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Audrey Hepburn, UNICEF Envoy to Somalia
Educational Broadcasting - The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, November 5, 1992


MR. LEHRER: Finally tonight, a conversation with actress Audrey Hepburn. Last week, just before she went into the hospital for colon surgery, Miss Hepburn sat down with Charlayne Hunter-Gault to talk about her recent trip to Somalia, a nation devastated by civil war and where it is estimated 1.5 million people are at risk of starvation. Miss Hepburn, who grew up in Holland during World War II, is familiar with the deprivations and brutalities of war. She went to Somalia in her capacity as UNICEF's good will ambassador.

MS. HUNTER-GAULT: Miss Hepburn, thank you for joining us.

AUDREY HEPBURN, UNICEF Envoy to Somalia: Thank you, Charlayne.

MS. HUNTER-GAULT: You wrote an article in Newsweek in which you said you were unprepared for what you saw in Somalia, and yet, you've been to other areas of devastation like Ethiopia, the Sudan. What was different about Somalia?

AUDREY HEPBURN: I thought I was prepared, therefore, the shock was even greater, because I think somehow however marvelous the documentaries are on television, however well done they are, or photographs you see or you read about it, it's still an abstraction until you're faced with the reality. And it's unbearable. It just is so totally unacceptable to see small children just die in front of your eyes, obviously because they're starving but also because they are so frail they really finally die of disease, and that in this day and we're nearly the year 2000 that can still be happening, and you somehow on one hand feel impotent that you can't do enough, you're not in time to save at least those little lives, and on the other hand, it's -- it's comforting to be there and see how much is being done and see how much progress is being made.

MS. HUNTER-GAULT: In terms of what assaulted you, what were the things that struck you the most? Tell us a little bit about it as we look at your footage.

AUDREY HEPBURN: Starting with the first camps we went to in Kismayu, that's where I noticed after wandering around for some 20 minutes this very strange absence of small children. And I asked about it. I thought perhaps they were in a different, in a hospital or something. No, they're gone.

MS. HUNTER-GAULT: You described a young man having an asthmatic attack. Tell me about his.

AUDREY HEPBURN: Yes. This was in Bidoa in a feeding center where the children worst off were being therapeutically fed because they sort of can't eat or drink, sort of every few minutes giving them something. And this boy was sitting with just a bit of cloth around him, rail thin, I mean, really just bones and eyes and absolutely struggling for breath. He obviously had a respiratory infection, and I was suffering so for him because I did have asthma as a child and anemia and edema and all the things that come with first degrees of malnourishment that I remember, remember so this crisis of not being able to breathe and struggling to -- and I just felt I wish I could breathe for him but he literally sort of just lay down while I was there and was gone.

MS. HUNTER-GAULT: Died?

AUDREY HEPBURN: Mm hmm.

MS. HUNTER-GAULT: In front of you?

AUDREY HEPBURN: Yes.

MS. HUNTER-GAULT: Is it possible to describe witnessing something like this?

AUDREY HEPBURN: No. That's why I say it's been perfectly described by the media, thank God, because for so many months the media couldn't go into Somalia and show what was happening because it was war. And at the same time there's this curious, what can I call it, embarrassment, timidity that comes over one when you do walk into a feeding center like that of I feel I shouldn't be there, I feel I should leave. It's like walking into somebody's room who is dying and the family should be there, only the nurses, you know what I mean, of sort of intruding in some way. At the same time, longing to pick up one of these children and give it some kind of warmth, and on the other hand, they're so frail that you're afraid you're going to break them or hurt them, because you know people say I guess people are starving to death, but I wonder if people think of the pain of starving to death, what happens to your body. And it's a very slow process. And it's not something that just sort of you waft through and then die. And as I said earlier, they nearly always die of a disease.

MS. HUNTER-GAULT: Is there a lot of crying, or just silent suffering?

AUDREY HEPBURN: Coughing a great deal, because they do, mostly children do have respiratory problems, diseases, you know, very silent, very silent. And this also, also in the camps with the adults.

MS. HUNTER-GAULT: We hear so much about looting, anarchy in Somalia, and you, yourself, wrote that it's the relief workers that are keeping a whole nation afloat. Tell me about that, that lack of government, and the role of the relief workers.

AUDREY HEPBURN: You enter Somalia, No. 1, without a visa, because there is no government, so you just land, and there are no roads to speak of. There's no government, no electricity, no postal service, no telephones. It's like the moon from that point of view, and yes, there is anarchy, which is the least you can expect when a government is deposed, fortunately because it was a very repressive one, then four years of civil war. Fortunately, the U.N. was able to negotiate a cease-fire in Mogadishu. That's all they have. There were two sort of major clans, the two generals, if you like, who share Mogadishu. There's a green line which you don't see, but I mean that is a sort of separation. But the rest of the people are livid unto themselves. And, of course, there's looting, No. 1, certainly in the beginning because everybody's hungry. So are the looters. But looting is always a result of upheaval and anarchy.

MS. HUNTER-GAULT: How much aid is getting through, and what is the impact?

AUDREY HEPBURN: Considering the mind boggling logistics of this country that I just told, the non-existing infrastructure, I would say that the aid that we are providing and Red Cross and CARE is a miracle, because it is getting there. Yes, part of it is being looted, but that happened all along. That's happening in Sudan too. But you cannot give up at least trying and many, many people are being saved, and in the camps are already beginning to look better, but there are places inland where we still haven't reached, where we haven't been. There was still a great deal of unrest. I mean, God knows what we're going to find there.

MS. HUNTER-GAULT: Does there have to be outside intervention like the United States or the OAU before peace can be permanent?

AUDREY HEPBURN: I think only in, in a supportive sense, not in an aggressive sense. First of all, we can't go into Somalia, invade it and occupy it. That is not our right, nor does the U.N. have that kind of a mandate. The U.N. guards are still not functioning properly. They don't -- are not able to function properly, those that are there, because their mandate is not to fight it out; it's to guard the provisions that are coming in. But the war won't let them do exactly, you know, what we would like to do, and all of that needs negotiating. So it's all very long.

MS. HUNTER-GAULT: Miss Hepburn, we're approaching the year 2000. Did you ever think that there would be this kind of tragedy repeating itself?

AUDREY HEPBURN: Let's look on the bright side, Charlayne. I think there is one in the sense that, believe it or not, there are fewer conflicts in the world today than 10 years ago. There are already so many, but it was double. We do have better and more access now because of the Cold War being over. And the world has woken up. I know it's too late very often and we are slow, but we do have a sort of enormous mechanism now. And though the U.N. has been very criticized, they're not to be sneezed at because what other organization has the planes, the people? You know, it has to be done. These are wonderful, the CARE, Red Cross. I don't know if during the first great famines in Bangladesh, during the great famine in the thirties in Russia, during the Irish famine, how much did we do about that? Now we're at least trying, and doing it rather well. But we're impatient, because now we see the children dying right in front of us, for most of us on television. I've seen it happen, and I'm filled with a rage at ourselves. I don't believe in, in connective guilt, but I do believe in collective responsibility. Somalia is our responsibility. It's certainly the British responsibility, the Italians' responsibility, because they colonize that country. And they should be doing more, I think. They have an obligation to those people from whom they benefited for so many years. But it is the international community, and that is the beauty of humanitarian, of relief workers, of humanitarian aid, that regardless of what's going on, of the danger, of the diseases they're getting themselves, they do it, and they don't give up. And that's why I want to not only speak for children but for these extraordinary people who live among the living dead and sleep among moaning bodies in Bidoa, where there is no light after 6 o'clock, and you can't read or even think because there's so much misery around you, and get up in the morning and wash these people and these children, and try and feed them month after month. They're the ones that have to be supported with more help.

MS. HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Audrey Hepburn, thank you.

AUDREY HEPBURN: Thank you, Charlayne. Thank you very much.