Tackling daily fear and exclusion

By Chris Bain
16 Aug 2011

Twice a year, CAFOD organises Fast Days in schools and parishes so that people in our country can get a glimpse of what it means to live in hunger in the poorest countries in the world.

We ask those children and parishioners with a rumbling stomach after skipping their lunch at Lent and Harvest to think about people whose daily reality is their twice-yearly sacrifice, and remember the feeling the next time they are raising funds to help those in need.

Last week, people in London, Manchester, Birmingham and other areas affected by the terrible wave of riots experienced something else of what it means to live in the poorest countries: to be caught in the grip of fear.

For millions of us, walking or cycling home from work, or going to the shops, the everyday journeys which we regard as routine were suddenly transformed into a rollercoaster of wracked nerves, wondering what would appear around the next corner, trying to work out the direction of the sirens, shouts and breaking glass.

Never has getting inside the front door at home, or hearing from a loved one that they are safe, felt like such a relief. That is before we heard the news from Ealing of people being attacked in their homes, and felt a new wave of fear sweep over us.

I live just off the Walworth Road in South London, and for two hours on Monday night, the street belonged to the rioters and looters.

Thank God the riots have now subsided, but we should do our best to remember the feelings of fear that they created. Because what many of us felt for a few fleeting moments is the reality of every waking hour for so many millions of people around the world.

A few months ago I was in Colombia, where in the past two decades 70,000 civilians have been killed in civil conflict and 4.5 million – nearly a tenth of the population – displaced from their land. One woman I met saw her son forcibly conscripted by guerrillas; another witnessed her husband shot in front of her by right wing militias recruited by rich landlords. No wonder they lived in constant fear – and the knowledge that the perpetrators act with impunity.

Across East Africa, small farming communities are on a constant state of alert for raids by the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, whose senseless terror has seen tens of thousands killed, raped and abducted over recent years, and hundreds of thousands more made homeless. Imagine knowing what the LRA had done in the past, and spending every day waiting for the next raid.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo’s long suffering war zone, people bravely try to carry on with their lives despite the constant threat from rebel groups and army units. In the town of Minova in South Kivu, we worked with our Church partners to build an irrigation system in the town so that the local people, especially women and young girls, who used to have to climb down the mountainside to collect water from the river, no longer need to make that daily journey in fear of rape and murder, or send children to collect water never sure if they will return.

In 2008, a bitter election in Kenya erupted into the most awful ethnic violence, with armed mobs on the rampage. The Catholic Church provided refuge for thousands, but many could not escape. Rebuilding those communities, supporting the survivors, and trying to prevent a repeat is a thankless but vital task, and it starts – as in the past with Rwanda – by trying to deal with the fear and suspicion in communities where neighbours have previously turned on each other.

In all these countries across the world, millions of poor people are living every day wondering whether danger lies over the next hill, whether the men walking towards them mean harm, whether their homes and villages will be secure at night, and whether simmering ethnic tensions will explode.

Some of the issues CAFOD is dealing with across the developing world – hunger, poverty, disease, exploitation – are all the more appalling because the people suffering from them have known nothing else and accept them as part of life. But fear is an emotion no-one ever gets used to or accepts, wherever they live.

None of us in Britain would tolerate living our daily lives in the grip of the fear that many of us felt fleetingly last week, so none of us should tolerate women and children having to live in such fear all day and every day of their lives.

Just as so many communities in England came together in solidarity to resist the looters, or clean up the damage they had caused, let us show that same solidarity to others in even greater need.

Desperate as they are, the problems they face – land seizures, militia violence, ethnic tension – are not intractable. Alongside our Church partners, CAFOD is bringing justice, protection, security and a sense of community where there is none, tackling the roots of fear and the reality of violence.

If we can take anything positive from the days of destruction and division at home, perhaps it should be a dedication to tackle fear wherever it exists around the world, and stand by the women and children in the poorest countries who currently stand afraid on their own.

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© Chris Bain is director of CAFOD, the Catholic relief and development agency - www.cafod.org.uk

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