Keeping Hope Alive in Mogadishu – UN News Service

OCHA Humanitarian Affairs Officer Ahmed Farah Roble listens to IDPs at an IDP settlement in Mogadishu, Somalia

23 December 2011 – It is a hot, dusty morning in Mogadishu, the war-ravaged capital of Somalia, and Ahmed Farah Roble is in a makeshift settlement for internally displaced persons (IDPs), listening to a mother tell him about her baby daughter.

Ahmed nods patiently, asks questions and listens attentively. He is in the camp to meet with its representatives, to learn more about their situation. Many have recently arrived from the country’s south, fleeing hunger and conflict. They have very little, and urgently need food and medicine, shelter and health care.

It is hard not to be affected by what he sees and hears, especially as the 45-year-old was born and raised in Mogadishu. As the longest-serving UN humanitarian affairs officer in the capital, Ahmed has heard many similar heart-breaking tales before.
“But it is painful, still. I can say that, before, this was a peaceful city. It was paradise. Now, these people living here have lost everything, their property, opportunities for education. There are not enough health services. There is no safe drinking water in some areas,” he says.

“I’m one of those who was here in the golden days, when the situation was good. These last 20 years, when the country was devastated by endless and continuous conflict, it is really painful for me.”

Ahmed Farah Roble and UNHCR staff see first-hand the conditions at IDP settlement in Mogadishu, Somalia.

For much of the past four years, through some of Mogadishu’s heaviest fighting, he was the lone man on the ground for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) – the part of the UN responsible for bringing together humanitarian groups to ensure a coherent response to emergencies.

The situation has been so dangerous that, until recently, OCHA was unable to deploy more staff to join him.

“It was not an easy task to work here then,” says Ahmed. “All of the humanitarian community was targeted, no matter whether they were international or national. You could be targeted, kidnapped and killed at any time.”

“It was a critical time, and even for me it was very difficult to get access to the people most in need.”

National staff members like Ahmed make up more than 90 per cent of humanitarian workers around the world, working on the frontlines. Too often, they bear the brunt of violence, as illustrated today with the deaths of two staff members of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and a colleague working for a partner organization in central Somalia.

The dangers of working in Somalia, and restricted access for internationals, have led to a greater reliance on national staff, as well as local partners.

“International staff bring a wealth of technical experience to this crisis, but the role played by national staff is just as important,” says Marcel Stoessel, the head of OCHA’s sub-office in Mogadishu. “After all, nobody knows Somalia better than the Somalis – and without the local expertise of our national colleagues, international staff couldn’t do their jobs.”

“National staff speak the local language and often some local dialects as well, so they can more easily interact with people. They also understand the clan structure in Somalia, which is important if one wants to be successful in this humanitarian operation. They help us make crucial links with the government.

“Last, but not least, it’s much safer for them to move around Mogadishu than it is for international staff. People like Ahmed are our ‘humanitarian eyes and ears’.”

Ahmed’s family is in a neighbouring country for safety. For much of the time that he has been in Mogadishu, the city has been riven by a fluid frontline dividing the two sides – fighters belonging to the Islamist militant Al-Shabaab movement and troops belonging to the Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

Ahmed Farah Roble speaks with a Somali NGO representative while in the Mogadishu sub-office.

The violence worsened the already dire humanitarian situation for the city’s existing residents, and well as the many new people who sought help and refuge there after famine struck parts of the south in mid-2011.

Since Al-Shabaab’s withdrawal from the central parts of Mogadishu in August, the frontlines have been pushed back to the city’s outskirts – but the situation is still far from secure. The use of roadside bombs, grenades and suicide bombers is a regular occurrence, and on the rise.

“The scale-up of humanitarian aid has done a lot for the situation here. Malnutrition rates and mortality rates have dropped, and access is better in some places – so I have been able to visit various IDP settlements. But there is a need for more help,” Ahmed says. “I see it and hear it all the time.”

Heading back to his car to make his way to the OCHA sub-office is no easy feat. IDPs try to grab his attention with every step. Finally back at his desk, now populated with two new national colleagues and three international colleagues, Ahmed starts preparing a report on what he has heard and seen during his visit.

The report will inform OCHA and its partners about the humanitarian needs of that IDP settlement, allowing the humanitarian system to direct essential aid to its residents.

“I have the sense of a humanitarian. That’s a real driving force which helps me to forget everything, especially when I feel so far from my family, when I am doing this night and day. I’m just happy that I am doing a good thing.”

Duty station: Mogadishu, Somalia

I don’t know what the hell I thought when I knew I was definitely going to Mogadishu, Somalia, to help the United Nations with the coordination of humanitarian affairs there. I probably did not “think” in Eckhart Tolle’s sense, because at that time I was in the holistic retreat.

Reactions from friends were varied. The more informed ones asked for clarification whether I would be based in Nairobi and rotating into Mogadishu. The answer was: No, my duty station is Mogadishu, Somalia. They said anything from a soft “That’s going to be a challenge” to an outright “You have gone totally crazy”. 

I am now here since 20 days yes, it’s an enormous challenge, but no I haven’t gone crazy yet.

Amongst the unfortunate people of this world affected by conflict and other disasters, Somalis clearly rank last. That is if there is a rank to be found at all. For many aspects of poverty, “Somalia” has simply “no data”, so it shows up White instead of Deep Red on those maps. I have not seen yet a single house with no bullet holes. At least a generation seems lost. The security situation is still extremely volatile. Access to the vulnerable children, women, and men, remains our primary concern.

Coordination between the humanitarians seems like a boring job: Organizing meetings and filling out tables. But it’s far from that. Coordination is saving lives. By trying to ensure that gaps in assistance are filled, and trying to avoid duplication, resources are used more efficiently for those, who need it most. We also work with our partners in order to be prepared and if possible avoid future humanitarian crisis. Presently, for example, the October – December “Deyr” rainy season is a big concern. Disease outbreak is a distinct possibility given the overcrowding of camps, bad drainage, no functioning garbage collection, and sewage, which could infiltrate drinking water. Partners work with high intensity to distribute more plastic sheeting to the displaced people, to do mass health promotion campaigns, to chlorinate water sources, and stock up on medication if worst comes to worst.

 Being involved in coordination also means that you meet people from absolutely all walks of life, Somalis and foreigners.

Whatever you have planned for in Mogadishu, Somalia, your day will be different: Time goes by so quickly that when I look at my watch and its 5 p.m., I am often surprised and feel I have just got started.  Every day humanitarians are working into the evenings.  The needs of vulnerable Somalis are first and foremost in all of their minds. The environment is so difficult that even the basic things take an awful lot of time.

“Duty station: Mogadishu, Somalia”, means working and living under very strict security rules and living in a communal environment. It means I get up early and go to bed late. It means checking my Emails and answering my phones permanently, meeting staff and partners, maximizing the time I can spend on making this operation more effective and inclusive. I cannot overstate how much I admire our Somali staff and partners. For them, it’s not a duty station; it’s their home, their daily life.
Good thing I followed my instict before I went to Somalia. Some long-term humanitarian workers, like all professionals, have a tendency to think “been there, done that”. I will never think that again even when my tour in “Duty Station: Mogadishu, Somalia”, will be finished.

Ten Principles to Live By in Fiercely Complex Times

We definately live in such times, and I found some good advice on FastCompany. These ten principles are worth reflecting on. For the full explanation, click on this blog’s title. This is the short version:

1. Always challenge certainty, especially your own.
2. Excellence is an unrelenting struggle, but it’s also the surest route to enduring satisfaction.
3. Emotions are contagious, so it pays to know what you’re feeling
4. When in doubt, ask yourself, “How would I behave here at my best?”
5. If you do what you love, the money may or may not follow, but you’ll love what you do.
6. You need less than you think you do.
7. Accept yourself exactly as you are but never stop trying to learn and grow.
8. Meaning isn’t something you discover, it’s something you create, one step at a time. 
9. You can’t change what you don’t notice and not noticing won’t make it go away.
10. When in doubt, take responsibility.

On the last one: It’s called being an adult. 

An aid worker since ten years today

The 2 September 2001 was one of the mysterious dates in my life, the day I became an aid worker.

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.

And then, Good Bye to the really great ICRC, welcome Oxfam, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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!