(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.)

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Experience - The Brutal Teacher

"Experience is the comb life gives you after you lose your hair." 
-Judith Stearn

I decided to take a moment and step back, just to think for a minute about what I am doing. Though I feel like my experience coming into this is paying off, I also feel that the new experience I'm obtaining is something sort of hoping I'll never need to use again.

In this ever changing situation, I find it challenging to make sure I’m focusing in the right things. You need to make sure that staff are safe. This involves adapting policies according to the circumstances. We have staff that are unable to leave their homes due to the conflict. Are they taking vacation days? What if you have two staff from an area determined to be dangerous, one makes the effort to come but another doesn’t? What if you have staff that are working in a safer area (ex. up country) but want/need to be with families who are living in known dangerous areas)? Staff that have received death threats? Staff who are involved politically? Staff who are posting partisan comments on social media wearing their organization t-shirt? What can we do to improve staff morale? Are staff adequately informed? For those that have vehicles, do they know which roads are safe whether going to work or heading home? Etc. 

You need to make sure that our compounds and assets are safe. You need to make sure that you are fulfilling your responsibilities to donors – those that fund everything you are doing. You need to adjust your activities. No large gatherings. Stay out of dangerous areas. Be careful what you say – stay neutral. Is not taking a position considered neutral? Be prepared to take criticism either way.
You need to make sure HQ is fully aware of what is going on given that they provide important support before, during and after crisis. You need to respond to media. You don’t respond to everything but it’s important to make sure that the media stays aware of what is going on. In this situation, the media has played a big role for both sides – inside and outside the country. Be careful what you say; the consequences could be very serious.

You need to monitor logistics. Certain goods and services are no longer available. Inflation is starting to go crazy as it normally does in these situations. Budgets need to be adjusted. Donors need to be contacted. Utilities are irregular. Water can disappear. Do you have back-up? Electricity has been out for over three days in one neighborhood. You can’t afford to run a generator 24/7 so food goes bad in residences. Is phone service working? It’s common in these situations to shut it down to control communication. Do you have back-up communication in place? VHF radios? Satellite phones? Business continuity? Are banks still operating? Can you process payroll? Do you have enough cash on hand? Are there sufficient control mechanisms in place?

All the while we’re looking at programming in response to the crisis rather than hiding under our desks. This further complicates all the above as you pivot towards activities that you design to support the population as the situation in the country deteriorates.

And then there is the reading. One thing that I didn’t anticipate about my job when I started about 9 years ago was how much reading you need to do: reports, proposals, articles, manuals, etc. The security reports and articles on the current situation are endless (I’m much better at scanning than I used to be), exacerbated by the fact that the situation is constantly changing. But it’s critical to gather as much information as possible. Decisions regarding all of the above depend on having a full understanding of what is going on at all times. A bad decision can be very costly.

Add to this a couple hundred emails per day, loads of inter-agency coordination meetings, meetings with ambassadors and other donor representatives, UN, etc. Daily briefings to prepare. To make matters more challenging, as more international staff are evacuated, there are fewer people with whom I can share these responsibilities.  

I’m venting, of course. Though it's messier than I would like, I signed up for this and, strangely enough, I still enjoy my job. It’s a wonderful opportunity and most of the time it’s quite fascinating. I have been witness some amazing selflessness, creativity and courage not only recently but over the years. But I do need to take the good with the bad and lately, of course, there’s a lot of bad. You see the investments made in the country by your organization, or the hard work of other organizations, gradually unraveling. People are dying and being shot every day. Hunger and malnutrition, a problem before the crisis, are getting incrementally worse. It can feel quite desperate at times. But abandoning someone when he or she is down is not an option. When I see the commitment and boldness of my Burundian colleagues who are in far worse circumstances than I am, it is humbling. And truly inspiring.

“Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.”
C. S. Lewis

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Unrest Continues

A lot happened since the last post. In fact every day there are crazy new twists and turns, most of which I wouldn't have time to put down here. It’s a fascinating story albeit with lethal consequences. And I have a front row seat.

Demonstrations continue
Not long after I posted the previous notes, the demonstrations heated up even further. Their goal was to make it to the center of the city for both practical and symbolic reasons. Each day they would push further only to be repelled and dispersed by the police. The latter seemed to be ratcheting up their weaponry as the days progressed. The protesters as well became more and more aggressive. Though the military has shown great restraint, acknowledged by all sides, the police also could have been a lot worse. But the level of anger on the protester side reached a shocking level. At one point a ruling party youth wing member was taken by the mob and burned alive. The peaceful protests had taken a wicked turn. 

A coup?
Undaunted by behavior on either side, the protesters pushed forward each day, usually taking a beating in the process and/or getting arrested. Hundreds became incarcerated. The death count is debated. Finally, last Wednesday while the president was out of the country, the now infamous coup attempt was put in motion. By 2pm it was announced by the coup leader that the president had been dismissed. Soon the streets filled with jubilant protesters. It was a massive party. However in the minds of most, there was question as to what the reaction was going to be by those loyal to the president, including the police who completely disappeared from the streets. 

...or not a coup?
A lot was set into motion, most of which we’ll probably never know about. In retrospect we know that loyalists had a plan all along, possibly one that was influenced by a coup insider who had been informing the president’s people all along (one theory). Either way, the resistance to the coup sprang into action almost immediately. Gunfire and explosions began and went on through the night and into Thursday morning. I was on the phone almost constantly monitoring the situation, making sure staff were safe and informing our office in Nairobi. In addition to the phones, the internet continued to function which was a huge help. Emails were flying back and forth. Priya was tracking Twitter. Media requests were trickling in from all over for a perspective "on the ground". All the while we were trying to play with the girls and keep them oblivious to what was going on. It wasn’t easy given the volume and frequency of the blasts and shooting. 

The battle came to a head early in the afternoon. I have no idea what sort of heavy artillery was being used but it was making the ground shake. The big clash, at the national radio station, lasted for almost an hour. As the afternoon wore on, the situation returned to sporadic gunfire which continued on into the night. It began to appear that the coup had failed. Information was circulating that the reprisals would begin, not only for the coup plotters but for the protesters. The police were back on the scene in full force and house to house searches began searching for people that participated in the demonstrations. Social media photos were being used to identify people. Private radio stations had been torched. The government had gained control of the city, the airport and the narrative. They were was back in charge.

The genesis of the exodus in numbers
Amidst the drama that was unfolding, the international community was clearly freaked out. Things had reached a new level and many who had toyed with the idea of evacuation in the days and weeks prior were thinking that they had made a mistake by not leaving when they had the chance. Now, with the borders and airport closed, a sense of claustrophobia set in. Emails began to flood my inbox from other organizations, some UN agencies, embassies, our HQ, etc. What is your organization doing? Can we prepare evacuation convoys? Which route is the safest? When will the borders open? It went on for a little over two days. I generally hate telephones but I was on mine almost constantly. 

Eventually things began to settle down a bit. The borders opened by Friday afternoon and over the weekend hundreds of foreigners headed for the exits, including some of my staff. The vast majority went north to Kigali, some to Nairobi. In just a couple of days, the international community had been reduced to a fraction of what it had been.

I tend to think that it was, to some extent, an overreaction. When you see other people panic, it makes you panic. When the US embassy made the decision to evacuate all non-essential staff, a lot of people were likely thinking that if they are doing it then they must know something we don't. Having said that, I think people were really tweaked by what they had seen and heard during the coup attempt and the hours afterward. That, combined with the weeks of tension that led up to it, people were more easily pushed over the edge. It’s also something you can’t generalize. Everyone’s situation is different. Those who were living nearer to the violence had had enough, particularly those with families. Accessing their homes on a regular basis had become extremely complicated due to the barriers that had been constructed. Some we’re pushed to evacuate by their headquarters. Some were doing work exclusively in the troubled areas and have no ability to continue until further notice. Some had offices damaged or rendered inaccessible by the fighting. And so on.

Had enough?
Today the situation is certainly still tense. The demonstrations are moving forward in spite of the government’s announcement that they would be using live ammunition on the protesters. The sound of gunfire and tear gas bombs is nearly constant at least somewhere in the city. I was on a phone call from my house yesterday afternoon and the background shooting was apparently audible through the phone. It is certainly getting old and it’s gut wrenching to think about what is going on not too far away. 

Amidst all of this, I received an email last week from the US State Department regarding Burundi being a potential target for an Al Shebaab threat (because their troops are participating in peacekeeping in Somalia). Seriously? You have got to be kidding me. I’m not a terrorist so I don't know how it works but I would think this would not be a good time. First of all, a lot of the good targets are already destroyed. Secondly, I’m not sure people would even notice. We’re hearing explosions all the time. Tell me what else is coming at this embattled little country, one of the poorest on the planet?! Earthquake? Asteroid? Godzilla attack?

I feel like over the past few days I’ve seen more courage in humans than I’ve ever seen in my life. And Burundians are incredibly tough people. They deserve better than this. I believe it will come.

“The first human who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilization.”
-Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)