A Visit of Compassion to Somalia
UNICEF's Audrey Hepburn raises public awareness and funds worldwide
SCENE ONE: Central Somalia. Audrey Hepburn, far from the glamour of Tiffany or the Ascot races, wearing a T-shirt and denim slacks, steps away from the probing lenses of a photographer and video crew.Skip to next paragraph
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For three days she has flown all over Central Somalia in a small twin-engine plane, landing in towns jammed with unpredictable, heavily armed rebels and marked by bullet-riddled buildings from a civil war still not over.
Now, in Baidoa, Somalia, an overnight flight from the comfort of her Swiss home, she sees a crowd of starving children and mothers around a tree in the middle of an outdoor feeding center, waiting for their next meal.
She knows the problems of Somalia. But seeing its worst, she is nearly overcome. Needing a moment alone, she steps away.
Miss Hepburn grew up in a family that took serving the poor as "the proper thing to do," she says, and she endured hunger and fear as a youth in wartime Europe. Now, as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF - paid a token $1 a year - she has visited Ethiopia, Sudan, Bangladesh, and other disaster areas over the past five years. Her work to raise funds and public awareness for the needy has become nearly a full-time job more than two decades after she left her career as one of the world's best-known film stars .
Now she's in Somalia: a society near collapse, where inter- and intra-clan fighting has been so vicious and senseless that not only have thousands been shot dead, but many homes and offices have been looted and destroyed. Food is still being stolen from stocks meant for the dying. Guns are cheap; lives are cheaper.
An Irish nurse working with the charity concern notices Hepburn standing alone. She walks over and touches her arm.
"Would you like to come along with me to the house?" Hepburn recalls the nurse asking. "You know," the nurse added, "it's much worse to watch than to work, here."
SCENE TWO: Nairobi, Kenya. Two days later. Hepburn is at the quiet, comfortable Norfolk Hotel, being interviewed by the media. Her sincerity and concern for the Somalis are vividly apparent.
How does she keep from being overwhelmed by the scenes she saw in Somalia? "I don't," she replies. "I have a jolly good cry every so often."
Ian MacLeod, a UNICEF official now working in Somalia who has accompanied Hepburn on some of her fund-raising trips for UNICEF, calls her "our most powerful advocate for children."
"There's no acting or anything involved in it," says Mr. MacLeod. "She's speaking from her heart and wants to help the world's children.
"She can't sell any books, or make a movie out of it. There's nothing in it for her, except to know she's serving."
In a Monitor interview, Hepburn describes what she saw in Somalia and her reasons for helping UNICEF. Some excerpts:
Why are you doing this?
It sounds so simple to say "because I love children." I can't bear suffering in any form, especially children. And apparently, I'm one of those few lucky people who can help a little bit.
What did you see in Baidoa?
The first thing I saw was a big truck being loaded up with bodies of those who had died that night. And, of course, too many were very small.