A Story from Somalia

The following is an excerpt from James Orbinski’s An Imperfect Offering.  I’ve just begun the book, and I’m intrigued to read more of what he has to say: both of the extremely despairing and beautiful, his work as a humanitarian doctor, and his views on politics.

Here, Orbinski describes his first act as a humanitarian doctor.  In October 1992, after arriving in Baidoa, Somalia (known at the time as the City of Death), assigned as MSF’s (Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders) medical coordinator, he noticed some movement within one of the morgue tents.  After first turning away and not wanting to know what this could mean, he looked and saw that the wind was strong enough to move a tent flap.  But then the man’s eyes fluttered.  He was laying among the dead.

He weighed less than 70 pounds, and I thought him light as I tried to catch his arm from falling.  I did this without thinking.  I acted not as I thought I should but as I had no choice but to do.

All the beds inside the medical tent were taken, so I laid him on the ground.  A helper put a blanket over him.  She was irritated and told me impatiently that he had been moved to the morgue because there was not enough time or people to look after all of the patients, and in any case, he was going to die anyway.  At that moment, I felt rage at the efficiency of placing the living among the dead.  And I felt despair – for him, for myself.  I could be him, dependent on the actions of a stranger for the hope of at least dignity in death.

His eyes opened and closed.  He shivered under the blanket, and soon he was dead.  This was the last violated remnant of a fuller life.  I didn’t even know his name, but I knew he had been someone’s son, someone’s friend and possibly someone’s husband, someone’s father.  What choices led to civil war and famine, leaving hundreds of thousands of people like this man to suffer in this way, at this time, in the last decade of the twentieth century.

These kinds of stories are atrocious.  But they also must be told.  For our world is filled with choices, Orbinski sees humanitarianism “as a challenge to political choices that too often kill or allow others to be killed”.  If we do not know the effects of such choices – the real life stories of people and their communities – we have little motivation to change political choices, to raise our voice, to speak out against injustice, violence, dehumanization, or genocide.

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