It Gets Personal

December 31, 2004

When reality is too horrible to comprehend, we humans sometimes turn to art for answers. As I started to write this column, I recalled an old black and white movie that I watched once, in a small theater that showed little-known art films, about a conniving reporter played by a young Kirk Douglas. I can't remember the exact words, but the reporter made a comment that comes to my mind today, about how he could write a more compelling story about the misfortunes of one man than he could about an event of mass destruction.

Maybe that explains why I can't find the words to write about the incomprehensible disaster that has happened in Southeast Asia this week. What can I possibly write about a death toll that keeps rising in remote locations with names I never heard before? What can I say about the loss and suffering of millions of people whose lives are so unlike my own that I wouldn't presume to understand what they are feeling? How can I describe rescue and rebuilding needs that are so massive they boggle the mind?

Last night I met a couple at a party here in San Diego who lost everything they owned in the fires that overtook this region last year. They had moved in only six months before the fateful night that firemen drove down their street with bullhorns blaring, warning them to leave their houses immediately. They left with hardly anything, not fully comprehending the approaching danger until they turned on the TV in their hotel room just in time to see a film clip of their own house burning to the ground. This is the second couple I've met this month who lost their home in that inferno. When I think how close my father's house came to being one of the several thousand that burned, their loss becomes all the more tangible. I could probably write a book about what they have endured because it's so easy to empathize with them. But that's not the story I need to write today.

I turn on the news and see one disturbing clip after another of the devastation left by the tsunami that struck most of the countries surrounding the Indian Ocean. I look at the wide, distant look in each survivor's eyes and try to fathom what could be going through their minds. Are they so different from me that I can't imagine what I would be thinking in their situation? In a matter of minutes their lives were ripped apart without warning. Whatever was important to them a week ago is suddenly insignificant. Loved ones are missing or maybe known to be dead. Perhaps they even had the horror of seeing a child or sibling or parent swept away in the merciless wave. How can it feel to look around and see your entire village or city leveled? To have no resources for food, or water or shelter or medical care? And for everyone around you to be in the same helpless situation? Where to you start? How can you start when you are still in shock? How can you pray when your God has clearly abandoned you? And if you cannot pray, how can you hope? And if you cannot hope, how do you go on?

Is it the sheer number of victims that makes it so hard to fully grasp this human tragedy or is it because it has befallen people whose way of life is so different from our own? Don't they still cherish their children, fall in love, feel hungry, enjoy a good laugh? What difference does it make where the bed is that they sleep in at night, don't they still dream and make love? Can you allow yourself to imagine the millions of individual human beings on our planet who just experienced this horrible trauma? Each one, a unique person who sees the world from their own eyes -- eyes that may close to sleep but will inevitably open to see that their collective nightmare is still there. Eyes that a reporter's camera will capture, to make this story personal, if we will only look into them.

Most of us living outside the nightmare feel compelled to help in any way we can when we hear of human suffering of this magnitude. Mostly that means giving money. While the governments of the United States and Britain have offered pathetic l contributions when you compare them to the amount spent every day on our war on Iraq, generous individuals from around the world, including those two countries, have swamped phone lines and websites to make donations. Unfortunately the infrastructure of most of the devastated countries was disorganized to start with and this disaster has compounded the problems. So translating financial donations into actual aid delivered to the victims seems to be an almost insurmountable logistical nightmare. Those involved in making it happen deserve a guaranteed direct escort into heaven or any other afterlife reward of their choosing.

Death and destruction is not new to some of the areas hardest hit by this disaster. But unlike the earthquake that caused their current crisis, previous tragedies were manmade. In the providence of Aceh, journalist Allan Narin reported on "Democracy Now" that the Indonesian military crushed a popular movement for independence by assassinating and disappearing thousands of activists. He said that the current casualties are dwarfed by the military massacres carried out by the Indonesian military in various places, including 200,000 killed in Timor in 1999. He fears that the Indonesian military will use this disaster as a cover to further the killing of the Acehnese and that the Pentagon may use the disaster as an excuse to restore aid to the Indonesian military.

I had to get out my world map to see where Aceh is (it's on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra). While I was at it, I must confess that I had to search for a number of other locations I've been hearing were affected by the tsunami. I also located the island of Diego Garcia, a 17 square mile island south of India. The interesting thing about Diego Garcia is that it was the only place that was warned about the tsunami and "miraculously" seems to have suffered no damage! Would it surprise anyone that this British dependency is a joint US - UK air and naval refueling and support station? The story of how the indigenous population of this island was forcibly relocated 1,000 miles away to the slums of Mauritius, so the island could be turned into a military base, is yet another example of a human tragedy wrought by humans. The fact that we managed to warn our military base of the tsunami, but not anywhere else, just makes me sick.

Even as the casualty count from this natural disaster climbs, there is another casualty count we cannot overlook, which the American people are directly responsible for - and that is our attack on the people of Iraq. We cannot control the forces of nature, but the human tragedy of war is entirely manmade. And the preemptive war in Iraq turns out to not have anything to preempt. Fallujah was home to 300,000 Iraqi civilians - husbands, wives, children, friends, lovers, teachers, workers, artists, dreamers - real human beings, every one of them. The US tsunami leveled that city and any civilians who did not escape to refugee camps were slaughtered by our brave troops. No act of God can be blamed for the nightmare we inflicted on these people. And no outpouring of humanitarian aid is being collected to help them. No reports of this devastation are being broadcast on the nightly news. No effort to rebuild has been organized. On the contrary, we have deliberately destroyed the entire infrastructure that makes a place inhabitable - electricity, water, hospitals, schools and mosques are all gone. The former inhabitants of Fallujah have nothing to go back to.

That the Indian Ocean tsunami occurred on the other side of the world this time was just a matter of chance. Last autumn the forces of nature struck closer to home when an unprecedented four powerful hurricanes ravaged the Caribbean, Florida and the southeast United States. Arguments can be made for and against these and other natural disasters being related to global warming, but you can't deny that there seems to be an increase in both their numbers and intensity. In the long run, it may turn out that these too are really manmade disasters. In any case, if it's your neighborhood that is consumed by fire, or your trailer park that's smashed to bits, or your town that's inundated by flood, tragedy gets real personal. For millions of people living on the rim of the Indian Ocean, and hundreds of thousands living in Iraq, it's gotten very personal. And, as Kirk Douglas' character in that movie would agree, that's about as compelling as a story gets.

Wishing all of us a New Year filled with happiness and love.

©2004 Jeeni Criscenzo

Send all comments and suggestions to Jeeni@cpr4democracy.com


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