Denisa Augustínová. Foto © Pavlína Saudková for Harpers' Bazaar
What have you experienced these past months? "I have been at the Syrian border; we are getting ready to build another hospital for victims of sexual violence in Cambodia, where there is an alarming number of cases of domestic violence as a result of unresolved trauma from the past; in Lebanon we are designing mobile clinics in connection with the displacement of refugees; and in Congo we continue to help people who are malnourished and victims of rape," says the founder of the MAGNA organisation and mother of two daughters, Zara and Ambra, who crosses the poorest areas of the world and whose family life is considerably influenced by current catastrophes.
HB: What trait does a person have to have to help not only with money but also to take that step towards helping right at places afflicted by a natural disaster or a humanitarian catastrophe, in areas at war or in areas at risk of danger? Do they have to have a lower instinct of self-preservation? Do they have to be willing to give up their comfort?
Denisa Augustínová: Luckily not everyone can set off to leave their country. Many people think that helping is the easiest thing to do in the world, but I claim that it is actually one of the hardest! A person has to respect what the given location and country needs, the help has to be effective and responsible regarding the donor. Having a good intention is not sufficient, you need to have a top, professional team, and we've had that for the many years that MAGNA has been around for.
HB: What kind of person does a humanitarian worker have to be?
DA: First of all they must have a very broad perspective and must understand their profession – we are an independent healthcare organisation, so in most cases it regards healthcare workers, psychologists and people dealing with logistics and administration. Despite that, we are an apolitical organisation, and in a political situation, in a crisis, we have to know what to avoid, and to recognise the safety risks.
HB: So bravery is important as well…
DA: ... and tolerance. We come across many intolerant people every day and we see many unpleasant things and violence. That is a reason to have a high level of empathy, not only for the victims but also for the people who are responsible for one of the types of bad behaviour.
HB: How can you have empathy for someone who is causing harm to other people?
DA: It's probably more understanding than empathy.
HB: An understanding of why specifically the evil happens? A perception of the context?
DA: The majority of aggressors have usually experienced evil happen to them similar to what they then do to their victims. It's difficult to empathise. I learn every day. But that ability is essential for me to survive in the environment. I'm not saying that it means I understand the evil and violence. I don't understand it. Many projects help victims of sexual violence, and many of our patients are children. That's also a factor why understanding is so hard. But we try to see that the aggressors are also part of the conflict and history in the given areas where they have experienced something that is hard for us to imagine.
HB: Is it common that a whole family sets out on a mission like happened in your case where you and your husband went into the field, bringing up children in Cambodia?
DA: Usually it begins with an individual spending a certain part of their life doing it. In France this topic can also be studied, so this mission can also be chosen as a certain type of "career". In Italy or Spain it is already common for people to set off that way. We have a heap of friends who met their current boyfriend, girlfriend or spouse when on a certain mission, they established a family, and they live in a similar way to us. Of course there are many that establish a family and go back though. And they may try to help from a distance for example.
HB: Because you are in it with a man (photographer and winner of Czech Press Photo 2017, Martin Bandžák, who spent part of his childhood in Zambia, where his parents worked as physicians, editor's note), can you compare who can endure the worst psychological burden? Men, who think about a thing in a linear way, or women with their attentive, slightly motherly approach?
DA: I am convinced that the burden is identical, there are only differences in how it is experienced – men pile up experiences more. Therefore, it's important for them to vent their feelings more often, to verbalise, whether it's in the form of dark humour or some other way. Women's experience, mothering things, is different but it is also important for you to be able to continue pragmatically according to things experienced so that you are able to help because the last thing our patients need is for us to be oversensitive. During a crisis and time of great strain on patients who experienced a trauma, our stress would only deepen their feelings of hopelessness.
HB: But what about ex post emotional stress?
DA: Then you must have a technique formulated on how to filter all your experiences.
HB: Do you have nightmares?
DA: Actually no. Not frequently.
HB: Did your intensive seventeen years with MAGNA change you, as you are a person who inherited feelings for society from your mother, a social worker, and fairness from your father, a court expert?
DA: I don't know if it changed me. It definitely formed me. I keep saying that this work gives me more than I give it. Help for another person is the greatest gift that we give ourselves. I cannot ignore what is going on. Seeing an immediate change at a given location thanks to MAGNA gives me a feeling that my work has a purpose.
HB: What conflicts of cultures do you come across when returning from Asia, Syria, Africa to Central Europe, where people put you in dresses costing hundreds of euros, or going to New York being among officials making decisions from a state of prosperity and relative safety?
DA: It's important to remain in contact with where we come from so that we don't see importance only in our work. Therefore I really don't regard putting makeup on and putting on an expensive dress before letting myself be photographed as trivial. I tell my colleagues too that we mustn't use the cliche that if something isn't a matter of life and death it's unimportant. Yes, staying alive is the most important thing. And in every part of the world we have our problems and each of them is important in some way in the given area, at the given moment, at the specific location for the person. Another thing is that I notice more frequent ignorance, which then leads to many tragedies. The Syrian conflict is an important precedent because after many years international humanitarian law is being absolutely breached, attacks on hospitals and humanitarian workers occur like never before. That already also applies to Afghanistan, South Sudan, Congo and Yemen... Ignorance and actually also a lack of involvement by the rest of the world in what's going on is really terrifying for me.
HB: How do your children react to these horrors as they come from the land of adults?
DA: Helping other people is totally natural for children. They don't perceive borders. Another child is suffering so let's go help them.
HB: But children also like to ask "why"? Why is it happening? It must be difficult to explain evil and why it can't be stopped.
DA: It's difficult to explain to a child why war exists, why other innocent children and people die. But we can't pretend it doesn't happen.
HB: How do you specifically explain it? Being 9, Zara maybe has already past that phase, but she surely asked when she was younger why people hurt each other. And Ambra will surely ask as well.
DA: Zara still comes to ask but with harder and harder questions. She began asking earlier and earlier she got answers appropriate for her age, but at the same time we made sure that we won't fool her or come up with lies... It's hard to explain to a child why there are wars. Especially if they have a fantasy idea that stopping the sale of weapons would be enough. And then she asks why does anyone actually make guns and what's the point of them? They also ask why there are so many cyclones and earthquakes like in Nepal three years ago, where we helped as well.
HB: Explaining natural disasters seems easier to me than explaining why people hurt each other...
DA: Zara has already come across children's wars. I explained to her that they are also the victims of the whole system that leads primarily to produce funding. At the time she came up with a comparison that it's like one kingdom wants to take the treasure of another kingdom. The metaphor of a fight for treasure. Of course we emphasize that spiritual things are more important than material things. Ambra is still small but she tries when she has a lot of food to take some of it to families who live on a street not far from us.
HB: Are you sometimes annoyed? For example that governments don't work the way they should, rules get broken...
DA: I get into those kind of moods only rarely. I try to work with them and to transform anger into something more constructive.
HB: Do you cry often?
DA: No. I coordinate it. For example on an aeroplane. And in Europe during classical music concerts.
HB: What do you consider as being the greatest injustice?
DA: When innocent people die. Innocent children. Because we have very many patients who are children. Then it's the greatest injustice when the children have been raped and exposed to any violence, and there isn't any trial. It often happens with people closest to them knowing about it. And unfortunately the international community too. The greatest injustice is that we don't intervene even though we could stop it from happening. Therefore, I want to stay where I am and help more and more.
HB: You said that you don't sleep much, you don't eat much, in Europe you occasionally have a bar of chocolate, so where do you get your energy from?
DA: Probably at work. And from the children. And then an espresso...
Source: Interview with Denisa Augustinova was originally published in the print version of Harper's Bazzar.