The Internally Displacement Monitoring Center published a number of life stories from Columbian IDPs.
"IDP" is an acronym for Internally Displaced People, people "who have been forced to flee or to leave their homes, due to armed conflict violence, violations of human rights or disasters, but have not crossed an internationally recognised state border."
Call them "refugees within their own country".
Have a read. Should make most of us realize how lucky we are. Do we appreciate it enough?
Picture courtesy of IDPvoices.org
The Internally Displacement Monitoring Center published a number of life stories from Columbian IDPs.
There is a certain peace and calm about Brindisi. Even though for the humanitarians, it is one of the main starting points for many humanitarian emergency interventions: this is where a lot of the logistics and life-saving equipment is stored, and shipped from, on a moment's notice.
I am back in Brindisi until the end of this week. This is the view from the office this morning. It is the inner courtyard of a military base, of which they gave us a piece to use (see this rumble).
With a view like that, not much can go wrong. Crisp clear blue sky. A slight transmontana wind blowing in from the mountains, cooling everything down to 23 degrees.. A change from the 30+ degrees we had in Rome last weekend.
Life can be good. Even if in the background, I can hear the forklifts moving, loading a plane with relief goods for the Peru earthquake...
In an earlier post, I wrote about a leaked UN report accusing the Government of Sudan transporting weaponry into Darfur, disregarding UN security resolutions.
New pictures released last week, showed once again Antonov military planes and Russian-supplied Mi-24 military helicopters at an airport in Geneina, a town in Sudan's Darfur region... I wonder how the Government of Sudan will deny this, yet again.
Picture courtesy Washington Post. For updated humanitarian news, check out The Other World News
E. points out that while yesterday we were discussing whether or not we, aid workers, are not paid too much, at the same time local staff working for the UN Peace Keeping forces in DRC (MONUC) went on strike.
Picture courtesy Myriam Asmani-MONUC
In the introduction to The Road to the Horizon, you can read how I became a humanitarian aid worker. Pretty much by coincidence (if there is such thing in life), driven by an urge to travel, work with radio (or telecommunications in general) and to work with and for people.
Humanitarian work was an excellent opportunity to combine all of those plus-es.. In the beginning, I took the humanitarian aspect as ‘a nice bonus’: while doing the things I loved, I could contribute to the well-being of others.
In the beginning, working as a free lancer, for IFRC, I got to do the real stuff: fly out with a kit to remote locations and install stuff, train people, and feel the direct impact of what I did. The communications and IT equipment I installed contributed to a safer environment for them, allowed them to coordinate their work more efficiently, and get the aid moving faster. I was not paid much. Something like USD1,000 per month plus some local expenses, housing and transport.
Via a temporary job in UNHCR, I got to work for the UN organisation I work in now. Though, when giving up my corporate job in Belgium, I swore never to do a management job again, I gradually went up the ladder again, and before I knew it, I was supervising a team again. First it was small, so I got to do a lot of the physical work myself, but gradually, through the years in Africa, Kosovo and Central Asia, the team grew and I did less of the work myself, concentrating more in the management of a team. I did not have too much of a direct impact anymore in the aid provided, but the people I managed still did. Good enough. In my years managing the Dubai office, it was pretty much the same, though in the end, the team was so large, it required most of my time in the office, and less field work. But I still felt the impact from my personal contribution to the aid provided. As I went up the management ladder reasonably fast, the financial compensation I received went up equally.
While I did not become a humanitarian aid worker, because of the humanitarian work, after years dealing with the misery of others (and sure, I have always been an idealist), I started to find the humanitarian aspect of our work more and more important…
So now, I am working in the headquarters. Now a real challenge starts. I should be a bit careful what I say now. It is in no way meant as criticism of the organisation I work for – I still think we are one of the leanest and the meanest of all humanitarian organisations. But it is a conscience problem I have at the moment:
Here I am, working in Rome. As you have seen in previous posts, it is not a real hardship duty station (compared to those colleagues working in the remote places like I described in these posts) AT ALL. It is a comfortable life. As comfortable as working for a corporation or a multinational commercial company. The work I do now is so far away from the real field aid work. It is difficult to feel the real impact. “Will an emergency operation really go better if I would stop doing what I do?” No it won’t. “Will aid stop being delivered if I stop my job tomorrow?” No it won’t… I am doing work that facilitates the work of a group of people, who facilitate work for those doing the real aid work in the field. That is at least two levels away from my work.
On top of that, working in a headquarters is different. I used to work in offices of 20 to 50 people. We have something like 800 working here. There is something to be said about the challenges trying to make a difference within this big mass of people. A big mass of people, all working far away from the aid-reality. A big mass of people automatically includes work being done slower. Big machines turn slower. And it is so easy to hide within a mass of people, and not perform at your utmost best. One bad performer in an office of 20 or 50 people stands out. One lazy guy in a mass of 800 does not. So we have a big mass, far away from the real work we are meant to be doing. We are providing aid, while sitting in a comfortable, air conditioned office, in Rome… Solving the problems of world hunger…
OK.. I can still keep my own conscience clean by saying “hey, I worked so long in the field, and am reputed for the work I did in the field that destiny brought me here to bring that experience, that ‘spang’ to the ‘masses’ here in a headquarters.” But it certainly is a challenge to make this difference, tell you that.
All of that, is still OK to tackle. But then I look at my pay cheque. And think how many children we could feed with that money. My pay cheque allows me to lead a very comfortable life. But is it still in balance with the real work I do, with the real impact I have on the aid we deliver? Is it still in balance of what an aid worker should earn? Should wages of aid workers not be more basic, emphasizing raised (aid) funds to go to the (aid) operations themselves? You see my conscience struggle?
Sure enough, by paying a competitive wage, the agency attracts high quality professionals. (“Pay peanuts and you only get monkeys”). I am proud to be good at what I am doing. And the work we do, often goes with personal sacrifices.. In my case, I live away from my family for most of the year. Not easy. In the work we do, we can be reassigned to a new emergency at a moment’s notice. Not always easy. And we can be repeatedly moved from one emergency to another. Sure. And in with large corporations, director positions like I have, probably are paid more. But still, I am not a corporate executive. I am an aid worker. Are we not going a bit over the top? Am I, as an aidworker not being paid too much? Are we, as aid workers not being paid too much?
Under the chapter "Is Skype Down Again? Are the Russians to Be Blamed or is This Hamas' work?": well it seems Skype resurrected shortly before dying again. Read here some input from the Skype people.
My short rumble posted in a hurry before the weekend, and written with a lot of irony, created more comments than any other post in the past months... Hmmm.. Good some people continue reading this blog critically.. :-)
While irony (and why not - sarcasm) is often misunderstood, it seems that more than anything, my comment "Ah, the software gurus must be having a ball now. I miss those times. For the moment, I am into more boring stuff. Such as trying to solve world hunger. Pffft." sparked off some negative thoughts.
1. I used to be a software engineer. A long time ago. When home computers consisted of Commodore64's and Apple II's, only affordable to the few rich and famous. And when effective programming was still done tweaking bits and bites in obscure registers and 8 bit addresses using assembler language.. In the Skype post, I remembered the exciting times we had while working on a major problem or deadline or bug fix, and for days - sometimes weeks - our lives evolved around getting things to work again. The problem laying in lines of code. Something virtual, executed by moving electrons in minuscule little devices, fixed on mystically complex PCB-boards, assembled in a machine which hummed with a dozen others in one or the other sterile room somewhere in the world...
Pretty 'unreel'... Unreal, except for once where our local computer room frozen to one block of ice, as a 12 hour power cut in winter had the sprinkler pipes above the computers burst and spray freezing water over millions USD worth of hardware. There, it was something physical that had happened. For the rest, we did nothing but solve virtual problems in a virtual world.
2. In a cynical mood, I made the unconscious connection between that virtual - artificial - world and the actual work we (I) are (am) supposed to do as humanitarian(s): relieve human suffering. There is nothing as real as human suffering.
And it is a struggle I am fighting between me-and-me, at this moment.. Am I still making a difference... ? Am I making a sufficient impact, compared to my cost? Or am I - yet once more - working in a virtual world, solving virtual problems. More about that tomorrow..
Normally I don't have to do an effort to get lost anywhere. You might remember past rumblings about this subject, and my adventures (call it "my affair") with the GPS-slash-personal navigator.
Anyway, so this weekend, I decided to get lost. On purpose. Cheap but effective method of finding unexpected treasures. I got into the car, and drove for an hour on the highway, branched off, and just followed the coast.
The find of the day were these lovely beach houses just south of Civitavecchia.
A picture from sun worshippers close to Civitavecchia, 70 km North of Rome, taken last weekend..
I am back at work, in Italy. It sure is different coming back to work to Italy after the summer holidays, than the previous years, when I had to go back to Dubai. Then I knew I was in for a few months of heat before one could go outside again without melting in ten seconds.
In Dubai, we knew winter was coming when the temperature in my car, parked in the shade, at 7:30 am, would show below 30 dgrs C...
But here, well, it feels like I am still a bit on holiday. Especially being close to the sea. And the Italians are sun worshippers. They loooove being out and about, and that is especially true in the summer. So every bit of usable coastline, is taken. Be it a narrow strip of land, beach, pebbles or a rock. Anything large enough to spread a towel on.
I was looking forward to read Paulo Coelho's new novel, "The Witch of Portobello". I read most of his previous work, and found it passionate and inspiring. The last Coelho novel I read was "The Zahir", two years ago, while sailing the Caribbean. I remembered the setting: water, dark, starry nights, wine on the deck of our boat, anchored in the Tobago Cays (See the short story One Love).
All of that made me look forward to dig into the "Witch of Portobello", hoping as with the previous Coelho novels, only to put the book down once it is finished.
Unfortunately not so... The Caribbean setting was there. The wine was there. I mean the whole setting was perfect. Unfortunately, the Coelho I hoped for was just not there. The Witch of Portobello's script is simple, the story is rather monotonous (not to use the word boring), the 'lessons in life' read superficial and smell of mock-spirituality... I put the book down and started to read something else.. After 6 weeks I still did not finish it, even though I want to. But boy, is it a struggle to reach the final page...
This sounds all harsh criticism. Not sure if the book deserves it. Maybe, just maybe, it is as my friend E. says, maybe I am just not in the mood to read Coelho, maybe I should read it another time, at another stage in life... But as it stands now: I would rather recommended other books from Coelho.
More books on The Road.
Skype is down, worldwide. Since yesterday. Engineers don't understand it. They said the bug has been in the software since years, but never caused a problem.
I love software problems which appear all of a sudden. And it is worse when they solve themselves all of a sudden too (so you don't know when they will re-appear). Ah, the software gurus must be having a ball now. I miss those times. For the moment, I am into more boring stuff. Such as trying to solve world hunger. Pffft.
Anyway. So if you are a fervent Skypee, you will have to be patient. Or use the normal landline (full post)
Dalia Sofer's, "Septembers of Shiraz", is a compelling debut novel, set in Tehran (Iran), in 1981. The chaos and swing-to-the-right following the ousting of the shah and the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, made everyone suspicious of everyone. Minorities like the Persian Jews were amongst the first to suffer of a psychotic cleansing and witch hunt.
The story follows Isaac Amin, an Iranian-Jewish rare-gem dealer who is arrested, jailed and tortured for months, for no other reason than his religion, and on basis of a vague suspicion.
What attracted me in the book is that, although it is fiction, it follows the mind twists of someone in fear of loosing everything, with such close detail you can smell the sweat, blood, tears and excrement. It kept me from sleeping at night.
Dalia was born in Tehran in 1972 and fled Iran with her family in 1982. They first went to Israel, and then to New York City.
For a more updated view on Iran, remember this post.
Enjoy this book. More of my favourites, you can find in my online library.
More recommended books from The Road.
“ I am recalling now that last summer before I was sent away. It was 1979, and the sun was everywhere. Tripoli lay brilliant and still beneath it. Every person, animal and ant went in desperate search for shade, those occasional grey patches of mercy carved into the white of everything. But true mercy only arrived at night, a breeze chilled by the vacant desert, moistened by the humming sea, a reluctant guest silently passing through the empty streets, vague about how far it was allowed to roam in this realm of the absolute star. And it was rising now, this star, as faithful as ever, chasing away the blessed breeze. It was almost morning. “
‘In the Country of Men’ tells the story of nine year old Suleiman, whose father is arrested and tortured accused of subversive activities, his mother married out when she was still a young girl, and their closest friends. It is a story about betrayal and love, anger, sadness and fear reigning a family and a society.
The book is a Breughel-esc painting about friendship and love, set in a background of Libya in the late seventies. It describes many different individuals with an impressionistic sense of light and detail. It paints the different figures onto a background of a suppressed society where opinions and individuality are a no-go. And no matter how hard each individual fights this suppression, it effects- no, it DEFINES- the psyche and character of everyone in this paternal society.
Hisham Matar was born in 1970, in New York to Libyan parents, and raised in Tripoli and Cairo. This is his first novel. I hope many of this quality follow.
Enjoy this book. More of my favourites, you can find in my online library.
More recommended books from The Road.
Well, after St.Kitts, we started heading back. First to St.Barths for two days again (a nice 45 miles sail, with the wind 60 degrees off the bow), followed by a 15 miles broad reach back to Oyster Bay - St.Martin, to return the chartered sailboat.
Hannah on Road Bay's beach (Anguilla)
The girls on Sandy Island (Anguilla)
View from the breakfast table (Statia)
St.Kitts and the neighbouring island of Nevis are an independent state since 1983. Their history is somewhat typical for a Caribbean island. They were discovered in 1493 by Columbus, and named Saint Christopher (still the official name for St.Kitts), but only settled in 1623 by the English. The French who landed a few years later, hooked up with the English to massacre the resident Carib Indians, and St.Kitts was divided between the two (then) super powers. Of course they did not manage to co-exist for long, so there were frequent squabbles, culminating in a one month siege of the impressive English fort at Brimstone Hill. Eventually the Treaty of Paris, signed in 1783, returned St.Kitts to the British.
Good for them as both St.Kitts and Nevis have fertile slow-sloping volcanic planes, which made the sugar plantations to most profitable in the region. On top of that, Nevis got known for its natural spas.
Both islands became an independent state in 1983, originally including Anguilla into the federation. The latter was not too happy, and kicked the butts of the the St.Kitts policemen stationed on their island, until they fled, followed by a mock attack on St.Kitts by the handful Anguillan men on a small vessel. Rumour said they were all drunk. The Anguillans continued to make so much trouble that the British finally got fed up and invaded Anguilla in big force, only to be greeted by a few grazing goats and elderly people raising their glass of rum to them: that is what the Anguillans wanted, to be back under British control. Ha, what a joke. And this was not during Middle Ages, this is 1960's. we're talking about!
Back to St.Kitts: Volcanic, so not much in terms of white beaches, but loads and loads of fertile land, so the island is very dense green, with forest and sugarcane. The government owned and controlled all the sugarcane plantations, until 1995, when it was determined market prices would never make sugarcane profitable (again). Since then, the sugarcane has not been harvested, and grows wild amongst dozens of plantation ruins, which make very interesting sights by themselves. Gradually pieces of land are donated to residents for agriculture, but as we drove around the island, still, on most of the "cultivated" land, you see sugarcane. Ten year old sugarcane.
It is a lovely island. Rather poor, but clean, well maintained. A bit of tourism with a few massive (American) resorts (Four Seasons and Marriott, if I remember well), and cruise ship facilities. But tourism is still being developed. The towns still have much of their former shapes and houses, and not too much of the modern malls and cheap mass tourism facilities have creeped in. Oh, there is a well known fish restaurant on the outskirts of Basseterre, the capital, called the Fishman's Warf. To be avoided. The lemon daiquiris were terrible, the fish was grilled dry, and the crab was simply off. The latter smelled like pure ammonium. When I returned it to the kitchen, even the cook could not stand smelling it for more than a few seconds...
Oh, oh, and before I forget it: there is a lovely and relative new small marina in Basseterre, the only decent shelter for storms amongst the island chain of Saba, Statia, St.Kitts, Nevis and Montserrat. Recommended! I hope they can maintain it in high standards as it is an asset for the region.
Oh, oh, oh, and you might have to run around a bit in the port to find the immigration and customs dudes.. The former, we never found, and after three days, we left, without even having officially 'entered' the country...
The Dutch settlers arrived here in 1636 and set up sugar and tobacco plantations, but it was the trade which made the island flourish in the eighteenth century. At that time, over 3,500 ships would visit Statia every year, trading in anything the world traded in, then. Slaves, gold, silk, embroideries, weapons, you name it. For a while it was the commercial center of the Caribbean. Even nations at war would trade with eachother here, with one selling to the Statian traders and the enemy buying from the Statians.
By mistake, Statia was the first ever to give an official canon salute to a rebel American ship in 1776, thus indirectly recognizing the United States as a souvereign state. The English were not amused and it is said this salute to an American ship contributed to the English-Dutch war, during which Admiral Rodney occupied and plundered the island. An amusing anecdote was that he could not find much gold, but observed the Dutch-Jewish settlers sure held a lot of funerals. On Rodney's orders, one of the coffins was opened and they found it was full of gold and valuables: the settlers were burying their valuables. Rodney confiscated all of the treasures on his personal account, and was almost court-martialed for this theft, were it not that at that time, he won a sea battle near Les Saintes, off Guadeloupe. And he was pardoned for his theft.
When he exiled the Jewish settlers to neighbouring St.Kitts, he got suspicous again and had the coats of the prisoners examined. Once again, he found their coats were stuffed with gold...
There is only one main village on Statia: Oranjestad, whose lower town used to be the main trading post of the Caribbean, before it eroded and was washed away by hurricanes. In the pictures, you clearly see the dominant volcano, Upper Oranjestad and the lower town, below the cliff. Some walls of the old town can still be seen underwater, just 20-30 meters from the shore, making it an excellent diving and snorkeling area.
Statia is off the beaten track for the tourists. Most come here for the diving, but for the rest, there is not much to do. It is a very laid back island. Very, very laid back. The first evening we were here, we asked which fresh fish they had, and the answer was: "None. All is frozen". We did not think much of it, until the next evening, we asked for fresh fish in another restaurant. Once again, the answer was: "None, all frozen". "But how come", we asked, "there is plenty of fish in the ocean here?". The expat waiter sighed and asked "How long have you been on the island, sir?". "Two days". "And in those two days, have you seen any of the fishermen on the water?", the waiter asked. "No", we said. "Right", was the answer, "To fish means to work. There is a saying here: 'If you see someone working in Statia, he ain't from here'. So rather than fishing, the people here prefer to import their fish frozen from St.Martin.". Go figure.
And somewhere this attitude reflected on the island as a whole. In a positive way: there is no crime, people just go about their business, they are friendly (the more for us, as we speak Dutch!). But also in a negative way: What could have been made into a nice marina, the harbour was just a pile of rocks and a short pier for the tugboats working on the oil tankers. Once you step off the pier, you see rubbish and junk everywhere. People said plastic bags are the island's state flower, as you used to see them flying off the trees everywhere. Once again, a pity.. An island paradise with a lot of junk. Still you could see some beautiful houses. In the end, every island in the Caribbean has its own charm.
After almost a week in Anguilla, we sailed to Sint Barthelemy (St.Barths or St.Barts for short). We were heading straight into the wind, so we motored most of the way, with waves spraying in the cockpit most of the time. But St.Barts was worth it.
Discovered by Columbus in 1493, the first French settlers only came in 1648, but were massacred by the Caribs. A later attempt was more successful and the French turned the natural hurricane-proof harbour into a mooring port for buccaneers who plundered the Spanish galleons. In 1784, the French turned over the ownership of the island to the Swedes in return for free port rights in Gotenburg, at the other side of the world.
After a devastating fire in 1852, the Swedes did not have the funds to rebuild the capital, Gustavia, and sold the island back to the French in 1878 for the sum of US$45,700, who made it a duty-free port. And it still is today. Called "the Riviera of the Caribbean", it is said to be a play ground for the rich and famous.
It shows, the island was dotted with beautiful houses, clean streets, and small hotels. Houses were well taken care of, people were friendly and forthcoming. The whole island - which is only 25 square kilometers, felt like a French Mediterranean village. Rather expensive to live in, the locals said. But we did not mind a bit of luxury.
Once more, we enjoyed the views and the beaches. The girls gave kayaking a try, while Tine and I thought the sunchairs were just fine... :-)
For those tuning into this blog for the humanitarian aid posts, I apologize. We will be back soon to the 'real world'. For the moment, let me rave and mesmerize a bit longer about the Caribbean and sailing ;-)... Life is too short not to enjoy it... ;-)
For those interested in sailing in the Caribbean:
A must-have are the cruising guides by Chris Doyle (http://www.doyleguides.com/). The one we used this trip is 'The Cruising Guide to the Leeward Islands", and covers Anguila down to Guadeloupe and Dominica. 500 pages full of all what you need to know to sail in the are, with well written background info and useful tips with maps and navigational info for not even US$30.
Another tip. We always charter bareboat from a company called "The Moorings" (www.moorings.com). This was the fourth year we chartered from them. Apart from a real bad experience last year, when chartering out of their Tortola base (the boat was really poorly maintained and the service was just no good), they do everything to ensure you have a great and trouble free sailing holiday. You can charter with a skipper too. In the past, we took a skipper onboard for the first days to get the boat, but I gathered this year, I had enough experience to handle the boat from day one. But, people, if you don't sail regularly, do take a one or two day course in harbour maneuvers before you charter..! I do a refresher course every year, even though I am an RYA powerboat instructor. The horrors you see when freshmen try to moor, anchor or berth a boat are not pretty... More on that in a later post.
After a few days in St.Martin, we got onto the boat and sailed for about six hours to Anguilla. We anchored in Road Bay.
Here is a view from a hill top, down on Road Bay. You can see the port on the left, and the old salt pond on the right. It was a lovely anchorage, with locals racing their boats on weekends. The beach was clean, for a main port that is, and offered lovely sunsets. There were only a few boats in the main port, typical for Anguilla, which seems to be off the beaten track for most tourists. I can not imagine why. The beaches were amongst the most beautiful we had ever seen in the Caribbean. We drove around the island for a day, to get a taste of the atmosphere. People were laid back and friendly. A really enjoyable island, without the mass tourism of St.Martin. We did two trips with the boat: to Sandy Island (you can see our boat anchored in a distance) and to the cliffs in Little Bay, which made good snorkeling. The weather was nice, about 27 dgr C in the shade. The water was 29 dgrs C. It was hard to imagine that just 10 days before, we were sailing in Belgium, in foul weather gear (see this post). Only one night, we had a "tropical wave" (a storm) passing us, the only one during our sailing trip. It held me up all night on anchor watch, as the wind turn around 360 degrees (it was the first time I experienced wind from the West in the Caribbean!). and had our boat swing a bit too close to another ship on a fixed mooring. At 1 am I actually had to get into the dinghy and help out another boat who had problems anchoring. For the sailors amongs you, I will post some 'bareboat charter horror stories soon...
The first island we stayed on was St.Martin, half Dutch and half French territory. The Dutch part was more Americanized, with casinos, duty free shopping and posh hotels, with the US Dollar as the main currency.
We stayed in a hotel, on the French side, by the Baie Orientale beach. And the beach is what the girls enjoyed the most. We left Paris at 10 am and by 3 pm, we were already laying in the sun.
Much to our surprise, while the flowers and trees were blooming, the grass was brown. "It had hardly rained the last month", the gardener said.
The hotel was well taken care off, with friendly staff, unlike most of the rest of the island, certainly the Dutch side. Once you go off the beaten track, you could see a lot of poverty, loads of dirt and scrap everywhere. A pity they did not take care of the island. It reminded us a bit of Oahu in Hawaii, once you get out of Waikiki... And people were not particularly warm or friendly neither, no matter how hard we tried. Probably "tourist fatigue".
Some pictures from Marigot, the capital on the French side: