“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr. (Warning: graphic content)

The photograph that went round the world. The Guardian tracked down the child with the bottle, two-year-old Reza Khan, and spoke with his mother about her family’s struggles.
Photograph: Mohammad Sajjad/AP
“The next question had to be, why go on? If memory continually brought us back to this, why build a home? Why bring children into a world in which God and man betrayed their trust in one another?” ~ Elie Wiesel, from his Nobel Speech

Despite your initial reaction, do not turn away. Force yourself to take all of the time necessary to see the face of human tragedy unfolding in real life.

I realize that what I am asking is hard, painful, that it would be so much easier to click off and move on to something else: an innocuous joke in your inbox, a comedy during primetime television. But you are better than that. At least, I hope that you are.

I know that when this image appeared on my screen, my first reaction was to scroll down, to move beyond the image to the words, but then I realized that ignoring the image would not make the reality of what is depicted any less palpable, that it would not put milk in that child’s empty bottle, that the flies that cover their bodies would continue to torture their skin relentlessly, no matter how much I wished it all away.

So I forced myself to look. I forced myself to see what was before me. Yes, you already know that I am a bleeding heart, that my empathic nature only compounds the wounds to my psyche. But I refuse to pretend that this isn’t real, just as I refused to look away when images of bloated bodies filled the blood-stained waters of Rwanda. Just as I have carried with me from office to office, bulletin board to bulletin board a faded, yellow newspaper image of a man carrying his skeletal son atop his shoulder during the Ethiopian famine.

I do this because I am human, and because sometimes I forget to place things in their proper context, and I carp too much about the difficulties of my life, forgetting just how little so many individuals in this world actually have to call their own, how the things that I and those like me take for granted that we can turn on a faucet and have clean drinking water, that we can close a door and use indoor facilities that carry away our bodily waste so that we do not have to dwell on the smells. I complain when there is no more Pepsi in the house, and I bemoan that fact that a carton of Breyer’s ice cream isn’t sitting in my freezer.

I am human, but when confronted with the face of unimaginable suffering, I feel that I am the alien, the being from another world, a world that takes what it wants and leaves little for those most in need. I hate feeling this way, but I hate more that we still inhabit a world that tolerates and ignores large-scale suffering—not just in countries far away, but in our own country.

So please don’t turn away. I am appealing to that side of you that it is easier to tuck away beneath the veneer of civilization and creature comforts. Look at the picture. Read the story in its entirety below. And then, if you can, do something.

Behind the photograph: the human face of Pakistan’s deadly flood
Rania Abouzeid in Azakhel
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 5 September 2010

It was an image that conveyed the human cost of the Pakistani floods – and the failure to deliver aid to those affected –more powerfully than any statistic: four young children lying on a filthy patchwork quilt, one of them sucking on an empty yellow bottle, all of them covered by flies.

The photograph by Associated Press’s Mohammad Sajjad went around the world and featured in the Guardian’s Eyewitness slot last week. The Guardian identified the child with the bottle as two-year-old Reza Khan and tracked him down to a makeshift camp at a roadside in Azakhel, some 19 miles from Peshawar, the capital of the insurgency-plagued province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, bordering Afghanistan.

The camp is a hotchpotch of about two dozen tents donated by various aid organisations, but it is run by none. Its residents must fend for themselves, and rely on the charity of passersby. There are 19 families here, all of them Afghan refugees: people who were displaced once by conflict in their homeland have now been displaced again by the month-long deluge.

Reza’s family is from Butkhak, near the Afghan capital, Kabul. His father fled the area as a young boy, some 30 years ago, to escape the cycle of foreign occupation and internecine battles plaguing his homeland.

When we found him, Reza was in a tent with his mother, Fatima, who, like most Afghans, has only one name, and six of his seven siblings, all huddled on a blue blanket extended over the muddy floor. He was still clutching the same bottle. It was still empty.

Fatima tried to calm the boy, who cries in a constant, low whimper, as well as his twin brother, Mahmoud. She covered three of her other children–she has eight, all under the age of nine–with a dirty mosquito net somebody in a passing car gave her, but it has several gaping holes. Her eldest child, a nine-year-old girl called Sayma, is mute and seems dissociated from her surroundings. Her green eyes stare blankly ahead, seemingly oblivious to her brothers’ wails. Flies carpet the few blankets arranged on the floor, and swarm all over the children. There is precious little in the tent–one cooking pot, a few cushions and two or three items of children’s clothing. The stench of human and animal waste is overwhelming in the hot, humid air. There is no sanitation, just shallow, open ditches of raw sewage that attract flies and mosquitoes.

“They have had nothing to eat today. I have no food,” Fatima says as she tries to swat the flies away from her children with a bamboo fan. “He’s crying with hunger,” she says, pointing to Reza. “It’s been a month since he had any milk.”

Pakistan floods: Reza and Mahmoud Khan sit with their mother Fatima

Two-year-old twins Reza and Mahmoud Khan sit with their mother Fatima and six other siblings in a roadside tent. Photograph: Jason Tanner for the Guardian

On this day, Reza’s father, Aslam, was in a nearby hospital with his seven-year-old daughter, who has a skin infection caused by the unsanitary living conditions. Reza and several of his siblings also bear red spots, and appear malnourished. Their thin hair is coming out in clumps, their mother says. “We have been here for a month, a month!” Fatima says. “We are tired of these flies and of being without food. Before the waters came, my husband worked. We were poor before, but we had full stomachs.”

The family of 10 used to live among the 23,000 residents of the Azakhel Afghan refugee camp, about 20 minutes’ walk from their current roadside location. Aslam sold chickens for a living, travelling from door to door on a rickety bicycle, one of the family’s prized possessions. He made about $2 a day.

Their mud-brick home was small, Fatima says, but it was enough for her. They lived among her husband’s clan, about six families in all. “I had a kitchen, and there was a water tap close by,” she says as her youngest child, one-year-old Ayad, tugs on her lilac dupatta, the scarf Pakistani women drape over their heads, arms and chest, pulling it away from her hair. She quickly readjusts the worn, holed fabric. “These clothes are all that we have now,” she says, almost apologetically.

The loose mud bricks of their home were no match for the raging waters of the nearby swollen Kabul River. The floodwaters gushed into the house in the morning. She and her husband snatched several of the children in their arms, while extended family members helped bundle the others out of the house.

The clan of some 60 people walked toward the main road linking the town of Nowshera to Peshawar. They spent five days out in an open field, eating whatever scraps they could forage.

Aslam’s older brother, Taykadar, set out on foot to find help, stopping at several of the dozen or so organized relief camps nearby. “They would ask us for our Pakistani identification cards in order to register us, but we are Afghans,” he says. “And we are too many, that’s the problem. We don’t want to be split from each other. We’ve already lost our homes, we don’t want to lose our families.”

The men managed to obtain several tents from various organisations. Fatima’s, for example, was donated by the Saudi government while others bear the logos of UNHCR. The Afghans say they have nothing to return to. Taykadar says they haven’t received any help from a government he knows is overwhelmed by the destitution of its own people. The busy road that they have camped alongside is now their lifeline. Men, women and children rush out towards any car that appears to slow down alongside them. Hundreds of hands stretch out, hoping for food, water or clothing.

“We have to run after the food, it isn’t given by some organisation in the tents,” Fatima says bitterly. Her children eat once a day, usually in the evenings, thanks to charity organisations that provide iftar meals during Ramadan. But Ramadan ends this week. “I just want to say to the world, isn’t there any way they can get us food?” she pleads. “Look,” she says, pointing to the twins in her lap. “Please, our children are dying of hunger.”

Click here to find a list of organizations helping with the relief effort as well as a list of donations that can be made via text.

More later. Peace be with you and yours.