Humanitarian Crisis And Fiction: The Complete Truth Must be Told

Humanitarian reports help us get the facts and figures needed for policy and action, but fiction helps us connect and empathise with survivors, says UN humanitarian Aid Worker and fiction writer, Ruth Mukwana

We live in a world strewn with human suffering caused by conflicts, natural disasters, and poverty. Millions of people live on one dollar a day. Shocking as this statistic is, it doesn’t really tell the complete human story. Behind this statistic are millions of people who wake up at the break of dawn every day, carry out backbreaking work that destroys their health, and exposes them to sexual violence. They return home long after their children have gone to bed, to earn that one dollar. What can a family do with a dollar? And most of these people are in the so-called fragile and Least Developed Countries that are most impacted by disasters. 

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, an average of 340 disasters per year affect 153,000,000 people around the world, and force more than 40,000 out of their homes every single day. One in every seventy people around the world is caught up in crisis and urgently needs humanitarian assistance and protection. These numbers will increase this year, and in 2020, and the following year, and on and on, year on.  

Just four months ago, on the 23rd day of September, an earthquake (7.4M) and tsunami struck Indonesia’s Central Sulawesi province. Over 2,245 people were killed, over 4,400 were seriously injured, and 70,000 houses were destroyed, in fact some villages were even buried. As I write, at least 1,084 people are still missing. All this, in literally a few minutes.  

These are all facts and are easily accessible in the hundreds of reports by humanitarian organisations. It’s on the news every day. It’s on my fingertips, as this is my work. This kind of data. This kind of reporting. These dry statistics however do not convey the human story, are disassociated from the affected people, and are therefore easily forgotten.  

Here is what happened in Palu in Central Sulawesi: 

It was that time in the early evening in Palu when the setting sun cast its orange and yellow light that painted the Pacific Ocean with sun colours, the time when Paluians took a last dip in the ocean before hurrying home, when couples stood at the edge of the ocean, feet in the sand, consuming the last rays of the sun. Bayu went about his ritual of tucking in his day. He counted the Rupiahs he had made, reconciled his accounts, closed his shop, jumped on his bike and pedalled as fast as his feet would allow him, to meet his girlfriend who was waiting for him at the beach. He spotted her, standing in the white long dress that he liked, that the wind blew into the air. He smiled as he always did each time he saw her, dropped his bicycle on the sand, and ran towards her just as the surge in the ocean swelled. Waves running very fast, picking up pace as they neared the shore-line. It was difficult to tell at what moment he had realised that something wasn’t right; there was a monster in the ocean. He picked up his pace as she started to run towards him. It was pointless. The waves catapulted and immersed Palu in seconds, crushing everything in their path, leaving a tornado of fear. 

A few days after the earthquake and tsunami struck, I saw two pictures of a woman in a news article that was written about the earthquake. Her name was Dewi. One of the pictures was a portrait. She had large brown eyes and very long black hair that fell down her back. It partially covered her face which stared beyond the camera at a well of fear and sadness, and hid the bruises on her cheeks. In the second picture she was bending over, her hair thrust into the rubble, which she was digging through with her hands. Her white dress, turned brown, exposed her legs and shoeless feet. She had been digging through the rubble for days, searching for the boyfriend she knew was still alive and buried underneath the rubble. She had to dig him out.  

I put my laptop away, stood up from my desk, and walked to my office window, from where I looked out at the Manhattan Millennium hotel and wept. Dewi had sneaked into my soul and she remained lodged there. I couldn’t dislodge her, and even now I wonder if she found Bayu. I thought about her loss that, no matter how I tried, I was unable to quantify in words. But it was more than that.

Her fear had rebirthed this memory I have from my childhood in Uganda. I was seven years old. The year was 1985, just before President Museveni came into power. I was mixing mud and moulding clay children in a bucket by the shallow well, when the adults rushed out of the house. “The Anyanya are coming,” they shouted. One of them, it could have been my sister or my brother, grabbed me by the hand. Suddenly there were people everywhere. We ran empty-handed to the bushes, into the holes where we couldn’t breathe. There had been no time to carry anything. Not even my clay children. The fear of a hundred people crammed into a small bush was palpable. The fear that the Anyanya would find us and spill blood. That fear, even now, forty years later, paralyses me. 

All of this is fiction. There is no Dewi or Bayu or the childhood memory.  

What we have is a narrator creating a story about the Sulawesi earthquake and tsunami. In these three paragraphs, the narrator has created two main characters, a physical setting, plot, and through flashback, is using her or his childhood brush with fear as an analogy. Now, at this point in the story, we are unable to tell whether this is the narrator’s real experience or if this is an unreliable narrator.

In contrast to the reports, in the story the reader connects and feels with the characters. While the reports have invaluable facts vital to quantifying humanitarian needs and mobilising the resources required to meet these needs, the individuals remain strangers. Fiction draws you into the characters’ lives especially when the stories are fully realised, presenting a broad range of well developed characters, setting and dialogue; when they offer a holistic picture, not a one-sided or lopsided one; and when the characters are frank and honest, and are developed with sympathy and dignity. As the South African writer Bessie Head explained about her book Maru (1971) in the April 1979 issue of World Literature Written in English: “With all my South African experience I longed to write an enduring novel on the hideousness of racial prejudice. But I also wanted the book to be so beautiful and so magical that I, as the writer, would long to read and re-read it.”

The distinction is there for me as I write reports and stories. When I write a report, my focus is on making sure that the information is simple to process and is accurate. I often pause to contemplate when I prepare a report about millions of people that are displaced, that are starving, that have been brutally sexually abused, that have lost so much. I am deeply affected. However, I am shielded, as they remain unknown to me; and in many ways, this too is important for the thousands of humanitarian workers. Distance is important to avoid being burnt out. When I write a story, however, I must live and breathe the life of the characters. I must feel. I must connect. There is no escape. And that connection is what could supplement humanitarian reports. 

This, of course isn’t the purpose of fiction; a writer’s obligation is to write a good story. I am, however, a firm believer that all art should teach us something. I am convinced that novels and stories inform and teach their readers – or, at a minimum, arouse their readers’ curiosity about places and people hitherto unknown. Often it’s an unintended consequence. As the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe once said: “Art is, and always was, at the service of man. Our ancestors created their myths and told their stories for a human purpose. Any good story, any good novel, should have a message, should have a purpose.”  

My own stories deal with social, economic, political and human rights conflict. Through these stories, I hope that one, two, thousands or millions of readers can connect with the characters and learn something about these issues. I hope that they can spark curiosity, anger, and most of all empathy for the millions of people impacted by these issues that could then translate into action: conflict must stop. We are losing generations of children.  

The views and opinions included in this article belong to their author and do not represent the views and opinions of the United Nations.

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