Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Tsunami advice, cartoon form...

(In case you need help understanding, "RUN!")

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The early warning system...

You might, or might not, have heard about the tsunami early warning system that foreign governments have spent millions on in order to prepare countries surrounding the Indian Ocean of potential tsunamis. It's supposed to work like this: very high tech equipment located in the ocean monitors seismic activity which is then relayed to satellites which are monitored and that information is sent very quickly to governments so that they can warn their people.

Let me tell you how it works in practice: very high tech equipment located in the ocean monitors seismic activity which is then relayed to satellites which are monitored and that information is beamed directly to CNN and BBC. Some watchful person in the the U.S. or UK sends us a message - today it happened to be my sister - saying that there's a tsunami warning. I look up from my computer and say, 'hey, did you know that there was an earthquake today and that there's a tsunami warning?' Everyone in the office stares at each other blankly. (Mind you, a deadly all of water could be hurtling toward the office at that very minute). I then search google for the latest news to find out if a tsunami warning has actually been issued.

Now, what's wrong with this picture? The people who are most vulnerable to a tsunami striking are not going to be getting calls from either the U.S. or UK to tell them about it. The people who are the most vulnerable are not going to be able to 'google' it. They are completely oblivious. So - call me crazy but I think the early warning system is the Oxford English definition of an 'abysmal failure'. The Indonesian government did issue a tsunami warning - according to the press - but to whom? I think this is a key question they should be asking it really crucial that CNN and BBC know about it? Or maybe they should try thinking of a system that could alert those living in low-lying coastal areas? Of course, I'm not a scientist so I could be wrong.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Ladies and gentlemen...

You knew it was coming sooner or later and so here, now, without further ado I present to you: Darfur, the music video...

Not sure how I fell about them using an IDP camp as a backdrop for a music video, but some of the footage is beautiful...

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Could it be that the cure is worse than the disease?

After years of taking doxycycline, slathering on the Deet, and spending time in rooms sprayed continuously with insecticide I'm wondering how bad can malaria and dengue fever be? Which is worse - the mossys or this self-poison?

Saturday, October 20, 2007

I'm only going to say this once...

I'm tired of the news coming out of Sudan these days. It's all shock and amazement at the current goings-on. ("What? The North and the South don't get along?!" or "What? There's fighting in Darfur?!" or "Weren't there peace deals? Wasn't everything peachy?!")

No! Things haven't been peachy since the ink was drying on either of the so-called peace agreements with the South (CPA) or in Darfur (DPA). And, so I am going to give you a short treatise on what the future of Sudan will hold in coming years. Ready?

There is no peace agreement in Darfur. The peace agreement with the south is all but dead. It never really was all that alive and it was always more of a cease-fire than a 'comprehensive peace agreement' anyway. Both the North and the South have used the period of the CPA to fortify their positions rather than actually work toward a future peace. The north has done this by bringing in Chinese weapons and soldiers by the boatload and the south has done this by bringing in and solidifying their position in the region, in Darfur and with international 'donors'. Everyone in Sudan is armed to the teeth and itching for a fight.

However, in this coming fight the North will lose. Here's why: North Sudan cannot afford to wage a war on three fronts which, if it returns to war with the South it will have to do. They will be forced to continue fighting in Darfur, on the Chadian border, and they will be fighting the South. The only way it could hope to win would be to bring China in to do their fighting for them. But, to assume that China will side with the North is to overestimate the relationship between the government in Khartoum and China. China is interested in the oil which, at the moment is provided by the North but the oil fields are almost entirely located in the South. If the Southern government does a deal with the Chinese to guarantee the security of Chinese oil interests I doubt that China will care who is buttering which side of their toast.

The Southern Sudanese Army have been long engaged in talks, and a recruiting drive, in Darfur. They are pulling in, literally, tens of thousands of Darfurians into their army with the common theme, 'we hate the regime in Khartoum.' In a fight where the South and Darfur are fighting the North, without the support of the Chinese, the North is doomed. Chad will take advantage of a weakened regime in Sudan that is unable to support the Chadian Opposition, as it currently does, and attempt to annihilate them. The South/Darfur collusion will be a marriage of convenience and once the government in the north has been vanquished - probably through a coup deposing the current regime and plunging the North into political chaos - it will end. And, given that there's not much commonality (or love lost) between Darfur and the South, they will turn on each other. Chaos and turmoil will ensue in the form of uncontrollable warfare.

Granted, this is not a pretty picture. It is a tragedy of enormous proportions. The human losses and humanitarian situation will be unthinkable. But if the north doesn't recognize the volatility of the situation they are facing and the South and Darfur don't count the human costs in their quest for power then this is what Sudan will devolve into for the next ten years, at least.

Thursday, October 18, 2007


This is me getting shot...yes, I know that you're not supposed to wave the weapon about wildly like this but I was running away and in pain:

Gun-toting hooligans:

Darren examines nasty flesh wound I inflicted at close range...entirely, on accident, of course:

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Where we spend our weekends...

And by "weekend" I mean TWO days!!

Shooting back...

I would like to preface this post by saying that I abhor violence. I hate the video games in which you kill people. I hate the television shows that involve killing people. I prefer not to watch movies in which people die. Violence is not the answer. Ok, now that we’ve gotten that out of our systems I’ll continue.

Violence might not be the answer but sometimes it is good fun. Today is the second day of Idul Fitri, the five day holiday celebrating the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, and children are given gifts and allowed to run rampant. Now, you might have thought you had seen children “running rampant” before – like when they’re crying and throwing things in restaurants and shops. Let me tell you - you haven’t seen anything. I saw today – no lie – a child of no more than four years smoking. Also, in Meulaboh, it seems that every child, under 12, has been given a bb gun and these children have taken to the streets in packs where they carry out full-on gang warfare against other groups of children who are roving the streets in the backs of pickup trucks and tuktuks.

After observing this descent into juvenile chaos did we have the presence of mind to ‘tut-tut’ about the culture of violence and remember how much we abhor violence? No. (Well, truth be told, some of us did). The rest of us, stopped our trucks plastered with NO GUNS stickers and bought our own pump-loading bb guns and began duking it out in, and around, one of our compounds. Children piled in tuktuks drove by and we opened fired. They returned fire as they sped away. Our own fight moved indoors for several minutes when suddenly there was a, ‘hallooo!’ from the front door with a suspiciously Indonesian accent. We all stepped out from our hiding places to be greeted by a hail of bbs that bounced off the tile floors and cement walls as, in our absence, an entire gang of children had taken control of the front yard. We pushed them back out of the house and the battle raged for several minutes as we tried to hold the front door. Luckily for us, they began to run out of bbs and so they crowded around to show us their flesh wounds from other battles.

I guess you could say that I’ve hit a new low in humanitarian work when I’ve taken to shooting children but it was awfully good fun being able to shoot back and it did worlds of good for our popularity amongst neighbourhood children. So, I’m going to file this one under ‘community relations’ and move on.

However, if you take away something from this message it’s that I hate violence. Don’t like guns much either. Ahem.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


Logistics, in case you didn’t know, is a crucial part of all relief operations. They’re basically the people who buy stuff, store it, and get it from point A to point B. They also manage properties, deal with comms, travel, etc., etc., ad infinitum. It’s not the stuff of action movies but important, nonetheless. Without it project managers would have nothing to build with, wells wouldn’t get dug, nor would latrines, we wouldn’t ever get out to the field, and basically the enterprise would come to one massive, grinding, screeching halt. So, when logs is in trouble I’m there for them. Or, at least, I am in theory.

That sentimental theory met reality today when my love and devotion to logistics was put to the test by a serious gap in logs staffing. I volunteered to take a sabbatical from communications for a couple of weeks to help logs It was valiant and gallant of me - if I do say so myself…and I do. Afterall, I’ve got a fairly good handle on logistics. It’s not rocket science. You shop. You boss people around. You give withering looks that make others feel inferior when they’ve completed the wrong paperwork. Sheesh! I do those things for fun. But, there is one thing that I haven’t done and that is warehousing. I’ve heard about warehousing. I’ve wandered around tidy warehouses and looked at things. I’ve even inventoried warehouses. It’s just that I’ve never actually ‘managed’ a warehouse. So, when the Logs Manager sat down at my desk and looked at me earnestly my heart started beating a little faster. Here’s a snippet of conversation:

Logs Manager: I think we should talk about what where you’re most needed.
Me: Sure! (inside my head) Please don’t say warehousing, please don’t say warehousing!
Logs Manager: We’ve got a couple people who will be covering procurement and purchasing.
Me: Great! (inside my head) Please don’t say warehousing, please don’t say warehousing!
Logs Manager: So….ummm…I was wondering how you felt about…
Me: (inside my head) Not warehousing! Anything but warehousing!
Logs Manager: …about managing the warehouses?

What could I do? I was sitting there with a silly confident grin plastered across my face? I gulped, nodded and kept smiling. “Sure! Great! Sounds like fun!” I said. Of course, I did what any reasonable person would do in those circumstances - I promptly got on Google and typed in ‘Warehouse Management for Dummies’. Google failed me and so I turned instead to our own manual on warehouse management that has been – handily – put on all our computers.

The Logs Manager walked back in. Could I do the interviews for the warehouse assistants? “Sure!” I gulped again. Not only have I never done warehousing but now I’m supposed to ask someone else how they do it and judge their answers. I returned to hurriedly reading the manual. Stock checks. Ok! Bin cards. Check! Rats, fires, flood, fraud. I put the speed reading skills to the test.

“Oh,” the Logs Manager turned back to me on his way out the door. “Here are the outstanding MDRs”

MDRs…riiiight. Love those MDRs! What the heck is an MDR? More manual flipping. Material Dispatch Requests. Of course, silly me, how obvious!

So, two interviews, 35 MDRs, two warehouse tours, a lot of faff with some project managers over bricks, and 10 hours later I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was still alive. And breathing. And no one hated me. At least that they’ll say to my face but I’m keeping the withering looks on standby just in case.

Monday, October 08, 2007

The Spiral Staircase of Death...

Arriving in Meulaboh was a slightly surreal experience. Like arriving back in a place you know you’ve been but nothing is familiar so it’s like being somewhere you’ve never been before. The thirty minute drive from the airport took 3 ½ hours because of flooding but once we hit tarmacked roads the scenery was totally foreign. The areas near the coast that used to be riddled with the flattened foundations of houses is overgrown with jungle hiding the destruction. The open air markets and restaurants have been replaced with storefronts and buildings. The roads have been tarmacked and driving now doesn’t involved dodging parts of the road that are washed out. The neat, newly painted houses built by NGOs as part of the response line the roads surrounded by gardens and sheds. If you had just been dropped here and knew nothing of the level of destruction this place had sustained you would never be able to guess at it.

Personally, I am glad to be here. It is nice to have my belief that aid work does work, is necessary and good rekindled. My most pressing fear – well, my only fear - is how to navigate the spiral staircase of death from my second floor room during an earthquake. I have had enough trouble getting down a straightforward staircase when the earth turns to jelly much less one that twists precariously to an obscene angle in the middle.

Down the rabbit hole...

"And down went Alice after it never once considering how in the world she was to get out again…She fell very slowly for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her and wonder what was going to happen next. First, she looked down and tried to make out what she was coming to but it was too dark to see anything…"

I came across this portion in Alice in Wonderland and thought that this is exactly what it is like going out on a new aid post. You just ship off one day to work with people you’ve never met in a place you’ve never been. You could be on a team that will be your new bestest-friends-for-life or you could not get along with a single one of them. You might love the place or find you're allergic to the very air. All luck of the draw, I suppose.

Now: random musings...first let’s compare and contrast with last posting just for the heck of it, shall we?

Differences between working in Indonesia and Darfur:
1) We live in palatial buildings.
2) There are hot showers
3) There are toilets
4) The food is great – including ice cream
5) Air conditioning in all our vehicles
6) There are weekends
7) There’s constant electricity and – usually wireless internet

Similarities between working in Indonesia and Darfur:
1) It’s hot.
2) There are mosquitoes

Yeah, pretty much struggling to find any other similarities. Oh yeah, there was once a war here too. I love this place. I’m not kidding! Can’t we stay forever? I guess that would be slightly defeating the purpose of, well, everything humanitarian workers are about but I think we should think about it nonetheless.

Most interesting part of the day was the security brief on what to do in case of another tsunami. The answer: “run”. Well, technically that’s not entirely true. With enough advance warning, we’re supposed to get in trucks and calmly drive inland to higher ground. Failing that, however, we’re supposed to run for the highest ground around. I love it. You just can’t beat sound, sensible, simple advice like that… “run!”