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

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Orphanage and Boat 019 (1)

Calang

Calang 007

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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

 

RTE Radio 1 John Murray Show speaks to Orla Fagan live from the Philippines

Irish aid worker Orla Fagan is based in the Philippines and she tells John this morning about civet coffee produced in an unusual manner using civet cats. You can follow Orla on her blog at http://www.fagansblog.com

Click on pic to listen back to Podcast

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Vi-Aqua: Extract from The Facts of Light – Chapter on Water – Author Austin Darragh

Professor Austin Darragh

Water

Classical science teaches us that water is composed of the chemical elements hydrogen and oxygen and exists in gaseous, liquid, and solid states. There is a now awareness of a fourth state of water – a plasma. Water is one of the most plentiful and essential of compounds. It is vital for life, participating in virtually every process that occurs in plants and animals. Although the molecules of water are simple in structure (H2O), the physical and chemical properties of the compound are extraordinarily complicated.

Water is a colourless, tasteless, and odourless liquid at room temperature. One of its most important properties is its ability to dissolve many other substances. The versatility of water as a solvent is essential to living organisms. Life is believed to have originated in the world’s oceans, which are complicated solutions. Living organisms use aqueous solutions – e.g. blood and digestive juices, sweat and urine – as mediums for carrying out all biological processes.

The water molecule is…

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Excess and extremes – find it all in the Philippines

 

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I was just one day in the office in Manila before the first typhoon of 2014 came trundling down the Pacific and crashed into Northern Luzon, striking Manila, Albay and Bataan.  It was a bit of a baptism of fire and hopefully not an omen of things to come over the next few months.

Almost 100 people lost their lives in the typhoon and luckily it avoided the areas hit by Typhoon Haiyan on 8 November 2013.  There are still millions of people left homeless in the wake of Haiyan, believed to be the biggest weather system to ever make landfall. Another typhoon hitting them at this time would be catastrophic and indeed I don’t suppose they will be as lucky when the next weather system strikes.

In a typical Filipino fashion, everything and everybody is called something different to their original name.  The most recent typhoon was known internationally as Rammasun, but known locally as Glenda.  Super-typhoon Haiyan also had a different local name – Yolanda.  Confused? Good, because that’s only the start of it.  Every single Filipino I know uses a different name to their birth name.  The lady who cleans my home is Virgi, short for Virginia, but not her real name, which is something like Rachel.  Then I thought, maybe Agnes, one of the senior members of our staff in OCHA, that it was her original name, until I realised she is Maria Agnes…Maria being her first name.  Eio from UNDP is Eliot etc.

When I arrived back to Manila the level of in-your-face consumerism once again struck me.  The route from the airport to the city is just one massive billboard after another.  The latest craze according to one of the billboards is for men’s beauty.  “How to have thicker eye brows,” with a picture of a young Filipino male with bushy brows, followed by ads for deodorant that promise to whiten the underarm skin as it reduces odours.  I feel bad enough that deodorant is sprayed/rolled under the glands, but mixing it with whitening chemicals… holy moley – just asking for trouble.  There’s an obsession with white skin – it always amuses me because Caucasian skin wrinkles and ages more quickly.

Outside my national work colleagues who are well used to working with international colleagues, often times with a healthy and justified disrespect; there are many Filipinos who see having a Caucasian friend as a desirable thing, almost like owning a Mercedes or a pair of Gucci gloves.

My Irish friend here at the moment (Lu) likes to play golf and spends her weekends on some of the golf courses around Manila.  She had befriended a woman, in her sixties, who is the epitome of the Filipino wantabe upper middle-classes.  I’m not sure whether Raquel just never went out in the sun and used an umbrella like a sun shield (as I do now) or whether she could write a guidebook to cosmetic surgery clinics in the Philippines. In fairness has an amazing figure for a woman of her years.  I met her when Lu was invited to a Rotary party for the president’s birthday (husband of the Rotary president, I may add).

Raquel picked us up with her car and driver, dressed in little black sleeveless, over the knee number (dress) and we headed off to Quezeon city.  She had her ‘grand daughter’ with her (her friend’s daughter).  The child had just celebrated her seventh birthday and was sporting a pair of high heels, in a little yellow dress with matching handbag, containing her iPad.  All a bit too much for me I have to say.

We arrived at the party house.  The owner runs a wedding business, so there were old white Mercedes all parked alongside the house, decked with plastic flowers.  The almost empty room was like a big barn, with between 25 and 30 large circular tables and the music was blasting out of the enormous speakers. The glass look-alike see-through plastic chairs were around each table, draped in blue polyester material, matching the tablecloths.  Upside down umbrellas hung from the ceiling and there were several enormous chandeliers, lighting up the fake cherry blossom trees sprouting out of the walls.  We were told the party started at six but when we got there at 7 pm we were among the first guests.

I glanced over at my friend and indicated that 30 minutes was probably enough time to stay.  Several Rotary people joined the table and made some small talk about humanitarian assistance and the good work they are involved in.  When it was time to eat, there was a decent size buffet but I’m reluctant to tuck in on these occasions because of the abundance of monosodium glutamate used in the Philippines and it would be a bit of an understatement to say I don’t react well to MSG. One lady at the table was talking about diets and how she had lost 7 kgs recently. She proceeded to take out a food weighing scales and weight the meat from her plate. She actually cut a piece of meat into small pieces because she was able to have another 20 grammes.  It’s just amazing the sad, sad people you bump into some days.

The party goers came in dribs and drabs and we were wheeled out and introduced to people as they arrived, like some sort of show poodles.  Everybody was told we worked in the UN and I grinned through my teeth and muttered a few words, jumping from foot to foot to just get out of the place.  We made our escape about 8.30 muttering excuses about having to work the next day.  As we left there were still only about three full tables out of at least 30 tables.

taco4bogdyedThe following week Lu and myself met or lunch in Fort Bonafacio, a popular shopping spot for the more wealthy Filipinos.  We sat outside a trendy gastro pub (not so popular with me after a dose of MSG), when a group of wannabes strolled past walking their dogs.  One of the dogs, a poor poodle, with more make-up and hair dye than Lady GaGa on a good week, passed by leaving me bewildered at the level of extremes I see most days in the Philippines.

Another friend, Anu, is here in the Philippines, having arrived six months ago.  It’s great to have her around – this woman is as solid as a rock, with a great sense of humour.  We went off to Tagaytay, over an hour’s drive from Manila and a popular tourist spot because of its beauty and big volcano.  We headed off to ‘gaze at our navels’ at some spiritual retreat house one Sunday morning.  No point in trying to negotiate the Manila traffic, even on a Sunday, so we rented car and driver to bring us to volcano town. I have to report it was surprisingly worthwhile and enjoyable.

tacloban 1On the way Anu mentioned that she had stopped at Maria’s Café to taste civet cat coffee – a coffee drinkers nirvana.  The coffee grows in the Mt Apo ranges, which is in Davao in the south, but obviously also grows in Luzon, north of Manila (at least I think we went north – I was never interested in the direction I was going). We were reliably informed these are the best coffee beans in the Philippines. However, what makes the coffee special it that it comes from civet cat poo – yes, there are farmers who shift through the shit of the civet cat and pluck out the coffee beans from the shit to prepare for roasting.

According to the web, civets are nocturnal cats that feed on the fleshy pulp of fruits like coffee berries. Only the fleshy pulp is digested and the beans stay intact. Proteolytic enzymes inside the cat’s tummy seep into the beans, making shorter peptides and creating shorten peptide as well as an abundance of amino acids, resulting in less bitterness and more aromatic chocolate taste.  Apparently the cats select only the best coffee beans; well that’s what I’m reading anyway.

According to Maria, the coffee shop owner, the farmers come in once a week with the beans and each farmer brings just one or two kgs with him – it’s what makes it so expensive.  We were assured that the bean comes out whole as the cat can’t digest the outer shell and when the farmer eventually finds the beans in the cat poo, they are thoroughly washed by the farmers before being roasted.

taco3catIt is said that the coffee is the most expensive in the world. People are reported to have paid up to $80 per cup for cat-crap coffee. They give free espresso cups of coffee in Maria’s with the promise that it will ward of sleepiness and banishes bodily aches and pains!  I’m not sure of the weight of the bag I bought, but I reckon it’s a mere 100 kilogrammes and cost +€20.  Maria was happy to accompany me to show me the coffee shop’s civet cat in a cage apartment, with the cat on the ‘bottom’ floor and a poor monkey on the top floor, hardly able to move.

It was a week of travel; earlier that week I visited Zamboanga in Mindanao, the Muslim region of the Philippines.  Last November 9th, a faction of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front decided to go on a bit of a kidnapping spate (something like 130+ people) around the town.  The Government responded in an effort to free those who were kidnapped and in doing so, many innocent people lost their homes as they were burnt down.

At the height of the conflict, 112,000 people were displaced from their homes.  About 25,000 of them are still living in the sports stadium and transition camps in terrible living conditions.  It all seemed so surreal when the stadium’s loud- speaker was playing Charlene’s I’ve never been to Me on full blast to people living in appalling degradation, with the stench of sewage permeating the air, choking me and everybody else throughout the stadium.

Up to 10,000 people remain in the sports stadium and I had the opportunity to visit to speak to people about their experiences.  Many live on the steps of the stadium and whole family’s on one step, about two feet wide. Their possessions amount to some cooking equipment and clothes – nothing else. Some have set up ‘shops’ around the compound selling small bags of washing powder and the basics such as rice and tinned milk.  The biggest fear is that there will be an outbreak of disease, not helped by the recent rains, which saw a lot of dengue fever in the camps. This is worrying; as it will likely affect children and old people the most. It is a terrible, terrible life and as usual, the most vulnerable are the ones who continue to suffer.

This week I head to Tacloban, where I had visited in November 2013 after Typhoon Haiyan to see what’s happening with the community down there.

Until next time…

Yours Fagan

Orla Presser

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hair-raising stories from my travels around the globe

Priorities

When I arrive in a new country, my most pressing need is to find safe and secure accommodation. As soon as that is out of the way and my bags are unpacked, there are three things I prioritise: 1) a massage parlour because of the stressful nature of my work, 2) a wine store for obvious reasons, and 3) a decent, recommended hairdressers.

Fagan Orla Naivasha KenyaFine wispy hair requires as much if not more maintenance as long flowing locks and can cause heartache for a traveller.  I can go four or possibly five weeks without a visit to the hairdressers and then it becomes more urgent than finding either accommodation, massage or wine.  At the beginning of week five after a haircut, my hair begins to curl out at the sides, giving Bozo the Clown a run for his money.  Once it descends over the upper earlobes, I get a Hilary Clinton aka ‘OMG somebody tell the woman she needs a haircut’ look, which just isn’t right.

I remember an Irish friend telling me years ago how she would travel through the horrendous Nairobi traffic from Karen where she lived, to the Hilton Hotel in the centre of the city, to get a haircut.  The nature and texture of African hair is poles apart from the often straighter, softer hair found elsewhere in the world.  Most African women use wigs and extensions, and can spend whole weekends having extensions woven through their hair.  Some of the most beautiful females I have seen are African women with shaven heads – it is rarely I’ve seen an African woman looking better with a wig or hair extensions.

nairobi and somalia mapIn 2012 I worked for the UN operation in Somalia, based in Nairobi. My Italian colleague Roberta arrived in the office one day with a stunning haircut, announcing that it was the work of the hairdressing salon on the third floor of the Sarit Centre, just around the corner from where I was living.  I headed off the following Saturday and scouting around the Sarit, found the salon on the third floor.  I should have suspected something was up when I realised I was the only white woman in the salon, but I kept going.  “Is there is a stylist free, who is used to cutting straight hair,” I enquired of the woman behind the reception desk.  She assured me that there was indeed a stylist experienced in cutting straight hair.

First aid for hairdressers

Ushered off to have my hair washed I was greeted by, I think a young woman, (it’s impossible to tell the age of Africans, they could be 15 or 50, their skin doesn’t wrinkle). I sat up in the swivel chair and she began cutting. Her cheeks were puffed out and she was biting her tongue in concentration.  It was too late to stop.  Searing pain set it when she kept pulling the hair out from my head as if she was in a tug-of-war and I stopped her to show her how to hold hair between her fingers and cut along the exposed hair jutting along the edge of her fingers. I was aware that if I did stop the process, not only would I be left with a botched haircut, but also my young stylist’s confidence would be greatly damaged and I really didn’t want to do that.

fagan sitting squares nairobi“Relax,” I kept telling her as I realised the poor woman was a bag of nerves.  Ten minutes into the haircut and there’s blood pouring everywhere.  The hairdresser was screaming. I was screaming.  Everything in the salon stopped.  All eyes were on the young stylist and me. My hands went up to my head searching for where I had been cut but it didn’t take long to realise that it was the hairdresser who had cut her hand.  My instructions obviously didn’t carry a safety warning.  The poor woman was so uptight about cutting a mzungu’s (white person) hair the scissors slipped and stabbed her.

fagan with monkey in nairobiThe first aid kit came out and after her wound was attended to by some of the other staff, she came back over to me.  I insisted she continue what she had started albeit with a very large bandage wrapped over the cut hand.  When she had finished and I was leaving the salon, I tipped her and hopefully left some of her confidence intact to be able to deal with the next mzungu who came through the door.  Despite my assurance at the cash desk that I would be back for another haircut, I had no intentions of returning.

On Monday when I got to the office, Roberta informed me I had visited the wrong hairdressers.

Finding Kelvin

The hunt went on to find a suitable hairdresser in Nairobi and at the spa between the Sarit Centre and Westgate Mall I found Kelvin, bless him.  There’s probably more work keeping short hair looking good, than styling long tresses.   I would visit the salon every four/five weeks and would come out with a top class haircut, feeling great.  Kelvin is a talented man who knows how to charge but he was worth every penny.  I was paying the equivalent of €30 – first world prices and aware that it was the mzungus and wealthy Kenyans could afford such extravagances.

Fagan Forest walk KenyaAfter a number of months visiting Kelvin I was told that the price had increased. Not by a few miserly Kenyan Shillings but by a whopping 30 per cent.  The price of the haircut went from the extravagant €30 to an outrageous €40, breaking down to €10 a week for a haircut.  Even for a mzungu it was just too much to swallow.  It was also unusual for a mzungu to question the price of anything, but they hadn’t met me before.  I refused to pay the woman at the cash desk, calling out for Kelvin to explain the inordinate increase in price.  “The cost of the materials,” I was told.  I like to think I am fair and I don’t mind that I pay more in a developing country because of the colour of my skin, but a thimble-full of shampoo and conditioner? I didn’t think it warranted that much of a price increase.  We agreed that the frequency of my visits merited a lower pricing structure and I continued my monthly encounters with Kelvin until I left Nairobi.

Amin in Amman

It was a lot cheaper in the Middle East for a good haircut.  Amin, a young male hairdresser in Toni and Guy in Abdoun gives a great haircut and his price varied between €10 and €17.   I was genuinely pleased for him when he excitedly told me one day how he was be selected to do a course in Toni and Guy in London, and the idea of visiting the Oxford Street had him grinning from ear to ear.  Every time I returned I would ask did he complete his course, but the British Embassy in Jordan didn’t trust that he would return and denied him a visa, which was a great shame considering his obvious talent.

amman jordan mapAbdoun is the embassy area of Amman so many of the more wealthy Muslim women who lived in the area wouldn’t wear the hijab (the head scarf worn by Muslim women) or the niquabs (full facial and head covering).  In many Muslim countries women as seen as the property of a man and cannot go outside unless she is in the company of a male relative.  The wealthy women around Abdoun had no difficulty being in the company of males who were not related to them nor visiting the hair salon alone nor having a male outside the family tending their beauty needs.   Occasionally a fully clad nijab wearer would be ushered in to have her hair coiffured by a female stylist in a separate private room, away from the gaze of men.

I always thought it was such a waste to have your hair done then for it all to be covered up by either a hijab or niquabs, especially during the summer months when the temperature rises and just standing still makes me sweat.  I just can’t understand how women can look so cool under the polyester scarfs they use winter and summer.  A Palestinian friend came to visit once clad in her niquabs and she disappeared into the bathroom to return 10 minutes later fully made up with the most gorgeous head of hair.  She was able to remove the layers because she was in the company of women.

Baggers

In December 2012 I returned Baggers (Baghdad) to work with the UN mission.  Such was my hurry leaving Ireland I didn’t have time to have my ‘shorter than short, I’m going abroad’ haircut and left Ireland on the cusp of requiring an encounter with a pair of scissors.

baghdad iraq mapUN staff has no choice in where they live in Baghdad.  There are two accommodation compounds, Tamimi and D2 – both located in the Green Zone, (now known as the International Zone (IZ)).  The IZ is relatively safe from the daily bombings in the Red Zone. The more privileged employees live in D2, a compound gifted by the American Government to the UN.  The bungalows are brick-built and have real windows – they also boast a bedroom and separate living area with cooking facilities.  The majority of the staff however, live in much poorer conditions in Camp Tamimi.

fagan sandbags bagdadTamimi is a village of container accommodation, with windows in the containers covered by sandbags allowing no natural light to enter.   It’s akin to living in a rabbit warren as the containers are then enveloped in a structure also filled with sandbags, to protect its residents from the rockets that once plague the compound on a regular basis. (Since the American withdrew from Iraq they are more likely to throw rockets at each other and leave the IZ alone).  Tamimi boasts of a dining facility called a defac (not quite sure why it’s not called a canteen), run by Bangladeshi migrant workers, serving food dripping in grease.  These two compounds are about five kilometres apart in the relatively ‘safer’ IZ. D2 not only is a nicer place to live, it also boasts a unisex hair salon.

The Scissor Brothers

Two Iraqi men operate the salon at the weekends and the Fiji troops, who protect the two compounds, are entitled to free haircuts, while everybody else is changed the princely sum of $5.  I was about week eight post-haircut, with no sign of a reprieve from Baggers and no entitlement to any rest and recuperation because I worked as a consultant.  I was looking more like Hilary that I ever wanted.  I decided I needed a haircut but was reluctant to admit to any of my colleagues that I planned to visit the D2 salon.  It was considered okay for men to visit the salon, but not really for a woman.

IZ in baghdadFriday is the first day of the weekend in the Middle East and our working week was Sunday to Thursday.  On Friday mornings it was common for employees to circle the compound, either running or walking for exercise.  I was lucky enough to be staying in a friend’s accommodation in D2 while she was on out on leave, so slipping into the salon for a haircut was not so noticeable.

I ensured there was nobody else in the salon before entering and as I sat up in the chair I proceeded to give instructions in sign language.  The two gentlemen knew no English and my Arabic is limited to giving taxi drivers instructions, so I proceeded to indicate how short I wanted my hair cut.  The towel was put around my shoulders and the nylon shawl placed over the towel almost choked me when the stylist takes out a pair of kitchen scissors and begins to cut.  I really need to write a note to self and just tell hairdressers when I am not comfortable.  However, telling an Iraqi man with a pair of kitchen scissors in his hands that I wasn’t comfortable was probably not the best time to practice being assertive.   I am sure I was the first non-army woman to enter the door of the salon.

Mostly I’d like to think I’m philosophical about haircuts. Hair grows back and whatever mess has been made, corrects itself.  The Baggers cut though was a little different and retrospect is a fine teacher.

I would have been better off if I had requested the razor and gone for an army style short, back and sides.  The man with the blunt kitchen scissors started combing my hair with a filthy-looking comb before he began hacking at it.  I really don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t what I got.  I would have got a better haircut if I had given a seven year-old child a pair of scissors and let them at it.  I ended up with the hair on the crown of my head permanently sticking up and even when it was wet, it refused to sit down and behave itself!  It was the topic of conversation long after I left the mission in Iraq and served as a warning for women not only to hold off and wait until they got to Amman but looking like Hilary Clinton wasn’t so bad as it first seemed – at least she has brains!

Kaboom

Working in Kabul was a little different to Baggers – there was no IZ to ‘protect’ us and we travelled (albeit in armoured plated vehicles) through the city to meetings.  We could actually see people on the streets and how they lived, unlike the IZ where I never saw a child during all the time I was there.

kabul afghanistan mapThe ring of steel, supposed to stop the Taliban from entering Kaboom wasn’t quite as effective as President Karzai would have wished.  On 28 October 2009, the Baktar Guest House where several of my colleagues resided was attacked and the Taliban murdered five UN staff.  At the time, we lived in guesthouses around the city with some staff living in rented houses.  I opted to stay in the shabby but friendly UNICA compound, which boasted about 40 rooms spread over several buildings, each one was different and each had its own peculiarities.

UNICA first opened its doors as a UN guesthouse in 1958. The owners kept adding to it over the years and the compound even boasted a bar. During the time of the Tailban it was the only place in Kabul where a body could find alcohol and Hamid the bar man had worked there for more years than I think he even cared to remember.

While supermarket shopping was permitted, we were not allowed to visit any other establishment.  There were beauty parlours for women everywhere and they had heavy net curtains, preventing people (mainly men) seeing inside.  They reminded me of seedy sex shops around Europe.  Like Abound in Amman, it was the wealthier women who would frequent the beauty parlours and they would emerge without burqas but often with niquabs looking stunning with make up, lipstick and nails polished.

We had a hairdressers in UNICA and a young lad, dressed in the trendiest Western gear would appear each weekend and we would queue up for haircuts.  There were no heavy curtains on the windows and men and women sat together waiting on their turn.  Haircuts were good value at US$10.  It wasn’t the best haircut in the world, but you could at least appear in public and didn’t feel the need to wear your niquab around the office.

UNICA eventually closed down shortly after I left Afghanistan.  The elderly owner lived in the States and her children had no interest in managing the property.  It sold for over US$5 million and the last I heard, they had built an office block on its grounds.  It was the end of an era for many foreigners who travelled through and found sanctuary and solace inside its walls.

Until next time.

Yours Fagan.

fagan profile pic in blue

 

 

 

 

 

Baby Nasha, back in Sierra Leone.

Shenannigans in Freetown

sierra leone africa mapI got back from work one Saturday to find the Zim Bridies (Zimbabwean women) on the couch with the bottles of nail polish out and Fatmata standing on the balcony with a baby in her arms.  The baby had been taken in by Aunty Marie (the down stairs cleaning lady).  According to Aunty Marie, the child’s mother Anna, had threatened to throw the baby into the Atlantic because she didn’t want it.  Abduli Nasha is the most beautiful baby imaginable.

We contributed donations for food and nappies and Fatmata was sent out to make the purchases. When he began screeching for food I took out the formula only to discover it was porridge suitable for children from two years.  Rather than chance killing the child with solids, we bundled him up and he was brought off to Maria’s (another Zim Bridie) who was mother to a one-year-old boy.  Fatmata went along as the chief child minder and was in her element, sitting up in the UN vehicle with the babe in her arms willing her friends to see her in such a flash car.  

Maria shared a rather large apartment in a modern building and has been working in Salone for some time.  Her home is sumptuous by Sierra Leonean standards. Fatmata’s eyes, by all accounts were hanging out of her head trying to take in the luxury in Maria’s home in order to relate to her friends later that evening.  The Mission to Stop the Baby Crying arrived back an hour or so later with the baby washed, changed, fed and sleeping. 

We lived in the upstairs part of the house that was accessed by an outside stairs. After a few days Aunty Marie would appear up the stairs to our quarters with the baby and when we would all gather to cooo and aaah around him, she would be spotted trying to sneak out the door, leaving child and responsibility behind.

No one day was the same as the previous and we muddled along, trying to do what we felt was best for the baby. There was a sense of responsibility to Nasha and I worried that he wasn’t getting his nourishment.  About a week had passed after he became part of our lives, when unannounced, Anna returned and brought Nasha off with her.  We suspect that somebody told her that the foreigners would give her money for his keep and he would be a good source of income.  While we were prepared to buy formula and other necessities for Nasha, we weren’t parting with cash for Anna, who we suspect had no intentions on spending it on her baby.

At the time Nasha was removed from the house, I was up country but I heard Aunty Marie was very upset and there were rivers of tears and dramatics galore.  According to Fatmata she had been feeding him gin when he was crying, which somehow failed to surprise me.  Anna, obviously having difficulty coping with Nasha returned a couple of nights later and we convinced her to leave the baby with Aunty Marie.  It was the best option at the time despite the fact that Aunty Marie smoked and drank way too much but attempted to redeemed herself by visiting the mosque every evening.  

All the Bridies said they’d take Nasha if he was a girl, but they had no interest in taking on a boy – they had too many boys between them.  Anna had appeared back a few times to visit but could hardly hold him properly and the last time we saw her she looked very under the weather. Nasha was at the time thriving, but hygiene wasn’t a priority in the household, so if we weren’t around to keep an eye on things standards slipped dramatically and I didn’t hold out much on his chances.

Friends

The women of Mabella, FreetownEmily was my closest friend in the residence, full of fun and personality with a generous nature, we got on well.  She was terribly homesick though and constantly worried about her mother and the availability of diabetic medicine for her in Harare and of course the welfare of her children.  Six weeks after I moved in, Emily decided to return to Zimbabwe and her family.

A country that was once the food basket of Africa, Zimbabwe was divided up and shared out among the supporters of its president Robert Mugabe.  The previous distribution of land and wealth among the white population certainly wasn’t equitable, but neither was the last distribution to people who knew little of farming but plenty about corruption. Many ordinary Zimbabweans go hungry; educations standards, once the best in Africa have gone down the tubes and what was once held up as an example of how progress is possible, sadly transmuted with Mugabe’s meglomania. Unless you had a job in an international organisation, then life for the majority of Zimbabweans is just a daily struggle for survival. Luckily for Emily, she went back to a promotion in the UN in Harare so at least she had something to return to. 

Prior to Emily’s stint in Sierra Leone, shopping in Zimbabwe would entail travel by car to South Africa but there is little fuel for sale to the public in Zimbabwe and trying to fill a petrol tank can take four to five hour queuing.  Having a decent job guaranteed that she could afford to fly to Johannesburg every few months to stock up on essentials. 

As Emily’s departure became more imminent the shopping and packing began in earnest. I have yet to meet anybody to have so many suitcases after such a relatively short space of time. Several of the staff who arrived as election observers were cajoled into bringing some of her suitcases back but she still had four cases at the airport and the wanted to charge her $1,600.  She produced a few tears and bargained them down to $500, the allowance given to the UN volunteers for repatriation.  African clothes and the wonderful West African material from Nigeria and Ghana is cheap in comparison to Zimbabwe and in her usual entrepreneurial manner Emily intended to sell off most of what she was bringing back and make a decent profit for herself. 

During our evenings together, I began to notice how Emily would casually talk about “the other day.”  It didn’t take me long to realise that there was something amiss about this statement.  When I speak about “the other day,” it usually refers to a day during the past week.  When Emily began saying things like “the other day when I went to work in Harare,” I realised it’s been more than a year since she had worked in Harare.  So when she would come up with a statement that would start “the other day,” I would have to ask would that be a week, month, six months or a year ago? She’d just grin and announce it was probably a couple of months ago.

Fatmata continued to hold a dual role of cleaning lady and entertainer, mimicing everybody who came through the door.  Prior to Emily’s departure she sat on a chair in the hall sobbing, saying that her landlord had brought some prostitutes into the house and when she refused to share a room with them he took her foam (mattress).  Now she was sleeping on the floor and it was so cold she couldn’t sleep (it never drops below 24 degrees Centigrade)!  When it gets ‘cold’, Fatmata wears lots of layers and yellow woollen knitted hat that looks like a tea cosy sitting on top of her head. 

At 29-years and already a grandmother – Fatmata had her first born when she was 11/12 years old.  Many girls in Sierra Leone have finished reproducing by the time they reach 18, when most young women in the developed world still feel they have too much to lose if they had children at such a young age. Fatmata’s eldest son would come to visit from the fire station around the corner where he worked.  Dressed in his fireman’s outfit with enormous Wellington boots he was brought up the stairs, to be shown off to us. 

Fatmata’s mother would come to visit now and again and appeared one day, feeling poorly.  She (Fatmata) looked for an advance on her wages so she could send the mother home, otherwise she’d have to feed her for the week if she stayed – it was cheaper to get her home. She greeted me one morning with a huge hug as I walked out the door of my room, telling me I was her mother and father because Emily and I went halves and bought her a new foam.  She said she had a wonderful sleep and was delighted to have sweated throughout the night.

Enemies in Big Brother

freetown buildings 1Emily’s departure changed the dynamics in Big Brother and relations between myself and the others in the house deteriorated rapidly on Emily’s departure. Not long after the departure we came to a position of no return.

There were a number of heated debates with the Bridies over the whole housekeeper thing.  I had to fight to ensure Fatmata had a day off on Sunday, pointing out that we were working for a human rights organisation and weren’t doing much in terms of implementing them. The Bridies argued that she liked being in the house on Sundays. However, since she had a new found day off, she found somewhere else to hang out on Sundays.  In all fairness, there were days when you ended up doing Fatmata’s job for her because she was skiving off somewhere and totally out of ear-shot. I didn’t mind doing things for myself but I wasn’t going to clean up in the common areas of kitchen and living room.

The Bridies eventually showed their true colours and dispensed with Fatmata’s services because they felt that a contribution of $15 per month, per person was too much to pay as a salary. This happened at a time when I was advotating a salary increase. Not only did Fatmata clean for us, she fetched things from the market, handwashed our clothes and did the ironing.

At around that time I had also decided it was about time to be proactive about doing something for the baby.  As time passed Fatmata reported Nasha wasn’t doing too good.

SOS and Sargeant Betty

freetown peninsula 1I discussed the issue with my supervisor in UNIFEM and she advised that I try to get Nasha in to the SOS home for children.  The first step was to report the situation to the family support unit at the police station and then to social welfare (whose credentials were dubious with substantive rumours of child trafficing for the babies who came into their care). In countries recovering from a post-conflict trauma, the UN work with the elected government to push forward child protection measures and have been known to put good policies in place.

Our working hours were 8 a.m. until 5 p.m.  Sierra Leone has a large Muslim population so the official working day on Friday ended at 1 p.m. in order to give the Muslim colleagues an opportunity to visit the mosque for weekly prayers. I managed to leave work early one Friday to head down to the family support unit and Sergeant Betty. I was ushered in to a room and was happy that Segeant Betty knew her stuff and more importantly what was best for Nasha.  She wanted to meet the mother and baby, so we drove Sergeant Betty back up to the house and I phoned ahead for Aunty Marie to pick up the child and bring him along. 

The difference in the baby was shocking – in a matter of a couple of weeks he had lost so much weight, he just lay there limp in Aunty Marie’s arms.  I discovered they were feeding him Magi Cubes (something equivalent to Oxo or Bovril) in his bottle.  Magi Cubes are used in cooking in West Africa and are high in monosodium glutamate (the awful flavour enhancer).   Anna seemed to have drug and alcohol issues.  Far be it from me to cast judgement on some of these women who spent their childhood living through a brutal war and who didn’t know the basics of cooking, let alone coping with children of their own. It’s no wonder that Sierra Leone had one of the highest child mortality rates in the world, where one in four children don’t live past the the age of five. 

I believed Nasha had problems – not following light or focusing as he should for his age, but he still smiled and laughed when he was fed, watered and dry.  Aunty Marie and I had frequent discussions about this and she insisted that his sight was fine as she poked the child in the eye. 

I have to say Sgt. Betty was extremely impressive, although she was trying her best for me to take on the responsibility of the child.  She explained everything to the mother; she could have access to Nasha in the SOS home, where he would be well looked after and educated but she wouldn’t have guardianship.  We aimed to have the whole affair sorted out in the coming week and the people in SOS to sort out the paperwork necessary for guardianship. 

There was always some drama going on in the house.  Everyone had gathered to discuss Nasha’s future… Aunty Marie, Sgt. Betty, Nasha and his mother along with Fatmata, myself and a friend who was visiting for the weekend.  Out of nowhere, in the middle of the discussions Fatmata burst into tears, howling at the fact that Emily’s replacement, a Ghanaian woman had screeched at her demanding to know what rate she charged to clean the house.  Fatmata mimicked her so accurately I had to look twice to see she wasn’t in the room. 

Sgt. Betty’s head was in a spin, between trying to come to grips with the story of the baby and the fact that the mother is claiming the father is dead (although Aunty Marie and Fatmata say he’s not dead, just married) and Fatmata’s indignation at being a victim to such bad treatment, it was almost a relief to be taking a plane to Lagos and Abuja the next day just to get a bit of peace and quiet.

I had set everything up for Nasha’s care and it seemed as if everybody concerned was in agreement, so I departed for Nigeria with an easy mind.

Until next time.

Yours,

Fagan.

Post Script:  Emily returned to her beloved family and went back to work in the UN. We hooked up now and again with infrequent phone calls and emails. At one stage she told me she was going to Johannesburg to have her womb removed, they had found cervical cancer.  Emily was just 42 when she passed in July 2010.  The following year I had an email telling me that her son who was studying in Australia was knocked down by a drunk driver and died.  They brought him home to be buried with his Mum.  In a way, I was glad Emily wasn’t around to bear witness to such tragedy, it would have broken her heart.

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‘Eye of the storm… before, during and after Typhoon Haiyan’

Disclaimer: These are my own opinions and I do not represent any organisation when expressing my views.  

Images from the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan

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Typhoon Haiyan came in with a bang on 8th November 2013 and for many people in the Philippines, it killed their loved ones, blew away their homes and possessions and destroyed their livelihoods.

In the office we watched the weather systems as it approached, knowing it was going to be a big one and waiting for the disaster assessment teams to arrive from the relatively nearby regional office in Bangkok.  It’s a strange thing to prepare for something that’s inevitable and also knowing it’s going to wreak havoc along its path.  You imagine that if you started to believe there was a god and if you prayed hard enough, that maybe the storm would take a turn and travel in a different direction.  Alas. That didn’t happen.

Lying in bed on the Friday night in the comfort of my Manila apartment and listening to the wind as it howled outside, rattling windows and whistling, as it forced its way through the small gaps in the windows was frightening enough.  A couple of hundred kilometres away it was ripping up homes, blowing off roofs and causing mayhem and havoc on the millions of lives it touched.

The assessment team was booked on a flight to arrive before the storm hit.  Haiyan was expected at 7 a.m. but arrived a few hours earlier at 4 a.m. so the team flight was cancelled.  They were to travel with Government representatives trying to make it down to Tacloban before the storm struck.  They didn’t make it and in some ways, I’m glad. Nobody was safe in Tacloban and the team were much more useful being able bodied.

I can’t even begin to imagine the horror of a typhoon of this magnitude that could throw cars into the air and lift roofs off houses, as if they were Lego toys.  The wealthier people moved into hotels, while the people who lived in the wooden houses remained or moved to evacuation shelters and prayed. 

Back in Manila, phone calls from TV and radio stations around the world started to filter through.  Our head of office began taking the calls and when there were so many calls, I had to start doing the interviews as well.  David was in one office on to BBC while I was in the other office on the Al Jazeera – it was just a sign of things to come. 

One of the first interviews I did, was on Al Jazeera.  I’m in the middle of a live news bulletin and could hear the beep-beep of another call trying to come in, distracting me from the task at hand. Thinking it was the BBC calling for another interview, I was trying to cut them off when I cut myself off a live Al Jazeera news bulletin instead.  It was very embarrassing I have to say.  Two minutes later and this crazy pops up again trying to call.  “Can I ask who is calling,” says I.  “Ah I just saw you on telly and thought you were nice, I’m working on a oil rig,” comes the reply. 

God preserve us from the crazies in this life.  My first TV appearance came complete with my first potential stalker.   As I wished him a good night (not in such polite words), I hit the blocked button and continued on.

I think I spoke from 5 a.m. until 1 a.m. the following morning – it was non-stop.  We were trying to get information from the field to let the public know what was going on while trying to see what UN agencies had people already in place and how they could assist in the initial stages.  Communications were gone and only satellite phones were working and not very well at that. 

The tsunami-like surge wave that landed in Tacloban destroyed the town.  Tacloban is nestled in a bay with mountains around it so when the wind came in at 300 kph, the town acted like a funnel and forcing the wind into a much smaller, tighter space, multiplying the amount of damage it could cause.  Much of the pre-positioned stock to respond to the typhoon such as food and medicines were taken with the storm.  The wave, much bigger than anything that came with either the Banda Aceh in Indonesia or Japanese tsunami, caused untoward damage and brought many lives with it.

The OCHA team arrived within 12 hours of the typhoon and found scenes of absolute destruction, the town looked like a rubbish tip with bodies lying tangled and strewn on the streets. 

typhoon shipTeam leader, Sebastian Rhodes Stampa (SRS for short, or as I call him SMS), told us over a satellite phone how it was like the Indian Ocean Tsunami; boats were tossed around and came inland; roofs were gone from houses; houses were gone; poles and trees were uprooted; they were met with scenes of biblical proportions.  The World Health Organization had sent their driver and car before the typhoon struck and the driver watched as another car came careering across the road into the WHO car.  The driver was injured with flying glass and went missing in action, left without food and water, as the head of office Julie had search teams out looking for him.  The poor man was traumatised and had to return to Manila, when he was eventually found.

When the team arrived, the roads were so blocked they had to take a government heli from the airport to the town centre, a distance of 11 kilometres.  Water was contaminated by the surge of water; people had no food and began looting in the first day after the storm.

Within 12 hours the road was partially unblocked but the round trip from the town hall to the airport took six hours by truck, making the delivery of food impossible.  The airport closed down to commercial flights and the government delivered food by helicopter.  But we were only addressing the needs of one city. This typhoon travelled across thousands of kilometres and we needed to reach the people who were affected to ensure they were okay.

There were no communications, no access via road, no electricity, crops destroyed, housing demolished and airports in the four major cities hit, all closed down.  At midday on the Friday, while the storm was still raging, OCHA sent another team out by car to Tacloban and they arrived two days later to set up an office where we could work.  The first team that was dispatched ran out of water and were drinking rainwater on the second day after their arrival.  

It’s difficult sitting in Manila and reporting on something that you haven’t seen.  The Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Baroness Valerie Amos came to Manila on the Tuesday and went to Tacloban.  A small entourage went with her, the Humanitarian Coordinator, the head of the OCHA office, our head of security, Valerie’s assistant Nick and myself travelled in a small plane to see the extent of the damage. 

Fuel had run out so the rented car couldn’t travel and Nick and myself were left at the airport while the others went to meet government ministers trying to organise the response efforts.  Food was not getting through and there was a shortage of water. 

I took myself off around the airport speaking to people who were desperate to get out.  One woman I met, Sasha carried her baby, one-month old Isabella and was desperate to get assistance.  Isabella had diarrhoea and needed medical attention.  Elie, 69 was sitting on boxes with his crutches by his side, under an umbrella to protect him from the sun.  He lived alone and his son was in Manila, all he wanted to do was to go to his son.  Another woman was a university lecturer who had a cut on her hand and was very angry with me and angry with everybody.  She was entitled to that, she had just lost her home and all her belongings.  I asked her why she didn’t evacuate, as advised, she told me that they get so many storms every year, but nothing could prepare them for a super typhoon, the biggest storm ever to hit landfall.

People were upset that the response was not quick enough.  The response teams were equally frustrated tying to get flights in and finding difficulties getting goods into the airport, and out on the other end, with no fuel to transport the life-saving goods and equipment.

The Government had invited the Americans to take over the management of the airport and they closed it down the previous day while they moved in their own equipment and supplies.  Thousands gathered at the airport and ports trying to get out to safer havens where their relatives waited.  Limited commercial flights were up and running and the Americans were also transporting people out of Tacloban on C130 aircraft.

When we arrived in Tacloban I needed the bathroom, but there was nowhere to go so I held on for the others to return.  We had travelled on a small single-engine eight-seater plane, with no facilities.  When they arrived back Luiza, the Humanitarian Coordinator also needed the bathroom, so off she marches over the Cebu Airlines who were about to move the steps away from the plane in preparation for take-off.  Marches up the steps with herself and requests the use of their powder room.  It was hilarious.  The air steward radioed up to the captain as we boarded the flight for our ‘urgent request’.  It’s amazing what a UN tshirt will do for you!  I’m very grateful to the UN tshirt and the crew of Cebu Airways though.

It’s all a bit of a daze for me – days just fused into each other and I left the office at 1 a.m. some mornings, with a 6 a.m. pick up the same day to travel.  Valerie Amos went to Government, went to the global TV and radio stations, reported to the Secretary General, went without sleep to help unblock the obstacles that were preventing the delivery of aid. She is a force of epic proportions in her energy and commitment to relieve human-suffering and for that alone I admire her.

We could do a whole blog of Fagan’s bloopers on TV over the first week.  On CNN outside the Marriot Hotel I was asked “So why are you doing assessments?”  “Well, we get people the life-saving food and water, we need to see their needs.  Why, after all, would you provide somebody with an egg cup, when in fact they need an egg,” I replied.  Sometimes I wonder what is going on in my tiny little mind to come up with lines like that!

OCHA UNUSGValerie [Amos] came back for a second time this week and took off travelling across the country, hitching lifts on aircraft to get her back out to see what progress was being made.  The Canadians provided an aircraft for us to go to Roxas where we met the Governor of Capiz province.  From a population of 75,000 people, 57 died.  They had a very different storm from the one experienced in Tacloban, but 98 per cent of the buildings are partially or totally destroyed and most of the 75,000 people are without homes.  The future is pretty grim for some.

The Governor Victor Tanco, who met us at the airport and accompanied us along the route, is an incredible man.   He went on radio three times a day in the week prior to the storm warning people to go to evacuation centres and get out of their homes.  He has the hospitals and schools doing regular drills for evacuations for every occasion all through the year.  There was concern when we heard he ordered people to be jailed if they refused to evacuate from their homes, but ultimately Victor Tanco has to be hailed as a hero – he saved many lives. 

It was also good to see the Canadian military had set up in Roxas. So many [rescuers] went to Tacloban and with a population of 13 million affected or in terms of population, a country with more citizens than Portugal; focusing the world’s attention on the needs of just one relatively small area seems unfair when others also need assistance.

The typhoon struck on 8th November, so from 6th November we were working flat out.  This was the 25th typhoon to make landfall over the Philippines this year.  I have lost count of the number that required humanitarian intervention from the international community; there was conflict in Zamboanga and that is now largely forgotten, despite the great needs that remain: a bit of an earthquake that is now consumed by Haiyan ……and on it goes.  I thought that after Iraq and Somalia the Philippines would be a quiet life… how wrong could you get?

Yesterday, Saturday 23rd November I had a day off and went for a 2 hour massage, picked up a couple of bottles of wine, dropped them off home, went back out for another massage, returned, cooked dinner, had a glass of wine and went to bed at 9 p.m.

Today the sun is shining and I head to the gym before I go to the office.   I have three more weeks left in the Philippines before the end of the contract.  I just hope that Haiyan marks the end of the typhoon season and the Filipinos have time to catch their breath, mourn their dead and begin to rebuild their lives, before the next typhoon season takes off next year.

Until next time. 

Yours, Fagan

Orla Presser
Press briefing Friday 29th November 2013