What's worth saving - a true test of values

Some flee on foot, bundled against the late-winter cold with babies in their arms or a few small possessions on their shoulders. Others make their desperate exit by tractor or in carts piled high with boxes and blankets.

Whatever their means of escape, the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo fleeing Yugoslav attacks these days are leaving behind homes and possessions some may never see again. At least 25,000 Kosovo refugees have been displaced just since last Saturday, some for the second or third time, according to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees.

Like other refugees in recent years - in Rwanda, Somalia, Afghanistan - these dispossessed villagers give poignant new meaning to the term "mobile home."

The current tragic scenes in Kosovo, captured in page 1 photos and TV footage, remain almost unimaginable to anyone living in countries untouched by war and blessed with prosperity. Surrounded by the comforts of a consumer society, an American newspaper reader or TV viewer can only wonder: What would I grab if I had to flee?

Family photos and letters, perhaps? Heirloom jewelry? A treasured book? A great-grandfather's hand-carved chest? Whatever the answer, it's hard to fathom a situation where the possessive pronoun "mine" gets reduced to describing only the clothes on one's back or the contents of a single suitcase.

So possessed by possessions are many Westerners, in fact, that the fruits of plenty can become a burden. In what is being called the "voluntary simplicity" movement, authors and consultants are exhorting readers and seminar audiences to reevaluate their priorities and take a less-is-more approach to belongings: Clean up. Pare down. Toss out.

But letting go can be hard to do in a culture where the unofficial credo appears to be: I shop, therefore I am.

What a contrast to the "involuntary simplicity" being forced on refugees who have no choice but to let go. And what a contrast to the involuntary simplicity still practiced by those in developing countries, for whom life comes down to supplying daily needs, not wants.

Six years ago magazine photojournalist Peter Menzel undertook a fascinating project. He dispatched 16 photographers to 30 countries to photograph a "statistically average family" surrounded by its possessions outside its dwelling. The result was "Material World," a book documenting "the great differences in material goods and circumstances that make rich and poor societies."

Some of the families own little more than pots and jugs. Others stand surrounded by electronic gadgetry.

Mr. Menzel also asked participants to name their most valued possession. Answers ranged from the bicycle owned by a father in Mali to the refrigerator full of food prized by a father in Argentina. An Icelandic man proudly listed his private airplane, while a husband and wife in Haiti said they own nothing of value.

Families in China and Mexico rated their television high. Others listed animals: the oxen prized by an Ethiopian couple, the pigs singled out by a father in Western Samoa.

Religious books and icons also ranked high, including the statue of Buddha a Mongolian man inherited from his grandfather and the religious painting and Bible beloved by a mother in Guatemala. Even the American husband and wife listed the Bible as their most important possession.

Above all, there is family.

A German husband and wife prize a basket filled with family memorabilia. A Vietnamese mother values her children's health most. An Israeli mother and father talk about their children, as do a Japanese father and an Iraqi mother. A mother in Kuwait prizes a photograph of her son in the US. The list goes on.

For the current flood of refugees in Kosovo, life has temporarily been reduced to survival. Such extremity focuses the mind like nothing else, for them and for us. We who have too much can afford to conclude that less is more - but not for those on the wintry escape routes and elsewhere who already have next to nothing.

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