A Body Made of Wounds, Human and Non-Human: the journey of one humanitarian worker
Human Interest Feature
By Mishal Baig
Bruna Kadletz is a humanitarian worker and sacred activist from Brazil whose work is inspired by bringing together spiritual awareness and humanitarianism. I sat with Bruna on a sunny afternoon in a Bedouin tent, in St Ethelburga’s Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, in the middle of London. There sitting cross-legged on a Persian rug she told me a story, which at first I mistook as just her story, turns out, it’s so much more than that.
Wrapped up in her story were the stories of children and the earth. Journeying through war. Their stories are beautiful and broken. But those broken pieces put together form a mosaic, that reveals the pattern of our times.
Mishal: When was the first time that you came in contact with witnessing the effects of conflict?
Bruna: I think that was in 2015 when I went to Johannesburg in South Africa for three months. One of the most disturbing images was the kids on the corners of the streets without their hands. Their hands had been amputated because they were former soldiers.
So that was the first time I could visually see some of the outcomes of war and conflict.
And when you interact with people who come from war zones you can see they bring the scars of the conflict, they’re not left behind, they bring all of the memories, and all of the experiences along with them and so many of them are deeply, deeply hurt.
Very often children are in a state of defensiveness because they have been hurt so deeply. They didn’t know who to trust. So with those kids, it can be quite difficult to interact.
Mishal: And with those children do you feel a particular light is missing from the eyes?
Bruna: Absolutely. Fast forward to last year. I went to Jordan, we were visiting some Syrian families. There was this boy who was just 14 years old, and his name was Bashar. He had been working for the past three years to support his family because his father had a disability and couldn’t work. So it was Bashar and his older brother who were the breadwinners of the family. I was trying to find a way to connect with him, but he was always quiet. And you could see that he was somewhere else, there was a part of him that seemed to be gone, the innocence, that spark of light that children and teenagers usually carry.
And that to me is one of the most disheartening aspects of war. How it not only displaces you, or displaces communities from their homes, their lives from their identities, but it’s as if they were displaced from the realm of humanity. So the very humane aspects of kids, the joy in their eyes, the light in their eyes is gone.
Mishal: How do you speak with these children, how do you try to engage with that spark that you can’t see anymore? And have you ever seen it come back?
Bruna: Yes, so that’s the advantage of being Brazilian [laughs] because it is known Brazilians love football. And a lot of these kids love football. So I say I’m Brazilian, and immediately they start naming their favourite football players. And that’s a way of connecting with them.
I’ve also had experience working with children in youth centres. And there we ’d connect with art and drawings. And they’d sit with some empty paper and colours and start creating new joyful memories in spite of the past. You know you can’t erase the past, you can’t erase everything they’ve been through, everything they’ve witnessed. But somehow you can create those pockets of moments where you bring a bit of peace, joy creativity back. And they may not stay, they might return to the distress of living in a refugee camp or living on the outskirts of society.
Mishal: You’re able to give them a little space to be free, to breathe for a few moments.
Bruna: Yes and that’s very beautiful. We received a Syrian family in Brazil last May. And they were three kids, one twelve, one nine and one six-year-old. So the nine and six-year-old had only ever seen war all their life everything they knew was related to war. As they were born into it.
When they came to Brazil, for the first time they woke up in a place of peace. And so they went to school, and this school was on a beautiful farm. And it had a beautiful football field. And the six-year-old boy ran away from the class just so he could run on the field freely. And the teachers came complaining to us that he needs discipline. He left class to run on the field. But inside we were all so happy because for the first time he was running free. The teacher had no idea where the boy came from. All he knew before were walls and concrete, and the ruins of buildings from war and everything was grey. This was the first time that he was running free. It was actually something very powerful for him.
Mishal: Last question now. When you come back from all of these experiences there is so much you are trying to absorb and understand yourself. You must go through this process of first being grief-stricken, and it provokes questions within yourself, you can go through anger and compassion.
You have not directly suffered war and yet you’ve witnessed those who have so much that it must be a tremendous part of your reality. And in a way, when you are really there for someone else’s pain, when you really make yourself present for them, in a way you take some of that pain upon yourself. So I’m curious, what is your personal relationship with war and conflict?
Bruna: You know, you hear all these stories and you know they are not yours. I know it’s not my reality, but somehow they become part of who I am. You can’t just walk away once you are truly present.
And that impacts your inner state so that there are times when your heart is broken over and over again, and it’s very painful.
There is an inclination to anger, to frustration and to be trapped in these cycles… especially when you discover most of these crises are fabricated when you learn that behind wars lie huge economic interests. And cause people to lose everything. It’s not simply a regional or international interplay. It’s much bigger than that it’s part of our global story of desecrating the Earth of desecrating the sacred. Because most of these conflicts when you go beyond the religions and the other ethnic aspects there is always a dispute over natural resources.
So it goes back to that common thread of destroying our living systems and also destroying societies, it’s very much interconnected.
On a very personal level, it’s difficult because I come back from those trips torn apart and I cry, and I sit with the suffering, and I sit with the pain. There are times when it is easier for me to just come back. While there are other times when it is a little bit more difficult because it is closer to my heart. It takes me some time to process, but I embrace the process of processing of digesting. I don’t like pretending that it’s not there.
And there is also somehow something within me that can sit with suffering. You know I can, I don’t understand yet, how, but it’s… it doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable to sit with someone who has been tortured or who have been sexually abused without feeling…
Mishal: ...feeling like you-you have to fix it...
Bruna: yes, yes, like I have to fix it. You can just sit with that person and allow them to express themselves to vocalise whatever is inside of them and to listen to them. And to listen to everything, not just the words. To listen to the person that is behind the story.
Like last March I went to the Xingu river in Brazil where a dam was constructed in 2016. I was listening to the stories of these people who depend on the river. I was feeling the pain not just of the river but all the communities whose livelihood rely on the river, whose identity and culture come alive through the river. So once the river is blocked, there is also something in them that is blocked. The river is dammed, and so we were crossing the river on a boat, and I started to feel sick. And sometimes it’s very visceral, and I can get sick while I’m listening to the stories. So it can have a very physical effect on you as your body is processing all the emotions.
Mishal: Hmm like that Daoist saying: what happens in the land happens in the body.
Bruna: Yes, you can relate to that and it’s very painful.
Mishal: And you don’t numb yourself
Bruna: No I think that the moment I numb myself
Mishal: Something essential is lost
Bruna: A part of my humanity is dead. The moment that I numb myself, when I pretend that I don’t care, or I try not to care, or that I try to suppress my emotions, then something in me is dead too.
Each insight Kadletz shared was like a pearl strung on the same thread of unconditional presence, of care. Every memory is like a filament glinting in her eyes. Whenever I asked a question, Bruna never gave just a vacant intellectual answer. Instead like a deep sea diver, she would submerge herself into a sea of feeling, and speak from there. Yet, she is so still and clear, like distilled water or a mirror.
Our lives are saturated with the images of war and conflict. Fleeting images blinkering on our screens that we hardly wrap our heads around. But listening to Bruna Kadletz didn’t feel like that. It wasn’t bewildering like those news flashes often are.
Through Bruna I could see how Bashar had to grow up prematurely, I could feel the carefree wind that must’ve swept the six-year-olds face when he ran free for the first time, and I sensed the loss of a river.