A terrible catastrophe occurred in Hungary on Monday. Toxic red sludge from a factory’s reservoir poured over the little village of Kolontár, killing six people and injuring hundreds, while leaving many of the citizens without a home or their livelihood.
We were front-page news, and the pictures in the international media made my country look like the poor third world, where greed and neglect result in deaths. I know how pictures and news like this affect views, which can be lasting and difficult to change.
I used to make a living officially worrying about the image of my country, when I was the Hungarian ambassador to the United States. I now worry about it as a private citizen.
I would like to make my own modest contribution to help repair the damage caused by the sludge to our image. This disaster, whether caused by human error, neglect, or something else unknown to us, is a tragedy Hungary has never seen before. In this terrible situation, the real measure of the maturity of my country is not in the why and how it happened, but in the way the government and society at large reacted.
Rescue teams were on the spot almost instantly and the injured were efficiently transferred by medevac teams to hospitals in the region. The special emergency arm of the government efficiently dispatched assets and staff to try to avert or minimize further disaster, and immediate action was taken to lower toxic levels before the red sludge reached the neighboring rivers.
The local residents are receiving immediate physical and material support to create a roof over their heads. Society at large has moved fast to support relief organizations with donations. The prime minister did not use his presence as an opportunity to create an image for himself or his government. He did not use it as political capital. His visit was somber and humane without political overtones. No one jumped to conclusions, naming those responsible too soon or attacking the private sector in an attempt to score points with the public. Instead, they referred it to the judiciary. These are the true signs of a mature country.
This disaster brings back memories of the sad damage done by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans five years ago. I remember the voices, the commentaries, and even the “schadenfreude” in Europe about this. Things like that “don’t happen in Europe,” I heard and read. Well they do. They happen everywhere. And no one is really prepared for things like this. I was one of the first in the Washington diplomatic community to travel to the region. I visited the Astrodome in Texas, where thousands of families found refuge. I spent time with local authorities, with the Coast Guard, with the Red Cross. I met world-class doctors from the MD Anderson Cancer Center who were performing simple medical procedures as volunteers.
Yes, there were moments when the world’s most advanced country looked like a third world one. However, it never crossed my mind to draw any conclusions about the United States, its institutions, and its ability to function as a strong, tightly knit society. Even if it was not my job or responsibility, I fought against those who jumped on the opportunity to score political points in the U.S. or outside. I saw that as a duty, because we are friends and we are a community. “Friends in need are friends indeed” is the motto I had learned as a child from my friend Billy Hanson, the son of a pastor from California. My rock band — I know, this sounds strange — raised close to $200,000 to support New Orleans. I traveled to the devastated city as soon as I could and met with citizens, artists, and students to help lift their spirits.
What is my point? Well, in this terrible situation, I appeal to all our friends in the U.S. to help. Make sure to spread the news that Hungary is a healthy, functioning, responsible little country, in spite of what you saw in the news the last few days. It is the country which boasts of one of the most beautiful capitals (Budapest). It is a nation that gave the world Tony Curtis, Rubik, and Charles Simonyi.
In our sorrow, give us what we need most: emotional and moral support.