Awakening the world to action: Try guilt

August 23, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Staff Writer

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- In 1952, a Brazilian nutritionist named Josue de Castro published a book called "The Geography of Hunger."

In it, Mr. de Castro noted that though hunger "had unquestionably been the most potent source of social misfortunes . . our civilization has kept its eyes averted, afraid to face the sad reality. War has always been loudly discussed. Hymns and poems have been written to celebrate its glorious virtue. . . . Thus, while war became a leitmotif of Western thought, hunger remained only a vulgar sensation, the repercussions of which were not supposed to emerge from the realm of the subconscious. The conscious mind, with ostentatious disdain, denied its existence."

Forty years later, that strange aversion prevails.

Men are drawn to war; their minds are obsessed with it, possibly because it holds the potential for heroism. Hunger runs rampant, and the world turns away. There are no flags associated with it, no summons to glory.

In Somalia today, there is a massive famine. It is the offspring of a civil war of about four years duration. But the famine is the major factor today; the war is secondary as an agent of death.

More than a year into this extraordinary tragedy, the Western world has finally been embarrassed into attention. The capacity for indifference toward Somalia seemed especially callous when compared with the concern so evident in every Western capital over the strife in the former country of Yugoslavia. These two conflicts have divided the world once again along its major fault line -- between the rich and the poor nations.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the secretary-general of the United Nations, has undiplomatically called attention to the discrepancy.

Reflecting Third World sentiment, Mr. Boutros-Ghali declared the Balkans conflict to be the "rich man's war." He has denounced the Security Council for its obsession with the Balkan bloodletting, to the neglect of what James Kunder, in the State Department's Office of Disaster Assistance, declared to be "the world's worse humanitarian crisis."

The secretary-general, an Egyptian diplomat of many years' experience, was accused of lacking diplomacy.

"He is losing his job because he is saying this," says Nuruddin Farah, a Somali novelist. "The European world does not like being told it is racist."

There may indeed be racism involved in this. All races have a natural impulse toward their own kind. But probably this other factor is at work as well, what Mr. de Castro called "the hidden motives that have led our culture to abstain from dealing with the problem of hunger."

What are these motives? Why does this happen?

Possibly famine is so difficult to confront because it is the ultimate failure of civilization. Wars are a lesser breakdown of civilization -- and not always that, for some wars are controlled and do not rip apart the fabric of social and economic life. Wars have been institutionalized, rationalized; the conduct of them is overlaid with rules.

Armies are invested with tradition and legitimate purpose. People who organize and conduct wars are honored, respected as professionals. Nothing else generates the passion of patriotism among people as much as war. For no other activity are medals and honors dispensed so plentifully as for making war.

Usually the functions of life go on during a war. Famine annihilates all. Its effects are more extensive; the biological and social consequences perpetuate themselves. The loss of life from a war is made up again. The survivors of great famines are broken for all their lives; their children inherit the frailty of their parents. They are a weight that retards the recovery of the people as a whole.

Famines are daunting, mysterious and almost always the product of human inadvertence. Nature makes droughts and floods; men make famines. They are the sign that politics has failed, political organization has collapsed, for famine is predictable. The Romans and civilizations before them understood that so they built granaries and storehouses, for food to carry them through times of natural difficulty.

But it is a mistake to believe famine yields no heroes.

Currently in Somalia, there are more heroes than there are in all the Balkan states put together. Among them are the Somali doctors, many of them Western-trained, who might today be safe in Sweden or Germany, or even Kenya. Instead they staff the hospitals of Mogadishu, stitching up the men brought in from the spasmodic fighting that goes on in this hell of a city. They mend the children shot or blasted by shell fire, crippled by mines.

They are assisted by Somali nurses, who because of their sex are always at risk of being raped. The nurses are soft, gentle, sad, feminine and determined to work until they drop. And then they get up again.

There are heroes in the bush towns like Bardera, the medical workers with the United Nations Children's Fund who flew to that devastated village with the intention of feeding and giving medicine only to distressed children.

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