The Introduction to "A Cruel Paradise"
It is the names I remember, even after this time. They roll off my tongue like pearls off a string: Gbalatuah, Gbarnga, Fenutoli, Sanniquellie, Ripac, Topusko, Doboj, Banja Luka, Bujumbura, Ngozi, Musema, Mweso, Birambizo, Mokoto. They are names I once knew well. The roads I travelled, the homes I lived in. Like cards from a deck, each one is different and each has its story to tell. The massacre in Mokoto, the incident in Birambizo where we were nearly killed, the checkpoint where we were stopped in Topusko, the afternoon in jail in Gbarnga.
The first time I came back from a war zone I had so many stories to tell, so much to express. The experience was all so new. Later, after a few more wars and a couple more years, I stopped talking so much. I could still tell a great story, but I stopped trying to explain what it was really like. There were things I had such strong opinions about, issues I could discuss for hours, but only to someone who'd been there, and so few people had been there. So few people could truly relate to the work I'd done.
I found out that my family and friends, for all their good intentions, shared little interest in what I had to say. They were unaware of the effects of early UN intervention in conflict areas, knew nothing about the unequal distribution of resources as a cause of famine, drew blank stares when I spoke of businesses and governments fuelling the war effort in Liberia, of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, or of massacres in Zaire. They liked a good story, but only the CNN headlines - not the truth behind the headlines.
To say that I was a bit naive when I first started working as an international relief worker would be an understatement of monumental proportions! I knew nothing. But I learned more in a few years than I ever could have imagined. I pushed myself to the limit in ways I had never expected. Life as an international relief worker changed me profoundly. For that kind of life one makes a sacrifice: friends disappear, family ties loosen, and the sense of home, of the place you belong, becomes the place you lay down a backpack - be it for days or weeks or months.
My work created a distance, distance of experiences, of time, of tragedy and of too many things I could never mention in all the letters I sent home over the years. It was a distance made of the real stories, sitting there between the lines of those letters, never acknowledged.
I would like to try to go back between those lines now and tell you the story of what it's really like to be a nurse working in a war zone and what it's really like to be an international aid worker. It's a job I held for nearly four years and a hell of a way to make a living. It was all the things one would imagine: a great adventure, an exotic life, an amazing challenge, a rewarding experience. It was also the hardest job I've ever done, the most frustrating and, at times, the most dangerous. This is my personal story, and every aid worker in the world has his or her own. I would not ask you to see this as typical' of all relief workers' experiences. Nothing about this kind of work is typical.
This is not just a story of tragedy and sorrow. In every war, no matter how ugly or how cruel, there remains a part of the human spirit that will not be broken. A part that survives, grows strong, adapts and simply will not surrender. In my projects there was always laughter - even joy - friendship, love and hope. Strangers became friends, staff members became colleagues, students became teachers, and we all grew and changed in some way. Nobody ever comes away from a war unchanged, not those who perpetrate it, nor their victims, not those of us there to help. It was sometimes a dangerous job, but people worked with a passion and a belief in their work that one rarely sees in the real' world. I met friends who became family and enemies who became friends. I worked with civilians and military, with rebels and combatants, with heros and fools. I worked in the cities, in the jungle and the bush, in hospitals, shacks, health centres, homes and schools. I remember times of utter boredom and times when the adrenaline rushed and everything seemed possible. It was terrifying, it was exciting, it was insane. We were living on the edge - and you should have seen the view!