Don’t just stand there, do something!

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Daryl Teague’s souvenir made in a refugee camp prosthetics workshop

“These people have a chook tied under the bed so that it lays eggs,” said Dr Daryl Teague, explaining what the chicken was doing in a Red Cross hospital ward.

From January to April 1983, Daryl worked for the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) in eastern Thailand. When he arrived, there were around 50,000 refugees living in the Khao-I-Dang UNHCR refugee camp.

Writing a book on refugees is, at times, harrowing. Nothing like tales of rape and torture to induce despair. It was therefore a very pleasant change to be drinking tea, eating cake and viewing slides in Daryl and Wendy’s gracious home as part of my research for Place of Refuge.

“Here’s a guy I operated on two days before,” continued Daryl. “He’s very lucky to have kept his leg. So I told him: you’ve got to stay in the ward and have your leg up on two cardboard boxes. Anyway, I’m walking around and bloody hell, what are you doing out here? You’re supposed to have your leg up … and he turns round and he’s made a sling so that when he sits down his leg is still up. And I thought, you are so imaginative and …”, he searches for the right adjective and finally settles on “enterprising”, this last word spoken with admiration.

“Most of the time we’re operating on blown up limbs and bodies, but this little boy came in and he had a harelip and I did a harelip repair on him. He’s about 5 and we got the parents to come in and look at him. They were just totally thrilled.”

That afternoon with Daryl and Wendy recast the Cambodian Khmer Rouge tragedy for me. As Daryl reminisced about his patients, some by name, I saw that it had been more than a mercy mission; it had been an adventure. This was made possible by Wendy’s support, no small matter considering that volunteering was not without its risk – once a bomb landed so near to the doctors’ sleeping quarters that they thought a truck had backed into their building. The bomb had, in fact, struck a large kitchen in the refugee camp, killing several workers.

War and pain and injustice exist today as they did when Daryl went to Cambodia. Being aware of human suffering and believing that we can do nothing about it induces a kind of social blindness. We turn a blind eye because it is too painful to see such horror and do nothing.

But if we can look at evil in the face and ask ourselves: what we can do about this? what gifts and resources do we have? what lies within our circle of influence? then perhaps things will start to change, the change, whether big or small, a testament to goodness and mercy and hope. In Daryl’s words, emailed to me after proofreading this post: There is honour amongst refugees.

Acting on orders

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I have been listening to the audiobook “Ghostwritten” by David Mitchell, read by William Rycroft. Mitchell is a storyteller par excellence; his words transport me right into scenes as they unfold, for example, into a far flung hostel where a member of a cult group is in hiding after unleashing a gas attack on a Tokyo subway.

As the townsfolk shake their heads, unable to comprehend the motivation behind such senseless killing, a lady in the group, a teacher, suggests that none of the cult group members had chosen specifically to become killers. What they had done, she said, was to abdicate their inner selves.

She elaborated: ‘Society is an outer abdication. We abdicate certain freedoms, and in return we get civilisation. … However, we all have an inner self, that decides to what degree we honour this contract. This inner self is our own responsibility. I fear that many of the young men and women in the Fellowship handed this inner responsibility to their Guru, to do with as he pleased.’

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As part of my research into Cambodia for Place of Refuge, I am also reading ‘Facing the Torturer’ by Francois Bizot. In 1971, Bizot  convinced his Khmer Rouge captor, Duch, that he was not a spy. Duch, in turn, worked to secure Bizot’s freedom. The night before Bizot’s release, Duch confessed to Bizot how hard it had been to carry out his duties. Bizot recounted: “Finally, the young commander with whom I spoke every day … had revealed that he had to beat the prisoners himself. … It was nothing more than putting the ardour of his commitment into practice, the action being in proportion to the greatness of the revolutionary ends.”

Putting these two images side by side, one, a fictional cult member who gasses travellers because he believes the world is corrupted, and the other, a non-fictional account of a Khmer Rouge prison guard who vomited the first time he beat his prisoners, his own body rebelling against his task, I reflected on how, from time to time, we justify our actions, by saying that we are ‘acting under orders’.

I thought of the fishermen who delivered food to the Rohingya refugees adrift at sea. Was it their humanity that compelled them? How did the patrol guards feel when they had to tow boats away? (It has been reported that this is no longer the practice.) Did they have to suppress their natural human instinct to help their fellow man? Did they have to convince themselves that they had to a job to do, regardless of how unsavoury it was? That they had to be professional? What would I have done in their shoes?

If a person suppresses their conscience once, does that conscience slowly begin to die? Does it get easier the next time? In 1998, Bizot is startled when he visits a prison museum, and recognises Duch’s face in the exhibit, and ‘discovers the horrifying extent of his actions from 1975 to 1979, as well as his responsibility in the organisation of torture and executions. … I felt myself shivering as I thought of the brilliant young revolutionary I had known compared with this possessed being, who remained my fellow man.’

Bizot writes with great compassion, and also with fear, recognising that he is himself capable of evil, and capable of justifying evil. Each time we silence our conscience in the name of a ‘greater good’, do we deaden ourselves a little?