I have dedicated my life to helping people in far-flung places. I live with the images of blood-splattered huts where people were tortured, of wild-eyed, drugged-up youth manning vehicle checkpoints through which I must pass, of starving and mutilated children. As a U.N. aid worker in Africa, I served in some of the most dangerous places in the world: civil war in Liberia, tribal conflict and famine in Somalia, deadly xenophobic violence in South Africa. But it wasn’t until the so-called “alt-right” converged on idyllic Charlottesville, Virginia, that violence and hatred were directed at me for the first time.
I had not planned on joining the protests that Saturday afternoon. Like many of us, I struggled with a basic question: Was it was better to take a stand against hate, or starve such evil of an audience?
As I know too well from my 20 years in Africa, this is how civil wars start.
That morning I occupied myself with the quotidian tasks of editing a report and buying groceries. Ultimately, I decided to join a small gathering of artists and performers organized by Black Lives Matter in downtown Charlottesville, away from the face-off between white supremacists and counter-protestors. But I never made it. Just a few blocks from the well-appointed home where I was summer house-sitting for a local meditation teacher, I joined a group of counter-protestors. We decided to avoid confronting the neo–Nazi groups assembled in a nearby park, and head to the downtown Pedestrian Mall.
The mood was hopeful and expectant. The sun was shining. It felt like decency had prevailed. The people of Charlottesville were reclaiming their streets. The Pedestrian Mall with its coffee shops and outdoor cafes and bookstores ― shops with names like Blue Ridge Country Store and Impeccable Pig ― lie just ahead.
Not far away, 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr., sat in his car. I did not hear his engine rev. I did not see his car barreling down the alleyway toward us. I only felt the impact, felt myself spinning, thrown back, bouncing off of other people. I rose and could hardly believe what I saw: young men lunging at the dark grey car with tinted windows, trying to stop it. And then being flung like rag dolls as Fields threw his car into reverse. I knew instantly that it was a terrorist attack. Convinced he was backing up only to charge again, I pushed my way to the sidewalk, over and around the bodies of the fallen, and ran around the corner. My sneakers and glasses were gone; my cell phone cracked in my front jeans pocket. When it was clear that he had fled, I returned to the scene to help. But I could not. I could only stand ― barefoot, bruised and bleeding ― and cry. Average American citizens, mainly young people in their summer shorts and t-shirts, lie bloodied and broken on a corner street in Charlottesville.
In the days since the attack, I cannot escape the realization that evil and depravity is here, that it showed its face not in Rwanda, Syria or Kurdistan, but in a quintessential college town in America on a sunny Saturday afternoon. That our president refuses to take a firm stand against the bigotry and nativism that sparked it. That it will get worse.
As I know too well from my 20 years in Africa, this is how civil wars start. They begin with tribalism, provocation and the willingness of those in power to turn a blind eye. This past week, I have awakened each morning unsettled, with a feeling of dread.
Mercifully, doctors have confirmed that I suffered no permanent damage. The swelling will go down; the bruises and cuts will heal. But my daily routine suddenly feels extraneous. Our future is uncertain; our country faces an existential threat. The troubles of distant countries I’ve worked in have arrived on our doorstep. We are no longer safe.
Kelly David is a former journalist and aid worker for the United Nations. She is currently on leave from the U.N., working on a research project at the University of Virginia.