Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Monday, October 17, 2005

"Every little bit: landmines in Afghanistan," October 17, 2005.

In times of great catastrophes, it's hard to keep your balance. This weekend, I was writing about the ongoing impact of landmines and unexploded remnants of the many wars in Afghanistan when I came across a fresh headline declaring that the WHO believes that the South Asian earthquake disaster is worse than the Boxing Day tsunami.

Already, I had been struggling with the manifold disasters within Afghanistan itself--confirmation of electoral fraud at some 300 polling stations during the violent parliamentary elections in September when 19 polling stations had been attacked and a dozen people killed; the rocket attack on two British Harrier jets at an airfield in southern Afghanistan, just one of several recent examples of rising violence by Taliban insurgents in Kandahar and its adjacent regions; the arrest of British and American nationals suspected of smuggling arms into Afghanistan.

It was a busy week for a country where 65% of the people already have no access to health care, where the fate of people held at undisclosed locations continues to trouble the Red Cross, and where literally millions are either refugees or homeless and internally displaced waiting for winter. More than once, I had stopped and changed my mind about what to focus on.

Hussain A Gezairy is WHO’s regional director in Pakistan. He spoke to journalists on Thursday at the emergency health centre set up in the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences.

“The fact only helicopters can reach so many mountain areas and that the affected areas are so remote, makes it extremely difficult to even gauge the full-scale of the damage and determine what needs to be done first,” Gezairy explained.

UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland detailed the severe traffic problems on roads leading to quake-hit areas. “It’s a total disaster,” he said. “What is urgently needed cannot get there because roads are clogged, while [unnecessary] items pile up all across Muzaffarabad. The whole of Muzaffarabad and the roads leading to it are choked and this signals disaster in itself.”

“The number of helicopters operational at present needs to be tripled,” Egeland said. “If we don’t work together and organise our efforts we may have a still greater calamity on our hands,” he warned.

More helicopters would be needed as winter conditions led to the closure of roads, Egeland said. Only 30 percent of about 900 outlying villages are currently accessible by road.

Pakistan authorities on Friday sent squads of police to help manage traffic on roads.

President Musharraf has agreed to expedite international relief procedures. Visa restrictions for relief workers have been waived for up to three months and custom checks on aid consignments withdrawn to hasten delivery.

Egeland also called for relief efforts to be prioritised, so communities that had not yet been reached could receive immediate relief. “This is obviously no easy thing,” he said, noting that more than a million people still needed shelter.

On Saturday, Keith Ursel, head of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) operation in Muzaffarabad, estimated that only about half of those in dire need of food aid had been reached. “But that’s a really rough estimate,” he said.

WHO reported on Saturday that survivors continued to struggle because of the lack of adequate shelter and safe water. Cold weather and insufficient emergency care in remote areas added to the suffering. “The number of injured survivors in need of trauma care and surgery seems to be very high,” the report said.

The UN Resident Coordinator in Pakistan, Jan J Vandemoortele, also appealed for greater efficiency. “One disaster has taken place. We must prevent another by coordinating our work,” he said.

Sooner or later it all catches up with you. You remember that there are floods and mudslides in Guatemala too and more floods in El Salvador and Costa Rica, famines in Niger, Mali, Ethiopia and Malawi.

In spite of the flood of information and need and the more or less inevitable feeling that you are swamped and can't do anything at all, every little bit really does help.

The Canadian Landmine Foundation is a managing partner in the global Adopt-a-Minefield campaign. Over the years since Lloyd Axworthy first introduced the organization in 1999, one of their projects the Night of a Thousand Dinners has contributed over $4 million to mine action through events held in over 50 countries. Brendan Kennedy tells this story about his own experience with the event as follows quote.

I'm a 20-year-old university student with little or no marketable skills, living at home with my parents and brothers in suburban Toronto. My bank account frequently shows less numbers before the decimal than after, and I'm already saddled with a 5-figure debt. Still, I was able to significantly improve the lives of three children on the other side of the world.

I had heard about the "Night of a Thousand Dinners" through my older brother and his girlfriend. It seemed like a lot of fun and also a relatively easy way to raise some money for a worthy cause. So, my girlfriend, Colette, and I decided to give it a try.

Admittedly, we were very excited about the possibilities for our fundraising dinner party and perhaps had unreasonably high expectations. We imagined ourselves serving hors d'oevres as we mingled with our throngs of guests, who laughed gaily at our lovable charm and unmatched wit. We figured everyone we invited would attend and it would be the social event of the year. However, as is often the case, "The best laid plans of mice and men…"

Colette and I cooked and created a delicious array of salads, rice, pasta, homemade pizza, and we even tried our hands at an exotic foreign dessert. We splurged on some tasty finger foods from a local grocery store, but everything else we made on our own. The preparation was a lot of fun, and when we were beginning to panic as the clock ticked away, two of my friends showed up early and helped us finish everything before the scheduled party time.

We cleaned the house, prepared the food, readied the sound system, set up our donation jar, displayed our landmine information, and waited … and waited … and waited. After an hour, it was still only Colette, myself, and my two close friends who had helped us make the food. We were getting hungry and decided to dig in ourselves. By the end of the night, only a few more of my closest friends and a couple of my brothers showed up. The extravagant dinner party of my dreams turned out to be a gathering of the same friends that hang around my house and eat my food on a daily basis.

When planning the dinner, I dreamed up this triumphant moment when I would stand on a chair and command the attention of all my guests. Everyone would gather around as I counted the hundreds of dollars we had raised. My dream possessed all the glory and enthusiasm of a PBS pledge drive (You know when they all look up at the giant scoreboard thingy that shows all the money they made, and then they count down the seconds until the final tally is announced, with the drum rolls and everything?)

Instead, when 11:00pm rolled around, and I decided to count the contents of our donation jar, it was rather uneventful. I must confess that I was feeling pretty bummed at this point and I wasn't particularly looking forward to counting the money. The total funds raised at the end of the night were a little more than $60 (including the $20 my Mother had contributed and the $10 I tossed in). I was disappointed with the amount, and I considered the night a failure.

One of my brothers then noticed the "Adopt-a-Minefield" informational video that I had neglected to play. So, my friends and I watched it together; paying the images on screen sporadic attention as we chatted with each other. Every once and a while we would perk up at a particularly graphic image or captivating fact, tune in for a moment, and then return to our conversations. "A prosthetic limb for a child in Vietnam costs only $20 Canadian," proclaimed the video's invisible narrator. The statement halted all conversation in the room. My brother asked me to rewind the tape. We heard the words and figures once again. "Hey Brendan," my brother began, "you said we raised $60, right?" "Yeah, $63 I think." "Well, I believe we just paid for three new limbs for kids in Vietnam." My mood changed instantly.

There are lots of times in our lives when we are told that every little bit counts. Rarely, however, are we actually confronted with the notion that our nickels and dimes actually make a difference. Well, they do.

Far too often, we focus on what we are incapable of doing, so we refrain from acting, and therefore protect ourselves from failure. The fact of the matter is that our actions, however small, can make a significant difference in the world. By hosting a small gathering for the Night of a Thousand Dinners, my friends and I were able to improve the lives of people we will never meet. That's power.

Our actions may have been small, but the results were far greater.

In the end, we may have only raised about $60, which isn't going to eliminate all the world's landmines or repair any of its problems. However, there is one thing I know for sure; those kids in Vietnam must be smiling … and that's more than enough for me.

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