Saturday, November 16, 2013
Refugees: the triumph of desperation
I was moved to read an account of refugees trying to reach Australia aboard a rickety fishing-boat from Indonesia. The author, a reporter, goes into great detail about the motivation of the refugees, and how they're willing to grasp at almost any straw for the chance of a better life somewhere else. Even official pronouncements that they will never be allowed to resettle in Australia don't deter them, because they don't believe them. They dare not believe them, because if they did, they would no longer have any hope.
Americans, and most people in the First World, can't understand that sort of desperation. I can. I've seen it all too often in Africa. Things can be so bad, so impoverished, so utterly hopeless, that flight or suicide are the only alternatives many people can see. They'll choose the first if they can . . . the second if it's the only other option. Continuing to live under the circumstances surrounding them is not something they're prepared to do. To illustrate, let me tell you just one man's story from my experience.
Omar was born in Ethiopia, and conscripted at the age of 15 into that country's army. He was sent to fight in Somalia by the Derg administration, which supported anti-government factions there, and was taken prisoner by Siad Barre government forces. He was brutally tortured, including being anally raped with a heated poker that left permanent scarring far up inside his lower digestive tract, then confined as a slave laborer for several years. During that time he married a female slave, and they had two children.
Somalia slowly collapsed into chaos and anarchy. Being a (relatively) trained soldier, Omar was forcibly conscripted into three different militias. The first took him from his slave prison, separating him from his wife and children, whom he never saw again and never learned what happened to them. Twice in the next few years he was wounded and captured, then given a choice: fight for his captors, or be shot. Needless to say, he changed sides each time.
Omar finally managed to make his escape from Somalia, stealing enough gold and dollars from a trader to bribe his way north back to Ethiopia; but he found that his entire birth family had perished in the great famine of 1983-85. Their land had been expropriated for non-payment of taxes, and their animals and possessions were long gone. In desperation, he made his way to Eritrea by hitching rides on vehicles, stealing enough food to keep body and soul together, and taking whatever odd jobs were to be had. His most prized possessions were a folding-stock AKMS carbine that he'd acquired in Somalia, and its well-honed bayonet, sharpened so often on rocks and stones that more than half the width of its blade was worn away. (I asked him once how many men he'd killed with rifle and knife. Gesturing with the AKMS, he answered shortly, "About twenty", and then, with the knife, "Too many to count.")
I met him in Massawa, where he was working as an odd-job dock laborer, looking for a ship on which he could stow away to get to Egypt. (He planned to trade his rifle for passage if he had to - but not his bayonet.) From Egypt he planned to try to cross to Italy and enter the European Union. His reason? Local doctors and hospitals could do nothing for his long-standing internal injuries, which were slowly but surely getting worse, and would kill him within three to five years through adhesions in his lower digestive tract unless they were treated. He had heard that if you got to the EU, medical treatment was free.
That's just one example of refugee desperation from my experience. I could have selected many others. It's a state of mind that few people in the West understand, or with which they can empathize. To that end, I highly recommend reading the linked report. It's well worth your time to understand how bad some parts of the world really are - so bad that people will risk imprisonment or even death to get away.