Well-traveled, troublesome mementoes

August 23, 2010

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    Kevyn O&#039;Neill for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Assault rifle shell casings, refugee boy ID, fatal bomb fragment from the Shabra-Shatila massacre. Photo: Kevyn O'Neill for Mercy Corps

There I was, quickly surrounded by SeaTac airport security guards and detained for questioning.

Last Friday, August 20 — as I headed for my flight from Seattle to Houston — I sent my briefcase through the x-ray machine as usual. I was immediately escorted to a small area and confronted by three security guards. "Why do you have these?" the female guard demanded as she held a zip-lock bag containing empty assault rifle shell casings — and a single live round.

"I have carried those mementoes many times when speaking to groups about my experience at a Lebanese refugee camp where hundreds of civilians were slaughtered. In that bag are spent shells, a child's ID photo and a piece of shrapnel, still covered by dried blood and removed by a surgeon from the head of a high school refugee boy who died from his wound. The live round? That was a big mistake and I totally forgot it was there. I am very sorry."

After consulting higher authorities and firing more questions at me, the senior guard handed me the bag, kept the live 7.62 mm AK-47 round, and simply said, "You are free to go."

The timing of my law enforcement encounter seems propitious. September 16-18 is the 28th anniversary of the infamous Sabra-Shatila Palestinian refugee camp massacre that transpired in Beirut in 1982. I was there as the bodies of women and children were being removed — a horrific scene of violence and destruction. I shot photos, interviewed survivors and promised humanitarian support from Mercy Corps. Late Mercy Corps co-founder, Ells Culver, and the Rev. Dr. Don Wagner were with me and became champions of refugee protection, human rights and peace-making in the Middle East cauldron of endless conflict.

Mercy Corps was founded because of the plight of refugees. Our work continues among them in the Middle East and around the world. We promote inter-ethnic, inter-religious dialogue and peace-building strategies. Where there is life, there is hope.