If you haven't heard this account of North Korean defectors on the BBC World Service, have a listen: stories of starvation, cannibalism and public executions.
(The link expires after a week, so apologies if you click after that.)
There's only one book I've read that has helped me understand what's happening inside North Korea, and I highly recommend it. Personal and gripping, Nothing to Envy follows the lives of six North Korean citizens over fifteen years—a chaotic period that saw the death of Kim Il-sung, the rise to power of his son Kim Jong-il, and a devastating famine that killed one-fifth of the population. Demick brings to life what it means to be living under the most repressive totalitarian regime today—an Orwellian world that is by choice not connected to the Internet, where displays of affection are punished, informants are rewarded, and an offhand remark can send a person to the gulag for life. Demick takes us deep inside the country, beyond the reach of government censors, and through meticulous and sensitive reporting we see her subjects fall in love, raise families, nurture ambitions, and struggle for survival. One by one, we witness their profound, life-altering disillusionment with the government and their realization that, rather than providing them with lives of abundance, their country has betrayed them.
Sudan too is in today's headlines, with President Bashir due to visit South Sudan for the first time. How I'd love to be a fly on that wall! This month, my book club chose a book written by three of Sudan's Lost Boys, some as young as three fleeing helicopter gunships, chronic starvation, disease and miles of scorching desert to reach safety. They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky describes children surviving ordeals most of us would succumb to in weeks, if not days. The boys' quiet stoicism and the small acts of kindness that helped each one survive just another day is humbling in the extreme. Even as a BBC journalist familiar with the facts of the Sudan conflict, I had no idea of the deprivation these children suffered for so long. Proof, it it were needed, that headlines, social media and the 24-hour news feeding frenzy often can't convey the story in depth. If, like me, you're wondering if there were any 'Lost Girls'... click here.
Meanwhile, the Lost Boys stories had a lot of us wondering what we can do to help ... what is the appropriate response? My own feeling is that there are three simple responses:
1) Be informed. You don't have to search for the news or struggle for it. There's a giant building full of people in central London already being paid to do just that and deliver it to you, FREE.
All you have to do is listen to the World's Radio Station, the unparalleled BBC World Service (yes, my employer... but even when they don't employ me, I LOVE them for the invaluable public service they provide). If you tune in even once a week, I guarantee you'll take away more understanding about the world than you'd get anywhere else. It's free, it's on 24-hours a day ... there's no excuse.
2) Live what you believe. If being informed, being kind and being engaged is what you believe in, you may not stop wars or prosecute the guilty, but you will influence your own microcosm and sometimes, that's more than enough.
3)Vote, and if you give to charity, take a moment to do your research. For many of you, your tax dollars pour into places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and many countries in Africa and the Middle East. If you're informed, you'll soon figure out that the reconstruction efforts in both Iraq and Afghanistan have achieved little. Much of the money has settled comfortably into the pockets of 'risk-averse' foreigners, contractors, aid workers, and the like, and achieved far less for Afghans and Iraqis than anticipated.
Newsweek: “It’s such a mess. No one is here for the Afghans. Seventy percent of all U.S. aid to this country goes back to where it came from in salaries. We’re awash with contractors and crooks making a killing here. It’s all flowing back to U.S. bank accounts.”
So vote your conscience and of course, there are effective charitable organizations in every conflict zone that are worth giving to directly. It just takes a moment to find out who's been there a long time and is doing good work; and it makes a huge difference!