‘Do you know what it’s like to feel, completely and with absolute certainty, that something terrible is about to happen and yet be powerless to stop it and then when it does happen it steals your heart right from beneath your arms, leaving you hopeless and helplessly stranded?’
Watching his friend at home in the Solomon Islands being murdered became an indescribably gut-wrenching catalyst for Jeff Rahari to seek his spiritual core.
Jeff now works with ‘troubled’ young people at Challenge 2000 mentoring them and helping them to find the motivation to return to the education system.
Six years on, he says, he feels totally at peace with himself and his experiences during the bloody ethnic conflict which has wracked the Solomons for the past decade.
Jeff says working for Challenge has been significant in his own rehabilitation and reconciliation with himself after the incident.
‘Because of that it took me quite a while to learn to trust a human being again.’
He began to break out of the shell he had built around himself a couple of weeks after starting work at Challenge in 2001. He went with founder-director, Kitty McKinley, to talk to about 60 sixth-formers at Bishop Viard College.
‘During the programme Kitty turned to me said, “Hey Jeff, can you share a little about what injustice is for you.” And Kitty didn’t even know my story then.
‘So when I started talking … after a while I totally forgot that I was talking to anyone, and I spoke for maybe half an hour and when I stopped talking there was dead silence.
‘I realised Kitty was in tears and some of the students were in tears – I didn’t know what that was all about because for me I was reliving everything. Especially I think the hardest thing for me was seeing my friend killed because I was right there. And I couldn’t do anything about it because the other guy said if I wanted to save him I could go with him as well.
‘Sometimes you feel that things are within your grasp but you can’t do anything about it. I felt totally helpless. And then once everything happened within a split second, I just felt totally hopeless as well so suddenly my dream of studying and being successful had gone down the drain and there I was hanging on for dear life and making sure I survive every second of every day. It was horrible.’
Jeff studied for a Bachelor in Science majoring in Pharmacology at Otago University before returning to the Solomons in 1999, as the ethnic conflict was at its height ‘and all hell broke loose’ so he stayed on for several years.
In the 18 months after his friend was killed, Jeff worked in the pharmacy hospital. But he became more upset after a couple of patients were shot dead.
‘From then I was just like I’ve had enough. I totally went into my own shell and stayed like that for almost a year and a half.’
‘Towards the end of 2001 it was crazy. Everytime I heard guns go off, I’d be out the door. I felt like a fugitive.’
Back in New Zealand in a bid to regain his sanity, Jeff fetched up in Wellington and, soon after that, at Challenge 2000. But not before he had survived another attempt on his life, this time at his own hand.
A cousin working with the police had left a machine gun in Jeff’s parents’ house.
‘I just pulled the gun out and just put it under my chin and I said (to his assembled family) I’m sorry, this could be selfish right now but I’m dying. I can’t take any more. And then I pulled the trigger and I just had a blackout.’
He later learned that the bullet had jammed in the gun and didn’t fire.
After this Jeff, who had been angry when his mother had promised to pray for him, found that she was supporting him by being at his bedside when he woke at 1.00am night after night – ‘I just felt totally empty… like my heart was just hanging loose’ – reliving the horror of his friend’s death.
‘I think that was a beautiful transformation for me.’
Jeff says working with the young people at Challenge has helped his healing.
‘I realise there are people who are pretty much as helpless and hopeless as I was and that’s how for me the whole healing process started.’
Even young people who are troubled have a spiritual depth.
‘… and unless you connect with them on a spiritual level it would be hard to get them out of (a downward spiral).’
Jeff says he finds it exciting to watch as the people he is mentoring develop their self-esteem and spirituality and gain a passion for school and life, as well.
‘But it’s not just with the young people I work with, it’s with everybody. Every person I meet along the way now is an opportunity for me as well as the other person to grow and that’s why whenever I talk to people … I try to connect with them on a spiritual level just to really understand where they’re coming from.’
He feels it is not necessary to go back to the Solomons to achieve reconciliation for himself.
‘If I were to meet the other person and say, I forgive you, it’s not about them anymore. It’s more about how much I’ve actually forgiven myself … I feel so much at peace with myself right now because I have consciously reconciled with myself. I think that matters more than reconciling with the perpetrators. Because at the end of the day I think there will always be the perpetrators.
‘There are a million and one things I have learned from all this. I think the biggest lesson for me is this: that life has its spring, summer, autumn and winter and nothing stays fresh and young forever. I had to learn to let go and move on.’