I breast-fed Jeremy while the bullets flew outside: When Jane Robertson, an aid worker, went to an Ethiopian war zone, she took her four-week- old son with her. Celia Dodd hears her story

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Indy Lifestyle Online
WHEN Jane Robertson was seven- and-a-half months pregnant a special Red Cross plane had to be flown into the Ethiopian town of Jijiga to get her out. It was May 1991 and rebel troops were launching their final offensives against President Mengistu; all the airports were closed and gun battles raged in and around the town.

As the situation deteriorated, Jane's plans to get back to England to have her baby changed constantly. At one point it looked as if she would have to start the journey overland through Somalia; at times she worried about getting home at all.

Jane's dramatic exit and the tense fortnight that preceded it is a hair- raising story by anyone's standards. But within months she was back in eastern Ethiopia, with her four-week- old son, for a year-long stint assessing the effectiveness of the feeding programme for children in the refugee camps near Harar.

She now says it was a year she would not like to repeat. But in February this year Jane went back with her baby again, to replace an aid worker killed by a land mine.

It sounds dangerous and possibly foolhardy to take a baby to such an unstable part of the world, but Jane had no qualms. She is the first Save the Children Fund (SCF) worker to take a baby to an emergency zone, although it is increasingly common for aid workers on long-term development contracts - usually in capital cities - to take their children with them. These days, aid agencies are keen to attract professionals with training and experience, who are more likely to have families than volunteers straight out of university.

It is a policy that may prove difficult to pursue against a background of increasing threats to the security of aid workers, particularly in Africa and Bosnia. Jane stresses that she was much better off than workers in Mogadishu or Bosnia. But when she returned to eastern Ethiopia with her new baby, she found that the situation had deteriorated markedly while she had been in England. The war was officially over, but there was still fighting between rival ethnic groups and stories of atrocities were rife.

In the rural areas around Jijiga and Harar, where Jane worked, the main threat to aid workers came from bandits who stole cars and left the occupants stranded. It was a particularly unpleasant prospect if you were travelling with a baby, as Jane sometimes had to, because Jeremy was breast-fed and could not be left for long periods. 'You didn't go anywhere unnecessarily, because you might be in the wrong place at the wrong time. We didn't go out much.' When they did, it was often under armed guard.

Five months after Jane first returned, a German aid worker was stripped, robbed and shot dead on the road. She remembers how the confidence of the expatriate community was shaken: 'In the past, as an expat you felt you were exempt - the bandits didn't usually stop your vehicles. We had a special numberplate and SCF sign, and we didn't feel we were targets. But, as in other parts of the world, that's not the case any more. UN vehicles were stopped just the same as a local bus - you no longer feel immune in a UN car. That had certainly changed since I went home to have Jeremy and it made life quite stressful. A lot of expats who had been working in Ethiopia for many years were feeling uncomfortable and unhappy with what was going on.'

'It made life quite stressful' is an understatement typical of Jane Robertson. One suspects that aid workers everywhere must retain a certain sang- froid to cope with horrific situations.

Jane laughs as she plays down tales of a night alone in the house with baby Jeremy as shooting went on all around (her husband, a Dutch doctor, was regularly away on field trips): 'My senses were very alert, waiting for sounds, to hear which direction they were coming from. I moved to a room where we had as many walls as possible between us and the shooting and sat on the floor feeding Jeremy - I knew we were better off the closer to the ground we were.

'It was light when the shooting started, which means you're not so worried about someone bursting through the door without seeing what's going on. You just want to avoid accidental flying bullets - that's the only thing I was worried about.

'It does make you start thinking, should I be here any more, isn't it time I moved out? There were times when we considered moving away for a few weeks until things settled down, but we never actually did.'

A couple of days later she was in a house with fellow aid workers when shooting started again. With other people there, the situation was more bearable; Jane manages to make it sound almost like fun, with everyone lying on the floor, telling funny stories and tales of stickier situations in other parts of the world, and breaking into bars of chocolate.

Perhaps because she is a trained paediatric nurse with a degree in nutrition, and her husband is a doctor, the couple were able to keep the risks to their baby's health in perspective. Jane refers casually to diseases that are common in Ethiopia, such as hepatitis and TB (Jeremy had been vaccinated) and giardia, an intestinal parasite. Even a mystery fever virus didn't cause them to panic.

What did worry Jane was Jeremy's violent reaction to the whooping cough vaccine routinely given to babies in England. It brought home the reality of living so far away from medical back-up; the nearest facilities were in Addis Ababa, a day's journey by car and plane. 'If Jeremy had needed resuscitation with artificial ventilation I don't know whether he would have got it,' she remembers. 'You're very aware of cot death; after that I constantly checked him when he was asleep.'

But, in the end, it was the mundane difficulties that made Jane decide to leave Ethiopia before her husband and write up her research project at home. The isolation of life with a baby in the sticks, with no one to share the everyday anxieties of new motherhood, was increased when roads were closed, sometimes for days.

The risk of bandits also stopped her going out. 'Before you have a baby you always think you'll manage and, since I'm a paediatric nurse, I thought, I know how to look after a baby. But I missed being able to talk to other people with young children when I had my own 24 hours a day. I missed being able to discuss colic or weaning or whatever.'

There was also the domestic nightmare of weeks when electricity or water supplies were cut off. Mothers with young babies get used to cooking with one hand, but that's decidedly dangerous with Kerosene stoves and candles. A cup of coffee became a major performance, no joke when all drinking water had to be boiled and filtered.

Jane came back to England last June, saying she had had enough. Eight months later, she was back with Jeremy to supervise a nutrition programme for refugee camps in the same area, undeterred by the fact that her predecessor had been killed by a land mine - 'an unhappy accident', according to Jane.

She agreed to go because her contract was for just six weeks, and she felt she had a lot to offer. Once again, she had to travel to the refugee camps in an armed convoy, but by then Jeremy was weaned and could be left with his nanny in the compound.

She says the situation under the interim government is too uncertain for her to contemplate a longer stay; and Jeremy's needs - now those of an energetic toddler rather than a compliant baby - must come first.

When we met, on the eve of her departure to Nepal, where her husband is working on another long-term development project for SCF, Jane, who has worked on emergency projects in Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia for eight years, was reluctantly resigned to giving it all up.

'I have the mentality of an emergency worker rather than a development worker, where it can take 10 years to see an improvement. In emergency work, you usually see a dramatic improvement in desperate situations in a short space of time. Situations can completely turn round in three months, and that's very rewarding. You feel that you personally have made a difference.

'Having Jeremy cuts the chances of doing more emergency work. When you're single, they ring you up and say will you go to Mogadishu in three days, and you say yes. With a family, it makes you think where you should go next.

'But I don't like to think that I'm not going to do it any more. I miss it, definitely.'

(Photograph omitted)

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