Horror in the Horn of Africa: reflections and projections

Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan

August 2, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Jon Warren for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Sudan, 1984. Photo: Jon Warren for Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps Founder Dan O'Neill with a famine-affected child in Ethiopia, 1985. Photo: Mercy Corps

I first encountered extreme poverty and hunger in 1972 when I drove through Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia on a church mission trip. It struck me in the heart and I felt helpless. Then, in June, 1980, I went to Somalia with a Seattle-based non-governmental organization, World Concern, to observe a new, unfolding famine.

In the Hargeisa region, I hiked through desert heat to visit refugee camps, swelling as beleaguered, thirsty, hungry children and families stumbled out of an oven-hot desert with tales of attack, torture and death at the hands of merciless bands of armed men and boys (yes, 12-year-olds packing AK-47s).

My camera clicked on June 9 as famine refugees streamed out of the Ogaden on weakened camels, donkeys and on foot. Underneath their richly colored flowing scarves and robes, wrinkled, withered faces and stick-limbs protruded. Animal carcasses littered the fine sand which the hot wind whipped over everything, a gritty powder creating a cocoa-colored monochromatic drape, mercifully shrouding the withered skulls of the dead.

There was a chorus of moans amidst the mass suffering. Babies were not crying. Pockets of doctors and nurses tended to those who could be saved: feeding, rehydrating with I.V. fluids and comforting as best they could. They were overwhelmed.

I was struck by the beauty and elegance of these tall figures — families forced by drought and conflict into the inferno. Some were wearing Coptic-like crosses around their necks. Where, I wondered, was God for them? How must they be praying? Were aid agencies a part of the answered prayers of innocent, desperate people? This while Americans are sometimes praying for parking places at vast, air-conditioned shopping malls half a world away.

I was cramped by diarrhea, overheated, drenched in sweat, backpack and camera weighing heavier with each step. But I knew I had a way out of this hell. These people did not. I shuddered with the realization.

I did not want to see this kind of hell again. But, turns out, I have. Sudan, Zaire, Ethiopia and more. Tsunamis of famine refugees are still with us — as are killer quakes, hurricanes, wars and other catastrophes. Each call for the moral imperative to respond. We have the capability and generosity to make a difference with a broader array of tools and techniques now than ever before.

The slow-motion horror is happening again in the Horn of Africa. We knew it was coming. Some of us were "shouting from the roof tops" while the global media reported on celebrity murder trials, phone hacking scandals and budget battles — broadcasts peppered with ads and commercials for shiny new cars, vacation get-aways and new, sure-fire weight loss programs.

Better late than never, the world now sees the grim faces of the dead and dying. Generous people are rising to the challenge to give. More than 12 million precious lives are now at risk. We cannot say we did not know.

A holy man once wrote, "The death of a single child is, in a sense, the death of the entire universe."

God bless them. The families of famine. And the Good Samaritans.