"There is going to be a shooting here and it is a toss-up who is going to get the boy's first round. The soldier, about ten years old, is jamming the barrel of his gun hard against my driver's face, and unless the kid decides to go for me, the relief worker, my driver is going to get his head blown off."
WHERE SOLDIERS FEAR TO TREAD
John Burnett survived this ordeal and others during his service as a relief worker in Somalia. But many did not. In this gripping firsthand account, Burnett shares his experiences during the flood relief operations of 1997 to 1998. Ravaged by monsoons, starvation, and feuding warlords, Somalia continues to be one of the most dangerous places on earth. Both a personal story and a broader tale of war, the politics of aid, and the horrifying reality of child-soldiers, his chronicle represents the astonishing challenges faced by humanitarian workers across the globe.
There are currently thousands of civilian workers serving in over one hundred nations. Today, they are as likely to be killed in the line of duty as are trained soldiers. In the past five years alone, more UN aid workers have been killed than peacekeepers. When Burnett joined the World Food Program, he was told their mission would be safe, their help welcomed-and they would be pulled out if bullets started to fly.
When he arrived in Somalia, Burnett found a nation rent by a decade of anarchy, a people wary of foreign intervention, and a discomfiting uncertainty that the UN would remember he'd been sent there at all.
From Burnett's young Somali driver to the armed civilians, warlords, and colleagues he would never see again, this unforgettable memoir delves into the complexity of humanitarian missions and the wonder of everyday people who risk their lives to help others in places too dangerous to send soldiers.
"Where Soldiers Fear to Tread is a rousing adventure story and a troubling morality tale....If you've ever sent 20 bucks off to a relief organization, you owe it to yourself to read this book."--Michael Maren, author of
The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity.
In 1997, Burnett, apparently bored with his other adventures-which have included working on oil rigs, working on a crab boat in Alaska, skippering a commercial halibut boat, writing for the soap opera Search for Tomorrow-signed up to work in Somalia for the World Food Program. In prose as restrained as his trails were horrific, Burnett recounts his narrow escapes and close calls in a flood-ravaged Somalia ruled by rival warlords. His most harrowing adventures occur when he confronts young children carrying guns who fearlessly threaten and kill others. Yet, Burnett does not quite delve into his own fears, or reveal what real lessons he learned from his year in Somalia. His formulaic style ("The air is thick with the smells of dust, smoke, flowers, sweat, and dung") fails to render the tale of one man's struggle to make a difference in the world either memorable or significant.
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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June 26, 2006
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Excerpt from Where Soldiers Fear to Tread by John S. Burnett
One villager reported the building simply collapsed without warning. The woman and her three children and the two old people on the tin roof vanished under the fast-moving brown floodwaters and were swept away.
Marerey was one of the villages on the banks of the southern stretch of the Webbi Jubba. It was disappearing fast, ripped apart by the rising river that had broken its banks and was sweeping away everything in its path.
Its people were a strong lot, used to hardship. They had weathered searing droughts and previous floods, the pestilence of locusts and mysterious diseases. They were more fortunate than others.
One time not so long ago, there had been a sugar factory on the other side of the airstrip, where many worked, and so the villagers could afford tin roofs instead of thatch, could afford to build their homes of mud bricks instead of wattle. There had even been a school. But the fighting had come and families fought families and the area had been divvied up by the warlords and their clans. The sugar factory had been destroyed in one of the many seesaw battles for turf and was now no more than a skeletal ruin. There had been things to salvage, however, and the youths who remained in the village, who had not left to join the fighting, had scavenged wood and cement blocks, slabs of Styrofoam, wire and rope, furniture and vessels, poles and plastic.
Marerey was in the breadbasket of Somalia, a land of cultivated fields and grazing plains, veined with a complex network of irrigation canals and roads; those who had not worked at the factory had raised cattle and goats, sugarcane, bananas, maize, and sorghum. Although they lived on the river, they were not fisher- men and they seldom ate fish. They were pastoralists. The Jubba, one of Somalia's only two perennial streams, existed in their eyes mainly to provide the water for the fields and to carry away the effluence. The muddy river originating in Ethiopia to the north was not very polluted; there had been few pesticides in use and little industry and it was still pretty clean by the time it got this far, tainted only by the raw sewage from the communities on the river. The men usually quit their homes around dawn and took their places in a row, lifted their sarongs or dropped their trousers, squatted over the river, and performed their ablutions. The women performed theirs on the bend downriver where the Jubba took a turn.
The rains that were causing the floods had started suddenly. They say that one day, one month, it was normally dry and plans were made for the harvest. Then the next day the black clouds rolled in off the ocean to the east, merging with storms that drifted down from the north, and the skies opened up. And still it rained.
There were not many left in Marerey. Most of the residents had fled earlier to the narrow earthen dike about a half mile downriver, taking what little they could; the dike was bigger then and it had looked solid and safe and indestructible. They were, however, only a little safer there than had they taken refuge on the roofs of their homes, for the fast-moving river was steadily eating away at the dike; sections of earth peeled away, broke off, and tumbled into the flood.
Those who decided to stay in Marerey huddled together for warmth on top of their roofs under the pelting rains that never seemed to end. Some had tucked themselves under plastic sheeting; others had only cotton cloth as cover, and that only deadened the sting from the deluge.
The waters were rising steadily, two to three inches an hour. The night before, the river had climbed over the embankment and crept through the village, slowly, like a serpent searching, covering, consuming everything in its path. By daybreak, the roads, the town center, and finally the floors of the homes had disappeared under the flood. Those who took to their roofs watched the water below reach ever higher and spread out over the plains nearby, through the fields of maize that had been nearly ready to harvest, and vanish in the distance toward the untilled savanna. In this gray and dismal afternoon, this was a landscape without definition. In days--perhaps in hours if the rains didn't let up--the entire region would be just one large lake with only a mound of dry land here and there isolated as islands.
As the floodwater continued to rise, it no longer extended gradually as spillover but picked up the swiftly moving current and became the river itself. It tore at the foundations and sucked away the ground from under the heavier homes. Those on the roofs grasped the sharp edges of the corrugated iron, fearing, sensing, that these were their last moments on something solid before falling into the turgid waters below.