The Forgotten Lives of Refugees

Christopher Dickey talks to António Guterres, the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees, about the world’s desperate, dispirited, and displaced.

20 years ago, Audrey Hepburn wept when she talked about what she’d seen in Somalia.

PARIS, 12 April 2012 — Every now and then I interview a celebrity who has gone to one or another of the grim outposts in Africa where the limits of human suffering are tested, and exceeded. Of those interviews, three stand out.

One was with Ashley Judd in 2008, talking about her visit to Goma in the Congo. She was frank, she was smart, she was immensely concerned, and it was clear how much she had given of herself emotionally in what must seem to all of us sometimes a horribly thankless cause. Although Judd has attracted a lot of attention recently for writing about the way people write about the way she looks, this is her talking about the things that really do matter to her the most: Ashley Judd’s Heart of Darkness.

Another of those interviews was over the phone with Angelina Jolie after her first visit with refugees from Darfur who had fled to neighboring Chad. She had gone to the camps with the UNHCR in the middle of a sandstorm, in very rugged conditions. This is a full transcript of the interview. There was also an article accompanying a phenomenal collection of photographs taken on that trip, but unfortunately those do not appear to be available online.

And then there was the interview almost 20 years ago, in October 1992, with Audrey Hepburn. She was so articulate and persuasive as she answered my questions about her UNICEF-sponsored trip to Somalia that we decided to publish the interview in Newsweek as the simple, compelling essay below. I had hoped that she would talk more, write more, and produce a book, but, tragically, she was diagnosed with cancer a few weeks after the interview and died only a few months later.

Unforgettable Silence

By Audrey Hepburn

Somalia has been on my mind for so many months. We kept reading about it, what the war was going to do to the children. And it all came true. And it kept happening. I’ve been told that there’s something I can do, which is to draw attention to things—that’s what my job is all about. You’re prepared for what you’re supposed to do. But I wasn’t prepared for this.

It still is so hard to talk about because it’s so unspeakable. My husband, Robert Wolders, and I flew with UNICEF from Nairobi first to Kismayu, and seen from the air it’s obviously very dry. The earth is an extraordinary sight, a deep terra-cotta red. You see the villages, displacement camps, compounds. And the earth is rippled around these places like an ocean bed; I was told that these were the graves. There are graves everywhere. Wherever there is a road, around the paths that you take, along the riverbeds, near every camp, there are graves.

People who can still walk are phantoms. At Kismayu we visited a camp of displaced people, a huge place where it dawned on me only afterward that there was something strange. I realized there were no small children. They had all been snuffed out like candles. It’s devastating, the absence of small children. There is a chance to help the bigger children if they’re not too ill. If it’s a matter of malnutrition, and without any terrible infections or measles or tuberculosis, you can still save them. But not the tiny ones.

We went to a lot of places in Mogadishu. I’ve seen bombed cities because I was in Holland during the German occupation; we were first invaded, then liberated and bombed in between. So I’ve seen a bit of that. But I’ve never seen a whole city where there isn’t a building that doesn’t have holes in it or that has a roof on it. It is a total battleground.

As we arrived in Baidoa, they were loading bodies onto a truck, most of them very small. We went into the feeding center run by UNICEF and Irish Concerns. The aid workers were particularly taking care of the smaller, the sickest children who were sitting and lying under the only tree in a sort of courtyard. They were being more or less force fed—a spoon of something every few minutes—because they can’t drink or eat on their own or don’t want to anymore. What amazes me is the resilience of human beings, that they were still alive, still sitting.

I did see a young boy, fighting for breath, who obviously had a respiratory infection. He must have been about 14. I watched him and watched him fighting for breath; I had asthma all my childhood and I was longing to help him breathe. He finally just curled up and died and they took him away after a while. And all over there were just these little tiny things wrapped in whatever they could find for them. A little blanket or a piece of cloth. They are totally silent. Silent children. The silence is something you never forget.

I want to be very careful how I say this. I don’t want to sound overly dramatic. But you really wonder whether God hasn’t forgotten Somalia. You feel it’s a forgotten country. But not by all. There’s this extraordinary human miracle and you can believe in human goodness. I think it’s the first time in history there is a whole nation that’s being kept afloat by relief workers. Because in this country there’s no government, no infrastructure and no communications. Practically no roads nor anyone you can ask a question of. There are two warlords sharing Mogadishu, but all the clans around are unreachable. There’s nothing else, no one else providing. And you can’t say the workers are in it for the money. Their dedication is so evident.

Signs of hope: You hear it every day: “What is the solution to Yugoslavia? What is the solution to Somalia?”  They’re different. I’m no expert, and I don’t have solutions. But you cannot bomb cities to get rid of snipers. Nor would massive military intervention have any effect on Somalia and put it back on its feet. I think with Somalia, especially, it will have to be a slow process, their way.

Much of the unrest is due to hunger. The looting is due to hunger. I do think there’s a lot to be said for just smothering the country with food. Meanwhile the U.N. representative is in Mogadishu talking day and night with clan leaders, because that’s the only way they’ll come to a decision for a peaceful agreement to end the horror. It has to be negotiated clan by clan. Somalia is a very homogeneous country. It’s not an ethic or a religious fight. And there are signs of hope.

I saw this wonderful “oasis in the desert,” an Oxfam project near Kismayu, that UNICEF also supports. Some 1,200 families of different clans have built their own villages again. They’ve been provided with tools and seeds. UNICEF gave the fuel for an old pump. They’re growing maize, tomatoes. They look well and are living together. Their common purpose is surviving, together. This isn’t just a dream. It’s a fact. It’s there. I believe that this sort of thing can continue to happen.

I was very interested to see that women have a big say in Somalia, unlike so many Muslim countries. It’s a matriarchy, actually. Women are allowed in the marketplace. They are very important, and respected.

What is particular to Somalia is that the people are dying of starvation. What’s wrong with them is starvation, and, as a consequence, their frailty and their vulnerability to diseases. But it is the guns that are letting them die. The guns are stopping us from saving them.

Is there a solution? We have to believe that, in time, there will be. I go through a lot of soul-searching. I keep sane by saying it is not my job to solve all the problems. My job is to help UNICEF save children. And finally, that is the most important thing. Because it is these children who will, we hope, grow up to be healthy, productive citizens. And change their country.

Hepburn is UNICEF’s good-will ambassador.

NEWSWEEK : OCTOBER 26, 1992