Voices from the Field – IRC Blog

International Rescue Committee (IRC) Refugee, Staff & Volunteer Blog

Archive for May, 2008

‘Scratching the Surface’ of Need in Myanmar [This Week’s Voices]

Posted by Wynne Boelt on 30 May, 2008

IRC relief distribution Myanmar cyclone
Photo: The IRC
A weekly round-up pf notable quotes from the news and the Web.

“While the pace of aid deliveries has increased in the past week, the entire relief effort is only scratching the surface of what is needed in a disaster of this scale.”

– Melissa Winkler, IRC emergency communications director, speaking with the Associated Press about the response to the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar.

“Supplies are getting to a fraction of the entire group of affected people—about 25 to 30 percent.”

– Anne Richard, IRC vice president for government relations and advocacy, telling Reuters about aid access to people affected by the cyclone

“The villagers are poor rice paddy farmers and they were so eager to receive help – anything at all. They are really struggling.”

– Aung Htun U, an IRC volunteer who this week took part in a mission to assist cyclone survivors in one of the hardest hit townships in Myanmar’s Irrawaddy Delta.

“An awful lot of people are very vulnerable. I haven’t heard any comments of people who have died because they haven’t received aid, but I think there undoubtedly are people who have not received aid, many, many hundreds of thousands, even into the millions.”

– Gordon Bacon, IRC emergency coordinator in Myanmar, speaking on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition


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African Nations Struggle for Independence [IRC at 75]

Posted by The IRC on 30 May, 2008

The Nigerian government\'s blockade of Biafra led to widespread starvation. Famine and armed conflict claimed one million lives by 1970.
Photo: The IRC
As the International Rescue Committee observes our 75th anniversary this year, IRC president George Rupp is blogging about one moment from IRC’s rich history each month (you can find all of his posts here):

In just a few years on either side of 1960, a wave of struggles for independence was sweeping across Africa. Between March 1957, when Ghana declared independence from Great Britain, and July 1962, when Algeria wrested independence from France after a bloody war, 24 African nations freed themselves from their former colonial masters.

In most former English and French colonies, independence came relatively peacefully. But the transition from colonial governments did not always lead to peace. Internal conflicts within the newly independent countries and the continued resistance of the colonial powers in southern Africa often forced large numbers of innocent people to flee civil strife and repressive new regimes.

When more than 200,000 Angolans escaped their country’s Portuguese colonial government and fled to nearby Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1962, the IRC responded quickly. This was the IRC’s first initiative on the African continent and a demonstration of the organization’s expanded global mission and responsibility.

We supplied medicine and enlisted refugee doctors for a medical assistance program. Dr. Marcus Wooley, a French-speaking surgeon who had himself once been a refugee from Haiti, was sent to Zaire. He administered the distribution of medical supplies, performed surgery at the Service d’Assistance aux Refugies Angolais clinic and at the many border camps he visited. He devoted much of his time to teaching first aid and preventive care to the refugees and to improving the skills of Angolan health care workers.

Working with Catholic Relief Services and Church World Service, the IRC was able to send $179,000 worth of medicines, high-protein food and other aid to Angolan refugees. After 18 months, the IRC was forced to withdraw, along with United Nations troops, owing to renewed fighting between insurgents and government forces. Fortunately, local aid workers were able to take over the programs.

In 1967, the IRC became involved in a dramatic crisis in Nigeria. After winning independence from Britain in 1960, Nigeria formed a coalition government that was soon roiled by a disputed election, massacres of Ibo people, and the eventual secession of the Ibos, who claimed the southeastern part of Nigeria as the independent nation of Biafra. Civil war and mass starvation followed.

The IRC joined with other organizations in launching the Biafra Christmas Ship, which provided 3,000 tons of food, drugs, and other life-saving supplies to the Ibos. We also recruited Nigerian doctors in the U.S for volunteer missions to Biafra. At first it seemed that Biafra might survive. But famine and Nigeria’s superior army overcame the struggle for independence. The Ibos surrendered in 1970, but not before an estimated one million people had died.

The magnitude of the crisis in Biafra captured the world’s attention. But other conflicts on the African continent were hardly noticed by the general public. An IRC report presciently predicted where much of the organization’s energies would be directed in the years to come:

Refugee problems in Africa will undoubtedly multiply and intensify as the result of the complex tribal, religious, racial, national, and political conflicts. Biafra is an extreme example, but it would be unrealistic not to expect more crises . . .  IRC’s commitment to the refugee cause will require a deepening of its involvement in Africa.

Many more crises have developed, and the IRC has indeed deepened our involvement in Africa, even as we have continued to pursue our core purpose of helping uprooted people to move from harm to home.

To help: Visit theIRC.org/help

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Nepal: Himalayas’ Chronic Food Crisis

Posted by Peter Biro on 29 May, 2008

Boy in Nepal by Peter Biro The IRC
Seven-year-old Janak Rokaya’s father served in the Maoist army and was killed in battle. His mother abandoned him shortly thereafter. Now the boy is cared for by his elderly grandfather.
Photo: Peter Biro/The IRC
On May 28, lawmakers in Nepal legally abolished the monarchy and declared the country a republic, ending 239 years of royal rule in the country. This is the most recent development in a process of transition in the Himalayan nation that started with a 2006 peace accord between the government and Maoist rebels. But despite these changes, life is a daily struggle for most people in Nepal, one of the world’s poorest countries. Read all of Peter’s posts from Nepal here.

As the sun slowly rises over the pine-covered peaks, we continue our journey deeper into the Himalayas. Many exhausting hours later we stop in a valley with emerald green wheat fields flanked by white mountains. In dozens of villages in the remote Mugu district, like here in the hamlet of Shreekot, the IRC is providing aid to the many thousands who have returned after years of displacement sparked by the conflict between Maoist guerillas and the Nepalese army.

We sit down with a group of villagers. One of the elders, Dhana Saran, complains that despite Shreekot’s wheat production, the village suffers from food shortages, especially during the harsh Himalayan winter. 

Peter Biro/The IRC.

Malnutrition is a major cause of death in Nepal and the mountain communities in the remote
Karnali zone have a long history of chronic food shortages and periodic famines.
Photo: Peter Biro/The IRC.

In this mountainous area, a very small portion of land is fertile enough to farm, my colleague Mohan Acharya, assistant protection manager, tells me. In other rural areas, medicinal plants and other cash crops can be grown to trade in the southern plains for money to buy food. But with the extremely poor transportation infrastructure in Mugu and the surrounding districts in the remote Karnali zone, this is not feasible. According to the United Nations, malnutrition is a major cause of death in Nepal and the mountain communities have a long history of chronic food shortages and periodic famines. The soil here is poor, food production from farming barely lasts six months each year and the area is often hit by droughts. The government is airlifting subsidized food to some of these areas, Mohan says, but it rarely reaches the people most in need. 

To help people grow their own nutritious food in sufficient amounts, the IRC has provided Shreekot and other villages in the district with agricultural training along with tools and special types of high-yielding seeds that can withstand excessive cold. The seeds can therefore be planted regardless of season. Crops include radishes, cauliflower, spinach and chili. In some villages, the IRC has helped start the production of apples and other fruit. 

Peter Biro/The IRC

Village elder Dhana Saran (left) says that Shreekot suffers from food shortages,
especially during the harsh Himalayan winter. “We need all the help we can get,” he says.
Photo: Peter Biro/The IRC

“Clean water is also a problem in these communities,” Mohan adds. “To help prevent water-borne disease we installed a system for drinking water near the village clinic.”

Dhana Saran says almost everyone in Shreekot fled during the conflict. They are now returning to overgrown fields and broken houses.

To help the village recover in the long term, the IRC recently organized a course where the villagers were taught to write proposals for funding that will be submitted to the local authorities and aid organizations.

“Our village economy is very bad and the illiteracy rate almost 90 percent”, Dhana Saran says as we prepare to leave. “We need all the help we can get.”

Peter Biro/The IRC.

 There is a serious shortage of health services, clean water and nutritious food
in Nepal’s western mountain communities. The IRC has helped people here restart their lives by
providing seeds, agricultural tools, livestock, essential household items and clothing.
In the remote village of Ludku, villagers are now growing apples and other fruits.
Photo: Peter Biro/The IRC.

Soon we are high above the village as we continue our walk to the neighbouring district of Jumla. The area is strikingly beautiful and still. After several hours I realize that I haven’t seen a living thing – not even a bird. The only thing I hear is a mild wind rustling through the trees and the crinkle of dry leaves beneath my feet. Each time we reach a peak, I find myself knee-deep in snow. The valleys far below us are springtime green. 

Suddenly I spot an old man and a little boy, dressed in camouflage fatigues, coming toward us on the narrow trail. We take a break and strike up a conversation. Seven-year-old Janak Rokaya and his grandfather Dhanasingh are on their way to their village a day’s trek away. Dhanasingh tells us that Janak’s father served in the Maoist army and was killed in battle three years ago. Shortly thereafter, the boy’s mother left, leaving the old man to look after him.

Peter Biro/The IRC.

On the four-day journey from Mugu to Jumla, Mohan Acharya (pictured) and I must cross
several mountain passes, like this one at an altitude of 5,000 meters. The area is strikingly
beautiful and still. Sometimes we walk for hours without a single sign of life.
Photo: Peter Biro/The IRC.

 “It is very hard for us to survive,” Dhanasingh explains as he takes out his son’s death certificate, issued by the party’s armed wing, from a worn nylon bag. “We have almost nothing and we have seen no compensation from the party.”

It’s hard to find anyone in the area who hasn’t been deeply affected by the decade-long conflict. Even though the peace has been holding since late 2006 and largely non-violent elections saw the Maoist win a landslide victory, life hasn’t really changed for people here. Poverty is endemic and politics still frightens people in the countryside. Stories of local Maoist commanders, army officers and police harassing villagers for money and support are common. 

“We have trained people in human rights as part of our program here,” Mohan says as we sit outside a small mountain cabin where we are spending the night. In front of us the setting sun is casting its red glow on the mountains, signaling the end of the day. 

“Previously, people had no idea about the responsibilities of the army and the police. Now they know that the police need arrest warrants and that villagers can file complaints with the central authorities if they are abused. It is a start.” 

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Myanmar Cyclone: New Photos, Report from an Aid Worker

Posted by The IRC on 27 May, 2008

Burmese cyclone survivors gather to receive emergency supplies distributed by the IRC
Photos: The IRC
International Rescue Committee volunteer Aung Htun U was part of the IRC delivery team that brought critical supplies to a devastated village on Sunday.

“Today we left Yangon before dawn to travel to Dedaye Township.  It is one of the hardest hit areas in Myanmar’s Irrawaddy Division.  When we approached the bridge to cross the Pan Hlaing River there were thousands of people standing along the road looking for help.  We saw many rotting bodies and animal carcasses in the river and among the bushes too.  It was hard to breathe the foul smell.  The sight of these floating bodies and the smell is too terrible for us to describe.

IRC relief team delivers aid to cyclone survivors in Myanmar by boat

When we arrived in Dedaye town, we loaded emergency supplies onto boats.  From there, it took us one and a half hours to reach Kyonemhaw.  We traveled on two boats, 18 feet long and three feet wide, as they are able to crisscross the narrow river lanes. Our team chose Kyonemhaw among other affected villages because only a few local groups had visited this devastated place and the people there are in dire need of assistance.

We eventually arrived in the village which is on the bank of a small river and very close to paddy fields.  The village has only muddy footpaths. We unloaded our supplies at the monastery, in the middle of the village.  Hundreds of people gathered to receive donations of water, food, medicines and clothing.

Cyclone survivors ghather to receive a dlivery of emergency supplies from the IRC

The villagers are poor farmers and they were so eager to receive help — anything at all.  They are really struggling.  The survivors told us that the village used to have a population of more than 1,000 people, but nearly 300 people died in the storm.”

To learn more: Visit our Myanmar Cyclone special report at theIRC.org/myanmar.

To help: Make an urgent gift here or speak up for for Burmese cyclone victims here.

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Myanmar: “Every story will break your heart” [Photos]

Posted by Kate Sands Adams on 23 May, 2008

Cyclone survivors IRC photo
Photo: The IRC
“Everyone has stories of losing parents and children and every story will break your heart,” says an IRC volunteer in Myanmar who is reponding to the cyclone emergency. “One man managed to grab his baby girl as he was lifted by a wave into a tree. He was able to grasp a branch with his free hand and that’s how he and his daughter survived. But his wife and home got carried away in the fierce waters. Everyone is struggling to come to terms with what has happened.”

You can read the new photo essay from IRC’s Melissa Winkler here.

To learn more and help, visit theIRC.org/myanmar

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