Under the sun’s harsh glare, a father shepherds his family of six through the fenced compound that makes up the Directorate of Citizenship and Immigration Control offices in the border town Nimule. The father instructs his children to stand quietly while a guard wearing a menacing rifle over his shoulder sifts through another family’s belongings, checking for concealed weapons or other forbidden objects.
Next, the father leads his family to a water pump; the kids splash tepid water against their skin, attempting to wash away the grime they’ve carried from the bush and dusty roads in South Sudan. The water also provides some relief against the sweltering heat that permeates the compound, but the mother drags her younger sons away form the water spout so that the thirty individuals behind them have a chance to clean themselves.
From there, the family waits outside a small doorway with approximately sixty other refugees, all anxious to get through their basic medical check-up. It takes half an hour before the family is finally funneled into the meager examination room and seated shoulder to shoulder against the wall. The examination room is nothing short of chaotic. Medical personnel quickly assess their patients’ health at a glance, only pulling aside those who require immediate medical attention. Some refugees beg for further assistance in Arabic or broken English, but only one translator is present to relay their demands to the other overwhelmed staff members. Babies cry as doctors force medicinal drops down their throats. Children fidget with the tags on their wrists while parents stare forward into the dingy room, their eyes hollow, their minds loud.
After their stop in the medical room, the family shuffles through the Immigration Registration office. The father exchanges their names for identification papers and gives his thumbprint for a bar of soap, a box of sanitation pads, and protein bars – four per person. These, along with the clothes on their backs, make up the family’s only belongings as they struggle in the uncertainty of facing tomorrow.
We’ve documented a lot of misery over this trip: students unable to afford their school fees or scholastic materials; girls worried about being sold into early child marriages; refugees suffering from hunger pangs in the wake of food shortages. Throughout the process of filming these hardships, we reminded ourselves that the footage was necessary to tell our story. However, witnessing this particular family’s ordeals from behind my camera lens felt wrong. I felt like a vulture circling the weak. Who am I to film a family at their most vulnerable point?
This question has rolled around in my mind ever since we left Nimule. Receiving an on-site perspective of the refugee experience has challenged my understanding of journalism in general. I was never intellectually ignorant of the ethical implications concerning reporting live trauma, but I was emotionally ignorant of the toll such practices take on the journalist’s spirit. I also keep thinking about that family, wondering where they are now and hoping that they are doing better than they were yesterday.
As I reflect on the sorry scene at the border town, I’m reminded of an essay by David Foster Wallace that I read in a freshman theology class. In the essay, Wallace tells the story of two young fish who are unaware that they are swimming in water. He proceeds to explain that the “immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.” Essentially, he argues, it’s easier to wander unconsciously through life, existing within the “default-setting,” unaware of what you’re missing; but, the ultimate freedom of human experience – uncovering the “Capital-T Truth” – is to consciously engage with your reality and choose how you will respond. Only in this way will you realize that “this is water.”
Documenting suffering is morally challenging, but I believe that the longterm effects of sharing these kinds of stories warrant the discomfort. By reporting, we are able to advocate for the marginalized, to remind the powerful that these people exist and that they need our careful attention. Witnessing is hard, but the reality is if we don’t tell these stories, they won’t be told. This is journalism; this is water.
When we finished following the family around the compound, we asked the father how he felt going through the immigration process. We wanted to know if he was feeling hopeless, if he experienced any doubt after uprooting his family from South Sudan and arriving in Uganda with absolutely nothing. The father replied that while their situation was still desperate, at least they were out of immediate peril. His answer startled me in its honesty. A chance to live is better than a resolve to die.
We ended our interview with the family by asking the father what he hoped for for the future. The father told us that he hoped to put his kids back in school, to see his children complete their education and build a better future for themselves.
This is the refugees’ hope. This is the refugees’ experience. This is water.