A question that I always get asked about my journalistic work and traveling is what are the biggest takeaways from what I do. It’s a valid question, because the experiences that I’ve gone through and the things I’ve witnessed, I guess, may not be what most people have seen.
For a large part of my career, I have been covering a lot of conflict and tragedy. I’ve been to war zones in Afghanistan, Lebanon and Southern Thailand. In these places, I’ve seen the sufferings and challenges of innocent people.
Many have lost the opportunity to have decent lives. They aren’t able to work proper jobs and provide their families with basic needs. Their children aren’t able to get a proper education. Many have also lost loved ones, and some their own lives.
For example, I met a family in northern Aghanistan in 2011 living in poverty. The parents cannot get decent jobs other than odd jobs in the town due to the fighting. And because they are so poor, their two daughters can’t go to school.
They live in such squalid conditions – literally cave-dwellers – that it also affects their health. There is no proper sanitation, no running water and sewerage. They sleep in the same place they cook, eat, and even go to the bathroom.
I have also been to regions of political turmoil such as Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey. In these places, I have seen the struggles of people just wanting to have the basic rights that any human being should have. For many of these people, these rights could be as basic as being able to speak their minds.
For example, in Cairo, I spoke to people who have had family members taken away or killed just because they had different viewpoints. They live in constant fear and uncertainty that they can’t even plan for the future.
I have covered tragedies such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and even aircraft disappearances and crashes. These are incidents that shock and traumatise people due to their unforeseen nature. You are never prepared.
In 2006, I covered the massive earthquake in Jogjakarta, Indonesia, where almost 4,000 people died and thousands more were injured. I saw children and the elderly who were in pain, enough to make one question why something like this has to happen.
I saw how devastated families were when they lost their homes and all their belongings to the earthquake. I saw parents who lost their young children, and I also saw young men and women who should be in their prime lose limbs and some even their lives.
When I said that people I meet always ask me what my takeaway from all this is, I usually sense they already have an expected answer in mind. Most expect me to say that I am thankful for the good life I have.
But I think it would be very selfish and inhumane if my biggest takeaway from my experiences as a journalist is to be thankful for what I have. Don’t get me wrong, I am thankful. But I have come to realise so much more.
That’s why I also get very irritated and angry when I hear politicians give speeches on monumental dates, like this current Merdeka and Hari Raya Haji period, telling people that we need to be thankful that we have peace in Malaysia, as if saying we shouldn’t ‘rock the boat’.
To be honest, the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that no matter where we are in the world, whether in a safe and stable environment or not, we must never be apathetic. We must be able to feel and empathise with our fellow world citizens.
We need to have an awareness of the sufferings and challenges that other human beings are going through, not be content to just sit back and reflect on our own lives, thinking “Look at those poor people, we’re so lucky we’re not like that.”
We just need to do something. It doesn’t have to be anything big. It’s enough to do something within our capabilities no matter how small that something is, instead of being thankful and not doing anything. Happy Merdeka and Selamat Hari Raya Haji everyone.
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