News: The Sergio Vieira de Mello Foundation

"M - Requiem for Baghdad" was one of the most emotional short stories I wrote for "The Road to the Horizon". It was a challenge to weave that many personal emotions into one story. Emotions about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the turn the world made on 9/11, the humanitarian operations we were closely involved in after the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The story was written with the bombing of the Canal Hotel, the UN HQ in Baghdad, on August 19 2003 as the center part. That day still represents a very very dark period for me. A day I lost M, a close friend, due to senseless violence she had no part in. A day I lost several of my colleagues, and where several people in my team got severely wounded. A day which scarred many of us even up today.

One of the people we lost was
Sergio de Mello, who was the UN Secretary General's Special Envoy to Iraq at the time. A remarkable person I had the privilege to meet several times.
His memory is still alive for many of us, so much that several people put their heads together, and decided to start a foundation in his honour. This is the message they just sent out:

19 August 2003 was a sad day for the United Nations and all those who believe that peace and security can be achieved through dialogue and international cooperation. On that fateful day, Sergio Vieira de Mello and 21 of his UN colleagues and associates fell victims to the first of a long series of violent acts that have characterized the Iraq war.

With Sergio Vieira de Mello's cruel disappearance, the world has not only lost a brilliant and charismatic advocate of peace and human rights but also a tireless and highly effective humanitarian champion.He represented the best the UN could offer in terms of promoting multilateral solutions to today's world's most challenging situations. He remains a sterling example of selfless service for many to emulate.

His brutal death provoked an outburst of sympathy and moving testimonies of high esteem and deep regret for his untimely loss. In acknowledgment of this widespread sentiments and growing movement to honour his memory and pursue his ideals, the Sergio Vieira de Mello Foundation has been created at the initiative of a small group of friends, colleagues and family to continue his unfinished work.

Dedicated to promoting dialogue for the peaceful resolution of conflict, the Sergio Vieira De Mello Foundation has been established as an international entity under Swiss law to continue Sergio’s mission and fulfill his vision through:

• An Annual Prize in his name awarded to individuals, institutions or communities in recognition of their outstanding and unique work undertaken to achieve peaceful reconciliation between peoples and parties in conflict, through dialogue.

• Supporting the initiatives and efforts of individuals, institutions and communities engaged in applying dialogue for promoting peaceful reconciliation and co-existence between peoples and communities divided by conflict.

• Supporting and encouraging academic and research institutions to conduct research and studies in the relevant areas of multilateral humanitarian action to which he devoted his life and on which he left a lasting impact.

• Establishing a Scholarship in his name to be awarded to selected academically outstanding children of victims of humanitarian conflict.

The Foundation's website is expected to be operational soon.The Foundation is in the process of establishing an Electronic Address List of "Friends of Sergio" for communicating directly with them to update and involve them continuously in the Foundation's work."

I will keep you posted.

Update Feb 22 2008: Sergio's foundation is now active!

For updated humanitarian news, check out The Other World News

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News: Detained at US Immigration. So I Am Not the Only One!

One of the most popular short stories on "The Road to the Horizon", is "The Day I Got Exiled from the US". This non-fiction piece states the dry facts of my detention at Dulles Airport, and in the end of my deportation from the US. I have not been able to get a tourist visa ever since, and nowadays can only get into the US for work on my diplomatic visa. Not without being interviewed each time.

And I am not the only one (and not the only diplomat) having problems with US immigration, apparently.
The BBC reports how Shahid Malik - a Muslim Member of Parliament and the UK's current International Development Minister - was detained at Dulles Airport (Washington DC). He said the same thing happened to him at JFK airport in New York last year.

The funny thing is Shahid Malik was in the US as a keynote speaker at an event organised by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), alongside the FBI and Muslim organisations, to talk about tackling extremism and defeating terrorism.

I am extatic the world is so much of a safier place now!

Picture courtesy IWS.

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Once Upon a Fine Antarctic Morning...

nice dark sunset peter I

I kind of wake up. I don’t really want to wake up. I just want to sleep. My body and mind are tired. Tired of days on end working, battling against the snow, wind, cold. Fresh snow slips through the small opening I make in my sleeping bag, trying to take a peek at the inside of the tent. I see the dim light through the tent cover, but that is no indication of time. It is always light this time of the year on the Antarctic. My watch tells me it is 5 o’clock. I have to think a while if that would be 5 AM or 5 PM.. Hmmm, AM it is. Soon my shift will start. I have to get up, but my body refuses. I stare at the side of the tent.

The sleeping tentThe storm started yesterday evening, and is still blowing in full force. It pushes and pulls violently on the sides of our Weatherhaven tents as if it is trying to get rid of it. The thick nylon cargo lashes we pulled over the tents vibrate in the wind as if they were huge strings. The storm howls and roars as if it were nature’s way to say “you guys don’t belong here”. It is true, we don’t belong here. It has only been 60 years since the first people set foot on this godforsaken island near the Southpole. There have been more people on the moon than here, on Peter I island. People should not be here. Living creatures don’t belong here. This is a land of ice, an Antarctic desert.

I pull one hand out of the sleeping bag and brush off the fresh layer of snow which was blown into the tent. No matter how much we tightened the tent cover, the snow always finds a way in. The two meter high half-cylindrical frames move with each new violent pull from the storm. Most of our clothing hangs lined up on cloth hangers. They swing slowly on the frames. It looks Getting dressed in the morning: Strip one layer and put 5 other layers a line-up at the dry cleaners… We are far away from the nearest dry cleaner. Apart from our group of nine expeditioners, we are more than one thousand miles away from other human beings… I pull myself up, and sit on my cod. It is freezing. Must be minus five or ten degrees Centrigrade inside the tent. We don’t dare to light the heater anymore, after the small fire we had a few nights ago. Shivering, I unzip my thick thermal underwear, and put on several layers of polar fleeces, thermal longjohns, and then the Goretex outerwear, thick socks and my leather boots, a cap and a hat, ski goggles and two layers of gloves. There is no part of my body uncovered. With the wind blowing that hard, the windchill drops the temperature down to minus 80 Centigrade outside. Any uncovered piece of skin freezes in no time. A few days ago, we had problems with one of the radio antenna masts. Trying to fix some bolts, I was stupied enough to pull off my gloves so I could fit the nuts onto the bolts. I grabbed hold of the mast with my bare hand and instantly, my skin frooze to the mast. It took three of us breathing onto my hand to melt it off the damned metal.

Willy gets dressed too. Our shift is about to start. A new day is born. The morning shift goes to work. Well almost, as the outer zipper from our tent cover is froozen. I can’t use my lighter as it would melt the plastic. Willy pulls some bags of active carbon from his pocket, shakes it to get it heated up, and holds it against the zipper to warm it up. It takes at least half an hour to move the zipper half a meter. As by miracle, all of a sudden, with a firm pull, the damned cover unzips, and a wall of snow falls into the tent. We are too tired to curse. We know this can happen. Our life here consists mostly of battling against the wind and the snow. The only thing we can see through the half-open tent cover, is a wall of snow. It must be at least three meters high. Trying Picture taken the morning afternot to spill too much of it into the tent, we delve into it, trying to get out. The snow is soft and provides no grip. We have to firm it up by kicking it with our boots. We can only “feel” we are out, but can not “see” anything to confirm it. The wind bites us in the face. Everything is dim grey-whitish in the faint light. Visibility is nil. Totally nil. Ziltch. The snow beneath us, the snow blown up by the howling wind, the sky, all white.

On our belly, we pull ourselves up, and slide down the snowpile which has formed around our tent. When I stand up, I sink up to my waist into the snow. It is light. The snow below is almost as air, so thin, so… well air-y. Walking is almost impossible. We wade through the snow. With some efforts, but at the same time, everything around us is almost psychedelic, making us numb of any physical feeling. This is what they call a white-out. The snow below, the snow blow up by the storm, the air, the ground. Everything has the same shade of white. I tumble over my own feet, and fall. But it is even hard to tell that I fell. There almost no difference in the density of the snow in the air and the snow on the ground. I fall like onto an airy cushion of white. My goggles get covered up, and my own breath sets moister onto it. Makes it even more difficult to see anything. I am floating. A light gaiety wraps around me, I laugh. I am floating. Unaware if I am laying down or standing up. Am I feeling the resistance of the snow on the ground, or the resistance of the wind pushing onto my body? The layer upon layer of special clothing keeps my body warm, makes a protective shell around me, making me even less aware of my surroundings. I float. I laugh. I am flying. Gliding through the whiteness. I could be meters up in the sky, or just wading through snow, I do not know. I.. I just float. Without knowing, I become desorientated. There is no trace of any of the crates we have stacked around our tents, nor of the cables. I see no tents, not even shades of them. Through the howling of the wind, I still hear the faint noise of the generators, and turn my head trying to find a bearing, purely on the noise, but the wind disperses even that. Even the noise comes from everywhere. This is surreel. A dream.

I start walking, wading through the snow to what I think is the direction of the kitchen tent. A dozen yards further, someone pulls me from the back. Willy. He pulls my head close to his mouth, and shouts ‘Are you nuts? Where are you going to?’. I can hardly hear his voice through the storm. I stretch my arm to give an indication of where I am going, but Willy waves his hand. ‘No! It is that way, come’. By myself, I had wondered a hundred meters from the camp, straight into the area we know is full of crevasses. If Willy had not stopped me, I might have disappeared. Nobody would have found me in time. And I would not have been able to get out by myself, tumbling down ten, maybe a hundred meters down the ice caves of the glacier we put our camp on.

Hand in hand, Willy and I make our way to one of the generators. In our efforts to keep them ice and snow free, we tried everything. Our latest experiment was to build a wall of crates around them, but still the snow getss into the sheltered hole. Luckily as we keep the engines running, their heat melts off anything. The disadvantage is that the heat also has the generators dig One of the generators. This one actually stalled and froze up in half an hourthemselves into the snow. The glacier is hundreds of meters thick here, so they still have some way before they literally hit rock bottom. The disadvantage though is that it makes a hell of a challenge trying to service them, or fill them up with gas. I crawl over the wall of crates and jump into the hole. Willy hands me the jerry cans, and I flip the lid open, put the funnel into the generator’s gas tank and pour the gas in it. The wind sprays the fuel all over my legs, and hands. I can smell the fumes. I have to be careful as the generator is hot. If I spill too much, the whole thing will go off in flames. Willy crawls into the hole and makes a joint between the jerry can’s lid and the gas tank. “Pour!”, he shouts, trying to lift his voice above the wind and the deafening noise of the generator. And I pour. Thinking how much I hate this ‘morning duty’ to refill the gensets. And this is only one. We have four of them. But still, I love it. I love this challenge. I love to find my own limitations, I love to face my own fear and laugh at it, in the face. I love doing this, this expedition, that people said to be impossible. I love to laugh in their face. Even as a new blow of wind sprays fuel all over me.

One of the working tents, after we cleared the snowAn hour later, we unzip the opening of the working tent. In the small space of 2.5 by 2.5 meters, three guys are sitting, working on the radio. They have the gas heater on, and are sweating in their Tshirt. They are concentrated trying to decypher the radio messages, and only look up at the distraction of two people crawling into their oasis of heat. Willy and I look alike. All covered up with patches of froozen snow, mucus dangling off our nose, damped ski goggles and smelling like we fell in a petrol pump. We pull off our caps and goggles, and smile at our team mates. “Goooooood moooooooooooorninggggg Vietnaaaaaaaaaaaaam!”, we laugh… A new day is born on Peter I. The most isolated island in the world. How we love this life.

Another Fine Antarctic Morning. At least on that one, we could SEE something!

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Rumble: Thank You!

Peter on his 47th birthday party two weeks ago"The Road to the Horizon" blog was created mid January this year. We just passed the mark of the 75,000th visitor. They -you- come from all over the world (see this map).

That makes about 280 visitors per day. Add to that 120 readers who get their stories automatically delivered via
the feeds' subscriptions, and we come to a total of 400 readers per day.

This makes me happy. Thank you.


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Doing Good to Others

We reef the sails, as we see the clouds gathering. While we are still sailing in the sun, the darkness packs at the horizon. That is how it goes in the Caribbean this time of the year: sunshine one moment, rain the next. Under the threatening clouds hurrying towards us, we see the white foam on the waves. The wind will pick up soon. We are sailing to Petit St Vincent in the Grenadines. Everyone calls it “PSV”, for short. An island barely one mile in diameter, covered with palm trees and bush. It is not far anymore, maybe another half an hour of sailing. But we don’t not make it in time. The rain catches up with us, and before we know it, we are engulfed in a dense curtain of water gushing down. I studied the pilot book this morning, and know how the anchorage looks like, by heart. The GPS guides me towards the entrance between the coral heads and the beach.

As we steer into the anchorage, we put the kids below deck, drop the sails, and start the engine. Tine goes to the bow, ready to drop anchor. I steer the boat right in-between the other anchored ships. The rain gushes down. Visibility is only ten meters, sometimes even less. We loose sight of the other boats. Even though we motor slowly, sometimes an anchored boat pops up through the curtain of rain, out of no-where it seems, when it is almost too late to avoid a collision. The wind is strong and gusty, shifting often 90 degrees. A sailboat, and certainly one like ours with a short keel, and very beamy – flat wide bottomed – gets easily pushed around by the wind. Once the boat starts turning with the wind, there is no way to stop the momentum. Then you just HAVE to turn.. It makes it difficult to maneuver between anchored boats, all swinging on their anchor chains, in the stormy wind… But we do well, find a proper spot, and drop the anchor in one go. Phew!

It storms and rains the whole night, but the next morning is bright and sunny, revealing the small paradise we are anchored in. Hardly any clouds left. The sea is clear light green-blue, several fishing terns are gliding high up in the sky, without moving their wings. A soft breeze moves through the leaves of the palm trees bordering the beech of bright white sand. Paradise once more.

In the afternoon, while having brunch on the deck of the boat, we spot two young local fishermen in the water, dragging what seems to be a white surf board. I get a bit suspicious as it does not look like they are having fun, rowing wildly with their arms, barely keeping their head above water. Through the binoculars I can see a black thing on their surf board. Maybe a large plastic bag or a net. As a rain squall comes closer, they seem the more anxious to get ashore. It is all a bit weird: what are they doing in a channel between two islands, on a surfboard? I take our dinghy, and motor to them, only to find that there is no surfboard, but they were dragging a small white wooden boat filled to the rim with water. The black thing I saw earlier is an outboard engine they had unscrewed and put inside the boat. “Mista, you help us, mista?”, they ask. I throw them a rope and tow them ashore. They drag their boat onto the beach, crawl onto the sand, and lay on their back, exhausted. Barely waving their hands to thank me.

When I get back to our sail boat, Hannah, our youngest, stands on the bow of our ship, shouting and dancing “My dad is a superhero! Superdad in action! My dad can do anything!..” Lana gives me a hug. “Dad, I am proud of you. The people on the other boats were just watching, but you DID something… Did you those guys give you anything to thank you?” I tell them when we do good to others, somewhere we will be rewarded by something good ourselves..
In the afternoon, when we scuba dive, and find some astonishingly beautiful cone shelves, Lana says “You see, we are rewarded now. We did something good, and now we are rewarded with these beautiful shelves. We will take them with us, and put flowers in them. As a reminder to do good to others!”.

I guess my kids learned a lesson that day.

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Nights on Deserted Islands

“Nights on Deserted Islands.
Lesson #1: Don’t walk between the trees”

Around midnight, I give up. I can not sleep. The cod I lay on is too hard. I don’t have any cover, and there is no space anymore in the tent. Half of us sleep under the sky. Seems romantic, sleeping under the open sky on a Pacific island, but the combination of the wind with my wet T-shirt and shorts, make it too cold to have romantic thoughts.And above all, adrenaline pumps in my veins.

Clipperton, a deserted island in the Pacific, one thousand miles off the coast of Mexico. We traveled for weeks to reach this forgotten piece of land. I don’t see much of it, in the darkness. The ground is covered with a thick layer of grinded light coloured coral. I can see the shades of the palm trees a few hundred meters from where we pitched our tent. I can see a few stars in the moist sky. Clouds are passing by regularly. In a distance, I hear the waves braking.
This scenery could have been from anywhere. Somewhere in Africa, the Caribbean, or Mediterranean. But this is much more exotic. This is the Pacific. We are the first people to set foot on this islands since months. Years probably. And that makes it special, exotic, exciting. A deserted island called Clipperton.

Jay sticks his head out of the tent.
“Shit, I can’t sleep”, he sighs.
“You know, Jay, what we could do? We could go to the landing spot, and get some of the sleeping bags, and cushions. I just can’t sleep on this cod without covers.”, I wisher softly not to wake up the rest of the landing party.
“Cool, let’s do that. Here is a flashlight. Let’s go”.

I put on my wet shoes. It was a pretty rough landing on the island, this afternoon. There is no port nor jetty here. We had to steer the dinghies through the surf and jump in waist-deep water to offload our gear, wading through the water, trying not to trip over coral heads and not to step on sea urchins. My shorts are still wet too, making it difficult to walk.

The beam of the flashlight veers left and right, lightening up the hundreds of land crabs crawling over the broken coral, in between the boobies, sleeping with their beak tucked in their wings. Most birds don’t even move as we walk close to them. They don’t know these big creatures, called humans. The boobies are not conditioned to be scared of humans, that is clear. One flies straight into Jay in a typical booby-clumsy attempt to land. The more gracious these birds are in the air, the more silly they behave on the ground. Their way of landing and taking off, often involves tumbling upside down, tripping over their own feet. Nature can’t be perfect in everything.

We get close to the palm trees, lining up at the beech.
"I hear the sound of rain coming closer”, says Jay.
"Hmm, rain, and all we have is T-shirts and shorts..”, I mumble.

As we negotiate our way inbetween the palm trees, the first drops fall. Big drops. Platsh, platsh, platsh. Warm drops. The strong smell of ammoniac cuts off our breath. As we sway the flashlight to and fro, the beam catches the side of Jay’s head for a moment. I hold his hand, take the light, and shine it onto his face. It is covered with a white thick glue-y stuff.

“Jay”, I can’t catch my breath from laughing, “that ain’t rain, man, that is bird shit”.
Jay shouts “Oh shhhhit”, as he starts running to the beach, from under the trees. “Oh shhhhit”!
“Yeah, shit indeed!!”, I laugh.

We shine the light in the trees. The palm trees are full of boobies. Dozens of birds sit on each branch. Hundreds of boobies in each tree, thousands of them in the small bush we just walked through. And it seems like they don’t do anything but shit in their sleep. The palm trees, the leaves, the ground, is covered with white smelly guano. And so are we. From top to bottom.

Welcome to the deserted island of Clipperton! Welcome to paradise!

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Rumble: Food Convoys: No Romantic Trips

WFP Food convoy in Darfur

In Sudan, a series of attacks on UN World Food Programme (WFP) food truck convoys in the last week has resulted in the deaths of three WFP-contracted drivers. Two were shot dead in one incident on 16 October and another died in a second earlier incident on 12 October.

On Thursday 18 October, another incident occurred near Jebel Mara in South Darfur. According to initial reports, five WFP-contracted trucks were stopped by 20 armed men. Two of the five trucks were stolen along with their cargo of relief food (23 tons). All the drivers were released, however some sustained injuries. All personal belongings were stolen.

Since the beginning of this year, there have been more than 20 attacks on WFP food aid convoys in Darfur.
WFP is the organisation bringing in the majority of food aid to Darfur.

Picture courtesy Martin Walsh

For updated humanitarian news, check out The Other World News

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Rumble: Food Convoys in the Rainy Season

Some more pictures we got in from the field. Food convoys in the Central African Republic.

Pictures courtesy Angus Fraser (with thanks to Martin Walsh)
For updated humanitarian news, check out The Other World News

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Lost Connection

Dubai airport at night

Dubai International Airport - October 7, 2001.
I step out of the plane and look at my watch. 10 pm. Two hours to shop in the Dubai Tax Free before boarding my connecting flight to Islamabad, Pakistan.
I follow the stream of arriving passengers moving along on the first floor of the airport, overlooking the shopping area. I look at the vast crowd below. A dense mix of every possible Dubai Duty free shopping arenationality, religion and ethnicity in the world, expressed through a myriad of dress codes. From formal western suites, the traditional Arab dishdashahs, women in mini skirts mixed with those fully veiled. Rough Afghani chupans, expensive Indian silk sari’s, Berber djellabas, Australian safari shorts, Sudanese turbans, American baseball caps and Arab hijabs. This crowd seems to represent the world within one space. But the crowd is not strolling along from one shop to another in its usual way. The people are talking in groups, some with raised voices and expressive hand gestures, and others whisper. There is no laughing, nor joy but a nervousness makes the tension in the air so thick one could cut it with a knife. You do not have to be a clairvoyant to feel something is wrong.

Hundreds of people are lining up at the transit counters, below large displays listing numerous cancelled and delayed flights. The atmosphere is grim. Utter grim. I grab hold of someone in an Emirates Airlines uniform and ask her what is going on. She answers: “Have you not heard? The US started bombing Afghanistan a few hours ago. They closed the airspace above Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and all Gulf countries. No civil plane will be flying anymore for a while!”.
For a moment, I feel like the ground is pulled away from beneath my feet. “The US started bombing Afghanistan… This, we have feared since 9/11, a month ago. Retaliation. The beginning of the turmoil in the region, which will last for years. What will happen with Pakistan? How will the government react, how will the people react?”, thoughts flash through my mind as the lady explains the airline has booked hotel rooms, and buses are waiting outside.

I act like a robot: I walk through immigration, pick up my bags, and walk outside. The heat, humidity and mere mass of people crowded at the airport exit cuts off my breath. I get onto the bus and let myself fall into a free seat. I look at the crowd, the stuck traffic,…
- “Not flying tonight, are you?”, a voice says. I wake up from my reverie and look at the guy next to me. American accent.
- “No, apparently not!”, I mumble.
- “Harry”, he says as he holds out his hand.
- “Peter”, I answer, “where were you supposed to fly to?”
- “Oh, I was supposed to fly to Uganda”, he says, “my wife works there.”
- “Oh, really”, I answer, “I worked there too, left two years ago”. I try to make conversation, killing the time waiting for the bus to leave..
- “Really? You work for the UN?”
- “Yes, I do, for WFP”.
- “Oh, my wife works in the same building.. Cathy Ashcroft, maybe you know her!”. It turns out Harry is the husband of Cathy I know since years, the same Cathy I helped setting up the OCHA office in Kampala. We engage into a vivid conversation of Kampala, life in Africa, relief work and of course come back to the subject of the US bombing campaign.

After checking into the hotel, Harry and I walk to the night club, the only place we can still get a drink. In the mean time, it is already 1 am. A few men and a couple form the meagre audience, spread over a dozen tables. A small live band is playing without much enthusiasm. We take a seat in the back, and order a drink. I really really need a drink.
US bombing campaignI tell Harry about how we feared for the retaliation, how we feared how the whole region was going to react. No matter how much everyone hated the Taliban, it was still an attack on a sovereign country. A Muslim country. Would countries in the region now choose sides? Be forced to choose sides? Above all, it would mean that masses of people would be killed. Tens, if not hundreds of thousands would start moving within the country, trying to find refuge. It could possibly cause an exodus into all countries around Afghanistan: Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iran,... Working for a front-line humanitarian organisation, I know what this would mean for us: we would go and provide aid, close to the line of fire. I think of all our national staff who is still in Afghanistan.
All of a sudden the band changes beat and a belly dancer starts her act. There is something wrong with this picture… A war has started tonight. A big one. And here we are in a dark bar, watching a belly dancer…

Tomahawk missile launched from a war shipI find no joy, pay for the drinks, say good-bye to Harry, and walk outside. Sitting on a bench near the hotel entrance, I lit a cigarette. I close my eyes, and imagine the infernos of fire, explosions, shrapnel in the black night around Kabul, Jalalabad and Kandahar. All places I have visited in Afghanistan. I can see families trying to seek refuge in their homes. I can see their fear not knowing what is going on, how long it would last, and what this would mean for them, and their livelihood. I can smell their fear even where I was sitting.
I look up. The night sky is clear. I imagine the Tomahawks launched from war ships close by. I imagine war planes rushing overhead, ten miles up in the sky. The pilots looking down at Dubai, this city of light and splendour, as they bank left and turn the direction of Afghanistan.

I was blocked in Dubai for three days. Spent the whole time in my hotel room, on email and telephone, coordinating with my team in Islamabad and with my counter parts in Rome. After three days, the air space was re-opened. I got onto the first plane that flew from Dubai to Islamabad. People were so anxious to get back home, they started a fight while boarding.
One month later, I landed in Kabul. As the Taliban retreated, they suffered quite some losses. People took the turbans from the bodies and threw them up in the trees. The turbans unruffled and for months long strips of shiny turban cloth were weaved in between the branches, floating in the wind.

It made me think of the start of the war and the belly dancer. The same contrast I found in dead bodies and their turbans floating in the wind, dangling from a tree. There is nothing poetic about the horrors of war. I understood what Marlon Brando meant in “Apocalypse Now”.

Pictures courtesy (bombing), CNN (Tomahawk), (Duty free zone)

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Rumble: The Right Balance

In a number of posts I wrote about finding the right balance between our work and private life. This is a challenge in a "normal" office job, but certainly when working in the field, with your family thousands of miles away.

In this post, Enrico writes about "one of those days" where one questions if the right balance will ever be found...
Enrico, the floor is yours:

Finding the right balance in life is so difficult to achieve that some people choose it as their sole undertaking. A common mistake made by many though is to think that the perfect balance is an absolute concept. However, some large organizations are sensitive enough to give their employees the opportunity to experience this concept first hand.
Working in a remote location in South Sudan, today was “one of those days” when you think something is seriously wrong.

Here is the deal: I am in charge of a humanitarian operation that covers an area in South Sudan, which is five times the size of Denmark. The country is amazingly challenging with little or no infrastructure and lots of insecurity.
Luckily things only turn real bad during the rainy season. Unfortunately, the rainy season lasts an average of 8 months a year.
The very few roads are impassable. The airstrips turn unland-able and the country becomes one big swamp. It gets so bad, that a long sunny spell is what most South Sudanese pray for and what can make the difference between life and death for those waiting for food aid and other relief items. The floods destroy harvests and paralyse the little commerce that shyly emerges during the dry season. The conditions are so bad that some areas become impenetrable islands where its unfortunate residents might take weeks before they can move out, and this happens to humanitarian workers too.

Here is a rainy season’s day in Bor, South Sudan:

You start your day taking a radio call from one of your food monitors out in the field, informing you the airstrip where we were to pick her up, was not landable and that she’d run out of food supplies and water.
Another staff member calls in via the radio, asking for a tractor to rescue his vehicle which had got bogged down 100 Km from their final destination. While organizing help for the teams in the field, one of your staff kindly reminds you he hasn’t been paid for the past two months -quite common in a place where banks do not exist-.
His gentle reminder is accompanied by the stern annoyance of your security guards, who are still waiting for their new contract and never miss an opportunity to remind you they were good at shooting before the South Sudan peace treaty was signed.
Your life immediately becomes second priority when a kind man tells you that we only have five drums of fuel left to run the vehicles and generators, without which your operation will stop.
Which reminds you, you should really start working on finally getting your admin, finance and human resources assistants recruited !

Ten minutes later, a director general from one of the nearby ministries is at your door asking for tents so he can relocate his flood-affected family to higher grounds. While still keeping a smile and dealing with some of these adversities, you are suddenly reminded of the urgent need to go to the bath room. The nearest latrine is two kilometres from your office, though.
“Never mind”, you think, “Lunch time is in a few hours, I will go then.” Meanwhile you stay away from the river water that you’ve found in the office water dispenser. *%$$£ !

This is about the time, you hear shooting in the vicinity of the office, and as the UN security area coordinator, responsible for the security of all UN staff, you are compelled to do something.

By 11 am, you fake a big smile, and remember that your landlord wants to kick you out of your current premises. And the governor wants to turn your best warehouse into a prison. Meetings to be held! Just as you realize there is no vehicle to go for lunch (and to the latrine!), you remember it’s Friday and your weekly sitreps are due.

While you try to forget the urgency of nature’s call, you are reminded by Email to do a bit of planning for the next food distribution, and you are trying darned hard to figure out how on earth you’re going to recruit 40 people.

Before you know it, you realise it’s already 6 pm and mosquitoes will soon start looking for you. Then again, you remind yourself you are a humanitarian worker and that suffering is part of the job. So shrug and look one more time at your in-box trying to figure out which of the last 50 unread message deserves your attention.
Three of them catch your attention as they carry a red exclamation mark indicating a priority message. You open them up and they read:

  1. “The time for submission for the peer support focal point is due today”. You think this would be ideal work for your HR assistant. If only you just had one..
  2. “the deadline for the UN Module on Prevention of Harassment, Sexual Harassment and Abuse of Authority in the Workplace is due by the end of the month and is mandatory for all staff.” You are glad that somebody reminds you of those important topics that often get overlooked by operational people. But then you remember that 60% of your staff is always in the field, distributing food in remote locations where only radio connectivity is available. Another 20% only speaks the local dialect, which unfortunately is not included in the five United Nations official languages of the “harassment module”. And the remaining 10% of your staff, is stuck in the mud of the rainy season somewhere waiting for you to pull them out.
  3. “Next year’s budget submissions are due tomorrow.” You know that you’ll never make it and without this you are doomed.
Your driver reminds you that it’s 8 pm and that he’s never been paid overtime. His calling awakens your bladder and reminds you of the curfew. You are cheerful, though, because tonight at least you have a driver waiting for you. You go back to your living compound to be welcomed by ugali and beans. Again. You look at the food, force down a few bites, switch on your laptop, the custodian of hundreds of unread messages. The frogs’ choir and bats hitting your tent imply that midnight is near…
Wait! One more message to read: your wife and kids remind you how much they miss you and that your place is at home with them. You are about to reply telling them that your supervisor asked you to postpone your leave due to an unplanned important event, but that would be too much in one day.

Just after midnight, you switch off the light and promise yourself that the following day you’ll figure out the meaning of all this and that you will soon find a better balance.

Pictures courtesy Ulrik Pedersen

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Rumble: The Driver's License

From Enrico in South Sudan.

During my security briefing in Khartoum prior to my deployment into South Sudan, I’m reminded that international staff are not supposed to drive and therefore no local driving licence is required: “Local drivers speak the local language, they know the local driving customs and the terrain, they know where to run for help if need be.”, they said. “Fair enough, something less to worry about”, I thought.

A few days later, when I arrive in my new Southern Sudan duty station, I receive a warm welcome from one of our local drivers. For the rest of the week, I end up being the only driver in the office. No news of the nice chap that picked me up from the airstrip. All the other drivers are on field missions.
I assume the policy “always to use a driver” was more of a “generic guideline”.
“Maybe I should start thinking of a driving licence, just for emergencies”, I think.

It is a thought that recurs when one of the young drivers comes back from his walk-about. I ask him why he’d disappeared for a week without permission.
- “Nothing special”, he tells me, “A chap wanted to marry my younger sister, but couldn’t afford the dowry of 35 cows we’d negotiated. So he decided to kidnap my sister. My family and I chased them up. We –euh—“renegotiated” (and he had a big smile on his face as he said this) the dowry and they’ll soon be married,” he concludes, nodding with a satisfied smile.
- “So, do you have more unmarried sisters?”, I ask.
- “Three more”, he says. It makes me think “I really need to get me a driving licence, before he starts chasing yet another future brother-in-law of his!”

The next time I got to the regional capital, Juba, I fill in the forms to apply for a local driving license.
- “Not a problem, sir!”, says our Juba head driver, “You only need to pass an eye test!”
He takes me to a place which looks no-where like a hospital or a place where they practice medicine... He explains this is where eye tests are carried out. A middle aged lady takes me to an empty room. Our head driver and the lady exchange a few words in the local language, she fills in a form, stamps it and gives me the receipt.
- “Let’s go, sir!” The head driver announces abruptly.
- “How about my eye test?”, I protest.
- “It’s all done, sir! She looked into your eyes and didn’t see anything wrong.”

A few days later, I am the proud owner of a Sudanese driver’s license. Life is good.

Picture courtesy Ulrik Pedersen

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Rumble: The Theory of Relativity

Enrico sent me another story from the deep field:

As a Master’s student I often wondered about the possible applications of the theory of relativity. Fifteen years later, while sitting at my desk as the recently appointed head of our office in South Sudan, I had my revelation.
A young man came to me with a request for salary advance at the end of another day in the ‘deep field’: a day full of nuisances and challenges The form bore two signatures, which gave me a bit of reassurance that the request had gone through an initial screening process. I asked him for his name and what he did for WFP. The answer didn’t come immediately. I repeated my question for a second time and after one or two seconds of hesitation he uttered a few words in Dinka, the local language.
Being Italian, I had no difficulty in using my body language to make him understand to come back with an interpreter. So he did and I got his name and function. Which did not seem to match those on the form. So I asked the translator, one of the two signatories, why the name on the form was not the same name provided by the young man.
- “Well, because that’s his brother’s name”, the interpreter replied.
- “And where is his brother?” I queried.
- “He diseased a couple of months ago!”, he said.
- “This is not a family position”, I growled, “WFP only employs people through a selection process and based on competencies and relevant work experience.” “How was he hired?”, I enquired, still annoyed.
- “Well, he inherited his brother’s family so he took his brother’s job to maintain them.”
He certainly had a point, and I was about to mellow, but asked one more question:
- “What type of contract have you been given, my son?”
Without hesitation the interpreter offered the answer:
- “None!”
I closed my laptop and called it a day.

Picture courtesy Ulrik Pedersen

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Rumble: iRack Anyone? Or Are We Already at iRan?

Another way to protest. And pretty funny too!

"No-one wants the iRack". "There is no exit strategy for the iRack". "We will keep on throwing more money at the iRack. But don't worry, start focusing on the newest product: the iRan".. hahaha.. - The Apple iRack

tnx to E. for the link

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Rumble: Food Aid Crossing African Rivers

More pictures illustrating the challenges of trucking relief food to remote locations. They were taken in CAR - the Central African Republic.

Pictures courtesy Angus Fraser with thanks to Alex Marianelli.
For updated humanitarian news, check out The Other World News

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Rumble: Food Aid to Where No-One Goes.

On the floor I am working, we have about fifty people. These fifty people coordinate the shipment of 4 million tonnes of food aid per year. 4 million tonnes are transported via ocean freighters, coastal vessels, trains, trucks, barges and -in case no other transport is available- via cargo plane, to the beneficiaries in the world's most remote locations.
We go where there are no roads, no service shops, no gas stations, no road side restaurants, nothing. We go where only one sort of thing exists: challenges...

Here are some pictures from our food aid trucks battling the odds in Sudan:

This does not look bad, but once those axles rest on the sand, there is only one thing to do: start digging, or towing!

Slightly worse.

10 tonnes of food per vehicle, does tend to push the wheels a bit into the sand.

Nope, nothing wrong with this one! This truck is finding its way through a flooded passage, and is still moving.

This one was more unfortunate... It got in too deep and the water washed it away.
Martin reports that in the mean time, with a second hand cabin, this truck is back on the road again!

Pictures thanks to Martin Walsh!

For updated humanitarian news, check out The Other World News

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Rumble: Make Love, Not War - Part 2

The More Blonde, The More Fun!
Guess this is a way to protest against the war too!

(From blogspot
"A picture speaks a thousand words")

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News: Make Love, Not War

Vogue published a series of pictures from fashion photographer Steven Meisel approaching the war in Iraq from a different and rather unique angle. 

Some see it as distasteful, others see it as criticism on the war, others see it as pure commercialism. Whatever it is, it is controversial in a world often dominated by conformism.

More pictures from the "Make Love, Not War" series, you find here.

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News: Cost of Wars in Africa Equals Total Value of Aid

Wars stripped about $284 billion from Africa's economies between 1990 and 2005, roughly equal to the amount of aid money given to the world's poorest continent, according to a report by Oxfam International. In the study "Africa's Missing Billions," the British aid group said the 23 conflicts engulfing Africa in the period had shrunk economies by an average 15 percent per year at a cost of almost $18 billion a year. Oxfam based its estimate on a calculation of the various costs of conflicts and violence, including higher military expenditures, loss of development aid, rising inflation and medical expenses of those injured or disabled.
Picture courtesy of Reuters
For updated humanitarian news, check out The Other World News

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Rumble: Sunset in Fregene

Fregene, Italy. Last weekend. Sunset seen from the living room in my apartment.
While one could hear the sea in the background, smell the salt in the air, mixed with the odour of the pine trees...

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Rumbles: Writing Friends

Two of my friends started writing down some of their stories. Both work in the same "business" as I do. Our paths, our roads, crossed many years ago, and continued to overlap since then.

Ladies first: I met Marie-France (who features as the mysterious "MF" in some of my posts) about eleven years ago (in 1996) in Ivory Coast. We were first introduced by a common friend, in a bar, said "Hi", and that was it. We met two weeks later at a party, where she said "Hey, I am leaving next week, and will start to work with the World Food Programme!". I answered: "Hey coincidence, so am I!". (MF remembers me because that night I was wearing a fluorescent T-shirt saying 'Save the coral'. "You always have a soft spot for designer clothes", E. would say... hahaha).
Anyway, long story short. MF went to work in far and remote Ngara (West Tanzania), I was a few hundred kilometers further in Kampala (Uganda), and we would not speak again for about a year. One evening, I was working late in the evening, and she called in to our radio room, asking for an Email exchange (see
this post about the radio email system we developped at that time). Being the only one left in the office, I picked up the radio call, and we started talking. That was in 1998. After a few radio-talks, MF disappeared from the radar, and we met again, over Email, two years later, when she was posted in Rome and I was in Pakistan.. We have kept better contact since then... MF started two blogs, one with her stories as a humanitarian aid worker and one about her new role in life, as mum to Xinfa.

Mats (left in the picture), I met over the radio waves many many years ago, in the late eighties when he was travelling in the Pacific. He was a fanatic ham, just as I was at that time. One day he wrote me an Email saying he was interested to work in the humanitarian world, and a few weeks later, he joined us in Kampala. A classic annecdote I still pull his leg with, was just before joining, he asked if we, as UN humanitarians, were wearing uniforms... He has, we have, come a long way since then, and he features in many of my shortstories. We worked together in Uganda, started FITTEST, the UN's first emergency technical intervention team, we did many missions and emergency interventions together, to end up in Dubai together. We set up and run the WFP base in Dubai for five years. We have been complimentary in many ways. He being more the rational thinker, the one who put systems and procedures in the chaos I created, as the one running on feelings and impressions... Read Mats' travel stories here.

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Rumble: The Pit Latrine

And once more, here is Enrico, reporting from Bor, South Sudan:

When everything else is lacking, the bare necessities are really bare.

Those that come from relatively developed countries have forgotten the very bare necessities of a human being. One of those is a proper toilet with a flush. I always loved camping, but camping for a living, and especially in a non-tourist place has never been my dream. The best you can find as a humanitarian worker in most places in South Sudan is a tent (the lucky ones have the type where you can simply walk in without having to crawl after a long and tiring day) and a pit-latrine. What’s wrong with a tent and a pit latrine? Nothing, if it wasn’t for some small details.

According to Murphy’s laws, your tent always ends up being at a good 20 metres from the latrine, distance that can reach a hundred metres depending on Murphy’s degree of concentration. At night, once you’ve decided that you cannot hold it anymore, you start summoning all your energies and courage to overcome the many obstacles that separate you from the latrine. Y
ou often wonder whether it wouldn’t be less painful to simply forget about it and have a good shower the next morning.

At any rate, unlike you, mosquitoes and many other unknown creatures love your tent, and getting out of it without being bitten to death is the first obstacle. Obviously, this doesn’t come without stress, since your tent’s zipper is usually broken and you don’t want any unwelcome tenants to swamp in. When you are lucky, you haven’t forgotten your torch so you can proceed without further frustration to your ultimate destination.

The second barrier is the snakes, that is, when you have a properly fenced compound where bigger animals cannot enter! Yes, in this part of the world a lot of animals still move around freely and undisturbed. If your journey proceeds without unpleasant encounters, you can finally open the door to the pit latrine. Since you have at least another ten competitors for the same latrine, you always walk the last five metres praying that nobody else has had a similar pressing need.

At this point, the inexperienced, the optimistic and the careless might think that all their troubles are over (or at least, 50% over since the return journey is still awaiting them). The rest, though, know that the worst fear is yet to come: the encounter with the hole! You start wondering whether some disgusting slithery creature might have chosen that unusual place as its den. In those moments, you are still tempted to go back to your tent with your business unfinished. However, after a few seconds of realism and the pressure from your bowls, you decide to lower your trousers and get it over with.

Every night, the average humanitarian worker over here, in South Sudan, dreams of his or her own toilet where they can read the Sunday Times undisturbed!

Pictures and story by Enrico Pausilli

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