Somewhere in my home I have a set of photo albums I rarely go near. I fear the flood of cruel memories that might be evoked from looking at the countless photos I took during a trip to Iraq. Many of the pictures are of children who developed rare forms of cancer as a result of exposure to Depleted Uranium (DU), which was used in the US-led war against Iraq over two decades ago.
I remember visiting a hospital that was attached to Al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad. The odor that filled its corridors was not the stench of medicine, but rather the aroma of death. At a time of oppressive siege, the hospital lacked even basic anesthetic equipment and drugs. Children sat and stared at their visitors. Some wailed in inconceivable pain. Parents teetered between hope and the futility of hope, and at prayer times they duly prayed.
A young doctor gave a sweeping diagnosis: “No child that ever enters this place ever leaves alive.” Being the young reporter I was at the time, I diligently made a note of his words before asking more questions. I didn’t quite grasp the finality of death.
Several years later, Iraq’s desolation continues. On August 16, 90 people were killed and more were wounded in attacks across the country. Media sources reported on the bloodbath (nearly 200 Iraqis were killed this month alone), but without much context. Are we meant to believe that violence in Iraq has transcended any level of reason? That Iraqis get blown up simply because it is their fate to live in perpetual fear and misery?
But the dead, before they were killed, were people with names and faces. They were fascinating individuals in their own right, deserving of life, rights and dignity. Many are children, who knew nothing of Iraq’s political disputes, invited by US wars and occupation and fomented by those who feed on sectarianism.
We often forget this. Those who refuse to fall into the trap of political extremes still tend to process and accept violence in one way or another. We co-exist with tragedy, with the belief that bombs just go off randomly and that surviving victims cannot be helped. We somehow accept the idea that refugees cannot be repatriated and the hungry cannot be fed.
This strange wisdom is most apparent in Sudan. In the Upper Nile state, people are dying from sheer exhaustion before they reach refugee camps in Batil. Some walk for weeks between South Kordofan and the Blue Nile, seeking respite and any chance of survival. Those who endure the journey – compelled by fighting between the Sudanese army and rebels groups – might not survive the harshness of life awaiting them at Batil. The BBC News reported on August 17, citing a warning by Medecins Sans Frontieres, that “[p]eople are dying in large numbers in a refugee camp in South Sudan.”
I almost stumbled on the ‘humanitarian catastrophe’ in Batil (as described by MSF’s medical co-ordinator, Helen Patterson) while reviewing reports of the deteriorating situation in some Darfur refugee camps. Batil now hosts nearly 100,000 of the estimated 170,000 refugees who recently fled their homes. According to the medical charity, 28% of the children are malnourished, and the mortality rate is twice that of the accepted emergency threshold.
Darfur is, of course, a festering wound. Many of the internally displaced refugees often find themselves in a constant state of displacement, as was the case earlier this month. UN officials say that ‘all’ 25,000 people in a single refugee camp, Kassab, went on the run again after armed groups clashed with government forces. They settled in another ‘shelter’ nearby, the town of Kutum. According to the African Union-United Nations Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), the supposed new shelter ‘lacks water, food and sanitation’ (CNN, August 9).
Since then, the story has somewhat subsided. Not because the fleeing refugees are in a good standing, but because this is all the attention that 25,000 refugees can expect from a media awash with news of two-faced politicians and celebrity scandals. It might take a ‘peacemaking’ celebrity to place Batil or Kassab on the media map for another day or two, and surely nothing less than a sizable number of deaths to make the refugees a relevant news item once again.
That said, no attention-seeking VIP is likely to venture out to Mali anytime soon. While the humanitarian crisis in West Africa is reaching frightening levels, the media continues to address the conflict in Mali in terms of the logic of Western interests being threatened by rebels, coups and jihadists. Aside from the fact that few ask of Western complicity in the chaos, 435,000 refugees are flooding neighboring countries. This was the most recent estimate by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs on August 16, but the fact is ignored by most media.
The World Food Program says that the food crisis is devastating – not only for distraught refugees, but also for millions within the country. Malian children are, of course, outnumbering all other victims. They are helplessly dragged around through endless deserts. When they die, they merely leave a mark as yet another statistic, estimated without much certainty, and, sadly, without value.
However, here may lay the moral to the story. Every Malian, Sudanese, Iraqi, Syrian, Palestinian, Yemeni or Rohingya child matters immensely to those around him. His or her life – or death – might conveniently serve to fortify a political argument, make a good National Geographic reportage, or a Facebook photo with many ‘shares’ and ‘likes’. But for parents, families, friends and neighbors, their children are the center of their universe, however poor and seemingly wretched. Thus, when UNICEF or UNRWA complains about a shortage of funds, it actually means that thousands of innocent people will needlessly suffer, and that centers of many universes will dramatically implode, replacing hope with bottomless despair, and often rage.
It may be convenient to assign conventional political wisdom to explain complex political issues and violent conflicts. But protracted conflicts don’t make life any less precious, or children any less innocent. It is a tragedy when Iraqis seem to be on a constant parade of burying their loved ones, or when the Sudanese seem to be on a constant quest to save their lives. It’s a greater tragedy, however, when we get so used to the unfolding drama of human violence that we can accept as destined the reality of children crossing the Sahara in search of a sip of water.