Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Visit to a Refugee Camp, circa 1995.

When I was ten I visited a refugee camp.

In fact, I visited a few. But this time, I was especially nervous. Perhaps because my parents were nervous and I'd picked up on it in the way that children do.  Although they'd worked in the camps since leaving Rwanda the preceding year, today we were driving across miles of savannah to visit close friends in another, accompanied by an armed guard- there to protect us from the notorious bandits that occupied the intervening miles.

But the preceding months had been heavy with tension and fear anyway. 

Their weight had descended almost immediately; we knew the President's death would mean war.

My memories of our last few days in Rwanda- the days following- run into one another. There was eerie - almost suffocating - quiet, there were odd- an increasing- snapshots of desperate fear: a frenzied sprint through the garden with an unfamiliar and disturbing urgency; a grown man cowering in the darkness of our spare room- trembling, humiliated by fear, at the feet of this nine-year old child- his eyes brimmed with a plea for mercy. There were houses burning ominously on the horizon, nights of sleeping away from home for safety; anxious discussions with other families; unfamiliar sounds; gunshots; tangible, oppressive tension. There were the haunting cries of mourning echoing around the valley in the mornings after desperate, brutal nights; there were death threats, reports of incomprehensible violence. There was the burden of impossible decisions. 

Then there was the tension of our leaving- the uneasy obligation of our privilege: the Embassy had spoken- Brits should leave. There was the rush, the pressure, the urgency that made making decisions about what to take utterly futile. There was the tension of the drive through checkpoints, the Union Jack taped to our windscreen as our refuge; threatening soldiers and oppressive trepidation; fear for our lives and those of others; misery- that we were able to leave when so many we loved had no choice but to stay- until they had no choice but to go.

And then there was the tension of having left. There was the tension of friends left behind. The survivors' guilt. What had happened? Should we have left when others had to stay? The news showed streams of refugees, reported countless deaths. But what about the individuals? What about families? People we'd known and loved and trusted? What did the future hold for them? 

By the time I was making the journey to this camp we'd had almost a year of the tension and uncertainty. We'd assumed our closest friends dead. But news had come that they'd made it to a refugee camp. Somehow, we'd found them. And we were on our way to see them. 

My first sighting of the refugee camp was overwhelming. Suddenly, the vast East African horizon was punctuated with endless blotches of unnatural blue. Dirt brown hillside was suddenly a sea of UNHCR sheeting. As far as the eye could see there were tents. Thousands and thousands of families, united by their obligation to escape. Each tent contained its own stories of desperation, of fear, or loss. 

I don't know how we found our friends' tent. But when we got there they welcomed us in; there were smiles, laughter, warmth. We sat on the floor of their makeshift home- nothing more than sheeting and straw, and at their absolute insistence, ate their food. In the camps they had daily rations- but they'd saved theirs up so they could host us. This family had lost loved family members and countless friends on the journey- carrying any remaining possessions in their own hands, they'd survived a horrific genocide- but they'd gone to their neighbours and collected spoons, so that there'd be enough for us all to eat their food, the way Europeans did. They welcomed us with warmth and love and kindness, and I learnt more about hospitality that day than I have in the twenty years since. 

We stayed for a while.

But then we left. We got back in to the Landrover, took the three hour journey, and before long were back in our brick home. Our roofed home. We had running water, and we probably had another meal. We got in to our beds, slept under duvets, and were set for the night. 

I don't imagine our friends ate again that day. In the months since we'd seen them they'd walked for miles, in constant fear for their lives- bewildered, horrified, surrounded by incomprehensible brutality. They'd experienced betrayal and slaughter. They'd finally got to safety in a vast refugee camp of plastic sheeting and rationed handouts- and remained there until - about three years later- they were sent back home.

Current circumstances have taken my mind back to these days and the overwhelming conviction I had even as a ten year old: it wasn't- and isn't- fair. It wasn't fair that I could escape the effects of the war simply because I was born in the UK. It wasn't fair that I could leave and they couldn't. It wasn't fair that I could leave in a convoy of cars, when they left on a perilous journey by foot. It wasn't fair that their lives had been emptied, chastened, traumatised and lost- when mine was able to carry on. I was able to go back home and sleep in a bed. I was able to know where food was coming from. It was so clear to me. I remember after one day with the refugees not wanting to sleep under my duvet. I knew: I did not deserve my freedom anymore than they deserved their suffering. 

This is not a political post. But as I hear the stories of desperate refugees in the media, I feel deeply, profoundly and certainly: that could be me. There is no merit in me that means it isn't me.

And this, I think, makes a difference to compassion. 

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