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Applaud doctors, but be aware of U.S. connections


It was easy to be agreeable when the publicist called pitching the story about Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres) receiving the $1 million Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, billed as the world’s largest humanitarian award.

If there is hope for the globe and the human species, this group helps tip the scale in that direction. It works in some of the most desperate and dangerous corners of the world.

But when the news release mentioned the name of the presenter, I felt I was in one of those moments when something inside the computer snaps and the screen scrolls gibberish and nothing seems to make sense.

That’s how it felt when I read that former President George Bush presented the award, noting, “The need for worldwide humanitarian aid has never been greater. With starvation, disease and violence threatening to overwhelm many of the world’s developing countries, it is critical that humanitarian organizations are given the support necessary to bring emergency relief to these endangered populations.”

Allow me to back up a bit. The first time I heard about Doctors Without Borders was in 1981 when a friend told me about running into them (a story subsequently appeared in NCR) while he was doing some reporting about refugee camps just inside Honduras along the border with El Salvador.

Refugees, often crawling ahead of fire from U.S.-made helicopters, found their way to the camps by the thousands.

This was a Reagan/Bush war, recall, one in which the torture and massacre of civilian populations was not unusual, in which religious leaders, particularly, were targets of the U.S.-trained-and-supplied military.

Doctors Without Borders in the early 1980s was working in the refugee camps. Twice while my friend was visiting the camps, they and international relief workers had confrontations with Salvadoran soldiers who had come across the border and had begun taking refugees back to El Salvador, thumbs tied behind their backs. The refugees included pregnant women and old men.

The doctors intervened and, in an extremely dangerous exchange, somehow managed to negotiate the refugees’ freedom.

The organization is still active in areas of Nicaragua, where they first responded in the 1970s following a massive earthquake and stayed on through the civil war there, another conflict stoked by the Reagan/Bush White House.

Doctors Without Borders remains on the ground in areas of Guatemala, another site where Reagan/Bush drummed up an East-West clash while aiding and abetting such bloody thugs as Gens. Lucas Garcia and Efraín Rios Montt. Rios Montt waved his Bible with the best of them while overseeing the slaughter of Mayan populations.

Now the doctors serve the refugee populations returning from Mexico to villages that no longer exist. And they treat the tens of thousands who have taken up residence in shanty towns and garbage dumps surrounding Guatemala City.

The doctors are a balm for a country deeply wounded, where the mass secret graves are only now being opened, where the disappeared and the internal refugees themselves would make a small country.

Doctors Without Borders was founded in 1971 by a group of idealistic French doctors whose purpose was to respond quickly to human need.

Its volunteers now work in more than 80 countries battling illness and infirmity caused by war, civil strife, epidemics and natural disasters. They are present in Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere.

It is difficult to delve into the irony of the Sept. 29 award ceremony at New York’s Waldorf Astoria without sounding like a spoilsport. The point certainly is not to throw cold water on the accomplishments of the Doctors Without Borders.

But Bush in no small way helped author some of the circumstances that provided the Doctors Without Borders opportunities to serve. A dubious distinction at best.

That connection keeps getting lost. Bush can talk about the horrible circumstances in the world’s “developing countries” as if somehow we are completely unconnected.

Central America has been a cultural blind spot. For instance, former Sen. Robert Dole was profoundly moved by his experiences during a recent trip to Kosovo. Doing the talk show route, he speaks with urgency and empathy about villagers forced to flee the bully Yugoslav troops.

Dole’s compassionate concern is refreshing. But how much more credible he would be if at some point he and others had acknowledged that the horrors faced by populations in Eastern Europe in recent years are similar in all the gory details to those faced in countries a short plane ride to our south. The chilling difference is that in the latter cases we were complicit in the calamity, at least indirectly, through the gung-ho policies of Bush and Reagan.

Doctors Without Borders deserves our applause and support. Now we have to make sure that we as a nation don’t play any further role in providing the group with more work.

Tom Roberts is NCR managing editor.

National Catholic Reporter, October 9, 1998