Monday, 30 June 2008

Flashbacks challenge my judgement.

Caption: Shattered lives, shattered communities

With a career in the Red Cross spanning over 30 years working in both conflict and disaster affected countries, some incidents stick tragically to my brain and often flash before me when I am sleeping. I think, and re-examine, and ask "oould I have done more ?"
Generally the answer is no, and I fall back into a peaceful sleep. I have at least a hundred of these vivid, yet tragic episodes which keep coming back to visit me from time to time. One such day was Tuesday 18 October 2005, a few days after the huge earthquake hit Pakistan and India, killing almost 80,000 people. I had overall responsibility for a huge Red Cross relief operation for hundreds of thousands of homeless and injured people scattered through the high hills and mountains of northern Pakistan, close to the Indian border.

Caption: Another spray can of air-freshener is tossed into a growing pile amid broken bricks and bent steel. The rescue workers get a brief respite from the smell of death, but only for seconds. Three men battle with hammers and a blowtorch to break through collapsed walls, working like miners to tunnel down. Before 8 October the site was a solid two-story house…a family’s home. Now a hand protrudes from the debris and the exhausted, sweat-streaked men will take hours to recover the body.

I drove that day two and a half hours to Manshera where we have our forward base and met our team of dedicated relief specialists. Met the team there. Held one to one meetings with Renny and Jorgen who are running the field base.

Travelled up to Batrasi, only 2km away where the Pakistan Scout have their training centre. We are setting up a base camp here on a huge field that will take the camp, rubb halls (enormous tents for warehousing) for relief supplies and a helicopter pad.

Entered Balkot Valley. Saw landslide scars on the steep valley walls. Road blocked by landslide triggered by the 8 a.m. aftershock. We waited two hours before we could pass. Then we entered Balakot.

Road blocked by a landslide after another earthquake

The valley of death.

I'm in the middle of Balakot. The whole city is flattened. Three story building crushed like an elephant stepping on a beer can.

Caption: An open school-book lies nearby in the dust. ‘This is my house’, is written in English on the page, amongst the ruins of a school where 700 children died.

Cracks you could trap you foot in, splinter across the road. I am standing on a school building that 1200 children were in. 500 escaped. 700 decomposing bodies join thousands of others and the stench of death is pungent. People wear face masks. An old man with a hyena dyed beard tightly holds a red handkerchief over his nose and mouth to keep out the smell.

Children sit lifelessly under the sky. I spoke to one man who said he was the only survivor out of a family of five. Other men chimed in saying, “ many people here are the only survivor from their families. Children are orphaned. Many people are still digging in collapsed building know that if the are lucky enough, they will find the body. No one can be alive now. Virtually every building in the valley has been flattened. Occasionally you come across a one story building looking cracked, but then you realize it is the top floor of a 3 or 4 storied building, sitting at street level. It is erie. I look to the hills or better, mountainsides, and they are littered with houses that have toppled from their perches.

I visit Spanish Red Cross Emergency health unit who are doing a brilliant job, and the the Pakistan Red Crescent/Malaysian RC clinic.

The Spanish Red Cross medical team treat the injured.

Then I walk up the hill to where the Swedish Red Cross and the Austrians Red Cross are setting up a mass-water unit to bring 500,000 litres of clean water to the affected population.
A Swedish Red Cross water sanitation expert opens the mass water and purification unit.

We are getting large amounts of food and tents out to the affected people and our health clinic are working, and we are beginning to get clean water to the more populated and accessible villages.

Our priority is now to get building materials out to people before the winter sets in. By November the first snow will fall. Another day in my Red Cross life that will be etched in my brain forever.

Farzana, recovering in a Red Cross hospital. She lost her parents in the earthquake. Soft toys from the New Zealand Red Cross provide comfort as she contemplates her future.

Tayyab receiving assistance from Pakistan Red Crescent doctors.

A young boy receives medical assistance from a Red Cross nurse.
Mohammad Nisar sits on the roof of a smashed school. With tired eyes he watches the comings and goings in the street. Trucks pass by carrying troops to conduct clean-up and clearance work. Local people carry what remains of their possessions and others carrying their dead. The main road of Balakot reflects broken dreams and buried hopes.

“Still I can not believe what happened. I do not know if it makes any sense to stay in this destroyed place. My niece was buried alive in this school. It is hard to stand the pain when I think about her”, says the 46-year-old.

A man who lost his family and home, grieves in silence.

The injured recover in a Red Cross hospital

More shattered houses

Displaced women gather and wait for more assistance

Villagers comb the ruins for survivors

A boy carrying his possessions on his head.

Red Crescent doctors walking in to attend displaced people.

Ruined houses above

Villagers carry roofing iron on a donkey

Many thanks to my good friend Til Meyer for providing some of the above photos.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Journey on the Silk Road

For more than 30 years I have been travelling the Silk Road in Central Asia, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan trying to connect all the feeder roads, passes, mountains, rivers, valleys, tribes,people and trails. Earlier this year I connected all the main feeders to the silk road and only recently, have found time to reflect a little.

A pretty Kazakh lady at Turkestan

The Dhaula Dhar mountain range in Himachal Pradesh is my favourite and Anuj and I spend time here each year at his home from where I have based many of my trips.

It had become an obsession to unravel the mysteries of the Silk Road. In February this year, I visited two remaining places with strong connections to the great game and the silk road, the Chamba and Parvati valleys in Himachal Pradesh. From Dalhousie and in the Chamba Valley, I was able to study the western passes of the Pir Panjal. In 2004 I crossed the Rohtang La which marks the eastern end of the Pir Panjal.

Why had it become an obessions ? Coincidentally my work for Red Cross took me to India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia and imperceptibly, my holidays were spent stitching it together. The history fascinated me and I often lay awake at night dreaming of the peaks, passes and rivers. Eventually I married a wonderful Kazakh women of proud nomadic stock whose ancestors plied the silk road, and many still live by it.

The western end of the Pir Panjal range from Dalhousie

So what is the Silk Road ? On the eastern and western sides of the continent, the civilisations of China and the West developed. The western end of the trade route appears to have developed earlier than the eastern end, principally because of the development of the the empires in the west, and the easier terrain of Persia and Syria. The Iranian empire of Persia was in control of a large area of the Middle East, extending as far as the Indian Kingdoms to the east. Trade between these two neighbours was already starting to influence the cultures of these regions.
This region was taken over by Alexander the Great of Macedon, who finally conquered the Iranian empire, and colonised the area in about 330 B.C., superimposing the culture of the Greeks.

The Tienshan mountains or Celestial mountains as they were known to the Chinese had to be crossed a number of times

Although he only ruled the area until 325 B.C., the effect of the Greek invasion was quite considerable. The Greek language was brought to the area, and Greek mythology was introduced. The aesthetics of Greek sculpture were merged with the ideas developed from the Indian kingdoms, and a separate local school of art emerged. By the third century B.C., the area had already become a crossroads of Asia, where Persian, Indian and Greek ideas met. It is believed that the residents of the Hunza valley in the Karakorum are the direct descendents of the army of Alexander; this valley is now followed by the Karakorum Highway, on its way from Pakistan over to Kashgar, and indicates how close to the Taklimakan Alexander may have got.

Making silk in ancient China

This `crossroads' region, covering the area to the south of the Hindu Kush and Karakorum ranges, now Pakistan and Afghanistan, was overrun by a number of different peoples. After the Greeks, the tribes from Palmyra, in Syria, and then Parthia, to the east of the Mediterranean, took over the region. These peoples were less sophisticated than the Greeks, and adopted the Greek language and coin system in this region, introducing their own influences in the fields of sculpture and art.

Close on the heels of the Parthians came the Yuezhi people from the Northern borders of the Taklimakan. They had been driven from their traditional homeland by the Xiongnu tribe (who later became the Huns and transfered their attentions towards Europe), and settled in Northern India.

A caravan of camels on the Silk Road

Their descendents became the Kushan people, and in the first century A.D. they moved into this crossroads area, bringing their adopted Buddhist religion with them. Like the other tribes before them, they adopted much of the Greek system that existed in the region. The product of this marriage of cultures was the Gandhara culture, based in what is now the Peshawar region of northwest Pakistan. This fused Greek and Buddhist art into a unique form, many of the sculptures of Buddhist deities bearing strong resemblances to the Greek mythological figure Heracles. The Kushan people were the first to show Buddha in human form, as before this time artists had preferred symbols such as the footprint, stupa or tree of enlightenment, either out of a sense of sacrilege or simply to avoid persecution. The history goes on and on with Chenghis Khan, Timur (Tamerlane) and then the great Moguls, followed by the Great game, a term coined between the positioning of Russia and Great Britain in regards to India.

Early morning parathas for breakfast with Anuj Bahri (right) en route to Sidbahri, nestled under the Himalaya in Himachal Pradesh

Having visited all places mentioned below and connected the road from Calcutta (Kolkotta) through Benares, Bodgaya, Delhi. Agra. Amritsar, Lahore, Taxilla, Peshawar, Kabul, Bamiyan, Herat, Balkh, Termez, Samakand, Tashkent, Shymkent, Turkestan, Ak Su, Taraz, Talass, Tokmak, Bishkek, Issyk Kul, Naryn, Kara Su through to the Chinese border at Torugat, following fairly much the route and, places made famous by Hsuan Tsan the Chinese Buddhist Monk who travelled this way on his marathon journeys from 627 -643 AD.

The Silk Road
I had earlier travelled and connected the above route from Herat to Meshad, Bukhara, and from Tashkent the more southern route through Khokand, Feghana, Andijan, Osh to Kashgar, The other from Kabul, through the Khyber Pass to Gilgit and Karakoram pass into China, or the more difficult one from Kabul to Faizabad, Ishkashim, cross the Amu Darya to Khorog, Murghab, and over the 4,655 metre pass of the Pamirs, down to Lake Karakul at 3,914 metre, and then into China.

A Lake in the Pamir mountains, Tajikistan.

It was also a pleasure on my trip last year (July 2007) to connect the route from Taskkent, Shymkent, Turkestan and to discover that the road from Turkestan to Kyzl Orda, where I spent time in 1997, ‘is a strategic place where the caravan roads from Tashkent, Bukhara and Khiva along Atbasar to Western Siberia and over Torgay to Troizk and Orenberg came together’. (Exploring Kazakhstan, Dagmar Schreiber, Caspian Publishing House, Almaty 2006)

the Silk Road was not a trade route that existed solely for the purpose of trading in silk; many other commodities were also traded, from gold and ivory to exotic animals and plants. Of all the precious goods crossing this area, silk was perhaps the most remarkable for the people of the West. It is often thought that the Romans had first encountered silk in one of their campaigns against the Parthians in 53 B.C, and realised that it could not have been produced by this relatively unsophisticated people. They reputedly learnt from Parthian prisoners that it came from a mysterious tribe in the east, who they came to refer to as the silk people, `Seres'. In practice, it is likely that silk and other goods were beginning to filter into Europe before this time, though only in very small quantities. The Romans obtained samples of this new material, and it quickly became very popular in Rome, for its soft texture and attractiveness. The Parthians quickly realised that there was money to be made from trading the material, and sent trade missions towards the east.

Honey sellers on the silk road is a trade which is more than two thousand years old. A young woman selling honey near Taraz in Kazahkstan.

The Romans also sent their own agents out to explore the route, and to try to obtain silk at a lower price than that set by the Parthians. For this reason, the trade route to the East was seen by the Romans as a route for silk rather than the other goods that were traded. The name `Silk Road' itself does not originate from the Romans, however, but is a nineteenth century term, coined by the German scholar, von Richthofen.

In addition to silk, the route carried many other precious commodities. Caravans heading towards China carried gold and other precious metals, ivory, precious stones, and glass, which was not manufactured in China until the fifth century. In the opposite direction furs, ceramics, jade, bronze objects, lacquer and iron were carried. Many of these goods were bartered for others along the way, and objects often changed hands several times. There are no records of Roman traders being seen in Changan, nor Chinese merchants in Rome, though their goods were appreciated in both places. This would obviously have been in the interests of the Parthians and other middlemen, who took as large a profit from the change of hands as they could.

An oasis at Pragpur, Himachal Pradesh

Having crossed the Pamirs, Tienshan, Karakoram, Himalaya, Pir Panjal, Dhaula Dhar mountain ranges and crossed and recrossed countless times the great rivers of Syr Daria (Jaxartes), Amu Daris (Oxus),and the Zevershan, Ili, Chu, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Megna, the Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Sutlej, Beas, Indus ( the rivers of the Punjab) and camped by Lakes Issyk Kul, Karakul, Dal, Kagar and the Aral Sea, it helps somewhat to understand the hardship and deprivations the early conquerors, explorers, pilgrims and traders endured. Alexander the Great lost over 30,000 men on a surprise winter crossing of the Hindu Kush by the Khawak Pass. In summer the ascent from the Panjsher Valley is a grind, but to foot soldiers carrying armour it is inconceivable a mighty army crossed this pass in winter. Similarly, the Khardun La at over 18,200 feet in Ladakh,, a salt route from Lahdak in India to Tibet is a daunting challenge by car today, but a crossing by mule, horse or on foot makes the mind boggle.

When I worked in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, I was fascinated by the mountain river systems. With partition, these mighty rivers had international boundaries pushed on them. Punjab - the land of five rivers were originally referred to as the Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Sutlej and Beas, but with partition, the Beas flows only in India, so to keep the name Punjab correct, Pakistan added a fifth river to replace the Beas, the Indus.

Young ladies walking the bazaar in Pragpur, Himachal Pradesh

Many trips I have set out on, have been to connect ranges, rivers, passes and valleys that don’t quite make sense on the map. I spent many months in a place named Sidhbari, under the Daula Dhar mountains and close to Dharamsala. Somehow, the town down the road, Kangra, was the most fascinating as it appears on many ancient maps and later became an important feeder to the Silk Road and, some centuries on, to players in the Great Game.

Two young girls near Sidhbari, Himachal Pradesh.

From Kangra. in 2004, I was able to connect the Kangra valley, with the Kullu, Lahaul and Spiti valleys.

The Dhaular Dhar and the magnificent Pir Panjal, both ranges are the two lesser ranges either protecting, or enticing you to the greater Himalayas

Crossing the two great passes crossed by Alexander Gardiner and Moorcroft, the Kunzum La and the Rohtang La and seeing the mighty Himalayas and the majestic Pir Panjal was inspiring and to note that virtually all the people are of Tibetan stock, and they have preserved the Tibetan way of life remarkably well.

Buskashi, a game with roots in Mongolia that spread throughout Central Asia, and is a national sport in Afghanistan.

So during the last 30 years,I have visited one by one, these famous places trod by Alexander the Great, Hsuan Tsang,Timur (Tamerlane) Chengis Khan, Admiral Raisa Ali (the 16th century Turkish Admiral), Marco Polo, and later all those great, and many notorious players in the Great Game. It has been an enriching experience.

Sunset in the Pamirs taken from Kzyl Art Pass at 4655 m.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Mei Keng Fatt's food in Kuala Lumpur

Mei Keng Fatt's seafood restaurant in Kuala Lumpur is my favourite Chinese restaurant in Asia. Over 30 years I have trawled Chinese restaurants in Singapore, Saigon, Bangkok,Kathmandu, Jakarta, Hong Kong, Manila, Dhakha, Calcutta, Bombay, Delhi, Lahore, Colombo, Almaty, Samarkand, Dharamsala, Peshawar any many other cities. i first came here in 1983 and have become a regular.

Outside Fatt's restaurant

Everytime I come to Kuala Lumpur I come with friends and enjoy the amazing array of seafood and tasty vegetarian dishes at Mei Keng Fatt. Last Friday night I had a gastromical feast in this humble eatery with no front wall or door, just exposed to the street. I took Naila and my boys along with my good friend Stefan Kuhne Hellmessen.

Naila,Mahdi and Stefan

The most outstanding was a plate of succulent oysters and Australian lobster, washed down with Tiger beer, and the spinach soup which was delicious.

Ablai right watching as I get stuck into the lobster.

I can strongly recommend Fatt's food house to any one coming this way.

Spicey Crab dish at Mei King Fatt's seafood restaurant.

Below are a few photos of our trip in Kuala Lumpur. It was a great weekend.

I am now in Bangkok for regional meetings so will check the Thai and Chinese food out here.

Ablai flying in a KLM Boeing 747 from Jakarta to KL.

The twin towers in Kuala Lumpur

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Political incorrectness is so very refreshing.

Bill Nicol, a leading Australian consultant on leadership and management, works here in Indonesia. We see a bit of each other. Both of us have a strong distrust and dislike for business gurus.

Bill wrote to me yesterday.

"It is mid Monday morning. My brain atrophied long ago although gets the occasional ray of sunlight it needs to prevent it stopping altogether. Thank you for including the Garry Stager commentary. I loved reading it.

Personally, I loathe reading business and leadership books. I flick through them in bookshops and buy an occasional one that takes my transitory fancy. I can say from personal experience that none helped me run my own business other than into the ground. Like you, I would prefer to read a good story like that of murder in Fiji and a gentle poem or two than a book written by a guru whose entire experience is limited to motivating minor minds rather than building ball-busting businesses."

Gary S Stager Ph.D. writes "What business gurus like Don Tapscott, Daniel Pink,(the cover of his book above) Malcolm Gladwell, Stephen Covey, Tony Robbins have in common is that none of them actually ever ran a business prior to hitting the bestseller list offering business advice to others. Most of them have never been the night manager of a Seven-Eleven let alone launched or managed an innovative business venture.

They are fancy talkers.

That is their skill. Several are evangelicals. Faith or pseudoscience, along with a dose of prosperity theology, is used to advance their arguments.

Their audience is adults who dream of being rich or increase their personal productivity. Neither goal is analogous to the education of children.

There’s trouble right here in River City

I’ve observed that the fancy talkers tend to have three or four good stories, perhaps as many as seven, they use to captivate their readers. If you see the author on Charlie Rose, you hear the three stories. Google an interview and you’ll read the three stories. Read the book and the three stories will appear verbatim. There is a polish to their schtick that often masquerades a lack of depth or thoughtfulness.

Many of these authors are linguistic jugglers. They can turn a phrase (or at least a handful of rehearsed ones) brilliantly. I compared Thomas Friedman to Nipsey Russell in my review of Friedman’s book due to his penchant for reducing complex ideas to puns.

Ultimately the success of these books is based on the authors’ ability to reduce complex concepts to simplistic binary dichotomies or playground rhymes. Such books are filled with numbered rule-based advice with little room for nuance. Issues are either black or white. The principles apply to any situation.

Obviously, lots of people buy these books. Some even read them. Many of the readers are hooked on this genre of business book and purchase lots of them. Ironically, the people who don’t read these books are successful business leaders. The New York Times article, C.E.O. Libraries Reveal Keys to Success, tells us that most successful business leaders, the people self-help book readers wish to emulate, do not read business books. They read poetry and novels and great non-fiction written by experts. In short, CEO libraries are tributes to a great liberal arts education. Now that is a lesson school leaders should learn.

It is the great insecurity of wannabes that drives the sales of popular business books. I am of the opinion that educators with limited time should not squander it studying to be CEOs. This is especially true when these books are written by charlatans and touted by educational gurus who themselves are fancy talkers.

Education should be about doing, not talking. Education leaders should be well versed in the literature (past and present) of their chosen profession."

To me the only book worth its salt is Warren Bennis and Joan Goldsmith, 'Learning to Lead.' It is simple, but profound book written by humble people.

The most enlightening part of the book is the Chart of Distinctions between Manager and Leader:

The manager administers; the leader innovates.

The manager is a copy; the leader is an original.

The manager maintains; the leader develops.

The manager accepts reality; the leader investigates it.

The manager focuses on systems and structure; the leader focuses on people.

The manager relies on control; the leader inspires trust.

The manager has a short-range view; the leader has a long-range perspective.

The manager asks how and when; the leader asks what and why.

The manager has his or her eye always on the bottom line; the leader
has his or her eye on the horizon.

The manager imitates; the leader originates.

The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.

The manager is the classic good soldier; the leader is his or her own person.

The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.

Use this as a check list and you will soon find out is you are a leader, a manager or neither.

Bob McKerrow


Sunday, 15 June 2008

The Most Famous Photograph in the World

Time Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century,while an Alberto Korda photograph of him entitled Guerrillero Heroico was declared "the most famous photograph in the world."

I left New Zealand in early 1968 to travel to South America. I was 19 years old and filled with idealism and believed the world could be a better place with the right leadership.. I was hoping to climb high Andean peaks in Peru, but in the back of my mind, I wanted to get to know my teenage hero, Che Guevara. He died 5 months before I left for Panama, Columbia, Equador, Peru by ship. On arrival in Peru in early 1968, I could see why Che wanted to change the face of South America. I saw poverty, discrimination and exploitation in almost every town and village I travelled to.

I often think about what he might have achieved had he not been killed in Octover 7, 1967. On my return to New Zealand I eagerly read his book " Bolivain Diaries" which shaped my young mind. Those were heady days.

If he had of been alive today, he would have turned 80. That photo of Che was etched in my mind as a young man and is still there today. He along with Archibald Baxter, Gandhi, Henri Dunant, Eileen McNatty (my mother), Kate Shepherd and Nelson Mandala shaped by thinking and philosophy and I treasure their influences dearly.

So I was happy to see on TV that thousands of people have witnessed the unveiling of a statue of Ernesto "Che" Guevara in his Argentine birthplace on what would have been his 80th birthday.

Events to mark the life and legacy of the man most simply know as El Che were held around the city of Rosario.

While Guevara was Argentine, born and bred, he had more followers and was better known around the world than in his home country.

He flourished in Cuba, fought in Africa and died in Bolivia.

At home, military governments and Cold War politics helped suppress his ideas and image.

But now the man known simply in Argentina as El Che is home.

The four-tonne bronze statue that has been unveiled in Rosario joins the numerous Che museums dotted around the country.

The statue of Che erected today in his honour

It's a brand that encapsulates a whole store of values, a whole load of ideas that people hold

Che the revolutionary, Che the icon, Che the seller of everything from vodka to T-shirts is everywhere.

Michael Casey, who has studied the phenomenon and has a book coming out on the subject, said the icon had become a brand but not just in a capitalist way.

"It's a brand that encapsulates a whole store of values, a whole load of ideas that people hold," he said.

"And they therefore sell those ideas, whether it's leftists in Argentina or manufacturers of snowboards wanting to sell snowboards under a revolutionary label."

Che Guevara's children travelled from Cuba to join thousands of followers from Argentina and beyond in Rosario for the birthday celebrations.

But events had to be curtailed because of widespread protests by truck drivers and farmers blocking Argentina's roads.

Che would probably have approved of that kind of radical action far more than his new statue and certainly more than today's ubiquitous Che merchandising.

What does Wikipaedia say about Che:

Che Guevara, El Che, or simply Che, was an Argentine Marxist revolutionary, politician, author, physician, military theorist, and guerrilla leader. His stylized image also later became an ubiquitous countercultural symbol worldwide.

As a young medical student, Guevara travelled throughout Latin America and was transformed by the endemic poverty he witnessed. His experiences and observations during these trips led him to conclude that the region's ingrained economic inequalities were an intrinsic result of monopoly capitalism, neo-colonialism, and imperialism, with the only remedy being world revolution. This belief prompted his involvement in Guatemala's social reforms under President Jacobo Arbenz, whose eventual CIA-assisted overthrow solidified Guevara’s radical ideology.

Later, in Mexico, he joined and was promoted to commander in Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement, playing a pivotal role in the successful guerrilla campaign to overthrow the U.S.-backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. After the Cuban revolution, Guevara served in many prominent governmental positions, including president of the national bank, minister of industry, and “supreme prosecutor” over the revolutionary tribunals and executions of suspected war criminals from the previous regime. Along with traversing the globe to meet an array of world leaders on behalf of Cuban socialism, he was a prolific writer and diarist. One of his most prominent published works includes a manual on the theory and practice of guerrilla warfare. Guevara left Cuba in 1965 to incite revolutions first in an unsuccessful attempt in Congo-Kinshasa and then in Bolivia, where he was captured with help of the CIA and executed.

Both notorious for his harsh discipline and revered for his unwavering dedication to his revolutionary doctrines, Guevara remains an admired, controversial, and significant historical figure. As a result of his death and romantic visage, along with his invocation to armed class struggle and desire to create the consciousness of a "new man" driven by "moral" rather than "material" incentives; Guevara evolved into a quintessential icon of leftist inspired movements, as well as a global merchandising sensation. He has been venerated and reviled in a multitude of biographies, memoirs, books, essays, documentaries, songs, and films. Time Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century,while an Alberto Korda photograph of him entitled Guerrillero Heroico (shown at the start of article), was declared "the most famous photograph in the world."

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

The New Boss at Red Cross - Will he change the world ?

Bosses come and go. Some are leaders, some are managers and some you would follow to the ends of the earth. Others you are delighted when they depart. I have had all types of leaders and managers in my career and I can spot the effective ones a mile away. To capture my experiences, I am slowly putting together a book on the essential differences between leaders and managers, which will hopefully guide people to be come more effectice at leading teams.

Late last month my organisation got a new leader, who I believe will develop into a great leader. From humble origins in Africa to being an Ambassador, a Minister in his Government, years in prison, a refugee and a wonderful humanitarian, Bekele Geleta is my new boss. We've known each other for some years and when I was head of the South Asia region, he was head of the South East Asia region. Here is an article I would like to share with you about Bekele, a man who I believe can contribute to making the world a better place to live in. They say it only through pain, suffering and hardship that the human heart will be unlocked to greatness. Bekele has had his share of pain, suffering and hardship.

New York (Tadias) - It was announced in Geneva last week that Ethiopian-born Bekele Geleta, 64, has been appointed as the Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Mr. Geleta is currently the general manager of international operations for the Canadian Red Cross. He spent five years in prison in Ethiopia, and later served as a Cabinet Minister and the Ethiopian Ambassador to Japan.

According to The Ottawa Citizen: “Geleta came to Canada as a refugee in 1992, settling in Ottawa with his wife, Tsehay Mulugeta, and four young sons. He soon started building a new career in humanitarian work, serving with Care Canada, the Red Cross and other organizations,” which eventually led to last week’s announcement of his new prestigious post.

Here is my interview with Bekele Geleta.

Above: Bekele Geleta. Photo Courtesy of Canadian Red Cross.

Tadias: Mr. Geleta, congratulations from all of us at Tadias on your new position. How does it feel to be named the Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies?

Mr. Geleta: Well, good, firstly. There’s a bit of anxiety around taking over a huge challenge with great responsibilities. We’re seeing more disasters with increasing frequency and intensity; conflicts around the world are creating worsening vulnerability. There’s desperation, famine, insecurity, urban violence - the world of humanitarian work is becoming more and more challenging and therefore I’m coming into the Secretary General position at a very critical time. I feel very determined to make a difference in the lives of the vulnerable going forward.

Tadias: How do you imagine your typical work day would be like in Geneva?

Mr. Geleta: Well, it will be very interesting. I’ll start very early in the morning, attend and lead meetings, take time to reflect, conceptualize and give guidance. I like to walk around and talk to staff in their offices, motivate them, and I’ll respond to requests and issues raised by national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies from around the world.

The days for the Red Cross chief executive are extremely busy. There is no down time. I know this from my days as head of the Africa Department in the late 90s and early 2000. My days were extremely busy so, I can imagine that for the Secretary General it will be full and busy days.

Tadias: In all of your years building a career in humanitarian work, what do you consider your finest achievement?

Mr. Geleta: Every effort in the humanitarian world is an achievement. Every life saved is an achievement. Every livelihood contributed to or improved is an achievement. It’s really difficult to say, this is better than that. In the Red Cross - even when I was in prison - I considered every contribution to be a good contribution.

Probably the most sustainable contribution is what I was able to do in building the capacity of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies in Africa and South East Asia. That’s extremely important because when disasters happen the early hours are the hours in which the most lives are saved; the period before international support arrives. So, the more capacity that’s been built-up internally and the more sustainable it becomes, the more effective it will be in saving lives in those early hours after a disaster and reducing vulnerability. Capacity is extremely important. Capacity of indigenous organizations and capacity built-in to the community factor largely in the humanitarian world and I’ve done quite a bit in this area in the countries I have worked in.

Tadias: We have learned through press reports that you spent five years in prison in Ethiopia, and later served as a cabinet minister and as the Ethiopian ambassador to Japan. How have your experiences in Ethiopia helped you in your career serving as a humanitarian?

Mr. Geleta: I have known vulnerability first hand. I come from a poor family. I worked myself out of it.

I have lived in a prison where for the first two years, at five o’clock, nearly every day, buses arrived, names were called, they were taken away and those people never came back. No one would see them again or know what became of them or whose turn would be next. It was very difficult life in prison and a terrible kind of vulnerability to live through.

I have also been a refugee, in Canada, which also brings its own kind of vulnerability. Not in that you don’t have food or a place to stay. Not that your children won’t be able to attend school. It’s a vulnerability based in the feeling that you are a burden on a society that you have not contributed to. It’s a different kind of vulnerability.

But that actually makes one feel very strongly about supporting the vulnerable. I identify with the vulnerable and feel very strongly in my heart that I must work to support them.

On the good side of life I have been a deputy minister and ambassador to Japan. These positions exposed me to management skills, to the workings of diplomacy and enabled me to gain a certain comfort when dealing with heads of state and people at all different levels of government. And it enables a person to feel comfortable in any situation - from the lowest point in prison to the imperial palace - I feel able to contribute at any level.

It prepares a person to be useful at all levels and has prepared me well to quickly assess situations, I can easily enter into dialogues with people at the highest levels and I can also work with volunteers and staff to most efficiently respond to a disaster or other situations.

Above: Mr. Bekele Geleta, General Manager, Canadian Red Cross
International Operations hands over a symbolic key to Mr. Siasat Baeha,
Head of Village of Hilihati, Lahewa, Indonesia.
Photo Courtesy of Canadian Red Cross.

Tadias: We understand that you came to Canada as a refugee in 1992, settling in Ottawa with your wife and four young sons. What are your reflections regarding your Canadian home?

Mr. Geleta: I often tell my Canadian colleagues, I’m a Canadian by choice, not by accident and there’s a big difference in that. If you are a Canadian by birth, you’ll probably only start to really feel it when you are outside the country for the first time. But if you are a Canadian by choice, you come here and you realize how important it is to your life. And then you realize that this country, the Canadian people have done a lot of good. They take you in, they help you to establish a home, ensure that your children can attend school, it’s tremendous. So, I feel really great about choosing Canada as my adopted home.

There is some difficulty when people like me come, having been educated at one of the best universities in the world and having worked in your home country at a certain level but you come out of your country and become a refugee. They can’t fit you in at a senior level in your new country because you don’t know the system. They can’t graft you somewhere in the middle because there are those who have been working their butts off to achieve those positions and so it’s very difficult for organization to graft a refugee into what they might consider a suitable level. But we can’t be taken as beginners either. We’re not beginners. So essentially we become misfits. It’s not anyone’s fault, it’s simply what we are. That’s the reality

Therefore it’s up to us. At whatever level of experience, whatever level of education, we must find a way to access the new country’s systems. That’s what I did and I’m not alone.

There are a great many refugees who have attained certain levels of education or experience and come to new countries and I hear them complaining and I say, complaining is not enough. One has to do the work, one has to make a major effort to find a way to access the system and it does not depend on the new country. It depends on you.

And once you realize it’s up to you and you make the effort you will come to see that great opportunities are available.

So, my message to other refugees is, find a way. Canada is a great country and we are lucky to live here.

Tadias: What’s your vision for the Red cross for the following years under your direction?

Mr. Geleta: Well, this interview comes a bit early to fully answer that question, just at the very beginning of this assignment, before I take over the position.

The one thing I can say is that the Red Cross has an excellent strategy called Strategy 2010 which was formulated in 2000, revised four years ago in Seoul and articulated the direction of the Federation going forward. This strategy will hopefully go a long way toward making the Red Cross, the largest humanitarian movement, the most efficient and most reliable civil society organization in the world.

One should always remember is that the Red Cross has a special relationship not only with the community but also with governments around the world. This makes the Red Cross unique because there is no other civil society that has established a permanent presence in every country and community. Only governments or faith-based organizations have permanent presences in every country. The only civil society entity that has come to that level is the Red Cross. It’s known everywhere by everybody and it’s challenge, my challenge, is to make it the world’s most efficient humanitarian organization; an organization that everyone feels comfortable with, an organization that people feel they can turn to and know they can rely on.

So that’s what I’ll be working on and from the lessons of Strategy 2010, I will look forward to 2020.

Tadias: There has been recent press reports that famine is once again imminent in Ethiopia. According to BBC: “Six million children in Ethiopia are at risk of acute malnutrition following the failure of rains, the UN children’s agency, UNICEF, has warned. More than 60,000 children in two Ethiopian regions require immediate specialist feeding just to survive.” Does this concern the Red Cross? and if so what are your plans to act to prevent this disaster?

Mr. Geleta: The Federation has already issued a preliminary appeal for 2 million Swiss Francs but that is preliminary. Assessments are being done and following the assessments, there will be further appeals for funding to support the Ethiopian Red Cross Society in the work they will be doing to help the vulnerable, the children.

Ethiopia has a strong Red Cross Society. I worked very hard to make it a sustainable organization and it is a strong society with many volunteers and good leadership. So the Federation has good and reliable partners in the Ethiopian Red Cross Society and we will be doing a full assessment around the issue of food security and as necessary increasing the level of expertise sent into the country to support the national society.

Tadias: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

Mr. Geleta: The message I have for Ethiopians in the Diaspora: please do less politics; more development. And participate and contribute to the humanitarian endeavours which will help lessen the vulnerability of Ethiopians. You can always take the Red Cross as your partner. You can support your people in Ethiopia - including the children - by supporting the work of the Red Cross. The Ethiopian Red Cross or, if you like, the Canadian Red Cross, because you can be certain that there you have a partner in lessening the vulnerability of people.

Tadias: Mr. Geleta, once again our warm thanks for taking our questions and best wishes in your endeavors.

Thanks to Tadias Magazine, New York.By Liben Eabisa

First Published: Thursday, May 29, 2008


Sunday, 8 June 2008

Working and living in Central Asia - Keeping people alive in the high Pamir Mountains.

A friend and colleague asked me the other day, what was the most rewarding Red Cross assignment I have had in the last ten years ? It was Central Asia from 1996 to 1999. Here are some excerpts from the diary:

As I write a bevy of 4000 to 4500 metre peaks stud the horizon less than 10 km from my window (see photo above). Living in Almaty, Kazakhstan, which nestles in the foothills of the northern Tien Shan mountains and working with people living in the Central Asia, has brought another distant dream true. Ever since I was a boy I was fascinated by the thought of Samarkand and travelling the ancient silk road which twists through the Celestial Mountains (Tien Shan)

After three years in Afghanistan (1993-1996) I moved in late 1996 to Central Asia to be in charge of major Red Cross programmes in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, one in twelve people have had to move in Central Asia because of dire economic difficulties or conflict. In Tajikistan one in five people have had to move due to the civil war. Therefore my work with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in the support of the national Red Cross societies in these five Central Asian countries, has been important in assisting isolated elderly and families who are facing starvation and other forms of acute deprivation.

My work takes me from the high Pamirs in the east of Central Asia to the extreme west where the Kara Kum desert in Turkmenistan meets the Kopet Dagh mountains on the Iranian border. I am rarely out of sight of soaring snow capped peaks.

In Gorno-Badakhshan many children show signs of stunted growth because of malnutrition, and are delighted to get even one pie a day.

Much of my travelling is done along the ancient silk road which travels through the heart of Central Asia, formerly linking China in the east to Europe in the west. Frequently I pass through the historic cities of Samarkand, Tashkent, Khojent, Khokand, Dushanbe, Termez, Merv, Ashgabat and cross the mighty Oxus River.

One of the most Herculean tasks has been during the past 3 months when have hauled 3200 metric tonnes of coal, 2,000 m2 of glass, 25 tonnes of roofing iron, 500 stoves, 600 flues and 2,000 sets of bed linen plus thousands of tonnes of food to remote hospitals scattered throughout the high Pamir mountains of Tajikistan.

Sunset of the high peaks of the Pamir mountains in Tajikistan

The coal is extracted from the Alai coal mines at 3,300 metres under the shadow of the 7,134 m Peak Lenin, to the schools, clinics and hospitals situated in the Pamirs where temperatures plunge as low as -40 oC during the long and bitterly cold winter. Last winter we distributed just over 5000 metric tonnes of coal, but now with having provided all the institutions with an improved type of stove, which burns less coal and produces greater heat, we have distributed slightly lesser amounts this year.

From the Alai mine, the coal is moved by truck (more than 600 truck loads this year) over the Kyrgyzstan pass, further up the Kyzl-Art or Red Clay Pass at 4,275 m then over the incredibly high White Horse Pass at 4,650 m and driven to the recipients, an average of 600 - 800 km away.

A lake in the Pamir mountains in Gorno Badakhshan

The Alai mine is situated at the cross roads of the old silk road. It is in a small valley leading to the larger Alai Valley, which connects Kashgar and the Sarafshan mountains of Tajikistan. Traders going through the nearby town of Saritash had a choice of taking the Pamir route up to Murgab and then down into Afghanistan or the more westerly Alai valley.

Zebunisso Karimova; all she wants is her family to be healthy. Her eyes fill with tears as she tells the Red Crescent that most of her furniture has been sold or traded to buy food.

The stoves were produced in the ancient Kyrgyz city of Osh, creating jobs for many unemployed engineers and metal workers. Osh celebrated its 3000 year anniversary late last decade.

In the remote areas of Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast ( GBAO) in the Pamirs, we have worked closely with the Red Crescent Society of Tajikistan financing the purchase of sheep, goats and yaks to enable these remote Red Cross branches to generate income which will in time, enable them to finance their programmes. Earlier this year I visited I visited the valley of Joshangoaz at about 3,500 metres where a Red Cross shepherd tends about 150 sheep and goats.

One of the coldest nights I spent in Tajikistan was in Murgab situated at 4000 m, where the temperature dropped to - 30 oC.

Our Red Cross workers; drivers, shepherds and field officers tell stories of hardship and danger of the past three winters of getting coal and food out to the people. Heavy snow falls blocking roads for weeks, frostbite while repairing vehicles, convoys getting scuttled by avalanches and being looted by modern day highway men is not uncommon.

The Tien Shan mountains lie mainly in Kyrgyzstan with northern parts stretching into Kazakhstan and a south-east finger poking into Uzbekistan. Approximately 750 km, or half of the Tien Shan lie in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Home to 60% of the world's dwindling population of the snow leopard ( Panthera uncia) there are estimated to be about 450 snow leopards dwelling here.

A young Kazakh girl.

In the foothills of Kyrgyzstan's Tienshan mountains, the International Federation of Red Cross supports the Kyrgyz Red Crescent to run a large relief programme providing food to isolated elderly people on a pension of approximately US $15 a month, and to institutions such as schools, orphanages and mentally handicapped homes.

I live on the outskirts of Almaty, Kazakhstan, at about 1000 m.

It is paradise for mountaineers and skiers for you can drive to 2600 m within 45 minutes and can climb a 4200 m peak in a day and for six months of the year, the Chimbulak ski field offers some of the best and cheapest skiing in the world.

But it the people that makes Almaty's local mountains unique. The relationship between mountain dwellers and mountains has long fascinated me and it has been great to make strong friends with Kazakhstani mountaineers and share their natural mountain life-style.

Looking across the foothills to Almaty in winter

These mountaineers live in the foothills of the Tien Shan and every Friday night either walk the four hours to their alpine huts from Almaty or drive. They spend every spare moment, every holiday in the mountains and from the age of three or four, the children ski like the wind and climb rock like a mountain goat. They have their songs, poems, climbing competitions and age old traditions of producing exquisite wood carvings.

Khan Tengri, the highest peak in Kazakhstan 7000 metres high

I fondly recall spending Christmas and New Years day (1996-97) with my good mates Sergy and Yuri, their families and other Kazakh and Russian mountaineers in their club huts consuming large amounts of Vodka, horse meat and intestines, the staple of Kazakhstan. Outside at least a metre of snow covered the ground offering superb skiing. It was here I first met Anatoly Boukreev the famous Kazakh climber who not only climbed Mt. Everest a few times, but made one of the most selfless rescues on Mt Everest in 1996.

I met the greatest of Kazakh mountaineers in 1997, Anatoli Boukreev

Spending days with Kazakhstani mountaineers and their extended families in the alpine huts in the Tien Shans while blizzards rage outside, it has been amazing to find those who have scaled Everest, Makalau, Dhalagauri and to hear them speaking modestly of significant climbs in most ranges of the world.

In 1997 the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has assisted 3 million elderly, orphans, handicapped people and multi-children families through a very difficult year. With one of the worst winters on record affecting Central Asia and heavy snow and severe gales lashing the region, we have stepped up our relief assistance to those without heating and inadequate clothing.

A view from the road into Gorno Badakshan in the Pamir mlountains. We had to cart coal over passes up to 4,600 metres in winter.

Bob McKerrow 1999