David Pratt: I am still moved by my notes on lives turned upside down by war and hunger

ON the shelves of my study at home sit rows of identical little, black pocket notebooks. There must be hundreds. In the first facing page of each is written the name of a place and date: Niger/2005; Libya/2011; Afghanistan/2009; and so the places and dates go on.

I’ve never got around to organising them chronologically, so plucking one out at random means sometimes lurching back into the past or fast forwarding to the present. In all the notebooks, though, are words that almost always were hastily written. Mostly they comprise names, ages and descriptions of people, places and incidents.

Like shards of pottery dug up in some archaeological excavation, in themselves they are only fragments but, when brought together, they shape a more rounded picture of the lives of those I’ve met during three decades of reporting from overseas.

Perhaps it has something to do with this time of year but, after casually taking down a few of the notebooks the other day, I found myself thinking again of those whose lives are sketched on the pages. Some I tried to picture in my mind’s eye but struggled to remember; others were instantly recognisable and vivid in my recollection.

Above all, I couldn’t help wondering where many of those men, women and children are now and the direction their lives have taken after my brief encounter with them. None of us knows what our lives hold in store. For some, the years pass by comparatively uneventfully, with only the occasional crisis or emotional turmoil. For others, like those on the pages of my old notebooks, it must sometimes feel like they have drawn life’s short straw: lives in which pain, hardship, uncertainty and fear of death are never far away.

As a reporter, I’ve always found it a source of great frustration that those people exist in those notebook pages yet I know precious little about what became of them.

Where are you now, Purity Atieno? Though I know you will never read this column, I want you to know that, when we met, I remember you telling me you were about to spend your 22nd Christmas in Nairobi’s Korogocho slum. I recall you saying, too, how, during most of that time, you had struggled to survive by raking through the festering heap of Dandora garbage dump on which the slum sits. Every day, wading through the discarded plastic, hospital waste and bodies of murder victims, you sometimes found your daily sustenance from the discarded food waste of others.

But, more happily, I also remember that, when we talked, you were cradling your newborn son Migel in your arms. What, I asked, as a single mum would Christmas Day mean for you and your little boy? Happiness, you told me, all depends on whether you both can eat that day. It’s going on six years since you, Purity and Migel, etched your lives onto the pages of my notebook.

I’d like to think that you both no longer lie awake at night in the filthy wooden box that passes for your home, listening to the scurrying of the rats and the gunshots that ring out as rival gangs clash in the alleyways.

As so often happens, I felt a certain guilt in leaving you both that day in Korogocho but that is the reporter’s lot and, sadly, so often the way of our world.

So few in the comparative comfort of my world can fully comprehend the energy and courage it takes for those like you, Purity, to get through another day. That same guilt bites again as I close the pages of the notebook in which you shared with me glimpses into your life and I pick up another and open a page on the lives of others.

Where, now, I wonder are you, Salim, your wife Shaima and your little boy Abdu Rahman? Doubtless you, too, will never read this but I know for a fact you have a story of your own to tell your son when he grows up. It’s the same one you told me earlier this year and I scribbled down as we sat in the camp that is home to thousands of Iraqi families forced from their homes through war and facing a similar plight to your own.

It was raining outside as we talked. The patter of the raindrops on the canvas of the tent roof and the occasional buffeting by the wind sweeping off the barren desert plain were a rhythmic accompaniment to the terrible time you recounted.

You told of how, in the small hours of the morning on July 13, 2016, the birth of your son gave his young parents such joy, despite his entering this world in the shadow of war. You told also of your nightmarish struggle for survival amidst the gunmen, zealots and executioners of the Islamic State (IS) group in Mosul.

Never once, though, did I see you fail to smile when momentarily looking down at tiny Abdu Rahman lying in your lap, with his huge brown eyes like mocha coloured marbles. He’s safe from such horrors now, your looks seem to say. But that was months ago and where are you now little Abdu Rahman? Flicking through those hundreds of notebooks, so many names, faces, and moments slip out fleetingly, released again from their pages and my memory banks. Most are people who were already vulnerable long before I met them: the poor, dispossessed and disenfranchised.

Youngsters like Nyaruach, an emaciated but smiling girl no more that 12 years old, from rural South Sudan who, since the massacre of her family, has been confronted with the terrifying responsibility of being the sole carer for her two-year-old brother.

Turning on the television news yesterday, the headlines from Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Myanmar told of yet more lives in distant places turned upside down by war and hunger. Let’s not forget, too, that, here at home, there are also those who suffer through poverty, abuse and homelessness.

Perhaps someday in the future I’ll get that chance to meet up again with some of those often extraordinary, brave and resourceful people who have filled those notebooks over the years. Wherever they may be, I hope their once turbulent lives are more peaceful.

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