The echoes of a crisis still heard to this day

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Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

He was deep in Africa, deeper than most people realized.

He was in Malawi, a far-flung country that nobody will ever mistake for a resort destination. It is a little known African nation, negligible in size and surrounded by Mozambique, Tanzania, and Zambia.

His purpose in being there, in a tiny country nearly 50 percent surrounded by the civil war in Mozambique, was to talk with refugees who had just escaped from their home country after their villages had been pillaged and burned, after family members had been killed or carried away.

It was not an assignment he had sought with great anticipation. He had already seen and heard enough that confirmed the horror stories of so many African situations. His party was to talk with, or interview, 15 or 20 of the group of 300 who had crossed into Malawi from Mozambique a couple of days earlier. The refugees were existing under shrubs, trees, and open skies near a Red Cross camp on the outskirts of Lilongue, Malawi’s capital city.

Seconds after his team of six arrived at the location, they were surrounded by all 300 of the refugees. They were not screaming or fighting for individual attention. They were stunned, docile, exhausted, and quietly seeking the basic necessities of daily life. They had no possessions except what they were wearing or could carry in their hands. Most spoke only Portuguese or a tribal dialect.

They had only three native young men as interpreters – for 300 people with stories to tell. It was a hopeless task and they knew immediately that they could interview only a few of them.

A young woman who was nursing her baby might have been 25, but more likely 17 or 18. She had another child and a husband but had no idea where they were or what had happened to them.

A man in his 30s, who looked 60, appeared to be in shock and stared at them with vacant eyes. His halting story: he returned from his work one afternoon to find his home burned, and his wife and four children missing. He had no way of knowing if they were alive or dead, or where they might be.

Another young man experienced a similar loss of his wife and two children. Virtually no families were intact, all fled with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. Some were carrying babies or small children . . . many of them ill. The immediate past had been horrendous, the immediate future was nearly as bleak.

Most of the refugees were caught in villages between the rebels and government forces. The rebels would raid and steal everything of use and then the government forces would move in, charge the villagers with assisting the rebels, shoot some of the “aiders and abettors,” rape and take away some of the women, and torch the homes.

After several hours of hearing these stories, the group prepared to leave. As they were moving through the crowd, offering what solace they could with comforting words, smiles, and warm handshakes, they were faced by an old looking woman who asked: “What can you do for me? I don’t have the strength to walk to the water, and if I could, I have no cup.”

He couldn’t give her a cup because he had none. He didn’t need one as he could get into an automobile and ride away from the misery he had just witnessed.

The time was 1986, the year my late father retired and had the time to travel halfway around the globe on a mercy mission. He seldom told the story, but it’s definitely worth re-telling, especially for those who get caught up in the mundane moments of everyday life.

Even a man who made a habit of helping others, whether they be near or far, couldn’t escape the memory of that insufferable day in Africa years ago. Said he:

“In my comfortable home, 10,000 miles for Malawi and the 130,000 refugees who crossed that country’s borders, I see that woman’s tragic face every time I raise a water glass to my lips.”

 

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