Voices from the Field
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Across Borders: EPIIC continues to
train future global leaders
Dream: Heinz Henghuber and the Tufts
Back to New Humanitarians
Battlefields and coffee fields, courtrooms and mud houses, these
are just a few of the many places around the world where members
of the Tufts community can be found working on the most intractable
global problems—war, famine, and poverty. Since its founding
19 years ago, the Education for Public Inquiry and International
Citizenship (EPIIC) program at Tufts has sent more than 100
students on research trips to some 60 countries around the world.
Many have gone on after graduation to continue humanitarian
work as their professions. Several of these graduates, along
with current Tufts students, have written about their experiences
on the frontlines of humanitarian work and answered why, in
some cases, they have decided to journey to the most dangerous
places on earth. As Maura Lynch, F95, asks rhetorically in her
piece, “Is it worth the risk?” For these individuals,
the answer is a resounding yes. Here are their stories.
Lynch, F95, EPIIC 94
Location Amman, Jordan
organization UN Office for
the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)
title Acting Area Coordinator
for UNOHCI (UN Office for the Humanitarian Coordinator for
Iraq) Upper South Region
Maura Lynch has worked in more than 15 countries, including
Georgia, Eritrea, Kosovo, Albania, Armenia, and India. She
was most recently relocated from Baghdad, Iraq, to Amman,
Jordan. She has chosen to write about the bombing of UN headquarters
in Iraq on August 19, 2003.
For the third time in about two months, I was awakened with
an early-morning telephone call from a friend saying “There’s
been an explosion…” Yesterday, it was the ICRC
(International Committee of the Red Cross) headquarters in
Baghdad; the previous two times were the UN headquarters in
Baghdad at the Canal Hotel.
I worked for the UN in Jordan during the war and moved to
Kuwait and then Baghdad in early June 2003. We were to have
opened a regional office in Hilla, about an hour south of
Baghdad, but internal bureaucracy and growing insecurity delayed
our deployment. We remained working in Baghdad, sleeping in
tents at the Canal, and making daytrips to Hilla. In mid-July,
two international aid convoys, International Organization
for Migration (IOM) and ICRC, were fatally ambushed on the
Baghdad-Hilla road, and we were soon restricted from traveling
the route. By month’s end, I was frustrated with the
inability to perform basic work and by the security restrictions,
and tired of hearing nightly gunfire.
On August 19, 2003, a suicide bomber drove into the corner
of the UN near our office. Several friends and close colleagues
were killed, while more than 150 were injured and medevaced.
Luckily, I was on home leave in the U.S. (visiting an EPIIC
pal on his boat in Hawaii) when a Fletcher friend called about
the explosion. Hours earlier I had rung a few friends in Baghdad
to tell them about the DVDs I was bringing back and to take
requests. I also had an update on a raucous “girls’
night” the evening before. It was the last time I spoke
to my best friend in Baghdad, Martha. I flew back from Hawaii
through Denver and her death was the Denver Post’s main
headline, while an injured friend was on the front page of
the New York Times.
Our office was completely destroyed in the blast, and Reza,
the one person there, was killed instantly. Our administrative
assistant, Talal, had just left to get coffee. He survived,
but was badly injured.
In the days and weeks that followed August 19, evacuations,
memorial services, investigations, reunions, counseling sessions,
conspiracy theories, and the like permeated our discussions.
The most surreal memory, and of these I have many, in the
post-blast aftermath was riding with a friend in an Amman
taxi to visit the hospital when he calmly pulled a shard of
glass from his skull. Those of us not in Baghdad at the time
later stared at friends’ photos and tried to understand.
I watched video footage over and over, trying to connect.
I asked myself, “What would I have done?” “How
would I have reacted?” and, to this day, I cannot say
Gradually, survivors moved on—back to old posts, new
missions, or just away. A few, determined others stayed behind,
committed to returning to Iraq “to finish what had been
started.” Yet such sentiment weakened as weeks passed
and attacks against the Coalition, NGOs (nongovernmental organizations),
and Iraqi symbols of authority increased. I remained in Amman
to be part of the planning for the return and coordination
team for the UN diaspora now relocated here. As I type, these
teams may be moved to Cyprus.
It has been a time for soul-searching—especially for
those still on Iraq rosters. “Is it worth it?”
“What can we achieve?” “What are we/am I
really able to do?” “Is it worth the risk?”
Others argue that many forgotten emergencies— like Somalia,
the Congo, where more “people are dying”—lack
funding and international attention unlike Iraq. Maybe we
are better off moving to places like Guinea and working in
a “real” humanitarian emergency. We also recognize
that leaving Iraq sends signals to our national employees
as well as to the Iraqi population, who feel abandoned and
frightened. We seem to forget that Iraqis are injured and
killed more in these attacks than are our expatriate colleagues.
Iraqis working, or even collaborating, with international
organizations have been threatened, attacked, and/or killed.
The Canal blast on August 19 has been called the UN’s
9/11, marking a turning point for the world body, especially
as a recent report found its security management system “dysfunctional.”
Bombing the embodiment of humanitarian neutrality—the
International Committee of the Red Cross—signals that
no one, no agency, is safe. We are all targets, and we must
judge personal risks in new ways, knowing now that the flags
and banners of neutrality, under which we previously (and
perhaps naively) worked, cannot protect us.
Benjamin D. Harburg, Sophomore,
major International Relations
Location The Hague, The Netherlands
Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia
Benjamin Harburg was the youngest intern at the ICTY last
summer. He has applied for internships through the U.S. State
Department that would send him to Kosovo and Serbia to continue
Slobodan Milosevic trudges into the courtroom with his shoulders
rounded and a look of indignation on his face. He slumps into
his chair while his blue-clothed UN security officer sits
down to his left. His look has changed to one of disinterest
as he carelessly shuffles his papers and prepares for the
day’s witnesses. As I sit behind the rocket-proof glass
that separates the courtroom from the viewing gallery, I wonder
how this shadow of a man could be the most easily recognizable
face of a regime whose genocidal policies were responsible
for one of the most savage collections of crimes against humanity.
It was only days before that I had begun my internship at
the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia
(ICTY) in The Hague, during the summer of 2003. I operated
under the offices of the chief prosecutor and was assigned
to the Milosevic and Seselj cases. There, I saw Milosevic
in court everyday and focused on the “Article 68”
portion of his case. I poured over witness statements, chronologies,
intelligence reports, and military intercepts to find information
that might exculpate him. On the Seselj team, I read intelligence
reports and helped to proof witnesses to construct the case
against this defendant, which will go to court in 2005.
Most of the other interns were law students (my partner was
then at Yale Law) so I was a little intimidated being a rising
sophomore, let alone the only undergrad there. But I found
that a few factors leveled the playing field for me: I had
a discussion with one of the prosecuting attorneys in which
he asked what I could do for them. I mentioned the research
I had undertaken through EPIIC, with emphasis on some of the
giants of the UN whom I had interviewed, such as Mary Robinson
and Boutros Boutros-Ghali.
The ICTY building used to be a bank and the outside looks
like a fortress. A high fence surrounds it, heavily guarded
by an armada of UN police and soldiers. I had a UN-issued
security pass that I used practically every time I went through
a door. Defense lawyers and their interns have access to the
library, so we were not to discuss trial matters outside of
secure areas. The basement of the building contained a large
safe used to hold the indicted war criminals during the day
between trial sessions. The actual jail where they stay is
on the beach. I heard that the cells are much like college
dorm rooms and that the men cook for each other and smoke
The Tribunal is divided into many sections (Registry, Administration
Office of the Prosecution, Chambers, Appeals, etc.). Within
the Office of the Prosecution (OTP) there are teams that include
trial support people, attorneys, military analysts, forensic
scientists and pathologists, investigators, and language assistants
assigned to a specific case or area of interest. Work inside
the Tribunal, to the world outside, doesn’t appear that
different from work in any other government office (law or
otherwise). The key difference is that instead of spreadsheets,
tables, and pie charts reflecting market share or profitability,
they depict facts, like the average ages of those killed in
Vukovar or the numbers forcibly removed from eastern Kosovo.
My legal advisor called the Milosevic trial the greatest trial
in history, as it is setting the precedent for international
law on many issues ranging from questions of procedure to
appeals and evidence. The prosecution plans to rest its case
in December, but then Milosevic has as much time as he wants
to present his case. The process is expected to take at least
three more years.
Though the work at the ICTY was often tedious and at times
monotonous, there were real benefits. At work one day, I overheard
a computer contractor from the U.S. talking to the woman who
sat across from me saying, “Do you guys realize that
you are writing history on a day-to-day basis?”
Nick Birnback, A92, EPIIC
90 & 91
Location UN Headquarters, New
organization UN Department
of Peacekeeping Operations
title Political Affairs Officer,
Office of Operations
Nick Birnback has worked in many UN peacekeeping offices
and missions worldwide, including those in Ethiopia, Eritrea,
Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Liberia. He has chosen to write
about his time in East Timor.
For me, it ultimately came down to a very selfish decision:
I didn’t want to live with the guilt. I’d known
a colleague who’d been with the UN peacekeeping mission
in Rwanda when the UN pulled out, leaving thousands behind
to be slaughtered. I’d been told he was a superb, dedicated
officer. The man I’d met was a disheveled drunk who
could barely hold a conversation. If we left, if we evacuated,
maybe that would be me in a few years.
In late 1999, militia groups backed by the Indonesian military
(TNI) destroyed the territory of East Timor. Weeks earlier,
despite constant intimidation and even direct attacks, the
population had voted overwhelmingly to move toward independence
from Indonesia. With this courageous act of self-determination,
the East Timorese people had proclaimed unequivocally their
desire to end the 20-plus years of brutal Indonesian occupation.
But the retribution of the TNI and its cronies was immediate
and catastrophic. In a matter of days, virtually the entire
population of the territory was displaced. Hundreds, if not
thousands, were killed. Almost every building in the capital
city of Dili was looted and burned by hand.
The United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) had been
sent to conduct the referendum, called in this context a “popular
consultation.” I was serving as an information officer,
working with the team charged with explaining a complex ballot
to a largely illiterate population accustomed only to rigged
elections, where a vote against the ruling party could lead
to an unwelcome visit from local authorities. When things
went very, very wrong, and the militia groups began their
rampage, a group of civilian internally displaced persons
(IDPs) took shelter in the parking lot adjacent to the UN
compound, hoping that the proximity to the internationals
might provide them with some measure of security. It didn’t.
The next day, the militia groups began firing over their heads
with bright-red tracer rounds. Panicked, hundreds climbed
the perimeter wall to get into the UN compound, shredding
themselves on the razor wire in the process. Over a thousand
IDPs took shelter with us. No UN personnel had been able to
leave the compound for days; the last vehicle that tried to
make a supply run was sprayed with bullets.
As the situation got worse, the decision was made that we
would evacuate to Australia. The IDPs would be left behind.
All of us understood the judgment—we were low on supplies
and had no way of protecting ourselves. But being utterly
vulnerable had an advantage: we knew that we were not under
direct threat. Had they wanted to take us, they could have
done so easily. If we left, what would become of the IDPs
sheltering in our compound?
| We decided not to leave. We organized a petition and took
names of those willing to stay. Most staff we asked signed.
The head of the mission called UN Headquarters in New York
and informed them that a group of staff had volunteered to
In the end, UNHQ delayed the evacuation, eventually withdrawing
“non-essential” staff while the rest of us stayed
for another week. This bought time for the political process
to run its course, and when the last of us flew out, the IDPs
went with us.
It was a small victory. While we were in the compound, East
Timor was literally razed to the ground. Most people lost
everything they couldn’t carry. But one small group
of IDPs spent the next several weeks as guests of the Australian
government rather than running for their lives.
In the end, noble ideals and motivations—bravery, duty,
honor—sounded fine rhetorically, but when it came down
to it, selfishness carried the day. But it was one selfish
decision I have never regretted.
Leila Abu-Gheida, J87, EPIIC
title Casamance Conflict Resolution
Leila Abu-Gheida was one of the first students to go through
the EPIIC program. She has worked in various African countries,
including Tanzania and Mozambique.
“Qu’est ce que vous faites ici?” What are
you doing here, demanded the soldier as we approached the
outskirts of Ziguinchor, Senegal. The soldiers in the dugout
barracks were visibly nervous and perplexed about our request
to continue down the road. We were going to see the site of
a village destroyed in the 20-year separatist conflict in
the Casamance region of Senegal. The area had been closed
off to civilians since the town was razed in 1997, an event
in which more than 30 Senegalese soldiers lost their lives
and the entire population of the village fled. We were there
because displaced people from the village had asked us to
consider helping them reclaim their land and rebuild their
homes. Eventually, we managed to convince the soldiers to
let us pass.
I’ve been working in Senegal for four years now, as
coordinator of USAID’s conflict resolution program for
the Casamance. I got the position because of my regional training,
language skills, and experience in conflict zones. This position
has quite a bit of office work, but that is balanced out by
time in the field. It’s always challenging—which
is key for me.
My job is to try to do whatever possible to help encourage
and solidify the peace process in the Casamance. With more
than 60,000 displaced, getting people home is a key issue.
I decided to apply for a grant to Catholic Relief services
to supply zinc roofing and carpentry assistance for families
who were willing to rebuild the mud walls of their homes in
the village we visited. It was the first program of its kind
in the region.
Today, what was once overgrown forest is again a thriving
community. Villagers were eager to return home, and 256 houses,
benefiting more than 3,300 people, were rehabilitated. The
paths of the town are alive with the laughter of children,
the scratching of chickens, and the aroma of lush mango trees.
It was not an easy process. Many residents were afraid to
return to the place where they had fled under fire years ago.
Members of the displaced community distrusted each other and
blamed one another for the attack. Many were skeptical that
a donor agency would actually try to help them rebuild their
homes. Conflict resolution groups were set up at the community
level—and the problems were surpassed. People worked
together on each others’ houses—some making bricks,
some cooking for the laborers, others building the walls.
Traditional ceremonies were held to cleanse the town of the
past. People returned.
We also renovated a small land bridge/dike that had been destroyed
by heavy tanks. This enabled the villagers to get fruits and
other products out of town, and also to restore rice fields
for cultivation. The nearby school was rehabilitated, and
a village banking project for women established.
When the U.S. ambassador to Senegal came to visit the town,
I was proud and moved when the villagers presented him with
a handmade sash in which the American flag and the words “God
bless the USA” and “Honorary citizen of Medina
Mancagne” were woven. Where two years earlier we had
argued with a soldier to pass, today a community exists. We
dared to think outside the box, and it worked.
Working in conflict is not always easy—it can be depressing
to see people make the same mistakes over and over. But sometimes,
it’s the small acts—like helping people to return
home—that keep one’s optimism.
Jenna Sirkin, Senior, EPIIC
major International Relations
research project Women’s
Health in Mexico & Cuba
Jenna Sirkin traveled to Mexico in January 2003, for her
EPIIC project. She continued her research this past summer
in Mexico and Cuba with funding from the Borghesani Prize.
After a two-month internship this summer at an organization
for women’s health in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico,
I headed to Cuba for two weeks to visit different health facilities
I arrived in Cuba alone, with nothing more than the address
of the private house where I was going to stay, and a phone
number if I had any problems. Although Cuba proved to be different
from my previous experience in Mexico, I managed to overcome
most of the difficulties of everyday life because of the relationships
that I formed.
One of these was with Maria, a woman who had been in the National
Assembly of Cuba and was very active in the Federation of
Cuban Women. I arrived at Maria’s house after a long
taxi ride and a frustrating experience during which I had
attempted to set up an interview with a representative at
the Federation of Cuban Women. My previous experience in Mexico
had taught me how to be flexible and resourceful, and I realized
that what I needed was a connection.
Maria’s presence and support helped to ease all of my
frustrations. She is five feet tall, about 110 pounds, and
lives in a modest apartment on the outskirts of Havana. At
my first visit with Maria, I was immediately struck by her
genuine character; her warmth, charisma, energy, and optimism
eased my concerns and excited me about my time in Cuba. She
told me stories about her childhood, about her experience
with the revolution, about the Federation of Cuban Women,
and about her ten-year service in the National Assembly.
After the interview we took a walk around her neighborhood.
Every person that we passed on the street seemed to adore
Maria. They each had a story to tell, some advice to ask,
and a compliment about her value to the community and integrity
as a person.
I, too, fell in love with Maria. She has the charisma to inspire
people to help others and bring about change in society. A
teacher at one of the local schools, Maria is working on a
project constructing a library for the students in the community.
She dedicated her vacation time to working with the students
in the community on the library project and to providing other
educational activities. I was amazed that the children voluntarily
came to school on their vacation time in order to participate
in the activities and the work projects with Maria.
She convinced me to go with her to the school to meet the
students and to take pictures of her project. Upon arriving,
I received hugs, smiles, and millions of questions. I was
then escorted on a tour of the school and the library project.
They were very excited that I had brought a camera and all
wanted to pose for pictures.
That afternoon we helped clean up the school grounds, did
an art project with the students, and played a volleyball
game under the hot Caribbean sun with salsa music blasting
in the background. When we finally could no longer take the
heat, we all decided to dance in the shade. The children found
my salsa very entertaining because they had all learned how
to dance from the time they could walk. After another hour
of dance lessons, we all retired to our houses.
The day was full of laughter, fun, and new friendships. Maria
and the children helped to create my fondest memories of Cuba.
When I reflect on my experiences, it is the Marias of the
world who have had a significant impact on me as a person
and on my goals for the future. I hope to encounter more Marias
as I journey through life.
Nicolas Chaset, Junior, EPIIC
major International Relations
research project Coffee Industry
in East Timor
Nicholas Chaset is currently working for the Global Partnership
for Afghanistan as an intern/researcher. He has chosen to
write about his research trip to East Timor.
While I was initially fascinated by the idea of studying East
Timor, I was not altogether sure where it was, or what had
happened to put it on the map of international policymaking.
Along with three classmates, I began the process of researching
the history of East Timor and attempting to develop a topic
which we could study. While we continued to study the country
throughout the year, the reality of our making the trip to
the small island nation became increasingly grim. The war
in Iraq and the SARS scare had both the university and our
parents doubting the safety of a trip to such a far-flung
In spite of all the doubts and the barriers that seemed to
continue to present themselves, I knew I had to persevere.
EPIIC had taught me that my imagination was the only limit
to what I could accomplish, and as I went to sleep each night
last spring, I dreamed only of Timor.
In the last weeks before I went, I continually changed the
topic of what I was going to study. I finally decided that
agriculture and coffee were what most interested me. Not only
is coffee the single most significant source of export income
for East Timor, but one in four Timorese is involved in its
Descending into Dili (the capital of East Timor), I was finally
able to put a picture to the island of Timor Lorosae. Dili,
with its white stucco cathedral and burned out-buildings,
has a green and red coastline that drops off into the infinity
of a three-and-a-half-kilometer-deep ocean trench.
After I checked into the Turismo Hotel, I embarked on a journey
to find a motorcycle for hire. I could not help but notice
that every third car had UN in big letters on the side. When
I stopped to have a drink at a cafe, I was struck by seeing
that the tables were roped off from the streets. To my left
was a table of Slovenian and Bosnian UN police officers; to
my right were Chinese businessmen; and behind them was a table
of Australian peacekeepers. While everyone was happily conversing
in their native tongues, a group of Timorese children were
washing the UN Land Rovers with the bottled water given free
to UN employees.
For the vast majority of those involved in coffee, very small
gains can mean a great deal. If a coffee farmer can receive
25 or 30 cents a kilo, instead of the current 10 to 15 cents,
that difference could mean feeding a family or sending a child
to school. These gains are viable if and when the Timorese
begin to take responsibility, the international community
begins to encourage and support sustainability and entrepreneurship,
and when the goal of development moves toward helping people
instead of making money.
East Timor, and particularly the coffee industry, are being
sustained by international aid, which is money that is governed
by the mandates of the donors. Many of these mandates focus
heavily on economic development that can be verified by trade
figures and the bottom line of a given coffee producer. Is
focusing on economic development instead of the well-being
of the people a humanitarian endeavor? History tells us that
attention to economic development may lead to the creation
of wealth and prosperity on the national level, but that many
times the majority of the people see little benefit. My fear
is that the current model of development in East Timor, be
it coffee or otherwise, will lead to the kind of inequalities
that have come to characterize market-based economies throughout
Jana Frey, A02, EPIIC 02
organization Sanayee Development
title Project Development Manager
Jana Frey’s EPIIC project while at Tufts was on
“The Plight of Afghan Refugees in Pakistan.” She
has continued her work in Afghanistan.
It’s the second day of Ramadan and, after fantasizing
about food the whole day, I am now sitting in my bed, having
just eaten a huge dinner. My office laptop works with batteries,
so I can sit here by candlelight, reflecting about the last
couple of days’ events.
It was scarcely 72 hours ago that I was sitting with two of
my colleagues who had lifted up the fronts of their burkas
so that their eyes and faces were no longer covered, discussing
the concept of elections with a dozen women from the village.
There are more children than adults in the room, and the noise
level is considerable. A few children are crying, and we have
to shout at each other to make ourselves understood, but that
is not unusual. The room is the best one in the mud house.
Beautifully embroidered wall hangings decorate the wall facing
the windows, and we are sitting cross-legged on the mattresses
along the walls. In the yard outside, chickens and a cock
are rambling about the sheep and goats, and a few children
run here and there.
Most of the women we are talking to look much older than the
children they are nursing or their pregnant bellies suggest.
Yet, their features are far more interesting than the ones
I know from home. They speak loudly and enjoy laughing. Their
dresses, pants, and shawls are all in bright colors and designs,
and many of them have beads and silver jewelry around their
arms, waists, necks, and in their hair. A few of them also
wear big brass nose rings decorated with shiny stones.
This is the scene of our project. It is our job to facilitate
the setup of a village council in this and another 215 villages
around the province. This council will consist of a women’s
part and a men’s part, which will meet separately, but
have equal power in decision-making. Together, they are supposed
to come up with a community development plan to improve their
lot. Based on this plan, they can submit proposals to the
government and receive a certain amount of money to implement
their projects. They could, for example, decide to build a
school, or repair the irrigation system, or offer tailoring
or literacy classes.
Yet, we are not that far. Our job today is to conduct elections
for the community council. So, this group of women in front
of us will elect their representative for the women’s
Since none of the women know how to read and write, they all
come up to my colleague one by one to tell her whom they are
voting for so that she can write the name down on a piece
of paper, which the women then put into the ballot box. Whenever
the women get up to approach my colleague, they have an air
of importance and pride about them which assures me that the
benefit of conducting secret ballot elections is certainly
worth the trouble. By holding elections, we actually seem
to care about each individual woman’s voice, and they
all have a say in who should be their representative. The
women are right to be proud, and this is a moment of importance.
Maybe its due to my youth, my inexperience, my navité,
or the genuine possibility for improvement that this project
brings: I love being part of it! I feel that with the work
I am doing on this and our 25 other projects, I can contribute
to a change for the better.
But there are limits even to my optimism. Only a few days
before, the UN pulled out of three provinces in the southwest
(out of a total of 32 provinces in Afghanistan), and this
area is once again controlled by the Taliban. The last two
months here took the heaviest toll on NGO workers in years
and emergency security meetings are called to discuss strategies.
Yet in the 14 months that I have been here, I have not regretted
coming for a single moment.
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