The numbness factor

July 26, 1994|By Anna Quindlen

IN THE instant city of displacement and death that has sprung up almost overnight in Goma, Zaire, there are now more Rwandan refugees than there are people living in Detroit.

This statistical comparison is an old journalistic trick to make the unimaginable comprehensible, to make the other side of the world seem like the town next door.

But it clearly reveals itself as an empty device in the harsh light of the disaster that has brought more than a million Rwandans to a border city in neighboring Zaire that once had a population of 150,000 people.

And the disaster itself reveals the limits of individual ability to perceive the members of the human community as neighbors, friends, fellow sufferers. It reveals an empathy overload that has blunted the edge of public opinion, perhaps for years to come.

When Joelle Tanguy, executive director of the medical relief organization Doctors Without Borders, talks about where its volunteers are now deployed, it sounds like a roll call of claims on our concern: Bosnia, Haiti, so many places where the United States government has considered intervention in recent months.

From trying to puzzle out the Serbs, Muslims and Croats, compassionate Americans now turn their attention toward the Hutus and the Tutsis and the tribal warfare that led a monumental wave of people to pick up and move to encampments without latrines and clean water where thousands are dying of cholera.

Even Ms. Tanguy, who has given endless interviews on the chance that they will somehow help, finally says "But how many times . . ." her voice dying in her throat. What she means is that the volunteer doctors have been ricocheting from crisis to crisis. And the public heart, if there is such a thing, has lost some of its elasticity.

"People say, 'Well, what good has it done? Ethiopia, Somalia -- it just keeps coming back,'" says Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, who sits on the subcommittee on African affairs.

Americans can be compassionate and generous people, who hold pancake breakfasts to pay for kidney transplants and help build new houses for victims of fire and flood.

If it were possible, as our mothers once suggested when we balked at brussels sprouts, to take our plenty personally to Goma, the people there would be full.

But compassion likes proximity and specificity, the embodiment of an issue in a person that attached when Betty Ford had breast cancer, Rock Hudson AIDS. Would our understanding of the Holocaust be quite the same if Anne Frank had not taken a small plaid diary into hiding with her?

Tragedy on a monumental, perhaps historic scale, as in Rwanda, lends itself instead to depersonalization. So does the television coverage, which is at once so immediate and so distant.

Who ever imagined that we would be able to watch as the light of life passed from the eyes of a stranger thousands of miles away?

Who ever imagined that we would be as close to a newly minted orphan, tears a swath of patent leather on his dusty face, as to our own children?

Who knew we would become so accustomed to the image of corpses in a mass grave that it would lose not only the power to shock, but the power to move?

It is the individual that moves us. In Goma, Raymond Bonner described one small boy carrying the cloth-wrapped bundle that contained the body of his little sister. Orphaned toddlers wander the camps. Babies wail over their dying mothers.

Ms. Tanguy says her doctors report seeing patients who die as they are being examined.

"If these people do not return to their homes the crops will rot in the field," she added. "And we will see another cycle of starvation. That is pretty much what we saw in Somalia."

"They are diverting food from Sudan to the refugees," said Senator Kassebaum. "But we know there are children starving in the Sudan."

The United States will send 33,000 tons of grain and 20 million packets of rehydration kits to treat cholera. Diplomats will work with the new Rwandan government; refugees who feared death because of factional fighting will be urged to return home.

By the time they do, there will be mass graves that hold perhaps thousands of bodies. And then, somewhere else, another great disaster, writ large on our television screens.

Does each succeeding struggle enlarge our understanding of the essential tie of humanity?

Or does it merely make us numb?

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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