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In Central Park’s Strawberry Fields, the air is heavy with the fading humidity of summer. The usual covey of salt-and-pepper-haired tourists sit along the perimeter of the “Imagine” altar, their eyes closed, heads bobbing to John Lennon compositions in their headphones. At their feet, the word “Free” is spelled out in acorns. “We’ve Got da Funk” wafts through the trees on Cherry Hill while rollerbladers do the hustle near the Bethesda Fountain. Several people remark on the perfection of the day as they line up behind a lift gate at the perimeter of “A Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City,” an exhibit created in the park by Médecins Sans Frontiéres (Doctors Without Borders) to “make tangible to the public the realities of life for people displaced by war and conflict.” On this beautiful day, the strife of Darfur, Chechnya, and Iraq seem distant, but the crowd—schoolteachers, students, social workers, political activists, community volunteers, world travelers, would-be aid workers, and staunchly socially conscious folks—is anxious for deeper insight.
We are greeted by 35-year-old George Holloway, a former Wall Street trader who left a promising career at Merrill Lynch for a very modest stipend and a communal tent in a refugee camp halfway around the world.
“There were some people who I really respected and loved on Wall Street,” Holloway says. “But I knew, even if I got lucky, I’d look around in 20 years and feel something was not quite right. So I started searching for ways to contribute in the world. Hawa called me in. Two weeks later I was in Uzbekistan.”
Hawa Kamara, a formidable woman with a sky-blue dress and an unflinching gaze, peers from a large photograph under a nearby sun structure. In 1990, Kamara fled her native Liberia on foot with her five-year-old daughter. Two years later, she returned as an MSF volunteer. She served on missions around the world and remained devoted to MSF until last year, when she was killed in a plane crash during a mission in Nigeria.
This year’s encampment in Central Park is dedicated to her.
“Members of your family have been killed, your village has been burned, wells and water sources have been poisoned,” says Holloway. “If you are lucky, you have a few hours to gather your children and a few possessions before you have to flee for your life. You are now like 33 million other people around the world.”
Miriam Czech, an MSF volunteer whose husband is currently on a mission in Sri Lanka, raises the gate and we pass through an imaginary border. Members of our group adjust their sunglasses and fumble with their digital cameras as we circumvent a mock minefield scarcely camouflaged by fallen leaves.
“Land mines are not meant to kill,” clarifies Holloway. “It takes more enemy resources to treat the wounded. The idea is to maim you and slow your family down.”
We pass photographs of a human caravan in Ethiopia and step into the campgrounds themselves. The first shelter, considered quite nice by IDP (internally displaced persons) standards, is a small shed made of plywood and corrugated tin. It is relatively permanent, the sort of structure found in a shantytown in Columbia, where families have been driven out of the mountains and into urban slums. There is a rug rolled out in front, with bowls of beans, a handmade broom, and toy trucks made of tin cans, a reminder that children make up the majority of camp populations. The next structure resembles those used in Darfur: sheets of plastic pulled over wood to form a pup tent. Still another seems palatial by comparison, but Holloway quickly explains that it would sleep up to 15, lying head to head. A few of us enter with the intention of trying out the sleeping conditions, but unaccustomed to the close proximity of strangers, we are barely willing to rub elbows.
At the watering station, we learn that each person in a refugee camp is allotted a meager two gallons of water per day (by comparison, the average American uses 100 gallons each day), which every family must carry back to its shelter.
Lucille Barchitta, a 33-year-old advertising executive, tries to lift a jug intended for a family of five and frowns. Paula Jones, a social worker and teacher from Greenwich, Connecticut, who has applied to MSF three times, hangs up her cell phone and jokingly places her Poland Spring bottle on top of the jug.
We are introduced to the discomforts and diseases of latrines and the heartrending conditions faced in hospital tents and feeding centers. We even try BP-5, a compact emergency food ration, which one member of our tour group declares “tasty.” But for the undeniably graphic nature of the cholera containment unit—body bags, chlorine sprayers, and giant holes cut in the center of hospital cots for the “large, unending volume” of diarrhea that afflicts the dying—the exhibition is just that: a somewhat remote display.
“Imagine that the camp stretches as far as the eye can see,” says Holloway. “There is trash everywhere, little plastic bags flying around, clinging to everything. There are children, tons of them, running, smiling, shouting ‘Hello! OK!’ because that’s the English they know. There is no space, no privacy. There are people everywhere. Imagine the smells. And the faces of people who have seen so much violence, they don’t even react anymore.”
Two day later at “Darfur/Darfur,” an exhibit held at the James Cohan Gallery, the work of five photographers—Lynsey Addario, Mark Brecke, Helene Caux, Ron Haviv, and Brian Steidle—brings the reality into vivid focus. As the music of Sudanese artists Hamza El Din, Rasha, Mustafa Sid Ahmed, Abd Al Hafiz Karar, and Mustafa al-Sunni plays over the sound system, wall-sized projections fill the room: Sudanese women huddled together beyond the borders of their camp, their colorful wraps obscured by a sandstorm; a man in a bright orange turban, his body taut and pitched like a desert sentinel in the burned-out ruins; children peering from behind makeshift shelters, their war-scarred faces still bright with curiosity; desiccated bodies, which seem all the more obscene for the clothes that still hang on them, adding character and personality to the corpses.
“Children had found this mass grave while they were watering their goats,” says Mark Brecke, a resolutely independent war photographer, whose images were selected to hang in the Capitol after he presented them to Congress. “That was a hard moment for me. As I stood there, it struck me: Here I am again, witnessing another ethnic cleansing in another country. Humanity has once again left its fingerprint of genocide on the world. This time in the shape of Darfur of Sudan.
“These are some of the most generous, dignified, beautiful people I’ve met in the world,” he continues. “It might be strange to say, but I wish everyone could spend just five minutes in a refugee camp or war zone to see what humanity is really about.”
Former Marine Brian Steidle is equally strident and unflinching. His images include charred, castrated, and beheaded corpses, along with the hardened face of little girl carrying her baby brother on her back through a refugee camp in Chad.
“If doing good isn’t a good enough reason to help,” says Steidle, “do it for her.”