Monday, February 14, 2011

A lesson in the real world

At the tail end of a blissful weekend on the beach, my power-lounging mates and I received an urgent call from a friend of ours letting us know that while we were deciding what kind of pancakes we wanted for breakfast, he was hiding in the bush, surrounded by gunfire and inhaling tear gas.  The real truth seems to be garbled, cryptic and disputable, but what we do know is this:

Buduburam, the Liberian refugee camp houses around 18,000 people, most of which are refugees from Liberia, Sierra Leone and other neighboring west African countries.  The camp has been active for nearly two decades.  Yesterday, there was an unofficial changing of leadership in the camp, which is now considered to be a small town.  The citizens called for this change when they felt as if their current leader failed to represent them and support their basic needs.  These people frequently go weeks without water, even though they are just outside the city of Accra, and they just spent 3 weeks without electricity.  Since Ghanaian officials did not approve of their quest for satisfaction of basic needs, and hence a new leader, they entered the camp with force.  They released tear gas and opened fire.  At the onset of this forceful entry, a woman was accidentally shot and killed.  Our dear friend Younis was in plain sight of the woman and captured her image on his phone.  Moments later, a ten-year-old boy was also shot and killed.  There are conflicting reports as to the extent of those killed or injured by bullets.  Some say 3 while others say 5.  I'm afraid we will never have the full story.  Meanwhile, many of the male residents were arrested and fear deportation.

With a little luck, we were able to meet Younis by the roadside, as he crept out of the village to meet us and bring him safely to Accra.  At the time that we met up with him, all citizens were ordered to stay inside their homes or face arrest.  Since it was the men who were threatened with arrest and looting is a known issue, Younis made the decision to get into the car along with a friend and leave the rest of his family behind.  Eventually, later in the day, he made the decision to have his wife pack all of their belongings (which fit into two backpacks) and hire a car into the city.  As anyone can imagine, this family of four is shaken and suffering from tear gas induced headaches.

I'm just not sure that I've ever seen or felt such heaviness, sullenness or pure fear.  Before picking up Younis from the roadside, we approached the entrance of the camp.  Standing there was a group of people banded together, looking on and unsure of their fate.  These are people that can find the light in most any situation, but on this particular day they could barely utter a word or peel their eyes from the scene in front of them.  At that time, their friends and family were being loaded onto a truck by men in riot gear and driven away.  Many of them will suffer from retraumatization.  These are people who have already experienced war.  They've run from bullets, left dead or suffering family members behind and made a life in a new, presumably safe environment.  Yesterday returned them to their pain.  I could see it in their eyes.

As people who live a relatively safe and comfortable life, we have no idea what real terror is.  We have no idea what it is like to live under conditions where you are forced to forgo basic needs in exchange for safety.  We know these problems exist, but we think they are for others.  Yesterday I had a lesson in just how terrifying life can be so close to home.

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