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.

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!

You know you are a humanitarian when…

Family, friends, collegues, and foes, predicated it impossible that I would not work for more than two weeks. Well, it’s been five weeks now. A good hand over and two moving farewell parties (one in Goma and one in Kinshasa) made it a bit easier to leave the Democratic Republic of the Congo, my chosen home country of the past three years. Since then, neither emptyness nor urge to go out there again immediately. The identity of an unemployed humanitarian is a difficult one to sell here in the rich world. So I simply don’t sell it!

Ten years ago this time, I was bracing for my mother’s 60th birthday, which would be followed by a trip to St. Petersburg and then by the start of my first humanitarian mission.

Today, I am luckily still bracing for my mothers 70th birthday, which until not too long ago I was not sure would happen. Thank God for life!

Ten years ago, I was by no means sure there would be a second or third mission. I found out with time that this lifestyle was for me. I can say that I see sense in my work, and that I enjoy it at the same time. As long as I can still say this, as long as I am still healthy, and as long as I haven’t become cynical, why stop?

Humanitarian life has its particularities and ironies, which are often only understood by those, who lead this life. A Facebook group directed at insiders called “You know you are a humanitarian when…” brings some excellent quotes describing the particularities of being an aid worker. Great thanks to Tonton Ed for translating some of them on his blog.

Here are my highlights.

You know you are a humanitarian worker when…..

  • Unlike your friends who have normal lives, you don’t have a
    wife/husband, children, or house, and when you return home, you sleep in
    your parent’s place.
  • You have a university degree, you manage a
    team of at least 10 people and a multi-million dollar budget in a civil
    war situation, but you earn a minimum wage.
  • You earn a minimum wage, but you have a cook, a house keeper and a chauffeur 24 hours a day.
  • You enjoy sending verbal missiles at your colleagues from other non-governmental organizations.
  • You are always criticizing the United Nations, but secretly, you would love to work for them to triple your salary.
  • When you return home, your friends and family all ask the same
    question, “So how was it?” hoping that you can summarize 1 year of
    mission in 3 minutes, because after 3 minutes, they are no longer with
  • You tell your acquaintances that you work in the humanitarian field, and they respond “Ok but what’s your job?”
  • Upon returning home and looking for work at the unemployment office,
    you put in a listing under “southern coordination” and you explain to
    the work counsellor that he/she would be better off not wasting a lot of
    time on you. Anyway, you don’t fit into any of their categories!
  • When you return home, you love making the round of your friends, but
    when you realize what their every-day lives are like, you wish to return
    quickly on mission.
  • You really laugh when young street marketers
    stop you in the street and ask you “Have you ever heard of Action
    Against Hunger?”
  • You would love to work in Latin America or Asia, but you always find yourself in Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, or Sudan.
  • You understand mysterious phrases such as:
    The watsan always sends his sitrep to the HoM before leaving on
    R&R. (The water/sanitation guy always sends his situation report to
    the head of mission before leaving on break.)
    o The nut and food sec
    want to use Plumpy Nut to combat kwash in under-5s in MdM’s CNT. (The
    nutrition and food security group want to use Plumpy Nut (a weight-gain
    product) to combat kwashorkors (one type of malnutrition) in children
    under 5 years of age in Médecins du Monde’s (Doctors of the World)
    therapeutic nutrition center.)
    o The logs at Sol are working on NFI
    kits and shelters for the DAH proposal in RDC. (The logisticians at
    Solidarity are working on non-food item kits and shelters for the DAH
    proposal in the Democratic Republic of Congo.)
    o Kilo Juliette for
    November Yankee, the situation is Oscar Kilo. (Kiwanja project (KJ)
    calling Nyanzale project (NY), the situation is OK.)
  • The weekend, either you work, or you recuperate from an over-alcoholised Friday night.
  • You always have a VHF radio and 3 different telephone chips with you.
  • You have an external disc drive full of films, television series, music and nothing pertaining to work.
  • You know that Relief Web is not a site with geography content.
  • For you, malaria is just a bad flue that everyone passes around.
  • A reinforced Toyota Landcruiser is what you call a car.
  • You hop on a plane like others get into their cars.
  • Entire villages in Africa call you by your first name, but you don’t
    even know the name of the person who lives across from you at home.
  • All your friends are called Kasereka or Abdoul.
  • Seeing men armed to their teeth on every street corner seems completely normal.
  • You watch the news on TV and tell yourself that you have a job for life.

RDC : Le conflit oublié des médias

de: afrikarabia

La République démocratique du Congo (RDC) est-elle maudite ?
Depuis plus de 15 ans cet immense pays d’Afrique centrale cumule les
conflits et les drames humanitaires… dans l’indifférence générale.
Pourquoi les médias internationaux sont-ils plus prompts à couvrir la
guerre en Libye, le conflit en Irak ou en Afghanistan, que la
catastrophe humanitaire en cours en RDC ? Explications sur un pays
plongé dans un “trou noir médiatique”.

long, trop compliqué, trop loin, trop cher à couvrir pour les
journalistes, le conflit oublié en République démocratique du Congo
(RDC) ne mobilise pas les médias… et donc pas les opinions publiques.
Pourtant ce vaste pays, grand comme 5 fois la France, en plein coeur de
l’Afrique, est un concentré de catastrophes divers : plusieurs guerres à
répétition, des millions de morts (2, 3 ou 4 millions ?), 1,7 million
de réfugiés, le viol de masse utilisé comme arme de guerre, l’enrôlement
de milliers d’enfants soldats, le pillage des ressources naturelles, un
Etat défaillant dans le top 10 des pays les plus pauvres au monde…
voici le rapide portrait de la situation en RDC. Pourtant, les médias ne
semblent guère y prêter attention alors que 18.995 casques bleus de
l’ONU sont sur place pour la plus importante opération de maintien de la
paix au monde. Afrikarabia a demandé à Marcel Stoessel*, responsable de
l’ONG Oxfam en RDC, de nous éclairer.

– Afrikarabia :
Qu’est-ce qui explique l’absence de la RDC dans les médias malgré une
situation humanitaire extrêmement préoccupante ?

– Marcel
Stoessel : Tout d’abord, j’aimerais confirmer les deux affirmations que
vous faites : une situation humanitaire préoccupante, et une certaine
absence de la RDC dans les médias. Cette absence est assez choquante.
Une recherche récente a montré qu’entre septembre 2006 et avril 2007, il
y avait 1.327 articles référencés sur la RDC, 19.946 sur Israël et les
territoires occupés, 29.987 sur l’Afghanistan, et 43.589 sur l’Iraq.
Pour moi, il y a plusieurs raisons à cela :

Premièrement, la
population qui souffre se trouve aujourd’hui, dans des zones très
isolées du pays, comme en Haut Uélé, à Shabunda, ou à Fizi. Il est très
difficile et coûteux pour les humanitaires ainsi que pour les médias d’y
accéder. Les problèmes de sécurité et de logistique sont des barrières
importantes. J’ai récemment visité un de nos projets humanitaires dans
un village au Nord de Niangara, en Haut-Uélé (au Nord-Est de la RDC). Il
nous a fallu plusieurs jours pour arriver à Niangara, et une fois sur
place nous n’avons pas vu un seul véhicule de toute la journée. Souvent
les journalistes n’ont pas les moyens financiers et le temps pour se
déplacer dans ces zones reculées. Ils sont donc forcés de travailler
dans les régions plus proches de Goma ou Bukavu (les principales villes
de la région). Dans certaines zones il manque aussi de réseaux
téléphoniques et il est donc difficile d’informer les journalistes sur
la situation humanitaire.

Deuxièmement, les personnes déplacées
vivent aujourd’hui principalement dans des familles d’accueil et non pas
dans des camps de déplacés. En cas de crise, les familles congolaises
accueillent très souvent leurs sœurs et frères réfugiés. Ce n’est pas
une mauvaise chose, bien entendu. Mais la souffrance des personnes
vivant dans des familles d’accueil est visuellement moins
impressionnante que lorsqu’il s’agit de grands camps de déplacés. Il est
plus “spectaculaire” pour les journalistes de faire des photos ou de
tourner des vidéos dans ces immenses camps. Aujourd’hui, les femmes, les
enfants et les hommes souffrent loin des caméras, mais cela ne veut pas
dire que leur souffrance soit moindre.

Troisièmement, les
conflits en RDC sont compliqués. Il est plus facile d’expliquer un
conflit binaire « A contre B » dans un contexte comme la Libye ou en
Côte d’Ivoire que de parler de la pauvreté, de la mauvaise gouvernance,
de dizaines de groupes armées, des ressources naturelles, des tensions
intercommunautaires… Je pense aussi qu’il y a une certaine fatigue
avec la RDC, parce que la situation ne semble pas s’améliorer
significativement tout au long de ces années. Pourtant, ce n’est pas
vraiment exact : il y a des solutions et la situation dans certaines
zones s’est améliorée ces dix dernières années. Mais il faut une analyse
approfondie et surtout, il faut de la patience. 

Afrikarabia : Que faudrait-il faire pour que ce conflit soit mieux
couvert par les médias ? Faut-il adopter d’autres stratégies ?

Marcel Stoessel :  Je pense qu’il faudrait sortir des statistiques et
commencer par parler des êtres humains, derrière les chiffres. Il
faudrait pouvoir montrer la famille qui a accueilli chez elle cinq
autres familles déplacées suite à une attaque d’un groupe armé ;  la
responsable d’une organisation locale qui a réussi à améliorer la
sécurité du village en parlant avec le commandant local de l’armée ; le
staff local d’Oxfam qui doit même réparer des pistes d’atterrissage et
des ponts avant de pouvoir délivrer l’assistance, etc… Le célèbre
photographe de mode Rankin est déjà venu deux fois en RDC pour raconter
ces histoires très humaines, très concrètes… et nous devons continuer
dans cette direction. Nous avons aussi un projet de « citoyen
journaliste », qui devrait permettre à ces populations enclavées de
raconter directement et sans censure leur quotidien. Les réseaux sociaux
comme Facebook ou Twitter ont un potentiel énorme pour mettre en
contact des personnes des pays “développés” avec des Congolais. Il y a
donc des solutions pour sortir du “trou noir médiatique”. C’est notre
devoir moral de continuer à tenter de le faire.

(*) Marcel
Stoessel est le directeur d’Oxfam en République démocratique du Congo
depuis 2 ans et demi. Cette ONG intervient dans l’humanitaire, mais
aussi dans le développement durable et les plaidoyers auprès des
décideurs politiques ou économiques. En RDC, Oxfam travaille sur l’accès
à l’eau, l’assainissement, l’hygiène, la sécurité alimentaire, la
protection des populations et l’éducation.

Propos recueillis par Christophe Rigaud
Photo : Ch. Rigaud (c) afrikarabia

10 Remarkable Individuals in Aid

I found this hillarious blog called “Hand Relief International”, who kind of reminds me of so many things that happened in the past 10 years.
I pay hommage today to the 10 Remarkable Individuals in Aid. They are the development work’s equivalent of the unknown soldiers. The change they have gone through, will never be truly appreciated. This is why they deserve to be unnamed here.

  1. That guy who, having been an incompetent bureaucrat his whole
    career, has become an efficient, result-oriented employee after having
    attended a HRI management training;
  2. The guy who changed his domestic ways to become a loving, caring
    husband after having been exposed once at a road-crossing to a billboard
    that said: “Stop GBV Now! (HRI with support from Country South of
  3. The underpaid employee of a community-based HRI affiliate who felt a
    sudden commitment-inducing calling after a brief meeting with a HRI
    consultant who spoke to him about HRIs “Vision and Mission Statement”
    during a short field-trip;
  4. The Donor representative who, every month, reads every one of the 76
    reports they receive from relevant HRI affiliates and therefore has a
    very clear idea of what each affiliate is doing and where they need most
  5. The refugee-camp dweller whose quality of life has suddenly improved
    after her camp was visited briefly by Angelina, who successfully
    “declared” an “end to violence now”;   
  6. The inhabitant of the village in “Africa” whose life has changed to
    the better once she received a slightly used pair of shoes from a
    mythical place South of Canada;
  7. The owner of a yogurt-business in Baltimore who succeeded to “give
    something back” during his one-month trip to the Philippines, when he
    gave a free lecture abut yogurt to a group of local entrepreneurs,
    facilitated by his local church back home;   
  8. The government employee who has successfully made the transition
    from a cynical, underpaid, mis-qualified relative-of-someone-important
    to a dynamic, modern element of change in the government, after having
    interacted with a HRI “Technical Advisor” during a capacity building
  9. The guy who returned part of his per-diem after a trip to Nairobi,
    claiming that the three meals and tea offered during the training were
    quite sufficient for his subsistence; 
  10. The “social media enthusiast” who learns something from the daily platitudes posted on the HRI official twitter account (“HRI Executive Director mentions importance of right-based approach in speech given at meeting with African Delegates“) 

Here’s to all these remarkable people. The world of aid would just not be the same without you.