Ship of Fools?

“Some might say (he is) foolish” ~ Eleanor Lamb, mother of Irish National Fiachra O’Luan, one of the humanitarian activists aboard the humanitarian aid flotilla.

In the international furore around the violent Israeli sea and air interception of a humanitarian aid flotilla headed for the blockaded Gaza strip this week, no small measure of criticism has been meted out to the humanitarian activists themselves. The chorus has gone up from some on the theme of ‘why were they even there in the first place?’ and ‘They knew the Israelis wouldn’t let them through – so aren’t they asking for it?’ Scriptonite asks….is it foolish to be a good Samaritan?

The Good Samaritan parable tells the story of a Jewish traveller who is beaten, robbed and left half dead by the side of the road. First a priest and then a Levite walk by and do not stop to help the man. However, a Samaritan (who are enemies of the Jewish people) stops and helps, bandages his wounds, rides him to a hostel on his own donkey and pays the costs for him to stay.

One wonders how popular the story would be if, in the process of crossing the road, the Samaritan was accosted by the same people who had attacked the Jewish man, and beaten to death. Then Priests and Levites kept walking on by as the Jewish man finally expired and then carted their rotten corpses off a couple of days later.
Not such a hot advert for the Good Samaritan huh?
But in reality, when people step up to go to the aid of others, it doesn’t often happen in a parable like vacuum with a neat narrative which leaves no shades of grey…and often the costs are high.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo today, human rights activist Floribert Chebeya was found dead in the backseat of his car following a summons to the office of Head of the National Police Force, John Numbi. Floribert, head of human rights group Voice of the Voiceless, had been campaigning for the human rights of the Congolese people since the early 90’s. Although it has not yet been established that Floribert was murdered, he and his colleagues had been receiving death threats since at least as far back as 1999 as captured in the US State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour Report 1999 – Country Reports on Human Rights Practices:

“On February 5, DEMIAP agents detained Floribert Chebeya Bahizire, president of the human rights NGO, Voix des Sans-Voix (VSV), and two other VSV colleagues, and reportedly threatened to kill them before releasing them later the same day. Security forces then ordered Chebeya, one of the Congo’s most prominent human rights advocates, to present himself daily to police authorities in the Gombe district of Kinshasa (see Section 4).”
The same report also highlights further harassment by the police within the same year.

“In June security forces visited VSV offices to invite VSV activist Floribert Chebeya to witness the release of a detained government minister. When informed that Chebeya was not in the office, soldiers arrested two VSV activists, took them to Kokolo military camp, and interrogated them about what Chebeya knew about the arrested government minister. The minister was not released that day; he apparently only had been used as bait to lure Chebeya”.

Floribert was a respected and high profile head of an established NGO involved in research, documentation of human rights violations, human rights education, legal aid to victims of rights violations, particularly disadvantaged children and female survivors of sexual violence and other forms of discrimination, and advocacy for legal reform to better protect the rights of women and children.

This, in the midst of one of the world’s most violent oppressors. With a population of 68 million, the central African nation is the fourth largest in Africa and 18th in the world. Since the second Congo war in 1998, largely referred to as ‘Africa’s World War’ for the level of foreign army involvement, the East of the Country has become the centre of rape in the world, 5.4 million people (that’s more than 10 times the number of UK military personnel and civilians killed in world war 2!) have died and the lowest per capita GDP in the world according to the IMF.

But Floribert and many like him continue to stand up, be counted and make the difference they want to see in the world. One might argue that Floribert was foolish or foolhardy to stand up for the rights of others in the face of such hostility and personal risk. And to those people I simply ask….then how do things ever change for the better if not one person were to ever take the first step forward and, whatever the consequences, set their sails against the prevailing wind?

On this note, there was one more ship in the humanitarian aid flotilla, which didn’t leave with the rest due to technical problem; The Rachel Corrie, named after a 23 year old American peace activist crushed to death under the wheels of an IDF driven bulldozer after she stood before (it in a fluorescent orange hi visibility jacket in broad daylight) to prevent the destruction of Palestinian homes.

The ship has now left Cyprus and is on its way to Gaza. It will be carrying only 11 people, one of whom is Nobel Peace laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire and will be approaching the area by Saturday. Israel says it will not allow the Rachel Corrie to break the blockade. The world watches….

One might consider it foolish to sail into the same scenario as faced the rest of the humanitarian aid flotilla. One might consider it foolish to do anything except steer the course in life that follows the path of least resistance.

However, in the words of William Osler, 19th Century Physician, Humanitarian and Teacher (responsible for establishing the system of medical residency as a teaching method for Doctors):

“The philosophies of one age have become the absurdities of the next, and the foolishness of yesterday has become the wisdom of tomorrow.”

This post is dedicated to Floribert Chebeya, every member of the humanitarian aid flotilla and all those who ever dared cross the road to help.

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