Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Repost: Evacuation is not an option

Have you ever been terrified? I’m not talking about scary movie jitters. No, I am referring to the feelings that wash over you as you crouch behind a thorn bush desperately trying to go unnoticed by masked gunmen. It’s the kind of terror that comes with having no control over a deadly situation, knowing helplessly that if you are found, you will be tortured or even killed because of your natural skin color. It’s a fear that emanates from the inside and completely changes a person before it escapes the body through the eyes.

Unfortunately, this kind of primal terror caused by being helpless in the face of brutality is far too common among the men, women and children of the world. Westerners, like myself, growing up in Africa, Asia and South America have all been witnesses to such crime. However, as ex-patriots we tend to have a great advantage over the local population - when crisis hits, most of us have the luxury of evacuation. We get whisked away out of harm’s way while our native friends, classmates, and neighbors are left behind to survive. Granted, some families decide to stay put and ‘ride out the storm,’ but many wisely take the opportunity to move to safer grounds.

I remember my own personal evacuation story. It happened in 1990 when a rebel group was making a successful march across the country. My family was enjoying a peaceful night under the African stars when we were interrupted by thunderous bangs on our front gate. My father was greeted by two French Military soldiers who informed us we had only twenty minutes to pack our bags and get out of town before fighting began.

The next thing I know, I am bouncing around on a bench in the bowels of a windowless French military cargo plane. We were packed like sardines and unable to talk over the noise of the engines. I had nothing to do but stare at the scared faces of those sitting all around me. However, the faces that still haunt me are not those that surrounded me in the safe – albeit uncomfortable – confines of the airplane. No, the faces that I remember most are the ones of the local women and children desperately fighting for a chance to board our plane. As we boarded, soldiers fought back a mob of scared citizens desperately desiring to be saved from the coming bloodshed. They wanted to get on the plane as well, but there was no more room – it was full of fleeing ex-patriots. The tears of the mothers clutching their children as they were denied safety stick with me to this day. They were terrified, at the mercy of the rebels and helping them was out of my control.

That same feeling is back.

Over the past three years – in what the UN has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis – over 300,000 of my friends have been slaughtered and over 1.5 million of them have been forced to flee in terror. They cannot evacuate like those of us from the West.

Innocent civilians are helplessly being hunted down and slaughtered for their skin color. If we, all of us - including you - continue to sit back and let this genocide unfold, we will all be held accountable for their extinction. History will judge you by your response. Please - save my friends. Save your neighbors. Save Darfur & Eastern Chad.

The Water Boys

Sometimes at night I can still imagine the pounding drum beat of a water boy. This rhythmic pounding is the lifeline of an entire community. In the Darfur region of the world there is no running water. Water comes either from the drying central lake or deep wells dug in dry riverbeds. These sources are often far from the showers and washrooms where the water is needed, and that is where the Water Boys come in. A Water Boy is a career that provides the link between the supply and the demand. Please, allow me to describe to you a water boy:

Meet Ibrahim. His hair is tightly braided and his skin is freshly oiled. He rises early in the morning and steps outside his dark hut, squinting at the already bright sun. He shakes some coals and a few weak embers rise. He quickly inserts some dry reeds and a flicker of a flame gives him hope for a hot breakfast. He heats some medidi (a drinkable rice and sugar mixture) and gobbles it down. He knows he needs his strength for the day ahead.

Once his stomach is satisfied, he makes his way through some thorn trees and over some brown grass to the animal pen. He unlatches the goatskin lock and swings open the branch that is doubling as a gate. He enters and approaches his capital investment - a donkey.

The donkey is ornery this morning and backs away from Ibrahim. He shakes his hand and turns his body, as if he is threatening to turn Ibrahim'’s day sour with one swift kick to the midsection. Ibrahim grabs him by his mane and calms him down.

"Agod sakit (Stay still)" he begs the large animal. Finally, with the donkey'’s jitters gone, Ibrahim reaches for a heavy burlap sack and places it on the animal's back. Then follows a coarse pad made of woven straw, a blanket and then a wooden saddle. This saddle is not ordinary for a bar is placed across where a human normally sits. This saddle is not made for joy rides, this is business.

The last touch to add to his steed is the most important piece of equipment - the water sack. This equipment is made out of leather and sits on the saddle. It actually has two large sacks, one sits on either side of the donkey. At the top there is one opening that leads to both sacks and that the bottom corner of each sack is a tied-off opening.

Ibrahim adds the other two essentials tools of the trade -– large buckets and a wooden stick - and he is ready for his commute to work. He makes his way through the quiet streets, through back alleys and under archways. Each house’'s front yard is surrounded by large, mud-brick walls.

He arrives at the well and stands in line. He makes his way closer and closer and pays the Well Master a small fee. He attaches his buckets to the rope and lowers them in to the well. Seconds after they hit the bottom with a splash, he strains and tugs and works the buckets back up to the surface. Once at the top, he empties them into the sacks on the donkey. He repeats this until both sacks are bulging full, seeping water, and the donkey teetering a bit from the load. Then, it's off to make money.

Unless he has specific clients - people who prearrange for his water delivery service -– he has to roam the streets looking for buyers. The way he lets people know that he is walking past their large compound walls is by beating his stick against his buckets. Bang- Bang - Bang. Now the whole block knows a water boy is near.

No luck here so he continues to the next block where a young girl sprints out of her family's gate and calls him over. She points him over to the family barrels where he parks the donkey. Now comes the trickiest part of his job as he must untie the opening to the sacks one at a time and empty the water into his bucket. Then, he must empty his bucket into the barrel. He must do this all while dealing with a donkey who simply doesn't enjoy the task at hand. So Ibrahim gallantly grabs the tie and lets some water through, the donkey jolts and sends water (money) crashing to the dry ground. Ibrahim readjusts and tries again. On his fourth or fifth time, he gets a full bucket. He ties off the sack and dumps it in the barrel. Once the barrel is full, the young girl pays him and he is done.

It's off again to the well, to continue his job as the town'’s plumbing system -– yet another way the people of Darfur have ingeniously beaten the odds.

In Darfur, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Survival is not an option and the people are so creative. They manage to find a solution to every problem. They reuse everything and waste nothing. These very people are now the victims of genocide. Please, help me take a stand for them and end their unjust murders.