Thursday, January 28, 2010

Haiti in one minute

A quick one minute video from Head Down Eyes Opener Joe Lowry, on the ground in Haiti as he addresses the most serious concerns and discusses how the Haitian Red Cross will continue to respond to emergency needs with an eye to the future recovery process that will need to take place. This includes getting people back to work, establishing a health care system and ensuring that housing is safe. If this is technically a vlog then its a HDEO first!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Haiti: Birth among the rubble

While on the ground in Haiti I spent a lot of time in and around the Red Cross field hospital located downtown next to Port au Prince's General Hospital. This 'hospital in a box' was unloaded, assembled, manned and equipped in a 48hr period and is now performing some 200 surgical operations a day. On site we also have an out patients clinic and a post-recovery bed facility for 70 patients. Surgeons, anaesthetists, health staff and administrators all come as part of the package.

Three such field hospitals (one with even more capacity) are now operating from dawn to dusk in Port au Prince and outskirts (as well as half a dozen mobile health units providing additional health care services for more than a thousand people a day). This is a video that I really like, I hope you do to. Its a good news story among the horror that Haiti has had to suffer. The video was shot by my friend and colleague from Norwegian Red Cross (who also has one of the greatest names on the planet) Olaf Saltbones.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Haiti: Joe, the boy from nowhere

I am just back from Haiti and was replaced by fellow-Head Down Eyes Opener Joe Lowry. In time, when I get a chance to catch a breath, I will write up some reflections on this incredible experience and devastating disaster. I did manage to tweet frequently and, if interested, you can find my feed here. In the meantime, please enjoy a story Joe has sent about a young orphan whose plight affected both of us.

The first time we saw four-year-old Joe was heartbreaking.

He was barely able to sit, wiping crumbs off the little cardboard mat that had become his home. He cleared a space to sleep, like his mother would have done, his eyes rolled back in his head, and he slumped into a daze.

Joe came from nowhere. Someone noticed him lying naked on the ground and he was brought to the Norwegian Red Cross field hospital in the centre of Haiti’s shattered capital.

Mageli St Simon, a Haitian National Red Cross Society psychological support volunteer, started taking care of him. “His head was injured,” she says. “And he was sick, maybe malaria, maybe typhoid.”

Mageli started to interact with the sick child and, after a day or so, she’d got his name. She gave him a pen and paper, and he drew his mother and father.

Then she gave him a toy phone.

“He started speaking to his mother. I asked him what she was saying. He told me: ‘She says don’t look for me, I’m dead’.

"I don’t know how he knew, someone must have told him before he got lost.”

Three days on, Joe’s doing well. He's still sick, but is taking water and a little food. He draws us a cross. I tell him my name is Joe too, and he gives me a long, deep look.

He’s a beautiful, fragile little boy, with a slight squint that makes him look even more vulnerable; makes you want to protect him.

Mageli agrees. “You have to really know yourself before you know other people,” she says. “That’s why I take care of Joe, to know what he needs. I can’t give people any money, but I can help in my own way.”

If Joe has no family members who can take on the responsibility of caring for him, the little boy will go to an orphanage as soon as a suitable organization working with orphans can be found. And he’ll do fine. He’s a survivor.


Originally submitted to

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Haiti: how much can one nation endure?

The news reached me as it happened, at around 23h00 Geneva time. Twitter and Skype burst into action and since then it has been non-stop (hence the delayed blog post altho I have managed to tweet a bit with the emphasis on sharing content). 

I began this job in August 2008 and the first major disaster I was involved in was the horrendous suffering caused by the Hurricane season in 2008 which repeatedly battered Haiti and sparked off several fatal landslides. Four major hurricanes - Gustave, Fay, Hanna and Ike - cruelly emptied their cargo ontop of the population, stripping away 98% of the top soil and the rampaging waters killed more than one thousand people. 

For this to happen in any country would set it back a generation but to happen in Haiti, the most impoverished and under developed country in the world - well this was simply cruel and disproportionate. Almost impossible to get back up on your feet again. But Haitians are resilient people and arise they did though understandably still haunted by hurricanes. And now, to fall victim to a devastating earthquake is the cruellest of blows to this struggling nation (interesting that we don't name earthquakes - surely they are worthy of such acknowledgement?).

From an operational point of view our local partners, the Haitian Red Cross, have been hit hard - buildings (where we also have our offices) damaged and personnel still missing. Nevertheless, their first instinct was to clear the rubble and set up an operational centre to tend to the wounded with emergency first aid and reinforce the search and rescue operation with their 2000 or so trained volunteers. Focus was also placed in parallel on getting operational, assessing the situation and coordinating the 'surge' capacity needed to boost water, shelter, food and medical activities. 

It has been an incredible 36 hours or so. From a media point of view there is a level of interest of tsunami proportions. We have done interviews around the clock with all major news and media networks including CNN, New York Times, Al Jazeera and BBC et al. We also managed to get  some great photos out which were used widely on as leads on all major news networks and this morning we received these images from our first proper aerial assessment. The photos were taken by American Red Cross delegate Matt Merrick on the ground and I found them to be extremely intimate and compassionate, retaining full respect for the dignity of the people and not preying on gore and horror like so many others. 

Our next big challenge will be to provide our national red cross and red crescent societies around the world with compelling content to support their national fund raising drives, as well of course to maintain and feed the media interest and help to tell the story of Haiti as honestly as possible. I am leaving in the next hours for Haiti via Santo Domingo and will do my best to post from their, certainly thru my Twitter account. At times like this you realize the privilige it is to have an opportunity to contribute to such an important humanitarian operation - I am especially looking forward to supporting, working alongside and learning from my colleagues with Haiti Red Cross. Stay Tuned.


Sunday, January 10, 2010

The stakes just got higher for Yemen

Yemen, reputedly the poorest country in the Arab world, is home to around 20 million people wedged between the Red Sea, the treacherous waters of the Gulf of Aden, Saudi Arabia and Oman, and within wind-surfing distance of Somalia, Djibouti and Eritrea. (Photo: - Yemeni man sits near the wreckage of a suspected Al Qaeda car bomb attack).

In the wake of the Christmas day misadventures of the 'underpants bomber' on a US-bound flight, we learned of Yemen's role as its al-Qaeda branch claimed responsibility for the attempted bombing. So all eyes are now firmly on Yemen and the usual suspects concerned with battling al-Qaeda have rushed to increase their aid, and specifically their military aid. The US, for example has increased its military aid to Yemen seven-fold in three years while the UK has increased its aid four-fold.

Fragile but not failed
Slightly bigger than Spain and just smaller than Ukraine, Yemen is said to have one of the most open political system on the Arabian Peninsula. But it has also been facing serious challenges arising from the eruption of conflict with Shi'a Houti rebels five years ago in the northern governorate of Saada.

Yemen is a classic fragile (as opposed to ‘failed’) state and after the recent attempted bombing of a US airline it is once again under the scrutiny of countries coalesced to fight 'terror'. Questions are being asked aloud whether extremism can be reversed there and, if not, what this might mean in terms of international military intervention. 

There are many known unknowns surrounding the threat toYemen’s sovereignty and the security of its powerful Saudi neighbors. The hand of Iran is also present and the physical, religious and cultural links with anarchic and conflict-ridden Somalia are obviously reasons for concern. Yemen therefore finds itself in the unenviable position of being a common denominator for many of the key strategic issues and headaches that inform Washington’s view of the Middle East and the “war on terror”.

Protecting the House of Saud and American Foreign Policy

The potential for forces in Yemen to undermine Saudi security (or even oust the ruling family) is the most immediate concern (no need to recall that overthrowing the House of Saud sits atop Al-Qaeda’s manifesto). This is not just a fanciful notion, Saudi Arabia and others are extremely fearful that a well-organized al-Qaeda with a foothold in Yemen can spread operations with relative ease over the border. 

If you are a policy geek in Washington or London or Cairo or Tel Aviv or - well you get the picture - this is not a scenario you want to contemplate, but contemplate it you must. Much of US and western foreign policy towards the Middle East (and the wider Muslim world thanks to the 'war on terror') hinges itself precariously between Cairo and Riyadh, and everything will be done to ensure the hinges remain tightly bolted to their buttressed frames. 

Anything that threatens to undermine this policy will be swiftly and urgently dealt with by the US and its allies as the alternatives are unthinkable. Should things unhinge we would rapidly see a bloody redrawing of borders all over the Middle East, the redistribution of wealth to new power brokers - with unfavorable repercussions for the current international economic systems and trade routes - and a ferocious showdown between Shi'a and Sunni forces in pursuit of hegemonic dominance. 

Above all it could signal the end of American influence in the Middle East, including a sucker punch to its most-favored ally, the fledgling State of Israel. These are the types of stakes being played out today on a blackjack table that stretches from Tehran to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Lebanon and Syria to Israel and Occupied Palestine, from Sudan to Somalia and, not least, Yemen. And the stakes in Yemen just got much much higher.

Military Outlook and the Somali factor
Given Yemen's high geo-strategic value and its potential influence in the Arab street, such fears seem valid when one considers that the Sana’a government is battling for its life on at least three fronts: fighting against al-Qaeda, facing a Shi'a rebellion in the north and a strong separatist movement in the south. Among the many known unknowns is the pivotal question of whether external military support or intervention will do more harm than good. 

Scenarios are surfacing too of a link between Yemeni and Somali militants (more plausible than preposterous I would think) moving virtually unchecked between the two countries through the lawless, pirate-ridden waters of the Gulf of Aden. Al Shabab, the Somali armed Islamist group, recently played on such fears, vowing to cross the straits and defend Yemen against any American military intervention there. 

This is another nightmare scenario for the policy geeks. It's bad enough Somalia's Islamic brand of anarchy corroding friendly neighborhoods and US allies like Kenya and Ethiopia but if it were to cross the Red Sea and set up shop in the Middle East ... In this context, one might understand why Yemen has rejected the possibility of American intervention. 

Chewin' the Qat

Many Yemen watchers will tell you that to understand it you have to understand Qat - the drug of choice in Yemen. Its consumption is deeply rooted in Yemeni culture, and has long been exported to its neighbors and allies across the Gulf of Aden

Qat is chewed by men and women and is known for its narcotic properties. This phenomenon involves 80% of people spending many hours a day chewing Qat.  What's more the country's ground water is rapidly drying up due to 80% of water being used for Qat cultivation. In essence Qat is the economy and yet hamstrings the economy; a plant that energizes while paradoxically producing societal apathy. Qat is also a very social drug, a very talkative time in your average Yemeni's day so, who knows, Yemen could be the first place where Al-Q and their adversaries start chewing the fat over the Qat (sorry, couldn't resist that).

Shifting gears
Qat apart, the mix of conflict and poverty, natural disasters and climate change, migration and instability, guarantees that Yemen will be an important context for political, military and humanitarian focus over the next number of years starting right now. Indeed, one could argue, it is precisely these factors of chronic underdevelopment that has made Yemen so susceptible to Al Qaeda and irascible conflicts in the first place. 

In 2010 it is certain that the "war on terror" will expand (as opposed to shift) its focus to Yemen – the real battleground is still Afghanistan-Pakistan (and there is still a war in Iraq). A country that till now ‘only’ earned the attention of old school spies and a few hi-tech drones can now expect much more robust involvement from the US, Saudi Arabia and allies. In other words, when the stakes get high, the high rollers follow.


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Kabul Dreams do come true

You heard it here first, or possibly not, but still, HDEO is backing “Kabul Dreams” to hit the big time. In a country where music was banned, where the Taliban still hold sway in many parts, the alternativley bubbly and angsty brit-pop sound being pumped out by Siddique, Mujtaba and Sulaymon is a balm to the ears.

The fab three grew up away form Afghanistan, as refugees in Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Iran. When they returned with their families to their homeland they met up, started jamming together and naturally enough started singing in English, as bands from TaTu to Falco are wont to do.

Not only was English the lingua franca of pop, it also united the three lads, one of whom speaks Pashto, aother Uzbek and the last Dari.

I don’t know about you, but being in Ireland over the holidays meant the X-Factor was morbidly unavoidable. Seeing the talentless preening pampered prettyboys trot out drivelling inanities like “I dunno like I was just like pumped up for it like, to go for my dream and give it loads like” makes the work of Kabul Dreams all the more laudable.

Compare and contrast Joe McEldingleberry from Xfactor: “I don’t think I’d have a full facelift, but errrr… it’d depend on what it was. I think on my own terms I’d like to get a brace and get my teeth sorted out”

with Sulamon Qardash “We love our country and we want to change our young generation, we want to make something new”.

Or perhaps McEldingleberry: “I’d like to think I’d grow a bit taller but as they say, good things come in small packages”

with Qardash: “Playing rock music is a risk but we want to play in Afghanistan”. In fact they’ve only risked playing in cafés to expats, aid workers and government officals, and have had to cancel gigs at short notice due to insecurity and threats.

Kabul Dreams don’t just do covers. They weave Afghan rhythms into rock and roll for a sound that’s a bit like KulaShaker meets Oasis meets the Rembrants with a bit of Cream and even a bit of Van Morrison. The little bits I’ve heard are definitely happy pop with a good dollop of teenage angst.

I suppose I was predisposed to liking a band like this. There’s an echo of my beloved Stiff Little Fingers in there too. The Stiffs stayed on through the war, the Dreams have come back to help heal wounds.

“The reason we formed this band was to give a message to the Afghan youth, a message they can live together,” says Qardash. “One Afghan. That’s it.”

Have a listen on YouTube (and if you are impressed or curious you can join their Facebook page too).  Think about that tortured, holy, brutal land. Think of the ravished cities, the women dying in childbirth, the millions of shattered, shortened lives, the senseless sensless waste. Kabul Dreams are worth having.


Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Poverty Poem by Fred Taban from South Sudan

Please take 1 min and 50 seconds to listen to "Poverty poem" by Fred Taban which was recorded last week in South Sudan. Fred is a theology professor at the Episcopal Church Sudan Seminary in Kajo Keji county. He has been a refugee for most of his life. When Fred speaks of poverty he knows what he is talking about. 

Fred Taban’s poem on poverty is a thoughtful and universal meditation on the bitter predicament that is faced on a daily basis by ever greater number of people on this planet. On HDEO we have written frequently about the need to use or global presence and access to new technologies to allow people to speak for themselves (as opposed to international organiaztions "speaking on their behalf") - examples are here and here. Fred's poem captured on camera and posted on Vimeo is a good example where the persons who knows, the person who matters is speaking directly to those of us who need to hear, who need to act or be moved to act. 

Thanks to our good friends at A developing Story and photographer-storyteller Stephen Alvarez for bringing Fred's words directly to us. FYI: this was recorded on a canon 7d with sound on a zoom h4n recorder through Sennheiser wireless.


Saturday, January 2, 2010

Gaza: One year after war and still no prospect of decent life

Nearly a year after the devastating three-week military operation in the Gaza Strip that began on 27 December 2008, most of the 1.5 million people in the territory are still struggling to rebuild their lives and their economy.

The stringent closure imposed on Gaza is having a serious impact on most people's daily lives and has stymied reconstruction efforts. Fishermen's and farmers' livelihoods have been destroyed. Unemployment and poverty are rampant. The availability of medical care is inadequate and water and sanitation services are run down.

"There has been scarcely any improvement in the situation since the end of the war in Gaza, mainly because of the tight closure, which is preventing reconstruction," said Pierre Wettach, the head of delegation for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Israel and the occupied territories. "Many Gazans feel despair as they have no prospect of living a decent life in the near future."

There are no signs that the 4.5 billion US dollars pledged by donor countries in March 2009 to help the Palestinian economy and rebuild Gaza have been put to use. (Allow us to recall here an article we wrote back in March 2009 which laid out this exact scenario). In June, the ICRC again called on the States, political authorities and organized armed groups concerned to do what is needed to reopen the Gaza Strip and safeguard the life and dignity of its civilian population, but so far no significant action has been taken. The failure to heed the ICRC's repeated calls for an end to Gaza's isolation reflects the lack of political will to permit reconstruction. (Note: the ICRC, as guardian of the Geneva Conventions, is specifically mandated by the community of States to ensure the protection of civilians caught up in conflict - this is therefore not a scenario of 'another' humanitarian agency or activist NGO shouting bellicosely over Gaza, it is the contrary, the well-considered analysis of probably the only single entity on the ground that is considered and trusted as a fully neutral and impartial intermediary in the Israel-Arab context).

The ICRC is again appealing for an immediate lifting of restrictions on the movement of people and goods. Sustainable economic recovery can be achieved only if the parties to the conflict take bold political steps towards a peace process.

Under international humanitarian law Israel has an obligation to maintain conditions that allows the population to lead normal as possible lives. The ICRC fully recognizes Israel's right to address its legitimate security concerns but believes that these must be balanced against the Palestinians' right to live a normal and dignified life.

It is the ordinary Palestinian people living in the Gaza Strip who are still paying a high price for the hostilities between Israel and Palestinian factions and for intra-Palestinian confrontations.

Destroyed livelihoods

Today, because of the closure, large-scale reconstruction remains impossible. Many families whose houses were totally or partly destroyed are still living in temporary accommodation or with relatives. Some have moved back into their partly destroyed homes which they have tried in vain to patch up against the cold and rain. A small number of families are living in tents.

Building materials remain unavailable or too expensive. Those that do reach Gaza are mostly smuggled in and sold at high prices. Although the price of cement has edged downwards in recent months, it is still unaffordable for many people. Steel and glass are simply not available.

"Twenty-six houses in the neighbourhood, including my own, were completely destroyed in the shelling last year," said Said Abu Sharkh, a Palestinian living in Gaza City. "It would be an understatement to say that I was in shock when I found that our home and all of our clothes and furniture had been destroyed. My wife and I are poor, and we have seven children to care for. We could only afford to rebuild one room; we do not have enough money even for a proper roof or for window glass. My children ask me why water comes through the roof when it rains. The destruction of our home has been really hard on them. I used to earn a living repairing electronic equipment, but my little workshop was also destroyed. Now we survive with help from aid agencies. This is what real suffering is: not having work or a proper home."

Most families in Gaza are afflicted by unemployment and poverty. Food is available in shops and markets, but many families cannot afford a nutritious diet. Bakeries frequently have to shut down for lack of fuel.

Fishermen are among those hardest hit by restrictions on movement. Following Israel's decision last winter to cut the area open to fishing from six to three nautical miles off Gaza's coast, their catch during the first nine months of 2009 was 63 per cent lower than during the same period in 2008. The bigger fish and sardines that made up approximately 70 per cent of the catch before the smaller fishing zone was imposed are normally found beyond the three-nautical-mile limit. According to the fishermen's syndicate of Gaza, the average monthly salary of its members has plummeted to less than half of what it had been before the size of the fishing zone was reduced.

Fishermen are also at risk of being shot at by the Israeli navy. Several casualties have been recorded since the beginning of the year. Israel has confiscated about 20 fishing boats as well as engines and fishing equipment in 2009.

Safety is also a matter of great concern for farmers who own land near the fence separating Gaza from Israel. Some farmers can work freely within 350 metres of the fence, while others risk being shot at if they come within 1,200 metres. In some areas, such as east of the town of Jabalia, they cannot reach their farms at all. As farmers are still not allowed to export their produce through Israel, their harvest is sold locally, which provides little income. As long as the crossing points into Israel remain closed, agriculture is likely to decline further. To cut costs, many farmers now rely on their own family members to work the fields, thereby putting others out of work.

Inadequate health care

All too often, Gaza's medical facilities have to work in substandard conditions. Not only do they encounter problems with water supply and sewage disposal, but they are also subject to cuts and fluctuations in the power supply that can damage equipment which often cannot be repaired once it has broken down.

Essential medicines and medical supplies are still in extremely short supply or not available at all. At the end of November 2009, approximately 75 medicines out of 460 considered essential – for example antibiotics for treating lung infections – were lacking. More than 100 kinds of disposables out of 780 that should be available were also out of stock, forcing medical staff in maternity wards to re-use disposable items such as ventilator tubing, which can lead to life-threatening infections.

"If you live in Gaza and have a broken arm, that can of course be fixed. But if you suffer from kidney failure, for example, there is always a risk that you will miss your regular dialysis treatment because drugs or other essential supplies are lacking," said Palina Asa Asgeirsdottir, a hospital manager working in Gaza. "Or the machines may be broken and will have to wait to be fixed because it's so hard to get spare parts into Gaza. Missing a dialysis treatment can be devastating for the patient."

"If you suffer from cancer there is no guarantee that you will receive the urgent treatment you need," added Ms. Asgeirsdottir. "Sometimes hospitals do not have all of the drugs needed for chemotherapy. For radiotherapy you have to leave Gaza and go to a specialized hospital in Israel or East Jerusalem. Getting the exit permit each time you need treatment is long and complicated, and involves the Hamas authorities, the Israelis and Palestinian Authority health officials in the West Bank. It's tough to have to go through long procedures and travel to far-away hospitals when you are seriously ill."

This situation is further aggravated by a standstill in cooperation between Palestinian authorities in Ramallah and Gaza.

The import through Israel of spare parts for medical equipment is subject to such long delays that other ways need to be found to get essential equipment repaired. For example, the ICRC has had to send defective parts of dialysis machines to Europe for repair, a process that will probably take at least a year to complete.

It has taken as long as eight months to bring in spare parts for ambulances. For the past year, the ICRC has tried unsuccessfully to import radio equipment for ambulances that would enable them to communicate with each other and with hospital emergency rooms. The ambulance service in Gaza cannot function properly without this kind of equipment.

Because of the closure it remains very difficult to provide training for medical personnel. Few medical staff are allowed out of Gaza for this purpose and few specialists or other experts capable of providing training are allowed in. Although it has been possible in some hospitals to set up video links with training institutions in countries such as Egypt, the need for specialized training is not being met.

Water and sanitation in a dilapidated state

Key infrastructure in Gaza is run-down. The population lives under constant threat of a collapse of water, sanitation and electricity services. The closure is paralysing any new construction. With few exceptions, such as water pipes imported by the private sector, no building materials have been allowed through the Israeli crossing points in 2009.

"We are still not allowed to bring in most of the materials required for the maintenance of water and sanitation infrastructure," said Javier Cordoba, the ICRC's water and sanitation coordinator. "In order to make even small repairs we have to struggle to find alternatives: either materials that we can buy locally or recycled items. It's really very sad that we are seeing no change for the better on the ground."

The main aquifer in Gaza is under serious threat from overpumping, which increases the level of salinity of the water. In addition, the lack of proper sanitation and certain agricultural practices are polluting the aquifer, resulting in drinking water containing high levels of nitrate and salt. Those who can afford it buy drinking water from companies supplying desalinated water.

Urgent measures, such as building desalination plants and upgrading sewage networks, need to be taken to address this problem. However, this would require the import of massive quantities of construction materials.

Improvements planned for wastewater treatment plants in Rafah and Khan Yunis should help ease some of the strain. At both plants, it will soon be possible for treated wastewater to seep into the aquifer through new infiltration basins instead of allowing untreated waste to be discharged directly into the sea.

Despite daily blackouts that can last as long as eight hours, the electricity supply is at least better than it was earlier this year.

This is a slightly abridged version of a web report from the ICRC issued on the one year anniversary of the Israeli military operation in Gaza. See also, the photo study, the Outlook looks bleak - all photos (except for the crusted boats) in this post taken from the 'Outlook' Gallery.