While working in Iraq as a humanitarian with the United Nations, I witnessed a doctor in South Iraq right after the invasion of 2003, having to accept the help of a couple of American volunteer nurses in a hospital in Basrah. The doctor refused to speak directly to the two ladies and would use his Iraqi nurses as intermediaries to give the two nurses medical instructions. The two were staying in the same hotel we used as UN staff, and were complaining about the doctor’s attitude towards them despite their willingness to fly all the way from Kansas to help the “eye” raqis. Still the doctor wouldn’t look them in the eye or shake their hands. I was astounded at his hardened bad manners, and spoke to him about it. I was not ready for the explanation. Not in a million years would I have expected to learn of the story of this respectable quiet doctor who was tending to hundreds of patients in an often sewage-flooded hospital, in sweltering heat with not even a fan and what little electricity our UN generators could provide for him. He had to contend with parents watching their children die of cancer, holding pieces of cardboard and fanning their precious kids’ faces as they slept listlessly on dirty mattresses on the floors of the crowded wards. This in a country that is supposed to have the biggest reserve of oil in the world. This proud doctor that had to deal with the crowded hospital and its desperate patients explained, as did the other staff that worked with him, that his family had been vaporized weeks earlier by US warplanes. He was in the hospital at the time, and his children, wife, parents, sister and her husband were in his house, which they thought was safe from the air raids going on around them. They were wrong. His house was hit by error according to some reports, faulty intelligence according to others, but the result was still losing ten children, wife, parents, sister and husband. And still he worked tirelessly at the hospital. A calm, dignified bastion of professionalism. I somehow didn’t blame him for his unwillingness to shake the hands or directly address the US volunteer nurses after that somehow.
Last night’s news of the Haiti earthquake and the devastation it caused in that poor troubled country brought back feelings and thoughts that recur when poor hopeless people of our planet die “en massse”. My anger at what happens to people in what the lucky rich world calls the “third”, “underdeveloped”, “developing” world is not new and not limited to the rest of the world’s treatment of the the victims of disaster and conflict as mere numbers in news feeds. I used to be one of these victims-people who were bundled together as the faceless nameless citizens of a troubled country, suffering from a war that killed hundreds of thousands of its citizens, maimed and handicapped many more, and stopped its development for decades. My country’s war images were hogging the news for a long time. Mention of Lebanon and its war was the cue, as with Iraq, Congo, Sudan, Yemen, Palestine and Afghanistan these days, for people to change the channel.
Crisis fatigue is what people suffer from when they see too much misery, diffused by the media like some sort of sick entertainment. Who needs those sad images to disrupt a quiet romantic evening or a family dinner? We give something to the Red Cross or UNICEF and our conscience is mostly clear, we read about it in the paper and sympathize and shake our heads, sometimes we even volunteer and go help for a little while to make ourselves feel good.
Guess what? The recipients of that lukewarm lip service are not exactly thrilled with it. Not when the important issues that needed to be dealt with in the first place are routinely neglected by the richer countries, the good donors who for the most part come and ink deals to take what resources are left in these countries, who encourage and prop up despots that will guarantee that these deals are not messed with by that thing called democracy and the rule of the people. We turn a blind eye to human rights violations if it means that the countries violating these human rights are our partners in trade. We pay lip service, we blindly trust our politicians to do the “right thing” and people suffer and die.
In Lebanon, we have a saying that in everything that happened to us, the US is to blame. That may not be entirely true. But it is increasingly the perception of the weak and hapless populations of the world that the US uses them and spits them out at will, if in so doing, the US draws benefit. We were collectively branded as savages fighting a civil war. We did fight, we defended our homes, against Israelis, Palestinian guerillas, Syrians, even Somalis at one point. We committed crimes in our “civil war”-as if there is anything civil about war. The world blamed us and got sick of our news. No matter that it was other countries’ war on our land, no matter that Mr. Kissinger, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate (good one, Oslo people) and US Foreign Secretary decided that our country is not a real one, despite it having been a few thousand years older than his own, and he brilliantly saw fit to try and supplant the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon as a substitute country to give his precious Israel breathing space. And we the Lebanese, expandable, insignificant in his unblinking cold eyes, were just a detail, collateral damage in the US’s view and eternal wisdom.
Haiti, Sudan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Palestine, Congo, are suffering from the same attitude of neglect, where development is not forthcoming, where dollars are spent on arming groups, on exploration of resources and on military operations, rather than on education, infrastructure, governance, and the strengthening of the rule of law. We in the West, as I worked as part of the multilateral community that goes in and does the bidding of the donors and member states that call the shots, are totally focused on prescriptively reacting to conflict, disasters, AIDS, and of course terrorism. The world is forgetting that it is precisely poverty and the sense of terrible inequality that is breeding terrorists and their sympathizers, disenchanted with the unfair world we live in. I am not for a minute excusing the horrible acts of people who use terror, but I am astounded that the link is not made much more strongly between underdevelopment and the pull of terrorism and its recruiting arm. True some terrorists come from rich countries like Saudi Arabia and the latest Nigerian attempt at blowing up a US plane was by a well-to-do son of a banker. Yet it is the underdevelopment of poor countries that is used as an example of the inequality of the world claimed to be caused by the greedy richness of the West and the cycle becomes ever more vicious.
I am appalled at the different reactions and coverage time of the world media when a similar incident happens in New York and Baghdad for example. It is true the complacency and news fatigue grow with the frequency of bombs tearing people to bits that has been going on in Iraq for the past several years, but it is still not acceptable how little mention the killing of tens of people in horrific circumstances gets in the news in comparison to news of one Western hostage or a bomb killing less people in London or Madrid. Is it that poor people have less value? Are they less human than people that live in the West? Do they love less, do their children matter less? Do we ever stop and think that maybe we should have more of a collective conscience that makes people, all people, no matter the color, race, religion, country of residence, and economic situation count as God’s people, and our duty is to force our often short-sighted politicians to weigh decisions putting humans in the centre, and to refrain from brushing human misery aside as collateral damage, giving the people we might hurt a face, a name, a story.
They are the children of our same God, loved by him as we are.