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Audrey Hepburn's UNICEF Field Missions

Over 4 years from 1988, Audrey undertook serveral field missions: seeing first hand the desperate situations in Ethiopia, Turkey, South America, Sudan, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Somalia.

Ethiopia: March 1988

This was her first assignment for UNICEF and initially was designed to attract the attention to the poorest country in the world. Millions were starving from famine, drought and civil war. Those who survived were grossly malnourished, many of them blind from vitamin A deficiency. The refugee centers, filled to overflowing, were potential death camps due to epidemics. For a Congressional subcommittee she would say:

In Ethiopia, I went to the orphanage in Mecalee ... five hundred children, whose parents died in the drought of 1985 ... which is run by Father Chasade of the Catholic Church. It was he who in desperation said, 'if you can't send me food for my children, then send me the spades to dig their graves. closing quote

UNICEF, she said dramatically, chose to send the food.

"There is a science of war, but how strange that there isn't a science of peace," she declared, paraphrasing Maria Montessori. "There are colleges of war; why can't we study peace?"" She articulated that more passionately in replying to a question about how Ethiopia had affected her personally:

I have a broken heart. I feel desperate. I can't stand the idea that two million people are in imminent danger of starving to death, many of them children, [and] not because there isn't tons of food sitting in the northern port of Shoa. It can't be distributed. Last spring, Red Cross and UNICEF workers were ordered out of the northern provinces because of two simultaneous civil wars....

I went into rebel country and saw mothers and their children who had walked for ten days, even three weeks, looking for food, settling onto the desert floor into makeshift camps where they may die. Horrible. That image is too much for me. The "Third World" is a term I don't like very much, because we're all one world. I want people to know that the largest part of humanity is suffering, that starvation exists even in a wealthy country like America - which is scandalous, a true disgrace....

I think that, today, never has there been more suffering in more places all at once. At the same time, never has there been so much hope. We've had the greatest gift mankind could possibly give to children, which is "The Convention on the Rights of the Child." Two hundred and fifty thousand children die every week - last week, next week - and nobody really talks about it. It's the greatest shame and tragedy of our times. And it must stop. closing quote

Sometimes confronted by cynism, she would say to an interviewer who doubted that politicians could ever be convinced to care and do something for famine children worldwide: "If you and I are convinced, they're going to be convinced too," she shot back. "Somebody said to me the other day, 'You know, it's really senseless, what you're doing. There's always been suffering, there will always be suffering, and you're just prolonging the suffering of these children [by rescuing them].' My answer is, 'Okay, then, let's start with your grandchild. Don't buy antibiotics if it gets pneumonia. Don't take it to the hospital if it has an accident.' It's against life-against humanity-to think that way.

Turkey: August 1988

The priority in Turkey was immunization against the six main child-killing diseases: measles, tuberculosis, tetanus, whooping cough, diphtheria and polio. UNICEF and the World Health Organization had set a joint goal of universal child immunization by 1990, and their high-gear efforts were now saving three million young lives each year.

Audrey called Turkey "the most lovely example" of UNICEF's ability to provide brilliant organizational skills in partnership with cooperative nations:

We notified the government that their infant mortality was very high. The Turkish government sent a group to New York to study the program we had completed in Colombia. The group went back, and a total immunization program was planned in four months. The Turkish president and prime minister went on TV, the school teachers spoke from their desks, and the imams from their pulpits. The army gave us their trucks, the fishmongers gave their wagons for the vaccines, and once the date was set, it took ten days to vaccinate the whole country. Not bad. closing quote

South America: October 1988

According to Barry Paris, "Street children and education were the focus of her South American tour a few months later. In Venezuela and Ecuador, she later told Congress,

I saw tiny mountain communities, slums, and shantytowns receive water systems for the first time by some miracle-and the miracle is UNICEF.

I watched boys build their own schoolhouse with bricks and cement provided by UNICEF. closing quote

Most intently, she studied projects designed to aid children living on the street. That situation appalled her as much as it did Roger Moore, her friend and fellow UNICEF colleague (she had helped to recruit him), who was now viewing the far worse "violence of neglect" in Brazil. "First they ignored the street kids," said Moore, "and now they've started killing them."

Central America: February 1989

In Central America Audrey pleade the case for children in many forums, but most remarkably of meetings with the chiefs of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Sudan: April 1989

Audrey Hepburn visited Sudan to witness the start of a miraculous UNICEF-sponsored relief effort called "Operation Lifeline." Its goal was to ferry food to southern Sudan, which was cut off from all aid because of the civil war. Audrey and Rob watched the first ship with food and medical supplies leave Khartoum for Kosti on the Nile.

She would say:

I saw but one glaring truth: These are not natural disasters but man-made tragedies for which there is only one manmade solution-peace." Just in the past month of this most brutal civil war,

"20,000 starving orphan boys have fled from the Sudan into Ethiopia. Many of them never make it. They either die of hunger on the way [or] drown in the river which divides the Sudan from Ethiopia. closing quote

In a 1989 interview in the US magazine McCall's, Audrey said:

Anyone who doesn't believe in miracles is not a realist.I have seen the miracle of water which UNICEF has helped to make a reality. Where for centuries young girls and women had to walk for miles to get water, now they have clean drinking water near their homes. Water is life, and clean water now means health for the children of this village.

People in these places don't know Audrey Hepburn, but they recognize the name UNICEF. When they see UNICEF their faces light up, because they know that something is happening. In the Sudan, for example, they call a water pump UNICEF. closing quote

Bangladesh: October 1989

Everybody was calling Bangladesh 'a basket case,'" says John Isaac, a UN photographer, "because of the constant mishaps they had with floods, famine-you name it. But when everybody else was throwing up their hands, Audrey said, 'I want to go there and be with them and promote their cause.' I thought that was amazing."

Together, he and Audrey and Rob first visited projects for poor children in Bangkok, then quickly moved on to Bangladesh. "She traveled to every little corner," Isaac recalls. "In one town, she leaned over to me and said, 'John, do these people know or care who I am?' I said, 'You'd be surprised.' As we were talking, I heard this one man say to another, 'I think that is Miss Hepburn.' When I told her that, she turned around and asked, 'Do you know me?' The guy said, 'I have seen Roman Holiday ten times!' In the middle of Bangladesh!

Often the kids would have flies all over them, but she would just go hug them. I had never seen that. Other people had a certain amount of hesitation, but she would just grab them. Children would just come up to hold her hand, touch her-she was like the Pied Piper. closing quote

Isaac was most struck by the fact that, at any given moment, "she dealt only with what she was doing. Audrey had no color, no race. She went to Bangladesh at a time when the main crisis was over, but it was still an ongoing thing. 'I want people to be reminded,' she said. Today, we forget what happened yesterday with all the satellite technology. Today you are here, tomorrow there, the next day, somewhere else. How soon people forget the previous tragedy. But she never did."

Vietnam: October 1990

According to Barry Paris, "Of all Audrey Hepburn's remarkable UNICEF journeys, the least remebered is her visit to Vietnam. Unlike the others, it received little coverage except in France, whose ties to Vietnan were historic. For America and the American media, more recent wounds were still unhealed."

The main purpose was to get the government behind the UNICEF-supported immunization and water programs. To a prime minister she would say: "We have both fought many battles for children. I just hope we will be as triumphant as you have been, and conquer all the children's diseases."

Somalia: September 1992

In Somalia, Hepburn's last mission, eight million people were starving to death. "Apocalyptic," she called it. "I walked into a nightmare.... I have seen famine in Ethiopia and Bangladesh, but I have seen nothing like this-so much worse than I could possibly have imagined. I wasn't prepared for this. It's so hard to talk about because it's unspeakable."

Among many images that haunted her was the first, from the air, as they flew into Kismayu from Nairobi over the desert:

The earth is red-an extraordinary sight-that deep terra-cotta red. And you see the villages, displacement camps and compounds, and the earth is all rippled around them like an ocean bed. And those were the graves. There are graves everywhere. Along the road, around the paths that you take, along the riverbeds, near every camp-there are graves everywhere. closing quote

Somalia was probably her most hard mission. "She came back and said, 'I've been to hell,"' says her son Sean, "and every time she spoke about it, she had to relive it. Nothing ever prepared her for going to a camp and meeting a little kid and coming back the next day and he wasn't there anymore. You're supposed to go back to your hotel room and drink bottled water? Get on a plane and go back to your regular life? It throws your whole world out of balance."

"Taking care of children has nothing to do with politics," she would say. "Politics has nothing to do with one's helping a dying child. Survival, that's what it's about. I think perhaps with time, instead of there being a politicization of humanitarian aid, there will be a humanization of politics."

Next Page Audrey Hepburn's Statement to the United Nations

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