Wounds of those who clean up after evil

Another Day in Paradise

May 21, 2004

Margaret Anstee praises the aid workers who strive to alleviate war's effects.

This ironically titled book arrived for review as I was leaving for Vienna.

It was sticking out of my bag when I reached my hotel, and the Hungarian porter exclaimed: "This is an excellent book!" Although only recently published, it had already won wide fame.

It is well deserved. The book is a series of harrowing accounts of real life amid disaster, conflict and war. It is a gripping and often gruelling read that made me relive horrendous experiences of my own over many years of work in developing countries - especially during the Pinochet coup in Chile and later in Angola, where I saw a fragile peace erupt into renewed and even more terrible war. I could not read more than one or two chapters at a time.

But read they should be, by ordinary people (who learn of such events via radio or fleeting TV clips, prefaced by a warning that some sights may be disturbing) and by politicians and military commanders. But sadly, this book is unlikely to have much effect on those who perpetrate the kind of atrocities described.

The book's great strength is that it does not plug any particular theory, policy or hobbyhorse. Refreshingly, there is, for once, no attempt to disparage the United Nations. The nearest comment amounting to criticism is that the UN was excessively strict on security in Afghanistan, an unwittingly ironic observation in the light of more recent censure of the organisation for its failure to protect its staff in Baghdad. These are individual stories, joined only by the common theme of heroic efforts, all too often frustrated, to alleviate the effects of "man's inhumanity to man" by people who themselves have increasingly become targets for attack.

The book addresses three types of humanitarian crisis: natural disasters, outright wars and fragile peace. The 15 countries covered are drawn from every region in the world but mostly, inevitably, from Africa. Likewise, the authors - ten men and five women - come from varied backgrounds and vocations. Their occupations encompass the gamut of humanitarian activities: refugees and displaced persons, food, aid, medical and nursing services, clearing landmines, social counselling, relief administration and, in one case, a religious mission. Some have worked for UN or governmental organisations, such as the World Food Programme, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees and the US Agency for International Development, but most were employed by non-governmental organisations. The eight nationalities represented are overwhelmingly from developed countries: seven from the US and five from Europe. The two exceptions are from Cyprus and Vietnam. A better balance in authorship might have given different perceptions from people who do not have the option of returning to lives of peace and prosperity in their home countries.

Among the many different styles of writing, I found the stark prose of Theresa Baldini, recounting the experiences of another Maryknoll sister and herself in southern Sudan - the bombing, the deprivation, even the invasive rats, which serve as a model of determination - exceptionally moving. But I was also reduced to tears by the colloquial language used with devastating effect by Patrick Dillon in telling the dreadful fate of his ten-year-old Somali bodyguard.

The use of letters home from Paul Heslop, clearing mines in Knito, Angola (a place that saw bloodshed over many months but never made international headlines), gives a feeling of immediacy, the often flippant tone at odds with the danger of the daily work. Other chapters eloquently convey the brooding sense of danger, of evil even, as brilliantly evoked by David Snyder in Sierra Leone: "...it whispers, swirls in street-corner conversations or shuffles by on crutches - a stump where a hand has been, a head without ears, a face without lips." There is vividly evocative writing throughout the book, though in a few cases aspirations to literary style do not come off.

The events recounted hardly need linguistic embroidery. We relive the horrors of Rwanda and a thousand others elsewhere: senseless killings and brutal mutilations; the pain and suffering of innocent people caught up in conflict; relief workers taken hostage at gun-point by drug-crazed teenagers (one handcuffed by a rebel leader to one of his henchman whom he then shot in cold blood). The stench of death pervades every page.

The tellers of these tales are also human beings trying to work out their own lives. So we learn of relations forged, and sometimes fractured, in these extreme circumstances, of fear and doubts and frustration, as well as dogged determination, often related with raw frankness. At first I found jarring Maureen Deerenberg's chapter on Afghanistan, where she felt "like a princess in a harem" flaunting long embroidered dresses, lapis lazuli earrings and a series of sexual conquests. But she sticks it out over five years, a maturing experience, at the end of which, lonely, with a stray cat as her only companion, she decides to go home, though doubtful whether she will ever again find such inspiring work.

Others also returned home and write in recollection, some disillusioned.

Some soldier on, despite all the dangers and disappointments. One cannot but admire them while at the same time despairing of a world unable or unwilling to reduce the sales of arms and the need for these gallant but so often unrequited endeavours.

Dame Margaret Anstee was formerly undersecretary-general, United Nations.

Another Day in Paradise: Front Line Stories from International Aid Workers

Editor - Carol Bergman
Publisher - Earthscan
Pages - 256
Price - £17.99
ISBN - 1 84407 034 4

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