FEATURE: The satisfaction from a lifetime of field work comes at a price

UN humanitarian official Helena Mazarro travels by boat as she carries out her duties near Medellin, Colombia

19 August 2009 – In a small tent in the Angolan bush, four hours from the nearest major town, Helena Mazarro lived for almost two years. Food was tight in this remote corner in the summer of 1996, and Ms. Mazarro would fly off to Luanda, the capital, every two or three months and return a week later carrying a fraction of the food needed for the team of 15 humanitarian workers she was leading.

A career in the field delivering emergency relief and humanitarian aid to the world’s most vulnerable populations can pose considerable challenges, including the impact of extended periods detached from family and friends, the threat of danger, the emotional effect of hearing first hand testament of atrocitiPeople were dying and the hospital wards in the camp were full of dead bodies every dayes and poor living conditions, as well as uncertain access to food.

Ms. Mazarro told the United Nations News Centre in an interview to mark World Humanitarian Day today that sacrifices are part of life for aid workers but the satisfaction the job brings far outweighs the hardships.

“It was really difficult [in Angola because of the food],” she said, noting that a shortage of local meat meant sky-high prices – a chicken costing $50 and a goat $200 – because people were distracted from cultivating the land in favour of scouring local rivers for diamonds.

“But it wasn’t so bad,” she stressed. Each civilian aid worker slept in a cramped tent, containing a military-style metal-framed bed and a bedside table. The shared shower was a long pipe, which ran cold water directly from a river into a simple wooden structure.

Even though she was only able to return home to Spain once in the two years, “it was one of the best times I had,” said Ms. Mazarro, who was working for the UN Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) heading a programme tasked with demobilizing armed rebels in Angola.

“I was the demobilization and reintegration officer. It was hard but it was really interesting to be working with these people from UNITA [National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, a rebel group] and with the peacekeepers,” she said.

“The job was interesting. OCHA was registering people, mainly at night, [and] the military would say, ‘Tonight a truck or two will arrive with 20, 30 or 40 people.’”

After the soldiers left their weapons with the UN peacekeepers, “we would take photos and ask some details and give them some non-food items, and the next day we would continue with their registration getting as much information as possible,” she explained. “They didn’t have many weapons. It was one Kalashnikov for four soldiers… and many came with their families.”

Registered ex-combatants – numbering around 5,000 in her camp – could go on to decide if they wanted to study or open a shop, for example, and their details would be given to the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the agency helping former rebel troops reintegrate to society.

“I really enjoyed this period [but] I had to leave because the contract had finished, the war had started again and the demobilization process was totally interrupted. The peace process was broken.”

Ms. Mazarro’s 16-year career as a professional humanitarian worker, most of which has been spent in the service of the UN, has placed her in country after country to do a job in the face of difficult circumstances.

She got started in 1993 by volunteering to work for the Spanish branch of an NGO called Doctors of the World, which after four months packed her off for her first stint in Angola running their logistics operation in Luanda. Later the NGO soon sent her to a refugee camp in Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) at the end of the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda.

“For two months I was an administrator with a staff of 20 people running feeding centres in the camp [sheltering around 150,000 refugees], assisting children and mothers,” she said. “People were dying and the hospital wards in the camp were full of dead bodies every day – not because of the genocide but a dysentery epidemic.”

During her second tour of duty in Angola from 1996 to 1998, she found romance at the coordination meetings which her future partner attended on behalf of an Italian NGO. She followed him on a posting to Burundi, where she ended up returning to work with OCHA coordinating and monitoring humanitarian relief efforts for internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees in makeshift camps around Bujumbura, the capital city.

With professional stops in Bosnia and Lebanon along the way, Ms. Mazarro currently finds herself in Colombia, working for OCHA. A country facing a decades-long guerilla insurgency, drug-fuelled gang warfare and devastating natural disasters, but “I feel safe,” said Ms. Mazarro. I can move around in the country. I have two kids. The second one was born here in Medellín and I feel we can take the car and go outside.”

However, she said for the people living in the slums around Medellín, the story is different. “You never know when somebody will be shot and killed and you will never know who murdered them.

She explained that these areas are rife with deadly conflicts “between old paramilitaries, as well as new armed groups and many of them dealing in drugs. You never know who has a gun and what could happen. And if something happens it is with impunity.”

Ms. Mazarro adds that OCHA works with agencies in 12 provinces in the area to try to monitor displacement, murders, the recruitment of children into armed groups, as well as problems with indigenous populations forced from their homes because of guerillas operating in their lands.

“In Colombia, just talking with someone they seem a little bit better, and when people see that a UN car has arrived they know they are not alone. For me it’s satisfying to shake the hand of a woman that tells you the atrocities she’s suffered… her daughter was killed, they were displaced or a mine exploded… they have a smile sharing their problem. It seems stupid but it’s important for them and it’s important for me too.”

However, being in the field means leaving behind relationships at home. “I have spent the last 16 years outside of Spain and I have no roots. I have tried to be in contact with friends and the Internet is great for that, but as a humanitarian worker abroad you have another life and there is a distance which increases each year a little more.”

Having just returned from holidays at home in Spain, the 43-year-old said that it “was really hard to leave family, the house and friends, but at the same time I enjoy this job and I wouldn’t know how to do something else.”

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