Three stories from the field
Uta Filz, Humanitarian Affairs Officer, OCHA Emergency Services Branch, 5 April- 24 June 2016
The only child I would speak to in weeks was a little boy on the plane to Baghdad. He was clinging to his school bag as he recounted places and stories from Germany – my home country – which he and his family had left for good to return to Iraq. They were on an uncertain journey back home to Ramadi, a town largely reduced to rubble by air strikes and a scorched-earth policy, with improvised explosive devices hidden in fridges and bathrooms targeting those coming home.
Based in Baghdad, I was working for the OCHA office to support the Humanitarian Country Team secretariat, as well as on reporting and field coordination. There was plenty of work with not enough hours in the day, so I covered whatever was required, from briefings to access issues for INGOs to meetings with potential new donors to reviewing reports on the potential Mosul dam failure.
The humanitarian situation in Iraq is critical, with horrific violence sweeping through much of the country. Assistance is largely focused on northern Iraq and camps, where fewer than ten per cent of the 3.3 million IDPs are sheltered. A very limited number of humanitarian partners are operating in hard-to-reach areas. About one third of the population – ten million people – need humanitarian assistance, but only one third of the Humanitarian Response Plan is funded. Frontline health projects started closing in June. Stringent security measures impede meaningful assessments and high staff turnover in the OCHA office make the working environment very challenging. Despite this, the humanitarian community is committed to doing everything to reach the affected population in this battle-weary country. Significant progress has been made in getting humanitarian missions out of the Green Zone, such as to IDPs in the overcrowded camps in the Anbar desert.
I am Syrian, living in Syria. When I joined the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in 2007, Syria was a middle-income country. In 2011, the conflict started and my country began to dramatically change. I started to work with OCHA in 2012, and had to quickly learn on the job, including negotiating access with non-state armed groups involved in the Syrian conflict to ‘Hard to Reach’ and ‘Besieged’ areas, which are mainly controlled by opposition groups.
Having worked all of my life in Syria, I thought the Emergency Response Roster (ERR) would be a great opportunity to experience other contexts, and share my knowledge of working in one of the world’s most complicated crises. I received the deployment call for Sudan March 21 ten days before the end of the 18th ERR rotation. I was told I would travel as soon as my visa was issued. I landed in Khartoum a month after the call; and then had to wait another ten days for a travel permit before I could go to Darfur. During this time, I waited alongside other OCHA colleagues – some who did not receive their travel permits for another two weeks – nearly a month. Staff working in Sudan have to go through this permit process every three to six months. Then I had to wait for the UN Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) flight as it is the only way to get from Khartoum to Zalingei. During this time, I stayed at one of the UN’s guest house and when a colleague found out that I had come from Syria he asked “Why would the UN bring a big fish from a big sea and put it in a small river?”
Darfur has five states, North, West, South, East and Central, where I was based. As of June 2016, the UN estimates that 2.55 million people are internally displaced in Darfur. In addition to Sudan’s internal challenges, fighting in South Sudan began in December 2013 and has led to an influx of refugees – an estimated 221,000 – putting additional pressure on the limited resources host communities and Internally Displaced People (IDP) in Sudan, including in Darfur.
Jabel Marra is an area east of Central Darfur. With the humanitarian access to this area restricted, one of my main tasks was to try to negotiate humanitarian access to IDP camps in the area. In Syria access to areas the government control is easy, but not to opposition areas. In Sudan, UN entities and INGOs struggle to access areas both under Government as well as opposition control.
Many IDPs have to travel long distances to reach these camps, which have hosted IDPs since 2004. During my assignment, we organized an Inter-agency assessment mission, which for once, was easy – no permits required. When we arrived, I saw people grouped under what looked like flags – wooden sticks with plastic bags over them – which I found out were their tents. Most of the people were sitting, sleeping, eating on the bare ground – a blanket to sit on is considered lucky!
Humanitarian organizations insist on proper assessments before assistance is provided, including to make sure those who have already benefitted from support do not re-register. When I discussed this with a community leader, he told me “All of these IDPs are vulnerable, does it matter if they were displaced recently or years ago? They have no income and there is no realistic prospect for return”. It has become a vicious circle; agencies have to take families off of assistance programmes to prioritize newcomers, and do not have the funding to introduce more sustainable livelihood activities to formerly displaced persons. If IDPs cannot get food, their nutritional status is likely to deteriorate, which could mean they would have to access nutritional support, which is more expensive than food assistance.
In addition to access challenges, Sudan’s humanitarian response is challenged by big funding gaps, which in turn limits the presence of humanitarian actors and assistance available for those in need. This results in a tremendous suffering of the affected population. What was described as a small river feels like a sea to me, a sea of need; with support needed from more and bigger fish.
Gintare Eidimtaite, Humanitarian Affairs Officer, OCHA Emergency Services Branch, 28 February – 15 April 2016
It was a late Friday afternoon and I was wrapping up and clearing my desk. I was looking forward to a calm weekend after months of practically living in my office, as we had just finished a successful Humanitarian Networks and Partnership Week a couple of weeks before. The phone rang and. “Gintare, this is an informal heads-up that your name is being put forward to surge to Fiji to support the response for Cyclone Winston. . . If the Surge Capacity Section can get the ticket, you’ll fly tomorrow for six weeks.”
A thousand thoughts came to mind: I need to cancel two trips and seven appointments. I need to call my bank and I need to do laundry. What do I need to urgently hand over and to whom? What background reading should I download for my flight? I was anxious but as it was my second deployment to the Pacific, I thought I knew what to expect.
One week earlier, a category-5 cyclone – Winston – hit Fiji, wreaking havoc as it moved from island to island. It was the strongest known cyclone to ever hit the Pacific. An estimated 350,000 people or 40 per cent of the population were affected, and at least 31,000 houses were damaged or destroyed. The cyclone interrupted schooling and medical services, as well as destroyed livelihoods. The Government of Fiji led a large-scale humanitarian response with support from national and international partners.
When I landed, I found the OCHA Office for the Pacific had swollen from its small team of five to over 20 people. My primary task during the first weeks was to draft daily situation reports and support the Pacific Humanitarian Team. We started the day with an 8:00 meeting and then, I would run to other meetings, type up minutes and send them out. When I found myself at the desk, I’d scan through incoming reports and other information looking for important changes in the situation, focusing on our ability to assist the affected people. Usually, around 9 pm, after our partners had sent in updated data on humanitarian needs, response and gaps, I would put on my headphones and write the best Situation Report that I could, so that the humanitarian community could use it to respond better.
This meant I usually left the office between 1 and 2am every day, seven days a week. But I would never have to walk back alone, because several of my colleagues would stay to help. And, that is exactly why my emergency deployments have been some of the most rewarding experiences of my professional life. In spite of the stress, the sleep deprivation and the pressures, you get to see your colleagues at their very best. Our team in Suva, as well as all those who dropped everything to come from Bangkok, Geneva, Manila and New York made me really proud to work for OCHA.