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Scars

I spent my childhood growing up abroad mainly in West Africa, although I also spent some time in the Middle East and Europe. And no, growing up in Africa, I did not have giraffes and elephants roaming in my backyard. My backyard was a sea of the Sahara desert, rolling cream colored sand dunes as far as the eyes could see. My mother and father fell in love with the poor in developing countries and decided to devote their lives to working with these people shortly after they met and were married in Niger, West Africa. As a consequence, my older brother and I were raised from country to country, saying many hellos and even more goodbyes than I like to remember. Although at times I struggle to appreciate this way in which they chose to raise me, I truly would not have chosen in other way to experience a childhood.

I love and admire my parents deeply. I have aspired to take after my mother’s beautiful heart for people, as well as her striking skills with the paintbrush where she is gifted with the ability to paint her life experiences. My mother is also half French and British which add uniqueness to her character. My father is an Alabama native and is strong willed, brave, and the most selfless man I have ever known. Both of my parents have honestly been my world. It is important though, that I highlight their cultural differences because they have shaped who I am. I consider myself a nomad, a person who has moved place to place with no permanent abode. I have American, French, and British citizenships and a memory full of Africa. I am about to begin my story, or at least where I felt the significance of my life began.

Before certain events of my life, I was in a sort of an indeterminate state. I knew that I had a bizarre life and I didn’t have much of an identity to say the least. The only thing I could really find identity in was my family, because they were the only thing constant amidst my ever changing life. I battled with anger towards my life as a child. I craved normalcy more than ever. I wanted to ride a big yellow school bus to school, have American friends, and eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I never pondered the purpose of my globetrotting life until a particular event that occurred when I was only ten years old, living in Mauritania, West Africa.

Prior to the age of ten, I never pondered death, nor should I have. Death was something I saw in action movies. The bad guys get shot by guns, keel over and they were done. When I would think of death it did scare me, but I knew I had nothing to worry about at such a young age. There were too many other important things to be doing rather than worrying about when I was going to die – things like exploring nature and teasing boys. As an adult, I know that death is a harsh reality that it is very possible and if thought about too much can make me rather anxious. As children, we are meant to fear harm, but not death. It is just the way the mind is developing. At the age of ten, I experienced something rare, and something most people will never experience in a lifetime.

Wednesdays were always my favorite days of the week for some reason when I was a fifth grader. I attended a very small American embassy school in the coastal-Saharan capitol city of Nouakchott [nwahk-shot], Mauritania. The school only consisted of some forty students and there was only one other fellow student in my grade, which meant I received much attention. I loved and admired the teachers greatly. That school became my second family and I cherished every day of it. This particular Wednesday on the 17th of October, 2001, was different. As I sat in the dusty parking lot waiting to be picked up, little did I know that I would not return to school for a very long while.

At the end of the school day, my hair was always a mess, my navy and white uniform dirty from all the desert harmattan dust in the air and from chasing the boys, perhaps a little too much during recess. I was hungry and ready to go home to relax in my air-conditioned home, away from the scorching heat. My father was quite busy as the national director of World Vision and my mother was in France visiting family and taking an exam for an art class. My brother attended a boarding school in the neighboring country of Senegal, so it was just my father and me in the country. My father worked till five in the afternoon, so he hired a World Vision driver to pick me up and bring me home most afternoons. The driver was supposed to arrive at two thirty, but you know what they say about African time. No one must ever expect anyone to ever be on time in Africa. The security was also relatively high at the American embassy due to the fact that September 11th had only occurred in the past month, so this also delayed the after-school pick up routine. As my driver pulled up in his white Land Cruiser, I crawled in the back. The hot leather seats clung to my sticky sweaty legs. The AC was barely working and the driver had awful body odor as usual. I greeted the driver in French and leaned my head on the window, utterly exhausted and tried as hard as I could to breathe out of my mouth for the remainder of the ride. We would pass the usual banged up green taxis that honked profusely while drivers exchanged profanities in Arabic to each other, the donkey carts, and the occasional camel or two on the road. This was my life, this was normal to me as a ten-year-old. The driver turned onto my dirt road which hadn’t been paved yet since it was a new development. As the driver dropped me off and pulled away, I dragged my backpack to the entrance of my house, passing our little green paradise of a garden in the Sahara desert.

I was greeted by the cool air of my home and the smell of pancakes that our cook, Abdulleh, would prepare for me as an after school snack. Abdulleh was a kind hearted, quiet Mauritanian man who loved my family dearly. He was also one of my heroes. Anytime I spotted a cockroach, I would squeal and run to him for help. He would tranquilly walk over, grab the insect and flush it down the toilet, all while I was still dancing and shrieking on a chair. He made all of our meals and was ever so patient with my family’s hectic lives. How I wish there was a way I could have warned him about the later events that were going to occur and that there would be no one eating his dinner that night.
My father called on the phone around four o’clock after I had completed my homework and was settling down to my collection of Barbie dolls. He asked if I wanted to go to the beach, which was only half an hour away right on the outskirts of town. I wasn’t too keen on the idea of going because at that age I was always picky and stubborn. I never wanted to do anything anyone suggested but once I was doing whatever it was, I was always having a wonderful time. I hesitantly agreed to go mainly because of the excitement in my dad’s voice about getting a change of scene. He told me to be ready and to have my suit on at five and to jump in the car as soon as he pulled up.

Five came around more quickly then I would have liked and he was there. I had on a brand new purple bathing suit that I was quite fond of and a lime green sundress with cherries and lemon slices printed all over. I greeted my father and crawled into the front passenger seat of the white Land Cruiser, the AC was blasting and I was pleased. We made our way out of town and drove the bumpy thirty minutes to where the sand dunes rolled into the Atlantic Ocean.

I was sitting patiently as my father did his routine deflation of the tires before we drove over the bigger dunes to reach the ocean that was right on the other side. I was getting bored sitting there and kept catching my reflection in the side view mirror, crinkling my nose and making faces at myself. I then noticed a man dressed in the local attire of blue robes and a turban walk by and then approach my father, but I never thought twice about him. Little did I know that this man was about to forever change my life. I was so passive during that afternoon, more so than normal, which is strange to me. The best way I can describe it is like the ultimate calm before a storm, as if my mind was foretelling me that something traumatic was about to occur, and I needed all the peace of mind I could get in order to prepare.

The next thing I saw after sitting there quietly for ten minutes was my father at his door. He frantically opened the door and got in, immediately yelling, “Hannah, get down, get down!” Now, rule number one: never tell a curious ten-year-old to get down, especially after making a scene. Instead almost as a reflex, I did the opposite. I turned myself around, looking behind my passenger seat to the back windows. This move if not made, could have prevented so much damage to my body. If only I had just crawled into a ball on the floor of the car, then I would have been fine. But that’s not how things played out. The next thing I knew, that man that I had consciously ignored only a few minutes ago, was at my dad’s window waving a black 9mm pistol.

Before I could even scream or react in any way, the first thought that came to mind was, “I should have known.” I am not sure why I thought this, being only ten years old, but I felt that there was something within me that was telling me that I should have known better. Before I knew it, I was screaming repeatedly, “Daddy, that man has a gun, Daddy, he has a gun!” Over and over again, it was all I could say. I knew it wasn’t helpful, but part of it I think was the fact that I was trying to warn myself and make sense of the situations.

“I know Hannah, I know!”

As if he didn’t. Instead of going down for cover I was too busy trying to warn my father of something he already was quite aware of. I mean for heaven’s sake, the weapon was right in his face! I could not tell what my father was doing. All I knew was that he was trying to get us out of the situation as quickly as possible and protect me. I caught a glimpse of the man spotting me. He had not realized that there was another passenger in the vehicle. As soon as he noticed me, he directed his aim at me, then at my father again…then back at me. I heard what sounded like a clap of thunder was ripping through the vehicle, stunning every nerve ending on my body.

My eyes were closed. Black. I was thrown up against the inside door of the car. I felt as if a professional boxer had given me his hardest punch right in the middle of my chest. I knew something was wrong, but I could not open my eyes. My hands were clutching my chest, but I did not know why. My chest was throbbing. I figured it was because I was grasping my chest so hard. I heard my father start the car and put it in first gear, and the vehicle began moving rapidly. Two more fires went off close by, but my ears were still ringing from the first shot. I knew something bad had happened but I wasn’t ready to know of it just yet. The realization didn’t fully kick in until I felt the warm liquid flow between my fingers and down my arms. My dress was soaked and my chest was beginning to ache with tremendous amounts of pain. I finally opened my eyes and squinted around me. Red. Red was everywhere. I then fully realized what had happened. I panicked as soon as I saw the red. I couldn’t scream. All I could do was whimper. I had been shot.

My mind was racing. Flashes of my mother and brother, would I be able to say goodbye? Was this a terrorist attack? I then went back to the memories of all the action movies I had seen. Most people who get shot end up dying, so therefore I was most likely going to die. Although my chest was burning, I did not feel like I was about to die, which was confusing to me. I then figured when most people in movies have been shot they usually spit or cough up blood before they die. I then managed to adjust myself to put my hand to my mouth and checked my saliva. To my relief it was clear. Therefore, my lungs were most likely alright. This gave me a little more hope. I decided to confirm what had happened so I asked my dad, “Daddy have I been shot?”

There was a long pause as the car was flying down the dirt road at great speeds, “Yes Hannah, you have been shot.”

“Daddy, am I gonna die now?”

“Hannah, look at me!”

I craned my neck upwards from my fetal position to look at my father. He too was covered in blood, and it scared me more than the blood that drenched my dress. I reached for his face amidst his scarlet covered clothes, and he turned to stare me straight in the eyes. A stare only a father would give to his little girl covered in blood, clutching a bullet wound to the chest.

“No Hannah, You are not going to die.”

He then diverted his attention back to the road but I continued staring at him, at his red garments. “Daddy…have you been shot too?”

“Yes, Hannah.”

“Daddy, are you gonna die now?”

“No, Hannah, you just pray.”

As soon as my dad said this the only words I could find in my mouth was, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” Every time I said the name, I would say it louder until it was almost a cry. That beautiful name on my lips worked wonders during the remainder of my time in that Land Cruiser. An amazing sense of peace washed over me and my fear had gone.

I then took this opportunity to explore my wound. I was curled up in a fetal position in a pool of my own blood so I had to painfully squirm to a position where I could pull my dress down with my left arm that I wasn’t using to clutch my chest. Just as I was about to pull it down, my father noticed and said, “Hannah, don’t look at that!”

Out of his own curiosity, he then reached over to me and pulled down my dress to have a look himself. We both looked. There was a gaping hole the size of a quarter in the middle of my chest. Every beat my heart would make a flow of blood would trickle out. I still had no fear. I actually continued to stare at my wound and I was upset that my new purple bathing suit was ruined.

“Daddy, that man put a hole in my new bathing suit!” I remained so passive which gave my father hope and courage that I was all right. He had no idea whether to stop the car and hold his daughter in case this was her last few minutes alive, or to continue driving to the nearest clinic. Fortunately, he made the right decision.

Miraculously we arrived safely without either of us slipping into unconsciousness. Doctors rushed out as crowds grew around the vehicle. At first people came to my father to assist him, but he threw everyone off and pointed to me, demanding that I was the one who needed to be taken care of. I was stiff, sleepy, and cold still lying in a pool of my own blood. I was carefully taken out of the vehicle and was rushed into the small clinic. All I could hear were beeps, voices, and people rushing. The wheels of my stretcher were squeaky, and I kept seeing familiar World Vision faces gawking at me. I kept hoping that I wasn’t naked. They looked me over, trying to understand where the bullet had been lodged. I didn’t understand what was taking so long. I just wanted to be told that everything was going to be okay. As I was waiting for news and beginning to feel panicky, the American ambassador and his wife stood by my side and held my hand.

After performing multiple x-rays they had discovered the bullet was nowhere in my body. After scratching heads and trying to understand how this was possible, an assistant began stripping off my bloody garments. The bullet was discovered caught in a fold of my dress. After further studies, they concluded that the bullet had entered my chest, bounced off my sternum, ricocheted, around my ribcage and exited right near my arm pit. If the bullet was half a centimeter in either direction, I would have died on the spot.

My father had taken a bullet to his arm, the same bullet that went through me. Except, he saved my life by receiving the bullet first. As we shared our sides of the stories, my father explained that he panicked when he saw the man aim at me, so he threw his arms up against the window to block his view. This actually slowed the impact of the bullet which aided in saving my life. The only conclusion of the miraculous situation was that God was extremely present during those few minutes. This was a part of His plan, only the beginning of many plans to unfold in my life.

We were evacuated to Paris the next night, where I could have more intensive care and proper stitching of my wounds. I remember having a handsome French doctor escort me to the hospital once we landed in Paris. I was lying in a stretcher with a goofy oxygen mask, in the back of an ambulance being driven hectically through Paris traffic. As one can imagine, it wasn’t the most idealistic setting to be in with a ridiculously good-looking doctor.

We reunited with my mother in Paris, and I spent two weeks recovering before I was released from the hospital. We stayed with my grandparents in the northern part of France as we decided what to do next. The FBI were constantly calling and interrogating my father, trying to capture as much information as they could. It was sort of neat really, at least for me. After a few more weeks, we received a call that they had found the shooter. This was a relief to all of us. I strongly desired to return to the country. I wanted to say goodbye to everyone at school and see my house again. After much contemplation we agreed as a family to return for six more months.

Little did I know what these six months held for my family and me. As time went on, I kept thinking about the prisoner who had tried to kill my father, and I had a growing desire to meet him. I do not understand why but I needed to see him, to put a face to him. If I was going to carry these scars for the rest of my life, I think I deserved to know a little more about the man who put them there.

At first we were denied the ability to meet with the prisoner. The FBI said it was too risky, and it would take too much governmental paperwork to be able have a meeting. However. A few weeks before we were due to leave the country, we received a call and were granted permission to have a one-hour meeting.

I was nervous about meeting him but never scared. In that hour, I met the man who tried to kill me and my father. His name was Sidi and I told him that I forgave him and held no bitterness in my heart against him. As we left, my mother gave the man a Bible, which was highly illegal to do in the country.

A week later we received a letter from Sidi, telling my family that we had forever changed his life and that he was beginning to understand the meaning of his life, seeing a light at the end of his dark tunnel. He called me an angel in the letter and that what stuck out to me most. We also found out later that by forgiving the man, he was pardoned of the death sentence that he was supposed to receive. The next few weeks my story was headlined in the Islamic newspapers, “Ten year old forgives her assassin.”

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