Hanging on to life, waiting on a hero



A bundle of blonde beauty, aged just five, is carried in careful arms from the rubble of a building razed by the massive earthquake in Hatay, Turkey. She had been lost under the rubble for some 12 days, clinging on to her little life, awaiting salvation.

Of course, her story with a happy ending is not the only story with a happy ending after two quakes struck eastern Turkey and Syria more than a week ago. A newborn girl was rescued from under a collapsed building in Syria, her mother having given birth while buried alive. She was found with her umbilical cord still tied to her mother. The baby was the only member of her family to survive.

As I write, some 45,000 souls have perished — that figure is expected to double — and as many again are still buried in the ruins, their fates unknown, windows fading fast.

Syrians feel forgotten. No tents, nod aid, nothing. Not helped by sanctions and the presence of Islamic militias.

What these stories — and those of the rescuers frantically scraping with bare hands, their own lives at risk from after-quakes — show is the remarkable resilience of human nature. That indomitable spirit, that grace if you like, that comes to the fore when we are faced with a crisis of overpowering odds against our favour.

I recall Bahia Bakari, just 14, showed such resilience back in 2009 when she hung on for 13 hours in the sea and in darkness as the sole survivor from an Airbus A310-300 jet from Yemen which crashed into the Indian Ocean off the Comoros islands, killing all other 152 people on board.

Or, a year later, the story of the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped underground for 69 days and lived to tell the tale. It seemed like something straight out of an Edgar Allan Poe horror tale — most of the 19th century American author’s works being based on his morbid and unrelenting fear of such a horrific ordeal. That, too, is the pitiful plight of those in Turkey and Syria still buried alive.

There are numerous life-changing incidents every day throughout the world that show human resilience at its finest. The first responders at the tragedy in Creeslough, Donegal is such.

How do we account for that resilience?

We come into the world confronted by what philosopher William James — brother of author Henry — famously called “a blooming, buzzing confusion” and we must somehow organise this chaos into a reasonably stable and meaningful personal world which includes a sense of a continuous, yet dynamic, self. And, as Jung so well understood, our ego must deal not only with external challenges but also challenges that come from inside us.

And when the ground literally falls from under your feet, that well of internal strength and resilience has to swell over. It inevitably does, because we humans are intrinsically tough and resilient. The unique evolutionary path we have taken as a species relies predominantly on learning, openness, flexibility, and adaptability. We survive and even thrive in every conceivable environment on this planet.

How does our psyche withstand such outrageous attacks as war — Ukraine, Syria, Yemen — crime, brutality, and even life-threatening illnesses as with Covid-19? What impact do such experiences have on our trust in an orderly and predictable universe, on our security, and our belief in our value as human beings? Why do some souls, like young Muhammet, live through such experiences, with their spirit relatively intact, and others do not?

I don’t know.

I do know this, though: see a people in crisis and you’ll see what they are made of. Just like the people of Ukraine who have shown us human resilience at its most shining example.

Many years ago in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), I covered the story of a Viscount plane shot down from the skies by those opposing minority white rule. A ground-to-air missile felled Air Rhodesia Flight 825 which broke in two and was quickly engulfed in flames. Only five of 56 passengers and five crew survived.

Dentist Cecil McLaren was the hero of the hour as he led a man, two women and five-year-old Tracey Cole, through hostile guerrilla territory for days, begging water from suspicious villagers, and eventually to safety.

At the time I wrote: “Like Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain, beleaguered among hostile natives, McLaren possessed and displayed a presence of mind and strength of character.

“And he showed remarkable resilience when …”

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