No Velvet Curtains for Them

Book cover
Another Day in Paradiseby Compiled and edited by Carol BergmanOrbis Books. 256p $25

Carol Bergman’s Another Day in Paradise is a slim, deeply moving anthology of stories by 15 international humanitarian workers, who write eloquently and candidly about their experiences in places of war and natural disaster. A journalist and the child of genocide survivors, Bergman is fascinated with humanitarian workers. Their unique, high-risk lives merited investigation for a magazine article, she thought.

But early in Bergman’s research, Iain Levine, a humanitarian worker, showed her his own manuscript, entitled Another Day in Paradise. His very personal account of his assignment in Sierra Leone was full of telling detail. For Levine, Bergman writes, transforming execrable lived experience into a narrative was his tool for staying sane. It was also a temoignage, a witnessing for the historical record.

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Reading his words, she wisely realized her discourse on humanitarian workers would be more evocative if her subjects told their stories themselves. So patiently, persistently, she set about gathering these tales. Her anthology, the first ever of its kind, is a testimonial to human savagery and our knack for creating catastrophes, but also to the practical compassion exercised in the bleakest of circumstances.

The contributors, writing in the first person, describe the projects to which they were assigned, the brutality they witnessed and how they tried to preserve life in circumstances where destruction and killing far outpaced them. Some record with the trained eye of a writer, sensitive to the dramatic tension of a story; others are simple and straightforward in their telling. All write with a dispassionate candor and modesty that is compelling. There are confessions and laments for the people they left behind, the projects they could not do and anecdotal details about how they kept on with life in places where death was so dominant. The journal entries of a remover of mines, Paul Heslop, who spends his days in Angola, detonating hundreds of landmines and unexploded ordnance, are peppered with descriptions of hearty meals that he cooks and eats with gusto. Marleen Deerenberg includes in her account from Afghanistan musings on her various love affairs with male colleagues. Fickle in love, she is committed to the Afghan people and returns to their country despite the chaos of a civil war and the restrictions of the Taliban regime.

In his exquisite entry about Rwanda, where his agency saved the lives of 9,000 people, the relief worker Paul Gaillard writes that poetry, a strong skepticism and a morning bath, fastidiously taken, helped him cope. When death, with its many odours, is constantly on the prowl, washing is important, he writes. After a bath and a weep over yesterday’s cruelties, the pH of the whole body, and of the soul as well, then returns to normal. The night’s acidity disappears and one can walk again, without stumbling.

War stories dominate this anthology. Bergman would have had it otherwise, but in her research she found that wars are everywhere and there was no getting away from them. The war stories kept coming in at an unrelenting pace. Although four accounts in the book describe recovery work after natural disasters, two-thirds of its narratives are set in war zones or places in early recovery from war. Nearly half of the entries report about Africa, where in 2001 and 2002, 40 percent of all wars were being fought.

Reading these narratives, we get details on war not included in the chatter of policy-makers or talking heads. Where there is war, we learn, there are food shortages and famine, outbreaks of preventable diseases, land mines and unexploded ordnance and their mutilated victims, gun-toting children, power-hungry militants, capricious kidnappings, dicey negotiations with perpetrators, endless military checkpoints and constant reckonings with one’s own death.

Many of us may view war as a virtual reality, remotely controlled; but for humanitarian workers, war is a mess, a big bloody mess with too few people available for the cleanup.

Another Day in Paradise is, ironically, a record of life lived in the corners of hell. While the cruelties described are immense, so too are the human resilience and courage documented in the book’s pages. We need, especially now, to read these descriptive narratives from the people who risk their lives on the ground while politicians and diplomats negotiate in velvet-curtained rooms. Their observations will help clear our heads of any delusions about war being merely a policy option with some collateral damage. More important, the examples of practical compassion recorded in Another Day in Paradise remind us of a truth about ourselves that is often lost when killing becomes commonplace: Human beings were made to nourish and preserve life.

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