(I've changed the name from "Rants" given that I can't really rant about many things that frustrate me here, at least not without getting into some sort of trouble. As such, you'll have to wait for the book.)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Curtain Falls

Over the past six years I have either directly or indirectly been working with a population of Burundian refugees living in northwestern Tanzania. I’ve blogged about it from time to time and each time the discussion has involved something about their projected return to Burundi. Since 2002 nearly a half million refugees who fled the country in 1993 have returned. This group of 35,000 or so is all that remains (with the exception of about 162,000 who fled conflict in 1972 but are slated to be naturalized Tanzanian citizens). They are the hardest of the hard. They’ve been pressured to return for years and they have refused. The Tanzanian government has lost patience, as has the international community. In August the Tanzanian government removed their refugee status and told them that the camp will be closed by the end of the year – whether they choose to go voluntarily or not. After no less than six cries of wolf, the wolf finally arrived.

We focused on three scenarios of how this could play out to guide us in our preparations. Though it was very helpful, what transpired was yet a different scenario. One day a few weeks ago, the Tanzanian military arrived at dawn and began to round up families for deportation. It apparently wasn’t pretty and I don’t know all the details but the message was clear: this is serious. You will be removed from your homes and your houses (mostly wood pole frame filled in by hardened mud) are being demolished as you vacate. After some rather harsh treatment of a few, the ensuing days demonstrated that if this absolutely needs to be done, this was probably best the way to mitigate a large-scale humanitarian mess. One fear was that the government’s frustration would cause them to push the whole lot towards the border all at once. As it was, there were some complications, separated families, separated belongings, etc. but the impact served its purpose. The repatriation effort began and soon hundreds began coming forward to get it over with.

Communication began immediately between our colleagues in Tanzania and us. We needed to monitor what was going on to make sure that preparations on the Burundi side of the border were adequate for what was coming in our direction. We were also concerned about how the returnees would react. Over the years they have proven to be unpredictable at times and we didn’t know if they would put forth resistance. There have been rumors for years about the amount of weapons in the camp. While it was unlikely that they would be overtly confrontational in large numbers, there was some worry that there might be individual or small group resistance or some sort of nighttime aggression.

So far, except for the resistance of the first couple of days, nothing of the sort has materialized. In fact the contrary has happened. Several days into the process, people began coming forward in large numbers with a desire to get on a bus and get this over with. At one point there was a backlog of around 6,000 people who had gathered at the departure center which only has a capacity of a few hundred. While that seems strange, particularly after so many of them claimed they’d rather die than go back to Burundi, there is a theory as to why. It’s known that there were "intimidators" in the camp that were putting pressure on refugees to stay (for reasons that I won’t speculate on here) – even threatening them and their families if they were to return. While there may be multiple motivations for this pressure, my thinking is that what tipped the scale in the direction towards getting the hell out of the camp is that the risk to them from the intimidators was increasingly compromised. Once hundreds were crossing the border they could flee without repercussion. 

All indication is that things are under control and, though we don't know how many remain (some have already fled elsewhere to avoid returning) it seems that we are well over halfway. I was recently in a regional meeting in Nairobi with UNHCR, IOM and donors and the general communication was that though there have been glitches, people are quite happy that has finally started and that there are no major complications.

I have yet to visit the process since it began in vigor. I was there just a couple of days before it began but then I was off to New York, then Nairobi and tomorrow to Rwanda. I will likely make my way down there early next week, schedule permitting. 

It's important that the process continues at this aggressive pace. There is another situation brewing that could complicate things. The advancement of the rebels in the Congo are creating displacement, some of which is likely to come our direction. Early last week I assisted in evacuating some of our staff from our organization's operations there who are now here in Bujumbura. If Congolese in South Kivu are forced from their homes and the government here is welcoming them, we'll need access to those resources (i.e. trucks, drivers, etc.) we are using to support the returnees.

Never a dull moment.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

This Ain't Burundi

Two days after my dinner with Jean Kennedy Smith we had our big gala event at the Waldorf Astoria. This year I was able to bring Priya to enjoy the festivities. It’s usually a grand affair with some celebrities, good food and entertainment. It's always a shock to my system coming from one of the poorest countries on earth. It's a hard not to think about the endless contrasts. Nonetheless, the evening raises a lot of money and we couldn't do what we do in the field without them, many of whom are very engaged, advocate on our behalf and visit the countries where we work.

Scott Pelley at the Waldorf
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg kicked off the evening saying a few nice words about our organization and also the evening’s honoree, John C. Whitehead. This was followed by a video tribute to Whitehead, a former Deputy Secretary of State, businessman, philanthropist, etc,. from all six living former U.S. Secretaries of State. One of the former secretaries, Henry Kissinger, took the stage to thank Whitehead for his work on behalf of refugees, noting that he himself had come to the U.S. as a young refugee.
Mayor Bloomberg, nonetheless found time to come during a busy week dealing with the hurricane
 Other speakers included actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith, who described her visit to Haiti with our organization; Sahar Adish, an Afghan refugee who returned to Afghanistan to help build an emergency department at a Kabul maternity hospital; Scott Pelley, CBS Evening News anchor and co-chair of the IRC Overseers and Chef David Burke, a celebrity chef that I've never heard of but apparently he's well known in the US, who talked about his work with one of our US programs.  In a surprise appearance that pleased particularly the older members of the audience of over 400, actress, director, and one of our board leadership, Liv Ullmann, paid tribute to George Rupp, who is stepping down as IRC president next summer. For those who are not familiar with Ms. Ullmann, at 73 she's been in dozens of movies since the 1960's.
Henry Kissinger, man knows how to give a good speech
The evening was brought to a conclusion with a performance by award-winning singer, actor and Telemundo sensation Jencarlos Canela, who has joined with other young artists to raise awareness about the work of our organization.
the real guest of honor
Prior to the evening our challenge had been what to do with Kiran during the evening. One of my colleagues at HQ offered to babysit her at our hotel room while we were at the dinner. We don't have much of a history of leaving Kiran in other peoples' care so it was a new-ish step for us. It was SO nice of her and it all worked out well. When we returned to the hotel she was asleep sprawled out on the bed, halo intact.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

An Enjoyable Night Out

I’ve been coming to NY a couple of times per year, once for Country Director meetings and another time for regional meetings. For the former, we always have an evening devoted to dinners with various board members who are particularly interested in getting to know more about what is going on in the field. These are usually prominent supporters of our organization who are quite engaged in what we do. The conversations are mutually beneficial in that we also learn a great deal about how things work on their end.
In the past I’ve had dinners with NY- based CEOs, investment bankers, etc. I’ve never had an evening that wasn’t a good time but I have to say that this recent dinner was particularly enjoyable.
I could tell you that she was an ambassador to Ireland from 1993 to 1998 or that President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year. I could mention that she began a non-profit to help people with disabilities. Although these things are impressive and a testimony of her service to her country, her notoriety has more often been linked to her family.  Jean Kennedy Smith is the last surviving sibling of JFK, Robert and Ted Kennedy.
The dinner was in a relatively small Italian restaurant near 61st street. I chose to walk even though the weather was chilly and it was over 25 blocks from the hotel. I’d been cooped up in meetings all day and I think I would have driven a dog sled for 200 kilometers to attend if necessary just to be outside and get some exercise.
Upon arrival at the restaurant I met up with a colleague who was also attending the dinner and the manager escorted us back to a private room.  In a rather thick Italian accent he offered us a selection of Italian wines and said that Jean would be arriving shortly. When he returned to with the drinks he proceeded to tell us that the restaurant was a favorite hang-out of the Kennedys and he seemed rather attached to the family. As the evening progressed, I could see why they would like the place. In addition to preserving their privacy, the staff took excellent care of us and the food was amazing.
Within a few minutes Jean arrived. Since ambassadors tend to keep their titles for life, I wasn’t sure if she was to be addressed as Ambassador Smith or Jean or what. It quickly became apparent that she would be Jean and the evening would be informal. She’s rather short and as it happened, of the six people invited the three tallest country program directors were standing before her. She made some sort of comment about our organization’s tendency to hire giants and we all decided it would be best if we took our seats at the table.
The conversation flowed easily. We discussed the elections which were the next day. There are few more political families than hers so you knew that it would come up. She’s a very intelligent woman with a sharp wit. At the same time she kept the focus on us rather than herself which, though appropriate, was unfortunate. I could have spent the evening listening to stories about her life. She’s either been a participant or had a front row seat in some amazing historical events, including being present at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, when Sirhan Sirhan shot and fatally wounded her brother Sen. Robert F. Kennedy after he had won the Democratic presidential primary in California.
The dinner reminded me of many I’ve had in Italy. It was long and the communication was animated. The food was incredible from the parmesan appetizer to the limoncello and espresso at the end. As the evening concluded, we emerged from our private room and made our way through the restaurant towards the door. When I asked her if we could take a quick photo she said absolutely and proceeded to reach for her little make-up kit. She looked up at me and said with a straight face, “You don’t want me to look old do you?” After one photo she asked to inspect it. She said I looked too big and that I was hardly next to her. So I crouched down a bit and put my arm around her and we took another one.
As we emerged into the brisk night air, we all said our good-byes. The formal handshake that would certainly be protocol for almost anyone with her title and background was replaced by a hug. She’s a wonderful woman with a new fan.