Category Archives: Blog

Return to the Stan

My contract in Nigeria finished in January so I left a few days before Christmas, taking all my holidays.  I was happy to leave in one sense, the constant human misery in the north was taking its toll but I have to admit I was more than a bit torn; there was also a part of me that wanted to go back and help highlight this crisis for the 5 million plus people facing starvation. Five million people – that’s more than the population of Ireland.  Trying to create interest in the humanitarian situation was difficult in Nigeria itself, let alone among the international community.

The decision to return was taken out of my hands so with a three month break under my belt, it almost came then as a bit of ‘light’ relief to find myself boarding a plane back to The Stan (Afghanistan) after a seven-year absence.  Memories merge in my brain between my time in Afghanistan and Iraq, another duty station where freedom of movement is restricted because of insecurity. I can hardly complain about the tight security in Afghanistan considering there was sweet fanny adams in terms of security measures in place in northern Nigeria where Boko Haram, the local jihadi group, run riot.

There are a few differences; in Kabul I don’t have to negotiate traffic each day as I did in Nigeria. We live and work on the same compound. I reckon it’s probably less than 100 steps between the living quarters, small restaurant and the office – it takes just three minutes to walk the inside perimeter.

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Afghans love roses and there are plenty in the summer

I can’t make up my mind whether the compound is more like living in an open prison, a convent or a home for alcoholics as there is zero booze to be had in country at the moment and the people coming back from their R&R are welcomed with open arms by inmates almost emptying out their suitcase on arrival. Nigeria in comparison has no taxes on alcohol; so the excellent South African wines were at giveaway prices. If you compare accommodation in Kabul it’s a thousand times better than anything in Nigeria – the compound is located in the former Dutch Embassy – (the Dutch couldn’t afford the horrendous rents that come with war zones, so the UN took it over). There is a small restaurant where lunch is around $5.  There’s also a pool and decent gym in the basement.

The gym is unavailable to women between 4.30 and 7.30 pm when the local male staff have access.  In this supposedly deeply conservative society it’s not kosher for men to see any part of a woman’s body.  My preference is to rise early, usually by 5.30 a.m. and be in the gym by 6 a.m.  It’s all about timing and routine – the cup of green tea, checking the emails… if I miss my imaginary deadlines it just upsets me for the day.  The boss decided to call a very early morning meeting not so long ago, upsetting my timetable resulting in a missed exercise schedule. I skipped (figuratively not literally) out of the office during lunchtime to catch up.  The national female staff began pouring in and the door, normally left open, was firmly shut behind them.  They arrived in long coats and scarves and disrobed once inside mostly to reveal regular gym gear under the coats.  Scarves were whipped off as they inspected hair and makeup in the mirror, and preened themselves before their workout!  One or two had pinafores over the gym clothes, which always looks strange to me to see somebody on a treadmill in full garb.

There are several UN compounds scattered around the city, the furthest being on the Jalalabad Road out towards the airport.  It’s one of the most dangerous roads in the world with horrendous traffic and there are plenty of opportunities for bad people to attach magnetic bombs to cars while stuck in traffic.  One of our own staff members was driving to work not so long ago when a suicide bomber across the road decided to blow himself up and while my colleague was thankfully unharmed, he was very upset that there wasn’t a window left on his car.

Most of my journeys around Kabul involve going to and from meetings.  I can understand why there is an R&R cycle to allow people a break after six weeks of living in lockdown! The lack of freedom of movement gets to you after a while so even being stuck in traffic allows you to observe life and I could happily sit for hours in a traffic jam (albeit always looking over my shoulder) and just watch people and behavior. What’s fascinating though is to watch the traffic at roundabouts – there are no rules.  Rather than taking the third exit off a roundabout, it’s normal to see cars just going in the opposite direction to take the shortest route possible.   Like many other countries in the region, it’s not unusual either to see a car careering down a highway travelling in the opposite direction to every other car on the highway so you need nerves of steel.

The general security situation hasn’t improved much in the seven years, a recent report says there were more people killed last year in Afghanistan than Syria and that’s saying something. It is believed that the BigT (Taliban) has control of more than 40 per cent of the country and there doesn’t appear to be abatement in the numbers of insurgents or their strength. The Americans and British are still around and the sound of military Chinoook helicopters crossing the skies several times a day can be heard long before they’re seen in Kabul.  The US picked the Easter weekend to target the ‘mother of all bombs’ in the east of the country where they believe ISIS to be hiding out in caves – no doubt increasing the likelihood of counter attacks on foreigners.  I have a few friends who live out in the compound close to the airport and sometimes I take the work-shuttle to go and hang out on a weekend.  This is much more like a village than a compound, although still surrounded by t-walls and heavily secured.  Sitting outside with an Irish friend, eating pizza I noticed that many of the aircraft flying over the compound had no lights.… a little bit worrying.  My friend pointed out that these were military planes and in fact when you looked up as they passed over, the bombs attached to the underbelly were clearly visible.

While life goes on, Kabul is still a city under siege.   Since my last visit, it’s striking the increase in the number of t-walls that surround buildings, blocking them to the average citizen and giving a very strange atmosphere to the city. The t-walls are mainly protecting Government buildings, NGOs, embassies and UN compounds.  Of course apartment buildings where the ordinary Afghani lives, (if they are lucky not to be stuck in a tent somewhere), don’t have the luxury of t-walls and hence very little protection – it’s impossible to get a sense of the architecture though around the city centre.  In the compound where I live, there are regular drills to the bunkers and the doors on each accommodation room is Taliban-proof so you can’t leave the key in the lock or it will take security an hour to drill through if they need to gain entry in an emergency.  The windows are also bullet proof (see photo of my room with the cracked glass – I’m not even going to think how that got there).  While you try to live or pretend that you live a ‘normal’ life, there is always something that brings you down to earth and reminders that this is a very abnormal life and situation.

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Bullet holes in my room window

We’re allowed to visit Spinneys and Finest supermarkets but can stay no longer than 20 minutes. Back in 2009/2010 these supermarkets had windows and I remember a time coming up to Christmas there was a mannequin of Santa Claus in the window ‘playing’ a saxophone.  I think the BigT were more than a bit pissed off with that because there was a major attack on Finest in 2011 and eight people lost their lives. Now, the windows are boarded up and going into the supermarket is the nearest thing to boarding a flight these days, where you’re frisked and your bags are searched on the way in.  Almost everything you need can be bought in the supermarkets, okay there is difficulty in accessing pork (but I’m not a big fan), however most other things including the big brands are easily available – even some decent Irish cheddar cheese.  Magnum ice creams are a nice treat for a Friday afternoon, the first day of the weekend.

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The supermarkets for foreigners are more like fortresses

Around the city, there are many more burka-less women about and about.   Indeed, it’s not unusual to see women without male escorts, although a colleague informed me that single women out on their own on the streets are generally hissed at as if they are prostitutes.  Remember that Kabul is a city where women wore mini-skirts in the 60s and 70s.  There also seems to be many more girls at school, identified by their black uniforms and white headscarves.  When I was here seven/eight years ago it was really unusual to find women out on the streets at all and you would mainly see them first thing in the morning going to work as cleaners.  Just a week ago there were women sweeping the streets outside the compound and an Afghan female colleague said it was the first time she witnessed women working outdoors.  Change is slowly coming, but I’m not so sure that women’s ‘liberation’ has moved much beyond the centre of Kabul. Once out on the Jalalabad Road, most of the women wear burkas so I can only imagine this phenomena is unique in the city.

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Kabul, a city of T-walls

There is no doubt that women have a tough life in Afghanistan and I for one am very glad I wasn’t born here. Shamshia cleans my room and brings me some of the local flat bread three days a week. She had a nasty fall at work and her arm was bandaged up so she had to take a week off, but returned with the arm still in bandage to continue working.  I felt so guilty about her having to work with a strapped up arm that I began cleaning my own room to give her hand out.  Now Shamshia calls with bread and I get a big hug and a kiss on each cheek three times a week. Somehow I don’t think the contractor provides sick pay for staff.  While I wouldn’t envy Shamshia’s lot, she at least has a job unlike the poor unfortunates who are begging, walking up and down between cars on the roads.

In 2015 I went to the regional consultations for the World Humanitarian Summit in Tajikistan.  There was a gender meeting, mainly about women and women’s rights. In the middle of the meeting a professor from the University of Kabul stood up and announced that everything was okay in Afghanistan before these women started looking for an education.  Everybody was so shocked the room went silent. I’d like to report that men’s attitudes have changed, but I find little evidence and not much evidence among the national male colleagues either.   A work colleagues has a brother who works in the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Each year Afghanistan gets an allocation of 10,000 places on the Haj so places are prized and people make the pilgrimage one in their lifetime. However, it’s the Ministry of Religious Affairs that allocates the places so this guy (Haj 3) has been to Mecca, yes, three times. He’s on the look out for a second wife, the first is probably worn out with the eight children she produced for him.   Our driver supports 11 members of his family on his salary; he’s just a young fella with five kids of his own.  Apparently his house was burnt down a while back by somebody pouring petrol through the door.  They mistook his house for his landlords who it is believed shot a man in revenge for some petty incident. Life is not only interesting in Afghanistan but also cheap!

And on that not so cheery note I will sign off for now.  I head to Erbil in a few weeks on another contract, which should see me through until the end of the year.  So until Erbil, it’s Oscar Romeo Lima Alpha over and out from Kaboom.

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Death in Banki town….

Shovels are almost as valuable a commodity as food in Nigeria’s north-east these days, because with a shovel you can bury the dead. This is the reality for hundreds and thousands of people fleeing from Boko Haram violence and suffering the effects of mass displacement. Such is the ensuing humanitarian situation that ordinary citizens are unable to recover from treatable diseases such as malaria because of their weakened nutritional status.

Farmers in the north-east haven’t returned to the land for three years in a row because they fear either attack from Boko Haram or the unexploded devices and land minutes

Fallow, fertile land on the way from Maiduguri to Monguno in north-east Nigeria.
Fallow, fertile land on the way from Maiduguri to Monguno in north-east Nigeria. Photo: Orla Fagan

and land mines planted in place of crops across their farms.  The result is food shortages across an area that was the bread basket of Nigeria as fertile land lies fallow.

I travelled by helicopter with the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) over towns and villages for kilometres on end – all razed to the ground by Boko Haram violence.

Houses and premises are shells – empty, with the roofs of buildings gone and some of the towns going back to the jungle with rapid growth after the rainy season. Burnt out cars and trucks are randomly scattered as they were abandoned when set on fire. In Bama town, two burnt out cars and a truck remain on the courtyard of a petrol station – an apocalyptic scene more reminiscent of a Mad Max movie. You half expect to see Bruce Willis coming out of the jungle with a blackened face and an AK47 with a shoulder strap of bullets slung over his shoulder.

I was back in the helicopter a few weeks ago, travelling to Monguno, Banki and Gwoza on different days. All these areas have become newly accessible to the humanitarian community. I was travelling with Kevin Sieff a journalist with the Washington Post and Jane Hahn a freelance talented photographer – both were deployed to cover the unfolding humanitarian crisis. They had visited Gwoza a year previously, just after the Nigerian Armed Forces pushed out Boko Haram and they wanted to revisit to see what progress was made and also to see some of the lesser-reported areas.

banki-016We travelled to Banki on Wednesday 28 September after a 45-minute helicopter trip. The Nigerian Armed Forces controls the town and its officers are understandably paranoid about the possibility of Boko Haram attacks. Citizens are not free to move beyond the perimeter of the town for fear they will share their miserly food allowances with the rebels. Some believe there is a strategy to starve the rebels, but if that is so, then it is also affecting thousands of innocent people left without insufficient food on a daily basis.

There is not much traffic in Banki – the roads around it are too dangerous for humanitarian convoys to come from nearby Maidiguri, the capital of Borno state. The World Food Programme bring in food from neighbouring Cameroon. The first food convoy arrived in July and delivery is sporadic and dependent on road conditions and security.

Even the health clinic is run with personnel who come in from Cameroonbanki-015 and is open just a few days each week. Hundreds of people queued outside in the heat of the sun waiting as the nurse performed triage, making decision after decision on which patients needed immediate treatment and who could be treated for minor ailments or left for another day to see the medics.

I sat by in the medical tent and watched Kevin interview a few women with clearly malnourished babies, as they fed them with a mixture of water and sugar from syringes, in between feeds – these were severely acute malnourished children who would die without intervention. On a bed was a woman rolling around in pain, occasionally vomiting into a bucket. On another bed a young medic attended to a baby, as her mother sat on a chair watching in bewilderment. The mother, Adama Adam is just 15 years old and already married two years to a 22 year-old man. Fana, her daughter is six months old and weighs just 5 kg. Fana is Adama’s only child. Far too many young girls who should be going to school are married as children themselves and whipped out of school – Adama was just 13 years old when she married. Some men in this bigamist society are fathering scores of children with no thought, awareness , or questioning on whether there is enough land to support this massively increasing population.

Back in Banki, the afternoon heat intensified in the medical tent as the doctor brought in a portable oxygen tank for Fana to assist her breathing. She was hopeful that the baby would make it when her organs showed signs of recovery and Fana peed on the bed. The oxygen tank battery had run out and the doctor gently picked up the baby and with great banki-044care moved her to the car where she could recharge the battery. A while later the medic came back into the tent and I asked how the baby was doing, the doctor responded that she was hopeful of a recovery. In order to get Fana to a better-equipped hospital for treatment, they needed a military escort for the ambulance to protect them from Boko Haram attacks. With no reason given, the military refused the escort.

After some time, we proceeded to an orphanage to see the living conditions of the children and a compound full of women, who claimed their husbands’ were abducted; they were possibly Boko Haram widows.

Kevin, Jane and myself were returning to the clinic along the sandy streets when Jane recognized Adama as she walked alongside her sister-in-law who was carrying the remains of Fana, her tiny body still wrapped in the bundle of cloths. Adama walked alongside her husband’s sister, arms hanging by her side, as if, without a child to carry, she didn’t know what to do with them. Tears poured down her face. Fana’s death was caused by malaria but her weakened nutritional status prevented her ability to fight the disease and like so many weakened children, she just didn’t have the strength in the end. Not having access to adequate medical facilities also didn’t enhance Fana’s chances of survival.

Jane, with her journalist instinct used body language and hand signals to ask if it was okay to photograph the two women as they walked back to the house where the family had taken refuge. We followed them into the compound as other family members and people living there gathered to see what had happened. Adama’s husband leaned against the wall, watching, not knowing what to do.

Adama and some family members went indoors as we looked on from the outside. Adama’s sister-in-law knelt on the floor with Fana still in her arms, while a male relative took the baby. Adama, overcome with grief, passed out as the room became crowded with people who came to see what was happening and offer sympathy.

In this culture, funerals are the business of men. Women have nothing to do with the burial. The imam (holy man) came along and with a hand-made hatchet went to the corner of the compound and began digging. He then broke some sticks and placed them across the small hole he had dug. He gently placed the body on the sticks and began washing Fana’s body. The body is washed over the freshly dug hole incase an infectious disease caused the death, so the water used to cleanse the body is absorbed in the hole and not a danger to others in the compound.

A rag was then brought out and the baby’s body wrapped in the material and tied in several places. Fana was then placed on a board and carried to the front of the compound where the men prayed over the body. A wheelbarrow was brought out and the body placed in the barrow as the men in the family went to the army commander to seek permission to bury Fana on the edge of the forest.

I returned to the helicopter pad, to wait and reflect on the afternoon’s events as Jane and Kevin followed the funeral and see Fana’s burial. I felt depressed, deflated and just really helpless. Kevin and Jane were stopped at the edge of the town because in Banki there is an invisible line – on one side the Nigerian military are in control and on the other side it is Boko Haram territory.

September 28 was  an upsetting afternoon, not least for Adama and Fana’s family. We were witnesses to something that’s happening day in, day out for many families in Nigeria’s north-east.

Nigeria is considered a wealthy country, but there are millionsLand laying fallow as farmers fear attacked by Boko Haram if they return. who live below the poverty line, and in conditions that are incongruous to what should be happening in the 21st Century. These crushing levels poverty with zero quality of life, where children die unnecessarily is just fodder for Boko Haram recruitment.

Innocent people are suffering. The international community is reluctant to contribute to the unfolding humanitarian situation because they believe, and probably rightly so, there is sufficient wealth in this oil rich country.
In the meantime, scores of children and vulnerable people die each day, waiting for assistance that may never come. There are too many demands, with too many crises around the world, from Syria, to Yemen to Lybia, to the Central African Republic with billions of dollars required to assist the most vulnerable citizens of the world. But if we don’t provide the most basics, including food, health and clean water, then it will come back and bite us in the ass. Nigerians striving for a better life, will march towards Europe in their droves to escape the grinding poverty and then maybe, just maybe people will then take notice and do something to address the growing humanitarian needs developing in Nigeria.

Until next time….

Yours, Fagan

http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/world/2016/10/13/they-survived-boko-haram-now-millions-in-nigeria-face-a-new-threat-starvation/

Back to Africa: Nigerian experiences

Visas

I was reminded of just what Nigeria is like when I visited the embassy in Dublin’s leafy upmarket Leeson Place in late June. The visa application office is in the basement of this beautiful old building and it has its own entrance ensuring Joe or Josephine Public is kept far from the embassy offices.

If you’ve ever tried for a Nigerian visa, then you’ll know just how frustrating and protracted it can be. The first time I went to Nigeria I was travelling from Liberia while working for an NGO and it took me five trips before I could gain entry to the embassy. On my fifth attempt, I managed to get my foot inside the door and once achieve, I refused to leave. And that was just to get the application form.

Most of the Nigerians who were queuing in Dublin had Irish passports and required a visa to go back ‘home’. On my first two visits I came well prepared with a book but so swift was my visit I over-paid the parking metre outside. On my third visit Sod’s Law kicked in – I forgot the book and spent my time feeding the metre as I waited for the diplomatic visa to be processed and issued.

On that last visit for the visa, I ended up waiting so long I needed the bathroom. To my surprise, (okay I’m being facetious), the toilets were actually located outside the building; something I don’t imagine exists anywhere else in Dublin in the 21st Century. The inside of the visa application office was reminiscent of a dole office anywhere in Ireland 30 years ago, before the Department of Social Welfare decided they needed to  smarten up and pretend to show a little respect for its clients. The carpet tiles were curling at the edges for the want of a cleaning and the walls hadn’t seen a lick of paint for many, many years. There were notices posted everywhere warning that verbal or physical violence would not be tolerated. Notices also threatened that if you even stopped your car outside the embassy gates for just one minute, you may forget about receiving any service. The Nigerians themselves were true to form and vocal about the treatment of ordinary citizen by their government. One Nigerian man commented that he had lived in Eastern Europe where government officials also “sat upstairs (referring to the embassy offices) scratching their arse.” His words, not mine. Another woman told us she was at the embassy every day at 9 a.m. for one week and came prepared with her lunch box. I have to say – there were more than a few chuckles that day.

Nigeria was just a wee culture shock from my previous posting in the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, with its shiny towers, good public transport and general easy lifestyle. While the city of Abuja, the federal capital of Nigeria, is in the heart of Africa, it’s quite unlike any other African city I know (outside most of South Africa).

Renting in the federal capital, Abuja

Abuja was created just 40 years ago to gather the country’s civil servants in one spot. A planned city with huge boulevards and motorways, Abuja is like many cities in West Africa, full of (thankfully) Lebanese restaurants and supermarkets and the bonus of it all, some South African supermarkets. The city empties at weekends as most Nigerian civil servants travel back to their villages and towns after the Muslim Friday prayers. This sprawling city has a shortage of accommodation so rent prices are equivalent to the astronomical rents paid in New York or Geneva. Abuja is also where the UN agencies have their country offices and where I’m based for the next few months.

Accommodation is something else and like Dublin there is a shortage of properties to rent. There are an awful lot of very wealthy property owners who exploit the ex-pat community and civil servants who frequently travel to the city. The first apartment myself and another newly arrived colleague went to look at was dingy beyond belief. You could hardly see the hand in front of your face it was so dark and the ceiling was particularly low – the one-bedroomed apartment was renting for US$1,500 per month. It was such a depressing environment I would have ended up on Prozac within a week, if I had chosen to live there. We ended up in a ‘super luxury apartment’ paying half of my salary in rent. To add insult to injury there is a further charge for laundry, with no washing machine in the apartment.  Super luxury the apartment ain’t, but what is luxurious are the number of Mercs and Lexus cars parked outside each day.   There seems to have been some very big party (possibly a wedding) at the complex and a 600SL (but what would I know about cars?), parked outside for a few days with the number plate ‘Emir of Zunu’.

Extreme sports

The one positive aspect of the accommodation is that it is within walking distance of the office and the footpaths are more than decent, ensuring walking is not an extreme sport as it can be in many other cities across Africa. I wouldn’t feel safe enough to walk the 3.2 kilometres home alone and do so only when I have company. Walking back to the accommodation in deep conversation one day there was beeping behind us and as we turned around to see a car travelling at about 20 kph up the footpath we had to scramble to the grassy bank to avoid being run over.

I hate assuming stereotypes, but patience isn’t a strong point for most Nigerians. Sitting with the work driver one day and waiting for the solar powered traffic light to turn green, there was a horn honking behind the first car to make the right turn at the lights. When the driver, respecting the rules of the road and the pedestrian crossing didn’t move, the honking-horn driver mounts the footpath and bypasses the cars waiting at the lights to turn right.

Transport around Abuja is reasonably cheap but like everywhere else cars are held together with pieces of string and rubber bands. They frequently break down at the side of the road, or sometimes even in the middle of the road, where they can be abandoned.

I’m still in the process of trying to find another Issac, my lovely taxi driver from Nairobi and so far I’m not having much luck – but I will continue to try. The office drivers are available for a few months to bring us in and out of work, but there’s the supermarket shopping at the weekends and the trips to Blu Cabana, a rather nice place so chill out of a Sunday afternoon – not that there’s much else to do on a weekend in Abuja.

Exchange

Sundays’ are not the day to change money, unless you want to chance your arm with the guys lining the street sitting on the chairs under the trees. The official exchange rate for the Naira is fluctuating like a yoyo and frequent trips to the moneychangers rather than the banks will render you a rate of at least 20 per cent better on the official rate. When I arrived early July 2016 there was 260 Naira to the US$ – on 30 July the rate went from 316 to 322 on one day! Black market rates on 29 July were 375 Naira to the US$. Not only will the dropping Naira help make rents cheaper, it will also keep the price of red wine very reasonable, well at least until stocks run out! Some of the best South African wines are available in Nigeria so there are a few great aspects to living here for a few months anyway.

Now work and B0ko Haram antics…. well, that’s a different blog altogether. So until next time, I’ll leave you with some of the photos.

Yours, Fagan.

Moving on…..

IMG_1427Moving country, moving house, changing job, divorce and the death of a partner are reported to be some of the biggest causes of stress. The first three mentioned on that list, I’ve experienced with far too much regularity.

I’d love to say that I’m so accustomed to moving country, ergo house and job that it doesn’t take a feather out of me, but I’d be telling lies.  I don’t even move countries, but continents; from Indonesia (South East Asia), to Sierra Leone (West Africa), to Afghanistan (Central Asia), Iraq (the Middle East), Kenya (East Africa) and back to South East Asia, the Philippines and Thailand.

Because the nature of my work involves humanitarian response I have rarely stayed anywhere for longer than a year. Picture if you will the number of ironing boards, clothes irons, clothes hangers, wine glasses and coffee pots that were bought on arrival and distributed on departure from each country.

Bangkok

My last sojourn involved being based in Bangkok, which is a great city, when you’re well paid and can afford the lifestyle it has to offer. For the more fortunate ex-pats the choice of really good accommodation close to the city is extensive and the high prices reflect the quality of what’s on offer.  I may as well be living in a caravan if I don’t have an oven in the kitchen and when I lived in Manila I had a two-ring stove and a microwave that never worked. After some time I found it just plain depressing not to have access to a decent oven, especially when I didn’t consider Filipina food up to my gourmet standards. My stipulation that the apartment must have an oven in the kitchen guided me on what was available for the price range.  The Thais like to eat out and as most non-salad food is fried, there are few apartments even in the high-end range that offer an oven in the kitchen.

I got lucky in my quest for living accommodation and ended up in a very large 2-bed apartment located just off the main shopping area. It was situated on a minor soi (side street), sufficiently out of the way so as not to feel overwhelmed by tourists but removed from the noise and the bustle of a big Asian city like Bangkok.

Before Bangkok became the big bustling Asian city that it is, it was made up of a series of lanes and alleyways that defined the city.  All human life lived in these lanes and alleys. You could buy anything you needed from fruit to fridges, sinks to sofas; have a haircut; enjoy a massage or eat your dinner on the side of the road.

Shortcuts

When I moved into the apartment in Bangkok, you could take a ‘shortcut’ to Luan Suan, an upmarket street, which is home to Gagan Restaurant one of the top three restaurants in Asia (and serving the most fantastic Indian-fusion food).  There are also some decent restaurants on the street and access to the Bangkok Transit System (BTS).  The shortcut was a series of small narrow lanes, with a huge tree almost similar to a willow tree more common in Europe, whose branches hung low, forming a semi-circle, marking the entrance to the laneway. You felt as if you were stepping into another world, and indeed you did step in to some unique culture, that’s not found in many other cities or places.

Motorcycle taxis weaved between the street food-sellers, the cyclists and the pedestrians who frequented the street. There were several massage parlours and the women would sit outside on the steps when there were no customers, often eating meals there.  There was one or two hair salons, a house where English lessons were conducted from the open carport at weekends, small grocery stores and a variety of eateries from a colonial style house converted to a restaurant, to small family run restaurants. The small restaurants usually entailed some plastic chairs and tables on the street and a mobile kitchen with open fire and boiling pots of fat for cooking – little regard for safety there. The plastic dishes from the restaurants were placed into large buckets and in the evenings as I took the shortcut home, the owners would wash the dishes on the street with water from an unidentified source. Sitting among cockroaches one evening while eating at one of these restaurants guaranteed a lost of appetite and I didn’t repeat the experience.  I was also turned off from eating local when travelling by car one day, I noticed two restaurant workers, during a quiet period sitting beside the kitchen and one woman was scouring the other’s hair for head lice.

Luan Suan itself is an upmarket street with lots of ongoing building construction at the top of the street towards Lumpini Park. I had a few friends who lived off Luan Suan and would frequently walk over to them for dinner.  Garbage from the restaurants would be left out in plastic bags on the sidewalk, ready for the bin collectors to come at night and clean the streets.  As you walked up the road, rats would scurry out and of the bags of rubbish and scatter at the sound of voices or footsteps.  I had never seen so many rats in my life and the open drains gave them easy access to scurry up and down the road. I took to walking down the street clapping my hands like some mentally deranged eccentric, but it worked and I once spotted seven rats scurrying out of some plastic bags, down the open drains.

The number of rats around food helped my decision to shop in the supermarket. The other option was to spend the day going from market to market to buy vegetables and then trying to find transport to do so.  The variety of vegetables and fruit is remarkable but then you have to know how to cook the local food to really experience the scale and variety of food on offer.  I tended to stick to what I knew, but paying Irish prices in a country where labour is cheap is upsetting added to the fact that there is some conglomerate capitalist rubbing his greasy palms at the prospect of massive profit.

Super-markets

Bangkok has many expats living in the city and the supermarkets cater to all nationalities. There’s nothing (well, maybe Helmanns mayonnaise) that you can’t find in the big supermarket from smoked salmon to salami, but I frequently chocked on the prices I paid. For some reason instant coffee is a premium produce with security tags on jars of Nescafe, the way you’d see them on bottles of whiskey elsewhere.  A 100 gramme jar of coffee costs about €20. The cost of wine in the country is outrageous and after India, Thailand has the second highest taxes on wine in the world. A bottle of Carlo Rossi (the cheapest, most awful wine in the world) is about €20 a pop, so I would use every opportunity when travelling to bring an extra large suitcase and lots of towels to wrap enough wine to open a small shop.

Members of high society in Thailand like to be seen drinking wine in the roof top bars of the fancy hotels dotted around Bangkok.  It’s considered a status symbol and gives these posers, a sense of sophistication. You can’t buy booze in the afternoons, apparently because children get out of school during this time and the king thinks it may influence the younger generation.

Royalty

Any public criticisms of the king of Thailand, no matter how minor, will ensure a long jail term.  It is difficult to access if he is genuinely as popular as the media make him out to be, as saying otherwise would ensure time behind bars. According to the media, there is a fierce public loyalty to a man who is reputed to be one of the wealthiest in the world and whose family behave like feudal overlords in the 17th century.  At the cinema the national anthem is played before every movie and if you don’t stand to attention, then I dread to think of the consequences.  If you happen to be walking in Lumphini Park at 6 p.m. or past a military establishment, then you must stop while the anthem is blasted over megaphones.  The city is littered with enormous posters of the king and queen over many years.  In one poster, himself is dripping in sweat and when I asked one day why would you use such a picture, I was told that it reflected how hard he worked for the Thai people.  The notorious traffic jams in Bangkok are frequently caused by military escorts forcing the traffic to stop as a motorcade containing members of the royal family, going to or coming back from shopping sprees!

Happily there is one unmarried princess, who works tirelessly for the poor and marginalized in a deeply divided country.  The 87-year old king is crippled with failing health and lives in his own personal hospital.  His queen is similarly in bad health after a stroke in 2012.

The heir apparent, the Crown Prince (63) is surrounded in controversy.  His dog Foo Foo was promoted to the rank of Air Marshal and on his death received a four-day Buddhist funeral followed by a cremation. On the dog’s birthday, photos were released of the Prince’s naked third wife and the dog at a birthday celebration (he is now on his fourth wife, according to reports).  Many Thais, who would prefer to see his 60-year old sister, known for her altruistic and charitable work, accede the throne.

The support for whoever accedes to the throne very much depends on the military who are the real power kingpins in Thailand. The first woman prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra was removed through a military coup in 2014 and there are no signs of any early return to democracy, despite promises of reform. Shinawatra, is a wealthy businesswoman whose eldest brother Thaksin was also a previous prime minister. Reports accuse her brother, who fled the country when he was deposed, of ruling through his sister and using power to further business interests.  It’s very much an urban/rural divide with the Shinawatras’ being voted in by and representing the rural population. When there was a water shortage due to El Niño in 2015, the government cut off the water supply to the farmers while car washing and water for plants was still available in Bangkok.

It will be interesting to see what will happen when the king dies and many believe that the military will use his death as an excuse to remain in power, until things settle down.  An Irish friend who believes the king’s death is imminent is stacking up on bottles of gin for over a year now, as he believes there will be a ban on the sale of booze in the kingdom for at least six months after the royal death!

Another form of Chinese torture

Unlike the price of booze, the Thai massage is famous and costs as little as €10 for an hour’s therapy.  The local massage comprises of slight women walking on your back and yanking limbs and muscles you never knew existed.  Language can also be a problem and much to my shame my Thai was limited to giving instructions to taxi drivers and some basic words for hello, thank you and wrong number etc. This made finding a decent masseuse a hit-and-miss affair, trying to explain that I have an arthritic hip and it shouldn’t be yanked or I’ll scream the house down with pain. Indeed a greater challenge was finding therapists who had some kind of qualification.

A Japanese friend who previously lived in Bangkok, pointed me in the direction of the Chinese massage spa just off the BTS.  The place fascinated me and was just a 10-minute train ride from where I was living.  It was on a minor soi and when you turned into the compound a couple of dogs lazed under the trees to escape from the heat of the day.  This was no luxury spa – there were two rooms and a row of uncomfortable wicker chairs in both rooms.  There was a third room with a plastic sliding door that was almost permanently pulled shut, which fascinated me; well at least what was behind it interested me.  It was like some form of religious temple and there were days when lying on the wicker chair and for the want of something to look at, I would strain to get a glimpse of what was going on inside.  Some days when it sounded as if there was chanting and on one particular day tens of young people poured out, as the door was firmly pulled behind them. There were very few foreign clients, but some pretty fancy cars with Thais or Chinese would pull up outside for this no frills establishment. Lots of certificates covered the walls and like most other places there were some therapists who were better than others.

You couldn’t make an appointment because of the language barrier and I’m not sure they even took appointments, so you ended up with whatever therapist was next in line.  Like most places there were good and not so good therapists, but I hated when I arrived and it was  ‘Granny’s’ turn.  The woman must have been in her 80’s and she had a habit of holding my foot under her armpit while working on the other leg.  Another woman, who appeared to be the boss, spent most of her time watching Chinese soap operas on her smart phone.  They must have been short of staff one day when I ended up with her as a therapist and she had some English.  Without doing anything else she touched my feet and told me my knees were inflamed and then pointed to my hip.  She pointed out some other ailments by just touching my feet; I have to say I was fairly impressed by her skills.

The type of massage practiced by the Chinese was Rwo Shr, brought from Taiwan by a Swiss priest Father Josef Eugster, who introduced that particular method to many countries in Asia. Many people like to be cosseted in a spa with essential oil and have a massage that makes them fall asleep.  I much prefer to have a medical massage that sorts out some of the pains and aches I have developed with increasing age and I have to admit, despite the excruciating pain experienced during the massage, I came out walking on air and feeling fantastic.

I recommended the Chinese massage to a few friends, some of whom are yet to forgive me for the pain they endured and who have never returned to these gifted Chinese therapists.  I eventually found something nearer home, practicing the same method of reflexology, but with much more comfortable chairs and soothing music in the background to take my mind off the pain.

Bangkok is a big, brash South Asian city where everything and anything goes.  It’s exciting and exhausting, it’s hot and sweaty; it’s rich and poor. But whatever it is and however it wears you down at times, it’s an exciting place and there’s always something new on the horizon – it just depends on how you look at it.

Photography by Orla Fagan

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Until next time

yours

Fagan

ORLA FAGAN HEAD SHOT

What to do Kathmandu

 

Old Friends

My good friend James was visiting me in Bangkok on his way back from the UK to Myanmar, staying the weekend.  We returned from a morning of vigorous (a euphemism for torturous) massage on the Saturday morning when a message popped up on my mobile phone asking if I was preparing to write a Situation Report.  Thinking my colleague had lost her marbles I asked her had I missed something in the few hours I was out having massage and lunch.

Indeed, I had missed the Nepal earthquake and emails were arriving by the minute with updates of the situation in Kathmandu and the office there.  I had travelled to Nepal a month previously to provide training on the communications aspect of an emergency to public information officers and to local journalists.  There was never a more timely training, but it wasn’t sufficient.

The phone calls from the international journalists began in earnest . As the afternoon wore on it became more obvious that the situation on the ground was not good at all – I knew  I would be returning to Kathmandu. I left the house for a few hours to have a meal with friends, all the time aware I would be packing bags at some stage.

Heading to Kathmandu

Another colleague called on Sunday morning to say if I dashed to the airport I’d make the flight, but I decided it was best to aim for the following morning and at least know that I had packed the necessities to last a few weeks if the situation was dire.  Monday morning bright and early I took the taxi to the airport, meeting more than a few familiar faces queueing for the Thai Airways daily flight to Kathmandu TG319 departing at 10.30.

Part of me was dreading the flight –and as I arrived to the airport another colleague who travelled the day before texted to say he scored five hotel rooms.  If the hotel was damaged then we could stay in the garden in our tents but at least would have access to a hot shower in the morning.  Things were looking up.  The flight took off and we were on our way to Kathmandu.

The time difference between Kathmandu and Bangkok is one hour 15 minutes, which confuses the life out of everybody. I’ve seen mathematicians taking their fingers to try and figure out the time difference with Nepal.  One hour into the flight I duly set my watch to Kathmandu time and enjoyed what I thought was going to be the last bit of decent food for a while.  It seemed to be taking an extraordinary amount of time to get to our destination until I realized we were circling and circling and then circling some more.  The captain came on the intercom and announced that we were going to Calcutta to refuel as there was a bit of a backlog in Kathmandu.  Apparently there were 14 flights circling in the air.  We arrived to Calcutta and I sent off a couple of emails apologizing for my delay to a meeting I was due to attend.  In fairness we didn’t stay long on the ground in Calcutta and once more took off headed for Kathmandu.

People were walking up and down the aisles of the plane, talking to each other, reconnecting with others met on previous missions, swopping business cards. I began watching the flight path on the TV screen as it kept starting at 40 minutes and counting down to five minutes before it would start again at 40 minutes.  We turned back to Calcutta, supposedly for the night where Thai Airways was to put us up in a hotel.  When we arrived there were five other flights ahead of us and all the passengers had taken our rooms in the hotel!

In the row behind me there were some Eastern European medics, who, judging by their tshirts were responding to the disaster.  The oldest member of the group began complaining about the flight, asking if they expected us to sleep on the plane and would they offer us a cup of water for a shower.

Passengers

There are some people who should just never volunteer to respond to a disaster. What did he expect? We also had 70 passengers who were from the Japanese search and rescue team, travelling with their rescue dogs on the flight. I could only imagine their frustration.  The Thai Airways pilot stayed in the air all day, trying to get us in to Kathmandu because he knew most people were on the flight as part of the response. Forget the fact that he went way over international standards for flying time, the man did his best to get us there and I pointed it out to the medic who complained.  Once again we took to the air, returning to Bangkok to spend the night.  We arrived back at 1 a.m.

Funny, the following morning, the row of seats that the four medics occupied the previous day, were empty. They just didn’t show up.

As we attempted once again to make our way to Kathmandu – everybody looked tired.  We were all dressed in the same clothes but at least I had found a 7/11 store to pick up a spare deodorant.

A state of calamity

We got to work as soon as we landed. I was fortunate I knew the crew in the UN office in Kathmandu, so understanding how they work made my job easier.

There were many differences between this response and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines just 18 months earlier and a few similarities as well.  We have a highly competent Irish-Scot, Jamie McGoldrick the Humanitarian Coordinator in Nepal who is a former TV and radio producer and who knows the media, again making my job way easier.  He’s articulate and sharp, unlike his cohort who was in charge during Haiyan.  Media wouldn’t have been her forte.

It’s easier to respond to an emergency when it is an island country – you can just ship in the humanitarian aid.  Nepal is landlocked and it has just one runway in its main airport, with an apron that can take just five planes at a time.  Transporting goods from India through the road network was an alternative, but it didn’t solve the problem of transporting goods to the remote villages.

Kathmandu, what to do….

Kathmandu is as chaotic as any Asian capital city – it’s polluted and normally choked with traffic because of the small roads.  On top of that every male driver thinks the horn on his car is somehow relevant or connected to his penis and he insists on honking his horn every five seconds, making it as noisy as every other Asian city I have ever visited.  It can take five minutes to cross the road, dodging cars, bikes, busses and motorcycles.  You need the agility of a prizefighter to weave and duck in order to avoid impact with the oncoming traffic. This time, when we drove in from the airport, Kathmandu was strangely empty – no traffic, no people and 90 per cent of the shops closed.

I expected to see something similar to Banda Aceh, Indonesia after the 2004 earthquake, as we drove through the city to the office, but it was surprisingly intact with little evidence of the earthquake.  Buildings remained upright and Nepal wouldn’t be renowned for its excellence in building standards, so that was surprising.  It didn’t take long to look behind the facades though and when I went out to some of the temporary shelters, I found thousands of people sleeping outdoors in parks, fearful to return home because of the aftershocks.  The city had emptied as the migrant workers returned to their villages high in the Himalayas to ensure family members were okay.

First time

The first time I visited Nepal we went left the office after work one evening looking for somewhere to eat.  Durbar Square is a 20-minute walk from the office and a UNESCO cultural heritage site. I knew very little about Kathmandu so I was blown away by the sheer beauty of the square – palaces and places of worship all in one spot. There was a holiday atmosphere, yet few tourists.  It was very much a place for locals, especially young people – hanging out sitting on the steps of the temples – the square had a romantic, magical atmosphere that made it such a pleasant place to visit.

When the Under-Secretary General Valerie Amos, visited for three days in the aftermath of the disaster, part of her itinerary included a visit to Durbar Square which was unrecognizable. It was reduced to a pile of rubble where the military worked to clear the square, there was so much dust you could feel its grit in your mouth and in your lungs.  At the best of times because Kathmandu is in a valley, like Kabul in Afghanistan, the pollution is trapped in the valley, leaving an acrid smell from the fumes that pour out of baldy maintained trucks and cars on the road.

Setting the wheels in motion

After a week in the office of the usual manic post-disaster response, I headed to Gorkha, (where the famous Gurkha army comes from).  I went to see the devastation caused by the quake.  It’s a four hour drive, through the most spectacular countryside and as an added bonus, the further the distance we drove from Kathmandu, the clearer the air.

Even the town of Gorkha, where the buildings looked as if they are naturally tilted, I was surprised to see so many standing.  We called into the local administrative office where we met a young man Suedip who was working in Afghanistan when the earthquake happened.  He worked for a non-government organisation when he heard the news and got on the first flight to return to his mother’s village to help out.  He spoke with passion about the work they had already carried out and how they were trying to coordinate.  They had distributed tarpaulins for people to have shelter, food and cooking utensils.  In a country where the caste system delineates the high from the low caste, boundaries were coming down like buildings in an earthquake as neighbours who would normally never speak, helped each other out.   If you wanted to look for a positive outcome of this terrible tragedy, then this was it.

We set up a coordination office there a few days earlier, so there was an office tent and a separate tent with camp beds. Nights were very cold and I felt guilty in my warm sleeping bag as most people slept outside without decent blankets.  On the first night we slept in a field with no access to running water, so a bottle of water was used to wash. We had a porta-loo of sorts, but having a pee with 467 bluebottles, isn’t a healthy scenario.  The following day we moved to a hotel and camped on its grounds, so we had access to a room with a shower.

I have a fear in these situations that I will literally be caught with my knickers around my ankles, sitting on a toilet when the next disaster happens, or in the middle of having a shower.  None of the doors of the hotel would close properly, no matter how hard I tried. Kirsty, a colleague travelling with us from the NGO Map Action went for a shower the day following a fairly big aftershock and got locked in to the bathroom, where the door refused to close the previous day.  She had to phone to another colleague to ‘rescue’ her.

Devastation in Gorkha

While my colleagues went off to set up the coordination structures for the response, I went with the driver Gyanu to the off-road areas to see what the damage was really like.  Neither of us having visited the area before, I asked him to just ask somebody on the street where the best place was to see the destruction.  He scored well.  The first person he asked happened to be the local health inspector, Sharad Shrestha who knew everybody in the area and had no hesitation to jump into the car with us and to show us to areas where some of the damage was greatest.

Nepal is an agricultural country and because of the mountains, farmers have created steps into the side of the hills, to grow their crops – rice, corn and vegetables.  Just a half hour drive outside Gorkha it was a very different reality.  The terrain is challenging at the best of times and its people are tough, living so remote from the rest of the world, walking or using donkeys to transport goods to the village – they are a resilient, hardy people.  However, the earthquake had utterly demolished houses built of mud while many of the animals, mainly water buffalo, fettered under shelters died, leaving farmers without a means to plant crops.

They were lucky in a sense – the earthquake happened coming up to midday on 25 April, a Saturday.  Over 3,000 schools were destroyed – unbearable to think of if it was a school day. If the quake had occurred during the night, hundred of thousands of people would have lost their lives. On a regular Saturday, people were out and about in the fields working, reducing the death toll but leaving them without homes and sometimes livelihoods.

We parked the car and walked up to the villages to speak to people.  One man I met showed me a photo of himself and his wife on the balcony of their home and stood on the rubble with the satellite dish sitting on the top, so I could take his photo.  Even if there was a house left standing, people were so nervous they slept outside under tarpaulins.  It was interesting to see just a solitary door standing while a building was completely demolished – something that stuck in my mind.  We called up to the Nareshwar Health Clinic where Dev Nath Yogi was waiting to see the health inspector.  The back wall of the clinic displayed a major crack and is about to fall down, so the ‘treatment room’ and pharmacy was a desk at the front of the building.  Recovery from such devastation will take some time.

I returned to Kathmandu, after two days, leaving the remainder of the team behind to work on getting the aid out to those remote villages I had visited.  I was happy to go back to my comfy hotel that didn’t look as if it was going to fall down.  They were busy days, trying to advocate for the Nepali affected by the quake and raise the funds for the response.

Sounding alarms

We were located in the UN compound in Kathmandu, where most of the offices are fitted with an earthquake alarm. It’s not that you wouldn’t feel a major shock, but sometimes tremors can build into something bigger and you need to be aware that the tremor is starting, in order to ‘leg it’ out the door.  One day while conducting a press briefing with mainly local journalists, the alarm sounded.. bong, pause….. bong pause… Everybody ignored it.  I interrupted the briefing to point out that in fact it was indeed an earthquake alarm.  When it went off again several minutes –there were fewer pauses between the bongs.  It was the shortest press briefing in history and we made a good escape from the journalists and the quake by evacuating to a safe area.

I was frequently summoned to Jamie the Humanitarian Coordinator’s office for meetings and it was at one such meeting on Sunday afternoon when the alarm went off.  Myself, Jamie and another colleague, Stine took to the stairs like three demented escapees fleeing from the unknown. Stine, a tall, fit, much younger woman led the pace and I was on her heels.  I don’t think I have run as quickly as that in 20 years and once we reached the outside I gasped for breath after the dash.

With no proper space set up for the influx of surge staff, Leszek and I were sharing a desk. At lunchtime he went off looking for another colleague on the same floor, when the earthquake alarm went off.  There was no pause this time; it was just a high-pitched screech of an alarm indicating that this was a serious quake.  I fled from the desk, leaving everything behind and ran outside the area heading for the stairs.  I passed the doorway leading to Jamie’s office, which is double the  size of an average door and I spotted another colleague under the doorway holding on. Remembering the solitary doors that had remained standing in Gorkha, I jumped under the door.  Soon we were about eight people all squeezed in.  Stine, whose office was facing the door where we sheltered, came out of her office as if in slow motion; she was like an old woman with her arms stretched out, fingers splayed, trying to keep balance.  Once she realized she wasn’t going to fit under the doorway, she retreated back to her office and under her desk for protection.

It was the longest 45 seconds of my entire life.  I could feel my breath shortening in panic as I gulped for air. I didn’t want to die.  I was told that the building was earthquake proof, but if something is shaken for such a long time, eventually even the strongest building will give and tumble down.  We had experienced a 7.3 magnitude earthquake; the original quake was a 7.9, considerably stronger.  As the alarm bells slowed, we rushed down the stairs out of the building and on to safe ground.

After an hour or so, Leszek made a dash to recover his laptop and also recovered my phone.  I was reluctant to retrieve my laptop and it was at least five that evening before I took up the nerve to race upstairs and pick it up.

There had been several aftershocks that Leszek had felt during previous nights, enough to make him run outdoors.  I was obviously too tired and slept through them all. It probably had something to do with the fact that I had earplugs to block out the noise. The crows go berserk when an earthquake occurs, waking up Leszek, while I slept peacefully on.

Back to the 12 May and the 7.3 magnitude quake and we stood outside the building waiting for the all- clear but in the space of 30 minutes there were another five aftershocks, one measuring six on the Reciter scale.  After some time we headed to the tents that had been set up on the grounds, to do some work. The international media began calling so I got on with the job, setting up interviews.

Aftershocks

I recovered my laptop before we left the office for the evening and returned to the hotel.  Shops were once again closed as shop owners and staff went back home to their loved ones.  As we walked down the street on the way to the hotel, old and young, men and women sat outside on the pavement, afraid to stay inside.  Some of our own colleagues opted to sleep in tents in the hotel grounds. That evening, exhausted from the day’s events, I soon dozed off and slept with one foot on the floor.

I slept well until, what felt like a poltergeist banging my bed off a wall woke me up at 2.05 a.m.  Jumping from the bed, I ran down the stairs. A number of other hotel guests followed – we waited outside as the crows went bananas for several minutes.  Eventually we went back inside.  An hour later, sleep eluding me, we had yet another aftershock; this time not as strong but still enough to be felt and just three other hotel guests and myself stood outside the building.  The remaining idiots had decided it wasn’t worth it to take themselves out of bed and out of the way of danger leading me to believe that some people have shit for brains.  One man came down the stairs and sat in the reception area, presumably as a safety precaution.

Logic obviously doesn’t come in to the equation for many. When I stood outside the hotel the first time shortly after the first aftershock I noticed the perimeter wall of the hotel had collapsed, presumably from the afternoon’s quake.  A Swedish woman and her daughter were standing outside when I pointed out the collapsed wall.  “We don’t know if it was the earthquake that caused the wall to fall,” said the woman. “What,” I asked, “do you think made it fall – somebody blowing it down?”

Postscript

There was fun with hard work, stress and reward of a job well done.  But perhaps the most memorably documented moment of the three weeks I spent in Nepal was during the visit of the Under-Secretary General Valerie Amos. She was meeting with the Prime Minister and I had organized a TV interview with Al Jazeera, who had a temporary studio set up at the site of the nine-story tower, which was a national monument and had collapsed, killing many.  Markus my colleague who had led the mission was accompanying Amos along with her special assistant Manu (Emmanuel), on these official visits. I needed to ensure she would make it to the live panel interview.  The following is a transcript of the texts we exchanged on that Saturday:

Me:                Markus. The interview for Al Jazeera takes place in Dharara Square at 10.45. Orla.. There is an area where Valerie can prepare if she gets there early.

Markus:        But she has the Indian Amb(assador) at 10.30!! If the program has changed, I need urgent advice. Please get back to me now.

Me:                  Give me five.

PHONE CONVERSATION IN THE MEANTIME

Markus:          VA will need some stats on accomplishments over the past several days. How much has come in? Teams? Items? Some key snappy points on what has happened by 11.30 for Al-Jaz.

Me:                   On the case. Will get it to you and bring hard copy.

Markus:         Good. Just to confirm that you also be at Durbar Square.

Me:                  See earlier message. Dharara Square. Where the big tower was.

Markus:         Well copied. Yes. FYI VA will go back to PM so will be late for Al-Jaz.

Me:                  Straight to Al-Jaz after?

Markus:         Yes. On the way to square. VA wants to do this quickly. Few questions.

Me:                  This is a live weekly show.

Markus:         Where are you?

Me:                  Many gone for you… sorry Manu.

Markus:         What?

Me:                  Manu gone out to you.

Markus:         You see us?

Me:                  Where are you?

Markus:         Arrived at entrance to square. Same place as last visit.

……………………

Markus:          We’re at the wrong location.

Photography by Orla Fagan.  Click on pics to enlarge.

 

Until next time

Yours

Fagan

ORLA FAGAN HEAD SHOT

Indian Ocean Tsunami – Recollections

Aceh Indonesia 1Ten years after the Indian Ocean Tsunami wiped out huge tracts of Aceh in Indonesia and killed thousands in Sri Lanka, India, Myanmar and Thailand, as well Somalia and the coastal areas in Kenya, I’m back in Thailand and still working in emergency.  It’s hard to believe that I began this path with the Indian Ocean Tsunami, arriving in Banda Aceh just a few days after the tsunami wiped out more than 240,000 lives, destroyed homes and infrastructure – schools, shops, mosques, hotels, hospitals, road, sewage, water and electricity systems.  I remember arriving to Jakarta with less than six months to run on my passport.  In many countries in Asia, they simply don’t admit travellers but they were making exceptions for those who arrived to assist.

I had a few days in Jakarta buying tents and equipment to transport to Aceh where my Goal colleague Sheilagh Henry was busy trying to set up office and find us accommodation.  I managed to get a flight up first to Medan before securing a seat on a flight to Banda Aceh where a driver, recognisable by his Goal baseball hat, picked me up.  Mobile phones weren’t working properly and coverage was intermittent, so with a little luck and a lot of persistence I was able to contact Sheilagh eventually.

Armageddon

The earthquake that caused the tsunami measured 9 on the Reciter scale – it was massive. I can’t begin to describe what a terrible scene greeted me – it was an Armageddon. It seemed as if an angry god had thrown his toys out of a pram; boats, cars, houses all thrown together.  Mobile and communication masts were mangled and broken and the amount of sticky, dirty mud was incredible.  Everything was covered in it – everything was dirty. You could see the water/mud marks on the houses that remained standing, like a high-tide mark.

There was a ship that ended up in a housing estate with the steering wheel of a car sticking out from it – I couldn’t help imagining that there were many bodies buried beneath.  The top floor of a hotel lay on top of a pile of rubble that was once three or maybe four other floors – who knows.  But many, many bodies buried beneath and I doubt ever located.

Such was the chaos in the days after the tsunami it took me more than a week to realise we were supposed to be driving on the left hand side of the road – the same as Ireland.  I think people who had survived this tsunami just disregarded rules – in the grander scheme of things, it really didn’t seem to matter.

Heroes

We had two local women working for us with the Irish NGO, Goal.  Kurnia was a young woman with excellent English. She accompanied me as we travelled around in the car.  The volunteers in the Red Crescent Society, the real heroes, were out on the streets bagging bodies and leaving them on the side of the road to be collected, like garbage. It was the only way it could be done.  It was a mammoth task and Kurnia, who had lost members of her family just didn’t want to see bodies up close and personal.  You didn’t need glasses to see just how distended and distorted bodies were.

The bodies took weeks to collect many of them never to be found. All numbers were just estimated as whole families died, I’m guessing with nobody left to report the deaths. The authorities opened a mass grave outside the town and didn’t bury the bodies deeply enough so coming in and out from assessing the areas outside Aceh, the smell of rotting corpses that would greet you when the helicopter landed, was stomach churning.

I think one of the most poignant things for me was standing on a street one day, looking down and there was a family photo album flapping, pages turning randomly.  It felt like sneaking a look into some family’s life and being privy to very personal moments. The smiling happy faces stared back at me, making me realise that there were very real, ordinary people, just like me, who had probably not survived.

The other woman who worked with us had qualified as a doctor and was in Jakarta visiting relatives when the earthquake and tsunami struck. Her home wasn’t the only thing she lost; Fita had two children, a boy and a girl aged about eight and ten. Both children were lost in the tsunami. She was desperate to find them and went off looking at even a hint of unaccompanied children showing up.  She kept saying her children were not dead; she had no bodies, but that they were missing.  Fita, like so many others was in denial.  She would have been in her late 30’s by that time and within weeks her husband had her attending a fertility clinic to see could they have more children.  I’m not sure Fita was ready for that – she just wanted her missing children, who like so many more, never turned up again.

Rumours

Fita also shared with us the stories that were in circulation among the community, that Christian soldiers had been seen drinking alcohol while sitting on the graves the previous evening and that’s what caused the tsunami.  We had trouble trying to convince Fita that they were indeed, just false rumours.

I managed a small office in Calang and travelling on the helicopter up along the coast you could see just the tiles of where the houses once stood.  The trees were gone, the grass was burnt and it was best described as desolation.  Every now and again you could see small camps where tents were erected for villages to protect them from the elements.

From Banda Aceh to the town of Calang, a distance of some 130 kilometres, there wasn’t a house left standing.  Nothing stood, except the odd mosque – the source of another rumour, that god protected the mosques, that’s why they remained standing.  Nothing to do with the fact that there was much better building materials used and because there were so many windows, it allowed the water to travel through.

The tsunami came in for about 1.5 kilometres and at the speed of a jumbo jet. When people saw the water going out, they ran out to fetch the fish that were left behind.  I met a man from the mayor’s office in Calang one day at the heliport who told me he knew what was happening when he saw the tide go out; gathered his family and they ran to the hills where they watched the town die.

Calang is a peninsula, so the water came in from all sides.  If 20 per cent of the population survived, it was all that survived the wall of water. Just one house remained and was used by the army and for our coordination meetings.  We lived in tents by the water and worked and slept there.  We travelled around by motorcycle (until a safety officer arrived from Goal headquarters and put a stop to all that).  The roads were unusable by car and the road from Aceh to Calang was only accessible by helicopter.

Calang was a dangerous place to be and more especially so if you were national staff.  I had a young water engineer from Jakarta, Satya, working with us – it was his first job and he would travel to the villages and assist them to de-salinate the wells, essential for the community.

At the time the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM) or Free Aceh Movement wanted autonomy from national government in Jakarta. The western coast of Aceh is rich in oil and it was believed that most of the oil money went to the capital while Aceh remained a poor relation.  Like other freedom movements, when they begin, they are full of ideals.  This group, like others, descended into violence, causing fear among communities and more so for those who were not from Aceh.

The tsunami cut off the GAM volunteers from their food access, so they were more likely to come closer into the towns and villages to try and get food.  Foreigners and people from Jakarta were easy targets and Satya was stopped on more than one occasion questioned where he was going and what he was doing.  He and I both were terrified something would happen.  He left the camp one morning and when he hadn’t returned at the agreed time I began to really worry about his safety.  I eventually went to report it to the local army captain who radioed ahead to the outposts to keep an eye out for the team and report back on any untoward incidents.

Long after sunset when I had no nails left on my fingers and many imagined conversations with his parents explaining how he had died and how I was responsible, Satya showed up to the camp.  I didn’t know whether to kiss him or admonish him, but I was never so relieved in my life to see anybody.  The bike had a puncture and the radios weren’t charged…. If it could go wrong, it did.

Three months after the tsunami, the Goal operation closed down in Aceh. It was a pity, we were doing some real and meaningful work there.

I returned to Ireland and joined the other Irish NGO, Trocaire covering the tsunami region and began another great adventure based in Jakarta, but travelled to Sri Lanka, India and Thailand to report on the work or their partners.

Today, 10 years later, the Under-Secretary-General Valerie Amos will speak at a commemoration ceremony in Phuket.  There is still a disconnect with the Aceh authorities and the government in Jakarta, so much so, there is no national commemoration.

I would like to think that if another tsunami came racing for the shore, that people would be smart enough to get out of its way, but we won’t know that until it happens again.  In the meantime, I continue to work in emergency reporting on disasters throughout Asia Pacific.

My wish for the New Year would be to be made redundant – no more disasters, no more wars, no more human suffering.  I hope 2015 brings you peace wherever you are reading this.

 

Aginas 16 cradles his sleeping 2 month old niece Safa

Aginas 16 cradles his sleeping 2 month old niece Safa

Happy that their father has received a global gift of a pair

Young patients at the Blang Padang clinic in Banda Aceh

Young patients at the Blang Padang clinic in  Banda Aceh

Boat and orphanage

Orphanage and Boat 015

Orphanage and Boat 019 (1)

Calang

Calang 007

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DSCF0054

Until next time

Yours

Fagan

ORLA FAGAN HEAD SHOT

One year later – Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda)

 

rembering typhon haiyan 1 year onI went back to Tacloban one year after the biggest typhoon believed to ever make land struck the Visayas, the central islands of the Philippines. Typhoon Haiyan (locally known as Yolanda) left death and destruction, destroying people’s jobs, their homes, their schools and health clinics. There was so much debris on the road from the airport to the town it prevented the much needed rescue operation getting under way for several days.

I visited with the UN Humanitarian Chief Valerie Amos, flying over the city and it was like as if somebody had tossed their toys out of a pram. Masts were mangled, cars and motorcycle taxis strewn around, ships gone aground and everywhere the corrugated tin roofs and houses blown to shreds.

Tidal wave

A tidal wave caused by the storm killed many hundred of people living along the shoreline in shanty towns. One aid worker travelling to a meeting a few days after the typhoon saw the leg of a dead child sticking out from under the debris.

Stopping at the spot to rescue the body on his return, they lifted some of the debris to find 50 bodies beneath.  These were the poorest of the poor; the people who live in shanty towns built on the shores of the ocean and whose only means of earning a living is by fishing.  Many are undocumented, probably never registered at birth adding to the uncertainty of just how many died during that time – we may never know the true numbers.

One year on and Tacloban is a different city. Traffic is back, people are trading on the streets again, the city is alive. There are large numbers of very vulnerable people who remain living in less than ideal conditions and there are concerns that when the next puff of wind comes along, they will be the most affected.  The very poor have no safety nets. To truly protect them, you would first need to tackle the problem of endemic poverty.

Moving on

However, standing in the streets of Tacloban and looking around the improvement is remarkable and visible. All is not perfect, but in true Filipino fashion, they have dusted themselves off and are getting on with their lives. Their resilience is awe inspiring and often times humbling.

Jeff Manibay is one such example of Filipino resilience.  Both his elderly parents died during the typhoon.  “We are well used to typhoons,” he told me, “but nobody expected the tsunami-like surge of water that came.”  With the death of his parents Manibay lost almost everything he held dear, including his business.

The owner of a small cable network Cat8, all Jeff’s equipment was lost when the ocean surge crashed through the streets of Tacloban.  His team were out filming the typhoon at the time.

Rather than wallowing in pity, Manibay set out to rebuild his life, energising the community and bringing them together to remember those who were lost during the typhoon.  He organised the candlelight vigil and worked tirelessly to ensure people across the Philippines and the world do not forget what happened to them.

Paying respect

Mass was celebrated at the graveyard in the morning where the victims were buried.  Thousands came to mourn their dead. I watched one woman stand alone at a grave, head bent, sobbing silently.  She was like so many others who came.  The heads of the UN agencies came to pay their respect, as did the non-government organisations who were so crucial to the recovery efforts in the clean up operation.

Tacloban is Marcos-country and Imelda herself arrived via helicopter. She was then brought in a wheelchair to the awning, where she sat at the top row.  I know the woman is 85 years-old but she has had some amount of plastic surgery, not a line on her face, or her make up was so thick you just couldn’t see what was behind the mask.  She was wearing a wig and had a beautiful diamond swan broche pinned on her dress.  She was wearing a pair of Ecco sandals, which resembled something a nun would wear… I wasn’t impressed with the choice of shoes from a woman whose footwear take up the contents of a museum in Manila.

Politics

The Marcos and Aquino families are political opponents, so there was minimal representation from the government, which is currently Aquino-led.  The Mayor (a relation of Imelda) is critical of the government’s response to the recovery efforts.  At the end of the day everything is political, even rebuilding communities after a typhoon.

That evening people lined the streets in a candlelight vigil that stretched for over 24 kilometres. The atmosphere changed from the somber graveside prayers earlier in the morning to an almost carnival-like celebration with candles lined along the main streets, winding around the side roads and out as far as the settlements housing those who lost their home duirng the storm.

I was privileged to be able to return one year after Typhoon Haiyan; privileged to stand with the people of Tacloban; and privileged to call some my friends.

Imelda Marcos uses her body guards as crutches to help her to her seat at the commemoration mass for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan

emelda marcos

 

Remembering the dead at the one year anniversary mass for victims of Typhoon Haiyan

remebering one year on

 

 

Check out some of their stories on unocha.org/philippines

 

 

ABC Australia News Radio Report

 

one year anniversary