20 Dec 2000
DISPLACED PEOPLE AND VALUABLE PROPERTY
If there is a life-threatening emergency and you had to vacate your residence within the shortest time possible and move to an unknown destination on foot, what will you take along with you? Assuming that the time lapse separating the decision to leave and actual departure is five minutes, what will you leave behind?
You may imagine this as an academic exercise but the above question is very relevant to those of us living on the African continent. Plagued with political instability, wars and repression, Africa has been turned into a huge refugee camp. As the consequence of bad governance, the number of displaced people on the continent (highest in the world) is mind-boggling. Many of these unfortunate people had to depart from their homes in a mad hurry. Under these circumstances, it becomes a daunting task to determine what to take along and what to leave behind when departing.
Following the Rwandan massacre of 1994, the world witnessed one of the largest impromptu exoduses in human history. International media correspondents were so overwhelmed with the spectacle that most lacked the words to describe what they were seeing. One CNN correspondent used the description ‘biblical proportion’ to qualify it. Looking at the television footage, I was paralysed with fear. I was afraid of the fate of this moving crowd of over a million souls.
I decided to focus on a photo of these people on the cover of one magazine. I took some time to analyse the things each individual was carrying. What I observed was quite interesting. One person was carrying a sleeping mat, the other an empty plastic container and another a live goat. The items others were carrying were as varied as you can imagine.
It will be naïve to assume that the things these individuals were carrying were their most valuable possessions. When you are threatened with mortal danger, anxiety and nervousness sets in. Your judgement becomes impaired and you make wrong choices or no choice at all. As you are fleeing under these circumstances, you tend to grab and drop several valuable things at the same time. When the final signal to go sounds, you may find yourself grabbing the most irrelevant item and dashing out of the house. This is how most of Africa’s refugees left their homes on a mission to limbo. Some of them have lived in refugee camps for years. The things that we take for granted like home, car and other possessions are dreams to these people who once lived like us. Talk to them and they will tell you that their preoccupation is guessing where the next meal will come from. They are not yet talking of putting their broken pieces of ‘body and soul’ together. I mean restoring their human dignity let alone dreaming of property. You cannot be moving naked among people and think of anything other than basic survival necessities.
Man has an extraordinary capability to adapt to hitherto unimaginable situations. One moment he could be wining and dining with presidents and the next moment he is in a crammed cell with hardened criminals. This explains why after loosing everything, Africa’s refugees are still alive in the millions many years after. They have adapted to the life of deprivation and hardship.
Copyright ã Dec. 2000 by Njei Moses Timah
Njei Moses Timah [e-mail]