Tag Archives: United Nations

Camp life at UN base

As we all work overtime to help Haitians recover, I wanted to touch on the crazy world we all inhabit here in UN camp.

There is a large logistics base by the airport, called UN log base, which is overrun by hundreds of aid workers, all crammed into tents and containers, trying to run an enormous logistical operation under quite tough conditions. The heat in the day is stifling; there are clouds of mosquitos, open sewers and very few showers and toilets. Overall, pretty disgusting.

IOM has had to build, then dismantle, then rebuild its offices twice already, and will have to do so again in the next few days. It’s a little like one of those games where you move tiles around slots, with only one free space, trying to make a coherent picture. Only the free space is a toxic sewer. I made a fun video of our most recent relocation.

On the flip side, it is actually really fun interacting from people and organisations from all over the world. A small bar is crammed with aid workers and soldiers of every cast and colour; quaffing a few overpriced beers after a tough day. A PX sells various drinks and nibbles, as well as giant TV sets (who would buy one, I don’t know) and rows of hair conditioner, but no shampoo. The single street of the central compound was for days littered with people hanging out by the curb, chitchatting, ocasionally pulling out a guitar and strumming. A camp dog appeared, which nibbles people with sharp teeth, is widely loved, and is creatively known as “camp dog”. Tonight we heard a Middle Eastern call to prayer at sunset, possibly from the Jordanian battalion.

Over the past few days we have slowly been moving into tents at a new Swedish camp, 15 mins from log base, staffed by Vikings who are militant about handwashing. The sleeping tents are giant white rubberised affairs separated into 16 little cubicles each – with a cot and mattress, and European plug sockets (very useful for a system that uses American plugs).

But it has hot showers! Ah, a hot shower after two weeks of a rancid cold dribble. People pay between 20 and 40 bucks a night for this privilege, but also get a slow wifi and two meals a day – one decent dinner (no pudding) and a rather meagre breakfast (to my British palate anyway) of cheese and porridge. In the evening aid workers gather around two long ranks of tables, and tap late night emails into laptops, chat about the day, sip a whisky and wind down a bit before getting up again at the crack of dawn.

People are getting very tired, and its beginning to show – especially in those who lived through the quake. People are also rotating in and out quite often – which can also be hard to manage, as every two weeks you have a whole bunch of new faces to get to know.

Tough it is. But it also very special; we are all very aware we are part of something rather remarkable, and it keeps everyone going.

More lost friends; photos of the fallen

Another awful day of bad news.

The full extent of the losses to our community is finally hitting home, as hope disappears.

This morning we learned of the death of the wonderful, vivacious Alexandra Duguay, whose house we visited only a couple of weeks ago. Also at that house party was Andrew Wyllie and family. Andrew survived, but we have learned his family did not.

I am left staring at this photograph, taken of Alexandra, Andrew’s boys and my own son Dorian, after Alexandra had pinned up a flamboyant new road sign to Impasse Tulipe, where she had just moved. (Many roads in PAP remained unmarked or badly signposted; so like Alexandra to take the initiative and simply make one). Everyone pitched in. Only Dorian remains, through sheer random chance.

Happier days

Dorian in his own way is quite aware of what happened. He keeps asking how we can save the people, how we can build Haiti again and make it strong. He started crying at the prospect of no longer being able to play with some of the friends he met.

We also heard of the loss of Andrew Grene this morning. On the same day that Anna and I visited Alexandra, we had gone to Andrew’s house for a wonderful lunch – which was briefly attended by Hedi Annabi, also fallen. Andrew showered our children with presents, a terrifically sweet gesture.

The weekend before we left, we had brunch at home with Emily Sanson-Rejouis, Emmanuel and their three beautiful daughters, Kofie-Jade, Zenzie and Alyahna. The children were so sweet together, scampering around the patio. We were looking forward to many more play dates; and I was excited to get to know Emmanuel better. He was in a similar position to me; a UN spouse (though formerly a UN employee himself), looking to make the most of our time in Haiti. I wanted to help on a philanthropic project he was working on to provide low cost t-shirts to NGOs. We were planning to play tennis.

Only Emily and Alyahna still live. Another family was at that brunch too, but I haven’t enough details to know their full story yet, so don’t want to write anything. UPDATE: Tragically, we have heard that Cleiton also died, leaving behind him his wife Irene and his son Jannick. I would like to write more about him; he was a lovely guy, UN Security, former Brazilian police, who I chatting with for a long time on New Year’s Eve.

And then I think of Christmas and New Year, which we spent at the home of Patrick Hein – who miraculously was pulled out of the rubble – and Cecilia Corneo, whose whereabouts are still not known. And many others at that party.

It’s devastating. Everyone we met, every party we attended, everyone we had a meal with or invited over has either perished, or lost someone very close. And there is so much we still don’t know; the situation of the wonderful Haitians – Finante, Denise, Benson, others, whom I wrote about in my pre-quake posts – who worked with us, how they are coping at this awful time. I hope I can get back soon.

More names of the UN’s fallen are announced; Digicel

Another grim day, and the official list of fallen UN friends is growing.

A recent list posted on one of the many Facebook support groups included some of Anna’s closest colleagues.

Mr. Guido Galli, Political Affairs Officer, (Italy)
Mr. Karimou Ide, Security Officer, (Netherlands)
Ms. Andrea Loi Valenzuela, Human Rights Officer, (Chile)
Ms. Lisa Mblel-Mbong, Human Rights Officer, (United States of America)
Mr. Frederick Wooldridge, Political Affairs Officer (United Kingdom)
Mr. Guillaume Simieski, Political Affairs Officer, (Canada)

….

By now everyone is aware of the huge amount of work being put in by search and rescue teams, medical staff, other humanitarian workers. Our deep thanks go out to those who continued to dig for survivors – even today we had news of people being saved.

But I also wanted to give a brief mention to the cellphone network Digicel, which is unlikely to receive many public accolades. Over the past three years this mobile phone company has revolutionised communications in Haiti, making cheap telephony available and affordable to millions. The impact has been significant.

After the earthquake, communications were one of the greatest challenges. But Digicel – according to this announcement – now appears to have brought the situation under control. The importance of having working communications over the coming days and weeks cannot be overstated.

Good for Digicel.

January 17th 2010 – DIGICEL UPDATE ON SITUATION IN HAITI

The Digicel network is now functioning well in Port-au-Prince with more and more customers connecting to it and being able to make and receive calls, text messages, email and BlackBerry Messenger messages.

With coverage in the rest of the country good, Digicel is also ensuring that all of its two million plus customers in Haiti can stay in contact with friends and family by giving each and every Digicel customer US$5 of free call credit – totalling US$10 million.

Since deploying a team of technicians to Haiti following the earthquake on Tuesday, January 12th, Digicel has been working to restore its network in Haiti to full capacity.

A full assessment of the network has been carried out and the situation is as follows:

– All of Digicel’s three switch sites which serve the country are operational. One is damaged but an interim solution has been put in place until new equipment arrives
– 70% of the network’s cell sites are on air. We are working on restoring service to the remaining 30%
– Roaming is fully operational
– There is still some congestion on the network when making and receiving international calls
– An assessment of what network equipment is required has been completed and new equipment has been ordered and is en route to Haiti
– More teams of technicians have been assembled and are en route to support the existing teams on the ground

As well as the US$5 million which is being donated to NGOs by Digicel directly, Digicel has set up the Digicel Haiti Relief Fund. By Friday evening – just two days after it went live – a massive US$300,000 was donated by Digicel customers across our 32 markets worldwide.

In addition to previous aid drops over the last five days, Digicel has assembled a 110,000lb cargo of medical supplies, food and water ready to go to Haiti from Jamaica.

Digicel would like to thank people across the world for their contributions and to encourage them to keep giving to help the people of Haiti at this difficult time.

ADD Journalist Jason Maloney told me: “Not just the company but its employees: I met a Jamaican Digicel worker who had come up to Saint Marc to buy basic medical supplies after 36 hours of digging people out of the ground by hand, and all he wanted to do was get back to it.”

United Nations staff and their families

A sad day as more details come in; although also some good news as well, survivors confirmed. A Facebook group has been established to allow people to discuss the whereabouts of the missing, and already has hundreds of members. In this era, the UN – as others – has turned to social media.

Haiti’s wider tragedy, the plight of millions of ordinary Haitians, will rightfully remain the focus of the headlines, but for the United Nations this is also a very personal crisis, leading to the loss of many many staff; people who dedicated their lives to trying to make a difference. It may seem a small drop in a large ocean, but is deeply meaningful for our community.

Right now, the focus remains on trying to save what survivors may remain, and to put in place systems to care for the dispossessed. This is entirely right. The UN has two related, but separate, jobs: to alleviate the suffering of Haitians as a whole, and a duty of care to its own staff. It is a very stressful time; many people are in deep shock. There has been an outpouring of offers to help from throughout the system and it is doing what it can given the logistical challenge. Communications remain limited.

In the longer term, I suspect that the UN will face some important questions regarding the issue of the UN families there. Haiti was a non-family duty station, but in practice – as the country grew more stable – many did in fact have close relatives in the country. Husbands, wives, small children. Even Mr Annabi, the head of mission, stayed ther with his wife.

I believe this was positive. UN officials are people too, and the presence of families, children, helps keep a community healthy. The cost of cutting off internationals from ‘normal’ social life can be severe, leading sometimes to behaviour which undermines the job they are asked to do. But for various reasons, there was reluctance to formally acknowledge that.

As a matter of policy, the UN system actually has differing standards on families. For the funds and programmes, staff on a non-family duty posting are given extra resources to support their families out of the country. The United Nations peacekeeping department hoped for similar treatment, but major donors – with the United States in the lead – denied this. On an official level, therefore, it would appear that the US and others back a policy that discourages peacekeepers from having a family.

In practice, civilian peacekeepers often have a painful choice: don’t have a family (a route taken by many very good people, but with consequences for organisational culture), leave them thousands of miles away with no support, or bring them along in contravention of the rules. This makes life particularly difficult for women, at a time when the UN is supposed to be improving its gender balance.

Certainly there are many places where it would simply be impractical to keep a family, but Haiti at this time was not one of them, and the system informally allowed its staff to live a normal life. The fact that the head of the mission had his wife there underlined this. This was a good thing.

Then tragedy struck.

We have learned of dreadful cases of families split, where some survived and others did not. One story in particular haunts us. I cannot go into details.

The problem is, because of Haiti’s official status as a non-family duty station, the system is not really designed to look after its families in a case like this.

Currently, officials are working night and day to salvage what they can. Informal networks have been quick to rally around families. People have been very supportive. Individuals have gone out of their way to help, performing some gruelling tasks.

But on a systematic basis, I believe this may be a wake-up call. At the very least, the UN’s donors, in my opinion, should accept reality and provide UN peacekeeping with the wherewithal to properly support the families who have been destroyed.

An alternative reaction could be to crack down on the family issue. No more family members, even informally. Personally, I believe this would be misguided.

Instead, I would hope that the United States and others admit that peacekeeping is here to stay, and put in place better systems to account for the fact those peacekeepers have spouses and children.

The world needs peacekeepers. It asks them to do extraordinary things in the most difficult places on earth. I think it is only right to accept that some will marry and have children, and to support them in that choice.

So, a simple plea. Despite formal policy, several UN families were in Haiti during this tragedy and have been devastated. This is the reality. Everything possible must be done to administer to their needs, not just now, but for the rest of their lives.

Friends who have died

We have just heard the first horrifying details of friends who died. Children our own children played with. Families torn apart.

The UN is still trying to pick up the pieces.

The next few days are going to be tough.

Taking stock; guilt; atheism

It’s been a day of processing for us: a dawning realisation of the work we will need to do to reconstruct our life. We still don’t have any idea whether our house, with all our possessions, is still standing, or when we will return; what we can, should be doing – especially with two small kids.

For the moment, however, we are safe and well when so many other families have been destroyed.

Haiti’s tragedy is beyond counting. The United Nations also has suffered another blow comparable – it now appears – to the Baghdad bombing in 2003, although this time due to natural catastrophe rather than human intent. Over coming days the organisation will need to take stock; there will be many important stories to tell about the people who lost their lives in service of a better world. I intend to relate some of them. We have almost certainly lost friends.

On a personal level, it is decidedly surreal to be so connected to, yet so far from, a crisis which has commanded global attention. Miami is just across the water, yet a world away.

We have been inundated with kind comments and offers of help, and – notably – references to miracles, divine providence, prayers. I do not want to jump to any conclusions, but Anna may be one of the last remaining members of the civilian management of the UN peacekeeping mission. Through sheer random chance. Had we been in Haiti, had the quake come next week instead of this, had we not delayed our holiday until after the New Year, she would have been in that building.

I was religious as an adolescent, but later turned to atheism due to my difficulty with belief systems that condemn others who – by accident of birth and geography – do not follow a certain creed. To my developing morality, that was incompatible with our sense of common but diverse humanity.

I also found alternative sources of deep morality in humanist thought, and feel that we can strive to be better people without reference to a divine being. I followed my heart.

But moments like this test atheism to the limit. I have found myself, almost despite myself, whispering a word of thanks. I remember the old religious me; it is down there somewhere. We are hard-wired to see agency, especially in moments of great change, great import; we find it unsettling to see our lives as random events, whatever our rational selves say. Even though I fundamentally see our escape as pure luck, it comes with a niggling sensation. And I do appreciate the prayers, as they are sincerely meant, acts of pure kindness.

The question is what to do with our reprieve. Hopefully something useful.

I also feel a slight sense of guilt.

Not at the fact we were not in Haiti… that was sheer good fortune, and I have no regrets (except a creaky old journalistic pang at missing a major event).

But at the fact that I am considering our own fortunes – the loss of our house, the challenge now facing our potentially homeless young family, our careers – whilst those of others are so much worse. We will be fine. Others will not.

Still, we can’t help it. We all need a sense of where we might be going. That is intrinsically human.

PS This horrifying story about Pat Robertson is a powerful reminder to we humanists why we have chosen the path we have.

On the same issue, someone alerted me to this bizarre claim by some Christians in 1998 that they had actually taken Haiti back from the Devil. Such demented stuff.

It is also disturbing to see David Brooks’ invocation of voodoo as an explanation for why Haiti is “progress resistant”

Haiti earthquake: Ban Ki-moon press conference

Morning, and still no news about friends. It sounds grim. These comments from Ban Ki-Moon, United Nations Secretary General.

Secretary-General’s remarks the press on the earthquake in Haiti
UN Headquarters, New York, 13 January 2010 (unofficial transcript)

SG: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. First of all, I would like to extend my heartfelt sympathies to the victims of yesterday’s catastrophic earthquake in Haiti . Je suis vraiment désolé par le désastre qui vient de toucher Haïti. C’est une tragédie pour Haïti, pour le peuple Haïtien, et pour [L’Organisation des] Nations Unies.

Information on the full extent of the damage is still scanty. Initial reconnaissance and aerial assessments have been undertaken. It is now clear that the earthquake has had a devastating impact on the capital, Port-au-Prince . The remaining areas of Haiti appear to be largely unaffected.

As you are aware, buildings and infrastructure were heavily damaged throughout the capital. Basic services such as water and electricity have collapsed almost entirely.

We are yet to establish the number of dead or injured, which we fear may well be in the hundreds. Medical facilities have been inundated with injured.

There is no doubt that we are facing a major humanitarian emergency and that a major relief effort will be required.

I am grateful to those countries that are sending emergency relief. I urge all members of the international community to come to Haiti ’s aid in this hour of need.

Many of our UN colleagues on the ground, including my Special Representative in Haiti , Mr. [Hédi] Annabi, and his deputy, Mr. [Luiz Carlos] da Costa, are as yet unaccounted for.

The UN Headquarters at the Christopher Hotel collapsed in the quake. Many people are still trapped inside.

MINUSTAH [United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti ] troops have been working through the night to reach those trapped under the rubble. So far, several badly injured casualties have been retrieved and transported to the MINUSTAH logistics base, which thankfully remains intact. No names are available yet.

MINUSTAH has around 3,000 troops and police in and around Port-au-Prince to help maintain order and assist in relief efforts. MINUSTAH engineers have also begun clearing some of the main roads in Port-Au-Prince which will allow assistance and rescuers to reach those in need. I will dispatch Assistant Secretary-General and former Special Representative of the Secretary-General to MINUSTAH, Edmond Mulet, to Haiti as soon as possible.

The UN is also mobilizing an emergency response team to help coordinate humanitarian relief efforts, which will be on the ground shortly. We will immediately release $10 million from the Central Emergency Relief Fund (CERF). In this regard, I am encouraged and appreciative of the willingness of the international community to extend immediate assistance and rescue missions. I am close consultation with the US Government and Haitian Government, as well as many others of the international community’s major countries. In these times of difficulties, I would appeal again to the international community for urgent further assistance and urgent further help for them. Thank you very much.

Q: How is the communication with Haiti right now? Can you reach them?

SG: Most of the communications, as I understand, have broken down. But there is a very limited communications channel. We are trying to use satellite communications, but it is very difficult. But, still, we are trying to communicate with them.

Q: Mr. Secretary-General, can you say how many people in the headquarters staff there in building, in the Hotel Christopher up on the hill, are accounted for, unaccounted for? And also, there is a report that Mr. Annabi is dead; can you comment?

SG: First of all, I do not, and we do not, have any exact information. What we can assume is that the total at the time that the earthquake struck the MINUSTAH headquarter, there were around 100 or 150 people still working. They were having important meetings. We are still not aware of having any information. The Brazilian peacekeeping forces have been working all the night through to rescue, but because of the darkness, and the impact on the infrastructure, not much progress has been made. With the dawn of daytime, I am sure we will have better rescue operations.

Q: Mr. Secretary-General, are you going to meet with the Clinton Foundation, or are you sending, using your Special Envoy, Bill Clinton? Is there any news also about Michéle Montas? Is she in Haiti or is she in the United States ?

SG: Yes, I have spoken with Special Envoy, President Bill Clinton, yesterday, and this morning, I am going to discuss with him again. We have agreed that both the United Nations and himself as Special Envoy for Haiti should coordinate and try our best efforts to mobilize whatever necessary assistance and rescue teams, and try to reconstruct the Haitian economy. At this time, the United Nations will do whatever possible to help the Haitian people. The United Nations will stand firmly and continuously in coordination with the international community to help recover and overcome these difficulties.

Q: Michéle Montas, do you have any news about her?

SG: I will try to contact her.

Q: What about your Special Representative – Bill’s question? What’s the latest about him and any other casualties for the United Nations, sir?

SG: Mr. Annabi was having a consultation with a visiting Chinese delegation. Unfortunately, as of now, we are not able to have any confirmation about the safety of Mr. Annabi. We will do our best efforts. Again, the Deputy Special Representative is also unaccounted for, together with many of our staff. That is why I have decided to dispatch Mr. Edmond Mulet, who used to be a Special Representative, to manage this operation and [help] management of the Mission there.

And we have around 3,000 peacekeepers in and around Port-au-Prince . They will be responsible to, first of all, secure the scene and help maintain civil order and security of the city.

Q: Mr. Secretary-General, how soon do you plan on going to see the scene yourself?

SG: Myself? I am willing to visit Haiti as practicably early as possible. But at this time, I will try to dispatch Mr. Mulet. Mr. Mulet, if all the arrangements can be made, will be able to leave on Friday, or as early as possible. But for me, we have to see. First of all, I am here to save lives and to manage, to command all the operations, together with the leaders of the international community. And I will do my best, together with President Clinton, when will be the appropriate timing. But I am committed to visit, as practicably early as possible.

Q: Mr. Secretary-General, you said that several badly injured UN staffers had been pulled from the wreckage. Were there any bodies pulled from the wreckage, also? And it seems pretty clear from what you said that there are going to be some serious UN casualties. Also, could you comment on the need for heavy equipment to lift some of the rubble, because this apparently is one of the problems, not just for the UN but in Haiti and the rest of the capital?

SG: For that question, I will ask one of my senior advisors to answer. For your second question, I have been in urgent contact with the US Government and I have requested officially [for them] to provide more logistical support and heavy equipment, and trained rescue and assistance teams. And our Force Commander is in contact with the American military commander, and I will continue to coordinate with the US Government. Now, I am very much grateful to the US Government and many other governments who have expressed their willingness to dispatch urgent and immediate assistance teams. I will continue to coordinate with them.

If you excuse me, I have another important meeting, so I will have some of our senior advisers to answer further questions. Thank you very much.