Pakistan was often on the cover of the NY Times the weeks before our departure for flood relief last year, so it made sense that the most common question I was asked before leaving was “But aren’t you afraid?” Suggestion is powerful and a week before leaving I found myself texting Carol with the message “Do you have any premonitions?” Carol is one of the wisest women I know and I felt instant relief when she messaged back: “No! Why?” It should be noted that I didn’t message God to ask him…but with infinite wisdom he used the cell phone and Carol as my reassurance. On arrival, in learning we were one kilometer from the 26 burnt out NATO trucks that had been attacked a week prior and half a kilometer from the mosque where the Taliban responsible for that attack had hidden just before their capture, I nominated Carol & myself for the “COOL MOMS OF THE YEAR AWARD”. Even in that I felt no fear until the day we went to what we called “The Railway Camp”.
Both Carol and I were working on barely 3 hours of sleep a night. The change in time-zones combined with exhaustion and frequent power outages was taking its toll on us. It was in that spirit that we drove into the Railway Camp. We had driven an hour and a half through badly flooded areas, at one point passing 125 brightly painted trucks in a traffic jam that cannot be described adequately. We headed off the main road and drove a quarter-mile along the railway tracks until we finally arrived.
There were crowds awaiting our arrival. Along with the medical camps, five men – four from the Marwari tribe in Pakistan and one Canadian would survey families on their needs. The number one need was usually food, the second medical care. 80 pound food bags were distributed according to the families on the list. These bags contained oil, rice, tea, sugar, flour, lentils, and spices. Tension would rise as soon as the food truck arrived. Hungry people wanted to make sure they received their fair share. This particular day the tension was high. That coupled with the isolation of the village and the crowds gave me a feeling of unease that began to root itself as fear.
Roosters, chickens and people wandered over to our pharmacy area and unlike earlier camps, we were not able to set up a system where crowds couldn’t close in on us. In the middle of this came food distribution and fighting erupted – someone had stolen a bag. Such was the desperation in a group of hungry people who had the responsibility of feeding hungry families that the anger was palpable. Months later, while watching a group of ducks fight over food at a pond in Kensington Park, I remembered the struggle. Watching birds fight over food is easy, watching people is terrifying. Our men were in the middle of this trying to calm the crowd and get to the root of who had taken the food bag. I looked at Carol and tried to concentrate on our job but the feelings of vulnerability and fear were strong.
Fear is a difficult emotion. The physical manifestations of a racing heart, shaky voice, and trembling extremities can cause anxiety to increase and result in a cycle that spirals out of control. I began to feel some of those physical symptoms as we tried to move the clinic forward, taking care of real medical needs in people unaware of what was going on inside my head and heart.
My fear was legitimate, but nothing compared to the fear of so many in the camp – fear of being unable to feed their families, fear of houses collapsing, fear of robbers taking what little they had left, fear of one more disaster.
As I’ve followed some of the news stories on Somalia and the famine, said to be the worst in East Africa in 60 years, I have thought about this camp and event many times. Words like “Food insecurity” are used by relief agencies. Those words are a perfect description. They don’t only describe the lack of food, they describe hungry people – insecure and full of fear. Fear because they are unable to feed those for whom they are responsible, fear because they know they could die. My time in Pakistan was the first time I have worked with people who are truly hungry. It is sobering to be from the land of Twinkies and fast food and realize that 80 pound bags of food can feed a family for a month.
Just yesterday the UN announced that famine had spread to another area in Somalia and warns that aid efforts have to be “scaled up”.
We can’t underestimate the scale of the crisis,” said Mark Bowden, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Somalia. “Southern Somalia is the epicenter of the famine area in the Horn of Africa. It’s the source of most of the refugees, and we need to refocus our efforts.” from NY Times September 5,2011
I’m not in a place now where I can go and physically help and I sometimes question my faith in situations where I am so far removed from the actual disaster. The question then becomes this: In my helplessness and faith can I pray Isaiah 41:13 for Somalia and Pakistan?
For I am the Lord, your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.
- 750,000 Somalis are at risk of starving within the next few months (theglobeandmail.com)
- UN declares sixth famine zone in Somalia (guardian.co.uk)