By Alex Leblang
Can someone voluntarily become a victim? We have read accounts of people who suffered unbearably through no fault of their own. But what about people who thrust themselves into the middle of a crisis and lead a double life—seeing severe suffering while simultaneously secure and self-confident, knowing they will safely return home. Can they also become victims? Can they tell the same types of stories? And what can we learn about being a witness by talking to someone who has experienced not just one, but multiple tragic events all around the world?
In every crisis there are people who do not run away from the terror but instead choose to run toward these unspeakable events out of a sense of compassion and the acknowledgement that a human life wherever it may be and whoever it may be is worth the time and effort to save. These people are important, but not only do they bring relief, but in a global climate where victims’ voices are forgotten and not heard, it is the voice of the relief worker who can bring international recognition to these often horrible events.
I was fortunate enough to interview Professor Rudy Levingston (a pseudonym), who worked in the humanitarian sector for over 19 years with the United Nations. While at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) she was stationed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, as an Emergency Officer; in Khartoum, Sudan, to assist in food aid distribution and effectiveness; in Monrovia, Liberia, as a Humanitarian Field Officer to coordinate efforts in western Africa; in Indonesia and Pakistan dealing with the recovery from a devastating tsunami and earthquakes; and in Dili, Timor-Leste, coordinating emergency operations in the Asia-Pacific region as well as the Timor-Leste security crisis. She was then named Humanitarian Advisor to William Clinton in his role as UN Special Envoy for Haiti and ended her time at the UN as Chief of the Policy Analysis division of OCHA. Since the UN, she has held several posts at the American Red Cross. She spoke to me by phone on December 2, 2019, from her office at the University of Virginia where she is currently a Professor at the Batten School of Public Policy.
Prof. Levingston has been involved in crises that sprang from natural disasters, famine, and conflict. Although not immediately apparent, in many cases humanitarian crises arise as a side effect of racial, religious, or ethnic conflict. Famine in Yemen? Houthis are blocking the port of Hodeida, and so emergency provisions cannot be landed. Earthquake recovery difficult in Pakistan? Military blocking non-government organization (NGO) access to areas in dispute with India. So the experiences of the few aid workers can reflect and amplify the experiences of the millions of those who suffer from all types of crises in silence, because they do not have the opportunity to provide witness themselves.
I felt that it was important to understand how someone can move from crisis to crisis around the world, do her best to provide aid, communicate with her compatriots at the UN, figure out what can be done better in the future, and still be able to come home and live their lives with their families. If people with the ability to bridge the gap between the horrors of humanitarian crises and the safety and security of their “home” lives did not exist, then humanitarian crises around the world would be worse, because aid, even if inadequate to address the enormity of the crises, would not exist. With much of the globe to cover I started off by asking, “Looking back, does any one event stand out to you?”
This launched the interview. Over the course of our time talking, I learned how she coped with these traumatic events in a professional setting, and even more importantly, got to understand what it takes to become a witness.
“I was deployed to different conflict crisis zones all over the world, and so in that I witnessed a lot of firsthand devastation: human, physical, environmental, and economic.” She paused and took a moment to collect her thoughts. “Nothing stands out, it [the devastation] takes on different forms. For example, the war in Liberia caused a lot of people to flee from the countryside. And so when I got to Monrovia there were hundreds of thousands of people just sleeping in parking lots, in the stadium, in gas stations, in schools, just everywhere.”
I had a hard time visualizing hundreds of thousands of people without homes. I thought of Stanford Stadium, filled with people sleeping everywhere, and with no food. As she continued, it became clear that the main concern was with providing food to all of these people, while not just one but two different rebel armies were advancing on Monrovia. “How did you mentally deal with this, with all the stuff that was going on?” I asked.
“Well, my mind goes into how can I assist these people? What is a short term solution? What is a medium solution? What is the long term solution? What experts do I need to find to solve the problems: military logistics, medical, people who are distributing food to local groups.” She went on to say that over time she learned that she had to break the problems into small pieces and figure out who could tackle each piece. She said it is much easier to mentally handle the big problems, to compartmentalize and step back, so she sees the problem but not the people. But then she is back on the front lines, where the abstract becomes concrete. “I was spending time talking to these individuals, and could feel and understand the trauma of a mother who doesn’t know how she’s going to feed her kids. It just feels really jarring.”
“In what way was it jarring, did it change you?” I prompted, eager to learn more about how this changed her.
“Well, you see whole communities living in these conditions, with no food, and we are trying to figure out how to get them even small amounts of food,” Prof. Levingston recalled, “and then I think back to home, to the high school and university cafeterias, and you know that what each kid throws out in a single meal is probably more than an entire family would have to eat in an entire day. It’s really the inequity in the world that makes the trauma hard, the difference between those who have and those who don’t.”
That made me stop and think of what I ate that day and how for me food trauma is getting hungry because I had late lunch. How much did I throw out? While I know that I couldn’t magically transfer that uneaten food to people without, I could start to understand the types of things that she was dealing with. I had to ask, “Were you depressed all the time when you were working?”
She thought about that for a long time before answering. “Well, no, otherwise it would be difficult to continue. I would see human resilience and compassion; a global community coming together to try to assist. There’s something really beautiful and motivating about that. So you’re not feeling constant despair and trauma, you’re also seeing the best of humans, people coming together for solutions and being resilient.” I thought that this was a good answer, but I wondered if that’s what she felt when she was there, or if time had tempered her thoughts, and so I asked if in the moment she thought that way. After considering my question, she said yes, but that there were specific instances that made her angry, but it was usually the uncaring responses of people who could be doing something.
She told me the story of seeing a former classmate after her first deployment to Ethiopia. He asked what she was doing, and after she told him, he said, “Do you ever think about survival of the fittest?” which got her furious, because here he was, from his position of wealth and comfort and food, talking about survival of the fittest, while Prof. Levingston was thinking of a woman she worked with in Ethiopia, a woman who crossed a desert to get to safety, with six children, two of whom died on the way, and somehow got to the refugee shelter and survived. While her classmate, she thought, wouldn’t last more than half a day in the desert. So I realize that it is the compassion that keeps her going, and the anger isn’t necessarily directed at those who cause the suffering, but instead at those who not only don’t help, but who lack the compassion to even care.
“So,” I said, thinking about the difficulties of communicating to people who haven’t experienced or witnessed such suffering, “on the topic of global compassion, how do you convey the magnitude of the suffering to the people who weren’t there with you and hadn’t seen it?”
“That’s really the heart of the matter,” she said, as she continued to think aloud about how to communicate effectively. Some of her co-workers actually suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and there is a huge amount of burnout in the field, because the aid workers don’t want to think about what they saw, much less bear witness. Prof. Levingston said that usually when she returns from a trip and someone talks to her and asks her how it was, she says “terrible” and then switches the subject to something else, because she says that all too often it is too difficult not only to think about what really happened but to properly convey the severity and magnitude of such trauma to people who have not experienced it first-hand. Even when she was working for the UN, her reports were more factual and less descriptive, because it was too difficult to convey the magnitude of the horror. Only in retrospect does she now, as a professor working on humanitarianism, see the need to convey what she saw, and to teach her students what it was like. There is much truth when she said, “It is much more pleasant to just go to the mall with a friend than to relate the truth of what happened.”
I thought about her statement, and about how I was learning about bearing witness. I realized that bearing witness is not just the ability to relate the facts, it is not just the ability to tell a story, it is not just the ability to connect with others. It is the ability to reach deep into yourself and to pull out memories of events so horrific that someone just wants to keep buried away; memories that can hurt just as much coming out as the body and mind hurt when they were going in. And so it takes a huge amount of courage and fortitude to become a witness and to share the horrors so that others may get just a small taste of what it must have been like.
And so I bow my head in respect of all those who have had the inner strength to both survive and to tell their stories.