Undocumented Cambodian migrant workers arrive in Poi Pet, Cambodia from Thailand last week. Some 200,000 are estimated to have made the journey since 9 June. Photo IOM/Joe Lowry 2014
When you’re surrounded by the intensity and emotion of a live disaster situation it’s surprisingly easy to switch into a robotic state, where the hubbub, the hazards and the humanity blur into the background. Yes you are aware of the clamour, the heat, the smells but it seems to fade and retreat, so that it’s a movie screen wrapped around you, and you are performing one task, giving it your all, but disconnected from the cacophony.
I suppose it has to be like that. Perhaps after too many disasters, absorbing too much vicarious suffering aid workers need to lose perspective to gain focus. You can feel the situation getting in through the pores of your skin but you need to block it, to leave it pooling in your innards, prevent it getting to the brain where it will cloud your mind and affect your judgement. You need to compartmentalise, to do one thing at a time: to select, prioritise and react. You can’t do that when your conscious mind is screaming “This Is All Wrong”.
And you know that there may be a cold can of beer waiting for you long after sundown. Perhaps a hot shower too, when you can purge the layer of chaos on your skin, feeling it washing down the plughole leaving you ready for a rapid sleep, which you already know will be broken in the quietest hours with a jolting memory of a task not done, a face in pain, an abandoned child, or simply an ache for the arms of your own loved ones.
Sometimes you just lose it, and you have to rely on your colleagues to bring you gently – even firmly – back to your role. You are no use burned out. You drag the team down. Let the tears out gently, in private. Even if you’re a veteran, there is no shame in emotion, if it brings you to a better place.
Here’s an example, of what happened to me on the Cambodian-Thai border last week, in a little town called Poi Pet. I know from experience when I am slipping into a land marked “caution”, and thankfully I have developed some coping mechanisms. (But it was hard. Seeing photos of dead children face-down in the mud in Myanmar, unable to travel the thirty miles to assist, corpses lining the pavement in the Philippines, Port-au-Prince reduced to rubble, the cliché of the African baby, flies in eyes, sucking a leathery breast… something has to give. How do I cope? I work, I write, I expunge the demons like that. Like this.)
There was no heartache on the border last week as tens of thousands of people poured off buses and thronged a muddy roundabout in a flyblown town you’ll never hear of again, going to places that are just dots on the map, down roads that peter out into tracks, where they will be hugged and kissed and feted, before the solemn reality of more mouths to feed, day after day, kicks in. No heartache, just movement. Lots of movement. People, trucks, buses, bikes, taxis, tuk-tuks, stray dogs, chickens, soldiers, cats, cascading silver rain from mercury clouds, drying in the white sun and pushing waves of hot, wet air, drawing beads and rivulets of sweat which became a paste on the skin when the mud dried rapidly to dust.
So many lives congregating in one point. Thousands of stories, thousands of photos for the communicator that is me, notebook in hand, camera on shoulder, flip-cam in pocket. And when they all come together; impelled, compelled, propelled across this stinky, litter-strewn stream that denotes where Thailand ends, and Cambodia begins, like so many hundreds of thousands did when Cambodia was a vast killing field; then, yes then they become one story, and like it or not, I have to pimp that story to the media.
Where are the journalists? Apart from some bright young things from the Phnom Penh post they are all sitting in Bangkok, covering the alarming crises in Iraq and Ukraine, the Afghan elections, the opening of the World Cup. I’ll never drag them away from that, for this – comparatively – small story, especially when no one is dying, no one is being openly abused.
Then two things happen. Two of the sort of incidents that jerk me out of my melancholy and make me justify my salary.
I take a lift with an IOM driver, a man of about 60, with intelligent, lively eyes shining from a weather-beaten face. He speaks Khmer, excellent Thai and very good English. He learnt English in the school of life, and Thai when he lived in a wooden house across the border for ten years, as a refugee.
A cloud passes over his face.
“I lost ten years of my life. It’s terrible, being a refugee”.
I don’t meet many refugees who have gone home, trailing their possessions and their memories. If I talk to refugees it’s in the white heat of escape, or the dull misery of daily life “there”; a million metaphorical miles from their hearths and lintels, from the land that defines them, their suffering land, the fields and the houses and the good neighbours that are parched and burned and slaughtered.
“It’s terrible being a refugee”.
The people passing me on open trucks, jammed together in a solid mass of bodies are not refugees. They are returning migrants, fleeing from a rumour of a threat. They are disgorged from trucks that come from Thailand, they spill onto the mud and litter-spattered street like fish released en masse from a trawler. They wait, and some hours later, after they have combed through the plastic bags and the rice sacks that hold their earthly goods to be reunited with these paltry possessions, they board another truck for the big towns, where they will have to find more transport to get back up those paths and tracks to their villages.
I take some more photos, speak to a few people, and damn the news agenda which is preventing this story getting out. My colleagues, young Cambodian men and women, a doctor from Myanmar, a stubbled Aussie from Victoria are out there doing life-changing, life-saving work. Others in Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Geneva are urging us on. All I have to do is witness, document, publicize. And I’m not doing it.
I go to the most unlikely of places – a glitzy casino right next to this madness, where the wheels spin and the slots whirr and dozens of people gamble their lives away – and I order a good coffee. I sit on the terrace, as more trucks go by. Several of the human cargo lock eyes with me, puzzled. And I think.
Time for me to gamble.
Halfway through the cup, almost before I know it, my phone is in my hand and I am calling all the senior journalists I know. I berate, I accuse, I castigate, I curse. I hound and I beseech. There are excuses, justifiable perhaps, but there’s also a hint of remorse. Journalists need to be where the stories are, their pride and their reputations are at stake.
CNN bites first. Then Al Jazeera, BBC, Reuters, AFP. By Sunday IOM is headline news. The pressure is on governments to react, to ensure the migrants’ dignity is preserved. Whatever is happening on the pitch in Brazil, I can safely say my team lifted my game on this muddy roundabout. Well played, IOM.
Joe Lowry is a senior media and communications officer for IOM