2014-07-25

disaster

Airplane disasters are always terrible. Different from ground accidents, they almost certainly lead to the death of many, if not all passengers, because gravity, a lack of pressure in high altitudes, and the huge amounts of fuel everyone is sitting on are three huge risk accelerators when anything goes wrong up there. The past week was particularly bad, bringing three of them: A Malaysian Airlines jet, MH17, which had started in Amsterdam and was on the way to Kuala Lumpur was shot down above Ukraine and 297 people died. TransAsia Airways flight GE222, crashed, probably typhoon-related, into buildings on an island off the coast of Taiwan while attempting to land, killing 47 of the 58 people on board so far. And today Air Algerie AH5017, which had started in Burkina Faso, carrying 116 people on the way to Algiers, came down violently in Mali, probably caused by a sand storm - number of victims as yet unknown.

A friend of mine wrote in a Facebook post that she can't sleep anymore at night:
"Since Thursday I have to think of the very last minutes of flight MH17 in the middle of the night. Last month I was sitting in an airplane seat myself, together with husband and child. Check-in, boarding, searching for your seat number, stowing your hand luggage, the security instructions, the ascent, the information bits coming from the cockpit, for now you are in your own little world high up in the air. And then, suddenly, apparently from nowhere....
The scenario of the last seconds keeps me awake at night. I toss and turn and grind. After 9/11 I also had these issues. Airplanes used as weapons. Now as targets. How do you process something like this? How can you get your act together over this? How can you regain control over something like this? How can you ever board an airplane again? How can love conquer an act like this? My head fails. Much as I try, my head fails." 
I was deeply moved by her pain, and I know what helps when panic and helplessness strike: Breathing. Concentrating on your body. A reality check: I am here. I am whole. I am not in pain. I am healthy. I have shelter. I have food. I am loved. There is no danger now. I can relax. I can breathe.

It's what helped me deal with the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami which cost the lives of 227,898 people, and almost mine too, since I was on the upper floor of a two-story hotel on the Sri Lankan coast when the water was rising right up to the ledge of my balcony. Yes, we thought we were going to die that very day: a pleasant day, Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, with blue skies and no cloud to be seen or wind to be felt, with a decorated hotel lobby - yet the whole resort was flooded from one moment to the other. People, including children, were dying in ground-floor rooms, in collapsing houses in the neighborhood, or on the beach. Maybe it's this experience and its aftermath, the screaming people, the dead children and mourning mothers I saw, the more than 30 glass shards I cut with my Swiss army knife out of the foot of a woman who had waded barefoot through the flooded yard and stepped into a broken window pane, all the wounds I tended to and bandages I applied, the humanitarian aid trucks we helped stock later in the mountains with water, staple foods and medication to drive to the crisis regions on the coast, the months and years after this where I couldn't sleep in any ground floor room by the sea anymore, this first-hand knowledge that there is no such thing as safety, that we're all hanging by a thread between life and death, always, that prevents me from mentally freaking out when disasters happen. People can (and do) die prematurely all the time, out of nothing, not only in armed conflicts, but also in traffic or other accidents, from illness, or by the hands of evil people, but that shouldn't prevent us from living while we can.

Back then, we didn't watch any television, and that was for the best. I heard from people who had flown home as soon as they could that still more than a year after the event they were severely traumatized, because in that first week after it happened, they had been glued to the TV screen, reviving the horrors they had experienced first-hand over and over again from the perspective of a camera elsewhere.

Today we don't even have television at home. The news I receive are mostly coming in via this screen, and most of them in the shape of black letters on white ground, with a few images and the occasional video sprinkled in between. I was traveling when the tragedy in Ukraine happened, so I wasn't following the news as closely as I might have on a weekend at home. I understand that many people here in the Netherlands know people (who know people) who have died in the crash. After all, two thirds of the passengers were Dutch, and this is a small country. I understand the effect the constant bombardment with over-charged television images must have on a people who live in a country where people usually live peaceful, shielded lives and where the most common crime is bicycle theft. I consciously have removed myself from TV culture, for my own sanity.

I didn't partake in the National Mourning Day yesterday. I forgot the minute of silence at 4pm (even though I was silent anyway, because I was alone in my office at the time), and I didn't go to Amsterdam to march with 5,000 people who felt the need to express their mourning together with their fellow-citizens by letting thousands of white helium-inflated balloons into the air. Such balloons can, depending on the weather conditions, bridge a distance of up to 1,000 miles before they pop or go flaccid and reach the ground (or the water) again. Birds, small mammals, or fish often mistake them for food, and the ribbons used to tie them can become entangled in birds' beaks, and around the necks of birds and marine animals. Many of them die. If they land in water bodies, they take over a year to degrade if it's latex balloons - if they're made from foil or mylar, they take decades or even centuries, no matter where they land.



And another point: Helium is a scarce gas. It's required for many medical applications, such as MRIs. Many countries, among them the UK, have already discussed banning the use of helium in balloons altogether. Scientists say that human lives could be endangered if there wasn't enough helium around for medical applications.

Yet another friend, one who had actually attended the Amsterdam mourning march, had posted a photo of the thousands of white balloons released yesterday. When I left a comment about my failure to understand why they need to release balloons when they're mourning the dead, knowing about the dangers they pose to wildlife and the environment, I was accused of being 'insensitive', of needing 'a reality check over what had just occurred this week', and of being ungrateful 'to a land which has given you work, a home and a place in which you can exist as a human being with your partner.' And of 'making light of the minute of silence'. 'No offense' were the words he closed his tirade with. Which, given the blow of the accusations, I have a hard time not to take.

I can't help it if people have different value systems than I do. To some people, traditions, rituals, and that kind of symbolism mean a lot. To me, they mean very little. I don't mind these people mourning, not even collectively, if it eases their pain or the pain of those who they are mourning together with. I do, however, have a hard time with the subliminal nationalism which is part of the whole thing; as if a Dutch death would count more than the others, as if the violent loss of a life shouldn't always hurt, shouldn't always leave us in shock, helpless, and desperate - and especially in a disaster like this, which, in the first place, was caused by nationalist conflicts in Ukraine.

De Correspondent, "a Dutch-language, online journalism platform that focuses on background, analysis, investigative reporting, and the kinds of stories that tend to escape the radar of mainstream media because they do not conform to what is normally understood to be 'news'", published a brilliant article by Rob Wijnberg two days ago which I only got to read today (after the exchange of the comments mentioned above). It's titled "The Awkward Nationalization Of A Catastrophe", and in it, he writes:
"Because MH17 is not a Dutch tragedy, nor a Ukrainian or Malaysian one: It's a human catastrophe. A catastrophe which probably has its roots in exactly the same phenomenon that we now have to counteract: ultra-nationalist separatism, which sacrificed 298 human lives for a nation state. Nationalization of the catastrophe certainly makes separatists of all of us: Mourning our own people, but being insensitive to the suffering of those who accidentally didn't carry the same passport." 
I couldn't have expressed it any better.

Let's get one thing straight: I am certainly grateful for many things I have in this country. I love the bike lanes, the affordable public transport system, and that I can live downtown by the water without having to break the piggy bank. I love the high quality of tap water, the availability of fresh produce year-round, the moderate climate, the comfortable living circumstances, and the fact that all in all it's a society which, by and large, is tolerant enough to let queer people be queer, fat people be fat, and quirky people be quirky (even though they still have problems with vegans, but we're working on that). But does that mean that I have to return my own identity (which is not very German, by the way, but vegan, queer, and international) and assume theirs? That I have to mourn 194 Dutch deaths, while completely disregarding the other people on the plane, let alone everyone else who has died from violent acts lately? That I am not allowed to criticize actions happening on Dutch ground which I oppose and which go against my values (which are entirely non-violent values)? The country hasn't 'given' me a home, nor a job - I pay rent for the apartment, it's a financial transaction: living space against money, and so is the job: my workforce against their money (and way less money than I worked for in Germany). I don't owe the country anything, except maybe for some taxes, but we're currently straightening this out, the Belastingdienst and I.

We need to get away from judging our fellow-beings according to national categories, or rather, according to any categories which aren't the result of their own actions, or else all the suffering and killing will never stop. More than three years ago, I wrote "No Love For Nations", and I am afraid since then nationalism has rather grown instead of shrunk. What's been happening lately in Israel and Gaza, in Syria, in Nigeria, in Pakistan, and now also in Ukraine I find hugely disturbing, and utterly senseless. What a waste of life! And all of these conflicts were started and are kept alive because one group of people who were accidentally born on a certain piece of land or to parents who believe in a certain kind of god don't acknowledge that another group of people who were accidentally born on another piece of land or to parents who believe in a different kind of god have equal rights to be where they are and do what they do. As long as we cannot overcome the borders in our heads, these conflicts will never stop.

And the animals? Granted, in a moral-dilemma thought experiment, if I had to choose between rescuing a human child or a cat, I would rescue the child and not the cat (even though my heart would bleed for the cat). But no child would have died if these balloons hadn't been released. Is respect for animals and the environment in the process of such rituals too much to ask for?

Another friend wrote in a Facebook post today:
"Do we really have to use these questionable means to remember the victims - means which pose so much danger to people, animals, and nature? Is it acceptable to create risk and new suffering to remember the suffering of others? We all feel the pain, but let's remember and honor the victims of this catastrophe with our commitment to not hate, to not pollute the environment, and to support the weaker ones in our society." 
I couldn't have expressed that any better either.

2 comments:

  1. This is a very well-written, thoughtful post. I also had no idea you had been through the tsunami, and for selfish reasons, I'm very glad you were on the 2nd floor and survived. But I am also very proud to know you for your efforts to help those less fortunate than yourself, and I have learned even more about you through this post than I my experience with you has already taught me. I am very glad to call you my friend, Gabi.

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    1. Thank you, that is very kind of you to say. And much appreciated. And mutual.

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