Aid workers' reality check

The charity workers suing Sally Becker for putting them at risk are missing the point. By Chelsea Renton
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The Independent Culture
The sad gulf between reality and expectation for would-be aid workers has been illustrated by recent events in Albania. A group of women are considering legal action against Sally Becker, the "Angel of Mostar", over an allegedly misconceived trip where they delivered aid to Kosovo refugees.

An unusual aspect of this affair is that they are suing her for needlessly exposing them to danger. What were they expecting? An uneventful trip along a dual carriageway while masked gunmen lunch at home, followed by a joyous reception from hordes of grateful, rosy-cheeked peasant women?

In my experience in the former Yugoslavia, all of us would go out of our way to ensure that we experienced war in some form or other. To leave without at least one good story was unthinkable. To be shot at by a sniper would gain maximum dinner party points but was a bit risky; most would settle for photographs of a shell crater ("I was standing there just five minutes before!"), or the smouldering ruins of deserted villages ("That was my house on the left"). Some were prepared to go further. I know one diplomat who drove for five hours to a town on the Croatian border just to experience artillery fire; and there is the famous story of a Russian army officer visiting a Serb snipers' nest and taking pot shots at the citizens of Sarajevo. Few go quite this far. But it is essential to return with some sort of memento, be it a grenade fragment retrieved from your bedroom wall, or a photograph of yourself and a war crimes suspect playing pool.

Three years later, the same people are in the same place, having swopped their flak jackets and emergency rations for a lap-top, a Landrover Discovery and a desk job at headquarters. Conversation is peppered with old war stories, embellished and polished with age, but a part of them yearns for the days when a trip to the shop could cost a limb, and it was cool to be in Sarajevo.

This is, of course, all slightly perverse. But who doesn't seek a little bit of adventure and glory? I remember holding out for days on end in a besieged enclave in Bosnia, yearning for the day when I would lead thousands of poor, half-starved souls to salvation (and myself to international acclaim). The relief of my personal Mafeking came one day when someone knocked at my office door. A well-groomed head with a Home Counties' accent appeared and said: "Hello, I'm from the Jehovah's Witnesses. Can I interest you in some of our literature?"

Expectations of life working in a war zone or disaster area rarely correspond with reality. It might be useful to use this opportunity to correct some popular misconceptions. Here is my own check-list of do's and don'ts for the aspiring aid worker or peacemaker in Eastern Europe.

n Take your best clothes. Aid workers are invariably scruffier, dirtier and in more need of immediate help than the average refugee. Despite appalling living conditions, refugees often make remarkable efforts to retain their dignity. I learnt my lesson when the leader of a convoy of trucks carrying humanitarian aid to the camp in which I worked, greeted me with great compassion, commented on the excellence of my English, gave me a blanket and swept past to find the aid official to whom he was delivering the aid. Me.

n Be prepared for every eventuality. I remember a stretch of road in Bosnia where children used to wait for passing internationals to hand out sweets and other goodies. With time, passers-by handed out less and less. The children, deciding radical action was necessary, set up their own check point, complete with Kalashnikovs and grenades, and proceeded to hold-up passing traffic in return for packs of chewing gum. So, do carry chewing gum and nappies - it's surprising how many checkpoint officials have wives with young babies - but don't carry spare fuel or you'll probably be done for smuggling. Furthermore, when asked by the interrogating officer, as I was, whether you think they're a bit silly for arresting you for carrying 20 litres of spare diesel, don't say "yes".

n Do not lose your sense of perspective. Your country may not presently be suffering a natural or man-made disaster. But do not then presume that others will be grateful for your insights into multi-racial harmony and the merits of democracy. Just remember that in a few years' time, you could be on the receiving end of a humanitarian aid queue with an Albanian housewife giving you a pair of odd knitting needles and a lecture on human rights.

n Don't take yourself too seriously. But do remember that others might. A friend of mine working for a peace-keeping mission on the Croatian and Hungarian border invited himself to a drinks party hosted by the Hungarian Defence Minister and turned up in a scruffy blazer and a filthy pair of old Timberland boots. As the mission's only representative present, he was introduced to the minister and, in the full glare of TV cameras, required to stand on a podium beside him as a visiting company of the Coldstream Guards marched past.

n Respect those you have come to help. Just because you have spent months running a charitable appeal does not necessarily mean you know how to actually disburse what you've received. I once saw a group of aid workers literally trampled underfoot and hospitalised because they insisted on calling several thousand refugees together to personally hand out several hundred food parcels. It is also important to find out exactly what is needed by those you wish to help: just because you have acquired a load of empty camera cases does not mean that refugees will have any need of them.

n Above all, keep a sense of humour at all times. You never know when things will get tough. You may even be obliged to eat your own hand-outs. You will eventually discover that the lovely old ladies for whom you've been delivering milk powder are hiding ammunition inside it. You may find after months of reconciliation effort that the people you are trying to help will neither live together nor even use the same garbage dump.

n Finally, don't expect others to be interested in your adventures. You may have a maximum of five minutes in the pub, provided you avoid phrases such as "gender awareness", "women's groups", "psycho-social work" or "grassroots". Neither should you expect anyone to be acquainted with the detail. I enlightened a taxi-driver on the way back from Heathrow about my contribution to regional stability in the Balkans, pausing for adequate recognition. Sighing, he said: "Ooh, I do feel sorry for all those poor little black kids."