I guess most of us will never forget the famine in Ethiopia in 1984. It created a lot of sympathy for the starving and money was raised as never before. But how did we hear about this and why did it create such a massive wakeup call all over the world?
Claire Bertschinger was born of Swiss parents living in England. She hated school because of her dyslexia that made everything so difficult. She could barely read until she was 14 years old.
The first film she saw when the parents got a television in the 60’s was “The Inn of the sixth happiness” with Ingrid Bergmann playing the English missionary Gladys Aylward who went to China in the 30’s and was caught up in the Japanese invasion. That’s when Claire said to herself: “This is what I want to do!”
She left school at 16 and went to a pre-nursing course where she was accepted.
She wanted to go abroad and found that she could do that through Red Cross. First she was in Lebanon and after some time she was sent to Ethiopia.
That was a night mare. There she had to decide between life and death for many people because they could not save everybody. It made her feel guilty and shameful. There was very little help and too little food and medicine so many people had to die. The feeding centre in Mekele where she worked was like a living hell.
Then BBC came. She tells about it:
“The next day, the BBC foreign correspondent Michael Buerk and his cameraman Mo Amin turned up at the gates of the feeding centre. He’d seen the starving people on the roads and been to the camps elsewhere in the country and now he saw the selection process in the feeding centre. He followed me as I was trying to feed the kids. While I was surrounded by desperate skeletal and malnourished children who were screaming and shouting, and pulling at my hands, Michael tried to ask me questions and get me to stand where they would get the best shot. Then he asked me if making those life-and-death decisions over who should be fed did anything to me.
What a question! I was indignant. What on earth did he think it did to me? For a moment I didn’t know whether to take him seriously or not, but in the end there was only one reply I could give: “Yes, of course it does. What do you expect? It breaks my heart!”
And then they’d gone. For me, their appearance was only a blink in the day.”
By the end of October the five minutes interview was shown on TV. It created a massive reaction! Ten days later the first plane landed full of food. They were saved!
We all know what happened afterwards. Bob Geldof was so touched by this interview that he made the song “Do they know it’s Christmas?” that went straight to No. 1 before Christmas and money came in. After some time Live Aid was created, the first Trans-Atlantic concert in history. It gave a lot of money. Later on USA contributed with “We are the world”.
All this happened because the TV journalist became engaged and it was shown on TV. And behind it all stood the young woman who did not know what happened in the rest of the world.
After Ethiopia Claire had different other operations as the prisons in Uganda, the West-African countries like Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Ivory Coast. For a while in the beginning of the 90’s she was in Afghanistan, Kenya and Sudan risking her life all the time wanting to help other people and make the world a better place. She traveled around Western Africa to make training courses for nurses. And then she became ill with malaria. She had to go home and was ill for a long time.
After three months she went to Geneva to start working but had still problems with concentrating and felt very unhappy. For months she kept searching for something. With the help of computers she was now able to study and overcome her dyslexia. She did her master degree in medical anthropology.
Then she was asked by the journalist Michael Buerk to go with him back to Ethiopia 20 years after to do a documentary. And she went.
There she got the answers to many of her questions. She was afraid they hated her there, but she met with people who said she had saved their life. Finally she could talk about her past and even write a book about it.
The book was published in 2005 and called “Moving mountains”.
She ends the book in this way:
“When I saw the documentary for the first time, I saw how moved Bob Geldof had been when he was filmed for it, talking about his memories of the feeding centre at Mekele and his response to the terrible choices he had seen me having to make.
“In her was vested the power of life and death, he said. She had become God-like, which is unbearable to put on anyone, but certainly on one so young and in such devastating circumstances.” I saw him compassionately remembering “There was immense dignity both in those chosen for death and those chosen for life, and the awareness of what was happening was in the adults’ – the parents’ – eyes.”
When I saw him break down on film, unable to go on speaking because of the sheer power of the terrible memory I shared with him, something inside me shifted. It was another turning point. It made me understand that each of us has a part to play in the drama of life, and that it’s how we respond to the drama that makes the difference. Bob Geldof had used his life experience as a musician and a celebrity to try to bring about a change in the world by pushing people in the West, especially young people, into taking some responsibility for the poor of the developing world and encouraging them to act. Michael had had the same impulse and had used his power as a new journalist. And now I realized that I, as an unknown nurse in the back of beyond without any electricity or means of communication – or so I’d thought – had had my own essential role to play. It helped me realize that we can all make a tremendous difference, in our own way and in our own environment, not only to our families and the people in our own lives but also to the world in which we live in. It all starts at home. Simply the act of challenging the fears, anger and stupidity in one’s own life has the power to change the world.”
Very inspiring to read about Claire Bertschinger.