Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t 

I came across this account the other day (reproduced here by permission of the author), in a thread on the climbing forum which I used to frequent, and where I’ve been lurking lately.

The situation described – in famine-struck Ethiopa in the 1980s - is a snapshot of one scene taken out of huge and complex drama characterised by multiple interconnected webs of cause and effect. Intervention in such complex systems can have unforeseen results that are bizarre, sometimes horrific, entirely out of step with we desire or expect.

How do you act compassionately in situations like that? If anyone thinks there are easy answers, think again…
“I was in Ethiopia in 1986. One incident stuck in my mind because it seemed so symptomatic of the casual brutality, the futility and the sheer teeth-grinding intractability of the problems there.

”We were driving through the center of Adis Ababa, the capital of the country. The poverty there was excruciating. Everyone was starving. Being “rich” westerners made no real difference – it’s not like the local people just didn’t have enough money to buy food, there just wasn’t enough food for everyone. That’s what a famine is.

”The one thing we did have, though, was food tickets which entitled the holder to a free meal at a soup kitchen in the city run by a missionary organisation. We’d been told to hand out as many as we could, one per person. Of course, the locals knew about this, so when we stopped the clapped-out old VW van we were in, we’d be surrounded by beggars straight away.

”A lot of the beggars were kids. Lots had no families, parents dead of starvation or victims of the war with Somalia (what, you thought that was a new thing?). Kids as young as four and five years old. Some missing feet or hands from war, some with conspicuous marks of torture on them. Stuff you don’t want to see, but you do what you can where you are, right?

”So we stopped, and the kids gathered around, holding out their hands and shouting. We were doling out the tickets, when we saw two policemen come round the corner at the back of this crowd, which must have been a hundred strong by then. The two cops, without a word, pulled out long batons – real big sticks three feet long, not the little night sticks we get here – and started laying into the kids at the back. And I mean really laying into them. Screams went up, and there was blood flying. My mum started screaming, and the guy we were there with started shouting, “Sterling! Sterling! Has anybody got any sterling? Quickly!”.

”My dad found a tatty fiver in his back pocket and forked it over quick sharp. The driver called the two cops over, a couple of quiet words were exchanged and they went on their way. The kids had cleared away, some of them carrying those who were hurt, God knows where to, it’s not like there was a working hospital anyplace nearby. We drove on.

”My mum was still crying. The rest of us were in shock I think. Mum asked, “Why? Why?”. The driver stopped the van and turned to us. He said, “Don’t get the wrong idea about this. Those policemen aren’t animals. In fact, they’re probably family men with kids of their own”.

“But why do they hit the kids?”, I asked him. He sighed and turned round and started driving again, and said, “They hit the kids because we pay them to stop hitting them”.

They hit the kids because we pay them to stop hitting them. Where do you act to change the unwritten rules in a system like that? And how do you do it without creating harm along the way? This is a messed-up world we’ve inherited, yet we’re hell-bent on messing it up still further. I’ve been thinking about Alan Johnston - who, as part of the organisation for which I work almost feels part of the family - abducted in Gaza and sitting strapped in an explosive vest; thinking about my own son off shortly to serve in Afghanistan; bringing the issues into sharper focus only serves to highlight just how intractable they are, just how difficult it is to find a course of action, a direction which leads out of this mire in which we find ourselves. What do you do that doesn’t have bad consequences as well as good?

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