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Why I am a humanitarian aid worker

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They ask “So what do you do for a living?”, cocktail drink in hand. When I answer “I am an aid worker”, there are two kinds of people: Those that roll their eyes and those that say “Really?”.
For the first, I don’t do an effort to go any further. Either they are not interested or it goes beyond their level of imagination.
For those that look me in the eye, I know I will have a hard time to explain what exactly I do. And why.

Over the years, luckily many people has asked me why I do the work I do, far fewer have rolled their eyes.. So what do I answer?

Well, let me tell you a story. Quite a time-appropriate story actually, as it is related to events that happened exactly ten years ago, in the Balkans.

It is a slightly reworked version of the shortstory “Scene of War”, published in my eBook.

returning to kosovo

June 1999.

Richard, Alf and I are standing on a mountain pass, at the border crossing between Albania and Kosovo. The view is breathtaking. It is part of a movie, projected in 360 degrees around us. Better than a movie.

A long, slow moving stream starts from far behind us. We can hear it, the random noise. It passes right next to where we stand, and follows bends and curves for as far as we can see. A stream, a steady flow.

Kosovar refugees returning homeA stream not of water, but of people. Tens of thousands. Refugees returning home. Whole families on tractors and donkey pulled carts, with all their belongings stacked as high as they can. Mattresses, cupboards, tables, chairs, cardboard boxes… Mothers holding on to babies, brothers and sisters walking hand in hand. Elderly men with deep grooves in their faces, walking with a stick in their hand, or pushing a wheel barrel.
A massive flow of people. Each with their own horror story to tell, moving steadily back to their homes. Homes they fled a couple of months ago after militia and special forces wrecked their lives, burnt their crops, raped their mothers and daughters, killed their brothers, sons and fathers. As the stream of people tops the mountain pass, they see the same scenery as I do. I wonder what goes on inside them.

In between the mountains tops, capped with tree forests, scarred by cluster bombs which Nato blanketed over them, lay the valleys. Valleys with a fresh green colour of spring grass and young leaves on the trees. For as far as the eye reaches, we can see plumes of smoke coming from the valleys, like candles on a cake, which have just been blown out. Plumes of smoke, going up in the air and dissolving into the clear blue spring sky. Smoke of houses, cars and farm sheds burning, for as far as we can see, dotted over the valleys. The militia and break away paramilitary forces looted and burned everything as they retreated. It looks like the whole country is still burning. People’s lives are burning. And yet the expression on the faces from all who pass us, is not one of desperation, but one of hope. They all smile. Sadly, but they smile. They look at the same scenery as I do, but they think of hope. Hope of starting afresh. They wave at us. They wave at the Nato military trucks and tanks maneuvering in between the stream. “The liberators and the liberated?”.

It is yet another scene of war, another scene of misery and hope, another scene of destruction mixed with hope, of a past and a present. Will it ever end? Will we ever learn from our mistakes?

Two F16 fighter jets blast low over our heads. Instinctively, everyone pulls their heads down. The fighting is not over yet. We hear the remote muffled thunder of a bombing raid. Very far away. The misery is not over yet.

Kosovar refugees returning homeAs I get into the WFP car, my eyes cross those of a young girl, sitting on her mum’s lap, on the back of a tractor. She looks at me and I look at her. I smile and she smiles back, hesitantly raising her arm to wave to me. Her mum searches who the girl is waving to. She finds me. She whispers something in the girl’s ears. The girl looks up, kisses her mum on the cheek, and looks back at me. She throws a kiss at me. I throw one back and wave. She laughs. Her dad, driving the tractor looks back and waves at me too.

Would they know I am thinking of my daughters? Would they know she has the same eyes, the same hair. Would they know this is why I do this work? Because she could have been one of my daughters, sitting on my wife’s lap?

This could have been my family, my life. But destiny has put them there and me here. Sheer luck determined those who suffer and those who never realize enough how lucky they are. Sheer destiny determined those who need help and those that can help. I can help.

And that is why I am an aid worker.

Pictures courtesy Arben Celi (Reuters), Getty Images and Tom Haskell (WFP)

Written by Peter

March 29th, 2009 at 6:07 am

Posted in Articles,Stories

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The Adventures of Little Herman in Kosovo

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Story subtitle: First impressions are often right…

Pristina, Kosovo. March 2000.
For months, we have been looking for a qualified electrician, to maintain our generators in this ‘land of no electricity’. We finally found an excellent resume via the UN Volunteers Programme: an Indian fella, called Herman….
First impression: “Kinda funny name for an Indian. Hmmm..”

Second impression: He did not show up for his first day at work. Last week, we received an email from the UN office in New Delhi stating “We have a person called Herman here, who was to report for duty in your office. We regret to inform you, he was denied access to the Swissair flight out of Delhi. He will try again tomorrow”. Hmmm..

Today he finally arrived. He is a skinny guy, our Herman. He speaks in nervous chunks of English, with a heavy accent. I mean REAL heavy. I thought for a minute I misunderstood him when he mumbled this was his first time ever outside of India. The resume we received from UNV, stated that “Mr. Herman ” had worked for the UN in Rwanda in 1994 and 1995… Hmmm

So I get Rosemary involved. She is our head of logistics, who worked for years in Rwanda. Rosemary asks Herman where he was stationed in Rwanda. Herman simply states “Oh, I never worked in Rwanda. This is my first time out of India.”. Hmm.. I had not misunderstood him, then. He looks at the resume we thought was his and sighs: “Oh, yeah. But that is my brother”, and gives the paper back to me, with an air of “Ok, now, let’s move on”… A brother with the same name, hey? Hmmm…

For security reasons, everyone in the office has a handheld radio, a walkie-talkie, so all can stay in contact with each other at any time. I hand Herman a handheld, asking if he has used one of those before.
He looks at it front to back: “Of course!” and holds it to his ear like a mobile phone and starts shouting: ”Allo, allo, can anyone hear me? Allo, this is Herman..”.
He hands it back to me with a grin: “Does not work, you should check this one, Sahib”..
I send him off to the radio room so they can explain him the difference between a mobile phone and a walkie-talkie…

The same evening.
As usual, everyone is still in the office, working late. As most security incidents happen this time of the day, we all keep our handsets on our desk, volume up. I hear Herman talk on the radio.. Apparently, he is in some kind of trouble. The driver dropped him in front of his guesthouse and Herman is complaining to the radio room his key does not fit. I hear the radio room advise him to ring the door bell. After that the radio remains silent. Guess that worked…
Still, after half an hour, I get a hunch maybe I’d better check he is OK. I call him via the radio. He confirms, in his funny English:
“No, not to worry, Sahib. I got into the apartment.”
“How?”, I ask.
“Oh, I just kicked in the door… “
I think I misunderstood him, and just let go of my worries… He is in his apartment. Safe for the night.

It only takes a couple of minutes before we get another radio call from Herman. He is shouting in his walkie-talkie. We hear all kinds of commotion in the background of his transmission.
- Herman: “Allo, allo, help, help..
- Radio-operator: “Who is this? Identify yourself?”
- Herman: “This is Herman. Help, help, allo, allo!”
- Radio-operator: “Herman, your callsign is PW361- I repeat Papa Whiskey Three Six One. Use your proper callsign! What is your message?”
- Herman: “Yes I understand. You are Papa Whiskey. But I need help” (we hear shouting and cursing in Albanese in the background).
All of a sudden, it gets real quiet in the office. By now, everyone is attentively following the conversation on their own handheld radio. With a wide grin on their face.
- Radio-operator: “Okay, PW361, what is the problem?”
- Herman: “My neighbour is chasing me. He is very mad at me, Sahib.”
- Radio-operator: “Why is he mad at you, PW361?”
- Herman: “I kicked in his door! I kicked in the door of my neighbour’s house!”
- “…”

Our Own Bollywood Star.
And that was just the first day of Little Herman’s Adventures in Kosovo. It went on, day by day, by day… He became the mascot of our office. Every time he ‘appeared’ on the radio, everyone stopped whatever they were doing, just to hear what kind of trouble PW361 got into now.

As time went by, he kinda developed his own radio code. In the morning, we would hear him call “Good Year! Good Year!” on the radio. That was ‘his code’ for “I need a pickup from my apartment to the office”. He lived next to a Goodyear tire shop, you see. And normally the radioroom – in their typical dry humour – would then answer: “PW361, we wish you a Good Year too”.

In the evening, it was “Dardania, Dardania”, meaning “I need a lift back home”. The area he lived in was called “Dardania”.

I did not know what to do with him. He certainly was a danger to himself touching our big generators. So I passed him onto Mick who tried to use him for some administrative work. Mick passed Herman over to Rosemary. Who passed him onto Frank. And Frank, our beloved Kiwi, got stuck with him. Once we heard Frank ask Herman over the radio: “Where are you? What is your location?”. And Herman answered “I am on channel 3″… Frank still hates us for it. I am sure even up to today he still has nightmares about ‘PW361′.

Three months later.

Herman went for his first R&R to neighbouring Macedonia. For a weekend. The next Monday morning, he did not show up for work. We called him on his mobile phone and found out he did not go to Macedonia. During the weekend, he flew to London and got married. Out of the blue, it seems. He never came back to work.

There is something to be said about ‘Trusting your first impressions’..

Top and bottom picture credits: Joe Kelley

(Joe’s excellent blog about his stay in Kosovo, you can find here)

Continue reading The Road to the Horizon’s Ebook, jump to the Reader’s Digest of The Road.

Written by Peter

March 21st, 2007 at 5:58 am

Snow and Memories of Kosovo

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Some of you are asking me ‘Where are you now’? Well, I am home in Belgium at this moment. These are the last months of my sabbatical year before I go back to work. And this morning, it started snowing. As I was driving Hannah to school, the roads choked up and cars started banging into each other. What just 5 cm of snow can do… Agreed, it does not snow often in Belgium, and we’re not used to it.

As I sat in a traffic jam, the snow made me think back of the time I worked in Kosovo. I wrote several short stories about my time there (see Italians , the Art of Flying and the Laws of Probability , Scene of War and The Pizza Place on the Corner ), but I have not yet described our ‘adventures’ during the Kosovar winter time. Of the many times we had to use the snow scooter to get up to the mountain tops to service our radio stations, and got completely stuck. About living in a place so dependent on electricity, but where the electricity just did not work…

It was the first time I worked in real cold place as my previous duty stations had always been in Africa. It took some effort to adjust. Adjusting in having to sleep in thermal underwear. Having to put the bottles of Coke inside the fridge otherwise they would freeze up if we left them on the cupboards. Having to put snow chains on our cars, and still getting stuck. And the challenges driving around zig-zagging through the massive traffic jams, as people did not have money to buy winter tires and slid against anything on or near the road. Part of the traffic problems were also caused because so many at that time were driving without driving license and just could not drive. Many cars did not even have number plates, or were stolen during the war. It was anarchy.

The soldiers from KFOR and the UNMIK-police officers trying to bring some order to the chaos had their hands full. Especially the foreign police officers trying to direct traffic at cross roads. Imagine you are a cop in rural Wisconsin, and you were detached to UNMIK in Kosovo. The recognition of your authority was slightly different, to say the least. It took them a long time to adjust to the facts of life in Kosovo. Our office in Pristina was located on a busy crossroads and looking through the windows, we had loads of fun watching the US police officer standing in the middle of crossing, directing traffic. Most people just ignored him. At one time, a car almost ran him over. He got so upset he actually drew his gun and chased after the car on foot. Ha, memories! I wish I had more than 24 hours per day to write all those memories down. But they are in the making!

Anyway, at this moment, here in Belgium, it is not that bad. We do have the habit of stopping when a cop tells us to, and we do have proper paperwork for our cars :-). Here is a view through my window as I am writing this.

Written by Peter

February 8th, 2007 at 1:09 am

Scene of War

without comments

June 1999.

Richard, Alf and I are standing on a mountain pass, at the border crossing between Albania and Kosovo. The view is breathtaking. It is part of a movie, projected in 360 degrees around us. Better than a movie.

A long, slow moving stream starts from far behind us. We can hear it, the random noise. It passes right next to where we stand, and follows bends and curves for as far as we can see. A stream, a steady flow. Not of water, but of people. Tens of thousands. Refugees returning home. Whole families on tractors and donkey pulled carts, with all their belongings stacked as high as they can. Mattresses, cupboards, tables, chairs, cardboard boxes… Mothers holding on to babies, brothers and sisters walking hand in hand. Elderly men with deep grooves in their faces, walking with a stick in their hand, or pushing a wheel barrel. A massive flow of people. Each with their own horror story to tell, moving steadily back to their homes. Homes they fled a couple of months ago after Serb militia and special forces wrecked their lives, burnt their crops, raped their mothers and daughters, killed their brothers, sons and fathers. As the stream of people comes the mountain pass, they see the same scenery as I do. I wonder what goes on inside them.

In between the mountains tops, capped tree forests, scarred by cluster bombs which Nato blanketed over them, lay the valleys. Valleys with a fresh green colour of spring grass and young leaves on the trees. For as far as the eye reaches, we can see plumes of smoke coming from the valleys, like candles on a cake, which have just been blown out. Plumes of smoke, going up in the air and dissolving into the clear blue spring sky. Smoke of houses, cars and farm sheds burning, for as far as we can see, dotted over the valleys. The militia and break away paramilitary forces looted and burned everything as they retreated. It looks like the whole country is still burning. People lives are burning. And yet the expression on the faces from all who pass us, is not one of desperation, but one of hope. They all smile. They look at the same scenery as I do, but they think of hope. Hope of starting afresh. They wave at us. They wave at the Nato military trucks and tanks maneuvering in between the stream. The liberators and the liberated.

It is yet another scene of war, another scene of misery and hope, another scene of destruction mixed with hope, of a past and a present. Will it ever end? Will we ever learn from our mistakes?

Two F16 fighter jets blast low over our heads. Instinctively, everyone pulls their heads down. The fighting is not over yet. We hear the remote muffled thunder of a bombing raid. Very far away. The misery is not over yet. As I get into the car, my eyes cross those of a young girl, sitting on her mum’s lap, on the back of a tractor. She looks at me and I look at her. I smile and she smiles back, hesitantly raising her arm to wave to me. Her mum searches who the girl is waving to. She finds me. She whispers something in the girl’s ears. The girl looks up, kisses her mum on the cheek, and looks back at me. She throws a kiss at me. I throw one back and wave. She laughs. Her dad, driving the tractor looks back and waves at me too. Would they know I am thinking of my daughter? Would they know she has the same eyes, the same hair. Would they know this is why I do this work? Because she could have been my daughter, sitting on my wife’s lap. This could have been my family, my life. But destiny has put them there and me here. Sheer luck determined those who suffer and those who never realize enough how lucky they are.

‘Let’s go’, I smile at our driver, ‘let’s go, work to be done’. I can see in his eyes he is thinking the same as I do. We all do.

Pictures courtesy WFP/Tom Haskell

Continue reading The Road to the Horizon’s Ebook, jump to the Reader’s Digest of The Road.

Written by Peter

January 11th, 2007 at 4:11 pm

The Pizza Place on the Corner

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“Stop”, I shout, “stoooop !”. Alf steps on the breaks of our Landcruiser. The boxes in the trunk shift forward violently. “Pull over, Alf, pull over!” “What, what is it?”, he shouts, as he maneuvers the car in between the people walking on the side of the road. “Coke. I saw bottles of Coke! There, in the window of the shop!”.
I jump out of the car and run to the shop. Indeed six bottles of Cokes stand in the shop. I step in, and the young boy behind the counter smiles and says ‘Hallo’ in German. I tell him I want the Coke bottles, all of them. I walk back to the car with my find. Coke at last!

It has been ten days since we arrived in Kosovo, and for 10 days, we have been eating what we could find. The only thing available was minced lamb, in all forms and shapes. Hamburgers, cevapcici sausages, small meatballs, large meatballs. Minced meat and bread. No vegetables, no fruits. Bread and minced meat. To drink, we could only find sparkling water and vodka. I don’t drink either.
Last night, out of sheer desperation, Alf, Richard and I dug into the survival kits we received at the warehouse. We found a camping cooker and bags of dried food in it. We pulled out the curry-rice combination, and cooked it in sparkling water. The pack had ‘Best used before 10-1989’ on it. That was ten years ago. But we did not mind. It took hours before the rice was cooked through. Richard, a Ugandan, is very picky with his food. He refused to eat it. Alf and I savoured it. At last something other than minced meat and bread. Even after hours of cooking, the rice was still pretty hard, but the spices gave it some flavour.
During the night, I thought ‘if I lit a match now, the room will ignite’. I had never farted that much in my whole life. I was rolled up in my sleeping bag, in an underground room, full of mould and dead insects, cold from the humidity. But still I had to pull away the sleeping bag, as I could not take my own smell anymore. These were not the occasional farts, but long blasts of gas. My stomach did not take the rice lightly. I could not stop laughing at myself, I giggled like an idiot, in between the farts.. Man, this was not normal anymore…

But now we had Coke.. At last, something with taste. The Real Thing. I am the happiest person on earth. Nothing can go wrong anymore.

We continue driving towards Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. It is the first time we would go to Pristina, after installing the office in Prizren for over a week. We are joining the rest of the team who had entered Kosovo out of Macedonia. Alf, Richard and I entered from Albania. There had been a healthy competition between the two teams, trying to complete the first office installation as soon as possible. We won –of course-.. Kind of. As we drove into town the first day, we saw a house with a WFP flag. No-one was there, so we took it for the WFP office. It was just days after Nato entered Kosovo, and there was chaos everywhere. We did not wait for the WFP field coordinator to come back from town, and started installing the computers, generator and the radios. We were the first ones to send an Email to all our colleagues: ‘We are online! Team Albania is online! We win!’. It did not matter that in the evening, the WFP coordinator came back with a puzzled smile on his face ‘Ah.. Here you are, guys. I have been looking for you the whole afternoon. But eh.. this installation is all nice, but eh.. this is not our office. Our office is on the other side of town..’ We never told the other team.. We won, we were the first on the air!! No matter we installed it in the wrong house. The next day, we took everything down, and moved it to the ‘real’ office. We never told anyone. Shht, let it remain a secret!

When we told the other team over the radio we would join them in Pristina, Mats had told me they had pizza there. The first restaurant in Pristina to open up after the crisis, and they made pizza! Now I have Coke, and in the evening, we would have pizza… This is a good day!
After driving for an hour over a road filled with potholes from the bombing, with Nato checkpoints every few miles, we can finally see Pristina laying in the valley.. It is getting dark, but splashes of light come from the valley. At first I thought it was fireworks, but soon we realize these are tracer bullets. We can hear the machine gun fire coming from town. From afar, we can see cars racing around, and masses of agitated people shouting and shooting in the air. Dozens of Nato helicopters hover low above the buildings with strong searchlights pointing down. Flares leave traces in the sky before floating down slowly, lighting up parts of town as if it were daylight. ‘No it is safe, they are just celebrating the end of the war’, Mats says over the radio, ‘Come on over, we’re waiting for you at the pizza place, on the corner of the main road, just past the second traffic light’.
We maneuver ever so carefully in between the shouting and cheering crowd. Many of them with AK47s in their hands, firing at will. I am a bit wary. What goes up, must come down also.. It is not the first time people get killed from stray bullets which were fired in the air. They bang on the side of the car. Not because they are angry at us. Just because the banging creates noise I guess. The Kosovars have, after all, been kept quiet for many years.
We join the team at the pizza place. ‘Pizzeria Napoli’, the painting says on the makeshift corrugated sheets, which surround an outside area filled with plastic tables and chairs. Everyone is there.. The whole WFP Pristina office. We are happy to see each other. It has been three weeks or so since we parted in Rome, not knowing how this emergency operation would work. Everyone was anxious to get going, and tonight we will celebrate a successful deployment with Pizza and Coke.. Life can be good. No matter that next to the thin corrugated sheets, crowds run by, shouting as if they were insane. From where we are sitting, we cannot see them. The corrugated sheets shelter our pizza-fest from the sight of the outside world’s craziness. We hear continuous blasts of AK47s, one meter from where we are sitting, at the other side of the fence. The gunmen are shooting and yelling as if they lost their mind. The helicopters hovering low overhead don’t matter. The flares don’t matter. The deafening sound of all the explosions don’t matter. The pizza has arrived and all we can think of is how simple life can be. Pizza, Coke and friends. A happy scene, lit by candles and tracer flares. For just a while, the outside world is outside. Outside the corrugated rusted fence. We are not part of it anymore.

Continue reading The Road to the Horizon’s Ebook, jump to the Reader’s Digest of The Road.

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Written by Peter

January 11th, 2007 at 3:58 pm