Monday, November 10, 2008

The personal cost of conflict

Today is November 10, a day that bloggers around the world are dedicating their space to raising awareness of refugee issues. The issue most in the spotlight, though, is the impact the world's conflicts have on families.

Think about the dream you had as a child. Do you remember? It was the dream where you were standing alone in a strange place with nobody familiar anyplace nearby. You were physically OK, but the fear and swelling panic in your chest were almost unbearable as you realized there was no familiar face to anchor you, no family member to accompany you as you stumbled through the chaos.

That dream.

Around the world, millions of refugees have lived this scenario as a frightening reality. Fleeing for their lives, they became separated from family, from their spouses, from their young children. They didn't know where to look for their loved ones, and there was no way to find out where to start. But they do look, and they start in some of the most dangerous places they have just fled.

This reality isn't characteristic of just one conflict; it is a running theme that has continued across continents and through centuries, snaking its way from family to family, war to war.

1995. Somalia. Sitey was awakened by the sound of gunfire outside. She lived in the same village her family had lived in for generations. They were pastoral farmers, poor, but self-sufficient. She gathered her infant son close to her chest and looked out the window. Somali soldiers were attacking her neighbors outside, and homes were succumbing to bright fires that snapped like angry, biting jaws. Sitey roused her other children and her husband, and all fled into the night.

When dawn came, Sitey was missing two children. She waited for as long as she could--long after her family and neighbors had run to safety. Her children were nowhere to be found. She started walking toward the Kenyan border, but when she caught up with relatives, she asked them to take her baby--she would not go on without looking for her kids.

Aliza is tall and dark-skinned, a Sudanese woman of Chiluk heritage. She stands tall and walks gracefully, and her beautiful smile is enhanced by her high, striking cheekbones. She is soft spoken. For the first time in the three years I've known her, Aliza spontaneously begins talking about her life in Sudan.

Shortly after her first wedding anniversary, her husband disappeared. He vanished without a trace. Aliza had an infant son and no money. She braved her first ride in a rickety rowboat as she set off to look for her husband in the last place he had been seen. All she could think about was that when her older brother was only ten years old, he was taken at gunpoint by soldiers. He was forced to serve, forced to fight. Neither Aliza nor any family member saw the boy again, although they searched frantically, asking strangers in nearby villages for any information about the child. He wasn't seen again until he was 26 years old and very, very far from home. By then, years of a brutally hard life--most of it spent firing a gun--had taken their toll. His family tried to scrape together the money to go to him, to bring him medicine, but time ran out. He died less than a year later of respiratory illness. Aliza said, "And he died alone, not even one person to be there with him. Nobody knew where was this boy. Nobody saw him. He was alone. He was my brother. I waited for him all those years, but I didn't see him."

Selver watched his home burn at the height of conflict in Kosovo. He gathered his kids and headed out of the village, nervously taking note of the bodies of his neighbors strewn along the side of the road. Villagers came on foot and on tractors--their cars had been confiscated by the Serbs. The family made its way out of town, only to be stopped by soldiers at a Serb checkpoint. The Serbs collected everyone's documents and identification, stripping the Kosovars of their proof--proof of everything they were or had been.

When Selver made his way to the Albanian border, it was raining. A makeshift refugee camp had started to emerge from the empty fields, and a growing number of plastic tarps stretched across the uncertainty. Selver kept his kids close. Several of his friends were missing, and he knew that once a person strayed from sight here, it was possible they would vanish with the morning fog. Selver knew that no matter what else he and his family did, they must stay together. He told me once that so many people from his village disappeared, he couldn't name all of them anymore.

To be a refugee means many things. It means starting over with the never-completely-lost hope of going back to what ended. It means having nothing but your life. It means knowing how strong you are and how resourceful you can be and that's how you survived. It also means facing loss. Loss of home, loss of the familiar, loss of the past and perhaps of the future only dreamed of. For many, it also means the loss of loved ones.

Liberata lost her children on a dark night in eastern Congo. When they fled, they ran to the forest. In that night of chaos, Liberata had to keep going, hoping against hope that her kids were doing the same thing somewhere close by. Liberata walked through the jungle for months. She made it all the way to the Congo River and headed north, walking, walking, until she crossed the border into the Central African Republic where she officially became a refugee. She has no idea where her family members are. None. She is here with a daughter and a nephew. She is down one husband and four children.

For anyone who has never experienced war, there is no way to comprehend all of the levels of loss. Losing everything has no real meaning until a survivor realizes there is no family, there are no friends. They might be alive, they might have perished. Are they looking for me? Does someone know where they are? It is the not knowing that ignites both hope and gut-clenching anxiety. To lose something precious is painful; to lose something and not know if it is really lost or just waiting to be found is maddening.

Aliza was eventually reunited with her husband, but friends who were secretly jailed never came home. Sitey located her two children in the orphanage at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. Unfortunately, it was a brief moment of reunion--Sitey's immigration documents were ready, and her departure to the U.S. was imminent. She hasn't seen her kids in five years, and they are not eligible to come to the United States. Sitey grieves deeply about this, but she is comforted by at last knowing where her children are in the world.

After World War II, the Red Cross spent a great deal of effort trying to reunite Europe's war refugees. It was a tedious and difficult task since so many people had perished or moved on. The Red Cross continues this work in post-war settings today.

There is another group, though, that is using the power of the Internet to help refugees worldwide connect with their lost loved ones. Refugees United is a very small nongovernmental organization providing a secure and widely accessible portal service for separated refugees. Check out their Website, read about what they do, and spread the word.

Silence is the enemy of the lost.

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