I had just filed a book review about a woman who risked her life in 2013 trying to help people in the Congo suffering under the rule of Joseph Kono and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) when I happened to see a journalist on CNN talking about Kayla Mueller, the young woman killed by IS in Syria. The juxtaposition of what I’d written and what the journalist said about having met Kayla just before she entered Syria was striking, and could offer important lessons for other young idealists who want to head off to foreign lands to help people in war-torn zones.
The book I reviewed is called Mama Koko and the Hundred Gunmen by Lisa J. Shannon,
a young woman with courage, conviction and a craving for adventure. Shannon went to the Congo with a Congolese friend to tell the stories of what was happening there under Kono in the hope that their narratives would motivate governments and individuals to intervene and provide aid.
By weaving narratives of what life was like pre-LRA and what it had become, Shannon skillfully revealed a tapestry of events at once moving and frightful. Central to the tale is Mama Koko, a matriarch who stays strong as her family loses everything and is driven into the bush with slim hopes of survival. One by one her relatives become victims of unimaginable cruelty. Back in town Shannon lives with Mama Koko and other survivors. She hears their stories and films people she interviews, putting herself and her friend Francisca in harm’s way to capture what they are willing to share with her.
The question becomes, why? When a UN security officer asks, “Who are you with? What is your function?” she struggles to answer that question for herself. “It was weird enough in the US answering questions about how I supported myself as a volunteer, the independent nature of my work. … The strangeness [in Congo] was exacerbated by the fact that I wasn’t sure I knew, even secretly, what my ‘function’ was.” It was a question that troubled Francisca the longer they remained in danger.
Why put yourself and others in terrible danger when you have no sponsor, no media assignment, and no organizational support, I wondered. What was the expected outcome and how, specifically, might what Shannon did help the victims of a long and vicious war? I questioned whether the author’s ego may have played a part in her altruism, a thought that was supported by what Shannon recalled about leaving the Congo. “The question [was] what now? I had decided how I wanted all of this to end. … Francisca would emerge a leader for her country. I had … suggestions for [her] future leadership role, the one I had built up in my head...”
But years later, “Kony was still out there.” There were more deaths and greater shortages. And “for the people of [Mamma Koko’s town] there are all the things that are gone, that will never come back.”
In no way am I suggesting that Kayla Mueller, that beautiful, budding young woman who loved life and wanted to do good things, had an over-sized ego. Nor do I know if Lisa Shannon does. But like Shannon, Kayla was young and idealistic. It appears that she, like Shannon, acted independently in entering a war-torn country, without any of the rigorous and urgent training required by such groups as Doctors Without Borders, United Nations affiliates, or NGOs. It also appears that she had no plan for how to translate her efforts into helpful action when she did leave Syria. She didn’t even have an exit plan.
The journalist who met Kayla on the Turkish border with Syria before she embarked on her self-appointed mission described Kayla as “young and naïve.” The seasoned professional who had worked in many terrifying conflict countries worried about what would happen to Kayla, especially in the absence of training and affiliation. She reaffirmed all that was good and true in Kayla and her motives. Then she warned other young idealists not to do foolish things.
During the years when I worked in international development I met a lot of Shannons and Kaylas. They often came to me to ask for advice about how to implement their plans to “help people.” They were special young adults with a lot of stars in their eyes. I always found them inspiring. But very few of them knew the reality of aid work, affiliated or not. And that was in the days before terrorist groups like IS were even imagined.
So I honor Kayla Mueller, and I grieve her premature death. Like other bright twenty-somethings, she gave us all hope for a better future when our kinder natures might prevail to prove that love conquers all. You only had to look at pictures of her bright, smiling face to know what she might have given the world had she made it out of Syria.
And therein lies the tragedy of Kayla’s untimely death, and the lessons it might hold for other young, vital idealists. Because the question is not only why? That’s not so difficult to answer. The hard questions are what is my plan and is it realistic, am I properly prepared, how dangerous is it and what are the costs and benefits, how will I make a difference, and maybe most important of all, who will have my back when I need to get out of there?