Death eroticizes the senses and erodes the norms at the frontline

A reflection on the Oxfam scandal

The area around the NGO worker’s tent is littered with cigarette butts, his sleeping mat surrounded with half-eaten food remains. Every day he eats beans and smokes two packs of cigarettes. His body is covered in tattoos. He does a lot of talking and does not listen much. I recently saw him establish a base for thousands of displaced people in a war zone. If you travel to the remote corners of disaster-hit countries you need to be a little crazy. Those who do it – aid workers and journalists – sometimes resemble psychopaths.
On the front line, aid workers and journalists run the risk of losing their naivety, their health and sometimes their minds. You feel like a mercenary or a fool. Three United Nations employees wrote a book about it in 2004: Emergency sex. Their bosses in New York wanted the book banned. They could not believe the passages which honestly talked about sex in response to violence and even sex during violence. They did not understand that it is precisely in these circumstances that the need for a hot body and a cold glass of beer is so dire.

My own ignorance about mass death  was lost  in 1984 during the great famine in Ethiopia. Every morning, relief workers at a hunger camp laid out hundreds of bodies in a row. After a few days, I longed to rid myself of that oppressive awareness  of death. The remedy: fight or fuck. That response surprised me. Yes, maybe I was ashamed. Because I still associated sex with intimacy and love. But death eroticizes the senses and erodes the norms.
Two years later, during a war in Uganda, I saw how the primal instincts of sex and aggression can coexist in harmony. Bewildered, a group of young people stared at a corpse lying by the roadside. A trail of blood crawling out of a fleshy stump meandered through the dust. A young man had just been murdered here. The bystanders told me how a soldier fleeing for his life had raped a girl by the side of the road, how the fleshy mass at my feet – then still with hands and feet – rushed to his sister to help, how his limbs were cut off and how he now lay there drained of blood.
There were all kinds of questions spinning through my head, questions about male erections amid the fear of death, and about sex as an expression of violence. But in a war, you always rush through, there is no time for philosophical thoughts. I had to continue.
Foreign aid workers were scarce in Uganda at the time, as in most of Africa’s major conflicts. Now they are everywhere, sometimes hundreds at once. At the front line, the boundaries between aggression, compassion and ultimately also sex are diffuse. Do you get dulled by violence or does it just generate adrenaline?
And fear? No, that’s a luxury for friends and family at home.
In a rough situation, all brakes are released. However idealistic the moralist and decency warrior was before his departure, the reality on the front line proves more complicated than on the couch at home. In the Congo, young girls present themselves as prostitutes at the barracks and the compounds of relief organizations, in Nigeria, prostitutes prowl aggressively at the doors of expensive hotels and in Eastern Congo militias force a teenager to rape a grandmother on the village square. Such instances bring to an abrupt end any puritan state of innocence.
The raw truth about death and violence is perhaps too complex a matter for any training or preparation course. Nevertheless, before the aid agency industry blossomed in the sixties and seventies, this was not usual. At least some NGO’s tried to prepare people. A British friend recently reminded me that the White Fathers staged six weeks courses for those among them who were travelling abroad, tackling the social and cultural context of the countries where they were destined to work. Some candidates dropped out and were not allowed to take up the assignment. They had been given a glimpse of the reality of what awaited them, and balked.

This column was first published in NRC Handelsblad on 20-2-2018, alongside two other articles, both covering the scandal around Oxfam in Haiti.


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