In the year 2000, Sasha Chanoff was a humanitarian aid officer in Africa when he was confronted with a moral dilemma: whether to rescue a hundred plus massacre survivors he knew he would be able to evacuate or to try to include a group of widows and orphans who had appeared suddenly at the place of rescue, but whose inclusion would very likely lead to everyone’s death. From Crisis to Calling author and RefugePoint founder, Sasha Chanoff, dedicated his book to his senior operations partner during that Congo rescue mission, Kenyan Sheikha Ali.
Sheikha Ali’s instincts and insights as someone who forged her own path in life, and as a mother of two adopted children, have had the most profound impact on me. Sheikha is one of those rare people whose presence in your life acts as a kind of measure for your own actions. “What would Sheikha do?” is a question I often ask myself when I confront a hard decision that will impact others. But I didn’t think like this at the beginning of my story. And even though those terrifying moments on the tarmac of Congo’s airport, with so many lives on the line, didn’t turn out the way we wanted, I’m excited to share my own story with you because it is also Sheikha’s story. And through her compassion and empathy, and what she taught me, I hope you might find something like the kind of inspiration that Sheikha helped me to find.
From Crisis to Calling is about how we all encounter critical decisions in our lives, defining moments that force hard choices on us and have the power to reveal our rock bottom values, what we may think of as our moral core. We bring into the book stories of individuals from various walks of life who have faced their own defining moments. They tell what their responses were and what those responses meant in the lives they led afterward.
My partner in the Congo rescue operation, Sheikha Ali, was a veteran field officer, far more experienced than I. Sheikha was our boss’s right hand person. David Derthick was one of our organization’s leaders, and of all his operations officers, there was no one he knew better than Sheikha or appreciated more.
The Congo at that time was aflame with violence. In response to events that followed the Rwandan genocide, the country’s strong-man government had launched a campaign to eradicate the country’s Tutsi minority. But David Derthick was sending Sheikha and me in with a list of 112 names of people the regime had formally agreed to allow us to evacuate. We were not, though, to deviate from that list. Trying to take others, David warned us, would almost certainly abort our mission. We would end up losing those we would have been able to evacuate. No matter how desperate other survivors might be, we simply could not take them. Those were our orders and we were to follow them to the letter. If we did not, we would be responsible for the deaths of 112 men, women, and children.
David gave his instructions to both Sheikha and me, but he made me the responsible party. I was the one who had to make sure that we conformed strictly to the list he was giving us. Sheikha might have been his best officer, but she had, in David’s opinion, one potentially fatal weakness.
I knew David was right to be concerned about her. The problem with Sheikha was her huge heart. She was a cool thinker, very level headed. But she was by nature unable to deny herself to people in need. If there was a person who needed money Sheikha would reach into her pocket. If they needed some other kind of help, she’d give it without stinting. Sheikha was a humanitarian through and through.
Like David, Sheikha had an iron will, but her iron will was always in service to what David called her bleeding heart. Sheikha was Swahili. Her mom was Kenyan, her father from Yemen. She had the light brown skin of the Swahili people and her warmth and friendliness could easily come across as softness. But people who knew her found out differently. When Sheikha was 16, her family had married her off according to custom, but very soon into the marriage she had decided she wasn’t going to have anything to do with this person who was supposed to be her husband. She rejected him and carved out her own way, something almost unheard of among Muslim women at that place and time, and especially for someone who was little more than a girl.
By the time I met her Sheikha was in her early thirties, living with her mom and her two children, Ismail and Maida. How those children came to her was another story. Ismail, who was 9, had been abandoned as an infant and was taken in by an older Muslim woman who then died. Sheikha and her mother had been asked by the religious community to help with the body, and when they went to the woman’s room they found a naked 3-month-old baby tangled up in the bedsheets on the floor. When they couldn’t locate any of the dead woman’s relatives, they simply kept and adopted the child themselves. That was Ismail.
Several years later, two policemen came to Sheikha’s door with a tiny bundle of rags. Inside the bundle was a premature newborn hunched up in the fetal position. The baby, a girl, was as big as a Coke bottle and weighed two pounds. The police told Sheikha they had found the infant in an empty room in a building housing refugees. No one knew who the mother was. They had first taken the baby to the national hospital, but they debated whether they should bring her in. Finally they decided not to. She was obviously too premature to live without a lot of attention, and probably not then either. With no one to claim her, there was little chance she would survive. Then they thought of Sheikha. Sheikha had taken that other abandoned baby, maybe she would take this one too.
Maida was now a precocious 5-year-old ball of energy. Her brother, Ismail, was an equally bright 9. Knowing their stories was all anyone had to know about Sheikha herself. This was not a woman who was about to deny someone in need, someone whose name might not appear on a list.
Of course David had now put his worries on my shoulders. I was the junior person here, but David trusted me, which gave me confidence that I was up to it, whatever Sheikha’s attitude might be. My business here was to protect the list and make sure we succeeded in taking out the people we had come to take out.
Sunday, February 6, 2000. A protected compound outside of Kinshasa.
It was late that afternoon when Sheikha and I finished the interviewing. We were physically and emotionally exhausted, but we had registered all 112, everyone we had been sent here to take out.
As we were packing up, Francois, the ICRC official, motioned us aside. “I know what you announced, that you’re only evacuating the ones who were left behind last time.”
He glanced at our Congolese minders. “But what is this, that IOM [International Organization for Migration] will not consider these other people? These women and children we just brought in. Widows, orphans. They came straight from prison, a death camp. Have you seen them?”
He gestured toward a big tent pitched near the back end of the compound’s crumbling cement dormitory. “Please, they’re in there. Go. See them.”
“Listen,” Sheikha told Francois, “you know we can’t take anyone else. That’s all they’re allowing. We don’t have any way around it.”
“I understand,” he said. “All I want you to do is go and see them.”
I didn’t want to go. I knew what I was going to see if I did. Women and children who had been through hell. We had just interviewed a hundred plus people who had been through hell. Seeing these people in the tent would only make things worse. There was nothing we could do for them.
“How is it you didn’t find them before?” Sheikha asked.
“They were in Kananga. In a military prison. It was an execution center. All their men were killed. You must see them.” He looked straight at Sheikha. “Go, go see them.”
“No,” she said. “I can’t.”
“Just see them. Go and look at them. They’re Tutsis. Women and children. If you leave them here, what will happen? You know what will happen.”
I could fee Sheikha’s agitation. She was beginning to tremble. “Sasha,” she said, “you stay here. I’m going to go.”
Sheikha: “I felt like I was being pulled. On one hand I wanted to see them, on the other I was scared to go. We had the list, that was it. Should I, should I not? I was so curious, but what would happen if I did see them? Why start up something that will be killing me inside? Our boss, David Derthick, was on one side — what he had said about keeping the list. But even when he said it, I knew it would break my heart. And there was Sasha — now he was in David’s place. I was torn.
But something pulled me. I just had to. “Okay,” I said. “Let me just go and see.”
Outside the tent I saw a little girl, painfully thin. And another slightly older, but also emaciated, her little belly protruding. They were holding something, dolls. I said to the first one, “Let me see your doll.” But when I bent down to look, it wasn’t a doll. It was a human baby. They were both human babies. They looked like newborns. You could see their veins, human faces. I was horrified. I looked down at them. They were wrapped in filthy swaddling. Their heads wobbled, their skin was gray, withered, like old men. I thought: Who could give these babies to other babies? These babies were in terrible shape. “Don’t let their heads wobble,” I said. “Hold the backs of their necks.” These little kids themselves were in awful shape. One was a toddler, the other a little older. It was just shocking.
I went inside the tent. I saw these tall, tall children, but severely malnourished. You could see this terrible sadness in their faces. I said “Habari” [hello] in Swahili. Nothing else. I couldn’t speak. These people were like walking shadows. Shadows of human beings. People who had suffered and had given in to their suffering, had resigned themselves to it. Dark circles around their eyes. Haunted looks, or just blank stares. All these women, all these kids. They were in a bad bad shape. I looked at one lady, she didn’t even see me. Another one, totally withdrawn. These people were in shock. And there were so many kids, too many. A teenage boy with a baby strapped to his back and other kids around him. Hardly even human, something had gone out of them.
Where were they? Where had they been? What had happened to them? I went out of the tent. Francois was standing there. “Did you see them?”
“What did you think?”
I didn’t say anything, I just walked back up the hill. I thought, This is going to kill me. We have the list, and now we have this.
When Sheikha said to me, “You need to see this,” my answer was, “There’s no way. You know we just cannot do it.” I was saying that, but as I was talking I had already started with her toward the tent, Francois, the Red Cross person, trailing behind us. I didn’t want to see these new people in the worst way, but I couldn’t help it. It just seemed that I had to.
Sheikha: All the way back from the protection center to Kinshasa my head was going around. I was watching Sasha, thinking about how to fight with him.
That night at the hotel, I was fighting with Sasha about taking them. I was looking at him and fighting with him. When it got to be too overwhelming I would rush to the bathroom and cry and cry.
I would talk to the mirror. I’d practice how I would go back to speak to him, without being too emotional. I didn’t want to show that I was hysterical or overwhelmed. I wanted to convince him. I would cry and cry, then compose myself. How was I going to face Sasha without being emotional. But I was dying inside. I was burning inside. I went back again and again and talked to the mirror. I asked God, “Please give me strength. So that when I talk I won’t sound like a useless, emotional person, not making good judgments. So he won’t think I’m just an emotional, distraught woman. That what I’m saying makes sense”.
Eating, we couldn’t eat. Sleeping, we couldn’t sleep. I understood that Sasha had to respect his orders from David, our boss. And even though he felt what I was feeling, he had strict instructions. So, what was going to persuade him? What was the best way to handle this?
I said to him, “It will be senseless that we are taking some people who have been forced on us by the ministry, who don’t deserve to be there, and we are not going to take these women and children? How can we do that? Take those who have been planted on us, and not these? What justice is that? If this is not for them, then who is this for? What are we here for? Are we humanitarians or are we not?”
We didn’t sleep. We talked, and talked. Sheikha’s bottom line was compassion. You do everything you can for those in need. You put yourself on the line for them. You do not give up no matter what, even if it means you yourself might go down with the ship. That’s where she was coming from with the women and children in the tent. We might end up with a disaster on our hands. She wasn’t disregarding the lives we might lose, and what that would mean for us personally. I could just imagine the regret the guilt, the awful psychological consequences. But that didn’t mean we could give up on women and children who so desperately needed us.
“Are we humanitarians or are we not?” That got to me. It crushed every defense I had left. Am I a humanitarian or am I not? Was I a human being committed to the welfare of my fellow human beings? Where was I on that question? What were my own instincts telling me, the bottom line of my own nature. Not what David Derthick was telling me. Not what some rational moral calculus was saying about weighing this quantity of lives against that quantity. That’s what dawned on me as the hours went on. And that’s where I finally came out.
“Okay,” I told Sheikha finally. “Let’s try to figure out a way to take them.”
From Crisis to Calling: Finding Your Moral Center in the Toughest Decisions, by Sasha Chanoff and David Chanoff, is available now. All book sale proceeds support RefugePoint, the organization Sasha subsequently founded to protect refugees in life-threatening situations.