A Visit of Compassion to Somalia

UNICEF's Audrey Hepburn raises public awareness and funds worldwide

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

In the feeding center, it's a living nightmare: these thin, thin, thin children, of all ages - small, and a little bit bigger - who to me seemed to have gone already. And their eyes were like enormous pools of [she pauses] - of questioning. They look at you with such - I don't quite know how to say this - saying: "Why?"

Some of them really don't have light in their eyes. They're beyond that. Most of them refuse food, because they are also beyond wanting to eat, or being able to eat.

Does your career as an actress help you in what you're doing now for UNICEF?

My career sort of helped me get the job. As I have a bit of visibility; I can use that to go on television, or do an interview, or raise funds, or go to hundreds of galas. There is some interest in me because of my career, and I'm thrilled.

That's sort of a bonus now which I can use for children.

Is there a certain amount of show business in the routine - getting the pictures, having a press conference? Are you comfortable with that?

Not at all. And I never was, actually, as an actress either. I'm basically not cut out for any of this. I'm rather shy.... Not at home, and not with my friends. But it's very hard for me, always has been - certainly now - to get up in front of 1,200 people and make a speech about UNICEF, or address a university about the subject. I tell you, it scares me stiff.

On the other hand, years of training - ballet, theater, movies - has given me an awful lot of discipline to fall back on.

Has your contact with these disaster zones changed you?

I've always been compassionate. But you sometimes write off a civil war or something and say - "Oh, isn't it awful, all that trouble," without making an effort to understand why. It's made me overly sensitive. I've always been fairly sensitive, but I think at this point I have had an overdose of suffering. That's why I do need to go home and do other things.

And what can the average person do after you've told them of this disaster?

I don't have to tell them what to do because the world is full, I've discovered, of kind people. And I've also discovered once they know, they give, they help. It's not knowing that holds them up. Each country has huge problems of its own, which quite rightly they must take care of - the homeless in America, the poor in every country. But I think there's always enough to give to the countries that are the most needy.

Did you hear about our going on the carrier in Mogadishu? Can I tell you that story? Hepburn was invited to fly on a United States military helicopter to visit marines aboard the USS Tarawa, one of four ships stationed offshore with more than 2,000 US marines backing up a UN airlift of Pakistani soldiers to guard food shipments.]

We were received by the commander, and everyone was lined up on deck. Then we found ourselves up in what, at an airport, I'd call the control tower, and I hear the commander speaking to me. He said: "You know, Miss Hepburn, when we knew you were coming we had a collection for UNICEF." And he handed me a check for $4,000.... I was so overcome.

I've been asked about so-called "compassion fatigue." What I would like to say to that is, that it's nonexistent.

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