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The War in Iraq – Happy Anniversary!

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This week, we celebrate the fourth anniversary of the war in Iraq. I still remember the start very well.

Time for a calculation.

1. The newspaper today states one minute of war in Iraq costs US$380,000. A calculation made by Joseph Stiglitz, a US Nobelprize winning economist.
That is almost double the cost of the war in Vietnam.

2. According to WFP, the UN’s food aid organisation, it costs US$0.19 to feed a child for a day. Nineteen cents.
20,000 children die of hunger every day. The time it took you to read this post, already 15 died.

3. Taking those two figures together, one minute of war in Iraq would feed 2,000,000 children for a day.
One day of war in Iraq would feed 8,000,000 children for a year.

4. There are 800 million hungry in the world. Three-four months of war in Iraq would feed all hungry in the world.
Three-four months of war, we have done before. Many times. But we have never fed all the hungry in the world.

I do not understand. Somewhere the calculation does not make sense. Otherwise all intelligent people in the world would have cried foul. Wouldn’t we? …Wouldn’t we?

Photo credit: Robert Kasca. Picture taken after the bombing of the UN building in Baghdad.

Update March 18: I received a lot of queries about “the 19 cents/day” it costs to feed a child. Here you find more detailed info.

Written by Peter

March 18th, 2007 at 5:08 am

Posted in Ranting

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How We Conquered the Mountain

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Afghanistan, three days after the defeat of the Taliban.
The UN twin engine plane was banking at 45 degrees, diving in circles as it dropped sharply from 30,000ft towards the landing strip of Bagram airport, 40 kms north of Kabul. We dropped at a speed that pushed my stomach up my throat. 

The pilot had warned us that this would happen. We had to fly over Afghanistan at a high altitude to stay outside the range of Stinger missiles. Only the airspace right above the airport was secured, so we had to descent within a circle of safety with one kilometer diameter. It felt like a roller coaster ride. And I do NOT like roller coasters. I kept my eyes shut, holding on firmly to the seat.

Fayyaz and I were the two WFP staff amongst the handful of people flying in today. This was only the third UN-flight allowed into Bagram airport since the Taliban fled Kabul, three days before. Three days since the event that marked the unofficial ‘Taliban defeat’ in Afghanistan. The first flight carried our security officers, followed by one with some senior officials. There would not be another flight allowed for two weeks, until we could assure the security of our staff.
I was asked to participate in this mission as the head of FITTEST, the UN humanitarian fast intervention team. I had to review the UN telecommunications systems in Kabul, and call in any resources needed to resurrect the installations. Until the next flight, I had to do with my two hands and any equipment I could find on the ground. Weight restrictions on the flight had not allowed me to take any tools or spares with me. One thing I knew already for sure: all public communication systems in Kabul were out. No telephone, fax, telex. The whole infrastructure was bombed to pieces or sabotage-d. For many months, the only communications would be done through equipment we brought in ourselves.

We landed around noon, amid the wreckage of old artillery and aircraft of all kinds. Two guys in local attire, riding four-wheel motorbikes, guided the plane to its parking space on the tarmac. When we got out, onto the tarmac, we went over to say hi. “Where are you guys from”, someone asked, as their short blond hair showed they were no locals. “I cen’t tell ya’, said one, in an obvious Texan accent, with a radio labeled ‘USAF’ (US Air Force) strapped onto his belt.. Hmm..

We drove off in convoy to Kabul, crossing an area which up to three days ago was the front line in a war witnessed by the whole world through the cameras of CNN and the likes. It was a sunny autumn day with an absolutely clear blue sky above naked mountains topped with snow, which presided over a bright yellow desert valley. The litter of the relics of years of war were the only signs of civilisation amongst the void of sand and dust: old Russian-made tanks and artillery, shot to pieces and half-buried in the ground. In several places, the road was bombed or a big hole in the asphalt, with a wreck in the ditch alongside, reminded us that this was a heavily contested piece of land, fought over for twenty-odd years amongst countless warring fractions. The last battle took place only three days ago, between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance troops.

Fayyaz and I were anxious to see our Afghan colleagues in Kabul who continued to run the food distributions during the war. They were all standing in the office compound as we drove in. We hugged them. We had not seen them since September 12, when all international staff was ordered to evacuate after 9/11. “Welcome back,” they smiled, “Welcome back!”. We all had tears in their eyes. We knew this was not just a welcome-back, but our return might also be the turning of a page in the history of Afghanistan. The last page in a chapter of twenty years civil war. This could be the first day of a new beginning for this lovely land and its great people, after decades of civil war.

We told them it was good to be back, how worried we had been about them and their families. It had not been an easy time, these two months since 9/11. Our national staff were the real heroes of this emergency operation. Against all odds, and under the continuous threat of bombing and military reprisals, they had kept moving and distributing massive amounts of food for the needy. A short visit to the WFP warehouse proved the point of how real the risks had been to all of them. The staff there described with pride how they had loaded food as the military installations all around the warehouse were bombed. They showed us bags of shrapnel collected after the bombings. Many pieces of metal and debris had come through the tin roof and walls.

It has been a while since I really touched radio equipment. You know how it goes: the more you get into the ‘manager’ role, the less you actually are involved in the real core of what you manage. For me, it was radios, computers, antennas, generators, networks, telephone systems. For two weeks, I would be the only international technician there… Time to brush up on long forgotten routines and manuals..

With some of our Afghan staff, we drove to the Intercontinental Hotel where our radio repeaters were installed. They all went off-air weeks ago. We found that, for safety reasons, the hotel staff had dismantled the radios, masts and antennae. All the bits and pieces were still there. But now came the next problem: as the UN flight to Kabul had had limited luggage capacity, I had not been able to bring my toolboxes. With some ingenuity and a Leatherman, we put all the pieces together again and flicked the switch: the two repeaters came alive with a soft hum.

As the days went by, bit by bit all comms systems were revived. As I was the only UN technician, the staff from the different organizations asked for all kinds of support. I drove around town with my improvised ‘intervention’ team, and a Leatherman. Amazing what those combinations could resolve.. Generators were revived, satellites phones re-programmed, Email systems started spitting out messages again. The most exotic thing they asked me to do was to configure a computer so the head of the UNHCR office could pick up his email. Nothing exotic about that – except that the computer had a Japanese version of MS Windows! Euh.. What’s the Japanese for ‘modem’ and ‘control panel’ again?

The trouble with all of these support trips was they were all followed a visitor’s protocol to first drink tea with the hosts. Unfortunately, the tap water in Kabul was real bad, and soon my stomach gave in to the constant attack of bacteria, and I got food poisoning (well ‘water poisoning’ more likely). One day, I just could not get out of bed anymore, except to go to the bathroom to throw up, or to do a liquid number two.

One of my more exotic tasks was to secure a good new site for the repeaters and mobile phone system we were bringing in. For years we had tried to get access to “TV hill”, a mountain smack in the middle of Kabul. It would be an excellent place for the antennae for our radio relay stations, but during the Taliban regime we were never allowed access to it.

I had asked the UN security officer to get permission to go up the hill, but he had not succeeded. I was hard headed (Tine, my wife has other words for it, though), the more as other UN staff in the guesthouse had started to tease me: “Hey, has WFP conquered the mountain yet?”. In the end, I went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They all said that only the –newly appointed- minister could give me this kind of approval. But he was not in. So I sat on the steps of his building for hours waiting until he arrived. I knew him from television. Dr Abdullah was a well known figure in the ranks of the Northern Alliance. As his convoy drove into the compound, and he got out of the car, I got a hold of him. He looked me up and down. Perhaps I did not look like someone who could conquer mountains, in my grimy sweatshirt and a torn and ragged WFP safari jacket (as I said, the check-in luggage allowance on the Bagram flight was extremely restricted!)…

In fact, conquer the mountain is just what we did. The minister gave the green light and signed a paper stating so. A day later, we were in a car with a guy called ‘Maruk’, who turned out to be the Minister’s personal bodyguard. Hey, I must have given a good impression!

“TV Mountain” has two peaks. The first had been heavily bombed and still had loads of live ammunition all over it. That was a disappointment: in between the anti-aircraft shells and thousands of rounds of heavy machinegun bullets, the uneven ground of the shelled bunkers and areas which looked mined, there was no space to put up any equipment. The locally hired UN de-miners also shook their head: ‘Too dangerous, it will take months to clear all this live ammo and to defuse any booby-traps’.

The local military commander in charge of the hill, came over. Maruk and Wahab, my local counterpart, started discussing with him in Pashtu. They kept on pointing at me, at the sky, the town, and a handheld radio.. The commander finally got into our car and we drove to the second peak of “TV mountain”. I gasped for a moment, as we stepped out into a magnificent scenery. We stood, at an altitude of 2200 meters, under a clear blue sky, with B52 bombers still circling overhead, leaving white trails behind them. Kabul with its buzzing activity lays hundreds of meters below us. We looked at the horizon and at eachother as walked onto the roof of a building with a round concrete roof. It used to be an air traffic beacon, and now featured a hole from a massive bomb in the exact center of it. I remembered the video shots of the precision bombing from fighter planes, I had seen on CNN.

‘The commander has a request’, said Wahab. He took us into the ruins of radar installation. A local military guy lay on a make shift bed. He had two radios in his hands. He listened on one, and repeated what he heard on the other… A manual retransmission of messages.. ‘The commander says their radios have interference, can you solve it?’, translated Wahab. I looked on the roof at their antennas. They were too close. It took me fifteen minutes to shorten the bamboo poles supporting the antennas and to separate them. Interference solved. The commander smiled satisfied, and slapped my back and we shook hands in agreement. “This is the place.”, I smiled at Wahab.

A week later, we brought in the first containers with equipment and the installations started.. The mountain was conquered. Still to today, “TV mountain” is the main communications site in Kabul.

This is a re-edit from an article previously written with by C.Hurford
Pictures courtesy of O.Hadziemin, L.Marre, R.Kasca


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

Written by Peter

February 1st, 2007 at 6:46 am

From Sand to a City

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Dubai Humanitarian City in construction - click for full size view
Gianluca, (“Can you build it?”), the project coordinator, wrote:
“Gianluca, do you want to come to Dubai for a few months to help us build a city?” is how it all began for me, in a call from Peter in Dubai.
“Well, where do I start?”, “Can you send me a copy of the job description?” was the immediate response, like someone had already planned the whole thing. The answer sounded so simple I even felt silly asking.
The job meant working with the Government on the conceptual and practical design of the city, the buildings, the security measures, the warehousing facilities, the interior design, the services to be provided, and, last but not least, the presentation of the facilities and services to other UN agencies – and introduction of Government Executives to humanitarian agencies’ representatives.

Now let’s run through the check-list: this requires logistic experience (I have very little), architectural background (none), strong security know-how (very little), good knowledge of the UN (-ish), experience in establishing and running UN common premises (uh?) and, most importantly, know-how in dealing with high-level government bodies (ouch). My initial reluctance (why me?) was dismissed when I was persuaded that nobody would have all these skills together, therefore I was just as good (or useless) as anybody else. “Ah, that’s fine then (I guess).”, was my answer.

A month later I was in Dubai, looking at a few sand dunes where the city was to be built, with Peter whispering in my ear: “One day, all of this will be yours, my son.” (Why me?)

In the Dubai office, everyone kept laughing at “my HQ tie”. They all run around in T-shirts and sandals, many of them in shorts. I managed to keep my tie on for two weeks, and then gave up. I stopped wearing shoes after a month. And they made fun of my red face when I tried to lift one of the FITTEST telecoms engineers’ toolboxes (which they carry nonchalantly from their Dubai base around the world). My red face also had something to do with the fact it was over 40 degrees in the shade.

Things in Dubai move fast, soon we had to answer some critical questions:
• How flat should the warehouse floor be? (bo!)
• How steep should the warehouse entry be for forklifts? (eh.. like this?)
• What fire-extinguishing system for a computer room? (obviously not water..)
• What security measures at the entrances to control staff and visitors’ access? (body search?)
• How about explosives detection at the entrance? (a light bulb?)
• How do you verify the installation of the blast-proof film? (a hammer?)
• What kind of walls to install in the office, taking into account a possible change in layout in 24 hours? (Yellow ones?)
If you know the answer to all these questions, that proves my point: why me?

Luckily, we had sufficient in-house expertise in our organisation, and I don’t think I spared anyone from the Security, Procurement, Administration and Logistics sections in Dubai and Rome. With their help, we got the answers:
• “How flat? – triple 0.”
• “Explosives detection? – dogs”.
• “Fire extinguisher? – use the C02 ‘bomb’”.
• “Walls? – demountable wooden framed panels on anodized aluminum support
grid,” or something like that.

Three months after I arrived, the desert started shifting – pillars pointing out of the sand, walls Constructing the Dubai Humanitarian City with Dubai's Sheikh Zayed skyline in the background - click for full size viewand buildings taking shape. One warehouse, two warehouses, one office, two offices, guard houses, electricity complex, water complex, fences, roads, security systems. Even the long awaited fountain arrived. Then trees, grass, flagpoles.

I have always felt I was achieving something through my work, helping people, particularly in the field, in their day-to-day work. But I never actually saw the practical result, because it happened elsewhere. But here, I saw my words change a piece of land, our discussion become a new City, our vision become UN agencies working together.

My best memory? Just before leaving Dubai for Rome, I stopped at the Humanitarian City. I thought of all the people that helped me figure out why me?

Peter (“Can you build it faster?”), the boss (kind of), wrote:
It is all true. When we met H.H. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, then the Dubai Crown Prince, he said: “If you want anything from me, talk to this man,” and pointed to Mohammed Al Gergawi, Chairman of the Dubai Development and Investment Authority. So I went to see H.E. Al Gergawi, whom I got to call ‘Mohammed’ after two meetings.

During our second meeting, he said: “Peter, I know you never wear a suit, so don’t put one on for me. Now, give me three things you want from Dubai!”. I named one. He said “not interested”. I named another. He said: “not interested”. Then I described building a compound for the humanitarian organisations geared towards humanitarian emergency response. Mohammed leaned forward and said: “Tell me more.” It was easy to explain our vision: Put humanitarians together and they will start to work together. And the work will be easier, faster and cheaper. So, what’s in it for Dubai? Well, Dubai makes money, it’s a regional business centre, a regional commerce and logistics hub. Let’s add: “Dubai, the city that cares”, let’s add a humanitarian vision to Dubai…

Mohammed said: “Give me a few days.”
Two days later, he called: “Let’s meet. I want to show you something.” He drove us around an old military base: many warehouses, small offices. “Would this do?” he asked. I was not enthusiastic. Too spread out, too old, too small.
Mohammed said: “Give me two weeks.”
After two weeks, he called: “Refurbishment of an old facility would cost too much; we will build from scratch. Give me a few weeks.”
In August 2003, someone in his office sent me an email: “Have money, will build. But bigger than a humanitarian base. Let’s build a humanitarian city!” They found a stretch of 300,000 m2, prime real estate close to the Dubai centre, and had a serious budget.
“Let’s build,” Mohammed said. “Let’s build!”, I said, and called Gianluca.

So we built it. We locked ourselves up with about twenty people from the government – budget, finance, engineering, marketing, project gurus, IT, architects, Dubai Humanitarian City plan - click for full size viewlegal, etc. After half a day, we had a project concept, the basic design and cost estimate for our city. On January 1 2004 we started from a patch of land with nothing but sand. On March 1 (yes, the same year!), we had two fully functional warehouses. On 1 June (yes, the same year!), we had the office building ready, and our staff moved in by the end of August (yes, the same year!).

Official opening of WFP's office at the Dubai Humanitarian CityDuring the official opening ceremony, the visitors described it as the nicest, best thought-out facilities every built for our organisation. Equipped for 150 people, with training and meeting rooms, a storage area of 40,000 m2, including 10,000 m2 warehouses, it is the now largest humanitarian rapid response facility in the world. Meanwhile several other buildings and warehouses were constructed to make it a true Humanitarian city. It was built from sand to city in six months time. ‘With the compliments of the Dubai Government.’ Only possible in Dubai !

Text source courtesy of Gianluca Bruni and Caroline Hurford
Pictures courtesy of Gianluca Bruni

Check out more posts about Dubai on this blog!

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Written by Peter

February 1st, 2007 at 2:45 am


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Burundi, June 4 1997

I can not believe how we could have been so stupid. With all our years of experience, we broke one of the basic security rules: “Don’t go out at night”. Not only are we out at night. Worse, we are in the middle of the bush at night. In a part of the country held by rebels. Have we become too complacent with the constant security threat? Have we become too accustomed to danger?

This morning Mats and I left together with Toure, the WFP security officer, for a mission to one of the remote radio sites up country. The radio booster we installed there a couple of months ago, did not work anymore. It was a nice trip, over remote roads, twisting and turning in between the dense forest. We drove through villages and small stretches of farmed land, dotted over the hills like a quilt made of squares with different colours and textures. Several times we stopped to take pictures, forgetting all about time. The work at the mountain top was done in just a few minutes. The guards we paid to keep an eye on our equipment, had simply switched off the power as the cooling fans of the radio booster made too much noise at night. It disturbed their sleep. We stayed up on the mountain for a good hour. The view was just too beautiful. Simply breathtaking. The lush green hillsides below us, with plumes of smoke from the different villages. Birds of prey floated on the breeze high above it all.

On the way back, we gradually started to realize how late we were. The people in the second car had radio-d us that they would stay the night in one of the villages we passed as it was getting too late. We decided to still take the chance, and try to reach Bujumbura, the capital, before nightfall. Toure drove fast. The pickup slid left and right over the rough dirt road, jumping over the potholes. He took the sharp bends as if he was a professional rally driver. All in vain. The sun went down too fast. We did not want to put on our headlights as it would attract too much attention. We knew in this part of the country the rebels came down from their hiding places in the mountains, at night, to attack villages or military posts, or to ambush cars. Cars traveling late like ours.

At one point, though the open windows, we could hear the sound of machine guns and small artillery fire on the road in front of us. We did not see anything, but all of a sudden, a soldier had appeared out of the ditch besides the road and stopped us. He had an AK47 in one hand and a walkie-talkie in the other. We heard nervous shouting on his radio. He said a military lorry was ambushed a few hundred meters down the road and urged us to turn around. We had passed a village half an hour ago, and decided to drive back. Toure knew the doctors at the hospital there, so probably they would give us a bed for the night. We drove back, frustrated we would not make it to Bujumbura before the night.
A couple of minutes later, we saw short light flashes on the hill in front of us. Gunfire! Toure puts on the floodlights and in a distance we saw tens of people running over the road and in between the trees. Another ambush. We turned around again and stopped for a moment. There we were, stuck between two ambushes. Twice now, we had passed a small military post beside the road. We decided the best we could do was to stay the night there… It was not the best place. Small military outposts like these often get targeted by the rebels at night. But it was the least of two evils. Certainly staying alone in the car, by ourselves, in the middle of the bush was a worse option.
And now, we are sitting on the porch of a shack, in between tens of villagers and a dozen military. The villagers had done the same as we did: taken refuge with the military. All is pitch dark. There is no moon. We hear the remote cracking of machine guns in a distance, but the military are relaxed. They urge us not to make any light, though. No torches, no lights in the car, and when lighting cigarettes, cover it with your hands. Lights not only attract mosquitoes, but also the attention of the rebels. Mats and I are nervous. And angry in a way. Angry at our own stupidity. Our own complacency with security rules. We, of all people, should have known.
In the dark, the soldiers get us some beers and we drink in silence. From time to time, out of the dark, a patrol of two or three armed men appears and a new group leaves. They are guarding the small compound. They seem relaxed about the whole situation, as if they lived with this danger all their lives. It is part of their lives. Not so for us and partially not for the villagers, who are all around us. Mostly women, small children and babies. Even the babies seem to sense the danger and don’t make a sound. No crying, no talking, nothing..
In the dark, careful not to stumble over rocks, we make our way back to the pickup parked in front of the military shack. There is only one thought on our minds: ‘We hope this military post is not attacked during the night.’ If it was, we stood no chance.

I am mad. The adrenaline pumps through my veins. Mostly because of the anger. I guess I don’t panic easily. I just get frustrated and mad. Mostly at myself.

The sound of remote gunfire subsides. All of a sudden there is only the sound of darkness, of a night in Africa, with all its wonders. The crickets begin their play and the sounds of wild animals in the bush pops up now and then out of the pitch black world all around us. I hope the silence does not mean the rebels are regrouping around this military compound.

A feeling of fatalism comes over me. ‘There is nothing I can do about it. If it has to happen, it has to happen.’ I curl up in the back seat of our pickup truck, and try to sleep. Mats and Toure do the same in the front seats. I cannot sleep. Am bored. Cannot read, cannot smoke, cannot do anything but look into the absolute darkness. It’s probably best there is no moon tonight. It would make us an easier target. It also shows the stars more clearly. I can see the Big Dipper.

I wake up at first light. The villagers have disappeared already, back to their homes on the hills. Most of the military are up and about, lighting a fire to cook water, washing, or preparing for their day patrols. Their officer comes over to our car, and tells Toure the road is clear. We can travel to Bujumbura. ‘But please be more careful next time! Don’t travel anymore in this part of the country so late in the evening’, he urges us. Like we have not told ourselves that a thousand times over already…
We drive slowly towards Bujumbura. The border of town is only thirty minutes away. We were that close. That close to safety. I walk past the reception of the hotel, and go to my room. Don’t need breakfast, just want a shower and some sleep. I am thinking how lucky we were. It was a warning sign. To be more careful next time. Even more careful. Life is precious. Life is a string of random chances of luck and misfortune. Our time had not come. But how long will it take before there is a moment where our luck, our fortune will run out?

From the WFP emergency report the same week:
a) Three International Red Cross (ICRC) delegates killed in ambush north of Cibitoke on 4 June. ICRC suspends all humanitarian operations in Burundi. IFRC also stops distribution activities in northern Burundi due to insecurity.
b) A group of 85 French nationals evacuate from Burundi.
c) Massacre in IDP (Internally Displaced People) camp in Butezi, Ruyigi province, leaves 50 dead, mainly women and children.
d) Further displacement of population takes place due to confrontations between military and rebels in Kayanza.
e) Refugees from Rwanda arrive in northern Burundi following reported death of 40 persons in an attack in Cyangugu Prefecture, Rwanda

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Written by Peter

January 20th, 2007 at 10:45 am

Posted in Stories

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“M.” – Requiem For Baghdad

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“The horror… The horror…”
(Marlon Brando in ‘Apocalypse Now’)

Dubai, December 2004
All of us, all our Dubai staff, are standing around in silence in the reception of our office. We put up the plaque our HQ gave us. “WFP FITTEST team – Dubai. Award for Merit 2004. For their outstanding global achievement and particularly for the critical support of the UN humanitarian effort in Iraq”. Each of us are in thoughts. It seems weird how in a split second zillions of thoughts and images can flash through your mind.

Robert was a bit angry at me this week. He rightfully said: ‘This plaque is something to be proud of, how come we still have not put it up? We received the plaque several months ago.’. I did not really have an answer for him. Sure, at first there was a spelling mistake, so they had to re-do it, then we had a problem finding a suitable spot, and then, and then… In the end, it were all excuses, I thought to myself. Excuses as it brought back a lot of painful memories for me… I did not want to remember that period. Did not want to remember the pain. Suppress it. Done. Buried. But that is not the right way. Robert was right, the team had done well. The team he had coordinated did well in the Iraq emergency operation, and they had to be remembered for their excellent work. Together we also had to remember how we all stuck together, as one team, despite all the pressure and challenges. Somewhere also we had to remember the pain of that period…

As we are standing in front of the plaque, I think of M. Her face comes before my eyes. I hear her laugh. Would she have felt pain? Fear? Regrets? Or would it all have gone in a flash? Like a switch. Switching off life. Done. Over. And then?

Belgium, August 2001
If you have lived through a number of humanitarian emergencies, worked long enough in relief operations, you start to develop a sixth sense. It was this sixth sense that helped us deciding to move our intervention team from Kosovo to Islamabad a few years ago. We sensed that at a certain moment the US would retaliate against the Taliban. Basing our team in the middle of Central Asia would allow us to prepare the region for a possible humanitarian emergency if the US would take military action in Afghanistan.

I told Tine just before I left home: “I do not have a good feeling. The stars are not right. Something is up.” That feeling was in sharp contrast with the one month holiday off the beaten track in Hawaii we just had. But the sixth sense was there, with big warning signs.

Islamabad, September 11, 2001
We were working in our office in Islamabad when Jalal, one of our staff, said ‘Hey, a plane just flew into the New York World Trade Center.’ And a few minutes later, the news came a second plane crashed into the Towers. We stopped all work. I knew it could not have been an accident. This was an act of terrorism. In a flash, I saw what would happen. The world was going to fundamentally change. I saw the US attacking Afghanistan. I saw the polarization of the world into Muslim and non-Muslim. I saw the invasion of Iraq.. I just knew we were going for a very rough period, with a lot of human suffering. I felt sad, very sad. When I came back to the guest house I was staying, very late at night, that night of 9/11, I just could not stop looking at the video replays on TV, displaying what happened in New York. It was so violent. So many people lost in one go. But above all, I felt “it is all coming our way. Within here and a few weeks, the world’s attention is going to be focused on our region.”

It did not take weeks. It took days. We saw them arriving at the hotels in Islamabad. All the international camera crews, with their equipment loaded onto rental cars. Setting up shop on the roofs of the hotels. All the well-known anchor people from the main broadcast stations started to report from Islamabad. The media often is one step ahead of the military. Only one step.

Kabul, January 2002.
Several months later, the Taliban was beaten, Bin Laden was on the run, and Afghanistan was ‘liberated’. I just ‘knew’ Iraq was going to be next. No matter what the world’s opinion was going to be, I felt the US was going to attack Iraq also.

Baghdad, November 2002
Richard and I spent a nice evening in one of the open air restaurants in Baghdad. Even though it was close to midnight and pretty cold outside, there were plenty of people still walking around. I loved the people there, the feeling the whole setting gave me. They were friendly, helpful, many of them very well educated. Never a harsh word. As we were walking the streets that night, people smiled at us, often to say ‘Hey habibi, how are you? Where do you come from? What do you do?’. When we would start talking to them, the subject of children and family would always come up. No matter where people come from, the love for their close ones always seems to be the main thing on their mind. We felt safe, almost at home, without the slightest sense of fear or insecurity. We were amongst good people.
The first UN weapon inspectors had arrived earlier that day. We saw them dragging up boxes with their equipment into Canal Hotel, the UN Headquarters in Baghdad.. Somewhere I knew that it was all going to be in vain. The US had already made up its mind: ‘Saddam had to go’. Even if the weapon inspectors would not find any weapons of mass destruction, any excuse was going to be good enough… After all, Iraq had oil. I could just see all the human misery a US invasion in Iraq would cause. And the anarchy, the violence that would follow. I imagined those peaceful streets of Baghdad in flames, shooting, bombing. I could see all the friendly, loving people, with eyes, filled with hatred.

Dubai, March 20 2003
As I closed the door of my apartment, on my way to work, I stopped for a moment. Something was not right. Something was different that morning. I could hear the television sets from my neighbours. Different languages, agitated voices of the reporters. It was an awkward sound. My heart started to beat real fast. I went back into my apartment, switched on the TV, and sat down. Images of helicopters, tanks, military convoys, crossing the border from Kuwait into Iraq. I picked up the phone and called Gianluca, in our HQ in Rome. It was still very early in Europe, he was still asleep. ‘Gianluca, switch on your TV. It has began. The invasion has began’.
June 2003
I met M. in Cyprus several times. She was working for another UN agency. By coincidence, we had the same travel itinerary, and spent several days on the road together: flying from Cyprus to Jordan, then driving into Erbil in North Iraq and a few days later flying to Baghdad. We talked a lot. Work, people we met in the past, our hobbies, adventure traveling, what appealed to us in this world, in people. The last time I saw her was one evening in Canal Hotel, Baghdad. For security reasons, the movement of our staff in town was restricted, and we all lived on the large office compound. A couple of guys had put together a barbeque in the parking lot which by then was filled with sleeping and storage tents. As I was walking back to my room, M. was walking towards the barbeque area. She had a strange look in her eyes. She hesitated for a moment as we were passing eachother. I remember I stood still for a moment, wondering what this look was about. I told her I was leaving for Dubai the next day.. I can not remember if she said anything, as we gave three kisses on the cheek. Maybe we did say something. Some pleasantries like ‘see you whenever I see you again!’.

A few weeks later, I received a message from her. Some stuff about work. She had decided the Iraq mission was going to be her last. In September she would quit and do something different. Enough of this type of work. It has been a good road, but this road had come to an end. The last sentence in the Email did not make much sense to me. It was about us meeting again. That it would mean a lot to her, that she would like to talk to me.

When I talked to Larisa, one of our staff in Baghdad, on the phone, she said: “you left quite an impression on some people in Baghdad.” I did not really understand what she meant. “Well, last night, I was having a drink with M., and again, it looks like you left quite an impression on her”…
Sometimes a lot of things happen, and it is difficult to pinpoint what they really mean, to make real sense out of a string of signs. But then something small happens, which causes all the rest to make sense. Now I understood the look in M.’s eyes the last evening in Baghdad. That last sentence in her Email. I sent her an Email that I was coming over to Baghdad before she left, so we would sit together and talk.

Belgium, August 18 2003
I had a long chat with Robert, our project coordinator in Baghdad. He ran the team installing the technical infrastructure for most of the UN relief agencies. Most of the conversation was about his main worry: security. He felt something was to happen, the ‘tension in the air’ was just too much. He felt some of our staff or some of our offices were going to be attacked. ‘Something bad is about to happen’, he said. I shared his feeling. I did not sleep much that night. I had a lot of my staff in Iraq and I felt very responsible for them.
Belgium, August 19 2003

This was one of the saddest days in my life. Mats called me ‘Our headquarters in Baghdad was bombed a few minutes ago. A truck full of explosives flattened most of the building’. Mats and I talked with Robert in a conference call later that day. It was bad. Robert said most of our staff was accounted for, but several of them were badly injured from falling debris, shrapnel or glass flying around. Ghis had a window frame hit his head. Michael’s face was badly cut by glass. Diya was evacuated with severe cuts in his arm and hands. Dozens of people had died. The pictures on television looked horrific. I was shocked. And felt endlessly guilty. Guilty as I had recruited these people. I had sent them in harm’s way. Guilty as no matter how good the security precautions we had taken, no matter how many times we had stressed to them all to be careful, still they, the people from my team, got hurt. It cut deep inside me. I felt guilty as I was not there to help. I should have been there with them.

Belgium, August 20 2003
As more details came in of the bombing, a provisional list was circulated, a list with names of those not accounted for, and those which were confirmed dead. I could not believe my eyes when I saw M.’s name on the list. M. was dead.
Dubai, December 2005
These thoughts and images fly, no, they scream, through my head as we are standing in front of our plaque.. It all takes a few seconds for it to come through. All of the hurt. The immense sadness and senselessness. The guilt of not having done enough. The guilt of not having said things that should have been said. So often we forget that when we say ‘goodbye’, it might really mean ‘goodbye’. A final ‘goodbye’. We might never see that person again in this life. I see M.’s face in front of me as we talked for a brief moment in time, passing eachother in Canal Hotel that evening of the barbeque. I should have taken the time to sit and talk with her. I should have known this might have been the last time ever, we had the chance to talk. But I did not. I was tired, wanted to go to sleep, had an early start the next day. But I should have. Should have. The guilt. And the horror…

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Written by Peter

January 20th, 2007 at 10:31 am

Posted in Stories

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