TBP: Feeding the
by Phil Geusz
The huge furry hands looked like they were about to crush me, and I
flinched for just a second before remembering to stand straight and
tall. Getting my vodor working during the last-minute rush was proving
difficult enough without me making it worse by squirming.
Finally after a lot of fumbling the hands withdrew so quickly as to
give me vertigo. I rocked on my spindly legs twice, then tried to speak.
"All right! The English is working again! Now try Hutu."
I did, and nonsense syllables emerged from my speech-box. "Perfect,
Jim!" Richard declared, waving a tentacle in pleasure. "You don't even
have an accent!"
"It's a miracle," declared my friend Phil as he leaned over and peered
down at me. His oversized blue eyes looked big enough for me to nest in.
"How did you get all that circuitry into such a small package, Richard?"
"I can't take credit, Phil," he said modestly. "It's a standard rig."
"Standard hardware maybe," I replied. "But the software is unique. You
ought to patent this."
Richard shrugged with all eight arms. SCABS deals some pretty rough
hands, and our one-time coworker had drawn some pretty low cards. He was
in essence a human octopod, an eight-limbed thing with human skin on the
outside. One of the best electronics men Universal Motors had ever
hired, he was now retired due to SCABS. Just like the rest of us.
"Too bad there wasn't time to make translators for the rest of the
group," Phil observed. "Or to add a function that might allow for
"Disasters keep their own schedules, unfortunately." I paused a moment,
then asked one last time. "Phil are you SURE you don't want to come
along? We could get you on a later flight..."
"No," he replied unequivocally, looking down. "I'd just be in the way,
and you'd have to detail someone to keep an eye on me all the time."
"But you've done SO much work on this!" Francie gushed from my right.
She was a prairie-dog morph, and always in the middle of things. Her
need to continually socialize made her annoying to some, but once you
got to know her you realized her heart was made of the purest gold. That
made the constant chattering easier to take. It was she who had placed
the vodor around my neck, not being able to stand watching someone else
do it. "You came up with the idea, politicked it through I don't know
how many meetings, got funding from the International and I don't know
how many private groups-"
"No," Phil said again. "Sure, I admit that I've had something to do
with putting our little group together. But I'm afraid that travel to
uncivilized places simply isn't on my agenda these days. Please, no."
The reply was silence. Everyone present was a SCAB morphed so badly
that he or she had been forced to retire from UM. We all related to
Phil's problems in a way that few others could. And we were willing to
abide by the social convention that certain things are simply Not Talked
About around SCABS victims. At least not unless they invite the
Which Phil clearly was not doing. I knew him to be very uptight about
the instinct thing, so I diplomatically changed the subject. "Is
everyone ready to head for the airport, then"
"I am!" Francie declared eagerly.
"Me too!" agreed Rod. He was carrying most of the baggage, being a
full-morph donkey these days.
"I'm ready!" cried Hank from the back of the room where the water
fountain was located. As a dromedary camel-morph he intended to take the
old saying "don't drink the water" seriously. The man had been tanking
up steadily for hours- it was amazing to watch.
"Count me in!" declared Scott, our youngest member. He was only
twenty-five and had just hired in to UM when the Flu reshaped him into a
"That's four!" I replied. Then I paused a bit, but Joshua didn't take
the hint. So I spread my wings and flew up near the ceiling. Sometimes
it's handy to be a sparrow. "Joshua!" I called out in my booming vodor
"voice", the one I hoped to be able to use to make public announcements
"Oi!" he replied from the back door. "I am coming!"
Inwardly I sighed. Joshua was outwardly a Norm, the only one of us so
blessed. Yet since becoming a SCAB he had been chronically depressed; so
badly depressed, in fact, that he was on extended sick leave. Years ago,
Joshua had been one of Phil's constituents and my lapine friend knew him
well. "Joshua," Phil had told me, "will ALWAYS do the right thing in the
end. No matter how unpopular it makes him, no matter how much it hurts
him he will do what he believes to be right. And what more can you ask
of any man?"
Phil was a nice enough guy, but sometimes he could be a bit simplistic.
There were LOTS of things I could ask of Joshua that were not
forthcoming. Such as timeliness, cheerfulness, all the little things
that would help me weld my little group into a genuine team. Several
times I had tried to find a way to have Joshua removed from the Local
1956 (Retirees) Disaster Response Team, but there simply wasn't any.
Phil, a SCAB retiree himself of course, had set the parameters in such a
way as to be inclusive instead of exclusive. If you were a SCAB retiree
or on long term SCAB-related disability and you wanted to get involved,
you were in. And that was that.
Thus, Joshua was still in. Even though I had my doubts.
Phil and Richard accompanied us as far as the airport, though neither
was inclined to leave the Universal Motors-supplied van. It was another
one of those SCABS-things that all of us understand but no one ever
talks about. We let Rod out of his trailer, loaded the bulk of our
baggage on his harness, said our farewells and headed proudly into the
People stared, of course. Then they remembered themselves and turned
politely away. They always do. Personally, I don't blame them. Being a
fairly recently minted SCAB myself, I remember only too well how Flu
victims used to draw my own eyes. The best way not to stare at a SCAB is
to look in another direction, after all. I'd looked away many, many
times myself. But I had not known back then how badly it hurts not to be
able to meet a single human eye while standing in a crowd.
Instinctively we stopped two steps into the terminal, frozen first by
the stares and then by the averted eyes. But airports are crowded
places, and almost immediately pedestrian traffic began to back up
behind us. "Come on, guys!" I urged. "Let's go find our flight and get
"Right!" declared Francie. "We don't want to be late!"
We let Rod lead, as even in the post-SCABs world jostling crowds tend
to give large creatures lots of room. I sat on his pack and preened as
we journeyed down seemingly endless corridors. Twice we had to take
escalators, which to my surprise our donkey-teammate handled quite
easily despite his burden. Then we checked in our luggage with a smiling
orangutan-morph and walked through the security tunnel. This was Scott's
first flight, as it happened, and Francie eagerly explained each step of
the process to him. She just wasn't happy unless she was chattering
about something. But Scott didn't mind. He was wide eyed and keyed up,
his frilled head turning this way and that as he drank in the new
Our flight was delayed an hour and we had arrived reasonably early. So
we ended up with ninety minutes to kill in the terminal. Hank went to
drink more water, naturally, but the rest of us made ourselves as
comfortable as possible in the small waiting area by our gate. Presently
a crowd began to gather as the originally scheduled flight time
approached, a crowd that eventually filled all the seats.
Except for a little island of empty chairs all around us SCABs, of
Presently an older couple, clearly arriving at what would have been the
last minute save for the unexpected delay, shouldered their way politely
through the crowd and sat down right next to us. "Whew!" said the woman
in a friendly tone. "I was afraid there might be no place to sit."
None of us pointed out the row of Norms leaning against the back wall
who had found it less uncomfortable to stand for over an hour than to be
seated near us. "Plenty of room over here!" I replied perkily. "The last
word is that we're going to be getting underway by about noon."
The woman blinked, trying to find the source of my voice. Then she
located me still perched on Rod's back and smiled. "Frankly, I'm just as
glad. The parking garage was simply jam-packed and we ended up shaving
things a lot closer then we would have liked."
"You'd have made it anyway," Francie opined.
And from there we began one of the rarest of all things for a SCAB, a
normal, everyday conversation with norm-type strangers. We spoke of the
weather, of the deficiencies of the airline, of all the usual things.
All of us save Joshua participated, drinking the fellowship in like
desert plants during a rare rainstorm.
Eventually, of course, Mr. Winters asked why we were going to Africa.
"We're on our way into Rwanda," I replied proudly. "We're an all-SCAB
disaster relief team, sponsored primarily by our local Union."
"Why, that's WONDERFUL!" Mrs. Winters gushed. "I'm sure everyone is so
very proud of you!"
"The famine there is just awful," her husband noted. Then he paused
thoughtfully. "Hmm. Looking at you people I would guess that you were
chosen for this mission because you don't eat human-type food?"
It was the nearest either of the Winters had come to acknowledging our
obvious condition. "That's right, and it was very observant of you to
notice. All of us are grazers in one form or another. Except me, but I
eat next to nothing anyway. And Joshua here."
"Of course. Are you a SCAB as well?" Mrs. Winters politely inquired of
our Jewish member.
He shifted nervously in his seat, looking deeply unsettled. "Yes," he
finally replied simply. "I am a SCAB too."
The Winters were too perceptive to push any further. The conversation
faltered and died, as it so often seemed to do once Joshua became
involved. Inwardly I fumed, even though I knew that Joshua was hurting
as badly inside as any of us. His yarmulke marked him as an Orthodox
Jew, and it was my guess that somehow his deep religious convictions
were involved in his depression. But still, it was frustrating to try
and work with the man. His pain and awkwardness seemed to reach out and
smear itself all over everyone around him.
Mercifully, our flight was called just then. Rod was led away first, of
course, to be set up in a special stall in back. We would not be seeing
him again until we were in Africa. First Class was called for next, and
to our surprise (they hadn't SEEMED rich) the Winters said goodbye and
headed for the plane. Then the gate opened for the rest of us, and I
made it a point to perch on Joshua this time in order to try and make
him feel more a part of things. He accepted me on his shoulder readily
enough, but never spoke a work as we shuffled down the little tunnel and
into the jetliner's cabin. It was frustrating at times, the wall he put
A stewardess was waiting for us just inside the cabin. "Ah!" she
greeted us with a smile. "Our special passengers! Welcome aboard! If you
would be so kind as to follow me to your seats..."
We did, of course. Joshua, Francie, and Scott could use normal airliner
seats, but Hank and I were a different story. The transportation
industry has had more trouble than most adapting to the whims of the
Martian Flu, but their efforts to make travel safe and comfortable for
all deserve commendation nonetheless. The back row of the airliner was
extra-wide and set up with interchangeable seats that snapped in and
out. Hank was provided with a "Number Eleven", a rarely used design
engineered for humpbacked creatures like camel-morphs and a few of the
sail-backed reptiles. My own slot was set up with a "Number Six", not
really a seat at all. Rather, it was a very large (to me) and airy
birdcage fitted with several attractive perches and a neat roll-up cover
to help me sleep if I so desired. The cage was structurally reinforced
to protect me in case of accident and came equipped with its own special
fire extinguisher. Large warning signs cautioned me to take turbulence
warnings seriously lest I break my avian neck. It was not quite so
comfortable as staying at home would have been for either Hank or me,
but frankly we had more elbow room than any of the Norms.
The plane heated up as it filled; no airliner seems to have air
conditioning that works well on the ground. We SCABs had no problem with
this, none of being heat-sensitive types. But the Norms did, and tempers
began to flare even before everyone was seated. The seats immediately in
front of ours remained empty right up until the very last minute, and I
was just beginning to wonder if the airline had deliberately left them
open to avoid problems when the altercation finally began.
"You are NOT making me sit near that camel!" a woman's voice declared
emphatically in the distance. "He stinks, and this is going to be a very
"You're in MY seat," a man declared equally vehemently. "See my ticket?
I reserved a place as far away as possible from the SCABS section so
that I could get some work done during the flight. I have nothing
against the poor unfortunates, but they are... distracting."
"Mommy!" a little voice piped up. "Please don't make me sit next to the
scary animals! I'm afraid of them!"
Sighing is just about impossible for a sparrow. We breathe much too
rapidly for that. But I can with only slightly more effort play a sigh
on my vodor. So I did. Scott looked back and just shook his head at us,
while Hank resolutely stared at the floor. The fact was that he DID
stink, and he knew it. But there was nothing at all anyone could do
about it. Nothing at all.
The argument became so heated that takeoff was delayed by several
minutes. Eventually a young serious-looking couple offered to make a
complicated seat swap that left them and the only empty seat on the
airliner directly in front of us. I felt grateful to the pair as they
sat and nodded formally to us before sitting down and buckling up.
Traffic must have been light, because we were able to taxi right out
and take off without any further delay at all. I've always loved flying,
and much to my own surprise growing wings has made me enjoy flying in
airplanes even more than ever. I rarely vocalize avian-style, being a
bit self-conscious. But looking out the window at the great panorama of
sun and cloud and sky I could hardly help myself. It was wonderful
enough to make me forget all that had come before, and merrily I burbled
and chirped away.
Eventually the young couple turned around and greeted us soberly. As my
group's leader, I made it a point to formally thank them for making the
seat swap that had saved us so much embarrassment.
"It's all right," the young man replied earnestly, fire in his eyes.
"Quite all right. You see, we have a duty to perform."
His wife nodded in agreement, and turned to Joshua. "Sir," she asked
the skullcapped man earnestly. "Have you ever heard the life-saving
message of Our Lord Jesus Christ?"
It was a very, very long trip.
Our plane landed in Africa in the middle of the night. Sleepily we
trooped off the plane and showed the Customs people our UN-certified
Relief Worker papers. Somehow I had expected the official-looking
documents to make things easier, but quite the opposite was true. It was
almost dawn before the slow-moving officials got everything squared away
and let us go to our hotel. We barely had time to catch a short nap
before coming right back to meet a connecting flight. If the rooms had
not already been reserved and paid for, we might not have bothered with
them at all.
Our second flight took us into Rwanda itself, where we were made even
less welcome. "Interfering bastards," one official said to another well
within earshot, looking directly at us. "Why can't the UN let us solve
the Hutu problem once and for all?"
"What sort of Final Solution did you have in mind?" I asked, turning up
my vodor a bit. But the irony was lost on the Tutsi customs agents, who
merely glared in reply. We had known there was no love lost between the
two tribes. But this sort of open support for the current regime's
genocidal policies was hard for an American to accept. Many disasters of
the scale that we would be expected to help with were man-made, our
training had forewarned us. And oftentimes we would be unable to
understand the motivations of the people involved that made them do such
horrible things to each other. But still, confronting such coldness that
first time was... memorable.
The Customs people were required to let us in, of course. Eventually.
It took only twelve hours for them to find the correct passport stamps
and such. Even at that, we were lucky, I suppose. The next day, these
same Customs agents "discovered" cocaine on a group of Baptist UN relief
workers from Alberta. All of them were jailed in unspeakable conditions
for over a week before international pressure got them sprung. The
Tutsi-controlled government had been coerced into allowing the UN into
Rwanda. But they had not been coerced into liking it.
Finally, in the terminal lobby we met up with our contact, a Dr. M'Boto
from Kenya. He greeted us warmly, and for the first time our trip began
to seem worthwhile.
"Ah!" he said, white teeth flashing in a smile as we walked up. "Our
friends from the Trade unions! How was your journey?"
He frowned and shook his head as we reported on the rudeness of the
Customs people who had kept both him and us waiting so long. There was
nothing to be done, he explained, except to file a formal protest in New
York. What was important right now was to get us out on the job. We were
needed as soon as possible, it seemed. But we'd missed our truck convoy
due to the delay!
Francie was growing visibly upset, so I flitted over and spoke from her
shoulder. "I'm sure, Dr, M'Boto, that another convoy will be headed out
tomorrow. Or the next day."
He pressed his lips together. 'I'm afraid that simply isn't so. You
see, there are certain local, ah, difficulties in this situation.
Threats have been made, and two convoys looted. Many trucks were stolen
outright. We are weaponless in a nation full of armed and hungry people.
I cannot say for certain when the next convoy will depart."
"Is there any other way in?" asked Scot.
"Yes. From time to time our helicopter becomes operational. You are
scheduled for the next trip, if and when. Until then, the UN has taken
over a small hotel. You will be welcome there."
We spent three days in the hellhole that M'Boto considered a hotel. All
of us were jammed so tightly into one tiny room that I was the only one
able to move about freely. An entire floor of equally crowded rooms
shared one toilet, and the power came on for only a few hours each day
due to all the rebel activity in the area. It was a horrid experience,
yet we knew that it was mild compared to the life we anticipated in the
The helicopter, an old Russian aircraft dating back to the Cold War,
carried us out to Camp Seven on the fourth morning. The turbine wheezed
and made grinding noises; I had serious reservations about letting my
group board the thing at all. But it was the only way there was to reach
our destination, so we chanced it.
Twice on the way someone shot at us, the machine-gun tracers showing up
bright and clear against the beautiful blues and greens of sky and
countryside. . "Which side is shooting at us?" Hank asked one of the
"Who knows?" came the British-accented reply. "There are eight or ten
sides, the last I heard. And most of them are angry with us."
"But why?" demanded Francie. "All we want to do is feed the hungry!"
The cargo handler shook his head. "You just don't get it. Most of the
chaps here could care less if Hutu children starve. In fact, they worked
hard to make it happen. They see us as merely aiding an implacable
traditional enemy, or perhaps as intruders on their sovereignty, or as a
source of revenue even. Many of them steal our food and sell it to the
starving for the highest possible prices. I never would have believed it
had I not come here and seen it with my own two eyes."
We flew on silently after that.
Finally our helicopter flared out and landed in a large clearing as all
of us sighed in relief. The rotors never stopped turning as we made our
exit, and even unloading the cargo of fuel bladders and electronics and
such only took two or three minutes. Then the big Russian bird was
homeward bound again, carrying two volunteers who had become ill with
some tropical disease.
Camp Seven was in a frenzy, a state of affairs we discovered never
changed. Still in the early stages of construction, this Camp was the
latest in a series of UN efforts to locate new refugee sanctuaries where
computer projections predicted they would soon be most needed. There
were piles of lumber and canvas scattered about that would soon become
huge tents, big pallets of plastic piping, medical supplies marked with
prominent Red Crosses, and a vast store of stoves and cooking utensils
that were the whole reason for our presence. An oriental man met us at
the helipad and efficiently checked our names off of his list.
"You're late," was his greeting. "Run into some travel troubles?"
I explained about the Customs people and how we had been forced to wait
at the "hotel". He nodded absently, officially welcomed us, and then
pointed us toward a harried looking man with a clipboard. He was, we
were told, the Camp Director. He would give us our assignments.
The gentleman in question proved remarkably difficult to approach. As
soon as we seemed about to work our way to the front of the perpetual
mob surrounding him, another "emergency" would erupt that seemingly only
he could deal with. It took over an hour of waiting before we became his
top priority item.
"What a bloody mess!" he greeted us. "For decades we've been setting up
refugee centers out in the middle of bloody nowhere, and still we can't
seem to get it right." Then something behind me grabbed his attention.
"No, you imbecile!" he shouted at the top of his lungs. "Not there! We
need the trench dug over THAT way!"
A big Diesel roared as the target of the Director's wrath moved his
equipment, making conversation impossible for a bit. But by the time the
racket subsided the Director had calmed a bit. "Name's Ben MacWhirter,"
he introduced himself, extending a friendly hand. "I've been doing this
kind of work for over twenty years, and this is easily the poorest
effort I've seen yet. But that's not your fault, of course. You people
are here to help. You're the trade Unionists from the States, right?"
I acknowledged that we were as everyone capable of doing so shook Ben's
heavily calloused hand. When introductions had been made, Ben went on.
"Frankly, I've never worked much with SCABs before. Please know up front
that any affronts are based in ignorance, not malice."
We nodded soberly in reply. Ours was one of the very first SCAB relief
teams anywhere. Even we were not sure what sorts of problems we might
"Good, then. If it's not impolite, I would like to make use of your
special abilities when and where I can. For example," he said, looking
directly at me, " I understand that you have a custom vodor? And are
fully capable of flight?"
"Yes," I replied with a nod. "Sparrows cannot fly particularly long
distances or travel extremely fast, but I can get around fairly quickly
within a limited area. And my vodor allows me to speak loudly in
English, Hutu, and Tutsi interchangeably. Unfortunately, though, the
only language I can understand is English."
"Fair enough then, Mate. Spend the rest of the afternoon getting to
know the local area. Tomorrow come and see me bright and early. For now
I think I'll use you as a messenger and as an aide. But later on I'll
need you to help direct refugee columns in. Sound like something you can
My heart did a little flipflop. For the first time since SCABS, I was
being offered a chance to do something truly important. "I'll give it my
best," I replied.
"Excellent! And Scott and Francie, you look pretty normal to me for the
most part, save for a few details. Have you any special skills or
abilities I need to know about.
Francie shrugged. "I can cook."
"And I used to work at a restaurant," Scott piped in.
"Hmm. Not the kind of 'special ability' I was looking for, but cooking
is another skill in short supply here. We have no refugees here yet,
but just preparing food for the staff is a major task in and of itself.
A lady named Delores has been begging me for help for days. Care to give
her an assist?"
"Of course," Francie replied for them both. And they headed off
towards the smell of dinner cooking.
Hank and Rod were standing together waiting patiently. "We are always
in need of more strong backs," Ben said to them. "Does fetching and
carrying suit you? We have hundreds of tons of material on site here
that must be shuffled about by hand."
They looked at each other. "Can we work together?" Ron asked.
"Sometimes people sort of forget that I know better than them about how
much I can carry."
"But of course, gentlemen. Pedro Melendez is in charge of stores. He
usually hangs out in the big tent by the helipad. Tell him I sent you as
a team to help him out, and he's liable to kiss your feet in gratitude.
Not many blokes want to do the heavy labor, UN volunteers or no."
Which left just Joshua, of course. "Sir," the Camp Director asked him,
"What kid of work do you think I ought to assign you to? Do you have any
Joshua pressed his lips together. "I'm an inanimorph," he replied
shortly. "But I can only change forms when extremely frightened or
upset. My physical strength is unusually great, but I fear I am also
very clumsy when I exert myself."
Ben's eyes widened. "An inanimorph?" Despite himself, he let his fear
show. "You mean that you're, you're..."
"Dead," Joshua replied flatly. "Yes, I am one of the walking dead."
The Director regained his composure quickly, even before I could
intervene in the awkward situation. "Ah. Well. I see then. Is there any
kind of work you would prefer?"
"Not really. I am here to perform a mitzvah. One type of service is as
good as another."
"Hmm. Well, we have a bit of a problem with some of the tents. Our last
convoy was halted and five lorries stolen; all the thieves could handle,
I'm sure, or they would have taken more. The vehicles they nabbed were
carrying most of the structural parts for our large tents; that is why
so few have been set up so far. Would you be willing to see what you can
do with the rest? There won't be any metal replacement poles coming for
a long time to come, I fear. You could cut down trees with an axe and
trim some long wooden poles out of them, couldn't you?"
Joshua thought it over. I flitted over to his shoulder. "If you want a
different job, Joshua, just speak up," I whispered directly into his
ear. "You could work with Francie and Scott, I am sure."
"No," he replied aloud. "Some people won't eat what a dead man has
touched. But thank you anyway." Then he spoke to Ben "I think a bit of
rough carpentry work is just the thing for me. I used to enjoy
woodworking, once upon a time. Can you show me what tools you have
available, Mr. Mac Whirter? Or tell me who I must go see about them?"
Ben smiled. "See Arndt von Rickmann. He's in overall charge of camp
construction, and he'll be very, very glad to see you."
"Oi. I'm off, then." And with that he strode calmly off to work.
The next couple days simply flew by; almost literally in my case. All
of us had more work to do than could possibly be done, and Ben wore my
wings to tatters carrying messages and gathering information for him.
From time to time I ran across the rest of our little group busily
engaged in this or that. Always they found time to wave and point me out
to the new friends they were making.
All except Joshua. He'd arranged to work alone at his task, hewing away
robotically at tough jungle woods. Joshua never tired, being an
inanimorph, and he seemed to have no desire for company. He'd merely
requested a list of the sizes of poles needed, equipped himself with an
axe and a measuring stick, and headed for the jungle. It would not have
surprised me had I been told that he never paused to sleep. Hank and Rod
had twice helped haul loads of Joshua's freshly-cut poles into the camp;
each time the people they were working with told them that Joshua "gave
them the creeps". Even though they had no clue he was an inanimorph,
perfect strangers could apparently sense something amiss about him.
No wonder Joshua was lonely and depressed!
But I had little time to worry about him. The first groups of refugees
heading toward Camp Seven had been picked up by the satellites, and we
were far from ready. Too many truckloads of vital equipment had been
lost, too many days of hard labor expended in a vain effort to make the
And worst of all, the food hadn't arrived yet.
Ben made light of this in public, of course. The last thing he needed
was for our still-fledgling Camp Seven volunteer community to come apart
in a sea of panic. But I knew that he was very, very worried. Every
couple hours he was on the phone to New York, Amsterdam, Washington or
London trying to get things moving.
"Have you blithering idiots got ANY idea of the kind of tragedy you are
setting up here?" he finally demanded angrily of his UN boss. "There are
several hundred thousand Hutu headed towards Camps Five, Seven and
Eight, and not a bloody bite for them to eat at a single one of them!"
I could hear calming tones in the voice on the far end of the line. But
they didn't work.
"Patience be damned, and you be damned too sir! If it's going to take
you that long to get things ironed out, you might just as well send lye
for the mass graves instead! Can't you get it through your thick skull
that people are going to DIE here soon, in numbers that you can't
imagine? I've seen it before, you bastard. Why don't you come here and
look into the young mothers' eyes, like I have, when there's been no
milk for the young ones and they are carrying around children two days
dead?" With that he slammed down the phone in disgust, and collapsed
shaking into his office chair. Then he lowered his head to the desktop
and wept for a time.
I let him regain his composure a bit, then flapped over to Ben's desk.
"Isn't there ANYTHING we can do?" I asked quietly.
He shook his big Celtic head. "No, my feathered friend. I fear there's
not a single solitary damned thing left for us except to hope and pray
that the food shows up. It's rotting in the harbors right now, you know.
But the laborers there are Tutsi. They refuse to unload it. And even if
they did, so many trucks have been stolen that the staff won't let
another convoy leave without escorts. Which of course the Rwandan
government will not provide."
He sighed. "And even if we did send out an unarmed convoy, it would
never make it this far. By now the famine has really set in hereabouts.
There are thousands of bandits and guerillas out there, all of whom
would like the grain to go to their own families and supporters. There
are even Hutu groups that would willingly steal our food so as to direct
it towards their own people rather than where we want it to go. Like I
said, I've seen this kind of tragedy unfold before. Your nightmares will
never, ever go away."
"But... What about the helicopter? Or maybe air drops?"
"If we could keep that tired old bird flying, we might move maybe eight
or ten tons of foodstuffs a day. Our requirements, however, will be far,
far in excess of that. A major air force could perhaps drop what we
need, but only at tremendous cost. And only if they had access to the
food in the first place, which they of course do not. It's still aboard
the ships, remember?"
Yes, I remembered. I also recalled the attitudes I had encountered in
Tutsi territory. And my heart sank.
"You begin to see. Now, we are not entirely helpless. We have large
quantities of clean running water available to us here, and most of the
medicines made it through intact. There are even a dozen doctors ready
and waiting. Thanks largely to your friend Joshua, there will be shelter
for at least the first few groups to arrive. And we will fly in what
food we can, of course." He paused then, looking deeply hurt. "If we but
keep our heads about us, we can do at least some good here. We might
save a couple dozen out of each ten thousand or so. And as much as it's
going to pain us, that's exactly where our duty lies."
For the rest of that third day, I watched Ben closely as he wandered
about Camp Seven bellowing orders and seemingly always showing up just
where he was needed. If you didn't know better, you would think all was
well. And as I watched, I decided that he was the bravest man I've ever
Early the next morning I was detached to go out and try to lead in the
refugees. The nearest columns were still miles away, and I had to stop a
few times to rest on the long (for me) flights out to meet them. I
carefully avoided landing anywhere there was dense foliage, having been
warned that small snakes would be my deadliest enemies in Africa, and
kept my eyes peeled at all times. As a result, I never felt myself to be
physically endangered the whole time I was overseas.
But Ben was right; I've had nightmares ever since I found my first
refugee column. The Hutu were walking skeletons, staggering along one of
the muddy ruts that locally passed for a road. I located their stink
long before I laid eyes on them; the odor was a miasma of sick sweat and
rot and Death itself. The analytical part of my mind estimated the group
at about a thousand, mostly women and children as of course the men were
off playing at war. Each step was an act of will for them, each foot of
progress made at a terrible cost in pain and suffering. Even as I
watched, a girl of about twelve collapsed and fell by the wayside; her
mother, as I presumed the woman who walked alongside her to be, did not
even look back, so fixated was she on her journey. I flew the length of
the column several times, assuring the refugees that they were on the
right path and that help was only a few miles away. Some looked up and
waved, while others made a little hand signal that I learned later was
intended to ward off the evil of SCABS. But most merely slogged along,
I located column after column, all essentially alike. To each I gave my
message of hope, though I knew in my heart that we could not feed even
this first installment of the multitudes that were surely coming.
What else could I do?
By nightfall, we had about ten thousand refugees at Camp Seven. They
drank thirstily, then begged for food. But, excepting our own staff's
rations (which of course were gladly given, though that could not go on
forever) there was nothing for them. Nothing at all.
Before the next morning, we had looting problems. The refugees were
sure that there MUST be food somewhere in such a large camp, but they
had not taken into account the incompetence of diplomats. Ben was forced
to form a "police force" out of his already stretched-to-the-limit
staff, arming them with cudgels and telling them to do they best they
could to keep order. After a few of the boldest (or perhaps just
hungriest) thieves had been bashed about a bit, the rest became sullen
and resigned. They packed our tents to overflowing and laid down in the
shade to rest.
And to die. By the hundreds, already. We stacked bodies like cordwood,
filled dump trucks with them, buried them with power equipment in mass
graves. And yet more died than we could bury. It was often hard to tell
the corpses from the living, as they lay side by side, often arm-in-arm
in the tents.
By sunset it was clear this was to be ground zero of a human tragedy of
epic proportions. No truck convoys had left the ports, but Camps Five,
Seven and Eight, none of which had any food in storage at all, were
already playing host to almost a quarter million of the most wretched
souls on Earth.
I asked Ben if it was wise for me to keep trying to guide in refugee
columns, but he pointed out quite correctly that as bad as things were,
here at least there was water to drink and no one would shoot at them.
And the dead would be buried in a sanitary manner, instead of being left
to rot on the pathways as was more and more often the case. Our leader
seemed on the edge of hysteria; at one point he rang up New York and
threatened to call the Press with the news that the UN had officially
endorsed the genocide policy of the Tutsi and that he had been renamed a
death camp commandant. The world is a very hard place, sometimes, that
it makes people like Ben Mac Whirter suffer so. He who had devoted his
life so unselfishly to simply feeding the hungry was condemned to live
out his worst nightmare yet again. Instead of feeding the multitudes, he
seemed destined to eternally be their undertaker.
I hoped his mind wouldn't break. We needed him. In fact, we needed him
worse than ever.
The next day was sheer hell. Ben gave direct orders that the staff was
to be fed a good meal, and that each and every one of us was to eat it.
He was afraid that we would become too weak to maintain order or even to
keep the water flowing and the mass-graves filling. He was right, of
course. But I could read the guilt on every face as the norms soberly
ate their peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches while literally surrounded
by starving children. It made me glad, for once, to be a SCAB. There
were plenty of seeds in the forest for me, and good grazing and browsing
abounded for the rest of my little group. We ate what no one else could.
But this abated our guilt not a whit.
Joshua didn't eat at all, of course. He just kept right on working in
the midst of all the horror, doing his job and doing it well. I made it
a point to visit him that afternoon, as his little clearing seemed an
island of sanity amidst chaos. To my surprise when I found him he was
taking a break. Not that he wasn't entitled, mind you. Just because his
muscles never tired didn't mean his mind never did. When I fluttered
down and alighted on his shoulder, he was sitting unmoving in the brush,
watching something intently. I peered into the undergrowth as well,
wondering what had so captured his attention.
It was a group of Hutu boys, aged about eight to perhaps eleven. They
were rail-thin like all the rest, with huge-looking heads and bellies
swollen with hunger. They were sitting in an improvised latrine,
methodically picking through the feces of earlier visitors. As I
watched, one boy picked out an undigested kernel of corn and popped it
into his mouth.
Joshua turned to face me, and I saw that his eyes were streaming tears.
"We're doing all we can, you know," I whispered into his ear. "All of
us, you included. Ben mentioned your hard work specifically, saying that
without you we would have far fewer tents."
"So that's our level of success, eh?" he replied. "We came all this way
and did our level best so that these poor creatures can die a tiny bit
There was no answer to that, of course. And I had no steadying hand to
place on Joshua's shoulder, no arms with which to hug him. I tried my
best with comforting words, of course, but to no avail. He was still
weeping quietly when I left him.
Refugee columns continued to pour in, packing Camp Seven tighter and
tighter with starving people. Predicting the course and extent of a
major famine is a dicey thing at best; fortunately it does not happen
often enough in reality to validate the computer models. This one was
growing so large so quickly that it became evident we needed every crumb
of food back in the ships and still more. But of course none came.
That night, someone among the refugees began wailing in misery and
despair. It spread like wildfire, and pretty soon tens of thousands of
throats had joined in. There were no words to the wail; it communicated
on a far more primal level. "My belly is empty!" it cried out over and
over. "My sister is dying! My baby is dead! All that I love are dead!"
There was not a dry eye in the camp. If human tragedy and suffering
ever had a voice, we heard it that night.
The situation was incredibly frustrating. There, gathered right in front
of us were the hungry masses we had worked so hard to feed. Right there
they were, suffering horribly. Yet there was nothing we could do for
them, absolutely nothing! All of us, from whatever land we hailed, had
worked in some cases for years to prepare for this very event. Yet the
food simply would not come! We felt more like executioners than saviors.
The wailing went on all night long. It was enough to drive us mad. And
one man it perhaps did.
Most of us gathered in the kitchen during those darkest of hours, as it
was the only empty tent large enough to let us all be together. We had
held all of our camp meetings there, and when the wailing began it was
natural that we would seek each other out where we had met so often
before. Some of us held hands, others sang hymns. But most of us just
sat on the cold cookstoves and wept, utterly defeated.
Daylight comes with great suddenness in the tropics, they say. And
every volunteer worker in the Camp Seven must have been awake to greet
that particular sunrise. That particular dawn, at least, seemed very,
very sudden to us. For it was at the very moment of sunrise that the
wailing of the refugees stopped dead, cut off as if by a knife. No one
knew what the sudden silence meant, at first. Perhaps a riot was
breaking out? God knew that the refugees had reason enough to turn
violent, even to turn against us. But where would they find the energy
in the lassitude of starvation? We waited and listened nervously, a few
going so far as to finger their cudgels nervously.
But no riot began.
"I smell something," Hank said presently. "But it's just not possible!"
"What?" I asked eagerly. "What do you smell?"
"Fresh bread," he replied, wonder filling his voice. "I smell freshly
Still fearful, we left the kitchen as a group and headed out towards
the refugee tents. They were empty, all of them, save for the dead and
those too weak to move. Presently all of us could make out the smell of
bread, and we followed our noses in much the same way the refugees must
have. The delicious odor trail led us to the little jungle clearing
Joshua had worked so faithfully and so long in, all alone.
But there was no evidence of Joshua and his labors. Instead, a huge
pile of warm brown loaves and delicately baked fishes overflowed the
whole area, reaching tens of feet into the air. Refugees clambered all
over the food like ants on a picnic lunch, stuffing themselves with
There was no miserable wailing any more, no more hopelessness, no more
helplessly standing by. Within seconds Ben recovered his composure and
we became a working refugee camp once again. Load after load of bread
and fish were carried into the tents and the crowded fields beyond, so
that those too weak to move could be fed. More truckloads were
dispatched to the nearby Camps Five and Eight, whose situations were at
least as grave as ours had been. And, wonder of wonders, the food
actually made it there. There were persistent rumors of a miracle, you
see. No mere bandit or guerilla interferes with a genuine miracle.
For three critical days we hauled ton after ton of precious food away
from Joshua's clearing, yet the piles never seemed to diminish. Nor did
the bread or fish ever spoil. Finally, over a week too late and heavily
escorted by armed UN troops, the first regular food convoy arrived. The
miracle in the clearing slowed to a trickle, then died. But it had held
out long enough. The bulk of the refugees were saved.
And no one ever saw Joshua again.
Copyright 1999 by Phil Geusz. If you want to post this anywhere else, please ask for permission first. Thank you.
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