Saturday, January 08, 2005

Tsunami aftermath — the depraved face of humanity

—Miranda Husain

When various groups exploit mass-scale tragedy for their own opportunistic ends, we know we are confronting human nature in its most grotesque form. Rather than being isolated incidents, they represent an emerging pattern of human depravity

As the world continues bickering over whether or not the US has been stingy in its tsunami-relief donation, it seems to have paid little attention to the dark side of human nature emerging from the aftermath of devastation and destruction.

India, for example, has been boasting to the outside world that its 'go it alone' approach to relief operations inside the country have proved successful. Yet if we scratch just beneath the surface, reality shows itself to be of a different hue.

The BBC reported this week that operations to recover bodies from the Indian fishing village of Nagapattinam were given exclusively to the Dalits, the lowest of the low in India's caste system. With locals reportedly refusing to engage in the recovery mission, apparently too afraid of the risk of contagious disease and too overwhelmed by the stench of death, it was left to India's unfortunates to get their hands dirty — quite literally. Indeed during the first days of the operation, they worked without gloves, masks and sometimes even without shoes to recover the dead. Their reward -- An extra 50 cents a day and a meal!

Such incidents serve to deconstruct the notion of a human solidarity emerging from the ruins of devastation and suffering. For it seems that even a disaster such as this cannot shake the caste system that is woven tightly into the very fibre of the world's largest democracy. Instead of coming together to work for the common good, to unite in a common grief, the disaster has simply further consolidated India's social hierarchy.

India is not the only country to have shown its inhuman side in the aftermath of tragedy. In Sri Lanka, for example, where the tsunami has rendered nearly one million people homeless, a local women's group, Women and Media Collective, reported that women and girls seeking refuge at the various shelters set up throughout the country had been the victims of molestation and gang rapes.

Somehow such security violations of women and girls appear more shocking and barbaric than those carried out during a period of prolonged conflict. For even though such acts can never be tolerated, it is easier to understand them in the context of power relations. War is, after all, man-made disaster. A natural disaster is different. It knows nothing of power relations. It simply seeks to kill and devastate indiscriminately. And in a cruel twist of fate, peoples are rendered equal through their suffering and loss, with one's tragedy mirrored in the eyes of the other.

Thus when various groups show no hesitancy in exploiting mass-scale tragedy for their own opportunistic ends we know we are confronting human nature in its most grotesque form. For these are not isolated incidents that have been reported. Rather, they are the beginnings of an emerging pattern of human depravity.

In many affected areas, authorities believed that their primary challenge would be to ensure that aid reached those who needed it most. Yet they now realise that just as important is the need to step up security around makeshift shelters and hospitals to keep criminal gangs at bay and prevent them from preying on the most vulnerable and weak.

When 12-year-old Kristian Walker disappeared from his hospital bed in Thailand, hopes that he had been taken by a well-meaning individual who wanted to help him return to his native Sweden soon disappeared. The country had to finally acknowledge that there was a very real possibility that he had been abducted to be later sold on to sex trafficking rings.

The Indonesian government has suspended the transfer of any children below the age of 16 years from Aceh province, following reports of criminal gangs befriending orphaned children or those separated from their relatives to lure them into sex trafficking rings.

The UNICEF spokesman in Indonesia, John Budd, recently highlighted the growing problem, telling the BBC that there had been one confirmed case of a child being smuggled from Aceh province to the nearby city of Medan, as well as unconfirmed reports of up to 20 other children being taken to Malaysia and possibly hundreds to Jakarta. He said he had also been made aware of an SMS text message doing the rounds in different Asian countries, advertising the opportunity to buy 300 Aceh orphans.

Once again, western political commentators, outraged at the way the post-disaster scenario is emerging, have missed the point and channelled their anger at the wrong quarters.

Some have criticised western media for providing unbalanced coverage of the victims, claiming that undue emphasis has been placed on the fate of western tourists while that of hundreds of thousands of locals has been largely ignored, except in statistical terms. While there might be truth in this claim it hardly seems that, given the more pressing issues to address, now is the appropriate time to debate the matter.

George Monbiot, writing in The Guardian on January 4, has brought to people's attention the fact that the US donation of $350 million is no more than what the Bush administration would spend in a day and a half "blowing people to bits in Iraq". Certainly there is need to compare certain countries' war and aid budgets. Yet if we make this the central focus of current discourse, we will simply engage in a useless war of words, while the real suffering goes on, with stories untold.

Source: Daily Times, January 08, 2005

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