An Imperfect Offering

7th November 2008 by Judith Harvey

In 1999 James Orbinski went to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of Médecins Sans Frontières. Born in Britain and brought up in Canada, it was at medical school that he found a focus for his nascent humanitarianism. And immunology captured his interest. Immunology led him to HIV, and HIV – this was the 1980s – led him to research in Africa. And Africa led him to Médecins Sans Frontières. To Somalia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, and eventually to Oslo. An Imperfect Offering is his account of those years.

Reading his book is like jolting along a terrible road in a nightmare. I struggled to keep everything straight in my head. So many places, so many people, so many acronyms. So much need. Who is doing what, and why? Who is on who’s side? Can’t he slow down and explain? No, he can’t, because that’s how it was. And one begins to experience the nightmare of jolting along those terrible roads, living with the fear of what might be round the next corner. Living with the smell of faeces and vomit and recently butchered human beings. The smell of fear. The smell of horror: the woman systematically mutilated just enough so that she will bleed slowly to death, wild dogs tearing at human corpses, the little sausages scattered in the mud that turn out to be children’s fingers.

Most books about inhumanity are leavened by examples of the human spirit transcending the horror. Very little in ‘An Imperfect Offering’ enables one to close the book feeling good about being human. There seems to be no limit to man’s ability to plan and execute cruelty – and to justify it.

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