Sometimes, my job is incredibly uplifting and brilliant and I love it. Like the time in the Philippines when every single person in the village wanted to thank me and shake my hand, leaving my hand literally rubbed raw with good wishes from about 600 people…. Or the time I met a young mother with the best smile in the world after she received a cash transfer to help fix her roof.
But sometimes, being an aid worker is hard. Not just gruelling, tiring, exhausting and difficult. Not just because sometimes you’re in a war zone and there’s no electricity and it’s 46 degrees, and you’re sweating so much you wake up three or four times in the night because you’re so thirsty.
No, the hardest part for me is the emotional trauma. Sometimes in this job, even when you are safe in your bubble at headquarters, you hear stories that you cannot unhear, and they haunt you for days. As a naturally empathetic person myself, it’s hard not to be affected sometimes by the brutal tales coming from war zones, conflict and remote areas, and to feel quite deeply affected by those stories. What’s more challenging is that I can’t easily talk about these things with my friends and family, because if these things keep me lying awake at night, I don’t want to bring that kind of horror into the minds of my closest friends or relatives. Not to mention the fact that when visiting friends and family for a fun Christmas holiday, or a rare night out on the town, it’s almost never an appropriate time to start talking about the horrors of war and rape. It’s a massive downer and will almost always spoil the mood and make people uncomfortable.
Now don’t worry or panic here, let me reassure you that we have access to counselling and mental health support at work, so it’s not like there is no one to talk to, and many of my colleagues are good friends that I can talk to, so this blog post is not a desperate cry for help or any such thing. Sometimes I just find it helpful to write things down as a way of processing them. So instead of laying it onto the shoulders of my friends and family, I’m going to put some of the worst and saddest stories I’ve heard recently down here, in my blog, as a cathartic way of talking about them. So think carefully about whether or not you want to read the rest of this post.
Be warned – there are some pretty graphic and awful things in this post, so I will leave it up to you if you want to read on or not. Those of you who decide to read the rest of this post, you might want to have some fun, light-hearted kitten videos lined up on Youtube to cheer you up afterwards….
Earlier last year, at a briefing on South Sudan, we heard about the plight of people who were running away from the brutal conflict there. They were terrified and scared, malnourished and starving. They had taken refuge in the swamps and rivers, as they weren’t safe on dry land, too many attacks, and so they were wading for days and days up to their waists in water, searching for somewhere safe to hide, and huddling on small mud islands in the rivers, where nothing grows and there is no shelter.
Some of the women were so exhausted as they trudged through the water for days on end, so weak from a lack of food, that their arms gave out and they couldn’t carry their babies anymore. With no strength left in their limbs, they had to watch as their babies floated away from them down the river, unable to physically hold onto them a second longer. It’s an utterly devastating image, and it a story I won’t forget for a long time.
The conflict in South Sudan has just passed the 4-year mark, and shows no sign of stopping. The number of people displaced by the conflict continues to grow, and the already severe malnourishment and food security are tipped to get worse.
Although South Sudan has rich and fertile soil, this year hardly any farmers were able to plant crops, as they fled their homes and farms, meaning agencies are already predicting that next year’s crop yield will be catastrophically low and South Sudan is set to potentially enter a state of famine by the time the next lean season rolls around. Despite all of the early warnings, it’s incredibly hard to fundraise money for a crisis that hasn’t happened yet, so it’s likely that NGOs will have to sit back and watch, and will only be able to intervene after thousands of people start dying, and it finally makes the news, triggering the next major funding cycle.
A very disturbing thought, knowing there are things NGOs could be doing now to help prevent a famine, but without the funding they have to wait until it really is catastrophic before intervening.
A few weeks ago, during a briefing on Uganda, a colleague who had recently visited the refugee camps there spoke of the plight of the women and girls. They are receiving food rations in the camp, but in order to cook the food, the women and girls have to go further and further afield to search for firewood for their stoves. Every day they are going out, and walking for miles in remote areas to search for firewood, and my colleague heard that the dangers for them have increased significantly.
Local men (and possibly also armed groups) have started setting traps for the women and girls. They are literally digging pits and leaving wire and rope snares, to trap these women and girls so that they can rape them and beat them.
They are setting actual traps. To catch the women and girls. So that they can rape them.
Sometimes I am so disgusted by the sheer depravity of it that I can feel the bile rising in my throat.
Meanwhile over in Papua New Guinea, despite the fact that the Sorcery Law was repealed in landmark ruling in 2013, brutal incidences are still ongoing.
What is the sorcery law? It effectively means that you can justify a murder if you accuse the victim of being a witch.
Despite the overturning of this law in 2013, sorcery cases still abound in PNG, and in most cases target women and young girls, although occasionally men as well. In other words, if you beat your wife to death, you can walk away if you inform locals that she was a sorcerer.
Some of the more graphic cases are finally making headlines after the Red Cross and Oxfam’s teams in PNG have spent months of advocacy and lobbying to being this horrific situation to light. Women accused of sorcery tend to be tortured for days, being cut and burned repeatedly until they confess to their crimes. The crime often being that someone in the village died of malaria. Once they have confessed, sometimes after days of torture, they are their either burned alive or beaten to death. Even sadder, the children of these “sorcerers” are often in danger, as the fear that the sorcery has passed into their bloodlines is common, and the story of the 6-year old girl who was tortured and burned alive because her mother was a witch is an image that does not go quietly into the night.
This recent Guardian article shed some light on this barbaric practice, as well as making an interesting point
“Many who rescue the victims and who seek to educate communities are Christians. How does someone of one faith tell others their belief is simply superstition? Is that even the most effective way to address it?”
Over in Bangladesh, in a recent post-distribution monitoring report I was glancing over, in response to questions about whether or not the sanitary products were useful, around 8% of women responded that they didn’t use them because they didn’t have any underwear. It’s such a small thing, but so devastating to think that you wouldn’t be able to use the free sanitary towels provided, because you don’t have any underwear to attach them to…. Such a small thing, and so very, very sad.
President Trump, and other world events haven’t helped the growing global crisis around the world, but the predictions this year for famine, conflict and displacement are off the scale. Last year was the worst year for humanitarian crises on record, and this year looks even bleaker. IRIN have compiled a list of the 10 humanitarian crises to watch out for in 2018, and it doesn’t even mention the enormous famine responses that are ongoing in Nigeria and Lake Chad Basin at the moment.
So, although on a personal note I am entering 2018 with joy and excitement about my own personal adventures and journeys, I can’t help but feel that the world is descending year on year into a sadder and more desperate place.
That being said, being back in my old office, surrounded by familiar faces, heartens me and reminds me of all the hard work my colleagues do around the world, and how many lives are saved by our programmes. It makes me proud to be back in a role where I can help ease some of that suffering, and make the world a tiny bit better, and as I am learning about more and more of the innovative approaches our teams are using to reach people in need, it is exciting to think about new ways in which I can help, and bring something useful to the team and the work. Feeling useful and being able to actively take part in helping to relieve some of this suffering gets me out of bed in the morning, and helps me to keep smiling in the face of some pretty grim stuff.
Now go watch some funny cat videos.