Letter from Desmond Tutu

I once received a handwritten letter from Bishop Desmond Tutu.. This is the situation. Land mines should never, ever be used as a weapon of war. We both agree.

Beginning in 1989 I work as a volunteer in a refugee camp.

Asylum seekers held in the barbed wire enclosure of Site 2, on the border of Cambodia, exist on a minimum diet … just enough to sustain life. The distribution system is riddled with corruption. Those who have the least power receive the least rice; they are hungry most of the time. The poorest women and men stand looking through the barbed wire of the camp to the wasteland outside. Even on this barren stretch of land, there could be something to eat. Cambodian adults in Sire 2 have survived Pol Pot times.  They know how to scavenge; be it plant or be it insect anything could ease the pangs of hunger.  The wasteland is a minefield, but those most desperate take the risk of crawling under the fence and through the ditch.

I see bloodied, mangled men and women, with little life left in them, carried back through the fence for surgery in the bamboo ARC Hospital, close to the barbed wire.

The hospital ensures that the Cambodian medics, trained during their detention here, administer the best possible pain relief and surgery they can offer in this emergency ward. The ARC medics erect signs along the fence. They attach photographs as graphic reminders of the consequences of crawling through a minefield.  Dr Anne Goldfeld from Harvard works here. This friend and colleague, lobbies the international community, demonstrating the need for a world-wide anti-landmine campaign.

Beginning in 1991 I live and work in a village in Battambang, Cambodia.

I meet survivors of landmines everywhere; I also attend funerals. I write back to Australia.  ‘In the UN office in Battambang there is a map with areas shaded in blue, areas shaded in green, and areas shaded in red.  They represent residential areas, rice fields and mine fields. Chillingly the red areas, the mine fields, overlap the others and frequently need to be expanded … One person in 236 in Cambodia is an amputee … In Battambang, still at war, the proportion is much higher … Crutches, rough-hewn prostheses or wheelchairs are seen everywhere. Frequently a bicycle will pass by with a one-legged rider. I often see double amputees with so little of the stumps of legs left that it is impossible to fit a prosthesis … I know a young man who sits on a skateboard propelled only by his arms. He inspires me with his courage and humour … He has mastered the technicalities of motor bike repair and is working to build up a small business.

Ali Ramsay and Kevin Malone, good friends in Battambang, launch another International anti-landmine campaign. My task is to write of the obscenity of landmines as a weapon of war to prominent international leaders, those who stand for justice and peace. We have a post box in Phnom Penh. One reply comes back. It is a handwritten reply from Bishop Desmond Tutu.

He acknowledges the tragedy, wishes he could come to join us, will support in any way. Then, in his inimitable way he switches to hope.

I type his message of hope and encouragement into my computer where it will remain.

‘I pray that we may help

to make the world

more hospitable to life,

to laughter, to joy,

to peace, to prosperity, to caring,

to sharing,

to children,

to people,

to trees

and grass and stars,

to beauty and goodness

and compassion,

to justice and equity’.

Desmond Tutu