The trip by jeep from the small village near Luena to Malanje in Angola, in southwest Africa, followed by a train ride to Luanda, the capital, had taken seven hours. The drive from Luena was long and arduous due to unexploded land mines in the area, which required extreme diligence and caution to avoid as they drove. After forty years of conflict and civil war, the country was still ravaged and in desperate need of all the help outside sources could provide, which was why Ginny Carter had been there, sent by SOS Human Rights. SOS/HR was a private foundation based in New York that sent human rights workers around the globe. Her assignments were usually two or three months long in any given location, occasionally longer. She was sent in as part of a support team, to address whatever human rights issues were being violated or in question, typically to assist women and children, or even to address the most pressing physical needs in a trouble spot somewhere, like lack of food, water, medicine, or shelter. She frequently got involved in legal issues, visiting women in prisons, interfacing with attorneys, and trying to get the women fair trials. SOS took good care of their workers and was a responsible organization, but the work was dangerous at times. She had taken an in-depth training course before they sent her into the field initially, and had been taught about everything from digging ditches and purifying water, to extensive first aid, but nothing had prepared her for what she had seen since. She had learned a great deal about man’s cruelty to man and the plight of people in underdeveloped countries and emerging nations since she’d started working for SOS/HR.
As she cleared customs at JFK airport in New York, Ginny had been traveling for twenty-seven hours, after the flight from Luanda to London, the four-hour layover at Heathrow, and then the flight to New York. She was wearing jeans, hiking boots, and a heavy army surplus parka, her blond hair shoved haphazardly into a rubber band when she woke up on the plane just before they landed. She had been in Africa for four months, since August, longer than usual, and was arriving in New York on December 22. She had hoped to be back out on assignment by now, but her replacement had not gotten to them on time. Ginny had tried to orchestrate her absence from New York at this time, but now she had to face Christmas alone in New York.
She could have gone to Los Angeles to spend the holiday with her father and sister, but that sounded even worse. She had left L.A. nearly three years before, and had no desire to return to the city where she had grown up. Since leaving L.A., she had lived the life of a nomad, as she put it, working for SOS Human Rights. She loved the work, and the fact that it was all-consuming, and most of the time kept her from thinking about her own life, a life in which, in her wildest dreams, she had never imagined she would be living and working in the countries that were familiar to her now. She had helped midwives to deliver babies, or done it herself when there was no one else at hand. She had held dying children in her arms, and comforted their mothers, and cared for orphans in displacement camps. She had been in war-torn areas, lived through two local uprisings and a revolution, and had seen anguish, poverty, and devastation that she would otherwise never have encountered in her lifetime. It put everything else in life into perspective. SOS/HR was grateful for her willingness to travel to some of the worst areas it serviced, no matter how desolate or dangerous, or how rugged conditions were. The more rugged the conditions, and the harder the work, the better she liked it.
She cared nothing about the potential dangers to herself. She had actually disappeared for three weeks in Afghanistan, and the home office had thought she had been killed. Her family in Los Angeles feared it might be the case, but she had come back to camp weak and sick, having been taken in and cared for by a local family who had nursed her through a high fever. She seemed to welcome and embrace the worst SOS/HR had to offer. And they could always count on her to show up and stick it out. She had been in Afghanistan, several parts of Africa, and Pakistan. Her reports were accurate, insightful, and helpful, and twice she had made presentations to the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations, and once to the Human Rights High Commissioner in Geneva. She was impressive in describing, in all its poignancy and pathos, the plight of those she served.
She was worn and tired when she landed in New York. She had been sad to leave the women and children she had been caring for in a refugee camp in Luena, Angola. The human rights workers had been trying to relocate them, despite a web of red tape that prevented them from accomplishing their mission. She would have liked to stay for another six months or a year. Their three-month assignments always seemed too short. They just became familiar with the conditions in the country when they were replaced, but their job was to report accurately on local conditions as much as to change them. They did what they could while they were there, but it was like emptying the ocean with a thimble. There were so many people in desperate need, and so many women and children in dire circumstances around the world.
And yet Ginny was able to find joy in what she did, and couldn’t wait to leave again on another assignment. She wanted to spend as little time as possible in New York, and she was dreading the holidays. She would have preferred to spend them working to the point of exhaustion in a place where Christmas didn’t exist, as it didn’t now to her. It was rotten luck that she had landed in New York three days before Christmas, the worst days of the year for her. All she wanted to do was sleep when she got back to her apartment, and wake up when it was over. The holidays meant nothing to her except pain.
She had nothing to declare in customs except a few small wooden carvings the children in the refugee camp had made for her. Her treasures now were the memories she carried with her everywhere, of the people she met along the way. She had no interest in material possessions, and everything she traveled with was in a small battered suitcase and the backpack she wore. She never had time to look in a mirror when she was working, and didn’t care. A hot shower was her greatest luxury and pleasure, when she was able to take one; the rest of the time she took cold showers, using the soap she brought with her. Her jeans and sweatshirts and T-shirts were clean but never pressed. It was enough that she had clothes to wear, which was more than many of the people she cared for had, and she often gave her clothes away to those who needed them more. Except for a Senate hearing where she spoke eloquently, she hadn’t worn a dress, high heels, or makeup in three years. And when she made her presentations to the United Nations or the Human Rights Commission, she did so in a pair of old black slacks, a sweater, and flat shoes. The only thing important to her was what she had to say, the message they needed to hear, and the atrocities she had seen on a daily basis in the course of her work. She had a front-row seat to the cruelties and crimes committed against women and children around the world. And she owed it to them to speak on their behalf when asked to do so when she came home. Her words were always powerful and well chosen and brought tears to the eyes of those who heard her.