A Forgotten Rebel

By Justin Frewen

Every act is ephemeral

To Rebel is an act

All Rebellion is ephemeral?

Seventeen years ago, I served in northern Iraq as the Field Coordinator in a UN project providing aid to Internally Displaced Persons (IDP). Some 66% of the population in the northern Governorates of Sulaymaniyah, Erbil and Duhok had been displaced at least once in their life, resulting in an effective breakdown of societal structures and community support networks.

The vast numbers of IDP led to their taking shelter wherever possible. Crammed into disused factories, university buildings and other unsuitable dwellings, families lived in squalor without adequate sanitation facilities or safe drinking water. Plastic sheets served as boundaries separating one family from another. Cooking was undertaken on open flames with no avenue of escape from the rising, whirling rings of smoke.

Arguably worse was the condition of the families living in the many disused Iraqi army barracks. With no heating and open windows, these structures were easy prey to the harsh climatic elements, with summer temperatures rising to 50° Celsius and below zero winters.  

Entering one of these habitations, a young, frail woman softly greeted us. A brief glance revealed the absence of furniture and only the most modest assemblage of household items; a tidy heap of thin and tattered blankets huddled in the corner, nestling on a torn mattress, and a half empty water pail. Pointing at a bare wall, our hostess hesitantly informed us how two of her children had frozen to death there. In her arms, the frail face of a sickly baby, swaddled tight in a flimsy, threadbare coverlet, peered feebly out. Her husband disabled in the recent conflicts was unable to provide adequately for their family.

Tragically, such personal misery was a constant feature of my year in Iraq. The scale of suffering and deprivation was so overwhelming it was difficult to imagine from whence these people found the strength to go on struggling against their fates, let along the determination so many demonstrated in striving to create a better future for their children.    

At a distribution of relief items, a young girl timidly advanced. She did not have a World Food Program (WFP) ration card, the universally accepted identification document. The girl, fourteen, recounted how she and her three younger siblings were orphans. She would be very grateful for any assistance though she realized this might not be possible given her lack of formal identification.

After providing her with the available items, we contacted the local WFP office. Rather than granting WFP cards to the little girl and her family, they conducted a battery of inconclusive tests to verify her plight. It took several months of appeals before they received their cards and ration entitlements. The fact that a month's supply of food would amount to less in monetary terms than a couple of hour's deliberation on their situation by WFP personnel appeared of little consequence.

As the year progressed, this attitude troubled me more and more. The lives of our euphemistically titled beneficiaries risked becoming concealed in a mist of objectivity. The suffering, hunger and poverty they experienced reduced to mere structural components in our planning processes. The congealed misery of their existence just one more statistical element in an emotionally detached development framework.

The philosopher Hannah Arendt claimed that evil lies in the inability of people to think from the standpoint of the other. Yet, development and humanitarian work is frequently animated by the credo that empathy or emotional involvement with the ‘beneficiaries’ can lead to faulty judgements on how best to provide assistance. Objectivity is trumpeted as de rigueur to optimise the benefits of development and humanitarian support. To discuss personal tragedies encountered is to risk censure. It is a sign of weakness, an inability to think clearly, a matter of greatest importance when making 'difficult' decisions, difficult that is for the beneficiary.

Contrary to the accepted wisdom, I believed that failing to actively engage and empathise with those whose lives we were impacting, increased the of risk of further injury rather than helping alleviate their distress. Was this much vaunted objectivity no more than an excuse to avoid considering potentially implicating realities? Realities, when acknowledged, would place demands upon our own.

As the year progressed my rejection of this normative objectivity grew. Critical interventions to improve the lives of IDPs were delayed or watered down, as focus remained on what we believed the beneficiaries required rather than on their actual and expressed needs.  

One year after I first entered Iraq, I rebelled. My rebellion was a minor one, consisting of no more than quitting my position. While some colleagues kindly expressed regret at my departure, project work continued as before, my impending exit soon forgotten. Two Heads of Iraqi programs in Iraq, Denis Halliday and Hans Von Sponeck, had previously resigned in protest. Their protests had swiftly been forgotten and everything had continued as before. It would have been the height of hubris to imagine I would be missed or the reasons for my leaving remembered.

Like a stone lobbed into a pond the ripples of my act of rebellion rapidly dissipated, soon invisible in effect.

act of rebellion, protest, Iraq