Heart of Darfur by Lisa French Blaker
|Heart of Darfur by Lisa French Blaker
|Reviewer: Jill Murphy
|Summary: A memoir chronicling a mission to Darfur for a Medecins Sans Frontieres nurse. Simply and honestly written, it tells a difficult and uncomfortable story that absolutely demands to be read. It is a Radio 4 book of the week.
|Date: September 2008
|Publisher: Hodder Paperbacks
Imagine something went really wrong in this country. Imagine fighting broke out. Imagine government forces lost control in some areas. Imagine one of those areas was your town. Militia men of one force or another are shooting one another in the streets. They're shooting any civilians who venture out of doors too. Rockets are being fired into town. One hit your next door neighbour yesterday. She died. Her little boy is staying with you, because his grandparents live in another town and they're not allowed in to get him. You can't go to work; it's too dangerous. Neither can anybody else. Suddenly, the militia men decide they're going to start killing civilians, especially those who are Protestant, or Catholic, or have Irish surnames, or have dark skin, or have blue eyes, or are tall, or are short - it's that arbitrary. So you, and all the other people like you, have to get out with just what you can carry.
You end up on a camp somewhere desolate out of town, on some moors perhaps. You've no money, no food, no job, no home. Some of you are injured. The old and the young are starting to suffer from exposure. The government's lost control in your area. It can't and won't help you. An aid agency wants to help; it has medicines, food, blankets. But the militia men won't let them pass most of the time, and even when they do, they won't let them stay for more than an hour. To top it all, there's a measles outbreak. Your youngest gets it. You think he's going to die.
Yet just a few weeks ago, you were happily ensconced in a nine to five job with a mortgage, partner and two children, just like everybody else. Can you imagine it?
This is what happens in war. Soldiers aren't the only people getting killed. Civilians get killed too - but perhaps even worse, their lives are destroyed. Can you imagine living as a displaced person? Can you imagine losing your job, your home, your possessions? This is the story Lisa French Blaker tells about Darfur. She isn't interested in the politics that led to civil conflict, she is interested in its victims. Darfur covers an area of 500,000 square kilometres. It's the size of France. It's home to six million people, and more than a third of them have been displaced by the war. Probably half a million have been killed. It's horrific.
The medical charity Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) has been in Sudan for more than twenty five years, and Lisa French Blaker was a volunteer nurse for them there in 2005 and 2006. Here, she tells in crystal clear prose just what it is like to try to help suffering people while a war is going on around them. People die from lack of water not because there is no water, but because they are denied access to pumps. Malaria is rife. The cultural practice of female circumcision makes labour in difficult circumstances well nigh impossible, and often fatal. Blaker also tells of hopeless bureaucracy and paucity of supplies. It's absolutely harrowing. The successes, when they do come, provide moments of joy - but it's hard to hold onto them when you are confronted by the mountains of agonising failures.
I'm making it sound an uncomfortable read, aren't I? And it is. But it's also passionate and motivational, as I hope Blaker intended it to be. If you know what's happening, she figures, really know, you might get up and do something about it, even if it's no more than sending MSF some money. This is also a book about changing attitudes. People from Darfur aren't from a different planet - they are human beings. They live, love and grieve just as anyone does. A parent's grief for a dead child is not diminished simply because they live in a war zone and more children die than they do elsewhere. And Blaker does a great job of bringing this home. The people she describes are very real - they have beauty, grace, culture and custom. If you prick them, they bleed, but if you tickle them, they laugh. They are not other.
She also gives much away about herself. At one point in her mission, she is sent somewhere new after a break; her colleagues don't want her back. In some ways you can see why. The volunteers keep their sanity by accepting that they can only change what's in front of them and that this is more than a drop in the ocean; it's a huge contribution and a sacred act. Blaker's heart is so wounded by what she sees that she can't do it. Her anger is palpable, rising from the pages in floods of furious words. You can see why she perhaps made a difficult colleague, and your heart bleeds for her almost as much as it does for the people of Darfur.
This isn't an easy book to read, but you owe it to yourself, and to Blaker, and to MSF, and to the people of Darfur, to read it.
Heart of Darfur by Lisa French Blaker is in the Top Ten Books About Africa.
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