An L-3 Emergency is the UN classification for the most severe, large-scale humanitarian crises. The decision to designate an L-3 emergency is based on multiple criteria: scale, urgency, complexity of the needs, and the lack of domestic capacity to respond. At the time of this writing WFP was responding to five simultaneous L-3s: Syria, South Sudan, C.A.R., Iraq, and the West African Ebola outbreak.
Additionally, WFP is responding to emergencies in DRC, Ukraine, Boko Haram affected areas, Libya, Yemen, and the Horn of Africa. Taken as a whole, it is incredibly taxing time for the global humanitarian community and funding shortfalls threaten a reduction of activities in several severely stressed regions.
Joshua Dysart is a comic book author who recently spent time in the Iraq L-3 (His third time in a warzone) and has written a comic about the experience of life under the L-3 designation.
Q: What is your comic, “Living Level-3: Iraq,” about?
A: It’s about the intersection of several lives in the Level-3 Emergency Zone of Northern Iraq. A Level-3 Emergency is the highest UN designated degree of social disruption a community can experience. There are currently five Level-3’s in the world, a sobering fact, and they are stressing the global humanitarian response apparatus. Our story follows a young female American aid worker new to the World Food Programme (the organization that sponsored the book). It also follows a Kurdish family fleeing their town of Sinjar as Da’esh (ISIS) rides in. Their daughter and son are kidnapped, and we tell the story of the captive children as well. The structure of the comic book is fiction, but every single story in it is true.
Q: How did you come about being hired to write this comic?
A: I was contacted by the World Food Programme through a friend of mine, a fellow comic book writer named Andi Parks. I knew immediately that I was the person for this job. I had spent a month in East Africa in 2007 interviewing, in part, child soldiers for a graphic novel series I did for Vertigo called “Unknown Soldier,” I think that might have helped get me the job too.
Q: How long did you spend in Iraq? Where?
A: I was in Northern Iraq, in the Kurdish region, for five days. I landed in Erbil, then traveled to Dahouk. Then we went to the Turkish border, pressed on to the Syrian border, and then came back skirting Mosul for reasons both tragic and obvious. We stopped at refugee and displaced persons camps and temporary shelters all along the way, interviewing Kurds and Arabs, Syrians and Iraqis, Christians and Muslims and Yazidi.
Q: What were the most powerful stories you heard during your time in Iraq?
A: They are all powerful. There are nearly three million displaced people in Northern Iraq. They are either fleeing the war in Syria or the rise of Da’esh in Iraq. Every single one of those people has a story of loss to tell. Da’esh has taken everything from them. They have taken their homes, cleaned out their bank accounts, stolen their daughters and murdered their sons. The stories are relentless.
Q: Were there moments where you felt in danger?
A: No. I was traveling inside the UN: WFP security bubble. None of us had any guns or anything, WFP travels unarmed as part of their neutrality position, but our routs were constantly monitored, our hotels were vetted and barricaded, and we carried PPEs at all times (Personal Protection Equipment – the blue bullet proof vests and white helmets). Also, Kurdistan is a stable and functioning society. Of course there were signs of the war all around us, coalition jets flying overhead, Peshmerga deployments, that sort of thing, but I never felt like I was in any danger. This was my third time in and around an active combat area, but it was the first time I’d been embedded with a unit that had a security element, so it was a little easier to move around than it has been for me in the past.
Q: How is the comic being distributed?
A: Currently it’s free to read online at Huffington Post World where all four chapters are up. Meanwhile, lots of people and organizations are translating for other markets; Russian, Slovakian, Kurdish, that sort of thing. We don’t have any firm plans for physical publication yet but we’re looking into it.
Q: Why tell this story in the medium of comics?
A: Because comic books are the finest way to get your point across. They are visual, but don’t cost millions to produce or require any more equipment than a pencil to create. They use text, but the visual element helps easily conquer language barriers and literacy issues. They are emotionally powerful. They are beautiful and peaceful to engage with in an age where every flat service streams motion and sound at you. Studies have shown that readers have a higher retention rate when reading comics than they do when reading novels or even watching films. Comic books are a way to tell a story and communicate an idea that is both inviting to look at and exciting to read. And also, because I love comics. I’ve spent 20 years trying to figure out how to make good comics, I’m still learning, but it’s my medium of choice.
Q: What do you hope people will say/do after reading ‘Living Level 3’? How do you hope to influence the readers?
A: I hope the book helps to neutralize this idea of “the other.” We didn’t know it when we started work on “Living Level-3: Iraq,” but we ended up telling a prelude story of the European migrant crises. The family in our book, I now see them as being part of the teeming multitudes that have crossed international borders in the hopes of finding a better life. It’s inherently hard for us to image all of the struggle and hardship that strangers face. It’s hard to imagine their stories or to humanize them the way we have our friends and family. It’s much easier to let the worst aspects of ourselves take over, to fear them or to demonize them, to imagine that they’re different than us. But the truth is, as people, we are all far more the same than we are culturally or ethnically different. We all love the same, we laugh the same, and we all hope for the best for our families. It’s a truth we all already know, we just have to be reminded of it now and again. And that’s what I want this little comic book to do. The WFP feeds people. I tell stories. Food is, of course, the primary sustainer, but I think the feeling that your story is part of the human conversation, that you haven’t been forgotten, is an important kind of sustenance too. Where people don’t have a voice or personal agency, it is our job as storytellers to deploy in the same way WFP deploys.
Q: Is there anything you’d like to see changed in the way Level 3s are managed?
A: I’m currently working in partnership with WFP – the world’s largest humanitarian organization and the UN’s first responder during times of geopolitical or natural calamity – and I am in awe of what these people do. Of course there are difficulties and problems, and maybe I’ll create future work about that, but for now, I don’t feel comfortable judging how these zones are handled. I’m just an observer of humanity.
Along with author Joshua Dysart, Alberto Ponticelli drew the book, Pat Masioni colored the book, and Thomas Mauer lettered the book.
– Geoffrey Wood Patterson II