In the weeks following September 11, 2001, a Texas resident fueled by hatred, grief, and misunderstanding, went on a shooting spree that left two South Asian men dead and one critically injured. Mark Stroman proclaimed himself a true American patriot and called his murder spree a "retaliation" for 9/11. Targeting men of colour who he identified as "Arabs," Stroman's Islamophobia is echoed in the fear many Muslim Americans feel in a post-Trump United States.
I recently sat down with Rais Bhuiyan, Stroman's only surviving victim to talk about why he not only forgave his shooter but fought for his life and how the tension following 9/11 has never gone away for some.
VICE: Take me back to that day. You know, obviously it's something most people don't face, but when you when you think back to those moments, can you try and describe what happened to you.
Rais Bhuiyan: It was September 21st 2001. Friday. Raining since morning and business was pretty slow. I was working in the gas station around 12:30 PM, a customer wearing a bandanna, sunglasses, baseball cap, and holding a double-barrel shotgun burst in. And I was robbed in that gas station before so I thought it would be a robbery. I placed all the cash on the counter and I offered him—I said, "Sir, here's all the money, take it, but please do not shoot me." He wasn't looking at the money though, he was looking at me and I felt the cold air flow through my spine. Why he's not looking at the money? And then he mumbled a question: "Where are you from?" And I was confused, and as soon as I said excuse me, he pulled the trigger from four to five feet away at point-blank range.
I felt it first, like a million bees stinging and then I heard the sound like a big explosion. I looked under the floor and saw blood was pouring like an open faucet from the right side of my head and I placed my hand as if I had to keep my brain from spilling out. I remember myself screaming "Mom" [from the] top of my voice, and I look left, [and I] saw the gunman was still standing [there]. I thought, "If I don't pretend I'm dying, he would shoot me again," so I fell down on the floor, and after a few seconds he left the store. I couldn't dial 911 I was shaking so badly. I ran to the barber shop next door and I screamed. There were three guys in the barber's shop, and they tried to run away to the emergency exit door, so I grabbed one of them and I said, "Please call 911, I'm dying and I don't wanna die today."
When he called 911, I caught myself in the mirror and the image reflecting back was gruesome, like something straight out of a horror movie. And I couldn't believe that was my face and I was thinking, a few minutes before I was a smiley, healthy young man, and in the instant it takes to pull the trigger, I have become disfigured, losing blood and energy rapidly. I was fighting to stay awake, fighting to stay alive.
When did you understand why he had done what he done?
It took a little time. My shooter, Mark Stroman, he killed two innocent South Asians: one from Pakistan and one from India. And he shot me the face on September 21st. After he was arrested, he volunteered and told the local media that what he did what most Americans wanted to do but didn't have the guts. He claimed he was the true American patriot. He was full of ignorance and full of hate.
After he was given death penalty, I went through a healing process and I started learning more about the crime and about him, Mark Stroman. Over time I realized how he was raised, and I started looking at him as a human being. I started to see him as a victim as well because the childhood I had, the loving parents I had. He didn't have that. And I started feeling more for him. The more I came to know about him, the more I started feeling for him as a human being.
And how do you find that? Because it's not just forgiveness, it's compassion, and then ultimately you became an advocate for him.
Right. My upbringing and fate gave me the courage to forgive and run an international campaign to save his life. Because I suffered terribly. I mean, I lost vision in one eye. I lost a tooth, which was totally replaced. I lost my fiancee. I went through a lot of disaster, one after one, and there is no doubt that I suffered terribly, but I didn't see any value in him suffering as well. I saw him as a human being and I wanted to save his life because I forgave him.
But after coming back from Mecca, from the religious pilgrimage, I realized it was not enough. Even though I forgave him, he was going to be executed. And by executing him, we would simply lose a human life without dealing with the root cause. I thought if he was given a chance, he might become a better human being and he might be able to contribute to society in a positive way. And my effort to save the life of Mark Stroman was based upon hope that the people can take a new narrative, can work to build a world based upon mutual respect and dignity and understanding. And I was totally convinced that I had to do the best I could to save his life, even though he tried to end mine.
He was eventually executed, but you did have a conversation before then. What was that conversation like?
I said, "Mark, you should know that I never hated you and I forgive you." And he said, "Rais, you know, thank you very much. What you've been doing is amazing. I never expected that from you." And then suddenly he said, "I love you, bro." And I couldn't hold my tears at that time. [I was thinking,] Why couldn't you have said the same thing ten years back instead of pulling the trigger when you saw I was terrified in the gas station? I was nervous. If you could have found me as a brother, as your brother at that day, you wouldn't be [on] death row.
My eyes were full of tears. It was very emotional, it was very painful, and I couldn't hold the tears when he said, "I love you, bro." And then he said, "Rais, I have to go, they're calling me."
The atmosphere after 9/11 was tense, it was full of hate, there was a lot of animosity towards brown people in general. But it felt like we were making progress in the last, you know, decade or so. It's hard not to feel right now like that progress has been undone with what's happened with the election. How does it feel right now in the US? Do you feel like we've taken a step backwards?
Well, there has been an indescribable amount of emotion, pain, dialogue, some violence and intense fear across the United States after the last week's presidential election. And regardless of, you know, a political revolution or view, the reaction and the after effects are real and dominant. I mean, during this very, very crucial, very difficult moment, [the] only one thing I can think of right now is that we must, stay kind, gentle and more merciful with everyone, and with ourselves as well. Because we don't want to live in a world full of hate, and ignorance, and violence, no matter who you are.
It's not an individual person's burden but at the same time, it is everyone's burden as well to make a better world. And we also need to understand that we are responsible for one another. We must learn to respect, understand and accept each other if you want to bring about the world that we all want. A world without violence, a world without victims, and a world without hate. I'm always hopeful, no matter what happens in this world, [that] there are a lot of good people in this world.
Do you feel afraid, though?
Well to be honest with you, as a human being, and since what happened to me in the past and what I'm seeing right now is happening in the world, I still, you know, I am afraid. But again, my hope kicks in right there. Yes, there is a fear. There is a lot of bigotry, [a] lot of discrimination taking place in our society, but that should not stop us [from moving] forward. Our dreams should be bigger than our fear. Our hope should be bigger than our fears. Otherwise we cannot move forward.
What would you say to someone, someone like Mark now, who's feeling that anger and that hatred and thinking about acting?
Everywhere I go, I say one thing that, once you get to know them, you cannot hit them. There's a huge disconnect in our society and because of that, fear rules. I would say, to everyone, that please try to get to know the [someone] different from you. [G]et to know them, the way Mark found me as his brother and he said he loved me. There was a disconnect ten years back. If he'd have taken some initiative to know people like me, people from Middle East, or people different from him, he would not end up his life in death row.
Your compassion is incredible given what you've been through and I think it's an amazing example for the millions of people who are on on both sides of the equation, in the US and the world over. So thank you.
Thank you very much. I think I give the credit to my parents. They taught me about mercy and forgiveness when I was a very young kid. And when I faced a harsh and difficult situation, after being shot, I was able to practice what I was taught. I think, as human being[s], we all are capable of practicing the same human qualities. It's just a matter of how we see things. I'm not a superhuman over here. I'm just a normal human being.
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