Black Box


A ‘black box’ is actually orange.  Photo credit:

I recently had dinner with a friend who was passing through town for a few days. We worked in DR Congo together six years ago and have only seen each other once or twice since, so it was a nice surprise to hear from her. We went out for a long catch-up dinner, with wine and appetizers and a checkered tablecloth. At some point–don’t ask me how–the subject of panic rooms came up. She looked at me and said, “Yeah, and I told her the only time I’ve used one was with you, in North Kivu, when there was so much shooting and we had to lock ourselves in the panic room with the radios and sleep there all night.”

And I… had.totally.forgotten.about.that.

Of course, after a few minutes of drawing a blank and trying to look like I wasn’t drawing a blank, the memories came rushing back at me: Having to quickly move the hibernationsupplies (food and water) to the panic room, because of course they weren’t there already. Grabbing the radio’s charger and extra batteries. Trying to determine whether the guards were still at the front gate or had fled. Making regular checks with our base, who could only tell us to stay put. Sharing a small cot… did we sleep at all? How long were we in there? Further details are fuzzy.

The point is, you would think that ANY of this would be enough to stick in one’s mind. I remember a lot about that mission, the wonderful people I worked with and many of the things we accomplished. But my mental storage cabinet seemed to be missing some files when it came to remembering this event.

So many of us have been through serious security incidents, near-misses, times where luck was the deciding factor in whether we are sitting here today reading this blog or not. More and more, there are efforts to document the dangers that aid workers face, to analyze trends over time, and (perhaps more slowly) take action based on this information to minimize future risks. The details that surfaced around the attacks on Juba’s Terrain compound this summer brought these efforts into sharper focus, and catalysed direct action by aid workers at the UN General Assembly last month and through online petitions.

But within all of this… how much is without? Not only the incidents that no one wants to talk about, for reasons of fear or stigma or choice. How many more incidents are lurking just beyond the visible surface, beyond what we can even recall? How many are tucked away in our aid worker “black box”?

Like a humanitarian flight recorder, where episodes such as the one my friend described from our time in Kiwanja are stored for later dissection or analysis by someone else… because for one reason or another, our brains have decided that there is no reason for us to easily access such memories. Let alone find the words to talk directly about them.

Have you had this experience? What’s inside your black box?

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