It was January 23, 1993, in Angola. I was aboard a U.N. cargo plane that was dropping food to the besieged city of Luena. After rebels had bombarded the town, civilians relied on these occasional lights to survive. Often children would run to the airport when they heard the planes above, and then lick grain that spilled on the tarmac as aid workers unloaded the sacks.
As we corkscrewed on descent, I realized that the rebels were shelling the airport. When the pilots threw open the Antonov’s doors, we saw inert bodies lying on the tarmac, patches of red and brown amid the gray potholes. I counted 50 wounded, 23 of them bleeding on stretchers. Most were women.
I didn’t think twice about helping them. These were not armed combatants but hungry people who strayed in front of missiles. As the pilots bellowed to hurry, I helped the aid workers escort the mutilated aboard. An infant was left alone on the asphalt. I joined the mother in screaming, “Someone get the baby!”
There were no ambulances waiting when we landed in the capital, Luanda. My rented car was one of the few vehicles at the airport. I instructed my driver, João, to ferry a couple loads of wounded to the hospital. It occurred to me that I would miss my deadline. But so what? These people were losing blood and might die if they didn’t get medical attention soon.
When the last victim left the tarmac, João drove me back to the hotel. I washed the blood off my arms, and wrote my story. I felt easy about my action. I do not agree that the journalist’s job is simply to bear witness. Notebooks do not erase our humanity, and we should save lives if the action does not further a political agenda.
After Luena, I intervened again. I helped a Chechen family gain political asylum in the United States. I gave chocolate to hungry Siberian toddlers. I found a doctor for an Angolan girl whose head was swollen with pus. And I’d readily do it again, and again.