Bring us poison, not water
It’s hard to imagine why anyone would risk their life in an overcrowded, flimsy boat in search of a place to live. For decades I have been working in war zones and the aftermath of the world’s biggest natural disasters; and I have seen exactly why people risk it all.
I’m an aid worker. It’s my job to bring the basics to people when it seems all has been lost — I help get clean water and basic sanitation to people struggling to survive. People holed up in tents as conflict rages around them, people trapped in refugee and displaced persons camps.
And in those places, in the darkest of times, I have met people who have lost all hope.
They have told me life is no longer of any value to them, or their children and they reach a state of despair. I have seen it in Asia, I have seen it in Africa, I have seen it in the Middle East … they would rather be dead than living in conditions like that.
I’ve seen situations you wouldn’t even want to imagine.
I have worked in a camp where tens of thousands were trapped by a war fought far too close, sometimes less than a kilometre away. There were only tents for protection; thin canvas which could not protect against the weather, and was no match for the bombs that could land on any given day. So those in the camp would sit in fox holes, open to the elements as being below ground level provided some protection from bombs and mortars.
They felt terrified and unsafe, and they had no way out. The terrain and armed patrols forced them to stay.
Each day Red Cross negotiated a ceasefire between the nearby fighting forces — say from 11am until 3pm — so it would be safe for us to enter. We would cross the frontline, work our butts off with one eye on the clock. We never knew what we would find when we entered the camps.
After a while the women in the camp tried to stop Red Cross leaving — because they knew when we left the fighting around them would begin again.
The women were climbing up on the front of our Land Cruisers, hanging onto the windscreen wipers screaming at us through the windscreen.
I didn’t speak the local language well and amid the confusion and utter desperation I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but the field officer with me interpreted. I said “What are they yelling at me? What are they screaming?” He said “Tell your boss: ‘don’t bring water anymore, bring poison. We would rather be dead than live like this’”.
After three decades of aid work I understand that utter despair; how people can reach the limit of their endurance.
It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that some people in these situations risk their lives to find an alternative place to live.
I have worked in some of the biggest crises from Uganda to Iraq, Rwanda, Serbia, Myanmar, and most recently in Sierra Leone during the Ebola epidemic. They are a roll call of death, and of terror and of misery.
I’ve seen things I can never forget; things the world often never hears about. Things that are difficult to live with.
I remember a day during one conflict when we placed 46 dead people into body bags and transported 72 injured people, including women and children, to nearby hospitals. I rang my wife to say “It will be in the papers, it will be on the news, don’t worry about me I’m fine; we’re doing what we can.”
As far as I know the events unfolding during my time in that war-torn country never made the news agenda of international media. To this day that fact still staggers me.
It saddens me that I know the same thing is still happening in so many, many places around the world today. And that we can and must do so much more to put an end to the suffering.
By Bob Handby — Australian Red Cross aid worker and ambassador
Bob helps to raise awareness of the global need for safe water and sanitation facilities — because without these simple things, disease spreads and people die, when they could have survived. His first mission with Red Cross was to Uganda in 1984. Find out more about a career in aid work here, or read more about our aid workers.
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