Few fears, except perhaps that experienced during the process of
dying, are more acute, more commanding than when facing a child
whose finger is on the trigger of a loaded gun. It is at that instant
the adamantine faith in our own ability to influence and control
our fate becomes a delusional conceit. No one should ever experience
that terror and yet it is not uncommon for humanitarian workers,
serving in countries torn by internal conflict, to find themselves
suddenly facing their death -- at the whim of a child soldier, or
a militia seeking to make a political point, or belligerents in
a local war who is convinced the relief worker is not neutral but
is working for the other side.
Humanitarian workers serving in strange politically violent lands
expect to offer themselves tirelessly to feed, immunize, heal, rescue,
teach, house and relocate; they never expect to have to give up
their lives. Today, relief workers are as likely to be killed in
the line of their civilian duties, as are well-trained and well-armed
soldiers. Indeed, more UN aid workers during the past five years
have been killed than peacekeepers. Between 1999 and 2004, more
than four hundred fifty men and women working for UN agencies and
non-governmental relief organizations on nearly every continent
had been assaulted, kidnapped, raped or murdered. Eighty UN staff
members are still missing.
The dangers of the work could be no more tragically demonstrated
than the killing of twenty-two humanitarian workers in the bombing
of the UN compound in Baghdad in the summer of 2003, and the bombing
ten weeks later of the headquarters of the International Committee
of the Red Cross that killed two staffers.
In Afghanistan, five members of a Médecins sans Frontières
team were ambushed and murdered by returning Taliban. In Darfur,
Sudan, nine aid workers of the US Agency for International Development
were attacked and killed. These are only a few of the deaths recorded
during 2003 and 2004.
Relief work has always been dangerous but it has become more so
during the past ten years, especially so since the invasion of Iraq.
Tragically, the security of those humanitarians, has been less a
concern than getting the job done. This is dramatically illustrated
during the hastily conceived flood relief operations to Somalia
in 1997-1998 about which this book is written.
Somalia was then, continues today to be a shambles, torn apart by
more than a decade of lawlessness and near-classic anarchy. It is
perhaps the only nation without some form of central government
and it is considered still to be one of the most dangerous places
on earth. Its demise as a member of nations occurred in 1991 when
dictator Mohamed Siyad Barré was overthrown and feuding warlords
began to battle over the spoils. In 1992, Somalia suffered a famine
of catastrophic proportions – three hundred children a day
died in the capital city -- caused in part by natural events and
to a greater degree by warlords who used starvation as a weapon.
The United Nations created an emergency relief mission and sent
peacekeepers to protect the humanitarian operations. Mogadishu,
the capital, turned into a battleground between warlord militia,
armed civilians and peacekeepers; eighteen American soldiers were
killed during a two-day firefight in the streets and alleys. The
soldiers withdrew never to return.
Somalia was no less a hell five years later during another humanitarian
crisis. In November 1997, torrential rains on the Horn of Africa
spawned destructive floods that poured through the Somali heartland,
sweeping away whole villages and displacing nearly a million people.
Despite the bloody history, the United Nations considered the crisis
severe enough to return to this pariah land. It threw together emergency
relief and rescue operations and sought those with some maritime
experience to deliver up the swollen rivers desperately needed emergency
supplies. I was one of those volunteers. This memoir of walking
nightmares is not just my story but it is representative of the
horrific experiences of relief workers elsewhere, whether facing
down a child soldier in Liberia or held hostage in the Caucasus,
not knowing whether tomorrow you will be shot or released. This
is one account of their fears, their challenges, their confrontations,
their frustrations, their pleasures, their successes -- and their
deaths. Writing this story is finally a purgation of my own ghosts.
Many of us joked that we were mercenaries, missionaries or maniacs.
Which begs the question why would relatively normal people knowingly
risk their lives to help others in areas too dangerous to send soldiers?
Personality deficiency? Or merely a different personality? It is
a question that I sought to answer, not just about the others in
the field but about myself.
I had not exactly lived a life of the mainstream and perhaps my
own background is not representative of the others. Yet I feel I
have to lay some of it out for what follows in these pages is often
so outrageous, so frightening, and so typical of the lives of aid
workers that it is necessary to look into the reason why one person,
at least, might willingly enter such work.
After graduating from boarding school, I rebelled from the highly
disciplined cloistered life that prepared its youth for careers
in medicine, law, business, politics, and diplomacy, and signed
on as a "workaway" aboard merchant ships – pay the
captain a hundred bucks and work your butt off for the passage to
Europe. Signing off a ship in Baltimore I found a job as copyboy
on a local newspaper sharpening pencils for reporters, and after
years of local journalism, wound up with United Press International
as one of their correspondents covering the State Department and
the White House. I left the newsrooms to write speeches for Congressmen
on Capitol Hill, then tired of the claptrap of politics, took my
family to northern Michigan where I worked on oilrigs and built
a log house. I went north to Alaska, ran a political campaign, did
a short season on a crab boat, then skippered a commercial boat
fishing for halibut in the Gulf of Alaska. I wrote a steamy dime
novel about the Last Frontier that was published then briefly wrote
the daytime television show Search for Tomorrow. I had
been writing the soap aboard my little thirty-two-foot sloop in
San Francisco Bay and suffering intellectual burnout, I sailed across
the Pacific to Tahiti and beyond. I met my Dutch wife Jacqueline
in Malaysia and together we sailed across the Indian Ocean to East
Africa. It is upon our arrival on the coast of Kenya that this story
begins. While my own past may not be one that many can relate to,
it is a history that led up to the day that I joined the World Food
Program to save lives in Somalia.
Yet this background does not explain why. Was the money enough to
risk my life? Was my marriage so rocky that I had to get away? Did
I sign up because I really wanted to help people? Had my own past
require that I merely find another adventure? Each of us had reasons
to disappear into relief work, reasons that reflected an individual’s
personality and personal history. One humanitarian worker, a former
schoolteacher, admitted as the bullets were flying overhead in Baghdad
that she remained in the aid trade because of the adrenaline rush.
Another, who had been kidnapped and held for twenty-two days in
a moldy root cellar in Chechnya, said he was in it for altruistic
reasons, that he really felt good about himself when he was helping
those who suffer. One with whom I worked in Somalia was in it only
for the money that the job paid. Myself, I really did not know at
the time what I was getting myself into and I signed up without
much thought, eager for an adventure that was well paid. I had no
idea what relief work was, what it would require physically and
emotionally. I had never considered myself an altruist, a missionary
much interested in helping anyone, simply a restless sailor. I was
to discover, however, that at the end of the day, the reasons for
getting into relief work for many of us were not the reasons to
stay in it. After saving a life, I was hooked. There is something
selfishly satisfying about saving lives.
Saving others, saving yourself is not without its price. Some of
us were emotionally scarred by our experiences. It was unavoidable.
I was as much of a stranger to violence as anyone else, the last
to throw a punch. There was nothing in my own past to prepare me
for the horrors that my colleagues and I were to face in Somalia.
Despite a much-practiced ability as a journalist to disassociate,
I found myself unable to avoid emotional intervention. I tried to
disconnect, to see the horror, the deaths through the cold eyes
of a professional observer. I was sometimes successful when the
bullets came my way, but not when the bloodshed occurred to others
within a few feet of where I stood, or indeed, in my arms. Out in
the field, we saved the lives of dozens or more, many more, and
that was gratifying; nothing, however, can expiate the unremitting
guilt, the memory of that child for whose death I was responsible.
Field workers go where they are sent, rarely working again with
those they had known in other areas of crisis. The time shared is
frequently in a foxhole, under stress and immediate. And then it
is over. Word comes over high frequency radio to pack up and move
to someplace else where you are needed. And then it is simply goodbye,
hope to see you again somewhere. Relief work during a humanitarian
emergency does not often permit intimacy or promote long term friendships.
Relief workers charge weaponless and without protection on missions
that are frequently away from the eyes of the international community,
their quiet bravery considered only when their deaths make the news
on the back page. What they endure in other parts of the world is
frequently more horrifying than what is recounted here. For some,
working for the UN or for non-governmental relief organizations
in the field during a humanitarian crisis is the last job they will
Some of the names have been changed; while all knew I was taking
notes with the purpose of possibly converting them into a book,
it would be unfair to hold my colleagues responsible for what was
done or said during times of such ineffable duress.