Another Day in Paradise; International Humanitarian Workers Tell Their Stories
This book began over dinner at a small Italian trattoria in Manhattan, far away from the world’s continuing conflicts and natural disasters. Sitting opposite me was Iain Levine, a lithe and gentle man, who was Amnesty International’s Representative to the United Nations. My plan was to interview Iain for a magazine article about humanitarian workers. Several had turned up in my writing workshops over the years, and I had met others socially. I found them compelling, and complicated.
Iain is a nurse whose first job in the field was with Mother Theresa in Calcutta. The son of Orthodox Jews, he grew up in the north of England, and speaks with a lilting drawl. Philosophical musings and stories spill out of him rapidly. Then he will fall silent and listen attentively, or ask questions about the New York Yankees, his adopted team.
One of Iain’s stories was about Foday Sankoh, the butcher of Sierra Leone. Iain had just returned from that war-torn country, still in the throes of a ten-year tyranny. He had sat with Foday Sankoh in a hut and attempted to negotiate the release of children press-ganged into Sankoh’s ragtag guerilla army. Outside the door were scores of machete-hacked victims. “The conversation was deceptively civilized and the ambience inside the hut was congenial,” Iain said. “It was decorated with framed sentimental aphorisms copied by hand from Hallmark greeting cards.”
This was one of many telling details Iain recorded in his journal, and repeated to friends and colleagues during countless de-briefings and e-mails. Transforming the execrable lived experience into a narrative is one of Iain’s tools for staying sane, a device that enables him to keep working, to feel that his efforts have meaning, and results. It is also a témoignage, a witnessing, for the historical record.
For months before we met, Iain was taking his writing a step further. He had enrolled in a one-day writing workshop, and was inspired to begin a book about his twenty years in the field. An avid reader, he admires the Polish journalist, Ryszard Kapuscinski, and wanted to use his personal kind of story-telling as a paradigm. Did I think this was a good idea? I did, and wanted to see what he had already written. He pulled “Another Day in Paradise” out of his briefcase. My own intention—journalist writing about humanitarian workers—felt like an appropriation, and evaporated. Iain’s manuscript was a gift; I would compile and edit an anthology of stories by the workers themselves.
This has never been done before, and the reasons are self-evident; the logistics alone are daunting. Humanitarian workers are scattered all over the world, often in remote and catastrophic landscapes. Satellite phones and e-mail connections are possible, but not always secure. A story from the Sudan had to be abandoned for fear of endangering a clinic; the only available e-mail service was via a radio link, easily accessed by the Khartoum government. Whether the workers are in the midst of emergency rescue/relief operations or in quieter development-oriented postings, they are hard to reach, and they are very busy.
There were also other problems: some aid agencies were reluctant to cooperate. Others understood that to allow their humanitarian workers a voice was an opportunity to reach potential donors who are weary of mail solicitations and soft focus photographs of starving children. But, in return, they wanted to maintain control of the text. My powers of persuasion were severely tested.
Oxfam (US) was the first NGO (non-governmental agency) to compile a list of workers to contact who might be willing to write stories, no strings attached. Others followed, others continued to have doubts about security issues, or public image. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), headquartered in Geneva, was unusually cooperative. I had caught them at the right moment, just as they were rethinking their relationship with the media. They invited me to attend four days of a training sequence for new recruits, and those already in the field.
The book was nearly complete by the time I arrived at the ICRC conference center in the summer of 2002. All the controversial issues I had been grappling with as I mentored the stories in this collection surfaced during those few days, and were reframed. Though I was not allowed to interrupt the sessions with questions, or take photographs, I lived communally with the workers, many of whom had worked in the international disaster relief system for other agencies in the past. Chatting informally over drinks and meals, I learned more from them than all the books I had read and conferences I attended for two years. My enthusiasm for the project deepened; so, too, my respect for the humanitarian workers. These are the people, many so very young, risking their lives on the ground while politicians and diplomats negotiate in velvet curtained rooms.
Most humanitarian workers begin their careers in their twenties oblivious, at first, to the controversies about humanitarian intervention in the UN Security Council or the corridors of foreign policy institutes. Raw and energetic, they turn up in the world’s trouble spots as paid or unpaid volunteers for an NGO or a UN agency. These newcomers are given a lot of responsibility: they drive and maintain land cruisers, negotiate with soldiers at roadblocks, distribute money to local employees, order and distribute supplies, report landmines and organize their defusing and disposal, set up field hospitals and schools, tend the wounded. Before long, humanitarian work has become their passion.
Asked about their courage and motivation, most deny they are courageous or altruistic, and reject an outsider’s romantic notions of their work. They are in it for themselves, for their own gratification, most say. Or because they cannot stand by and watch people suffer. They assume this is a normal response. Doesn’t everyone feel this way? Shouldn’t everyone feel this way? It is hard for humanitarian workers to understand that their lives are dangerous and devoted in ways most of us cannot imagine.
At any one time, depending on the upheavals in the world, there are several thousand humanitarian workers in the field. They come from many countries, though Europeans and North Americans are over-represented. Known as “expatriates,” or “expats,” in the countries where they are sent—as opposed to “locals” that are hired on the spot—nationality is almost irrelevant to them. Indeed, it is a great irony that expatriate humanitarian workers are transient and international by choice, whereas their clients—refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs)—want nothing more than to go back home or be settled in one secure place. Humanitarian workers, in general, have a different notion of “home,” and “security.” They often complain, jokingly, of the pressures of a “normal” life and admit to enjoying, or needing, the adrenalin rush of the front lines. They come in from the field to rest and refresh themselves, or to take a job in the back offices of the organizations they work for, if they can get one. In time, they become restless and take another field assignment, and then another, and another. They seem to retain their vigor for about two decades, until they collapse from burn-out, or decide to return to their country of origin and begin a family. Like soldiers, they have witnessed brutality and devastation, the worst of humanity, the worst of what we have done to ourselves. Some cannot erase these images from memory, or dreams, and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder in varying degrees. This agony is real, and common; you will find it here in this book alongside the joys and gratifications of humanitarian work. Most impressive is that even those who have been traumatized transcend their fears while still in the field, seek counseling when they return home—offered by most of the agencies these days—and continue to work. It is only a few who cannot go on or regret their choice of profession.
In many ways, an anthology is not representative, nor can it be completely balanced or inclusive. Solicitations for stories went out in many forms, and through many channels: e-mail broadcasts, word of mouth, flyers at conferences. As editor, I could only work with what was offered; not everyone was willing or able to interrupt his or her work to reflect and write. A few stories were abandoned half-finished, or were simply not workable, or came in past deadline. For the most part, however, once a worker committed to writing a story, he or she stuck with it to the very end, even if this meant weeks of revision via e-mail or over coffee in London or New York. The result is an anthology that is gripping to read and startling in its contribution to the discourse about humanitarian work.
New York City