Remastered: A hole in the ground

3 Sep

Taken down due to unusual technical difficulties, remasterd and now reposted… In case you missed it the first time, here’s A hole in the ground.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Baku has gone through an amazing transformation in the even ten years since I was last here. Except for the wall and Maiden’s Tower, I might not have even recognized it all. Downtown is clean(ish), re-plasterd, re-painted, and well-lit. There are more and better restaurants, chic coffee shops, and a wonderful German micro-brewery. Fashionable couples, all perfumed, coiffed and manicured stroll arm-in-arm through quaint parks with bubbling fountains.

And I would not for one minute begrudge the Baku-ites these long awaited and hard-won changes.

But this capital city facelift belies what you see in other parts of the country.

* * *

And so I was unprepared for my own reaction during the too-short period spent with actual beneficiaries on this trip.

One afternoon we spent an hour walking through a remote, dusty IDP settlement just a few kilometers away from Armenia-occupied territory. And I have to say: it was one of the more abject places I’ve been. Not that you can ever compare, really. Poverty comes in many forms and human suffering has many different faces. Every impoverished community, refugee camp, and war zone is terrible in it’s own way. But this was the first time I saw – not just saw, but talked to – people living in what can only be described as hovels that were literally holes in the ground.

I won’t post pictures (although I did take some). I won’t take a side or preach a perspective on the long-stalemated conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia (although I do have one). But I cannot keep my own sense of sympathy from giving way to moral outrage, and I have to get this out: what I saw in that village just a few hours ago was un-freakin’-acceptable.

People have been living in holes in the ground for 20 years. And for what? What the good reason is there for that? Someone needs to sort that out.

And since I’m on a roll… it’s not just the IDPs in Azerbaijan. It’s the Palestinians languishing Jordan or almost two generations, now. It’s the Tamil stuck in Manik Farm. It’s all the displaced inhabitants of Swat Valley. And that’s only those in the countries on my personal current radar screen. But as we all know, there are more. It’s untold numbers of people all over the world, forced from their homes and unable to return, persecuted, abducted, exploited, trafficked. Terrible situations that absolutely do not have to exist.

* * *

It’s easy to become passive.

We see this stuff all the time… the grinding, abject poverty.

I’ve lost track of the number of totally live-in-the-dirt villages that I’ve walked through, the number of kitchen gardens or skirted water points inspected, the number of grimy hands shaken…

It can wear you down. And if you think about the big picture for even a minute, it can be downright depressing. The amount of  power and momentum and sheer force of will on a massive scale needed to change some of the awful situations around the world is flat daunting. It’s easy to see oneself as simply a very small cog in a very large, often malfunctioning machine. But whatever our individual roles in the aid industry, our challenge is to never lose sight of the gaunt faces, the dusty villages… the people living in holes in the ground. 

One Response to “Remastered: A hole in the ground”

  1. transitionland 12 September, 2009 at 8:34 pm #

    A few years ago, I visited a “former” collective centre just outside Sarajevo and had the same thoughts. The place was an abandoned police station, a huge concrete hulk adorned on the outside with graffiti and telltale paint-splatter patterns from old gunfire. The windows were all broken and the doors were long gone –probably wrenched off their hinges a decade earlier and used as firewood. It was December, eleven years after the Bosnian war ended, and the snow was knee-deep when I visited this place with two national human rights officers. From the outside, the building looked completely empty. Inside, it was eerily quiet. My colleagues and I looked down a long, dark hallway. We heard faint scurrying. At the end of a long hallway, I walked into a bathroom –and I use the term loosely– that I wouldn’t want to use even if the alternative was pulling down my pants and squatting in the snow. Water was literally pouring in through the ceiling, overflowing pitifully small buckets and creating ice underfoot (it was so cold, even inside, that my hands ached). The toilet stalls were all rotting, soft wood, and the squat toilets themselves clearly just ran into some kind of pit below. Sickness was rampant among residents, that was grossly obvious from the liquid feces frozen on the stone floor. There was only one shower in the entire place; it ran cold water and the stall around it was partly held together by old, faded UNHCR contact film. As my colleagues and I looked around some more, we came across a piece of paper tacked to a wall. I could only read a few words in Bosnian, and this was in Cyrillic anyway, so my colleague translated. It was a notice from the local utility company, informing the centre residents that electricity to the one half of one floor that still had electricity would be cut off soon. When my colleagues and I went to interview the centre’s residents, only one woman would speak with us, and she asked me not to photograph her or the room she lived in. (I honored that request, as I always do in such situations.) This woman had ended up in the centre after leaving her husband. The other residents, she told us, included elderly long-term IDPs and people with physical disabilities and mental illnesses. In my final series of photographs (photographs that accompanied a spot report I wrote as soon I returned to my office), the only proof that people lived in the former collective centre was a few shots of threadbare slippers neatly lined up outside doors.

    Last winter, which was especially cold and harsh in Bosnia, I sat my desk in the northeast US and thought about those slippers and the people they belonged to. I thought about how long people suffer after conflicts, and how even “successful” post-conflict countries often leave their poorest behind, excluded, hidden in plain sight as new skyscrapers rise over once devastated skylines and international attention turns elsewhere.

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