I’ve Seen War And Beyond Horror Lies Shared Humanity

Pre-existing inequalities are exacerbated during times of war and turbulence. People who were struggling before the awful impact of violence can become even more vulnerable as situations deteriorate.

It also means it is even more important to listen carefully to the needs, ideas and solutions of communities that have found ways to cope during past conflicts.

I have had the great privilege in my professional life to work in the humanitarian sector, witnessing the worst and best of human behaviour. As an international lawyer with a focus on the laws of war, I have travelled widely – from Moscow to New York, Gaza to Mogadishu.

Whether I was working on diplomatic issues (like access to detainees) or working operationally in the field (like tracing and reuniting families), the complexity of issues and the resilience of people and communities always took my breath away.

I have studied, taught and written about many of these issues, but they always become clearer in real life. In all conflicts, people face layers of challenges and when I worked in countries of armed conflict and tension, it was crucial to keep in mind where these layers intersected.

One of my last missions with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was to Mozambique.

As well as engaging with the authorities on issues relating to the protection of civilians, I spent a couple of weeks working with the ICRC teams in camps where people had fled south after armed groups attacked villages in the north.

One of our tasks was to help trace family members separated during the journey. It is a sobering job to gather details of hundreds of children as young as 10 years old who were either taken to be used as child soldiers or lost in the frantic rush as families fled for their lives.

I have done this many times over the last 30 years and seen the heartbreak of people not knowing the fate of their loved one, but also the incredible joy of family reunification.

While on this mission, I also sat with many of the women in the camp, listening carefully to identify their needs and how to support their skills and capabilities.

One particular woman was very impressive. She had fled with three children and her sister after witnessing the beheading of her husband.

On the journey her son had gone missing and she was desperate for news of his whereabouts. Her sister was blind and without a husband (a particular challenge in that society) and so the journey had been extraordinarily difficult and dangerous for the family unit.

One of her real needs was sleeping mats. She graciously showed me her hut, with its dirt floor, and she explained via the interpreter that the rainy season was approaching and her children and sister couldn’t sleep once the floor turned to mud.

Keeping her family in the best health they could was essential, but there was little to eat and she was very worried about sanitation.

Other families in the camp had mats woven from branches of palms found in the nearby vegetation. When I asked why she couldn’t do this she explained that only men could make beds and she and her sister didn’t have a male in their family to do this.

While arranging mats for the family with my local colleagues, I was struck by the layers of challenges facing this woman, and also her warmth and openness with me.

During our discussions, she had asked about my family situation and offered me water and food, including mangoes she had picked from a nearby tree.

Despite dealing with an overwhelming number of horrible situations she wanted to share and connect with me as a person – finding our common elements like a shared love of mangoes.

In my current role as CEO of RedR Australia, I identify and deploy professionals into difficult situations and this lets me see the depth of desire people have to connect, learn and be as human as possible in impossible situations.

Recently we deployed an architect to design better shelters for people fleeing from Ukraine – having done this in Syria and Nepal, he learned that it is beneficial for the mental health of communities to have spaces for the elderly and the young to be together.

In the trauma of fleeing war and destruction, the play of children gives hope in dark times and our architect was able to practically apply this knowledge in the field.

Finding and building upon the smallest sparks of light in a respectful way is a critical part of working in the humanitarian sector. Listening carefully and always being prepared to challenge what you thought were the answers is also key.

However, the more important element for me is to always hold front of mind that what unites us is deeper and more profound than what divides us – and to keep striving to bridge that gap.

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