I try to imagine what it is like for the refugees fleeing the war. Below is what I see in my head. It is fiction, but there are elements from things I have heard here. Some families come the camps together. Others, the men stay back to either fight, or to protect their property. Some of the parents are shot in front of their children, and then the kids taken to become child soldiers. The women and girls are raped. People die along the journey of starvation or dehydration. Children are sent ahead by parents who do not want them to become child soldiers. There are many unaccompanied minors who have no idea where their parents are. And many women who do not know where their husbands are. Many families have numerous ‘extra’ kids they took in along with way. I write this story from pictures I see in my mind’s eye to try to imagine…
I wake from my bed to the onslaught of my neighbors’ screams and gunfire. I feel the terror of looking out my window and seeing my town going up in flames. My feet hit the floor at the same time as my husband’s and we know the war has arrived here. We run to gather the children with urgency. Throwing the most basic needs in bags, we flee into the night. We attempt to quiet the frightened children as we make our way to try to become invisible. We see soldiers as silhouettes, kicking in doors and dragging people out of their homes to the slaughter. We cover the children’s ears, so they won’t hear the terror chasing us. We carry them in our arms until we are out of breath. We pray we have gone far enough to stop. Reassuring words which we don’t feel, come out of our mouths into their ears. Their questions are quivering.
“What is happening? Where will we go? How long will it take to get there? What about our friends? What is all the screaming? Why is the sky lit up?”
The queries of children never end. My husband and I lock eyes and both realize at the same time, we don’t know the answers to the questions. Too close to us, there are shouting voices, and lights meander back and forth through the trees from the road.
“Mommy, what’s that?”
“Shhh! Please, you must be as quiet as a mouse, both of you.”
I hear the footsteps in the brush, then the shouts when others in hiding are found and hauled onto the road. They are begging for their lives. Two shots and the begging stops. My daughter’s pulse is racing under my hand. She instinctively knows to remain quiet. My prayers rise silently for the rebels to move on, to leave us hidden. We are as low as possible and as still as statues. Only the darkness keeps us covered from their eyes. After what seems like months of their searching in the grass, they load their truck and it rumbles away. The children are scared into silence, and they do not break it when we move on. Up ahead of us we hear whimpering, like a wounded animal. Only, it is not an animal I am hearing; any mother knows the sound of crying babies. The three children are crouched low trying to stifle their cries as best they can. It is a miracle they were not found by the rebels. They pull back as we approach. They are our neighbor’s children. Tears rise and my throat tightens as I realize who the bodies up on the road belong to. They sacrificed themselves for their kids. Confusion and fear cloud the eyes of the little ones, then relief comes when they see it is us, their friends.
The oldest boy is holding the youngest babe.
“Mom said for me to take care of him and to take him to the border.”
The middle one simply stands, shaking, and holds her arms up to me. I accept her into my own and she lays her head onto my shoulder and spills her tears there.
“You all can come with us,” says my husband. He knows it will slow us down to have three more little ones with us, but he cannot just leave them here and neither can I. We walk for miles in the direction of the border. It is slow going with 5 children, but they are doing their best to cooperate. As the sky grays towards the dawn, we find a place to lie down for the day.
We must travel only at night to remain hidden as much as possible. We also have to take a different path, further from the road which is grown over and difficult. It will take a week or more to get to the boarder because of our slower pace. Once the children are comforted and quietly resting under some bushes, I sit next to my husband and we whisper.
“Where are we going to get water?” I wonder.
“I will go out now and try to find some before tonight. You stay here with the children,” says my husband. I do not want him to go and he does not want to, but we have no other choice. He takes my oldest son with him. We embrace as we say goodbye.
“Wait for me here.”
“I will wait,” I choke out.
I wait for two days. Many others pass us on the path. They take pity on me and share sips of water with us while I am waiting. Some families have 10 or more children they have collected along their way. The nights are filled with activity all around us, the days are quiet. In the distance, I can hear trucks on the road, shooting, and yelling, but we are too far away to know what is happening. I do not know what to do. My husband has not returned, and the little bag of food I threw together in the night is almost gone. I have 4 small children to care for. If we stay here we could be shot. If we stay here we could starve. Either way, we die. My only choice is to get going, to find water on my own. I tear a piece of my sleeve and tie it to the bush. It is a signal to my husband that I have moved on, if he returns. As night falls, my quivering hands gather the children for the journey.
It took us two weeks to get to the border. Other groups helped us along the way to try to find food and water. My youngest became sick on day 7 and she died on day 10. My eyes wept for one whole day as I dug a shallow grave, while the other children slept. Then my heart closed up tight, and remains so, to this day. By the time I crossed the border, I had added two more children to my little group. Not replacements for my own, just others who were found wandering. I was given a tarp when I arrived, and I have made a make shift house out of branches and plastic. I spend my days trying to take care of my family. One of my older girls, walks for water each day. I go to find food for the others. I cook over a fire in the dust and fall asleep as soon as the sun goes down, so that I can get up and do it again tomorrow. I do not know if my husband and son are alive or dead, or if I will ever see them again. Sorrow is my companion, suffering my nourishment. The war has stolen everything from me, and given me only despair.
When I see the women walking along the road here, burdened down with heavy loads, I imagine the weights they carry are far heavier than I can see. You may ask why I would try to imagine such horrors. I will tell you why…I want to have compassion, rather than pity. Pity sets itself up higher than others and looks down upon their plight. It says, “Too bad for them. I am so sorry for their situation,” but what it means is, “I’m glad it’s not me and will never be, because I am above that.” Pity does not move, it sits and watches, and says all the right things on the outside, but the heart remains unchanged, unmoved. Pity is degrading. The recipients of pity feel ‘less than.’ Much of the aid given in the camps is out of pity. The people here do not want pity, but pity is better than nothing…so they accept. Instead, they want to be seen, valued, and understood. They want to be their own people with hope and a future.
Opposite pity is compassion. I define compassion as mercy, infused with understanding. I cannot empathize with these people. There is no way I can wrap my head around what they have been through. It is beyond my experiences, yet I want to understand better so that my compassion moves me in the correct direction. A direction of caring with intelligence. A direction of helping without hurting. Every time Jesus healed, it says he was ‘moved with compassion.’ He did not ever degrade. He lifted up. He saw past pity, and moved with compassion. Yet, he did not just help on the surface, he dealt with the root cause. He worked on the heart.
Of course, he was God, and I am not…so I use my imagination to help inform my sympathy and my mercy so they become compassion. Then I trust his grace to empower me and give me discernment on how to move…in the right direction in such complex circumstances. Otherwise, this trip is for nothing and I have left things worse than I found them. Hope deferred makes the heart sick, and the last thing I want to do is to offer hope and then remove it. No, it has to be born in the people to be sustainable. I cannot give it, I can only plant a seed. They must water and care for it to reap the harvest it brings.