Thursday, 30 August 2012

Kgomotso Xolisa Mamaila

At the end of the week, I usually have a good talk over a beer or two with my good friend Thabo for the South African High Commission. With both have a deep love of rugby and an interest in Africa, so they are usually very enriching evening for me. With Friday being a holiday, I dropped in to join Thabo last night and soon after I arrived, Geoff Doidge the South African High Commissioner came over and had a long talk with us. What a remarkable man who was hand-picked by Nelson Mandela at a young age to help him in his work towards breaking down apartheid.

As we were talking a very charming women came over to talk to the High Commissioner and he introduced me to her as" Kgomotso Xolisa Mamaila a very popular South African jazz singer."

As she doesn't start singing until tomorrow, she was happy to talk about her singing and her life.

The 25 year old female singer who was born in a small town in South Africa had a passion and love for music from an early age. In 2000 she went to study Music at Eastside College SA where she majored in vocal training. From that point it had been a continuous journey in the music industry.

Kgomotso has played with one of South Africa’s best Afro jazz bands. In 2007 Kgomotso recorded a single in a collaboration album called “Classix” where she performed with lots of well known names during the promotion of the album. She also performed with Khethi who is an Afro Centric Jazz Musician where they toured a lot of places with the band in and around South Africa. In 2010 Kgomotso was approached by a band named Tonic Stations who were invited to perform and entertain soccer lovers at the Hilton Colombo. And there started her relationship with Sri Lanka.

Kgomotso and myself taken by Thabo last night.

So it was an enjoyable evening but I wasn't so popular when I got home and Naila asked me, "Why are you late?" My reply was, " Drinking with an African woman who is a great Jazz singer." ot the brightest answer.

If you want to see her perform she will be at the Hilton Colombo’s Thorana Lounge from 1st to 30th September every Monday to Friday from 8pm onwards. For a booking call the food & beverage office on 2544 644 or log in to or – The Hilton Colombo.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Fukushima Summer - 18 months after tsunami

September 11th marks 18 months since the triple disaster hit Japan’s Tohoku region. To mark this milestone, the IFRC together with the Japanese Red Cross has produced a set of communications products telling the stories of survivors’ daily lives in the disaster area. These include a 6-minute mini-documentary, Fukushima Summer, which focused on the life of an 11-year-old girl, Airi, who lives in Fukushima. People in the area are still making use of  scanning equipment, provided by the Red Cross, to check radiation levels in food and in their own bodies and permanent homes are just starting to be rebuilt. The film follows Airi to a Red Cross summer camp in the northern island of Hokkaido for children from all over the disaster area. Here children  gain strength from their experiences and learn to  help their communities on the road to recovery.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

A history of the Bana hill tribe in Vietnam with whom the New Zealand Red Cross worked.

I worked with the Bana (Bahnar) people for over two years, first in 1971 and again in 1973-74. I was fortunate to see these tribal people who live in the mountainous regions of Vietnam in the provinces of Kontum, Gai Lai (formerly Pleiku) Phu Yen and Binh Dinh, living in a very traditional manner.

In 1971 the Banar people were being affected by the war between the US who were supporting the South Vietnamese Government,  and the North Vietnamese  but were still trying to preserve their culture. That year, 71,  I was part of a New Zealand Red Cross (NZRC) refugee welfare team working with Banar tribes in the An Khe Mang Yang and Van Canh districts where we were providing medical, livelihood and educational assistance. We were the fourth NZRC refugee team in Vietnam, the first starting in 1968 when Jerry Talbot and Moya McTamney were members, and both went on to carve long and successful careers with Red Cross.

Above, a young lady in a Bana village in An Khe. Taken in 1971 by Bob McKerrow

In 1973 I returned to Vietnam as leader of the 5th NZRC refugee welfare team, this time based in Pleiku and covering mainly Pleiku, but some areas of Kontum. Many of our staff were Bana and I remember so many of them; and Mo, Khel, Blon spring readily to mind. The main purpose of this article is to give a brief history of these marvellous people, who have such much, but have kept their culture in tact, to a large extent.
A month ago I visited Vietnam and my interest in the Bana people was rekindled by the excellent exhibitions and displays in the Museum of Etrhnic minorties.

When I worked in vietnam, the common name for the highland tribes we worked with was Montagnards, or people of the mountains.

The Montagnards can be subdivided into (at least) 30 or so different ethnic groups speaking different languages belonging mainly to the Austronesian language family (such as the Gia Rai, Ede, Rag Lai and Cham), and Mon-Khmer language groups (including the Ba Na, Bru-Van Kieu, Gie Trieng, M'Nong, Xe Dang and X Tieng). Many consider these populations to be indigenous, having preceded the arrival of the ethnic Kinh, and most of their societies are matrilineal. Some of the Montagnard groups, such as the Ede and Bahnar, include a significant number of Catholic or Protestant believers. The main groups in this category are the Jarai, Rhade, Bahnar, Koho, Mnong and Stieng.

The exact numbers of these two categories are a matter of some dispute: the Montagnards of the central highlands probably number between 1 and 2 million, whereas the groups from the northern highlands are more numerous, with several of the largest minorities such as the Tay, Tai, Muong and Nung each exceeding or in the vicinity of 1 million.

The Bahnar live mainly on the cultivation of swidden fields and slash-and-burn agriculture. The hoe is main tool used in agricultural production. Intensive land cultivation of swidden fields using the slash- and-burn method dispenses with the notion of allowing fields to go fallow after a period of time. In general, swidden fields are located near rivers and streams and have long been popular among the Bahnar. But since the beginning of 20th century, wet rice cultivation using harrows is also practiced. Horticulture and diversified crops also appeared quite a long time ago. Animal husbandry and craft production, such as basketry, cloth weaving, pottery and blacksmithing, are less developed. Left: A photo of a young male and female Bana wearing traditional costume.

 A group of Bana women return home from collecting firewood in Pleiku district 1973. The small store houses behind them is where they storeb grains and other important stores. Photo: Bob McKerrow 

Lifestyle: The Bahnar people live in vast areas from Gia Lai and Kon Turn to the west of Binh Dinh, Phu Yen and Khanh Hoa provinces. They mostly live in stilt houses, which are characterized by having the entrance door opening at the front of the house. The roofs are decorated with horns at either end. There is a communal house (nha rong) in the heart of the village, identified from other dwellings by its magnificent high roof. The communal house is a place where public activities are held, including education for the youth, ceremonies, trials, etc.

Transportation: The chief means of transporting things is the gui (bamboo or rattan backpacks). The gui has many sizes and types and can be woven differently, but usually follow traditional motifs.

Social organization: The village is the primary social unit. Vestiges of matriarchal social structure are still in evidence in Bahnar family relations, lineage systems, and marriage. The decline of matriarchy has raised the position of men, but social relationships still tend to be closer to the mother's family. After marriage, the Bahnar custom still prevails that the groom stays at his wife's house. Society is differentiated among those who are rich, those who are poor, and those who are classed as servants.

Marriage: Monogamy is a basic principle of Bahnar marriage. The exchange of living places by the newly- married couples are increa¬singly popular. After a period of time when the husband lives at his wife's house, and vice versa, .the couple then moves to a new place to settle and becomes a new cell of the community.

Right: A teenage girl carries a small baby in Manh Yang district. 1971. Bob McKerrow

Left: a Bana woman cleaning rice. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Education: Education for youths takes place at the communal house (nha rong taught by the village elders. This traditional education includes job training, martial arts, combat techniques, and the cultural values of the community.

Artistic activities: Folk songs are ample/ but more popular ones are hmon and roi lyrics. Musical instruments played by the Bahnar include percussion and aerophone instruments as well as chordophones (stringed instruments). Traditional dances are popular, performed on ceremonial occasions and seasonal festivals. The long poems and folktales of the Bahnar are unique, traditional works that are an important part of Vietnam's cultural patrimony.

Games: Among the popular games are chasing (dru dra), rope seizing, stone throwing, kite flying, ball kicking, stick walking, spinning top, and khang playing
  The war between the US and the North Vietnamese took its toll on many ethnic mionorities living in the Central Highlands, especially the Bana. Here is a group of IDPs arriving in Pleiku having been forced out of their homeland due to conflict. Taken in 1973 by Bob McKerrow    

Historical context
Most of the minority populations in the northern and central highlands of Vietnam are descended from various groups who settled in the region long before the arrival of the ethnic Kinh. Many of the highland groups, for example, are thought to have arrived over 2,000 years ago, and at one point to have occupied much of the south of Indochina.

During the pre-colonial period, ethnic minorities living in the highland areas maintained autonomy from the Vietnamese state, which did not consider them a threat. However, the highland population in both the north and the south was economically exploited by the ethnic Kinh. During the colonial period, the highland areas were targets of French missionary education and commercial activities. The French played the Kinh and ethnic minorities off against one another, sometimes supporting Kinh settlement in highland areas, at other times prohibiting such settlement and encouraging local administration by highlanders.

Left. A Banar house in which many families live. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The reaction of highland groups to the French was also mixed. Because of the economic exploitation there were a number of revolts, including a revolt by the Jarai that lasted until the late 1930s. At the same time, many hill tribe populations supported the French for the protection they gave them from the Kinh. Montagnards, especially in the south, fought alongside French and, later, US forces during successive Indochinese wars, though at the same time some also fought against them.

In order to win support from the ethnic groups in the northern and central highland regions, French colonial authorities established before 1954 autonomous zones for the Muong and Thai in the north-western mountains and the central highlands as the ‘Pays Montagnard du Sud', administered directly under Emperor Bao Dai. While Ho Chi Minh made a number of commitments promising autonomy for these minorities, the policies until independence were very much in a state of flux.
South Vietnamese authorities, however, embarked on what would later also be continued in a different form by Vietnam's Communist government: after 1955, South Vietnamese President Ngô Dinh Diêm launched the first programmes to resettle members of the Kinh to ‘land development centres' in the central highlands - in effect appropriating the traditional lands of the highland groups and handing them over mainly to members of the majority ethnic group, as well as to thousands of ethnic minority refugees from the north. These policies were eventually suspended, to try to assuage some of the highland groups who had resisted violently. North Vietnam also began its own resettlement programme during its first Five Year Plan (1961-65), setting up ‘New Economic Zones' in northern highland provinces. By 1975, an estimated 1 million people, mainly ethnic Kinh, were relocated into areas previously the domain of various highland minorities.

A typical loom and traditional weaving by Mintagnards. Taken by the author in the Museum of Ethnic Minorities in Hanoi 2012.

Similar policies were put into place for the central highlands after reunification in 1975, with perhaps as many as 3 million moving into the area. The ethnic Kinh today represent around two-thirds of the population of the central highlands. In addition, efforts to end swidden agriculture and to sedentarize minorities meant the relocation of hundreds of thousands to the valleys to grow rice and other cash-oriented crops. Frustration at the loss of traditional lands, restrictions on the religious practices of some minorities, threats to the maintenance of their languages and cultures, as well as poor access to education and health all combined to spark large-scale demonstrations by some central highland minorities in 2001. There were further demonstrations in 2004 over land rights and freedom of religion issues, as well as over the migration of large numbers of majority Kinh. The 2004 demonstrations were much more violent than in 2001, with the People's Committee building in one commune destroyed, as well as some Kinh migrants' houses and farms. On both occasions, the government clamped down on all outside access to the central highlands.

While the economy of Vietnam has grown rapidly in recent years, the areas in which ethnic minorities predominate have benefited the least, and for the most part they remain the poorest people in Vietnam. Mainly the Chinese population in the urban areas of southern Vietnam seem to have benefited somewhat from Vietnam's more open economy.

Current issues

The Vietnamese government continues to follow a contradictory policy towards the minority and indigenous groups from the highland regions. On the one hand, it conveys a message that it recognizes the importance of these groups and wishes to address their specific needs, yet on the other hand, a number of the policies and programmes it puts in place have considerable negative impacts on them.

Left: Dried gourds for carry water and other fluids. Photo taken by the author in the Museum of Ethnic Minorities in Hanoi 2012.

Carvings with many different referencces to fertility and reproduction can be seen adorning the fences outside the burial houses.

Bana women returning home after cutting and collecting firewood. Photo: Bob McKerrow

After the 2001 protests by thousands of highland groups, a number of announcements and changes were made to address some of the grievances. Among these was a 2004 prime ministerial decision to allocate land to the country's minorities and assist them in areas such as housing. However, other announcements indicate that aspects of policy detrimental to highland groups have not been abandoned. In March 2007, another prime ministerial decision on resettlement declared the aim of completely eliminating all swidden (slash-and-burn) agriculture activities of minorities by 2010. While it is too early to conclude how effective or even desirable such moves away from swidden agriculture are, early studies suggest mixed results: a 2006 report examining a remote upland village in north-central Vietnam where swidden agriculture was severely curtailed, concluded that the move towards wet-rice cultivation resulted in a lower rice production yield, and thus a lower level of food security. There was an increase in forest cover, but this was accompanied by greater use of lower areas for wet-rice cultivation and a reduction in the landscape mosaic resulting from swidden agriculture (some reports indicate that slash-and-burn agriculture supports greater biodiversity than the binary system of forest and permanently cultivated fields).

When I was back in Vietnam in July 2012, I talked to friends who told me about the improvement in relations between the various montagnards and the Government which is encouraging. The Museum of Ethnic Minorities in Hanoi certainly portrays the many tribal cultures in a positive light.

Friday, 24 August 2012

The Great East Japan Earthquake, Some thoughts from Red Cross

Based on 25 Years of Working with Disasters in the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement

by Bjorn Eder   from The Journal of Humanitarian Studies Vol 1, March 2012,  Japanese Red Cross Institute for Humanitarian Studies.

On 11 March 2011 at 2.46 pm, the northeast of the island of Honshu was struck by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake with the epicentre 120 km off the coast. It was the fourth largest earthquake recorded in the world since 1900, and the strongest in Japanese history. Within an hour, a giant tsunami which reached up to 40 meters in the narrow bays and river valleys of this mountainous area, devastated communities along 700 km expanse of coastline. Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures were most severely affected.

The President of IFRC and Japanese Red Cross together with Naoki Kokawa, visit the affected area soon after the tsunami struck.

More than 19,000 people died or are still missing and nearly 6,000 were injured. Of the fatalities, some 90 % were drowned in the cold water. More than 65% of those who died were over 60 years old. The tsunami also seriously damaged three nuclear reactors in Fukushima, where it caused an accident on a scale not experienced since the catastrophic accident at Chernobyl in 1986. It was the tsunami rather than the earthquake, which was responsible for virtually all the fatalities and, together with the nuclear accident, all the evacuees. More than 400,000 people were evacuated to temporary shelters, including those displaced from the 20 km zone around the damaged nuclear reactors at the Fukushima-Daiichi plant. Public and industrial infrastructure suffered massive destruction. The cold winter weather added to the difficult situation of those who were displaced. Local authorities and volunteers distributed large amounts of food, water and daily necessities, fuel, medical supplies, much of which were donated by those among the local population who had been less severely affected by the disaster and by people in other parts of Japan in a massive expression of solidarity. Commercial companies and officials from neighbouring municipalities and prefectures also rushed to provide support. Personnel from the Self Defence Forces, fire brigades, coast guards and police from the whole country were rapidly mobilised to assist, along with 500 nuclear disaster response teams. More than 2,000 medical teams went to the affected areas. From around the world, countries and organisations spontaneously offered search and rescue and relief assistance. The US and South Korean military also immediately responded by sending ships, planes and personnel. The costs of rebuilding after the destruction are estimated to be between 2.5% and 4% of the country’s economic output in 2010.

What did the Japanese Red Cross Society (JRCS) do?

When the earthquake happened, it rocked buildings much more severely than normal even in Tokyo, and the staff in JRCS national headquarters there immediately realised that this was exceptional and not just one of the earthquakes that occur almost daily in Japan. JRCS had well prepared plans to meet its obligations under the existing national disaster management plan and it implemented these very effectively. The Japanese Red Cross at once swung into action and within the first 24 hours, 46 medical teams had been deployed to the affected areas. A national fundraising campaign was launched to assist the municipalities to bring cash assistance to the affected population. In the days and months which followed, nearly 900 JRCS medical teams and more than 700 trained providers of psychosocial support were to treat nearly 90,000 shocked and vulnerable survivors of Japan’s largest recorded disaster. With hundreds of thousands of people initially crammed into evacuation centres, trained psychosocial nurses helped those hit by the disaster to come to terms with the emotional impact of losing their relatives, friends and neighbours, their homes and any certainty about the future. As the operation moved from relief into early recovery, people were able to settle in prefabricated homes or rented apartments. Most had few possessions, but with the aid of donations from across the world, JRCS provided 128,000 relocated families with a set of electrical appliances. Focusing especially on the most vulnerable, special beds and vehicles have been provided to elderly care homes. Nearly 170 schools have received various kinds of new equipment, including school buses and many vehicles have been donated for social services, along with items for school clinics and indoor play areas. As part of its longer term recovery plan, JRCS is reconstructing both permanent and temporary health facilities to replace devastated hospitals and clinics. The mostly prefabricated clinics which are currently in operation are stretched beyond their capacity and permanent hospitals will take several years to complete. In terms of its support to the survivors, JRCS is focused on meeting needs in areas such as psychosocial support for the largely elderly population in many of the temporary housing communities, preventing them from sinking into isolation, inactivity and despair.

On the importance of imagining the unimaginable

The disaster in Tohoku went far beyond any of the pre-disaster expectations. It caused the greatest loss of human life in a single disaster in Japan since the Second World War and posed the nation with enormous challenges regarding the way earthquake and tsunami countermeasures have been developed so far. Disaster preparedness in Japan is very impressive and among the best in the world, but the 2011 earthquake and tsunami differed in size from the official pre-disaster hazard assumptions. The scope of the seismic movement, tsunami height and extent of the devastated area, all exceeded expected levels by far. The reason for this could be that the assumptions were intended to be used for technical purposes, where financial limitation is an important consideration. Risk estimations based on these expectations may even have engendered a false sense of security in coastal protection installations to an excessive degree. It is quite possible that the evacuation of residents was delayed by this. It is also likely that much of the confusion during the relief phase might have been avoided if the contingency planning for relief had been based on risk analysis considering scenarios of higher levels, which could have been used since the financial limitations would be much less important. Therefore there is a need to examine multiple damage scenarios, including worst-case disasters with complex impact, such as the largest imaginable earthquakes and tsunamis. This disaster happened during daytime, but if it had struck at a different time or season, or if the tsunami had affected a wider area, humanitarian consequences could have been vastly greater. The impact of the nuclear disaster was also limited compared to what it could have been by fortunate circumstances such as favourable wind directions. The coast hit by the earthquake and tsunami has the highest concentration of nuclear reactors in the world, all of which were affected by the disaster, but most backup emergency systems survived and these reactors successfully shut down.

Are there differences in impact of large disasters in high and low income countries?

In May 2011, JRCS and IFRC decided that the first six months of the operation should be evaluated in order to learn lessons and improve the mechanisms for managing large scale disaster response in high income countries. They jointly commissioned a small team of experts to carry out an independent evaluation, which was finalised in February 2012: “Preparing for and Responding to Large Scale Disasters in High Income Countries, Findings and Lessons Learned from the Japanese Red Cross Society’s Response to the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami”. The reason for the focus on high income countries is that these generally share many characteristics: they have well-developed infrastructure and services, sophisticated and resource rich administration and industry, a large and fast-growing share of the population over 65 and a comprehensive welfare system. Most of them are also vulnerable to a variety of disasters and often their coping mechanisms are very different to those of low income countries. Additionally, national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies in these countries vary widely, reflecting the tradition and culture of which they are part. The evaluation compares the operation of JRCS in 2011 with the interventions after Hurricane Katrina which hit New Orleans and southern states of the USA, in 2005, the floods in Queensland, Australia, in 2011 and the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand of the same year. However, it would be unwise to draw too many general conclusions. Lessons can be learned, but each country must plan and respond to large scale disasters after analysing and considering its own unique context – and much applies equally to disaster response and preparedness in low income countries where people by necessity have to build resilience and cope with their available resources.

Emergency response, relief and shelter

The likelihood of another mega-disaster in Japan is very high and it is therefore obvious that JRCS should develop a comprehensive contingency plan for this, considering a number of issues. First, it needs to discuss and review the role and mandate of the Red Cross in the Government national disaster management plan. Then it needs to formulate a strategy to scale up and meet abnormally large needs in the case of mega disasters when several areas are seriously affected. This should cover issues such as the possible role of JRCS health institutions and Chapter offices as forward disaster management coordination centres in large scale disasters.

The importance of capacity to make its own independent field assessments and to exchange information with other actors is critical and cannot be underestimated, especially in situations where some local authorities are rendered dysfunctional by the impact of disaster, as was the case in Tohoku. The disaster response plans of the authorities were based on the likelihood of having to deal with the consequences of an earthquake but not tsunamis. The director of the Red Cross hospital in Ishinomaki told me that they only had a manual for an earthquake disaster and the JRCS medical teams kits were designed to treat injuries, including crush injuries, caused as a result of earthquake. The tsunami hardly caused any injuries since people were either killed or survived the devastating wave of ice cold water. The medical needs of those who had been evacuated were mostly related to chronic diseases and conditions following the strain of being housed in cramped and difficult evacuation canters. JRCS should work actively to develop a framework for cooperation with the appropriate government authorities at central and local levels, addressing both how to provide effective emergency relief and contribute to recovery of the affected population. It should do the same with NGOs and other relevant organisations to better share information understand each other’s plans and promote coordination of activities in the face of future disasters.

Nuclear accidents, Fukushima Daiichi and lessons for nuclear preparedness

The role and responsibility of JRCS in cases of large scale industrial accidents also needs to be made clear. The Movement should continue to partner with JRCS both in giving assistance to the affected population after the nuclear accident and in defining how to address the humanitarian consequences of such disaster events. It is important to formulate a specific strategy or guideline for the Movement which clarifies both the domestic and international roles of national societies and the potential roles of ICRC and IFRC when dealing with the humanitarian consequences of nuclear accidents. In my opinion, this should be done preferably with a broader perspective, including other industrial disasters which could be caused by chemical, biological or other accidents – or by acts of sabotage or terrorism. For example, the humanitarian needs were immense after the catastrophic leak of methyl isocyanate at the Union Carbide chemical factory in the Indian city of Bhopal in 1984. This is one of the world’s worst industrial disasters and it caused more than 550,000 injuries, of which almost 4,000 were severely and permanently disabling. As many as 25,000 deaths have been attributed to the disaster in recent estimates. In Japan, the release of methyl mercury in Minamata bay and Niigata are examples of tragic industrial disasters with thousands of victims, related to the slow release of chemicals. There are now extensive experiences of humanitarian interventions after the Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disasters and the decision to develop such a framework was taken through a resolution at the General Assembly of the IFRC in Geneva 2011. The process is led by the IFRC secretariat with participation of JRCS and several other concerned national societies with the aim of presenting a set of guidelines within the next few years.

Assessment and Preparedness

After the disaster, it took 10 to 14 days to get a reasonably clear picture of the overall situation and the main needs. Even in the period up to June, some municipalities were struggling to indentify clearly the priority needs of their communities. The decentralised disaster management system in Japan compounded the situation. It is first and foremost the municipalities which are responsible for assessing and responding to disasters but in some municipalities many key officers died and the administrations became virtually non-functioning. The prefectures depended on information from the affected municipalities and this was difficult to obtain through normal channels. The rescue and emergency services assisted to fill the information gap, but getting a clear picture of the situation nationally and then defining priority needs took time. JRCS also depended upon information from the municipalities as a basis for making its response since it had no independent assessment mechanism. The spontaneous flow of uncoordinated relief added to the confusion

However, JRCS did have Chapters with close working relationships with their respective prefectures, which made access to information possible when it did become available. This information was conveyed to the national headquarters where a Task Force met daily under the leadership of the President. JRCS headquarters tried to gather the most reliable information available from external and internal sources. A group of experienced disaster managers from partner national societies was invited and visited the field during the first days after the disaster and brought a number of issues to the attention of JRCS. JRCS should train its domestic disaster response personnel to conduct assessments on the basis of IFRC developed methodologies in order to reach the most vulnerable. This requires well-trained assessment teams, ready to be deployed at short notice, who can help municipality authorities assess the needs of their communities. In large widespread disasters, this is only possible if there is a strong and well prepared volunteer base at municipal level with systematic training and organisation for disaster intervention and effective assessment. Therefore, JRCS needs to strengthen and diversify its trained volunteer base and have effective systems in place for their efficient mobilization and deployment. In Bangladesh, where frequent cyclones regularly devastate remote and inaccessible coastal communities, for the past forty years the Red Crescent has trained more than 35,000 local community volunteers over a 4,000 km coastline to make and report assessments of damage and needs in a consistent and systematic way. They also warn the population of the approaching disaster through low-tech means and are equipped for rescue and first aid. This system has been substantially supported by JRCS over the years and could provide valuable lessons also for Japan, where preparedness to a high degree relies on complex and vulnerable technologies which proved inadequate or inaccessible to the elderly at the time of the tsunami in much of the affected communities. It is critical to raise the disaster awareness of residents and those in charge of disaster management through disaster education and disaster drills and to review what type of information is essential at times of evacuation. In many countries where the Red Cross or Red Crescent has a strong and trusted community presence with social or health programs, volunteers play an important role in conveying information to residents who may be difficult to reach in other ways, such as elderly and disabled persons. Passing down disaster-related culture over generations based on disasters that have occurred across history is very important to improving people’s understanding. In addition to school education, effective information programs can be conducted by volunteers from the community if they are adequately trained and supported, and also included in Red Cross health and social establishment activities.

Furthermore, as experience from disasters in other countries shows, in times of emergency, many people who have not previously been connected to the Red Cross are eager to help, but need an organisational framework within which to effectively do so. In Japan, several hundred thousand people from all over the country went to Tohoku as volunteers on their own initiative. Consequently, robust systems have to be in place to handle a surge in the recruitment of new volunteers and their effective deployment in times of disaster, and models for how to do this can be found, for example, in the American Red Cross.

The importance of psychosocial support

In all disasters, many of the victims are seriously traumatised, especially among vulnerable groups such as children and the elderly. The need for instant psychological first aid is immense, as people are often in shock, having lost relatives, friends, neighbours, homes and the sense of control over their own lives. Normal reactions include feelings of grief, anger, frustration, fear and loss of trust. Following the initial shock, psychosocial support needs are obvious, as whole communities are uprooted and relocated into temporary camps. After the tsunami, the JRCS medical teams and dedicated teams provided psychosocial support as part of their emergency help, but many of those who are affected by this disaster will need such support for a very long time. Professional help to do this is not feasible or available even in many high income countries, but experience shows that trained community volunteers can be mobilised. Effective and functional models are available in many RC societies, in particular in Scandinavia, and IFRC has a reference centre for method development and sharing of such experiences hosted by the Danish RC. Beyond immediate psychological first aid, JRCS should therefore investigate how it could provide long-term, volunteer delivered psychosocial support to individuals and communities as part of its recovery programme. When the ‘Estonia’ ferry sank in the Baltic Sea in 1994, over 850 people drowned or died from hypothermia and psychosocial support was provided to family members and friends for several years by the Swedish Red Cross.

Some of the most important lessons learned after the tsunami off the coast of Sumatra in 2004 are the importance of coordinating and collaborating closely with other agencies who provide psychosocial support responses at a regional or national level and the desirability of conducting joint assessments. This minimizes the stress on individuals, families and communities every time a new agency arrives to ask questions on what has happened and what can be done. Sharing as much information as possible with other partners on findings from needs assessments and linking up with partners from other areas or sectors helps ensure a holistic response to the needs of the affected population. The primary partner to collaborate with should be the community in need of assistance. Representatives from the affected population and communities should be involved in all aspects and stages of any psychosocial intervention. Planning joint training in psychosocial support with other active stakeholders will enhance the reach of training and help ensure high quality psychosocial support. Coordinating the dissemination of information, or example on ‘normal reactions to abnormal events’ with other partners means that communities are not overwhelmed with different, perhaps contradictory or confusing, information from multiple sources. Successful coordination and collaboration among partners also improves advocacy for attention to mental health and psychosocial needs. Moreover, national societies should be prepared to both send and receive trained personnel to support their expatriate communities when large scale disasters strike, given the presence of many different nationalities in most countries.

Drawing on and Contributing to Global Capacity of the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement

The increasing risk of more large scale disasters with growing urban and vulnerable populations and the added unpredictability arising from climate change, coupled with the existing threat from seismically active areas and disasters arising from industrial accidents makes for a greater need to draw on the collective capacity of the international Red Cross movement. In principle, all national societies are auxiliaries to their governments, but in reality these relations can be very different and their roles in disaster response vary widely depending on national circumstances and tradition. In some countries, like Japan, Bangladesh, Iran or the United States, they are an integrated part of national emergency plans. In others, like in many European countries, the national rescue services have the responsibility for emergency response and national societies have a relatively marginal role in national disasters. However, in most countries they are well recognised as auxiliary but independent organisations, based on principles of humanity, neutrality and impartiality, and they are widely known to provide assistance, without discrimination as to nationality, race, religious beliefs, class or political opinions, through voluntary action. Working in closer relationship with the disaster management authorities at all levels will enable effective and efficient liaison when large scale disasters strike and these bodies come under overwhelming pressure. To do this effectively, each national society needs high quality contingency planning for large scale disasters, including arrangements to access resources and assistance from within the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement to respond to catastrophic events in their country. They need to adopt not only emergency relief but also recovery policies, taking account of their unique national contexts, the potential disaster risks and support and draw on the work being undertaken by IFRC in developing a common recovery policy. National societies must consider how to effectively facilitate access to available relevant experience and knowledge about international disaster management best practice and prepare to deploy their trained personnel in large scale disasters both nationally and internationally. This should be done in close coordination with the IFRC to ensure maximum impact. Based on my own experience of almost one year in Japan, I consider it important to place a representative of IFRC for coordination of experienced technical delegates with substantive consultative skills as needed and to ensure that they are well integrated into the host national society structure. Of course, international delegates need to respect and work with their national colleagues according to the host national society’s established standard operating procedures and culture and systematically share best practice. Red Cross and Red Crescent delegates and staff with such practical experience and expertise from international large scale disasters, familiar with Movement policies and standards, will be an invaluable resource if and when there is a disaster in their home country.

The Emergency Response Units should be more flexible and integrated into existing national society structures and systems so that they would also be suited for deployment with national societies in high income countries, complementing their existing capacity and become part of their contingency planning. One of the immediately identified urgent needs in the JRCS after the tsunami was for delegates experienced in communication with and reporting to international media and international donors. In general, national societies should make sure that they have sufficient capacity and competence to communicate critical disaster information in English as well as their own language to the public, media and their partners. This is an area where even a highly sophisticated and competent organisation like JRCS felt that it needed reinforcement during the emergency. Other expertise that may be needed from outside is in installing functional systems to restore family links, tracing services, how to use new technologies and how to manage social media.

Funding systems

JRCS did not appeal for international funding, but received massive support from other Red Crosses and Red Crescents after the tsunami, in total almost 1.2 billion USD from 92 other national societies and organisations – apart from the 3.7 billion USD donated to the Red Cross by the public in Japan. This was earmarked for cash distribution by municipality authorities to disaster-affected people and could not be used for funding any other activities, a mode which should be reviewed and perhaps changed to allow JRCS greater flexibility in the future Reinforcing the trust held in its integrity and capacity, JRCS provided good information and welcomed partners to visit and participate in the development of a recovery plan and budget that they would support. No agreed model for how to deal with the outpouring of unsolicited international funds existed, and it had to be developed during the course of the operation. The IFRC should therefore formulate an operational framework for national societies to use when accepting spontaneous donations from other national societies. This should regulate ways in which assistance could be channelled and specify the responsibilities of the operating national society in accounting for the use of these funds. The development of this operational framework must take account of existing policies and procedures. It must also determine how “no appeal” situations could be better handled in the future, based on the experience from Japan and similar disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand. This framework should also address the question of how the worldwide core institutional disaster response costs of the International Federation’s secretariat could be met through funding also from resources raised for such disasters. At present, this is entirely done through a percentage levied on multilateral funds contributed for disaster victims in low income countries. This seems both ethically questionable and in breach of the principle of collective responsibility.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

World Humanitarian Day - The mates I have lost.

World Humanitarian Day means different things to different people. Our work is so rewarding, but at times dangerous.I have lost so many friends, colleagues and fellow humanitarian workers in the front-line of duty, and others badly disabled. My closest friend Mac Riding leader of the New Zealand Red Cross in Vietnam tragically lost his life in early 1975. Dr. Sturtzeneger ICRC died in the same plane that was shot down in the conflict.  I have recently been reading a book about the American red Cross in Vietnam during the war and two men and three women lost their lives.

Sugeon Jock Sutherland from NZ Red Cross who was murdered in Pakistan in 1993 and Sheryl Thayer NZRC was also murdered, this time  in Chechnya 96 along with other ICRC colleagues. Reto Neuenschwander, a close friend from ICRC, died in the Congo 1996.

So many volunteers I worked with in Afghanistan from 1993-96 lost their lives caught in the cross fire.. Peter Claney, Dr. Bo Khue are other friends who died working for RCRCand more recently Khalil Dale was so brutally murdered in Pakistan. And here in Sri Lanka where I work now, so many huamanitarian workers lost their lives during a long period of conflict. The list goes on and on.

Let’s remember and honour them tomorrow on World Humanitarian Day on Monday 19 August.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Youth as Agents of behavioural Change - Red Cross

With the Red Cross building 19,700 houses in Sri Lanka (16800 funded by Govt of India) and endeavouring to provide water, sanitation and livelihoods, it is understandable that we focus largely on the hardware side of the project, but we are also dealing appropriately with people who have been traumatised by a 25 year long conflict is something the Red Cross quietly does as a cross cutting initiative. Youth as Agents of Behavioural Change (YABC) is an initiative to empower youth to play a lead role in transforming mindsets, attitudes and behaviour in their local community. It starts from the premise that a prior commitment to inner change and being the living example of our Fundamental Principles and Humanitarian Values is the best way to reach this objective.

Leaping for social inclusion and a violent free society. An amazing venue at
Tholangamuwa, on the Kandy-Colombo road.

YABC is rooted in a non-cognitive and participant-centred experiential learning methodology. Through games, simulation and visualization exercises, role-plays, arts, etc., youth are therefore given the opportunity to make a journey "from their heart to their mind". The initiative also uses innovative artistic platforms (music, theatre, dance, visual arts, sports and ‘inner arts’) to enable youth to reach out to and mobilize the community as well as raising awareness on a culture of non-violence and successfully engaging them in its promotion

Today I went to close the YABC workshop ,with Keti Khurtsia IFRC programme coordinator, which has been running from 11th to 17th August. It was tremendous to be there for the final few hours and see teams of 5 putting on dramas, dance, music and movies on themes ranging from anit-discrimination, peace building and social inclusion. We had trainers and participants from Lebanon, Philippines, Afghanistan, Malaysia and approximately 25 participants from Sri Lanka. It was a pleasure to see some tutors from Kilinochchi who participated in the first YABC course in late 2010.

Keti Khurtsia (left) presenting a certificate of successful completion to one of the participants.

Youth as Agents of Behavioural Change (YABC) is a global IFRC flagship initiative that aims to empower youth to play a leadership role in inspiring a positive transformation of mindsets, attitudes and behaviours within themselves and their local community through non-formal values- and skills-based education. As such, it has envisioned the firm call and strong commitment of RCRC youth to: inner change and the development of skills to promote harmony and positive attitudes within communities, and to be the living examples of our seven Fundamental Principles and Humanitarian Values.

At Tholangamuwa. pictured above, where we conducted a Red Cross Youth as Agents of Behavioural Change course. The centre is situated on a hilltop the Colombo - Kandy road and is a protected wildlife sanctuary.

For those that want more information I will provide further background information.

Toolkit package

In 2008-2009, the IFRC P&V department in Geneva developed a draft toolkit for YABC, together with the Youth Commission, the Youth focal point of the Organisational Development Department, and a network of youth leaders from RCRC National Societies world-wide. Based on or inspired from existing materials, the draft toolkit’s contents are:

Module 1. The seven Fundamental Principles and their underpinning Humanitarian Values: (i) Humanity, (ii) Impartiality, (iii) Neutrality, (iv) Independence, (v) Voluntary Service, (vi) Unity, (vii) Universality.

Module 2. Behavioural skills: (i) active listening, (ii) empathy, (iii) critical thinking, non-judgement and dropping bias, (iv) non-violent communication, (v) mediation, (vi) operating from inner peace (e.g. resisting peer pressure, enhancing self-resilience, substance abuse, stress management, etc.). Module 3. Thematic issues: (i) non-discrimination and respect for diversity (PLHIV, migrants, elderly, disabled, etc.), (ii) intercultural dialogue, (iii) social inclusion, (iv) gender, (v) violence prevention, mitigation and response.

Apart from this toolkit containing 20 concept papers and around 75 interactive activities, the YABC toolkit package includes 6 presentations on the artistic platforms for social mobilization previously mentioned, guidelines on the community engagement activity cycle, and a manual for peer educators.

YABC in Sri Lanka

Following the positive response to the training of YABC peer educators conducted in Vavuniya in December 2010, the SLRCS Youth Department proposed the organisation of a second training of YABC peer educators for youth from branches that were not represented in the first one last year. With a view to continuously building the capacity of youth in accordance with the YABC educational itinerary in place, the Youth Department will selected among the pool of young people that were trained as YABC peer educators in the last training, 3 persons who showed strong commitment to the initiative and who have been actively implementing it in the field since their training in December, 2010. These key persons were coached two days prior to the training and one day following it by two experienced YABC trainers with a view to actively supporting the trainers in the delivery of the training and being further qualified as YABC trainers, therefore able to deliver the future trainings of YABC peer educators in Sri Lanka and globally.

The training of YABC peer educators is innovative because it goes beyond skills development. It celebrates the idealism, enthusiasm and creativity of youth and encourages them to lead by example while demonstrating how to harness their energy for meaningful service delivery within their communities.

General objectives of this second training of YABC peer educators

1. Expand the network of YABC peer educators in Sri Lanka by building the capacity of Red Cross youth to use the YABC toolkit and implement the initiative within the framework of their National Society activities. In line with this, the training will also aim at:

• Increasing their awareness and understanding of the 7 Fundamental Principles and the underpinning Humanitarian Values, thematic issues and behavioural skills in order to be able to disseminate and act upon them on a daily basis ;

• Familiarising them with the non-cognitive methodology and materials of the YABC toolkit so as to enable them using it within their National Society, region and/or zone.
2. Develop the network of YABC trainers in Sri Lanka by building the capacity of a few key Red Cross youth leaders who are strongly committed members of the network of YABC peer educators already existing in Sri Lanka and have actively implemented the initiative within the framework of their National Society activities.

Beyond Training

Considering that behavioural change is a process that requires commitment, participants will be encouraged to think beyond the training to how they can utilise what they have learned during the training, in their work. Additionally they will be asked to make a personal commitment to furthering the YABC initiative in Sri Lanka by committing to share their progress with the network of Peer Educators in Sri Lanka.


In 2008-2009, the IFRC P&V department in Geneva developed a draft skills-based toolkit for YABC, together with the Youth Commission, Youth focal point of the Organisational Development Department, and a network of youth leaders from 42 National Societies world-wide. Here is an update on what we are doing in this respect.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Livelihoods absolutely vital in northern Sri Lanka

It is always a wonderful learning opportunity when I travel to the field to discuss with experts like Nimal Silva from the Sri Lanka Red Cross about their work. The Sri Lanka Red Cross is well on the way to completing 3000 owner-driven houses completed with latrines, a water supply and livelihoods. Everything is crucial when working with communities that have been devastated by 25 years of conflict, but the one that comes through as absolutely vital, is livelihoods.
Villagers from Krishnapuran and Vivekanandanagar in Kilinochci northern Sri Lanka, attend a 2 day livelihood training conducted by the Sri Lanka Red Cross. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Nimal expalined how after the conflict finished in May 2009, people required relief support for up to two years, some longer. After conflict many people were traumatised, confused, disoriented and had a subsistent mentality. The key role Red Cross has played is bringing normalcy back into their lives was by regular visits during the early relief, discussing the owner driven housing approach and setting up true benficiary communication where the ideas of the affected population is coveted, listened too, included in planning, and acted upon.

Nimal (left) explained how apart from housing and water and sanitation, he and his team worked on the livelihood component.

1. Assess skills and knowledge

2. Input and support. Advising people of new seed varities, latest technical advances in solar pumps etc

3. Link to government services providers such as ventinary, agriculture extension services etc.

4. Marketing

“As people’s lives get back to normal, they want to be self sufficient and usually have the vision of where they would like to be in a few years. Our role is to guide them,” he said.

“We run courses for them explaining the types of livelihoods available and give them a week to decide. They get a first grant of Sri Lankan Rupees 20,000, the a final one of 15,000.”

Nimal explains how many of the benficiaries use their livelihood money for water pumps which increases their productivity hugely.

“ I want to run course now to help people to learn entreprenurial skills so they can market their goods more profitably and to set up small enterprises.

Some months ago Nimal and I visited Krishnapuram with Michael Annear the head of our disaster management unit for Asia and Pacific and he had the chance to see the programme for the first time. He was impressed with our integrated or holistic approach and spent much time examining the owner-driven houses, the latrines and water supplies, but the thing that grabbed his attention, was the varied livelihoods programme. He spoke to a number of villagers and went to see their fields and saw how their lives have dramatically improved since receiving livelihood grants and training.

Michael Annear talking to Sinathamby Vellachame who has a Red Cross funded house with water and toilet, standing in front of his chilli field which he irrigates with a solar pump provided by the Red Cross livelihood programme.

So here we are. The Indian government is generously funding recently to the Red Cross to build 16,800 owner driven houses and we are looking for approximately US$5 million for livelihoods for each of these 16,800 families which will put them well on the path to self sufficiency and produce a host of resilient communities.

We will be extremely grateful for any support you can give.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Mountaineering dispatch from Afghanistan

The media is full of Olympic Gold medals, Usian Bolt, earthquake in Iran but while another expedition by NZ's, probably one of the world's best woman mountaineers, goes unnoticed. Pat Deavoll just sent this dispatch from Dushanbe, Tajinistan.

Back in the relative civilisation of Dushanbe after a very eventful, very tough trip to the Wakhan Corridor, Afghanistan. We ended up climbing not our original peak but another first ascent of a peak around 6000m.

This involved a long flight to Dushanbe, a three day drive to the Afghan border, a bit of indecision because we heard there had been Taliban presence in a town near by, but pushed on up the Wakhan, walked into Basecamp at low alt of 3200m with porters, then spent the next seven days packing our gear up the icefall to the neve at 5000m. Hard hard work! Then 10 glorious days in the upper Qala Panja Glacier where we climbed our peak and did lots of exploration along the Pakistan border. Beautiful area that hasnt had a visit in nearly 40 years.

When we made it back to Ishkashim we found there had been alot of trouble across the border in Tajikistan ( a massecre in Khorog, which was very serious) which had resulted in the border being closed. We were stuck- also some Germans. Poles and Australian in the same boat. Had three tense days while we waited for the relative embassies to organise an airlift for us to Kabul. But on the third day we went down to the border to try one more time and by weedling conniving and bribing, the border police allowed us across, and we left straight away for Dushanbe.

A very worrying experience with makes you realise how powlerless you are in a situation like that and how far from home. Many thanks to the NZ Ambassador to Afghanistan, Justin, for his support and organisaton of the airlift which fortunately we didnt need in the end. He was the star of the day!

Home on Tuesday.......  
I love this posting on FB by Pat in July.  " Such are the trials of international travel...
After making a glorious departure from Christchurch yesterday evening, we sat on the tarmac waiting for fog to lift in Auckland long enough to miss our connecting international flight to China. Next available flight.....Tuesday!
So we have made an ignominious retreat back to Christchurch to await Afghanistan Take 2!"

I spent many years in Afghanistan and know the Wakhan, Khorog, Dushanbe and most of Tajikistan well, and dealt for two and a half years with the Taliban, so I can understand to a certain extent, what Pat and her team have been through. Brilliant expedition, brilliant achievement.

Here is an posting I did on Pat and Christine's climb last year.

If you want to know more about Pat Deavoll, read her riveting book, 'wind from a disatnt summit' published by craig potton publishing.

Latest update from pat when she returned to Christchurch.

Finally back in NZ after a long haul back from Dushanbe and a fantastic but eventful trip in Afghanistan. Troubles in tajiistan something of a worry and information available at this site Khorog is such a lovely small university town in the mountains - but makes me aware of how lucky we are to live in such a peaceful country as NZ and that we have the ability to travel and make first ascents in the the Hindu Kush-wot could be better! I hope the new wave of NZ mountaineers can see past the one pitch wonders on offer in NZ and head for the Greater Ranges for the experience and adventure on offer.

We have all arrived back with various degrees of illness- brother Bill the worst having lost 10 kg over the five weeks and today on an IV drip at the doctors and under scrutiny as to just wot exactly he has wrong with him.

Sad we had to miss such a fantastic Olympics but these things dont register in Afghanistan ...but so exciting to hear NZ did so well. Not so good that the darling Spot has two failing kidneys and is not well at all- just a matter of time.

I have nothing but admiration for Pat and her team as it is a difficult aprt of the world for expeditions, especially with the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

Congratulations to you all!

Koh-e-Rant from the village of Qala Panja in the Wakhan Corridor. Maryrose Fowlie and i climbed this in early August. Photo: Pat Deavoll. (hope you don't mind me using this Pat?) 

Friday, 10 August 2012

Paritutu rock climbing accident, New Zealand.

Having been Director of the NZ Outward Bound School and Director of the Arapaepae outdoor pursuits centre in New Zealand, I can fully understand the grief, the dispair, the anger, the hurt and pain  that family and friends are going through after the tragedy at Paritutu rock. 
Every day for five years while running Outward Bound at Anakiwa, I would not only pray for student's safety daily, but would check, check and check again equipment, boats, trucks, kayaks, buses, ropes, rock faces,  safety manuals and think over and over in my mind, "have we given our instructors the best possible training?"
But sadly, incidents such as the Paritutu rock climbing tragedy occur, and will continue to occur in New Zealand, despite the best staff training, the best equipment and the best safety audits. It is a matter of statistics such as crashes of reputable airlines.
Shortly after I arrived at Anakiwa in the middle of 1983 to take over as Director, New Zealand held the first ever international Outward Bound conference. The Who's Who of the global outdoor education world came to Anakiwa and I had a chance to talk with them all. Tom Price, who took over from the great mountaineer Eric Shipton as Warden of the Eskdale Mountain Outward Bound School, the guru of outdoor education then,  told me this:

"Anyone can make adventure training safe by taking all the adventure out of it. The best safety lies not so much in the avoidance of danger but in learning how to deal with it."

In the 50's and 60's Tom Price wrote many articles on outdoor education, character building and referred frequently to managing risks.

Photo: Tom Price (left) with Bob McKerrow

From reading various barticles in the NZ media, this one caught my eye about safety checks
Topec board chairman David Grigg issued a statement saying it was conducting an internal investigation into what went wrong as staff reel from the loss of Jourdain, and the two students in their care.

By yesterday afternoon, much of the Topec website had been shut down, including the Paritutu Traverse climbing safety risk assessment.

Last month Topec was audited by Outdoors New Zealand and passed all safety checks.

Grigg said Topec was co-operating fully with all of the relevant authorities.

Garth Dawson, chief executive of Outdoors New Zealand, said all of the safety management systems and operating procedures had passed the July audit.

"Given the type of exercise of the Paritutu Traverse, it would have been fully investigated in terms of safety and everything passed the audit," he said.

Dawson said safety was the No 1 priority for outdoor pursuits instructors and Topec had no record of any previous serious incidents.

"Topec is a well-respected organisation not just in our own sector but in the educational and safety sectors as well," he said.

Rescue boats search the seas around Paritutu Rock yesterday for the two students and instructor missing since plunging from the rock into stormy seas on Wednesday. Photo / Christine Cornege

I know incidents such as the one at Paritutu will be thoroughly investigated and lessons learned shared throughout the outdoor world.

As the world becomes a much more dangerous place to live in and travel through, we cannot shield our children from danager, and I hope that the words of Tom Price, who is still rock climbing at 93, will be kept as a guiding principle in outdoor education:

"The best safety lies not so much in the avoidance of danger but in learning how to deal with it."

New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key said a full coroner's inquiry would be held, and added.

"Any kind of physical activity like this comes with a degree of risk. But obviously we make sure, when youngsters are involved, that that's a very managed risk." Has Mr. Key been reading Tom Price's latest book  Travail So Gladly Spent where he talks about managing risks in the outdoors ?

Monday, 6 August 2012

Junk food, kayaking and caving in Halong Bay Vietnam

Halong Bay is a World heritage site with over 2000 islands rising from the calm sea water. I spent a few days here late in July 2012.

We travelled on a renovated junks which are a comfortable way to travel and see the massive caves and enjoy sailing, or sea kayaking.

I hired a double kayak with Claude, a French Canadian working in Vanuatu and paddled round some of the islands for a few hours.

Sea Kayaking is a popular activity in this island paradise.

Life on deck is enjoyable and you can order drinks from the bar.

I dined with a delightful Dutch family and Claud on the right who I kayaked with some hours before.

The islands are peppered with caves and the largest of them all, is Hang Dau Go which comprises three main chambers. Although very attractive, you can feel the cave is suffering from too many people visiting and there clearly needs to be better environmental management in the whole Halong Bay area.
A close up of stallitites in Hang Dau Go cave taken on my mobile phone.

Junk food, the best of food on our Junk. We get a chance to learn how to make spring rolls on board.

The view from the entrance of the Hang Dau Go cave.

Sadly its time to weigh anchor and head back to Halong City and back to Hanoi.
On the way back to Hanoi we stopped at some handicrafts and watched laquer work and paiting being made.
Whilst not advertising for commercial gain, I would like to write that I used Topas Travel for my rail bookings etc.,  for my climb of Mt. Fansipan and trip to Halong Bay. I got excellent service.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Why is New Zealand fighting in Afghanistan?

The death of two young New Zealand soldiers in Afghanistan yesterday is tragic and my condolences go out to family and friends. Every year we commemorate ANZAC day which is a very poignant day for New Zealanders and Australians as many of us lost relatives in the First and Second World Wars, and more recently Korea and Vietnam.

As a New Zealander who worked for the Red Cross two years in Vietnam (1971 and 73-74), and later three years in Afghanistan and more than half my career in conflict and post conflict situations, I have to ask our Government yet again, “why are we in Afghanistan?” Why are we sending young soldiers to be slaughtered in a war that will never be won?

The photograph I took above is the wildest game in the world, Buzkashi,  played in Afghanistan, and is about game and power. * see explanation at end of article.

 I was in for Afghanistan from 93-96 during a period of anarchy up until the Taliban took over most of the country, and covered it again with frequent visits from 2000 to 2006 in my regional Red Cross position based in India. I was also in Pakistan when 9/11 occurred and ran an operation to look after Afghan refugees who crossed the border for saftey. I am not an expert on war, but have seen the increasing suffering the civilian population faces as warfare becomes more brutal, and our role as humanitarian workers becomes more complex and dangerous.

According to a 2001 study by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the civilian-to-soldier death ratio in wars fought since the mid-20th century has been 10:1, meaning ten civilian deaths for every soldier death. I suppose most of my work over many years have been dealing with displaced people, refugees, victims of landmines, and in Vietnam, where the Red Cross still is dealing with the chilling effects of napalm, Agent Orange and landmines. The chamber of horrors in the storehouses of sorrow grown daily.

There are numerous books written on the US failure in that tragedy Vietnam and the Soviet failure in Afghanistan. Braithwaite’s Afghantsy which analyses the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979-89, writes, “ The intentions of the Soviet Government were modest: they aimed to secure the main roads and towns, stabilise the government, train up the Afghani army and police, and withdraw within six months or a year.. Instead they found themselves in a bloody war, from which it took them nine years and fifty-two days to extricate themselves. Then there were the almost forgotten three Anglo-Afghan wars betrween 1859 and 1919 where the British lost 20,000 plus troops. Any researcher or politician with a modicum of common sense, through a few days of research, would come to the conclusion that no foreign power will ever bring a lasting peace to Afghanistan. Afghanistan will, as it has done many times in the past, sort out its own internal problems. So why is New zealand fighting in a war it does not fully understand, and a war that will never be concluded?

The war that ravaged Vietnam were a human tragedy of appalling proportions. I saw it first hand and wrote to the Christchurch Press in the winter of 1972 in response to a NZ army colonel, saying that New Zealand had every right to be in Vietnam and the US with our support was winning the war. I responded, almost being fired from the NZ Red Cross, saying, “the north Vietnamese and it provisional government in the south, will be governing the country in three years. I was correct and returned in March 1975 when my close friend Mac Riding, leader of a NZ Red Cross refugee team was killed along with another Swiss doctor from the Red Cross, when their plane was shot down. Sadly, we were unable to find the bobies from the grieving families.

In 1989 a former Vietcong gureilla named Van Le handed Morley Safer a US TV correspondent a poem he had in honour of those millions of soldiers who died needlessly in a war without reason:

How many American soldiers

Died in this land?

How many Vietnamese

Lie buried under trees and grass?

Now the wineglass joins friends in peace

The old men lift their glassess

Tears run down their checks.

My own family is not without its own tragic history of young men dying at war.

I remember sitting on my Grandfather's (Thomas Farrow McNatty) knee as a child, playing with a medallion on his watch . After he died my brother was given the watch, medallion and chain and it had the year 1900 engraved on it and that his platoon had won a shooting competition in my home town Dunedin. When the 1st World War broke out my Grandfather was too old to go, but five of his brothers went to the war. He told me how his mother (Hannah) and his father (John) hearts were broken when they received news that their son Henry John McNatty had died on 06 August 1915 at Chunuk Bair, Gallipoli, Turkey and buried at Chunuk Bair. Over two year later John and Hannah received word that another son, Walter Ernest McNatty died of wounds, in France, on 03 October 1917. The three other brothers - 4/2202 Sapper Charles Burton McNatty, 65117 Private Frank Kingsland McNatty, 59033 Private Robert McNatty - all survived and I recall vividly meeting two of them in the first 15 years of my life. My Great Uncle Bert Hodgson, my Grandmother's brother, who left his Southland farm in about 1898-99 to join the Third New Zealand Rough Rider Contingent, as a member of the No. 5 Company, that went to South Africa to join the British Forces against the Boers. My grand mother told me how Uncle Bert was deeply affected by that war and would never speak about it.

Then to my Father James William Godrey McKerrow who fought with New Zealand's 23rd Battalion in Egypt and later Italy during the Second World War. My Dad had a horrible war, but like many of his generation, seldom talked about it. Although he suffered post traumatic syndrome for the rest of his life with nightmares, and as children were frequent woken from our sleeps with his screams. A few years before he died, one night he opened up and told me of the horrors he witnessed.I still am shocked by what he went through.

So please Damien O'Conner, my old friends from our river running and rafting days, please raise this issue in New Zealand's parliament, and stop this killing of innocent New Zealand soldiers and innocent civilians in Afghanistan.

* Buzkashi is a legacy of the early Mongol migrations. Whitney Azoy demonstrates in his book Buzkashi how play and politics, ordinarily perceived as separate, can interpenetrate one another. Written in 1982, it gives the reader an incisive analysis of Afghan political dynamics.