Finding peace in emergencies

A reflection from the field on International Day of Peace, 21 September.

By Brianna Piazza, Emergencies Communications Officer, World Vision Australia 

Six months ago I was sitting inside a dusty, cramped refugee shelter in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. 

It was hot, humid and crowded. The stench of sewerage made me sick for days.

But the most confronting part of life in the refugee camp was hearing the horrific stories of violence and the emotional scars that women in particular still carry with them. 

I was speaking with a heart-broken Rohingya mother, who was baring her soul. A chill ran down the back of my neck as she explained she wanted the world to know what happened to her son. 

“When the firing started he tried to get home, but on the way he was shot,” Minara said.

Her son, Hossen Johar, was only 13 years old. He had been working on the family farm in Myanmar last August when the firing started. In an instant a precious young life was stolen, and a mother’s life was changed forever.

Minara's Story

Violence raged, forcing Minara and her three surviving children to flee across the border, as did more than 700,000 other refugees. It wasn’t a choice. They trekked for days with no food.

“I brought nothing from Myanmar except the dress I was wearing. We walked through many forests ... It was so tough getting through the violence in the heavy rainfall with my family to get to the border,” Minara told me.

“I thought we could live in peace here and save our lives from the bullets.”  

Minara no longer hears gunshots, but the agony of losing a child still haunts her. 

Minara’s other young son, only 10 years old, gently placed his hand on his crying mum’s shoulder. This image of a boy comforting his mother, all while holding back the pain and sadness in his own eyes, is now etched into my memory. 

Almost everywhere you turn in the world’s most crowded refugee camp, people are trying to rebuild their lives. It’s only in the dark shadows of shelters made of bamboo and tarp that people privately grieve for loved ones lost. It’s where mothers mourn their children who have vanished from their lives.

Each day mothers like Minara do everything they can to remain strong for their families. They haven’t given up hope.

 

Brianna Piazza (front right) with World Vision Australia CEO Claire Rogers in a refugee camp at Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh.

On International Day of Peace, the world pauses for a moment to reflect on stories like Minara’s. Humanitarians like me remind ourselves of why we choose to work in a field that exposes us to seemingly endless tragedy and the very worst of humanity.

In the past six months I’ve travelled to the frontlines of World Vision’s emergencies in Bangladesh and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I’ve met streams of parents who couldn’t feed their families and children who are fighting diseases and the repercussions of violence.

The common thread through each story of suffering is that they’re all preventable. Human-made conflict – or the potential for it – exists in every region, transcending all borders, religions and ethnic groups. Nobody is immune from its devastating consequences, not even children.

 

On the road in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where 7 million children have been affected by conflict.

The work I’m doing now is almost jarring compared to my former life as a journalist in sunny Queensland last year. I never would have believed anyone if they’d they told me I’d soon be documenting refugee stories, having conversations with tribal chiefs in villages I’d never heard of before, or shaking hands with former child soldiers. I never thought I would be trusted by so many people who have been through so much, to just tell their stories.

As someone who has grown up in Australia, removed from violence and having never experienced true fear, I’ve always believed everybody has the right to live a peaceful existence without the threat of ongoing violence or persecution. I believe everyone has the right to be safe and free.

I often tell friends who are going through difficult times to look inwards to find their peace to tackle life’s challenges. Sometimes you accept what you can’t change, or if you’re determined you try to change what you can no longer accept or ignore. 

But in the context of mass suffering, how does someone look inwards to find peace or accept whatever horrible decisions they did or didn’t make in order to survive? What if in the face of danger you had to leave everything you’ve ever known, or worse, someone you loved, behind? 

Is it even possible to find peace after suffering without forgiveness, and can you truly forgive when there’s no sign of justice on the horizon? 

I don’t know the answers to these questions yet. But I do know that I can’t help but feel astonished by the most visceral experience of humanity, love and hope I see in the field. I see it in the eyes of the children.

Watching kids learn, play, laugh and regain a sense of normalcy in World Vision’s Child Friendly Spaces made me realise how resilient children are in the face of adversity, while their parents don’t stop trying to create a better future for them.

So on this International Day of Peace, I hold onto hope that soon there will be an end to the conflict faced by these people, and most of all, that the survivors’ stories are never forgotten.

Especially the stories of mothers like Minara.

 

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