Tuesday, 29 December 2009

From white horses to elephants in 2010

New Year’s eve is a time for reflection on the past year or years, and a time to make plans for the future.
Somehow I have been thinking a lot of white horses in the past few days, even when I was riding an elephant in the Thai jungle earlier today.

(Photo from right to left, Naila, Ablai, I and Mahdi taken today)

I see white horses on the sea from my window here at Patong beach, tossing their heads in a sprightly manner. During the past five years I have seen a lot of footage of the Tsunami striking the shores of India, Maldives, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand and those initial waves became mammoth white horses as they broke. In all the afore mentioned countries except the Maldives, elephants gave warning that the mammoth white horse Tsunamis were approaching. In the Adaman and Nicobar Islands, people followed the elephants into the hills and their lives were saved. A similar story came from Sri Lanka.

Where on earth did this expression ‘white horses’ come from ?
According to the Poseidon myths he had a palace under the sea with an enormous stable filled with white horses who pulled his chariot over the ocean. "White horses" is an old expression referring to the whiite part of a breaking wave.

A view from Park Pass Glacier. Poseidon Peak 7,340 feet on the left, and the two other unnamed peaks,6,897 feet in the centre and 6,720 feet at the far right, that we climbed in February 1967.

Oddly enough, the first mountain I climbed in New Zealnd was Poseidon Peak, 7340 feet. We climbed it at the end of an arduous two week trip in one of New Zealand’s remotest regions, the Olivine Ice Plateau. We were stuck for eight days in Forgotten River during incessant rain, and when it cleared we climbed over Fiery Col, Cow Saddle and up to Park Pass. From there, I saw the mighty white horse, Poseidon Peak standing supreme from the Park Pass Glacier. What a peak to choose for my first climb.
I was with John Armstrong and Robyn Norton, who later married.
Poseidon, like Hinduism’s Vishnu, was also a destroyer. He destroyed buildings, heavily flooded some lands from his powerful seas, and brought a bad drought to others. These Poseidon myths are really history transformed into mythology. Actual events were about one religious group trying to get a hand over another. Has anything changes today ?

So for 2010, I wish the world to move away from Poseidon type conflicts, where the person with the biggest chariots and the strongest white horses wins over the other, and we take the gentleness of the elephant, his measured pace, large ears for listening and steady footsteps. Elephants can also detect disasters before humans can feel them. Let’s learn from the elephant in 2010. Elephants are symbols of good fortune, something the world is lacking today.

I wish you all a very happy New Year.

Mt. Chaos left, and Poseidon Peak right from the Dart River.(Permission sought from naturespic. Hopefully they will agree.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Tsunami remembrance in Thailand and other Tsunami affected countries.

Candle- lit ballons soaring over tree tops, a moving tsunami poem from a young high school student, haunting music from a high school orchestra, songs in French and Thai and a remembrance tribute and prayer from a Christian pastor, were moving moments at Patong Beach, Thailand, on 26 December. Throughout the ceremony, the sea, only 30 metres away, was lapping the shore and reminded us of hidden dangers
Earlier in the day at Patong, (photo above) a Thai beach resort village bustling with tourists, local artists performed traditional Thai songs in a pavilion where tourists gathered to look at photographs of the tsunami's damage.
Having spent most of the last five years of my life, working for the Red Cross on Tsunami relief and recovery operations, I found it a very soothing and healing event, to participate with mainly gentle Thai people and a scattering of foreigners. Ablai, my ten year old son was with me and he got emotionally caught up in the moment, and simply loved helping light the candles in paper ballos, and send them flying heavenward.

Closure takes time, and I watched a mixture of pain and relief on the face of a young Scandanavian woman, who placed a bunch of white roses near a lit candle on the beach. She somhow looked at peace.

Thumbs up to the Tsunami recovery operation.

Ceremonies took place in Indonesia on Saturday to mark the fifth anniversary of the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami that struck after a huge earthquake off Sumatra island in 2004.
The tsunami killed 226,000 people in 13 countries, with 166,000 killed or missing in the Indonesian province of Aceh.
Thousands of saffron-robed Thai monks chanted and prayed for victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami on Saturday as Asia marked the fifth anniversary of one of history's worst natural disasters.
The gathering of monks in Ban Nam Khem, a small fishing village on Thailand's Andaman Sea coast that lost nearly half its 5,000 people, was one of hundreds of solemn events across Asia in memory of the towering waves that crashed ashore with little warning on Dec. 26, 2004, killing 226,000 people in 13 countries.
"All souls from all nationalities, wherever you are now, please receive the prayers the monks are saying for you," said Kularb Pliamyai, who lost 10 family members in Ban Nam Khem.

Disposing bodies in the first days.

In Indonesia's Banda Aceh, survivors gathered in neighbourhood mosques or homes on the eve of the anniversary to remember those killed by a wall of water as high as 30 metres triggered by an undersea earthquake off the island of Sumatra.
Indonesia was the worst hit with the number of dead and missing over 166,000. Massive reconstruction aid in Banda Aceh has rebuilt a new city on top of the ruins, and many survivors are only now putting memories of the waves behind them.
"The psychology of the Acehnese people is starting to recover after five years," said Eva Susanti, who lost 125 members of her extended family in the Banda Aceh area.
Some locals such as Taufik Rahmat say they have moved on, helped along by new homes in the Banda Aceh region following one of the largest foreign fund-raising exercises. But still pockets of people in his village remain homeless.
"Not all elements have been fulfilled, I think about 80 percent to 90 percent of the people still don't have proper housing," he said.
Unloading planes

Thailand's Ban Nam Khem village is a shadow of its former self. Its once-thriving centre of dense waterfront stores, restaurants and wooden homes is gone, replaced with souvenir shops, a wave-shaped monument and a small building filled with photographs of the tsunami recovery effort.
Many former residents are now too frightened of the sea to rebuild close to the water.
"I still feel bad about what happened. People from all over the world were killed here. It's their misfortune," Kularb said.
In Thailand, 5,398 people were killed, including several thousand foreign tourists, when the waves swamped six coastal provinces, turning some of the world's most beautiful beaches into mass graves. Many are still missing.
Almost all of those killed were vacationing on or around the southern island of Phuket, a region that had contributed as much as 40 percent of Thailand's annual tourism income.

> New Red Cross village in Mate Ie, Aceh. Photo: Bob McKerrow

"The economy has not recovered," said Rotjana Phraesrithong, who is in charge of the Baan Tharn Namchai Orphanage, opened in 2006 for 35 children who lost parents in the tsunami.
Dozens of small hotels and resorts are up for sale in Thailand's Phang Nga province north of Phuket whose forested coastline includes Ban Nam Khem and the serene 19-km (12-mile) Khao Lak beach, two of Thailand's worst tsunami-hit areas.
"More than 100 of these small hotels and retail tour operators are looking to sell their operations because they can't obtain loans from banks to keep going," said Krit Srifa, president of the Phang Nga Tourism Association.
"Many small operators are still in debt after renovations since the tsunami and many just haven't recovered financially."

Materials for building houses had to be taken by landing crafts to remote Indonesian Islands.

On Khao Lak beach, where the tsunami killed more than 3,000 people, there's little physical evidence of it aside from occasional "Tsunami Hazard Zone" signs and colour-coded evacuation maps.
A symbol of the catastrophe, the Sofitel Magic Lagoon where more than 300 guests and staff died, re-opened last month as the 298-room JW Marriott Khao Lak Resort & Spa.
In Patong, tourism is down but few blame the tsunami.
"The only time people seem to talk about the tsunami is in December during the anniversary," said Pattahanant Ketkaew, a 27-year-old manager at Phuket2Go tours near Patong beach. "Tourism is off but that's because of the global economy."
And to serve as a reminder, a strong earthquake struck off Indonesia's Tanimbar Islands in the east of the country on Saturday, but there was no tsunami alert issued and no reports of immediate damage, the country's meteorology agency said.
The US Geological Survey pegged the quake at magnitude 6.0 and its epicentre was 270 km north northwest of Saumlaki in the Tanimbar islands at a depth of 56 km
USGS had initially put the magnitude at 6.2.

After the Tsunami ceremony last night, I popped into a bar for a nightcap. A waitress brought me a drink. Her name was Thu. there were few customers around so I asked her where she was when the Tsunami struck. Her face darkened and she seemed to shrink back as memories flooded back. " I was right here. Waves went out and many people ran to collect fish. I stayed here. A few minutes later a huge wave smased into bar and threw me into the corner. I nearly drowned. someone saved me, I broke my arm. One foreign tourist died just there. We took her body away. many people die right here," she said sadly.

Five years doesn't heal the wounds fully.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Reflections on five years of the Tsunami operation.

A woman who survived the Tsunami in Aceh In Indonesia, in her new Red Cross transitional shelter. Taken in February 2007

We walked along Patong Beach last night. A tourist ship was anchored in the bay. A slice of moon nudged stars that were dancing heal and toe. Naila, Ablai, Mahdi and I walked into the surf and felt the waves around our feet. During the last five years I feel a wrench in my gut when I step into the surf. I have personally witnessed so much death and destruction from the sea, since that fateful day on 26 December 2004 when the Indian Ocean tsunami killed over 200,000 people, with over 100,000 still missing, that my relationship with the sea has changed. I am more cautious.

Half an hour before we walked in the surf last night, we had dinner in a Russian restaurant with an exotic menu. One of the waiters talked about the Tsunami. He was sleeping when it hit the coastline. Many of his friends were killed here in Phuket and down the coast in Krabi. Across the street the Information Kiosk has a DVD and screen you can watch the Tsunami video on. On the streets there are Tsunami evacuation signs directing people to higher ground. (see photo below) The tsunami has taken lives and changed lives.

My work initially on the Tsunami relief operation, for the first year, was mainly in India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives and was rewarding as we provided life saving relief including medical aid, water, sanitation and shelter. Then it was into recovery planning for building whole communities which included houses, schools, clinics, water supplies, toilets, waste disposal, livelihoods and institutions such as nursing colleges and mental institutions.

In August 2006, I moved to Indonesia to head the Red Cross recovery operation and now, after five years we have almost completed our work. This is my third short visit to Thailand since the Tsunami struck, but the other visits have been more for regional planning meetings.

Stefan Kuhne-Hellmessen and Leslie Schaffer. Stefan's story is below and Leslie ran the Tsunami desk for Sri Lanka and the Maldives from Geneva. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Today in Patong I met Stefan Kuhne-Hellmessen who runs our Tsunami recovery operation in Thailand. When the Tsunami struck, I asked Stefan to go to Sri Lanka and support the relief operation there. Later he moved here and has been heading the Red Cross relief operation together with the Thai Red Cross for more than three years. On Saturday 26 December, Stefan and I will participate in some Tsunami commemoration ceremonies marking five years. He is going to take me to show me many of the Thai Red Cross success stories as well as providing me an opportunity to talk to survivors.

Over 2000 people died in this small bay, Patong. The Thai Red Cross have invited me to a ceremony where a floating candle for each person killed will be lit and placed in the sea.I cannot think of a better way to remember those who died and to celebrate those who survived.
I will also think of those people I worked with over the past five years and who ‘built back better.’ Many of them are pictured below.

Mr. Tsunami, Dr. Kuntoro Mangkasubroto who led the most professional Government Ministry for Tsunami Recovery in Indonesia, with Bob McKerrow on Simeulue Island. Photo: Aroha McKerrow

Building back better. A Red Cross permanent house in Aceh with the wooden Red Cross transitional shelter behind. The wooden shelter provided accommodation for the first three years until permanent houses were completed. Photo: Bob McKerrow
Jerry Talbot (left) and Dr. Kintoro. Jerry was the special representative to the SG of the International Red Cross and provided inspirational leadership to all of us in the field. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Two girls who survived the Tsunami in Mate Ie village in Aceh. Photo: Bob McKerrow

A group of senior officials who played key roles role in the five years of the Tsunami operation. From left to right:
Yasuo Tanaka, Japanese Red Cross who played a major part in assessment in Aceh in the early days of the relief operation.
Satya Tripathi the UN Recovery Coordinator in Aceh who did an outstanding job.
Tadateru Konoe President of the Japanese Red Cross and IFRC. For five years he led Japanese RC efforts and played a key role in the Federation.

Kuntoro Mangkasubroto, head of BRR.
Pak Heru BRR head of International relations
Bob McKerrow, the writer

Marcel Fortier (desk officer for Indonesia) and Valpuri our monitoring and evaluation specialists. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Per Jennes and Isobel Grainger. Per ran the operation in the Maldives and Isobel was our legal delegate. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Women in Teunon, Aceh, benefit from a Red Cross livelihood programme.
Indonesian red Cross volunteers removing the dead.
The early days of the relief operation in Aceh.
Pak Iyang (l) SG of Indonesian RC, Borge Bente, SG of Norwegian Red Cross and writer. Pak Iyand worked tirelessly for five years full time om the Tsunami operation.
Pak Mar'ie, Chairman PMI (left) who gave outstanding leadership throughout the Tsunami operation, talking to Ken Baker. Ken led the Canadian RC housing programme. Photo: Bob McKerrow
Younis Karim (l) and Flory who ran the Red Cross operation on the island of Nias. Photo: Bob McKerrow
Eddy Purwanto,(l) Chied of Operations, BRR, Indonesia, talking to Ann, from the IFRC office in New York. Eddy visited New York with Pak Kuntoro to meet Bill Clinton and Ban ki Moon. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Saturday, 19 December 2009

The President of International Red Cross arrives in Indonesia

" How are you Bob ?" he warmly greeted me as he entered the airport terminal in Jakarta last night. With his sharp eyes he had spotted me first. Tadateru Konoe is an impressive man who engages warmly and sincerely with all he meets. His humanitarian track record is equally impressive.

I was delighted when he was recently elected President of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the largest humanitarian organisation on the world.

I was also delighted to learn that for his first overseas trip as President of the International Red Cross, he picked Indonesia.

As we travelled by car the one hour from the airport to his hotel last night, we spoke about the various times we had worked together in the past: Bangladesh, Geneva and India. But the bulk of our time was spent on recalling Henrik Beer, Secretary General of the International Red Cross from 1960 to 1982. Mr.Konoe and I worked with Henrik in 1975 when we were based in Geneva, and remained our boss for some years later as we went our different ways in the Red Cross world.

"Henrik was an outstanding leader," said Konoe last night,"and he gave strong leadership for more than twenty years." We shared for many minutes our personal reminiscences of Henrik and acknowledged Henrik's contribution to the environment.

We then had a long discussion piecing together Henrik's contribution to the environment and climate change.

In 1972, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm, and for the first time united the representatives of multiple governments to discuss the state of the global environment. This conference led directly to the creation of government environment agencies and the UN Environment Program.

Henrik Beer participated in the conference, and was deeply moved by predictions of the earth slowly destroying itself. He left inspired and determined to get the Red Cross Red Crescent involved in environmental programmes in order to stop the environmental degradation that he believed was worsening the plight of vulnerable people.

In 1972-73 the phrase “Climate Change” had not been coined, but Henrik Beer’s vision changed the way some Red Cross Crescent societies thought and acted, as they started undertaking environmental programmes, a shift that set the foundation for an easy understanding of the later, and insidious onset of global warming.

Tadateru Konoe (right) Yasuo Tanaka (left) and Bob McKerrow (centre) shortly after Mr. Konoe's arrival in Jakarta

Mr. Konoe reminded me that Henrik encouraged Red Cross societies such as Ethiopia - suffering from drought in 73-74 - to plant trees and to get young people involved. Henrik had similar messages for flood-stricken Nepal and India. He was passionate about reforestation, he understood overgrazing and the need to protect mountain lands and water catchments.

As we drove deeper into the heart of Jakarta, I told Mr. Konoe that in 1975, when I went to Nepal as a disaster preparedness delegate, both Henrik Beer and he briefed me In Geneva and both reminded me of the need to plant trees and make the young aware of the need to care for the environment, especially the fragile Himalayan environment.

Both Henrik Beer and Tadateru Konoe (see photo of him above in 1968) had visited Nepal a number of times in the late 60s, early 70's and collectively gave a lot of guidance and material assistance. Konoe told me about an adventurous trip he had to Nepal in 1968, when he drove an ambulance donated by the Japanese Red Cross to Kathmandu, from India, across rough, and often unformed roads.

I recalled that n 1981, when I was working in India on a huge cyclone preparedness programme, Henrik Beer made his last field visit as secretary general. We were building 230 cyclone shelters and part of the programme was an integrated disaster preparedness programme where young volunteers planted trees to protect the coastline, the shelters, and drainage canals. Henrik was thrilled to see the Indian volunteers active with environmental programmes.

Mr. Konoe visited Southern India shortly after Henrik, and I had the pleasure of travelling with him and we recalled some of our impressions at that time. Today, planting trees for protection along cyclone prone coastlines is an archetypal way of addressing the increased threats posed by climate change.

As we neared the hotel we agreed that Henrik Beer was a great leader of the Red Cross and the humanitarian world at large, and kept abreast of world affairs and especially topics related to humanity and environment.

As we arrived, I told Mr. Konoe I had a fascinating paper on Red Cross and the environment, and this morning I unearthed it, and will share it with him when we meet at lunch today.

From the paper I noted the that words, spoken by Henrik Beer over three decades ago, could have been written yesterday as a rallying call for all civil society and government organisations to come together and safeguard our future:

“Can the agencies and the many INGOs each treat the world network of organizations as an administrative problem when it clearly represents an unstudied social problem? Is it not an unexplored global network of resources — of which the governmental and business worlds are an integral part – which has not yet been effectively related to the peace/population/food/development/education/environment crisis precisely because the functional relationship of all the parts to the social whole is repeatedly and systematically ignored in organizational decisions?

“It is no longer useful to concentrate on the problems of one "independent" organization or group of organizations (as though each operated as an autonomous frontier outpost surrounded by uncharted terrain). Nor is it useful to focus on a single geographical region or subject area -- it is now essential to look at the problems of the network of interdependent organizations and their inter- related concerns ," said Henrik.

Henrik Beer had a vision.

I know that Tadateru Konoe has a vision.

My mind goes back to a misty morning in Bhuj, Gujarat, India, when Konoe and I were having a bowl of soup together outside the Japanese Red Cross tent. That was late January 2001. He was so proud of the work the Japanese Red Cross medical team were doing for the many thousands injured by the earthquake, that killed over 25,000 people.
On that muddy school compound we had over 600 Red Cross staff and volunteers living in tents next to the 400 bed Finnish-Norwegian Red Cross field hospital.

Konoe spoke to me of this wonderful relief operation and how it must be replicated in the future. Rather than pump more money into the Japanese Red Cross, Konoe was the driving force behind the concept of and the Asia and Pacific disaster management unit, which is now well established in Kuala Lumpur, and provides a zone-wide disaster response, coordination and technical support to the whole of Asia and Pacific.
We have a man of vision with a history of implementation at the helm of Red Cross, and I know if Henrik Beer were alive today, he would be very proud that one of his protegees, is President of the organisation he gave so much to. Henrik Beer and Tadateru Konoe have much in common: men of high integrity, men of vision who have given their lives to the Red Cross.

I am looking forward to the three days he is spending in Jakarta, where he will meet the President of the country tomorrow, give an opening speech at the Indonesian Red Cross General Assembly (held every 5 years), visit the programmes of the PMI, and as he loves to do in each country, meet the volunteers who are the backbone of our Red Cross movement.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Beware of Polar Bears, dangerous deserts, avalanches and wild rivers.

Do you ever get bored ? I often get stuck for hours in airports or wake up and can't get back to sleep. So instead of counting sheep, I've started marking all the cities I have been to in the world on a Facebook programme called TripAdvisor travel map. I have identified 665 to date and there are a few I have missed in Canada, India and the US of A. But sadly, some of the most memorable cities and towns I have been to are not there, such as my favourite, Sidhbari in India.

I have also listed my favourite settlements and cities that are available on this programme. If you want to learn more about my favourite places, just click on the name, or click on the map itself, to enlarge it. But if you do visit, beware of Polar Bears, dangerous deserts, avalanches and wild rivers.

Take care, and try to take the path less worn.


Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Surviving the Tsunami – Stories of Hope

Yesterday, IFRC and Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF) hosted an event in London to launch a web-based multimedia documentary that is linked to the fifth commemoration of the Indian Ocean Tsunami.

After checking out the website and the stories, I was thrilled to see the quality and content. There are four short films based on personal stories, called “Surviving the Tsunami – Stories of Hope”, that have been co-produced in a partnership involving both organizations. The project has its own website


and features an interactive map, a comments function and a ‘Learn More’ section with links to National Societies’ tsunami programmes and information to other resources.
Sub-titled versions of the films should now be available in:
Arabic: http://tsunami.trust.org/arabic/
Bahasa (Indonesian): http://tsunami.trust.org/bahasa/
French: http://tsunami.trust.org/french/
Hindi: http://tsunami.trust.org/hindi/
Mandarin: http://tsunami.trust.org/mandarin/
Sinhala: http://tsunami.trust.org/sinhala/
Spanish: http://tsunami.trust.org/spanish/
Thai: http://tsunami.trust.org/thai/
Tamil: http://tsunami.trust.org/tamil/ `
Japanese: http://tsunami.trust.org/jp/

If you want to dig a little deeper, the British Red Cross has taken an innovative look back at the tragedy, the long road to recovery and the foundations which have been laid for a brighter, safer future.
Through a new interactive challenge, ‘Decisions for Recovery’, the British Red Cross is asking people in the UK and around the world to put themselves in the shoes of those who led recovery from the disaster.


Drawing from the real-life dilemmas Red Cross staff faced, ‘Decisions for Recovery’, puts you in the hot seat.

When so many are suffering, who do you help first? What kind of help do you offer and how do you decide between quick fixes which meet immediate needs and frustratingly slow but sustainable long-term projects?

As a disaster recovery manager for the British Red Cross, it’s up to you to direct and co-ordinate the Tsunami response, help rebuild lives and recover a future for people who have lost everything.

“The challenges were enormous, the decisions – as people visiting the website will see - were incredibly difficult, but today I feel very proud of what the Red Cross achieved to help rebuild people’s lives and, more than that, build them back stronger,” said Alastair Burnett, British Red Cross disaster recovery manager.

“We were faced with the most difficult decisions of our lives, decisions that affected hundreds of thousands of people whose lives were destroyed by the tsunami.

“The support we received from the public was phenomenal and enabled us to mount our largest recovery effort since the Second World War. Now we want to tell the story of how the money people gave was spent and the difference it has made to people’s lives.”

This is an emotional time for me. Having spent almost five years of my life in the Tsunami operation in Indonesia, Maldives, India and Sri Lanka, there is much to reflect on, and much to celebrate. The Red Cross has achieved the following:

The lives of almost 5,000,000 people are now significantly improved through the collective efforts of the Red Cross Red Crescent

21,112 transitional shelters were built in Indonesia, the Maldives and Sri Lanka
Over 51,000 houses have been built with funding from the Red Cross Red Crescent.

289 hospitals and clinics have been built or rehabilitated. More than 70 are under construction and over 350 hospitals and health facilities will be provided

161 schools have been built with a further 11 under construction or in the planning stages.

Over 1,110,000 people have been reached by community-based health services

Over 62,000 households have received livelihoods support grants

Over 38,000 people have been trained in vulnerability and capacity assessments or community based disaster management

It is clear to me that the Red Cross tsunami recovery operation has met peoples’ emergency needs, helped to rebuild communities and supported their future development. This approach gives people the best possible chance for a long term, sustainable recovery.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

All was calm on the sea this morning.........

All was calm on the sea front early this morning in Banda Aceh, despite an earthquake (5.9) hitting the off shore island of Simeulue at 4.35 a.m. (photo below: Bob McKerrow) Up at 5 am this morning. A beautiful dawn broke as we drove down to the port in Banda Aceh. The Al Jeezera TV crew were all set up. Fauziah Ibrahim the front woman was waiting to interview Danny and I. The back drop was a ship sitting restfully on the roof of a house, cast there by the Tsunami almost five years ago.
Fauziah getting wired up for the interview, Danny Hilman in the red shirt, and I on the right. Photo: Danny Hilman

It was a tranquil scene this morning and hard to believe 170,000 people were killed and 100, 000 missing in Aceh. Photo: Bob McKerrow
Ebrahim Faghihi head of our operation in Aceh with Fauziah Ibrahim this morning. Ebrahim and I worked in Afghanistan in 1995-96 and are enjoy working together again.

The 20 munute interview went well with Fauziah asking a few tough questions, but that's the way it's got to be. We are accountable for an unprecedented amount of public money from all around the world, and we have to be totally transparent and accountable. The interview will be shown on 26 December.Fauziah interviewing Danny and I in front of the ship, left sitting on top of a house, after being carried 3 km by the Tsunami.

Fauziah Ibrahim, Aljazeera presenter, Danny Hilman Natawidjaja, Seismologist and Tsunami expert and myself in Banda Aceh.

But where did that ship come behind us sitting on the roof of a house ?

They are ships that fell from the sky; two immovable objects, their very presence defying reason.

Banda Aceh residents call them acts of God. Most cannot fathom that the two ocean vessels were transported miles inland by flood waters of the 2004 tsunami that ravaged this small city on Sumatra’s northern tip.

Miles apart, both have been left intact as memorials to 170,000 residents of Aceh who were lost in the catastrophe.

Five years after the waters rose to biblical heights, the city continues to rebuild, erecting schools, clinics, roads and villages in coastal areas wiped clean by the invading ocean. It has been good to be a part of it and I thank the Red Cross for giving me this opportunity.
So many good memories. Some of my favourite photos below:

Monday, 7 December 2009

Fresh fortune in wake of tragedy

It's been a hectic last few weeks as we begin to edge near a completion of our Tsunami work in Aceh. Tomorrow I head back to the tsunami affected province of Aceh where I have another panel interview with Al Jezeera. The media is showing a lot of interest in the 5th anniversary of the Tsunami on 24 December, 2009, and I must say the two NZ Zealand journalists I have met recently in Indonesia, Tim Hume and Damian Christie, are outstanding professionals who are as good as any other top journos I have met over the years. Below is an article published in the Auckland Heral last weekend.

Foreign aid has eased the struggled for survival. Photo / Chris Skelton

Banda Aceh was destroyed by the Boxing Day tsunami, five years ago this month. Now, reports Damian Christie, it has rebuilt on a foundation of international aid and tourism.

On the main road between the airport and the small Indonesian city of Banda Aceh is a field. Maybe the size of two soccer pitches. It's unremarkable.

An undulating low concrete wall and gate separate it from the passing traffic; towards the back, bamboo scaffolding surrounds a half-completed sculpture of a large wave. Beneath the unkempt green grass lie some 45,000 bodies. The exact number will never be known, but it's one of the largest mass graves in the world.

On December 26, 2004, Banda Aceh was rocked by a massive earthquake. At 9.3 magnitude it is the second-largest earthquake ever recorded by a seismograph, and the third deadliest in recorded history. The earthquake itself might have killed as many as 20,000 people. Minutes later, the tsunami came.

A wall of water up to 30m high swept kilometres into the low-lying city. By the time the water cleared, almost one in three of Banda Aceh's inhabitants were dead - more than 60,000 people. Maybe 100,000 more died in the surrounding province.

Of all the places hit by the Boxing Day Tsunami, Banda Aceh was hit first and hit hardest. Phuket, which many associate closely with the tsunami, saw just 259 official deaths.

This small Indonesian city at the northwestern tip of Sumatra lost more lives than all other countries combined. Virtually everything was destroyed - lives, homes, businesses, society.

What followed was one of the biggest reconstruction efforts in the world. A total of $8 billion was contributed by governments, NGOs, charities and individual donations for reconstruction in Aceh.

The New Zealand Government gave $68 million - $24 million more was given by ordinary New Zealanders to rebuild the stricken areas literally from the ground up.

But with many dozens of organisations involved (more than 30 NGOs from New Zealand alone) in a country rated among the most corrupt in the world, how much of that money was put to good use, and how much found its way into the pockets of officials and irrelevant vanity projects?

BOB MCKERROW, a New Zealander, is head of the International Red Cross delegation in Indonesia. When the tsunami struck he was first sent to India, Sri Lanka, then the Maldives, and has been overseeing reconstruction in Aceh for the past 3 years.

The Red Cross has contributed $1.5 billion to rebuilding Aceh, second only to the Indonesian Government.

Having worked on such projects internationally for decades, Bob says Banda Aceh's reconstruction has been brilliant, not least because it has also ended three decades of conflict.

A brief history lesson: From 1976 until 2004, Aceh was locked in a protracted civil war, between Acehnese Separatists (the Free Aceh Movement, or GAM) and the Indonesian Government.

Aceh was closed off, travel by foreigners largely forbidden, and a series of crackdowns - the most recent only months before the tsunami - resulted in an estimated 15,000 deaths, mostly civilian.

When the tsunami hit, both sides realised the fighting needed to end.

The Government opened up Aceh to allow aid and NGO workers the access they needed, while the rebels promised a safe environment on the ground.

This ceasefire resulted in the Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding, signed in 2005. Aceh received a degree of autonomy; its Governor is a former GAM rebel spokesman.

Most agree the civil war is now a thing of the past. One of the greatest tensions - a sense that the wealth from Aceh's natural resources was being unfairly distributed by Jakarta - was no longer relevant with the billions of dollars being poured in to reconstruction. New roads, new houses, a new airport - Banda Aceh is better than ever before.

As McKerrow points out: "You go into a village today in Aceh, there's a school, there's a clinic, there's electricity, there's roads, houses that have toilets, running water, and the people are very well off compared to other parts of Indonesia, and that's why the peace is holding.

"And when I talk to women, I say, 'What would you do if your husband picked up a rifle and went to join one of the factions', and she would say, 'I would hit him on the head, because we are so well off today compared to what we were five years ago'."

"MONEY DOES everything here," says Muhsin, who has rebuilt his small grocery store, completely lost in the tsunami.

As well as rebuilding his own life and business, Muhsin has dedicated his spare time to working with orphans. He says while most Acehnese are happy, there are still problems.

There are those who have missed out and those who are homeless, sometimes simply because they weren't educated enough to fill out the required forms.

And as the reconstruction winds up, and the NGOs withdraw (only the UN and the Red Cross still have delegations in Banda Aceh), Muhsin fears the vacuum could be filled with a return to old grievances. "I think the problem can happen again in Aceh, like a snowball."

Worryingly, there have been three incidents of shots fired at Westerners in the past month, events unheard of in immediate post-tsunami Banda Aceh.

If there is hope for Banda Aceh, it is that the new livelihoods established under the reconstruction will continue to grow.

McKerrow points to a fisherman, who was already struggling with diminishing catches before the tsunami destroyed his boat. He now has land and is making a good living growing cocoa.

"We were given the conditions to build back better," he says.

For four years the Indonesian Government had a dedicated Tsunami Ministry, unprecedented for containing an anti-corruption unit.

While I had heard figures of up to 30 per cent "leakage" of funds, McKerrow says he would be "surprised if it was over 5 per cent". Of course, even that is still $400 million.

McKerrow also confirms Muhsin's story: people have missed out on houses, in some cases by putting their name forward, moving away to stay with relatives and returning too late and finding their house reallocated.

On the other hand, he says, "there were those people who got two houses, there were people who put their name down and got three houses ... there was a bit of thuggery going on".

Other projects have been ill-conceived from the get-go. About an hour's drive from Banda Aceh is Jackie Chan village, a settlement built from the millions of dollars raised by the Hong Kong action movie star.

It's too far for residents to drive for work, or supplies. Despite many being homeless, Jackie Chan village isn't an option, and at least half the settlement lies empty.

In the centre of Banda, the Tsunami Museum officially opened last month.

I have my own misgivings about it, not the concept but, at a cost of $10 million, the scale of this four-storey behemoth seems out of proportion to the lives of those around it, particularly with hundreds of families still living in squalid barracks.

On the other hand, if the museum and the Jackie Chan village are the worst examples of questionable management from an $8 billion aid project, it's not hard to see why McKerrow could say it's been brilliant.

Another explanation for the Tsunami Museum might be Banda Aceh's bid to become something of a tourist destination.

For the first time in its history, Banda Aceh has an international airport, officially opened this year - even if the only international arrivals at present are two budget airlines from Malaysia.

And the event which wiped Banda Aceh from the map is exactly what they hope will put them back on it.

THE PLTD Apung 1 is a diesel power generation plant. It's a ship, 2600 tonnes, more than 50m long and a few storeys high, all hulking steel.

What makes the Apung 1 different from most ships its size, is the fact it's in the middle of a field, kilometres from the nearest coast. It's a popular attraction for visitors, the site now complete with a small memorial garden and children's playground.

Once you've seen "boat in field" as local tourist operators call it, you can visit the much smaller "boat on house" - which is everything its name suggests.

It seems hard to believe people might plan an overseas trip around a few such attractions. Not only is it rather mawkish, there simply aren't that many of them.

However, at the same time as I am internally voicing my concerns, I meet a young family across from Malaysia for a few days, for exactly that purpose.

"Aceh is beautiful," says Rahmadhani, of the Aceh Culture and Tourism Agency. But when I ask him to expand, he struggles: "We have a lot of potential to show," he offers, before again talking generically about culture and beauty. "Aceh is safe, Aceh is convenient, Aceh is attractive," he concludes.

Putting aside the fact there's not a lot to do here, another impediment to attracting Western tourists will be more difficult to remedy: Aceh is the most conservatively Islamic province in Indonesia.

It's seems fairly relaxed compared to say, Afghanistan, but there's no beer to be found in Banda Aceh, and you can't wear your togs at the beach.

And rather than relaxing, Aceh's Sharia law provisions have recently been strengthened by the regional legislature to include the likes of death by stoning for adulterers.

One true attraction, the nearby island of Pulau Weh, has long operated as an exception to many of these rules.

When Aceh province was closed to all foreign visitors during the civil war years, it was still possible to arrive in Banda Aceh and be delivered to the Pulau Weh ferry by police escort.

Beer is available on the island courtesy of the local police chief, though not cheap by Asian standards, and it is possible to swim without being covered from head to toe - just don't expect the locals to join you. Boasting pristine dive sites among the best in the world, Pulau Weh attracts a steady stream of foreign visitors.

Ben Stokes and his partner Sarah Kemsley have started bringing groups of intrepid divers to Pulau Weh. Stokes says the Sharia law angle is played up by Western media, and while a special unit of Religious Police patrols Banda Aceh enforcing dress standards, particularly for young women, the rules don't apply to visitors.

"We have to be respectful but essentially as far as the Acehnese are concerned, Sharia law is not applicable to Western tourists," he says.

Totok, a local tourist operator puts it simply: "Aceh is majority Muslim. But our Muslim is different from Taleban."

While talking to Totok over another cup of strong Acehnese coffee - usually taken with condensed milk - I'm struck by how far the residents of Banda Aceh must have come in the past five years.

I ask about his experience with the tsunami itself and, again, he says it plainly. "When the tsunami came, everything was gone. My son, my daughter. It left two, me and my wife only. My office was also broken. Everything was lost."

Totok says the first couple of years after the tsunami, people "lost the spirit of life". But, he says, as more and more aid workers arrived from overseas, and the city was rebuilt, so were its people. His eyes fill with joy as he speaks of the new Banda Aceh, and how it has allowed people to once again "make the spirit of life".

"I think the kids are the most scarred," says McKerrow. "In the first year the kids had recurring nightmares of another wave coming in and wiping out their family, they survive and go to an orphanage - it's amazing how many nightmares are the same. But after 18 months, they subside, it's just a process of time ... And life goes on."

It's impossible to imagine how any of us would cope with what the Acehnese have been through in the past five years - an entire city destroyed, then rebuilt, unrecognisable.

Entire families killed, their whereabouts unknown.

An end to decades of bloody conflict, a restless peace. I'm in awe of the resilience of spirit I see everywhere.

"We have to be optimistic," says Rahmadhani, summing up in his hyperbolic fashion.

"We enjoy the peace today. Everyone is very busy. The economy is booming. Everyone is smiling."

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

To better serve the ever growing number of vulnerable people.

Tadateru Konoe, the new President of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

I was just 26 when I went to Geneva to work for the International Red Cross, in 1975. It was a snowy January when I arrived. Fresh from climbing in New Zealand, one of the first things I tried was a winter ascent of Mt. Blanc, in a weekend. I almost died as a huge storm came in and dumped almost 2 metres of snow in late January 1975. I remember struggling in white out conditions to find the tel-cabine on the summit of Aguille du Midi. My first month in Geneva was a difficult time as I struggled to adapt after working four years in the field, to an international headquarters where a suit and tie were the rigour de jour.

I was fortunate to be working with Tadateru Konoe who was Deputy Director of the disaster preparedness bureau, where I was assigned. Our boss was Sverre Kilde a former Norwegian Army Officer.

I first met Konoe in Bangladesh in 1972 when he was leader of the Japanerese Red Cross medical team on the island of Hatia, and I leader of a New Zealand Red Cross team at Nilphamari in northern Bangladesh. This was a joint ICRC or LORCS ( Federation) operation and there were about 15 medical/refugee teams from all around the world.

So when I met Konoe in Geneva in 1975 we were no strangers. We worked well together and after about a year, he returned to Japan. I recall meeting him the next time on a field trip in Southern India, in 1981, when he had just become Director of the Disaster Preparedness Bureau in Geneva. When he visited, I was supervising the construction of 225 cyclone shelters along a 2000 km stretch of coastline in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. We travelled some days together visiting remote villages. He was a pleasant companion with an eye for detail and a strong sense of curiousity. From the Royal family in Japan, I was impressed by his gentleness and the way he displayed such courtesy, humility and respect for the culture. Then I recalled one of his colleagues in Tokyo telling me that in the olden days his family were scholars, poets, and calligraphers. Konoe had an aura about him and I enjoyed his company so much.

In late Match 1975 I was assigned to work in Nepal and I recall getting a briefing from Konoe as he had visited Nepal some years early. It was a thorough briefing. Recently I found a photo (above) depicting his visit.

We lost contact until I visited Osaka in 1987 as a guest speaker at the International Syposium on Outdoor Education and Youth Development Towards the 21 st Century which was organised by Kansai Television and Osaka School of Physical Education. There I heard people speaking of Konoe in hushed tones and with great respect. He seemed to have an aura of a living God. Some leading Japanese academics told me how Konoe was in the process of setting up and Outward Bound School in Japan.

We met many times after that and I recall in Seville in 1997 at the International Red Cross conference, having a long talk to him about outdoor education and Outward Bound. He had a real passion for giving youth opportunities to build character and self reliance. It was during the conference in Seville that I noticed a marked change in Konoe. In a tense debate where two strong opposing factions had reached an impasse, the ever maturing Konoe took to the floor and made a wise and eloquent intervention, breaking a very tense situation. That day in December 1997, an elder Red Cross statesman emerged. I knew that very moment that here was a future President of the International Red Cross. Having travelled with Konoe in the field in India on two ocassions, he really has a deep concern for the welfare of children and has done much work in Japan as a Councillor of the Japan Committee for UNICEF.

He is a born and career Red Crosser. Born on "Red Cross and Red Crescent Day" of 8th May in 1939. Joined the Japanese Red Cross Society (JRCS) in 1964, initially as a volunteer. He has visited many countries in Pacific, Africa, America, Europe, Middle East and Asia where he had witnessed the suffering caused by ideological, religious, racial and ethnic differences and conflict. He has dedicated his whole career to the Red Cross and Red Crescent work, both at home and abroad.
As a staff member of the JRCS he has worked mostly at its International Department where he built experience in supporting National Societies in the implementation of relief operations and of development projects, in settling the pending humanitarian issues of the post-war years with National Societies of the countries who had no diplomatic relations with Japan, and in representing the JRCS at different international meetings, He worked at the Secretariat of the International Federation as a staff-on-loan between 1972 and 1975 and as Director of the Disaster Preparedness Bureau between 1981 and 1985. During these periods he represented the International Federation in relief operations in different countries. His first experience with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) relief operation was in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) in 1972 when he headed a JRCS medical team to look after the cyclone and the conflict victims. Ever since, as a representative of one of the major supporting National Societies to ICRC, he has visited various sites of the ICRC operations in different countries where JRCS provided services.
After returning to Japan, he was elected Vice President of JRCS in 1991 and to the office of President in 2005. In these capacities, he has been overseeing the Society's sizeable domestic activities, including medical services, blood transfusion services, disaster management, nurse training and social welfare services, as well as the Society's support for international activities.

As of 1 April 2009, the Japanese Red Cross Society (JRCS) is run by over 56,000 paid staff, mostly involved with Medical Services and Blood Services, both of which are two of the major auxiliary functions to public authorities. Total budget of 2008 fiscal year reaches around 2.37 billion USD.
JRCS is currently running 92 hospitals and 6 clinics. These Red Cross medical institutions have a capacity of more than 38,000 hospital beds in total and treated more than 11 million in-patients and 19 million out-patients in 2008. From its Red Cross nursing schools, including 6 nursing colleges, over 1,300 nurses and 60 midwifes are graduated every year. Such continuing efforts of JRCS in the training of nurses results in the fact that 4.2% of nurses in the country are now educated by the Red Cross. 34 Social welfare institutions for elderly, children, and the disabled are also run by JRCS.
JRCS is the only supplier who is providing blood for transfusion in Japan. In 2008, more than 5 million people donated blood to JRCS which was utilized for the transfusion of 1 million patients in Japan.
More importantly, JRCS is supported by over 2 million community Red Cross Volunteers in the country. Moreover, more than 11,000 schools are members of the Junior Red Cross which promotes Red Cross youth activities.

He also served as a member of the Finance Commission of the International Federation between 1985 and 1993, as a member of the Standing Commission between 1995 and 2003, as a Governing Board member of the International Federation between 2001 and 2005 and as Vice President of the International Federation between 2005 and 2009. He has also been a member of the ICRC Finance Commission since 2003.
In his different management and governance capacities within the JRCS and the Movement, he has made field visits to about 90 National Societies on all continents. This has enabled him to gain a special insight into the challenges faced in the conduct of Red Cross and Red Crescent relief and development programs. It has also underlined for him the unique role played by Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers in fostering the spirit of humanity and protecting human dignity.

With his wealth of experience in various humanitarian fields, Mr. KONOÉ serves in different capacities at various public, non-governmental, academic and social organizations including the Central Disaster Management Council for the Prime Minister of Japan, Councillor of the Japan Committee for UNICEF, Advisor of the Japan Campaign to Ban Landmines, Advisor of Japan Center for Conflict Prevention.
Wife and one son. The KONOÉ house is the senior of five houses of the Fujiwara family whose members were eligible for the post of regent. It was established in the late Heian period (794-1185) in Kyoto. Family members served for generations as regents and grand ministers of state. Many were also scholars, poets, and calligraphers. After the Meiji Restoration (1868) and the establishment of a new peerage for the family, the head of the family was given the rank of prince.

Before finishing, I would like to quote Konoe himself were he reflects and talks of his vision for the Red cross movement.
Our Federation has a proud history of achievements over the last 90 years and rightfully has established the claim today to be the largest worldwide humanitarian network. To sustain and substantiate further this proud humanitarian record we must be better prepared to address the escalating needs of those suffering from the humanitarian consequences of climate change, physical and social insecurity, health emergencies and the world's financial crisis.

"I am firm in my belief that the member National Societies of the Federation possess great capacity and even further potential to better serve the ever growing number of vulnerable people. To reach our full potential, I believe, the Federation leadership has a key role in reinforcing the shared vision so necessary to deliver much needed services through unity of action. We need to strive to be even more efficient, not only for those who depend upon our support but also because competition and market forces in today's world demand efficiency if we are to remain relevant and a humanitarian force for good over the next 150 years and beyond.

National Societies are diverse in their history, relationship with their governments, humanitarian environments, activities and capacities.
So are their expectations of the Federation. I regard this diversity as a strength, so long as we can retain unity in our action. We need to share the "Spirit of Togetherness" by fostering the culture of working as a Federation.

In this regard, the President of the Federation must be a good listener to diverse views, particularly those within the components of our Movement.
He needs to be a consensus builder, resolving conflicting views and interests where he can. He needs, then, to be able to articulate and advocate the Federation's views to the outside world.

Having been born on the Red Cross/Red Crescent Day of the 8th May, perhaps it was my destiny to devote my whole professional career to service within the Movement. I have rich experience in management and governance, both at the national and the international levels.
As you will find in the attached personal profile, my career has allowed me to build a deep understanding about the realities faced by many National Societies.

The General Assembly in November will become a closing event of this commemorative year and also an opportunity for us all to pledge new commitments. As I proceed with my presidential campaign, I hope to meet as many leaders of National Societies as possible, including yourself of course. I look forward to a frank exchange of opinions so that I may benefit from these in shaping the aspirations I have to serve our membership as President of the Federation.

Coming as I do from one of the five founder members of the International Federation and the first ever candidate from the vast and the most populous Asia/Pacific Region, I look forward to your positive consideration of my candidature, taking into account my personal history and professional career as a born Red Crosser.

I am proud that Moriteru Konoe is President of the International Fedeartion of Red Cross for he will provide the vision and direction we need at this juncture in history. He has an exceptionally able secretary general in Bekele Gelata and together they will lead us to tackle the increasing humanitarian challenges the world is facing.

My mind goes back to a misty morning in Bhuj, Gujarat, India, when Konoe and I were having a bowl of soup together outside the Japanese Red Cross tent. He was so proud of the work the Japanese Red Cross medical team were doing for the many thousands injured by the earthquake, that killed over 25,000 people.
On that muddy school compound we had over 600 Red Cross staff and volunteers living in tents next to the 400 bed Finnish-Norwegian Red Cross field hospital.
Konoe spoke to me of this wonderful relief operation and how it must be replicated in the future. Rather than pump more money into the Japanese Red Cross, Konoe was the driving force behind the concept of and the Asia and Pacific disaster management unit, which is now well established in Kuala Lumpur, and provides a zone-wide disaster response, coordination and technical support to the whole of asia and Pacific. We have a man of vision with a history of implementation at the helm of Red Cross, and I for one, am highly motivated in my work with such leadedrship.

Check his website
Spirit of Togetherness.