There are many degrees to be a real professional in humanitarian or development aid nowadays. However, practise is undoubtedly more important than theory when you embark for working and living under sometimes very adverse circumstances in foreign countries.
“Who of you has alread been in an environment of armed conflict?”, an ICRC official asked a group of university students possibly interested in working for the reputed organization. Hardly any hands went up.
You only know if you’re made for humanitarian work, when you are there trying it. It was the same for me.
The ICRC had a particular ceremony when announcing the first mission. Two weeks into the induction course, all newcomers had an envelope in front of them, the first ever “courrier interne” with their names on it. We knew that inside was a paper, which would change our lives, for at least a year, possibly longer.
The colourful page stated, in my case: “Sierra Leone, délégué”.
Argh? Sierra… Leone? White Man’s Grave? Is this not where rebels were chopping hands off? Indeed, but things were changing rapidly, and in my first week of actual mission in the field I actually found myself accompaning a child, who was separated from his parents, back after three years of separation.
|Family reunion in Sierra Leone. It is not an understatement that the entire village was watching!|
Everything that you do for the first time is so special because it’s unknown, and boarding a chartered small Red Cross flight to take you to the rain forest certainly belongs to that category. In the meantime, taking small airplanes has by all means become an equivalent to busses at home
But to be somewhere, where life has been horrible to ordinary children, women, and men, and to play a whatever small role to make a change in their lives – often in impossible circumstances, which makes the job challenging – that mystery has never gone away, and I still feel that whatever hours put in for little money, whatever malaria episodes and security issues, whatever frustrations inherent in any large organization, it’s an incredible priviledge to be out there and give your best.
And to be sure, on some Saturday evenings, aid workers party, and this is how I looked like when I did so ten years ago:
|Kenema, Sierra Leone, 2001|
Off to Liberia for family tracing…
|Monrovia, Liberia, 2003 – displaced children due to the attacks on Monrovia.|
|Mass photo tracing campaign in West Africa – “We are looking for our parents”. More than 800 children were eventually reunified with their parents.|
And then, off to… “Israel and the Occupied and Autonomous Territories”, as Head of office.
|The ICRC office in Jenin, West Bank, well marked just in case, 2004.|
|Course in Amman, Jordan, together with Palestinian and Iraqi collegues, 2004.|
Afterwards: Eastern Chad…. Head of sub-Delegation
|Abeche, Eastern Chad, ICRC office (nowadays I am sure a smoke-free environment), but even the air was smoking outside at 50 degrees Celsius, 2005.|
|Refugee camp, Sudan-Chad border, 2005.|
Next: Afghanistan, Head of Sub-Delegation.
|After more than a week in remote Faryiab Province, with no cellphones or running water. “Monsieur Stoessel, I am happy to hear you again on a normal phone”, my boss said afterwards. 2006|
|Farewell party, I better do not post the pictures with traditional Afghan dress. 2006.|
Off to Port-au-Prince (in my memories classified as “Haiti I”), Deputy Head of Delegation.
|Head of Haitian Prison Administration, and myself. This is not me lobbying him about the conditions in the prisons, but actually a farewell event he invited me to. A very kind man. Port-au-Prince, 2008.|
|Head of one of our local partner organisations, Eastern Congo, 2009.|
|Don’t worry that you may not have the attention of a lot of children, DRC, 2009.|
And then, all of the sudden, I was asked to embark on a 59h52m trip from DRC to Haiti, to lead the scale-up after the earthquake (in my memory classified as “Haiti II”)
|The old half collapsed Oxfam office, Port-au-Prince, January 2010.|
|Office space was short – bathroom office for funding manager and shelter coordinator. Port-au-Prince, 2010.|
And, after four months, back to DRC…
|Yes I do love those violet Oxfam trucks.
Near Dungu, Province Orientale, DRC, 2011
The mystery has become a reality. I will always remember September 2011, not only because of 9/11, but also because my life circumstances so completely changed.
And where next? The most frequent question I hear. The “Where” is not really as important as the “What” and “With Whom”. Stay in this channel!