Voices from the Field – IRC Blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘humanitarian aid’

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.

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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.

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Missing persons / North Ossetia

Posted by Peter Biro on 21 August, 2008

South Ossetian refugees looking at lists of missing persons IRC photo
Photo: Thomas Hill/The IRC
The IRC’s Caucasus director Thomas Hill took this picture of South Ossetian refugees looking at lists of missing persons outside a shelter in neighbouring North Ossetia. On 12 August, Hill traveled with a group of colleagues from the North Caucasus aid community to assess refugee needs in Alagir, an industrial town west of the North Ossetian capital Vladikavkaz. Alagir is one of the first entry points for the many thousands of refugees who have poured over the border from the embattled Georgian enclave.

How You Can Help: Donate now to help the IRC assist victims of the crisis in the Georgia region and other displaced people around the world.

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

“Waiting for the long grass to grow” / Uganda

Posted by Joanne Offer on 20 August, 2008

Joanne Offer/The IRC
Ajok stands in front of Labuje mother camp, where thousands of people fled to escape the Lord’s Resistance Army. 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. Read all her posts from Uganda here.

It’s all the K’s in Uganda – after Karamoja and Kiryandongo, we move next to Kitgum district. The IRC has been working in camps here since 1998 to help thousands of Ugandan people displaced by atrocities carried out by rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army, (LRA).

Since a peace agreement was struck in 2006, people have gradually been moving back home to their original villages, although many still live in small transit camps while they rebuild their dilapidated houses. To ensure these people have the basic services they need, the IRC is also moving with them. For example we’re fixing village boreholes to improve water sources, we’re building essential sanitation in schools, and we’re setting up support centers to reduce incidences of gender-based violence as people return.

An IRC health officer examines a young girl at a special outreach clinic for people now living in transit camps.

An IRC health officer examines a young girl at a special outreach clinic for people now living in transit camps.

We’re also supporting the government’s local health centers to fight a serious outbreak of hepatitis E, a disease that’s killed more than 100 people in Kitgum this year. Our health teams go daily into the field and we’ve set up a special team on the Sudan border – the point of origin for the outbreak –  to diagnose the diseases and offer advice.

As more and more people return home, the IRC is beginning to phase out some of its services. For example, we used to run an adult literacy program in Labuje mother camp. This helped young women like Ajok Irene Innocent, 19, who fled to Labuje about 4 years ago when the LRA attacked her parish of Pagen.

Ajok says, “I dropped out of school when I was 17 to have a baby. I couldn’t stay in school, but IRC’s literacy classes helped me to keep up with my exams and I now go to secondary school like everyone else. It’s definitely helped me while I’ve been in the camps.”

Like many others, Ajok’s family are now getting ready to return to their home village. “We’re just waiting for the long grass to grow so we can use it for the roof of our new house,” she explains. “I want to go home. Here we are too crowded and we have no land.  It will be better at home.”

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

In a temporary home, health & a harvest to come / Uganda

Posted by Joanne Offer on 15 August, 2008

Joanne Offer/The IRC
IRC volunteer Yazid uses his hygenic tippy-tap. Behind, you can see a new crop of beans growing. 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. Read all her posts from Uganda here.

Our next stop is Kiryandongo, where the IRC has been supporting Sudanese and Kenyan refugees who’ve fled to Uganda to escape violence in their countries. It’s totally different from Karamoja. The land here seems much more fertile, and all around I see immature crops of maize, beans and sweet potatoes.That’s because Kiryandongo is a refugee settlement, as opposed to a camp. Refugees here get 1 acre of land to farm and, although the rains came late this year, most seem to be growing a modest crop and should have some food for their families come the harvest.

One Kenyan man called Yazid tells me he’s been in Kiryandongo since May. He fled the violence in Kenya that followed last December’s presidential election and has no intention of going back just yet. He says, “I come from Mount Elgon where things are still not calm. People are still arguing over land there, but here a few of us live together and so we feel safer.”

Yazid is actually one of IRC’s environmental health volunteers who go around promoting good hygiene practices among the refugee community. His small area of the settlement is a brilliant example of how, even in the harshest of environments, ensuring good hygiene really makes a difference.

Yazid tells me, “We still live in tents but with IRC’s help we’ve dug pit latrines, built a refuse pit, and put up a drying rack so our pots and pans don’t sit on the ground in the dirt. We also have a tippy-tap – that’s a tap for hand washing but you turn it on by using your feet. It means you keep clean without contaminating the water supply.”

Yazid has also helped IRC to carry out hygiene campaigns throughout Kiryandongo. “I’ve talked about the benefits of a clean environment,” he explains, “because when we all live so close it’s easy for diseases like diarrhea to spread, so we mustn’t be careless.”

There’s no doubt that newly-arrived Kenyan refugees like Yazid are still coming to terms with their displacement to Kiryandongo, but his efforts and IRC’s are definitely helping to make life here that little bit more comfortable.

Posted in Africa, health, refugees | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »