Voices from the Field – IRC Blog

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

Archive for August, 2008

Georgia Crisis: A trip to Gori

Posted by Kate Sands Adams on 28 August, 2008

IRC surveys homes destroyed by recent bombings in Gori, Georgia.
The IRC surveys homes destroyed by recent bombings in Ruisi, one of the villages surrounding the town of Gori, in Georgia. Photo: Eric James/The IRC
Eric James The IRC

Eric James The IRC

Eric James blogs from Tbilisi, Georgia, where he is coordinating International Rescue Committee programs for people uprooted by crisis in the region.

“We won’t go back until it’s safe,” is the refrain I hear every day from people who fled for their lives nearly three weeks ago amid intense fighting between Georgian, Russian and assorted other forces.  Roughly 160,000 people are newly uprooted in addition to a sizeable group of 250,000 displaced from conflicts dating back to the 1990s.  Those who fled the most recent crisis left with little more than the clothes on their backs.   In some communities, 95% of the population hit the road. The city of Gori, which had 50,000 residents, is one such place.  An hour west of the capital Tbilisi, we went there to see conditions this week and look at the possibility of helping people return and recover.

The main motor-route through Georgia, which connects the capital with the western part of the country, was busy with traffic on this day.  There were large commercial trucks, mostly from Turkey, along with a number of security and aid vehicles. We also saw some displaced people returning to towns and villages that no doubt escaped major damage.   On the horizon, a large black cloud rose from a train that had reportedly hit a landmine left by Russian forces. 

Immediately upon entering Gori you can see bombed out apartment blocks.  They are scorched black all over and turned inside out.  Streams of paper and other personal belongings litter the front grounds.   In the center of town, most buildings are intact, unlike the town centers just to the north in South Ossetia where there was heavy fighting.  Instead, it seems that a few bombs were dropped here to scare people and make a point.  Then, troops entered with their tracked vehicles, shooting buildings at random and ordering residents to leave.  Apparently the threat from landmines in Gori has been assessed as “low” because troops did not have much time to place them. Yet we were told that a woman who was out picking grapes and two children had been killed by landmines only the day before. 

Jason Snuggs/The IRC

Eric James (right) takes notes on what’s needed to help communities like this one in Gori rebuild. Photo: Jason Snuggs/The IRC

Gori and villages surrounding it are ever so slowly coming back to life.  In the center of town we visited the City Hall. There, a hundred or more people, ready to go home, were waiting on the steps for buses to nearby villages.  We talked to a few families who told us they are eager to restart their lives, but remain very worried about the future.  “Look, the Russians are still only 7 kilometers away,” said one man with alarm.

Our team traveled further west to Ruisi, a village of 6,000 people.  Already a dry place at this time of year, fields were burning and smoke was rising as we drove past scorched trees and underbrush.  In Ruisi, we met with the mayor and talked about the crisis over homemade cherry juice.  He told us that the fighting disrupted the farmers’ harvest.  He also said the farmers are afraid to go to their land, which is so close to the Russian troops.   On August 12th, the Russian military dropped several bombs in the area and then occupied Ruisi.  The mayor took us to see one of the houses that was destroyed. It was a direct hit which made it look like Hollywood had done it up as a set.  Part of the house was burnt and ripped open. The rest had been vaporized.  Houses across the street were also badly damaged.  We looked into one living room which had debris and dust everywhere.  All glass was shattered and the ceiling sagged with its panels ripped apart.  We met an elderly man and woman there. The man told us he was inside the house when the explosion happened.  I imaged that his ears must still be ringing.  The woman dressed in black, I suppose his wife, could only shake her head and motion to the ground and sky.  “Why did they do this?” she finally asked.

Posted in Caucasus, emergencies, war | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Vote for two important refugee projects

Posted by The IRC on 28 August, 2008

American Express members project banner
The IRC is supporting two projects nominated for the American Express “Members Project,” a charitable giving contest.Please vote to get them into the top 25 where they’ll have a chance for a share of $2.5 million in funding from American Express.

Malaria Prevention for Refugees in Thailand
Providing bed nets and other simple and cost-effective malaria control activities to significantly reduce the incidence of malaria among Burmese refugees in Thailand.
Vote for this project >

Refugee Career Development
Providing career development activities to increase job readiness, job retention and earning potential for newly arrived refugees in the U.S.
Vote for this project >

The deadline is next Monday, September 1, so please click now and vote!

Posted in Asia, health, howtohelp, refugees, UnitedStates | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Back to school for refugee kids in Atlanta

Posted by Wynne Boelt on 27 August, 2008

IRC refugee school supplies drive in Atlanta IRC photo
IRC staff and volunteers in Atlanta stuffed backpacks with donated school supplies for refugee kids. Photos: Ashton Williams, Andrea Jones/The IRC
Going back to school is always an adjustment, especially for refugee children recently resettled in the United States. To help them start the school year, the IRC’s Atlanta resettlement office collected donated school supplies, stuffing 175 backpacks full of notebooks, pencils, glue, rulers and other essentials.

“Volunteers played a key role in gathering supplies, stuffing the bags and distributing them, as well as in getting community support for the project,” Ellen Beattie, the IRC resettlement director in Atlanta, says.

Ellen says the IRC’s goal is to give one backpack to every school-aged refugee child resettled by the IRC in Atlanta. This year the IRC expects to resettle some 250 refugee children in Atlanta.

Andrea Jones, IRC volunteer coordinator, helped to organize the supply drive and says it was great seeing some of the refugee children so happy with their new backpacks.

“To give a kid this full backpack, they open it up and some of the stuff, the glue they don’t really even know how to use it sometimes and it’s just so much fun to see kids excited about their education,” she told WAGA-TV, which reported on the supply drive (video).

How to get involved: There are various ways you can help the IRC help refugees adjust to new lives in 24 U.S. cities. Learn more here. 

Posted in children, education, howtohelp, refugees, UnitedStates | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

The siege of Sarajevo and beyond [IRC at 75]

Posted by Kate Sands Adams on 26 August, 2008

A wounded Bosnian refugee boy  IRC Photo
A wounded Bosnian refugee boy  Photo: The IRC
As we observe our 75th anniversary this year, IRC president George Rupp is blogging about one moment from our rich history each month.

Sarajevo. Winter 1993. The Bosnian capital is under siege by Serbian nationalist forces. Artillery pieces entrenched in the surrounding hills lob shells and mortars at hospitals, markets, and schools. From rooftops, snipers mow down civilians as they fill water buckets or line up for bread. All roads leading into the city are blocked, as are shipments of food and medicine. Water, electricity, and heat are cut off.In their offices in the heart of the beleaguered city, a small group of IRC aid workers hit upon an innovative plan: a seed distribution program to help the increasingly desperate Sarajevans grow fruits and vegetables in their backyards or apartment terraces. It is the first step in what will become the IRC’s most heroic relief effort—an effort that will continue for 14 years and involve lifesaving work throughout the Balkans.As one former IRC staff member in Sarajevo said at the time, “We were seeing an industrialized country descend into chaos. It was an environment for which none of us had any previous experience.”

In response, the IRC improvised and adopted unorthodox methods.

In order to cope with the logistics of moving tons of aid into battered Sarajevo, for example, the IRC contracted with local factories to produce as many supplies as possible inside the city. The IRC also provided seed grain to farmers to reduce the number of food convoys. In a city gripped by panic and starvation, this economic activity helped people to withstand some of the miseries and also helped them to resist fleeing their homes.

One project was deemed so risky few considered it feasible. Braving withering sniper fire, IRC engineers drew water from the Miljacka River, which winds through the center of Sarajevo, and piped it to safer areas of the city as drinking water. They hid the pumps and filter systems in tunnels to protect them from shelling. By August 1994, the daring project—which was funded by financier-philanthropist George Soros and enlisted the leadership of legendary disaster-relief engineer Fred Cuny—had succeeded in restoring water to Sarajevans’ taps. No longer would they have to dodge sniper fire while queuing up at dangerous central water taps.

Meanwhile, the engineers painstakingly repaired Sarajevo’s bombed out electrical and heating systems, projects that took two years to complete. Over 600 tons of supplies were transported over treacherous Mount Igman on a narrow, winding dirt track controlled by Serbian gunmen.

By the time the 1995 peace accords ended the siege of Sarajevo, the IRC had saved thousands of lives and brought food, water and light to the city’s populace.

We then shifted our focus to the victims of war and to destroyed communities in Bosnia and elsewhere in the Balkans.

In 1998, when clashes between advancing Serbian forces and rebels in Kosovo ignited the last of the Balkan wars, the IRC launched one of its largest aid programs, providing extensive humanitarian aid and repairing thousands of homes, electrical facilities, roads, hospitals and schools. The IRC distributed food and medicine to tens of thousands of people in Croatia, lent assistance to Serbian refugees fleeing Croatia and Bosnia, and established emergency aid and reconstruction programs in Macedonia and Serbia and Montenegro

As peace gradually returned to the Balkans, the IRC began closing its programs, having assisted millions displaced by conflict. The IRC’s program in Serbia and Montenegro and Kosovo closed in 2004, followed by Croatia in 2005. The Bosnia program closed in April 2006.

The IRC’s years in the Balkans were without a doubt some of the finest in our history. 

And that story has continued in the United States.  Since 1993, the IRC has resettled 21,804 refugees from the Balkans here. Some have joined us as IRC staff members at our headquarters in New York and in many of our resettlement offices across the country. These cherished colleagues remind us every day of the IRC’s legacy in and from the Balkans.

Postscript: Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader who oversaw the killing of thousands of people by sniping and shelling in the siege of Sarajevo and later directed the Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 men and boys, was arrested last month on war crimes charges after 13 years as a fugitive.

Posted in Europe, history | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

What makes a Ugandan warrior lay down his gun?

Posted by Joanne Offer on 25 August, 2008

Karamoja peace committee IRC photo
Women from an IRC peace committee sing a song about how raiding hurts communities and how peace can unite them instead.   Photo: Joanne Offer/The IRC
Joanne Offer is in Uganda, where the International Rescue Committee is working with Ugandan communities affected by conflict as well as refugees from neighboring Sudan.

This piece was originally posted on Reuters AlertNet on 18 August. You can read all of Joanne’s posts from Uganda here.

What makes a warrior lay down his gun? I got the intriguing chance to find out when I met the Nadunget peace committee – a group of 40 or so men and women, many of whom were once involved in or affected by armed raids, but who now promote peace across Moroto district in the Karamoja region of northern Uganda.

The committee members go to nearby villages to sing peace songs, play out dramas and use their own experiences to explain why fighting benefits no one. Women who’ve been widowed by raiding talk of the emotional and financial hardship of losing their loved ones. Children who’ve been orphaned tell others that life is precious. It’s heartbreaking stuff to hear.

It’s quite a culture shift for many of the committee, which is one of nine formed with the help of aid agency International Rescue Committee (IRC) to maintain peace in a region formerly troubled with violent raids to steal cattle.

As one man told me: “I was only young when I started going on raids. I was in Primary 2 when my father told me to stop going to school. He said there was another school in the bush where I could get a real education. So I started raiding.

“Between 50 to 100 of us used to go on a raid together. We were indestructible. Me, I used a big gun and it felt great. I was ready to shoot and I had a lot of bullets.”

So what made the difference? How does a former warrior end up on an IRC peace committee? It’s clear that it wasn’t an overnight change for these men, but they slowly realised that raiding was destroying their communities.

“Guns have finished many of our people,” says one man, “we’ve all lost someone in the raids.”

Another committee member tells me: “In the past, people raided because of poverty, and it’s still a huge problem in our area. But I tell them that we should look at our neighbours. They’ve done better than us because businesses have gone there. Businesses won’t come here because they are scared of raids.”

Big-scale raids are now more unusual in Karamoja, although there’s still a threat from smaller groups of thieves. These thieves are often young men, struggling to survive in a region hit by drought and with few opportunities to make a living. But maybe the committees can help to persuade them that the gun is not the answer.

Posted in Africa, peace | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »