Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Man-ing up

"I have no other business but to secure something to eat, water to drink and some wood and paper to warm them during the night," he said. "I feel ashamed of myself. I can do nothing for them."

That's a quote from a father in Gaza which broke my heart this morning as I read the news. Now, I have no interest in discussing what's going on over there since many people get very angry at my feelings on the subject, but it does raise an interesting point about responsibility and depression in refugee/war situations.

Let me give you another quote from the Congolese in Uganda I was assessing last month:
"There is no food and my wife and children are starving to death. The children cry every night, they're dying... so I left."

I was, of course, scandalized by this. The man in question who gave the quote looked healthy enough. I looked at the two Ugandans who were with me, hoping for some solidarity disgust and instead got nodding heads. Later, I spoke to them about it and, yup, I had understood correctly, the man's family couldn't get enough food and his kids were sick from malnutrition so, rather than go without himself or work harder to get them more, he abandoned them all. Which, apparently, was not considered a despicable, cowardly act by my team.

However, in way, I get it. Look at the pictures coming out of Gaza right now, all that suffering. Look at pictures of Somalis (many MANY more of which we'll be seeing soon once the Ethiopian withdrawal leads to full scale chaos), people who have been trapped in an inexplicable and remarkably violent war for what seems like forever now. Go to any IDP camp (IDPs are internally displaced people, people who haven't crossed a border. IDP camps tend to be worse than refugee camps, in my experience) and see a family of 10 people all living in one little pup-tent-sized shelter.

Imagine not knowing when you'll be able to return to your home, to a normal life, being exiled to some forgotten dusty corner of some foreign country and depending on others for everything, and having it never be enough. And seeing this stretch out in front of you ad infinitum. Boredom and poverty or death and destruction. Nothing ever the same again, etc.

It is awful. If I faced even a tenth of what these guys face, I would curl up in a ball and rock back and forth catatonically. Look at me whinging non-stop for months about the malarial pit of despair.

And so, yes, from the depth of this depression, wretchedness and misery, some people make seemingly counter-intuitive decisions like abandoning their children to die so they don't have to watch it. But who knows how any of us would react in what is a truly god awful, forsaken situation.

I still, however, know my own father would cut off and barbecue his own leg for his daughters before leaving them hungry, so I can't help but judge these dudes.

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