Sunday, 28 June 2009

Solferino: Making their move for a better world

Last weekend of 26-28 June 2009, thousands of people gathered together in Solferino to mark the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Solferino and celebrate the birth of an idea that led to the founding of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement. With commitments in Indonesia with the tsunami operation, I was so disappointed not to make it to Solferino, but I have followed it closely through friends and Red Cross websites.

1859-2009: 150 years since the birth of the idea of the Red Cross Red Crescent
One hundred and fifty years ago, a battle in northern Italy led to an idea, that has since gone on to change the world. In June 1859, Henry Dunant, a young Geneva businessman, witnessed horrifying suffering and agony at the battle of Solferino. In response, he mobilized the nearby village of Castiglione to care for the wounded, regardless of their nationality. Not satisfied to forget, Dunant returned home and proposed the idea of voluntary relief societies, which are now the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, present in 186 countries throughout the world.

Isn't this an inspirational beginning which today is the largest humanitarian organisation in the world.

An estimated 13,000 Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers coming from all over the world participate in a 9 kilometer torch-lit procession in Solferino, Italy to to mark the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Solferino and celebrate the birth of an idea that led to the founding of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement. ©ICRC/M.Kokic/27 June 2009

Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers from all over the world join together at Plazza Castello in Solferino.
©ICRC/M.Kokic/27 June 2009

Five hundred youth from 149 countries at the third Red Cross Red Crescent world youth meeting Solferino in Italy this week are planning their next move for humanity. Under the theme “Youth on the Move”, workshops, cultural exchanges and meetings are taking place as part of the 150-year anniversary of the battle of Solferino. Stephen Ryan, communications officer for youth and volunteers at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), said he hoped the youth meeting would inspire concrete actions in participants from every part of the world. “History won’t be made at this meeting. This is just the start of a long journey. History will be made when people return to their home countries.” Samantha Duncan from the Grenada Red Cross Society said the best part of the meeting was learning what works in other countries. “I’m here to learn more about the best practices of other National Societies so that I can take it back to my country to improve our society and make an improvement on our programmes. “I’m here to build capacity for my National Society, take new ideas and also take old, existing ones that work for other countries and see what we can do with them and adopt them in our country.” Aaron Turner, a youth search and rescue leader and emergency response team in the New Zealand Red Cross, said he was impressed with the role of youth in other countries. “New Zealand Red Cross youth is not quite matured yet. It’s still in its really early stages and a lot of National Societies, particularly African societies, have 80 per cent of their members youth classed as youth whereas in New Zealand it’s less than 5. “It’s just fantastic to see the energy and vitality these countries bring. And it’s a lot to learn from.” He said he would try to take home the spirit of enthusiasm and communication. “My next move is to take back the motivation and the vitality that’s here. It’s just insane. The opening ceremony was something I’d never experienced before and I completely underestimated it. It’s something we want to take back to New Zealand. “To start a Pacific forum or to increase communication would just be fantastic.” Hadhya Al Zawm, a volunteer co-ordinator in the Yemen Red Crescent Society, said she was inspired by the Red Cross Red Crescent’s global values of humanity, independence, neutrality, impartiality, voluntary action, universality and unity. “I am here to meet our other brothers and sisters in the Movement. It was my dream to be here and to participate with other youth. And not to see not only in Yemen but all over the world that we all believe in the same fundamental principles and we do the same volunteering work and the same activities.”

Thanks to Rosemary North, IFRC or her article and the ICRC for photographs.

The need for humanitarian action is no less today than it was in Dunant’s time. So from 28 June 2009, Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers and staff got her in Italy to remember the past, but also to look to the future. The world is changing, and so too are the challenges.

Simple gestures can make a difference - Make yours.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

An ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro

Sunrise over Africa from the crater rim of Mt. Kilimanjaro. This photo and all others by Bob McKerrow

Another kind of treasure waited to be found

In July 1978, I returned to Ethiopia to work for the International Red Cross on a large relief operation for two million famine-stricken people. Having previously climbed the two highest mountains in Ethiopia in 1974, Mt. Ras Dashan (4757 m) and Mt. Buahit (4267 m), I began pouring over maps of Africa to see where I might be able to climb during a week’s holiday at Christmas 1978.

During the many weeks I spent in the highlands of Ethiopia in the course of my work, I become fascinated

Listening to my Ethiopian colleagues telling numerous stories and legends of their country’s rich and ancient history, and I was surprised to hear numerous mentions of Kilimanjaro.

When in the capital I spent a lot of my evenings searching for written account of Kilimanjaro in Ethiopian history and after many months I located a publication in the Tanzanian Embassy which featured a reprint by Dr. R. Reusch in the Tanganyika Standard of February 10, 1828. It read “ For thousands of years these mountains have stood, becoming more and more interwoven with legends. Even in Abyssinia (pre-war name of Ethiopia), Mt. Kibo, the highest summit of Kilimanjaro, is known and one remarkable legend, told me beside the camp fire by old Abyssinian soldiers and hunters is connected with this snow clad mountain. When the first king of of Abyssinia, son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, called Menelik I, who governed Tigre as Negusie-Negesshti (King of Kings) had completed his successful conquest of Shoa in southern Ethiopia, Somaliland, Kenya Colony and nor then Tanganyika, and was on his return journey bringing with him much spoils of wars he one day encamped on a desert-like stretch of land which unites Mt. Kibo and Mawenzi, at a height of 15,000 feet. He was old and tired of life and felt death drawing near. But because he was King he wanted to die as a King.
“ King I am and as King I wish to die,” he said to his followers One morning he bid his army farewell and accompanied by a few of his warlords and slaves, who carried his jewels and treasure, he began to ascend the mountain.

Kilimanjaro - King Menelik, Shipton, Hemingway and Valeria all fell in love with this mountain.
His soldiers below followed him with their eyes until he reached the boundary of the eternal snows where cloud encompassed him. In the evening the warlords returned without their King, for he had entered into the crater of the mountain with his slaves, jewels and treasure. And here he will sleep forever. But an offspring of his family will arise and restore the old glory of Ethiopian conquering all the land to the Rufiji River. He will ascend Mt. Kibo, find the jewels of Menelik I, among which will be the seal ring of Solomon which the old King has upon his finger. The ring he will put on his own hand and from this moment he will be endowed with the wisdom of Solomon. Also the heroic spirit of the old King will rest upon him. Thus says the legend.

Fired with the thoughts of treasure and the wisdom of Solomon I arrived at Marangu on December 16, 1978, a small village on the south-west slopes of Kilimanjaro. The base of Kilimanjaro measures 50 by 30 miles in an east-south-east direction. It consists of three major volcanic centres, Kibo 19,349 ft in the centre, Mawenzi 16,890 ft in the east, and Shira 13,140 in the west. Uhuru peak 19340 ft on Kibo, is the highest point in Africa.

Not having any climbing gear and clad only in street clothes when I arrived , I was lucky to be able to borrow a pair of climbing boots from a Bavarian geologist who had fortunately dislocated a shoulder. I hired some warmer clothes from the national park headquarters. I was fortunate finding a local farmer, Valerian, from the Chagga tribe who was keen to accompany me and carry fire wood and water for cooking.

Sign at the Kilimanjaro National Park headquarters/ (note spelling)
Valerian, like so many other Chagga, supplements his income by carrying loads, and if required will guide tourists in snow-free-conditions to Gilman;s point on the crater rim.
Living on the slopes of this great mountain the Chagga have a single finite clear focus on their country, a rare thing for African people whose eyes are so often fixed on stretches of undifferentiated bush or desert reaching indctermunatedly to the horizon. This gives the Chagga people a focus, a precise position in a single great mountain which is one of the most naturally fertile in Africa.

I had hoped to have a look perhaps climb one of the more interesting routes on Kilimanjaro but unseasonal weather over the whole of east- Africa had brought snow down to 12,000 feet. The first three days on the normal route is a delightful walk through constantly changing scenery: from 5000ft at Marangu to 15,450ft the last hut on the mountain.

The first day took us through rain forests comprising a variety of trees ferns with brambles and lichens growing in the trunks and branches. Occasionally we saw clusters of orchids, blue monkeys and small frightened birds. Between 8.000 and 12,000 feet the forest gradually changes to Podocarpus Milanjianus family and Hypernicum revolutum community. Around this altitude one meets with the first of three giant groundsels (photo opposite) endemic to Kilimanjaro (Scenico Johnsyonni), sometimes attaining a height of 30 feet.

The following day we emerged onto the upland grasslands. Here the everlasting flowers begin to become conspicuous. These grasslands almost extend to Horombo Hut at 12,299 feet surrounded by heath-like plants. On the third day we passed through alpine bogs dotted with giant Groundsel and giant Lobelia, a large short-lived herb which grows up to 12 feet. This landscape was identical to one I had seen four years earlier when climbing Mt. Ras Dashan in Ethiopia.

Mt.Mawenzi, from the saddle between Mt. Kibo and Mawenzi. Photo: Bob McKerrow

As we proceeded north over the seven miles between Mawenzi and Kibo, much of the distance being a saddle, the vegetation petered out to form an alpine desert. Here few plants survive because of the extremely low rainfall and temperature. The fresh snow had sorted the tourists out from the more adventurous leaving Valerian and I almost alone in the hut. The next morning we left the hut by moonlight at 1.30 am. It took us one and a half hours to reach Hans Meyer Cave which was completely full of snow. I thought of Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman who spent a night here in 1929 on their way to the summit. They also struck waist-deep snow and Tilman suffered from altitude sickness and vomited frequently.

From here on it was a steepish plod on snow-covered scree to Gilman’s Point at the crater rim, which we reached at 5.30 am in time to see a wild African sunrise.

At the crater rim of Kilimanjaro
Valerian heading towards Mt. Kibo. Photo: Bob McKerrow
Here the snow was very deep and the frozen crust would just support our weight. After the magnificent sunrise clouds began swirling over over the north-east crater rim as we headed towards Uhuru Peak a mile and a half away. With the rising temperatures we began breaking through the crust into deep powder snow.

The edge of the glacier on the crater rimTo avoid the fresh snow we traversed over a series of small peaks which had less snow an their wind-blown crests. Two hours of wading through waist deep snow, we furrowed ourselves to the summit.

Valerian, a local Chagga farmer, on the summit of Kibo Peak, the highest point on Mt. Kilimanjaro. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Our view down the mountain was obscured by cloud. But we could see the whole crater and surrounds but, because of the thick mantle of snow it looked so different, almost featureless, from previous photographs.
We dug into the four feet of snow which covered the summit and found the plaque installed many years ago which cites a speech of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere on Tanganyika’s independecane in 1961.
I thought of the great King Menelik and his buried treasure on this mountain. I think it best be left on the mountain for greed has already caused enough suffering in Africa.
I spent the last night in Tanzania with Valerian and his family. As happy children and piglets squealed around our feet and beer trickled down our throats, I thought that happiness like this is preferable to treasure.

Footnote: This article was rejected by Colin Monteath editor of the New Zealand Alpine Journal in 1978. Later, that illustrious North Island daily, the Manawatu Standard, published it in its Christmas Edition as a feature, on 24 December 1979.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Eric Shipton - An explorer and his women

Eric Shipton

I remember lying on a beautiful and secluded beach north of Qui Nhon, Vietnam in early 1971,reading Eric Shipton’s autobiography ‘That Untravelled World,’ I was instantly riveted to this explorer's compelling life.

Being a young mountaineer I was drawn to Shipton's preference for small, tightly knit expeditions that could be ready to go at a moments notice. Indeed nothing was impossible that couldn’t be planned out—in the famously misquoted phrase attributed to Tilman—“in half an hour on the back of an envelope”. But he discloses little about his private life.

I had to wait twenty seven years to read Eric Shipton: Everest and Beyond by Peter Steele, a revealing biography about Shipton’s personal life. I bought my copy in London in 1998 and re-read in last week when I was in Bangkok.

Shipton adored women. Steele's account is full of drainpipe climbs to secret trysts from Srinagar to Kalimpong, young girls mesmerised by the explorer's intense blue eyes, and memsahibs pronouncing: "The man's a dreamer and just lives on a glacier; what good is he to my daughter?" The daughter in question broke off her engagement and Shipton subsequently married Diana Channer, who tells the biographer years later that, with Shipton, "There was a gap somewhere; a big lump of what makes most people tick was missing." She blames the gap on Shipton's "ice queen" mother.
That suggestion of emotional inadequacy is balanced by the obvious warmth and lasting friendship of both Diana and the many other women whose letters and conversations are quoted extensively. I was fascinated to discover that Shipton's early books were heavily revised and edited by his former lover and lifelong friend, Pamela Freston. It was also a revelation to learn about his dyslexia, which helps explain his undistinguished school career and recurrent feelings of inadequacy in his Oxbridge-dominated milieu. He was, to some extent, a social misfit, but that did not stop him serving as British Consul to Kashgar during the War - just one of many fascinating episodes in a very full life.

A RGS photo of Eric Shipton surveying in the mountains.

In 1984, a few years after the death of Eric Shipton, I visited Eskdale Outward Bound Mountain School. I had just been appointedf Director of the New Zealand Outward Bound School and knew that Eric Shipton had been a former director. During my days here with Roger Putnam the Director, he told part of the Eric Shipton legend, but I had to wait for Peter Steel’s book to fill the gaps.
Steele writes, “In the middle of 1954 the staff noticed trouble brewing in the Shipton marriage. Diana was seeing a lot of David Drummond, a dashing, handsome, athletic instructor. Shipton started giving Susan Denholm-Young, the bursar’s wife, rides in his car to her parent’s home near Leeds on the other side of Ilkley, Otley and Skipton Moors know by the instructors as ‘Skipton Deviation.’ Patrick Denholm- Young, was a straightforward army officer (known in his regument as ‘Dunem Wrong’)”

Shipton was certainly quite indiscreet, ranging from being seen with his lady friend in Leeds, to being observed at 2 a.m. climbing through a bedroom window in Eskdale village (not the first time a drainpipe had featured in his philandering).

Later steel writes, “Denholm-Young, the one left out of the triangle, brought the matter to a head in late 1954 by causing a scene, According to the Shiptons’ sons legend, he chased their father round the kitchen table brandishing a knife, shouting “You’re a shit Shipton.” The latter thought this quite unnessarily theatrical.

A social misfit, a womaniser and probably last century's greatest mountain explorer, it is clear that people liked Eric Shipton. He made friends easily and kept the ones he made. Although he married only once, many women were drawn to him. Admirer Beatrice Weir was just 17 when she met him at a garden party in India. “Suddenly,” she later said, “there appeared this extraordinary brown-faced man, fairly small, with strong legs and a strong body, a shock of hair and slightly weak chin. He had blazing blue eyes everyone used to talk about; he just sat and looked. It was indefinable. I melted like an ice cube.”

Eric Shipton left, with Ed Hillary. Hillary saw Shipton as a hero and mentor.

It is a geographer’s curiosity more than a mountaineer’s desire to climb for the sake of a summit that marks most of Shipton’s writing. Although his Everest detractors may have rather snidely attributed this philosophy to sour grapes, Shipton had begun to argue about the “real value of climbing” long before the 1953 Everest scandal. When people allowed the cut and thrust of competition or money or fame to drive their activities, he felt, they stood to lose the values that made anything worth doing.
Shipton began climbing in earnest in the Dauphiné region of the Alps in the 1920s. He subsequently settled in East Africa to try his luck as a tea-planter, singularly pleased at the thought that his new home was just twenty miles from the foot of Mount Kenya (to the amusement of his house servants, he arrived at his farm with an ice axe, climbing boots, and several hundred feet of rope). In 1930, he received a letter from a British compatriot, H. W. Tilman, asking for advice on climbing in the mountains of East Africa. Their subsequent meeting and ascent of Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya fused together one of the most important partnerships in twentieth century mountain travel and exploration.
Shipton made the first ascent of Kamet (India) in 1931, the highest peak to have been climbed at the time. In 1932, he was invited to join an expedition to Everest, the fourth European team to attempt the 8,848-m peak, following the disappearance of climbers Mallory and Irvine in 1924. Although the 1932 expedition and a subsequent attempt the following year were both unsuccessful, two important developments took place in Shipton’s personal career as a mountaineer. One was the thought, “Why not spend the rest of my life doing this sort of thing?”; the other was a growing feeling that Himalayan climbing had been beleaguered by the idea that a potentially successful expedition required colonising base camps with a “small town of tents”, hundreds of porters, and up to three reserve climbers for every man expected to attempt the summit. It was Lilliput laying siege to Gulliver by sheer force of numbers.
But Shipton and Tilman developed a far simpler approach to climbing, cutting down drastically on unnecessary personal equipment and food not worth its value in weight. (During preparations for the Shaksgam expedition to the Karakoram in 1937, Tilman was strongly opposed to taking plates at all, insisting that they could eat and drink everything out of a mug. Fortunately for their party, Shipton decided in favour of the extra weight of four plates). More importantly, however, he felt strongly that no member of an expedition should be superfluous. Every person had a distinct and clearly defined role. There was no such thing as a “reserve” climber.
The territory west of the Shaksgam river in northern Pakistan—the Sarpo Laggo and Shimshal valleys, the Baltoro, Biafo, Hispar, and Braldu glaciers, and the Aghil range—is Shipton country, severely contoured, and with the highest concentration of 7,000- and 8,000 m peaks in the world. For the climber-explorer E. E. Shipton, whose 1937 and 1939 Shaksgam expeditions spent months surveying some 1,800 square miles of mountain territory in the Karakoram, it was the blank space on his map temptingly marked “UNEXPLORED”.

The son of a British tea-planter, Eric Earle Shipton was born in Ceylon in 1907. His father died when he was only three, and the family finally settled in England for the sake of the two children’s schooling. By the time he was in prep school, a hearty reading diet of early mountain travel writers such as Edward Whymper had persuaded Shipton that “all this climbing business” was infinitely preferable to mugging up dreary Latin primers. Obviously, “real climbing involved hanging by fingernails over giddy drops”—an excellent way of life.

Shipton and Tilman applied what became known later as “British Alpinism” to all their subsequent expeditions. They explored approaches to the seemingly impenetrable amphitheatre encircling Nanda Devi (India) in 1934 and mapped and explored the remote glacial regions of the Karakoram in 1937 and 1939. Shipton himself was a key expedition member in four attempts on Everest. During the Second World War, he served as a diplomat in Persia, Hungary, and China, but by 1951, he was back in the Himalaya, leading the Mount Everest Reconnaissance Expedition, the first to attempt the southern face of the mountain by climbing the treacherous Khumbu Icefall (the attempt was pivotal to Edmund Hilary’s successful ascent in 1953). Unfortunately, palace intrigues within the Himalayan Committee led to Shipton being ousted from the leadership of the 1953 expedition in favour of John Hunt, who, although an experienced mountaineer, was relatively unknown at the time. Shipton was bitterly disappointed, but swallowed the setback with dignity. It freed him, perhaps, from the fame that he had always disparaged as violating the spirit of mountaineering. Shipton spent his latter years wandering through the mountains of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego in South America; he probably owned little more than what he could

Both Shipton and his more phlegmatic companion, Tilman, were inveterate travel writers, but their accounts are seasoned with the dry humour of people who do not confuse their passion for climbing and exploration with a tendency to take themselves too seriously. In Blank on the Map (1938), Shipton recalls walking with blistered feet on the long, dry march to Skardu, complaining bitterly and thinking dejectedly of beer, while an equally morose Tilman declared that, at this rate, they would “certainly be turned out of any self-respecting hiking club in England”.
“…it is not yet time to climb these mountains”, he wrote. “With so much of the vast Himalaya still a blank on the map, our first privilege is to explore rather than to climb.”

In his final years in the mid 70s, Shipton was invited by Lars Lindblad of New York to be a guest lecturer on one of his small ships cruising the Chilean Channels, to the Galapagos and twice to Antarctica. Phyllis Wint, his constant companion on all these cruises,was quite unconventional for her day. Diana Shipton, who called her 'the enigma of all time', together with many of his former lovers, could not understand why he should fall for Phyllis. Some attributed it to domestic convenience, and the fact she would let him go off on his travels on a whim and unimpeded. Certainly lack of fetters and demands was part of the bastion of their relationship,but that alone could not have held them together for 20 years. Phyllis was just not bothered by the other women in Shipton's life, and felt no jealousy towards them, though she got a certain amusement from their machinations.

He died in 1977 at the home of a friend in Wiltshire, England.

"Bring me men to match my mountains' wrote William Blake, and for Shipton it was more " Bring me women who will let me go to the mountains." An extraordinary explorer.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Back in Bangkok with my dreams and memories

Pavements, people jostling, food smells, colour, feeding frenzies, hawkers, glances, stalls, snaking traffic, hoardings, hustling, clanking noises, laughter,... Over 34 years since I first came here. Bangkok has been a refuge to me, a balm for my burnt out body after long missions in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Cambodia.

It is a place I have cried for lost friends…..

Every visit is a mixture of dreams and memories

It was March 1975 I accidentally came here under tragic circumstances. I was working for the Red Cross in Geneva early March 1975 when I got a phone call from the New Zealand Red Cross to say that Mac Riding, leader of the NZ Red Cross team in South Vietnam, was missing on a flight from Vientiane Laos, to Saigon. An ICRC doctor, Dr. Surtzeneger was also on the flight. I was asked to fly to Saigon and find out about the missing flight. I spent 10 frantic days in Saigon trying to find out from Air Vietnam, the NZ Embassy and the Government what had happened. The reply was that it was shot down by North Vietnamese or Viet Cong troops who were slowly taking South Vietnam, not far from Pleiku. I tried to travel to the scene but advancing troops prevented that.

With Mac Riding in Peru 1968. Mac is the bearded guy in the back row, giving the V sign. I am the young guy on the left with a mug in my hand. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Mac and I were on a New Zealand mountaineering expedition to Peru in 1968, and then when I was leader of a NZ Red Cross refugee welfare team in 1973-74, Mac was a team member. When I left Vietnam to work in Geneva, Mac Riding took over from me as leader.

While I was in Saigon gathering information on Mac’s disappearance, the North Vietnamese were rolling south, capturing, Da Nang, Hue, Nga Trang, Khontum, Pleiku, Nga Trang. I left a matter of days before the fall of Saigon and flew to Bangkok.

Some of the peaks in the Peruvian Andes I climbed with Mac Riding.

This was my first visit. I was sure Mac Riding was dead. I found a cheap hotel and remember sitting outside, grieving for him.

As the night wore on I relived all the first ascents of those high Peruvian summits we did together. We had both been to Antarctica and enjoyed running the Scott Base huskies. In 1973-74 we worked together resettling refugees in the central highlands of Vietnam together. Ocassionally we talked of death, and who might or might come to our funerals. Death was never far away as we courted fate on mountains, Antarctic ice and war zones.

Pretty bargirls tried to comfort me but I was in another world drowning my sorrows in Bangkok. Memories flooded back of Mac and I being arrested in the Amazonian Urabamba river region of Peru, as we both had beards and the Guadia Civil thought we were supporters of Che Guevara, who had recently been executed in Bolivia.

That is my first Bangkok memory. Since then Bangkok has been a transit airport for me between NZ, and India, NZ and Afghanistan and other places. And now it is a place we have our regional meetings. Often I sit outside in the pavement cafes and dream of the future. There are so many journies yet to make.

It was here in 1994 that Jom and Fabio from the ICRC, and I met up after a draining time in Northern Afghanistan. On 1 January 1994, a huge battle broke out in Mazar I Sharif in Northern Afghanistan between two warlords and over 30,000 women and children were rendered homeless. It was minus 15 degrees centigrade and women and children had fled the fighting during a snowstorm to Mosques and schools, without shoes or warm clothing. Many were suffering from hypothermia and frostbite. The three of us negotiated for a three hour ceasefire so we could distribute clothes, food, blankets and equipment to cook food and tea.

For the next few months we were extremely busy running a huge relief operation for a growing number of displaced people.

Fabio, Jom and I met up in Bangkok at the end of 1994. Jom, from Belgium, a very gallant Red Cross worker, died of HIV and AIDS a few years later. I think of him a lot.

Then in 2002 Dr. Bo Kwye from Myanmar, died in Pakistan. He was medical adviser in our South Asia regional delegation. I remember working with a young Pakistan Red Cross volunteer preparing his body for the return journey home. We took his body back to Burma via Bangkok.

I even courted a beautiful English woman here when I was very young, very romantic. At first she doubted my sincerity and said, “if you really care for me, you’ll meet me under the biggest Chandelier in South East Asia at 8 pm this evening.”
Knowing very little about Bangkok, I rushed from hotel to hotel, then to a small museum, where I was told the location of the biggest chandelier in SE Asia: in a hotel in Bangkok. I arrived at 7.55 pm with a huge bunch of orchids, a box of chocolates. I remember walking through a night bazaar and she said, “I don’t like your T-Shirt,” and she proceeded to buy me a beautiful Thai silk shirt.

Chandeliers, chocolates, silk shirts…..after a wonderful dinner overlooking the river, we danced the night away

I remember returning to Bangkok after spending 3 years in Afghanistan in late 1996, buying Michael Jordan T Shirts and jewellery for my daughters living in New Zealand.

I wrote many poems in bars and parks in Bangkok, and one which compares the city of Kabul to the city of Bangkok, is my favourite. It was published in my book on Afghanistan, “Mountains of our Minds.” I will post it next week.

Back in Bangkok with my dreams and memories, but you know, I prefer dreams to memories. Bet on it !

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Pakistan: IFRC calls for 23.9 million Swiss francs to help 140,000 displaced

My lasting posting gave details of the grave humanitarian situation in Pakistan. We have just launched an appeal to help the Pakistan Red Crescent Society in its work assisting the displaced people.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has launched an emergency appeal seeking 23,926,179 million Swiss francs (22.44 million US dollars or 15.76 million euro) to help the Pakistan Red Crescent Society (PRCS) meet the humanitarian needs of 140,000 people displaced from the areas of fighting.

Latest reports suggest that more than 2 million people have fled their homes, making this the largest and fastest growing displacement in 15 years. The majority of the displaced people are now staying with host families outside the areas where hostilities are occurring.

Pakistan is currently facing a growing humanitarian crisis triggered by fierce fighting between government security forces and militants. There was an increase of around 100,000 displaced people in the last ten days of May alone. This growing displacement illustrates the uncertainty of the timeframe of these hostilities and illustrates the massive humanitarian needs that exist, both for the displaced and the families who are sheltering them.

“Seeing the magnitude of the problem, it is urgent that all Red Cross and Red Crescent partners join hands together to help the people,” says Ilyas Khan, PRCS secretary general.

Since the end of April, in addition to the direct implementation of its own assistance programmes, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been actively supporting the PRCS emergency response. These operations aim to address the needs of civilians, focussing on the sick and wounded and the displaced in the Mardan, Swabi, Malakand, Dir and Nowshera districts.

The PRCS plan for an International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement response will support around 400,000 displaced people in the emergency phase of the operation,some 50,000 people in camps and 350,000 staying with host families.

Within that plan, the IFRC emergency appeal will complement the PRCS and ICRC joint efforts through timely response to 70,000 internally displaced people (10,000 families) in non-conflict areas during the emergency phase and another 70,000 (10,000 families) will be supported for early recovery. Support will be focused on those staying with host families, but this appeal will also enable the PRCS to provide services in one camp that is outside of areas where fighting is occurring.

“With the humanitarian crisis growing, the needs have become far greater,” says Pepe Salmela, head of the IFRC in Pakistan. “The uncertainties regarding the ongoing clashes, as well as its time frame, add to the urgency for a timely, well-coordinated, and efficient humanitarian response.”

The timeframe of this operation is to the end of 2009.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Funds needed to reach 2.6 million displaced Pakistanis

I saw the birth of the Talebans in early 1994 when I lived in Afghanistan and had to work closely with them in order to get assistance to vulnerable communities in remote parts of Afghanistan. Then when 9/11 occured, I was back in Pakistan heading a large operation for Afghan refugees who fled into Pakistan. Again in October 2005, it was a disaster of a different kind, a huge eathquake in northern Pakistan, killing 80,000 people. And over the past we have witnessed another huge humanitarian crisis in Pakistan that I followed through a blog of a young teenage Pakistani women who recorded the horrors unfolding on her blog from the Swat valley on the BBC website. Today, modern technology allows you to read the terror first hand. If anything, it makes me feel more helpless when I read of a young woman caught in the crossfire of a major battle and sees people being killed and murdered all around her. I suppose what warms my heart is I know the Pakistan Red Crescent, the ICRC and the IFRC are doing everything possible to assist the displaced people.

My good friend Joe Lowry writes : "One of the biggest exoduses of modern times is under way in Pakistan. Two and a half million people have been displaced - a dozen times the populaiton of Geneva, and yet we hear relativley little about their plight in this "little Switzerland". Check out this blog

The International Committee of the Red Cross yesterday (31 May) gained access to Swat valley for the first time since hostilities began. Their team reported hospitals lacking the barest necessities - we're talking without water or electricity - in an area where people are most likely receiving horrific injures, and suffering from food shortages and waterborne diseases.

Nothing is getting in, not even the spoken word, as phone lines are down. Mingora has obviously been a scene of carnage. The footage coming out evokes Mogadishu, and the "theatre" must be as dangerous for the aid workers going in as it was in Somalia back in the early 90s. To them, chapeau, and sincerest wishes for their continued safety.

On the 3rd of June we got this statement from the UN.
Without the contribution of urgently-needed funds, the United Nations and its partners will only be able to feed the 2.6 million Pakistanis forced to flee clashes between the Government and militants for the next month or two, it was announced today.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the world body has less than half of the $280 million sought to meet the food needs of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Pakistan.
In addition, the $543 million Humanitarian Action Plan launched late last month is only 22 per cent funded. OCHA also warned that current stocks of essential drugs will run out by the end of this month. There is already a shortage of hygiene kits and soap in all camps housing some 200,000 of the uprooted, it added.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said today that the portion of the Action Plan dedicated to health needs is only 11 per cent funded.
There is a high risk of communicable disease outbreaks due to overcrowding, contaminated water, poor sanitation and inadequate health care provision, among other factors, WHO said, cautioning that a funding shortfall will impede abilities to protect people from disaster.

This is a tragic situation and I hope and pray the Red Cross /Red Crescent and the UN save the situation worsening.