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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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Blackwater or How War Profiteering Works – Part III

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CartoonBush[1]

Blackwater Worldwide has played a substantial role during the Iraq War as a contractor for the United States government. In 2003, Blackwater attained its first high-profile contract when it received a $21 million no-bid contract for guarding the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, L. Paul Bremer. Since June 2004, Blackwater has been paid more than $320 million out of a $1 billion, five-year State Department budget for the Worldwide Personal Protective Service, which protects U.S. officials and some foreign officials in conflict zones. In 2006, Blackwater won the renumerative contract to protect the U.S. embassy in Iraq, the largest American embassy in the world.

Blackwater is a privately held company and does not publish much information about internal affairs. Who are the key people?

Blackwater’s owner and founder Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL, attended the Naval Academy, graduated from Hillsdale College, and was an intern in George H.W. Bush’s White House. Prince is a major financial supporter of Republican Party causes and candidates.
Cofer Black, the company’s current vice chairman, was director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center (CTC) at the time of the September 11, 2001 attacks. He was the United States Department of State coordinator for counterterrorism with the rank of ambassador at large from December 2002 to November 2004. After leaving public service, Black became chairman of the privately owned intelligence gathering company Total Intelligence Solutions, Inc., as well as vice chairman for Blackwater.
Joseph E. Schmitz holds an executive position in Blackwater’s holding company, Prince Group. He was previously inspector general of the Department of Defense, an appointment of George W. Bush.
Robert Richer was vice president of intelligence until January 2007, when he formed Total Intelligence Solutions. He was formerly the head of the CIA’s Near East Division.

Are you surprised Blackwater opened the door to lucrative government contracts through a no-bid contract? Are you surprised they received immunity from prosecution after killing 17 Iraqi civilians a year ago?

More interesting reading on Blackwater: The Whores of War

Source: Wikipedia and others
Cartoon courtesy News Sophisticate

Written by Peter

August 30th, 2008 at 3:45 am

Posted in Articles

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Georgia – a tit-for-tat game between Russia and the US.

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middle finger

The front page of the Russian Tvoi Den (“Your Day”) newspaper today makes no secret of what it thinks of the West. “TAK YOU” means “F**K YOU”
The text below the picture reads: “For the first time in many years Russia has clearly shown to the West we are not going to live by its order.”

Tensions between Russia and the US has been raising since a while. I wrote about this on The Road a year ago.
It seems after their battle of words on Iraq, Iran, the US missile shield, blabla, the two superpowers are now ready to rattle swords and have picked Georgia as their playing ground.

After the skirmishes between Georgia and its break-away or autonomous (depending who you ask) republics, Russia went in with full military force, knowing the US would take sides.
The US poked Russia by putting the US military in charge of “the humanitarian relief mission in Georgia” (more), and moved US warships with “humanitarian supplies” into the Black Sea.

Russian president Dmitry Medvedev deepened the Georgia crisis yesterday by insisting that South Ossetia and Abkhazia should be independent nations, adding: “We are not afraid of anything, including the prospect of a new Cold War.”
Russia’s NATO envoy then declared that military aid to Georgia for use against South Ossetia and Abkhazia would be seen as a “declaration of war”. (Full)

Phew…

And you know what bugs me? Who will be the victim of this rattle of words or swords? The ordinary people. Some things never change.

Georgian refugee

Source: International Aid Workers Today
Pictures courtesy This Is London and San Francisco Sentinel

Written by Peter

August 28th, 2008 at 6:50 am

Posted in Ranting

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US politics, commercial interests, war and humanitarian aid. A dangerous mix.

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US president Bush recently laid out a detailed budget request for $70 billion.

It includes $45.1 billion for combat operations for the war efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, $3.7 billion to help expand the Afghan forces and $2 billion for Iraqi troops.
Also included are $2.2 billion for projected increased fuel costs for military and intelligence operations and $2.6 billion to transport and maintain Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAP) used for US forces in Iraq.
This will bring the total allocation for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to more than $800 billion.

Oh, and the budget request also covers $770 million in additional food aid donations, including food vouchers, seeds and purchases in the developing world. (Full)

Oh, and the Bush administration also slipped a controversial ingredient into the $770 million aid package, adding language that would promote the use of genetically modified crops (GMO) in food-deprived countries… (Full)

Picture courtesy ickypeople.com

Written by Peter

May 17th, 2008 at 2:34 pm

Posted in Articles

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After “War on Terror” and “War for Oil” comes “War for Food”?

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food riots in Argentina

In the past months, I have been posting regularly about the global food crisis:
- Oil, Biofuel, World Hunger and Crimes Against Humanity.
- The Global Food Crisis: A Perfect Storm
- The Food Crisis: A Global Overview

Those of you who have been following this blog for a while know I work for a humanitarian agency, so automatically my view of news articles is biased: scanning news bulletins I am rather sensitive to possible lurking crisis, be it armed conflicts, natural disasters or plain economic issues that could cause humanitarian problems. Plus of course, this is our job, this is what we do for a living: trying to spot, mitigate and react to humanitarian crisis in the making or unfolding.

On top of this, working for a food aid agency, the issue of raising food prices, the dilemma of biofuel production versus food production, changing weather patterns decreasing the food production are automatically issues which catch my eyes faster.

So I have been asking myself the question: “Is the global food crisis really that big an issue, or is it blown out of proportion by the media, amplified by my built-in sensitivity to food aid issues?”.

Over the past weeks, I have been scanning the media rigorously. A few months ago, I set up a Pageflakes newsfeed tool which takes RSS feeds from about 100 news sources: Western and non-Western media, citizen journalism and social bookmarking sites. My Pageflakes tool gives me, in three screens, at a glance, an overview of ten news posts per news site, resulting in about 1,000 article headlines which are automatically updated as new headlines are released.
Scanning those articles, I can state objectively: the “food crisis” issue has been popping up more regularly, and it is not part of my imagination.

Refugees sifting through the sand looking for spills after a food distributionThe worrying factor is also a trend I have seen: Starting from “early warning” signs from humanitarian agencies, more and more reports come up about food riots in different countries, to -and that is what is really worrying me- articles that predict the potential global food supply shortages or inaccessibility of food (due to the sharply inflated prices), might lead governments to act in a drastic way.
Government steps being taken are to close their borders for food exports, containing food prices by extensive subsidies, or cancelling these due to the long term unsustainability, and bilateral agreements between countries to ‘ensure a secure food supply’… Worrying. Reminds me of the same measures countries take to secure the supply of oil resources.

Now the apotheose of it all, and what causes me nightmares is the more frequent recurring link being made between food shortages (and all the related issues like global warming decreasing food production, biofuel consuming food, etc..), security and armed conflicts. And it not merely in titles like “Food Fights“, but also in contents. Some examples:

  • “[…] farmers [in Sudan] continue to expand. Their expansion is arguably the real root cause of the current conflict [in Darfur]” (Article: Climate change is not an excuse for genocide.)
  • “The long-term consequences of neglecting environmental deterioration, water shortages, and increased competition over scarce resources will lead to greater conflict and instability. Reducing the risk of food-related conflict will require a comprehensive plan that targets the environment and ensures an equitable distribution of resources.” (Article: Rising food prices threaten global security. )
  • “Rising food prices could spark worldwide unrest and threaten political stability, the UN’s top humanitarian official warned yesterday after two days of rioting in Egypt over the doubling of prices of basic foods in a year and protests in other parts of the world.” (Article: Food price rises threaten global security)
  • “Resource based conflicts are not new: they are literally as old as the hills. But in climate change we have a new and potentially disastrous dynamic.” (Article: Climate change and security)
  • “If one country after the other adopts a ‘starve-your-neighbor’ policy, then eventually you trade smaller shares of total world production of agricultural products, and that in turn makes the prices more volatile” (Article: Tensions rise as world faces short rations)
  • “The headlines of the past month suggest that skyrocketing food prices are threatening the stability of a growing number of governments around the world.” (Article: How Hunger Could Topple Regimes)
  • “Governments are racing to strike secretive barter and bilateral agreements with food-exporting countries to secure scarce supplies as the price of agricultural commodities jump to record highs.” (Article: Nations make secret deals over grain)
  • “What is emerging in the crisis over food prices is a tumultuous manifestation of a breakdown of the global capitalist order.” (Article: Amid mounting food crisis, governments fear revolution of the hungry)

And then you might think I am going completely nutter to quote Nostradamus: “Famine and fighting will set in. Countries will fight with each other over surplus food: India and China will march to seize the corn and wheat fields of Russia and eastern Europe.”

So tell me: am I a doomsday preacher or are we really heading for a period of armed conflicts, not as part of the “War on Terror”, or the “War for Oil”, but a “War for Food”?

Update April 23 2008:
- “The World Bank now believes that some 33 countries are in danger of being destabilised by food price inflation” (Article)
- “Climate change could cause global conflicts as large as the two world wars but lasting for centuries unless the problem is controlled, a leading defence think tank has warned.” (Article)

Pictures courtesy Daniel Garcia (AFP-Getty Images) and WFP

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Written by Peter

April 12th, 2008 at 2:50 am

Posted in Articles

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