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Asking the right questions [Haliburton Echo]

The Haliburton Echo, Wednesday, August 12, 2009

By Jenn Watt

James Orbinski is a father of three, a cottager on Guilford Lake and a professor at the University of Toronto.

Sitting on the patio of Heritage House café in Haliburton, you would never guess the blond, middle-aged man who wears socks with sandals and talks about bears at the dump also saved lives during the Rwandan genocide, flew into New York the morning of 9/11, was on the front line in Kosovo, Somalia, Zaire and Afghanistan.

There are no airs of grandeur from Orbinski, the author of An Imperfect Offering: Humanitarian Action in the Twenty-First Century, who was the president of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders/MSF) in 1999 when the international aid organization was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

It is probably because Orbinski sees himself more as a global citizen than an international celebrity – although he’s had his share of time in the limelight.

He’s the subject of two documentary films: Evil Revisited (about Rwanda) and Triage: Dr. James Orbinski’s Humanitarian Dilemma and his book, published in 2008 was a bestseller for a year and a half, declared by National Public Radio to be one of the top five best political and current affairs books of the year.

“What I wanted to do was open a series of questions on the meaning of humanity and the meaning of responsibility to each other,” Orbinski says over coffee, squinting against the morning sunlight.

“I don’t necessarily have the right answer, but posing the right questions, that’s the point of the book,” he says.

An Imperfect Offering is a deeply philosophical book, partially written in the quiet of his Haliburton cottage, that chronicles a life that has always involved in questioning the source of human wickedness and rejoicing in humanity’s ability to love and act with caring.

The world is now familiar with the story of Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, the Canadian peacekeeper who held a stadium in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, desperately yelling to the world for more help.

Orbinski headed the MSF contingent there at the same time.

He was confronted with intense violence and suffering every day – with real threats to his own life. One of the most gut-wrenching stories he tells in the book is of going to a church and school called College St. André in Kigali where a priest had protected hundreds of children within the building.

The Interahamwe (Hutu militia) would come and steal away children in small groups to murder in order to strike fear into the others remaining.

“The Interahamwe would kill at night outside the church and throw bodies and severed limbs back over the wall so that the living would know what they would face,” Orbinski writes.

One day, while walking down the road to this school, he saw what he thought were sausages in the gutter. They were severed children’s fingers.

That was 16 years ago. Since that time, Orbinski became president of MSF, founded Dignitas International, a charity that is “developing a community-based approach to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the developing world,” and most importantly, started a family.

The book, which took four years from idea to published hardcover, deals not just with war, disease and suffering, but how to take all of that in and still have hope and faith in humanity.

Orbinski’s mantra seems to be that each one of us has the potential for good and evil – that we each must do what we can no matter how messy and imperfect our actions may be.

“Only humans can choose to sacrifice life in the name of some political end, and only humans can call such sacrifices into question,” he writes.

Literally wrapping bandages around the wounds of political violence during his 20s and 30s, Orbinski’s work was a 24-hour job, never ending and never ceasing to confront the doctor with humanity’s worst side.

In his book, he describes a flashback he had months after leaving Rwanda.

“I was driving along Highway 401 in Toronto as a blue Mazda Miata passed me. It was the same colour as plastic tarp that I had been dreaming about for months…. Instantly my car filled with the sweet smell of freshly killed flesh and bloom. I saw sausages and then children’s fingers in the red soil around the tarp,” he writes.

Orbinski’s world today is drastically different than that 20 years spent in war-torn countries. He teaches political science to fresh-faced university students and treasures time with his kids, aged 6, 4, and 16 months.

And to him, the life he’s living now is just as important as the work he did across the world.

“There are a range of ways of being involved and taking appropriate action around an issue. You choose a point of engagement … based on your place in the world. Now I’m a father; my responsibility is different [than it was],” he says. “It’s an irreplaceable responsibility and it’s a primary responsibility. That’s the place I am in, by choice, in the world,” he says.

Dignitas InternationalAsking the right questions [Haliburton Echo]