This book began over dinner at a small Italian trattoria in Manhattan, far
away from the world's continuing conflicts and natural disasters. Sitting
opposite me was Iain Levine, a lithe and gentle man, who was Amnesty
International's Representative to the United Nations. My plan was to interview
Iain for a magazine article about humanitarian workers. Several had turned up in
my writing workshops over the years, and I had met others socially. I found them
compelling, and complicated.
Iain is a nurse whose first job in the field was with Mother Theresa in Calcutta. The son of Orthodox Jews, he grew up in the north of England, and speaks with a lilting drawl. Philosophical musings and stories spill out of him rapidly. Then he will fall silent and listen attentively, or ask questions about the New York Yankees, his adopted team.
One of Iain's stories was about Foday Sankoh, the butcher of Sierra Leone. Iain had just returned from that war-torn country, still in the throes of a ten-year tyranny. He had sat with Foday Sankoh in a hut and attempted to negotiate the release of children press-ganged into Sankoh's ragtag guerilla army. Outside the door were scores of machete-hacked victims. "The conversation was deceptively civilized and the ambience inside the hut was congenial," Iain said. "It was decorated with framed sentimental aphorisms copied by hand from Hallmark greeting cards."
This was one of many telling details Iain recorded in his journal, and repeated to friends and colleagues during countless de-briefings and e-mails. Transforming the execrable lived experience into a narrative is one of Iain's tools for staying sane, a device that enables him to keep working, to feel that his efforts have meaning, and results. It is also a témoignage, a witnessing, for the historical record.
For months before we met, Iain was taking his writing a step further. He had enrolled in a one-day writing workshop, and was inspired to begin a book about his twenty years in the field. An avid reader, he admires the Polish journalist, Ryszard Kapuscinski, and wanted to use his personal kind of story-telling as a paradigm. Did I think this was a good idea? I did, and wanted to see what he had already written. He pulled "Another Day in Paradise" out of his briefcase. My own intention--journalist writing about humanitarian workers--felt like an appropriation, and evaporated. Iain's manuscript was a gift; I would compile and edit an anthology of stories by the workers themselves.
This has never been done before, and the reasons are self-evident; the logistics alone are daunting. Humanitarian workers are scattered all over the world, often in remote and catastrophic landscapes. Satellite phones and e-mail connections are possible, but not always secure. A story from the Sudan had to be abandoned for fear of endangering a clinic; the only available e-mail service was via a radio link, easily accessed by the Khartoum government. Whether the workers are in the midst of emergency rescue/relief operations or in quieter development-oriented postings, they are hard to reach, and they are very busy.
There were also other problems: some aid agencies were reluctant to cooperate. Others understood that to allow their humanitarian workers a voice was an opportunity to reach potential donors who are weary of mail solicitations and soft focus photographs of starving children. But, in return, they wanted to maintain control of the text. My powers of persuasion were severely tested.
Oxfam (US) was the first NGO (non-governmental agency) to compile a list of workers to contact who might be willing to write stories, no strings attached. Others followed, others continued to have doubts about security issues, or public image. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), headquartered in Geneva, was unusually cooperative. I had caught them at the right moment, just as they were rethinking their relationship with the media. They invited me to attend four days of a training sequence for new recruits, and those already in the field.
From Another Day In Paradise edited by Carol Bergman. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher or author.
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