The book was nearly complete by the time I arrived at the ICRC conference center in the summer of 2002. All the controversial issues I had been grappling with as I mentored the stories in this collection surfaced during those few days, and were reframed. Though I was not allowed to interrupt the sessions with questions, or take photographs, I lived communally with the workers, many of whom had worked in the international disaster relief system for other agencies in the past. Chatting informally over drinks and meals, I learned more from them than all the books I had read and conferences I attended for two years. My enthusiasm for the project deepened; so, too, my respect for the humanitarian workers. These are the people, many so very young, risking their lives on the ground while politicians and diplomats negotiate in velvet curtained rooms.
Most humanitarian workers begin their careers in their twenties oblivious, at first, to the controversies about humanitarian intervention in the UN Security Council or the corridors of foreign policy institutes. Raw and energetic, they turn up in the world's trouble spots as paid or unpaid volunteers for an NGO or a UN agency. These newcomers are given a lot of responsibility: they drive and maintain land cruisers, negotiate with soldiers at roadblocks, distribute money to local employees, order and distribute supplies, report landmines and organize their defusing and disposal, set up field hospitals and schools, tend the wounded. Before long, humanitarian work has become their passion.
Asked about their courage and motivation, most deny they are courageous or altruistic, and reject an outsider's romantic notions of their work. They are in it for themselves, for their own gratification, most say. Or because they cannot stand by and watch people suffer. They assume this is a normal response. Doesn't everyone feel this way? Shouldn't everyone feel this way? It is hard for humanitarian workers to understand that their lives are dangerous and devoted in ways most of us cannot imagine.
At any one time, depending on the upheavals in the world, there are several thousand humanitarian workers in the field. They come from many countries, though Europeans and North Americans are over-represented. Known as "expatriates," or "expats," in the countries where they are sent--as opposed to "locals" that are hired on the spot--nationality is almost irrelevant to them. Indeed, it is a great irony that expatriate humanitarian workers are transient and international by choice, whereas their clients--refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs)--want nothing more than to go back home or be settled in one secure place. Humanitarian workers, in general, have a different notion of "home," and "security." They often complain, jokingly, of the pressures of a "normal" life and admit to enjoying, or needing, the adrenalin rush of the front lines. They come in from the field to rest and refresh themselves, or to take a job in the back offices of the organizations they work for, if they can get one. In time, they become restless and take another field assignment, and then another, and another. They seem to retain their vigor for about two decades, until they collapse from burn-out, or decide to return to their country of origin and begin a family. Like soldiers, they have witnessed brutality and devastation, the worst of humanity, the worst of what we have done to ourselves. Some cannot erase these images from memory, or dreams, and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder in varying degrees. This agony is real, and common; you will find it here in this book alongside the joys and gratifications of humanitarian work. Most impressive is that even those who have been traumatized transcend their fears while still in the field, seek counseling when they return home-offered by most of the agencies these days-and continue to work. It is only a few who cannot go on or regret their choice of profession.
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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