Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A billion Lives

Mankind is a warring animal. Ever since man evolved from primates (possibly even before that), he/she has been involved in some kind of conflict. Archeologists have even speculated about the possible conflicts between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals in which we, the homo sapiens triumphed. Until the last few hundred years, these conflicts were mostly local and affected only a particular section of the world. But as man advanced technologically, so did his reach across the planet. Conflicts started becoming global and have now reached a point of threatening the very existence of our species.

The last century saw two global wars - wars that affected almost every part of earth; wars born out of greed for money, power and resources; wars conducted without any respect for human lives. The aftermath of the wars rewrote the political, economic and the social landscape of the planet. New countries were born; Peace blossomed in some regions, while more bloody wars were fought. How has the world fared after its epic battles? What has been happening in the different parts of the world? 'A Billion Lives' - a book by Jan Egeland provides a view of the world's most troubled spots as seen through the eyes of its author - a former undersecretary general for the United nations.

Jan has lived on the front lines of UN operations under Kofi Annan. He has also worked with the Norwegian Ministry. Through these posts he has traveled to many of the most dangerous and troubled spots on earth, has held talks with the most ruthless rebel/government leaders and has arranged humanitarian relief efforts in those areas. In his book, he takes us on a journey through the civil wars and disasters in Colombia, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Indonesia and Darfur. He describes in detail, the background of the conflict or the disasters in each region and walks us through the progress made in each place. He provides an insight into the minds of the dictators, rebel leaders and other warring factions.

All the places (except Indonesia where he assists the Tsunami victims) described in the book have been ravaged in mindless, unnecessary wars. Whatever be the history, economy, geography or religion of the place, one thing is common - Wars have served no purpose and have been waged without purpose. End of the day, people suffer. Most importantly, the young children, women, old people - all the vulnerable sections suffer the most. Most of the rebels fighting decade long wars do not seem to have any particular agenda. They really do not know what they're fighting for and why. And most of them are headed by paranoid maniacs who are perpetually afraid of their lives and ruthlessly kill anyone and everyone.

While the UN has carried out numerous relief programs, it has not been able to successfully prevent the ruthless genocides, unless approved by the Security council and the majority of nations. A full approval by the security council is very difficult as one or other permanent members invariably vetoes the proposals. For example, China has consistently refused to back any proposal to pressurize Sudan to stop the Darfur Genocide. Jan describes his helplessness towards the Darfur Atrocity - "The one thing the women beg of me - protection & security - is the only thing we cannot as UN humanitarian workers give them".

In many cases, I felt nauseated reading about the cruelty (the word is just not strong enough) of these so called Militias/rebels/governments/terrorists. He talks about the 20 year long fighting that has been raging on in Uganda. "The Northern part of the country is in the hands of a rebel group called 'Lord's resistance Army' which has kidnapped more than 20,000 children, who have been brutalized, tortured and raped while being forced to join this self-styled army and attack their own villages and families in a forgotten war".

In every scenario, Jan describes the frustrating way in which the peace talks seem to be progressing slowly over the years only to be suddenly broken and everything returning to square one, resulting in a fresh wave of violence, killings and sufferings. He has tried to finish his account in an optimistic note. He has cited statistical evidence that conflicts have reduced around the world. For example, there were 10 unfolding genocides in 1989, while there was just one in 2006. But somehow, these accounts leaves the reader with a big question about our species - Can we ever learn to live in peace and harmony? In the past 10,000 years, I've not seen any evidence of that being possible. The recent conflicts are so huge in scale affecting millions of lives. Millions of children have been abused, tortured and forced to torture others. Entire generations are being bred on violence which would effectively be creating socially retarded psychopaths, accustomed to killings and insensitive to suffering. I fear this generation. We can see some encouraging examples of some of the conflict zones successfully returning to peaceful ways. I just hope that at some point, our species comes to its senses before we ruthlessly destroy ourselves.

From the perspective of a book, this is a really good one. Jan has clearly portrayed the conflict zones and has powerfully expressed his feelings of anger, sadness, frustration and in some cases relief and happiness. The book gives us a good idea of the intricacies of international affairs, the key players and the way the game is played across the world.