Global Lens Reflections on life, the universe, and everything

Life goes on

A woman displaced in October 2008 by fighting between forces of rebel Tutsi General Laurent Nkunda and the Congolese government took refuge in a church and adjacent school in the Goma neighborhood of Musawato, where she plays with one of her children. A quarter of a million people have been newly displaced by fighting in the eastern Congo, where some 5.4 million have died since 1998 from war-related violence, hunger and disease.

I just arrived, after four days of traveling, at the Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya–the world’s largest refugee settlement. I’ll start photographing tomorrow morning. As I think about doing that in the midst of lots of suffering, as many of you have seen in recent weeks as the major media has covered the food crisis in the Horn of Africa, I think back to images like this one from 2008, where a woman displaced by militia violence in eastern Congo, living in a harsh volcanic field, lovingly holds aloft her child, a statement that despite all the despair and pain around her, a baby is still born, a child grows, life goes on. It was just a quick capture; she didn’t see me photographing, and the playful moment ended all too briefly. But it was a moment that denied the dominant narrative its complete control. Yes, the reality of hunger and starvation is dramatically painful, but so is the love of a parent for their child. So is hope. There’s death here, that’s certain. Yet I hope there’s hope to be witnessed here as well, and I hope I can capture some of it in images. The challenge is how to do that while being fair to the complex nature of this emergency. Maybe I can't do that, but only provide patterns of pixels that provide reference points to the larger picture. I've been reading Three Famines by Thomas Keneally on the trip (easier on the plane than in a bouncing jeep). It's a detailed reminder that famine isn't a natural disaster, but rather the natural hazard of too little rainfall amplified by political decisions and economic policies that end up literally driving the poor to their deaths. There's nothing new here, and Keneally looks at how this worked in the Irish Potato famine, a famine in Bengal in the 1940s, and what took place in Ethiopia in the 1980s and 90s. All the issues of this crisis need to be looked at as well. But first there are a lot of starving people to be fed, and as always I am inspired by the selfless courage of humanitarian workers who leave home and come to such a desolate landscape to serve their sisters and brothers.

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