I Witnessed

The roads in eastern Ethiopia are difficult to navigate. They are water filled “canyons” with few markers to indicate direction. Large supply trucks, weighted down by their precious cargoes, are up to their axles in mud. Six of us were traveling in a Land Cruiser – an indispensible piece of equipment for this part of the world. One wag commented, “You want to get to Masai Mara, drive a Land Rover, you want to get home, drive a Land Cruiser.”

This five-hour, one way trip to several communities seemed like just one more humanitarian mission. For reasons I cannot totally explain, it became so much more.  Godare, a border community in dispute between Ethiopia and Somalia, hosts refugees while raided by rebels and terrorists alike. It is five miles from the Somali border. In just three months the camp has grown from 2,000 people to 25,000 people. Yet, international aid organizations such as UN agencies are not there. The border dispute prevents these agencies from doing their important work.

The four days we spent in eastern Ethiopia have affected me in a ways that no other journey has affected me.  In fact, I have not been able to write about it because anything I say seems premature, self-righteous, or judgmental.  The misery of famine and starvation, complicated by conflicts between faiths and political powers, washed over me and seemed to silence me. I felt broken on a rock of hopelessness that spilled any self-preserving detachment on to the ground to be soaked up by the horror of the moment. While nature caused the famine, politics and religion exacerbated it.  This suffering is preventable.

For four days I witnessed the choices made by parents and caregivers to either neglect or abandon their children because of starvation and fear. I watched human migration across barren lands in search of  food, water, or safety.  But perhaps, most disconcerting, I was a witness to the world’s neglect.  For certain, the usual suspects were present in Eastern Ethiopia – from faith-based NGOs seeking to put a finger in the dike to avert human suffering to a few global educators operating a school. There was no outrage, no anger, no urgency or call to action. People, both benefactors and beneficiaries moved through the motions of survival. There was a terrible sense of “normal.” I had seen this all before, but this time it just seemed different. It felt like I was becoming a witness to the worst in human experience.

A few days later, I came home to the hysterical debates of Congress and political campaigns during which the famine in the Horn of Africa and Kenya never received a remark.  In fact, in all the year-end reflections of 2011, nobody mentioned the famine and the number of people dying. As a witness to this horrible situation, I felt isolated and alone and every time I attempted to describe what I felt, people would simply stare. I felt like I was being a killjoy to the holiday festivities. Despite pleas by the ONE Foundation and other relief organizations with media capacity, nobody paid attention to the realities that over 30,000 children have died in the past three months. I went through my normal Christmas rituals of children and grandchildren, but I also felt lost and adrift.

I have grown stronger in recent days because of another fact associated with this experience – I was not only a witness to incredible suffering, I was also a witness to amazing courage. A group of Christians reached out to Muslims and offered them food and water. Because of religious conflict and persecution, I cannot mention their names nor their communities – but I can try to describe their acts. In this case, a small but committed Christian community worshipping underground had access to food and grains which they freely distributed to their Muslim neighbors. These Muslim neighbors told me how greatly they appreciated this act of compassion and care and how they wanted to join hands with their new friends to confront the immediate crisis of hunger and conflict. I witnessed Muslims embracing Christians and expressing gratitude for something so basic as a cup of water. I realized at that moment; I was witnessing the power of community action. Action at the community level that makes a neighbor more than an abstract concept but a person with a face, a person with a family, a person with dreams. These actions transcend religious and political conflict.

What has not been achieved in conference rooms, parliaments, or in complex negotiations is being achieved by tender acts of mercy. These acts are made possible by committed and dedicated individuals, often supported by generous donors thousands of miles away. Suddenly, I felt the bridge. Many people in the US and other parts of the developed world provide resources; courageous individuals living in remote parts of the Horn of Africa take those resources and convert them into sustainable acts of love and grace. Geopolitics aside in the global conflict between Muslim and Christian – faith based organizations and individuals go into the darkness of human suffering. They confront the noise of hate and subdue the violence with acts of charity and compassion.  Alas, I have been a witness to the worst of humanity and the best of humanity transformed by grace.

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