Tag Archives: Orla Fagan Blog

Back to Africa: Nigerian experiences


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.


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.

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.


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.


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?”


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.


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




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.


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.


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.


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 007



Until next time




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.


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.



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.


Typhoon Haiyan – Orla Fagan Radio Reports from The Philippines

ORLA FAGAN HEAD SHOTOrla Fagan; Spokesperson for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the PhilippinesFrom Al Jazeera News, VOA, Bloomberg, Financial Times, BBC World, CNN World, ABC Australia to Marian Finucane and Sean O’Rourke on RTE Radio 1, Orla has been working around the clock bringing essential updates on one of the world’s greatest disasters  –  Typhoon Haiyan known locally in the Philippines as ‘Yolanda’, live from the UN / Humanitarian Mission offices in Manila.

Orla Speaking to  Sean O’Rourke Wednesday 13th November 2013 [Travelling with Valerie Amos UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator   in Tacloban]

Click on pic to listen [Duration 08:05]
Click on pic to listen
[Duration 08:05]      
Orla Speaking to  Sean O’Rourke Monday 11th November 2013

Click on pic to listen IN 01:02:00
Click on pic to listen
IN: 01:02:00

Orla speaking to Marian Finucane Sunday 10th November 2013

Click on pic to listen  IN: 58:53
Click on pic to listen
IN: 58:53

Orla speaking to Marian Finucane Saturday 9th November 2013

Click on pic to listen  IN: 37:20
Click on pic to listen
IN: 37:20

TYPHOON HAIYAN -  father by tent in ruins

Dazed survivors of a super typhoon that swept through the central Philippines killing an estimated (unconfirmed) 10,000 possible deaths and millions of people left begging for help and scavenged for food, water and medicine, threatening to overwhelm military and rescue resources.  * Death toll could rise once isolated coastal villages are reached. * Roads, airports and bridges destroyed. * U.S. sends Marines and sailors to help.  The government has not confirmed officials’ estimates over the weekend of 10,000 deaths, but the toll from Haiyan, one of the strongest typhoons ever recorded, is clearly far higher than the current official count of 2400. The Armed Forces in the central Philippines  reported a death toll of 942.


Bodies litter streets as at least 2400 killed by Typhoon Haiyan –  latest report say the number dead may increase.

RESCUERS in the central Philippines counted thousands dead and many more injured today, a day after one of the most powerful typhoons on record ripped through the region, wiping away buildings and levelling seaside homes with massive storm surges….. read on…..



The typhoon that struck the Philippines produced an outpouring of emotion on Monday at United Nations talks on a global climate treaty in Warsaw, where delegates were quick to suggest that a warming planet had turned the storm into a lethal monster….read on….



typhoon ship

coastal shot

see more here….




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Blog Edited by Ed Darragh for Orla Fagan in the Philippines