Saturday, December 02, 2006

Inbetween

There is no internet access. Well, given that you’re reading this, that isn’t entirely true. I should say that there is intermittent internet access. By intermittent I mean out for days at a time. And this got me thinking all day about a conversation that I had months ago with a friend in DC. We had just seen a movie about some Americans who were killed in South America and I said, “Well, what did they expect? Traipsing around in someone else’s war. They had no idea how they were perceived or whose side they were on.”

“Isn’t that what you’re going to do?” she asked.

And we both laughed. Touché.

The internet access made me think of this conversation because no one has any idea why the internet is out. It might be out because of electrical failure, it might be out because of military movements, or it might out because of incompetence. Who knows? We don’t. We just sit here at the whim of the powers that be and we don’t even fully know what those powers are.

I have a chart on my wall of the militia groups, and rebel groups that have split and made up and split again and I have to update it on a near daily basis. The SLA, the SLA Wahid, the SLA Minawi, the SLA Free Will, the SLA Modern, the NRF, the JEM, the PDF (seriously) – we even now have a grouping called the ‘UAG’ – unidentified armed groups and ‘OAG’ – other armed groups. Kofi Annan described it best, ‘anarchy and chaos’ he said.

I suspect that the internet is out because there are troop movements and things are about to get ugly somewhere around here. So Sudan does what Sudan always does when things are tense. They shut down mobile phone networks and thereby our communications and our access to the internet. And all of this reminds me that we really have very little idea of where we fit into this larger picture. One of the first rules in aid work is that we are supposed to be on no ones side in this – we don’t carry guns, we don’t discriminate in the people we help…but, is that just our perception of things? It doesn’t matter much what you believe if you are perceived to be doing something else. It doesn’t matter if you don’t discriminate in aid given if everyone thinks you do…well, I should say, it doesn’t matter much. People act on perceptions. We all do. And, we really have no idea how we are perceived. Not by the government, not by the rebels, not even by the people on our street. All of this makes for terribly interesting dinner conversation back home but when you are being watched by a silent group of men while passing a mosque, or a truckload of solders, it takes on a greater sense of urgency.

And then there is the work itself. Because the conflict has been described – erroneously – as Arab vs. African, the aid agencies have favored the African tribes for distributions and support. However, a great number of non-combatant Arab tribes were completely overlooked which only increased the tension in an already explosive environment. And, how, exactly are we supposed to differentiate between combatant and non-combatants anyway. It’s someone else’s war, remember?

Add to this the demands of donors and agencies to abide by standards that are – I’m sorry to say – often Western contrived, completely out of place and contradictory in the field. Take the gender issue, for example. The Red Cross Code of Conduct states that we will not attempt to change people’s beliefs. However, standards dictate that special emphasis and influence be invested in vulnerable groups (read: women, children, elderly, etc.). So, attempting to give women a voice or to assign them to positions of decision and authority – or even gain their opinions – changes a society’s beliefs. ‘Yes, but,’ the open-minded Westerner will argue. ‘Surely it’s better that we change some beliefs.’ Is it? Which ones? Who decides? I’m fairly sure that same Westerner would argue that no culture is inherently better than any other. That no belief system is imperically more ‘fair.’ So, when something has to be sacrificed what will it be?

So we are stuck – inbetween. A terrible inbetween. After awhile, it makes you bitter and angry, or careless and cynical, but it always makes you tired.

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