A depressing tragedy of 2 deaths.
March 1993. The mid-point of a 22-year civil war in Sudan, one of the longest civil wars ever recorded. A war which devastated the locals. The fighting took away the lives of many men and cattle, and the inadvertent destruction of crops. This caused a massive famine to break out. People were reduced to eating leaves of trees. At least 20,000 people starved to death. Photographer Kevin Carter was part of a group of photojournalists on a UN initiative - Operation Lifeline Sudan - to publicise and report on the dire conditions that locals faced, raising awareness and attracting aid. Carter came across and took a photo of this numbing sight:
In the front was what appeared to be a little girl, emaciated from hunger, in such bad condition that she had fallen to the ground while walking. She was making a trek to a UN food center about half a mile away. Ominously lurking behind her was a vulture. The vulture is a scavenger. It only eats dead animals. But this child seemed so close to death that vulture was already waiting for its next meal. Carter chased the vulture away. But he had to rush to board the UN plane, and he left the child to fend for herslf.
This photograph was later sold to the New York Times. The photo was published on 26 Mar 1993, accompanied by the caption "A little girl, weakened from hunger, collapsed recently along the trail to a feeding center in Ayod. Nearby, a vulture waited." The photo served its objective. Aid began to pour in given the horrific image that was captured of the Sudan famine. But along with support were hundreds of queries by people around the world asking about the fate of the girl. It was only much later that we found out. In 2011, a Sudanese male came forth to acknowledge that the child in the photo was his. The child was not a female, but a boy named Kong Nyong. Kong Nyong did make it to UN food center, but apparently died in 2007 due to illness. Carter's photo won him the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography the very next year.
But the sights that he saw in Sudan, and the memory of the child he left behind plagued him. Carter became depressed. He struggled with money and with personal relationships when he got back from Sudan. Just 3 months after winning the Pulitzer Prize, Carter drove to a field where he used to play as a child. He taped a hose onto his pickup truck's exhaust pipe, and ran the hose through the drivers' window. He turned the engine on, and waited, until he died of carbon monoxide poisoning at the age of 33. Carter's suicide note wrote:
I'm really, really sorry. The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist. ...I am depressed ... without phone ... money for rent ... money for child support ... money for debts ... money!!! ... I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain ... of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners ... I have gone to join Ken (Ken was a deceased colleague) if I am that lucky.
Kong Nyong and Kevin Carter lived tragic lives that ended terribly. It's indicative of how big a role life plays in our lives. Born in the wrong time in the wrong place, and sometimes, no matter how resilient or capable we are, we might still succumb to the circumstances around us out of no fault of our own. And sometimes, even if we are not the ones suffering, simply watching the suffering unfold creates a sense of pain and helplessness, as it did with Kevin Carter. The heroes that societies acknowledge today is dominated by people with power, people who have enormous individual success in business, entertainment, sports, politics. But we need other heroes, heroes who are not just powerful but empower others, who go beyond individual success to help others live a decent life. All of us are born with the innate ability to think about ourselves. But to think for others is a choice we have to make, and even if it is a difficult one, it is a choice we should all consider.