January 29, 2005
ARTICLE: Journey from famine to the hunger of the soul
Here is an article that I have just had published in The Times. It is an interview with Claire Bertschinger, a Red Cross nurse who ran two feeding centres in the 1984/5 famine in Ethiopia. I have included the full text of the article under the fold.
It is a strangely uncomfortable experience writing about the 1984/5 famine while living here.
No one talks about the famine in Ethiopia. No one wants to talk about the famine - for very understandable reasons. Why would anyone want to dwell on such a traumatic event that casts their country in such a negative light?
But in the UK, the words 'Ethiopia', 'famine', 'Bob' and 'Geldof' are almost synonymous. The newspapers and TV reports there have been packed with pieces linked in some way to the 20th anniversary of the terrible drought. This is likely to continue until at least July - the anniversary of the transatlantic Live Aid concert. Again, there are understandable reasons for this interest. People like to remember the idealism behind Bob Geldof's campaign and the way it allowed UK and US people to make a difference, albeit a very small difference.
So, what do you think? Should the famine be forgotten? Or is there anything to be gained from remembering it 20 years on?
Journey from famine to the hunger of the soul
The Times 29 January 05
By Andrew Heavens
Its almost 20 years since Live Aid, but for one woman it was just the start of a long spiritual journey
CLAIRE BERTSCHINGER remembers exactly how she felt 20 years ago as the rest of the Western world counted down the days to Bob Geldof's historic Live Aid concert.
“I felt dead - dead inside. I was so emotionally drained. I had cried so much that I had no tears left. Live Aid was going on but I really didn't understand what was happening.”
The young nurse had just flown back to England after a 12-month stint running two feeding centres for the Red Cross at the epicentre of Ethiopia's devastating 1984-85 famine.
While the rest of Britain focused on the country she had just left, Bertschinger headed home to Essex to recharge her batteries and to work out the answer to a question that had started to obsess her.
“I started to ask ‘Why?',” she said, speaking from her home in the leafy village of Sheering where she still lives two decades later. “I had seen all this suffering and was thinking now why, why are people suffering? Why should there be haves and have-nots?
“I looked into Christianity because that was my background. I tried to go to church and follow it through. But it just didn't seem right. I couldn't believe in this outside deity saying you can die and you can't die. That was the start of a 20-year spiritual journey.”
It was ironic that Bertschinger felt so separated from all the Live Aid razzmatazz surrounding her at the time. Because, in many ways, she was at the heart of it.
Bertschinger was the Red Cross nurse whom Michael Buerk had interviewed just eight months earlier in his seminal BBC news report that first raised the alarm about Ethiopia's famine.
She was the “young nurse” whom Bob Geldof saw on his television screen the evening that he started phoning around his friends to sign them up for a single called Do They Know It's Christmas?
“There were tens of thousands of people in the camp in Ethiopia . . . where a handful of European aid-workers were distributing a pitiful amount of food,” the Irish singer later wrote in his autobiography Is That It? “One young nurse had the awesome task of selecting the few hundred individuals who were to be fed.”
That nurse was Bertschinger, and that was the experience at the heart of her spiritual crisis. “We could maybe take 50 or 60 at a time at the feeding centre and there were one or two thousand that needed to come in. All the rest would die.
“I remember Michael Buerk asking me how it felt to make that decision. I said that it broke my heart.” It also left her with a deep feeling of guilt that took many years to disperse.
In the years after the famine, she decided to keep her experiences to her self. “When I came home, everyone kept saying, ‘Oh you did a wonderful job Claire. It was fantastic what you did.'
“And I kept saying, ‘No, you don't understand. It wasn't a good job because of all these thousands we couldn't help.' In the end I decided just not to talk about it because people were not really hearing what I was saying.”
Instead, she continued on her solitary spiritual journey: “I became a humanist for several years. But that didn't really give me enough guidelines. I found some humanists a little bit aggressive to certain religions. I wasn't aggressive to religion. I just didn't find what I was looking for.”
Her ambiguous feelings towards organised religion had first surfaced after her earlier experiences when working for the Red Cross in Lebanon.
“I used to cross the front line every day and go between the different fighting factions. I could be going from the Christian to the Druze militia to the Shia Muslims to the Sunni Muslims to the Israeli front lines and back to the Christian area in any one day.
“And they were all fighting each other and they were hating each other. But when I had to arrange cease fires or cross the front lines to talk to the soldiers they were really nice people, normal people with families, problems and kids and everything.
“And I thought, ‘This is really weird. They had this awful hatred inside them for the other person. And a lot of it was to do with religion'.”
She kept up her silence until last year, when Buerk tracked her down again to take part in another documentary on what had happened to Ethiopia in the time since the famine.
At first she was terrified of going back. “I was so scared because I didn't think I had done a good job. I didn't know how people were going to react.” But when she finally touched down in Mekele, she found a reborn town bustling with activity and packed with people with nothing but fond memories of her.
“It was wonderful. Because everybody just welcomed me with open arms. And we just had a good hug and a cry and it was so nice to see them.”
The experience allowed her to open up and talk frankly about her memories in front of the camera. In July this year she will take that process one step further by publishing a book, Moving Mountains, part-autobiography and part-philosophical exploration of the issues that rose out of the famine.
Money from the book will go to the African Children's Educational Trust www.a-cet.org a tiny charity based in Leicester and Mekele that pays for the education of some of the children that she and other relief workers helped to save. (Buerk is also listed as a donor.) Moving Mountains covers the rest of Bertschinger's career with the Red Cross - moving through Uganda, Kenya, Sudan, Afghanistan and a dozen other countries in West Africa - up to her present job teaching nurses at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
It also follows her spiritual journey up to its resolution. While she was struggling with humanism, a friend started telling her of their experiences with Buddhism.
“I found that is was the way forward for me.” Today Bertschinger is a member of the Lay Society of Nichiren Daishonin Buddhism, otherwise known as the Soka Gakkie. Twice every day she goes to a special place in her house to recite a passage from the Lotus Sutra and to chant “nam myo ho renge kyo”. Bertschinger also helps to run a Buddhist group in her area.
Last month her faith was tested against another unimaginable disaster as the tsunami wreaked its havoc around the Indian Ocean. She watched as another set of communities had to start rebuilding their physical and spiritual lives - just as she had seen them do in Mekele, in Lebanon and across West Africa.
But this time round her belief gave her something that she had missed in Ethiopia - that way forward. “This Nichiren Daishonin Buddhism is called the Buddhism of here and now. It deals with the problems we have now. What you do is to try to relieve suffering from this point on so that it affects the future. All that matters is addressing the suffering and showing compassion to suffering people now.”
Essex's Buddhists rallied round after the tsunami, organising fundraising lunches and auctioning off their unwanted Christmas gifts. Bertschinger was no longer on the front line setting up feeding centres. But that did not matter.
“You affect the here and now in your own community and that can have a knock-on effect around the world. You have to think about changing the greed and anger at home and that can change other things - like the government or Ethiopia.”
Moving Mountains is published in July by Doubleday at £17.99.
Posted by aheavens at January 29, 2005 4:19 AM