rome, London, Paris and Geneva, among other places.

However, the regime intensified its campaigns to eliminate its opponents in the 1990s, and that is how Hisham’s father was abducted in Cairo in March 1990 by the “Egyptian secret police and delivered to Qaddafi.” He was jailed in “Abu Salim prison, in Tripoli, which was known as ‘The Last Stop’ – the place where the regime sent those it wanted to forget”, writes Hisham.

Hisham records the father writing about the cruelty of the prison surpassing that of the “fortress prison of Bastille.” Hisham and his family reckons that his father was held in the prison “from March 1990 to April 1996, when he was moved from his cell and taken to another secret wing in the same prison or moved to another prison or executed.”

It is this ‘disappearance’ from known records that tortures Hisham and his family (his second novel is called Anatomy of a Disappearance). He, therefore, decides to visit Libya in March 2012 to search for his father. The Qaddafi regime had fallen in August the previous year to the ‘revolutionaries’ but his father had not been among the prisoners that were freed. The lack of any evidence of his father’s time in the prison, except a photograph that an old prisoner had of Matar, gnawed at Hisham.

The search is both physical and psychological – physical in the sense that one always imagines that a lost dear one will one day ‘just’ appear at the door or gate or one will meet her or him at some corner. It is psychological because the so-called ‘closure’ is a function of the mind; it can never really be attained but the hope of reaching it makes life a little bit more bearable, making it possible to continue searching. This is why Hisham writes, “Not knowing when my father ceased to exist has further complicated the boundary between life and death. But this can only partly explain why for the longest time, even before my father’s disappearance, the commonplace occurrence of being able to point at a calendar and say, ‘it was on that exact day that a particular person’s life ended’ has always seemed inaccurate.”

Whereas the liberation of the country promised a rebirth, Libya had just lost too many of its citizens  to the internecine violence. Hisham can see some attempt by the Libyans he meets, especially members of his extended family, to reinvent themselves and live a normal life – the kind of life many Libyans had known before the days of state oppression – but it doesn’t appear like it would last.

Indeed, many Libyans remain orphaned today. As different factions claim the right to rule the country, many of its citizens continue to shed blood and die for the different ideologies that hold the country hostage. More risk their lives crossing seas to settle in foreign lands.

Yet these were families, like Hisham’s, that once thrived in a country that has ancient roots and civilisation. What do the parents of the children separated from their families because of the violence tell them? What do these children carry with them as memories of ‘home’? What Libyan identity do they proclaim when in exile? What ghosts haunt them? (

– The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi; Tom.odhiambo@uonbi.ac.ke

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