It’s not every day that I get invited to BAFTA to watch a premier. In fact, it has never happened before, and I was thrilled. After a day of juggling children, I arrived glammed up and excited to meet friends. Free drink drunk, I took my seat in the plush auditorium and soaked up the event, impressed to note the seat in front of me had been gifted by Yoko for John. But as the feature began, I suddenly and desperately didn’t want to see what was about to happen. I knew, of course, that this was a documentary on ISIS and women, but in the rush and the anticipation of a night out, I hadn’t thought about what I might see. And now I couldn’t leave. I had to remain and watch unfold before me stories from a world very far away from London’s busy Piccadilly.
Channel Four’s latest episode of Dispatches, Escape from ISIS, has been hailed by The Spectator as “so important it ought to rank with John Pilger’s exposés of Cambodia’s Killing Fields”. It documents the bravery of a group rescuing Yazidi women and girls held captive as slaves by the so-called Islamic State. It contains original footage of life inside the regime and one can almost taste the fear under which so many are forced to live. The viewer sees the young men of ISIS slumped on sofas with guns, laughing about their slaves girls; the darkened smoked-filled rooms where brave men plot with iPhones to rescue their women; the dull thud of rocks hitting a woman caught in adultery; the biblical scenes of escape through purple tinted fields into the arms of family members; the faceless, heroic guides who melt into the landscape once they have delivered people out of the Islamic state.
But what stays with me are the stories that are told. The story of the veiled girl with dead eyes telling us her story of being raped by her ‘owner’, then six other men, then 12. So brutal were the rapes that she is still in pain and no matter how hard she brushes her teeth, she cannot get rid of their taste. Or the woman whose story is so traumatic that its telling provokes a panic attack so violent that she collapses. It is her fifth such episode of the day. Or the story of a pre-verbal child who tells it with a pudgy toddler hand making the sign of a slit throat. We found out at the question and answer session following the programme that one of the female interpreters killed herself after being close to these stories. It is the stories that I heard, more than anything else, that remain with me as I travelled home from the glamour and those luxurious seats.
These stories are now part of my story. Normally, a trip to BAFTA would elicit a story no more interesting than a self-promoting status update on Facebook or a rushed selfie posted on Twitter. But I find myself unable to forget or simply leave them behind. Watching has been costly: I cried, I felt sick and I was angered by what I saw. These are all dangerous signs. They indicate that there had been a movement from TV viewing as entertainment, education or distraction, into a place of compassion and solidarity. And it is a risky place because it has the potential to change us.
Compassion is the emotion that arises in the immediacy of innocent suffering and from solidarity with those who have to bear it. It’s so much more than sympathy, or pity. As Christ suffered on earth for our salvation, so is God with all who suffer. Nothing can make sense of the suffering shown in this documentary, but God promises to be alongside all who suffer. Through Christ and what happened on the cross, God himself is a victim and must bear witness to it first. As Bonhoeffer said, only a suffering God can help. If this is the God in whose image we are made, it is then no small wonder that the suffering experienced by our sisters causes us to cry and mourn.
And don’t be afraid of the anger either. We don’t really do anger in Christianity – and especially not in churches – because anger is dangerous and messy. But anger erupts in places of injustice and spaces void of love. The word ‘anger’ is from the Latin verb aggredi, meaning ‘to move forwards’. It’s a primary emotion, as important as love in the human capacity to survive. Think of how powerful an angry baby is and how quickly it can use anger to make others respond. Of course anger can have negative consequences, but in its positive manifestation it is unrivalled in its ability to demand justice, good relationships and the primacy love.
The change I’ve undergone is that I cannot forget that this is happening. And just as this documentary bears witness to stories of suffering, the Christian must carry on the work of telling the stories. Our faith is based on a story and so we know that stories change lives. The Bishop of London in his address on the 10 anniversary of the 7/7 bombings said that communities are made by the stories that they tell. In our community, which is indisputably global, the sufferings of the raped women and children taken by ISIS is our story too, and we must ensure it is told over and over and over again. In love, faith and hope, even in the face of such darkness and brutality, we must keep bearing witness until there are no new stories of suffering to tell.