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Summer 2003


Benjamin D. Harburg in front of the ICTY building
Voices from the Field

See related stories:
Thinking Beyond Boundaries, Acting Across Borders: EPIIC continues to train future global leaders

Fulfilling a Dream: Heinz Henghuber and the Tufts MAHA program

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.

Maura 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 for sure.

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, EPIIC 02
major International Relations & History
Location The Hague, The Netherlands
organization International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia
title Intern

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 his research.

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 together.

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 York City
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 stay.

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 87
Location Senegal
organization USAID
title Casamance Conflict Resolution Program Coordinator

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 02
major International Relations & Spanish
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 in Havana.

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 02
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 locale.

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 cultivation.

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 Southeast Asia.

Jana Frey, A02, EPIIC 02
Location Afghanistan
organization Sanayee Development Foundation
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 council.

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.

For more information about EPIIC, visit http://www.epiic.com/