Saturday, January 08, 2005

Reflecting on the 2004 Tsunami

By Ali M. Mamina Jr.
"I am alone in this world now, except for my father..." -Shihan, 7 years old(SRI LANKA)

It would be hard for anyone who lives in the West, and who watches Cable, to say that one has not been exposed to the utter devastation that was the result of the oceanic earthquake, off the island of Sumatra (Indonesia), and the resulting Tsunami. MSNBC, NWI, BBC, ITN, CNN, have been providing us ad nauseam, with images and accounts of the pain, the grief, the loss, generated by the disaster and its magnitude. Particularly CNN International's reporters are giving around the clock and compassionate reporting of the situation in the countries affected. At the time I am writing, the Tsunami disaster is claiming close to 156,000 deaths, and millions of devastated survivors, orphans, robbed of family members, robbed in many ways of their lives, and their livelihoods; this, in a portion of our blue planet that spans an entire Ocean, from Western Indonesia (Asia), to Somalia and Tanzania (Africa).

Yet, through it all, report after report, I could not help but notice the resolve and the will to live, displayed by the survivors in Asian countries - as we have had little reporting on the African countries hit. Despite displays of grief, and pain, and confused helplessness, the survivors in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India, Thailand and other places hit, display an ardent will to carry on... that is all they have left to do. These are people who often did not have much in the way of earthly possessions to begin with, but still they seem to hold a distant hope that life will regain its rightful place, amid the permeating and overwhelming sense of fateful death...

Of all the reports shown during the live coverage, and the special reports, and the likes, one story cannot seem to leave my head. It is not the most desperate account of loss, but it seems to correctly show the general state of aimless chaos that resulted from this catastrophe. It is the story of a little 7-year-old boy from Sri Lanka, named Shihan (Jan. 5). Shihan was on a train with his mother and 2 sisters when the waves hit the coast, and smashed the train off the track. The little boy, fearing imminent death, clung for his life on the luggage railings in the train, and survived... his mother and siblings did not. Shihan was eventually saved, and reunited with his father. But it is not merely the story that was poignant. Hearing this little mild-mannered boy, with his sharp voice, recounting candidly, sadly, but confidently his ordeal was even more painful. The courage this boy displays really mirrors the magnitude of what hit him. >"I am alone in this world now," he says finally, "except for my father...". Seeing the eyes of this little, one cannot help but wonder about nature's cruelty. What did this boy do to deserve such sudden loss and pain, in such hard circumstances, at such a young age?

Selective Charity in the West?

Tails like Shihan's, and worse, are now everywhere, and on every channel. Though they hit specific countries, the killer waves of the angry ocean affected people all over the world. In all places, in Europe, America, Asia, even in poor countries in Africa and South America, people of all walks of life are pledging their support in however benign way they can afford. This surge of generosity can arguably be attributed to the courageous work that reporters of CNN and all the majors international news network, who took it upon themselves, despite the toll it had on their own psyche, to be there from the get go, to create awareness of the sheer devastation that we were about to discover; their work should be recognized.

But some might also argue - and rightly so - that the generosity of the World, especially the West, is at least aided by the fact that the affected areas were tourist spots, filled with Westerners: Sweden, for instance, claims close to 3,500 missing people, and hundreds of deaths. One might recall that the initial response of Western countries to the disaster was described as stingy by Ian Egeland of the United Nations, and it is only after several internal and external pressure, that the United States dramatically increased its financial participation in the relief effort. Victims of other catastrophic events around the World, though sympathetic to the survivors, do wonder where all this money, and all this good will, was, when they needed help in Somalia, Sudan, Darfur, Rwanda, Congo, and other places that account for close to 50,000,000 of "non-natural" deaths in the past 10 years only (with 1,000,000 in 3 months, in the Rwandan genocide of 1994). What is it that makes the richer countries' people dip deeper in their pockets, for humanity's sake? Must there be White people among the victims? Or maybe it's just a matter of media coverage? One can only venture a guess.

Yes, in this case, many Westerners died, and it must have been a factor. But we can also remember the great support drives for hunger relief in Ethiopia. Western help seems to have to do with the sheer magnitude, and the cause of the disaster. When it is a natural catastrophe - droughts, earthquakes, tsunamis - they tend to get a little more riled up for the cause. As for magnitude, the contrast between life before and after the tsunami is mind-boggling. Satellite images of the areas affected tell the story of entire communities wiped out from the face of the earth. People are already referring to a "Tsunami generation" of children. Even veteran UN Secretary General Kofi Annan could not reconcile himself with the painful reality of what he saw.

Common Humanity

Trying to understand why people respond differently in different - though similar - situations of pain, has been, and will probably always be a great challenge to the greatest minds. But if ever a good should come from such destruction as the one resulting from the Sumatra quake, maybe it is that people on the planet can advance further toward an acknowledgement of our common humanity. As my friend Kathleen, who has been following the developments in Asia with me, noted yesterday, many of the Western relief workers were able to see their own children, in the eyes of those children they came to help, despite the different skin color, features, wealth levels, education, religion, and language.

It is sad that it takes such catastrophes for people all over the world to recognize that there is th same level of humanity in all people that respond to the description of homo-sapiens - and incidentally, that means women too! That there are still White people who see black people as inferior boggles the mind. That there are still Arabs who refer to Black people as A'bid (slave), and treat them as such, seems simply ludicrous! That the lightness or darkness of one's skin, regardless of where one comes from - Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe, etc - could still be determinant of whether one achieves his/her goals does not seem believable in a 21st century where most of humanity - as a whole! - is faced with tremendously more important challenges such as disease, lack of education, hunger, and poverty.

It is hard for me to see the organizing forces of this World - whether one calls them God, or Nature - playing games with humanity. But maybe these catastrophes are nature's cynical way to remind us that there is only one race: human! We cannot live in a time vacuum, because we are the product of our history; it is therefore normal that some injustices of the past, and the misconceptions that caused them, continue to affect our daily lives today, in 2005. However, it is my hope that humanity learns from its instinctual supportive response to disasters like this one, that the life of a Muslim, a Hindu, a Budhist, an Iraqi, a Palestinian, a Rwandan, a Congolese, a Filipino, an Indonesian, or a Sri Lankan, is every bit as valuable as that of a Christian, a Jew, a Frenchman, a Briton, a German, an Israeli, or an American. Just look at the eyes of the kids receiving the aid in the disaster areas; they are not seeing White people, or Black people, or South Asian people: they are simply seeing other human beings extending to them the helping hand of love, and care. And that, is the measure of true humanity.

My most sincere condolences to all those who lost their loved ones in this tragedy. I come from a region in the World where loss is our daily bread... Grieve in peace, and then embrace life, as your loved ones would want you to. May they rest in peace.

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