Exposed to conflict from a young age as a humanitarian worker, Fabrizio Hochschild felt invulnerable and impervious to danger. But the savagery he experienced in the 1990s during the Bosnian war brutally stripped away all his mental defences.
“Every minute we heard the shells going into Gorazde. And it was like clockwork. Minute after minute after minute, the whole night. We were all convinced that one side or the other was going to come and kill us in the night. I spent half the night praying that I would stay alive and the other half praying that I would suffer a quick death and that there wouldn’t be pain.”
Fearful, ashamed and lonely, he embarked on a years-long, arduous journey to overcome the debilitating symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Rising to the position of UN Assistant Secretary-General, he is now committed in helping others to fight the stigma of mental health problems.
Fabrizio Hochschild Edited Transcript
Melissa Fleming (MF): I really thought Fabrizio was courageous, the way he opened up to me about his struggle with mental health issues. And despite all the stigma he is now so inspiring because he is telling his story in order to help others who are going through the same struggles that he did.
This is Awake at Night. I am Melissa Fleming. My brave colleagues here in UNHCR often work in situations of extreme conflict and danger. Many are driven by their desire to help the world’s most vulnerable people. By they are not superheroes. We are all human beings. And, even though they have chosen to put themselves in harm’s way to help refugees, they can end up paying a terrible price.
Fabrizio Hochschild (FH): Every minute we had the shells going into Gorazde. And it was like clockwork Minute after minute after minute the whole night. And we were all convinced that one side or the other was going to come and kill us. In the night I spent half the night praying that I would stay alive and the other half praying that I would suffer a quick death and that there wouldn’t be pain.
MF: Fabrizio Hochschild has reached one of the highest positions in the United Nations. But he’s managed this achievement while learning to deal with the trauma he suffered while experiencing the horrors of the war in Bosnia in the 1990s. At times he thought it would cost him his career – but he now champions mental health care within the UN.
It’s a far cry from the start of his career working for UNHCR in Sudan in the late 1980s. At the time, he says, he thought he was invulnerable.
FH: I was a field officer, and in those days, field officers when they joined UNHCR were issued with a large aluminium box, which had among other things a tent in it. And as a UNHCR field officer you are expected to go out and sleep in the camps – and we did that. Not all the time. It was remote. I went to work on a horse.
MF: You went to work on a horse?
FH: I went to work on a horse. I had a pet hyena at home. I took in orphans from Khartoum. There was no running water. The water came on the back of donkeys. There was no electricity and I had a little solar lantern which was considered a huge new invention then. We worked hard. We enjoyed ourselves and we were close to the beneficiaries we worked with then. It was very fulfilling.
MF: You’re smiling when you’re talking about this. This a period of your life that you really look back at smiling.
FH: They say that priests always have the best memories of their first parish, and I guess it’s a bit like that. But then I was sent by UNHCR down to South Sudan, to Juba, where the Senior Head of Office had been attacked by the refugees. So, they had to pull him out. I went down there and I first realized that war was going on when the chartered plane that UNHCR hired to take me there started going into a no spin over Juba. And when I asked the pilot if something was wrong, he said, “No, not at all, we do this so we’re not shot at”. And then I learned that Juba was actually under siege and that I was going to a place under siege. I was 25 or 26 and the town was under shelling. And that was my first exposure to conflict.
MF: Did you feel yourself endangered?
FH: Well, in a very abstract way, but I never felt threatened. The shelling was regular but I felt… Fear is very unpredictable and I must say I didn’t feel it, even though obviously shells were falling. So, there was a level of danger and people were being killed, and the town was full of refugees. They were starving. Everybody was convinced, at that stage, that the town would be overrun. But the convoys kept running and I had a lot of support from people in Khartoum. I was on the radio with them every day and we had this strange code where dancing meant deaths. So, if there was a lot of dancing, it meant there’d been a lot of deaths. And disco was shelling, so if the disco was intense, it meant… We’d have these bizarre radio conversations with Khartoum, that to anybody listening in sounded like we were describing party after party, but in fact referred to the rather sad state of what was going on.
MF: This was a code that you invented?
FH: This was a code invented before I came. There was one time while I was there, when Juba was quite literally infested overnight by millions of white butterflies. I woke up and all the mosquito netting of the house I was living in, was just coated in white butterflies. I mean literally in the millions. And it was quite astonishing. And at the same time, Juba that day, had been relatively quiet. So when I got on the radio for my daily call with Khartoum, they asked me what was happening and I said we have an infestation of white butterflies. And then I got all sorts of messages saying: “Well that’s code for what?” They were convinced I was transmitting some big secret, when in that case, it was actually quite literal. But I was very lucky. I was very young. I was given a lot of responsibility and I worked with some amazing people. National staff and refugees.
MF: Do you think that anything that you witnessed there in Juba had an effect on you, that you were not acknowledging then, but might have come back accumulatively to haunt you later?
FH: Look, I was very young. From there, I went to UNRWA, I worked during the first Intifada in the Occupied Territories and I was exposed to… usually it was tear gas and rubber bullets, but sometimes it was live fire and I grew convinced that these things didn’t affect me. That somehow I was constitutionally made to work in conflict situations. Two things: One, that working under the UN flag, first for UNHCR, then UNRWA, somehow afforded me a degree of protection. And at the same time, I thought that my particular psychology or my particular constitution was such that I thrived in those circumstances.
MF: Circumstances of danger.
FH: Circumstances of danger, that I didn’t feel the danger, I didn’t feel a personal threat and that, if anything, it made me more productive – I could do more, I could achieve more. There was one case, an encounter between stone throwers and Israeli soldiers in Nablus, where a young girl was shot in the eye and I rushed her to a hospital and came back. And the moment I drove into the camp, the Palestinians threw stones at my vehicle, because they felt I had abandoned them. So they stoned my car, all the windows were broken. And despite that, I did feel fairly impervious. I did feel highly motivated and that sense of invulnerability you know, later in Bosnia, I learned, in a way that was extremely painful for me was a complete delusion, perhaps a partially necessary self-delusion, to work in such circumstances. But I was stripped of it, brutally, later in Bosnia.
MF: When you said you thought that you were kind of invulnerable and impervious to the danger, do you think it was perhaps adrenaline that was giving you that sense?
FH: There’s certainly some form of chemical high, produced by the body in situations of danger. We did help people, save people. And we were not changing the circumstances. We were not getting to the root causes, but we were certainly diminishing and alleviating the suffering. So, I think that sense of mission, that sense of purpose, which was rewarded at times by success, gave one an incredible sense of purpose, that made one sort of oblivious to what was happening around one. I mean it was never – and it should never be about us. I mean, whatever danger we were exposed to, the people we were working for were exposed to much greater danger.
MF: In 1991, you were sent to Bosnia during the height of the breakup of Yugoslavia, but you were in Sarajevo, deployed in Sarajevo, when the war broke out, and that was in around April 1992. This was to be a real-life changing experience for you. Can you just describe what you remember about, you know, what you were witnessing, what you were seeing, how you were living?
FH: What was so impactful about Bosnia for many of us, not just for me, was that we were deployed there before the war, but the UNHCR established its main office in Sarajevo, because it was neutral between the Serbs and Croats. And there were many still saying, although the winds of war were blowing, there were many still saying, in early 1992, it cannot happen here. We have centuries of living together, as Serbs, Croats and Bosnians, so we’re somehow… it won’t happen here. So we thought we were safe, and then it happened. It unfolded before our eyes. We were there when roadblocks started being erected. We were there when the Serbs started moving tanks into the town.
MF: And you saw this?
FH: Yes, we saw that we had one of our vehicles crashed into a tank that was coming down one of the streets. So we saw all this unfolding, and what was worse, is we had made friends with many Bosnians. They had the same interests as us. We went to the theatre together. We went to movies together. It was very different from other situations I’d been in when the war had been going on, and you came in as a foreigner and you felt quite detached. Here, these were people who were culturally quite close to me, and where the war was starting before our eyes, and there was nothing we could do about it. So there was that, there was a level of association which I hadn’t felt previously and UNHCR mounted a massive humanitarian operation.
MF: What was your job at that time?
FH: I was head of the office in Sarajevo. We were trying to keep up a supply line going through the front lines from Belgrade. The airport closed after tanks took up position on the runway. All the roads in and out of the town became front lines where there was fighting. I stayed in three hotels, each of the hotels I had to evacuate under shell fire, after they caught fire, and there was already tremendous anxiety about food. There were displaced people in the town. People didn’t go out already, because of sniper fire. So as UNHCR, we were trying to show we were close to the population so we would walk around in downtown Bosnia and help people cross the roads, and cross the roads with them under sniper fire. And we didn’t wear flak jackets because the people didn’t wear flak jackets, so we didn’t want to be different from the people. And there was no UN Security Service in those days. So there was nobody telling us what we were allowed to or not allowed to do. And we felt very strongly we had to be close to the people. We had to show that we were exposing ourselves to the same danger they were exposed to.
MF: Can you just describe one of those days maybe where you went out? What was it like? What did you see?
FH: At that point this was before the airport opened. We were trying to establish a network of distribution points for the food that we hoped would come in with the airlift. My colleague, Vesna Vukovic, and myself, we wanted to go into the centre of town to look at potential distribution spots. We were sleeping in our office at the so-called PTT building – the main UN headquarters in Sarajevo. And we told the duty officer in the ops room that we were going to go downtown and he said immediately (he was an incredibly nice Kenyan officer) he offered to organize an UNPROFOR armed vehicle for us because the main route into town was notorious for sniper fire. But we were trying to distinguish ourselves from the UN peacekeeping force. So we insisted on going in soft skin, I mean, a non-bulletproof UN vehicle. And then I remember a Danish military observer insisting that we take his flak jacket and then Vesna and myself fighting over who should have it because we each wanted the other one to put it on, and then we decided that neither of us would have it because we would not look right among the population wearing flak jackets when they had none. So we drove into town, we parked and then we started walking, you know, there were sniper every time you crossed the street, people would be fired at and people would hide at the corner I mean, crouch at the corner of the building, you know, women with children. You did not see many men. I mean, the men were all on the front or had left. So it was a town populated by women and children. So, you’d see mainly elderly or young mothers crouching at street corners and waiting for a moment for the firing to stop and then rushing in a sprint across the street. And that was happening at every street corner. And you would also see people who had not made it. You would see bodies and blood in the middle of the street and then somebody would pluck up the courage to try and recuperate the bodies. And that was very moving. But we wanted to be seen that we, as UNHCR, were exposing ourselves to the same danger that we were there with the people. And we felt that was also important for us to have the support of the people. And I think it turned out to be right, because when we got the distribution system moving, we could move around the town like none other. So, there was this sense, that we were achieving many things and we got through places under fire and still managed to deliver the aid and still managed to see the distribution happen. And we thought we were breaking the siege, and of course we were not.
MF: Was there ever a transition here during this very intense time, where you started to feel fear for your own self, in your own safety?
FH: Up until that point, and I have to say it, naively, stupidly, I did not at any moment feel frightened, even when bullets were hitting our vehicles – this happened on a number of occasions – even when I saw people, badly injured or killed nearby, I still have this sense of invulnerability, associated with a not very healthy mental state, and associated with the fact that I was there with the UN so I was somehow protected. I mean there was one incident that left me very, very disturbed and occurred shortly before my mindset did change fairly radically: The soldiers were living off ration packs, or mostly living off ration packs. And the French had unsurprisingly the best ration packs and, among other things, like rabbits ragout or boeuf bourguignon, they always had sweets, nougat in them. And many of the soldiers didn’t eat the sweets and they would collect them and then every evening, a group of young adolescents would come to the PTT building and the soldiers would distribute the sweets they’d saved from their ration packs. And once I was eating, in fact, in the cafeteria, and this was happening just at the corner of the building, maybe 50 metres from where I was sitting. We had shelling, which was not an uncommon sound, so it didn’t cause any alarm, except it seemed unusually close. But that wasn’t that uncommon either. And then we heard some incredible screams. And that was uncommon. And so we rushed to see what was happening. And then we saw that – and the shells were still coming in as we were rushing to see what had happened – that the shells had been targeted at this group of adolescents that were there to collect their sweets. And, about three or four shells had fallen right in the middle of the group. And there were shredded adolescent bodies around. And there was some that would have been injured and were still alive but, couldn’t move because of their injuries. And then some soldiers and myself rushed out with stretchers – all the stairways in the PTT building had stretchers aligned on them – so we grab these stretchers and we rushed out of the PTT building to pick up those who still alive. We brought in, I don’t know, half a dozen survivors and we rush them down. In the basement, there was an emergency operating room and we brought them in there and then the doctors – I think they were Canadian and there was also a British doctor – did their utmost to save them. And that was very disturbing, seeing, you know, it was a massacre of children and it happened before my eyes and then I began to wonder about our mission. And then, that evening, after the darkness fell, and thus a certain safety from sniper fire, if not from shelling, some of the parents of the adolescents came to the PTT to find out what had happened to their children. And since we were the humanitarians, they were all referred to us. And so, I had to talk to them, myself and Vesna – by that time, I think we had a few other staff, these incredibly brave young Bosnian women – we had to talk to the parents and we had to try and comfort them. Having seen their children shredded and then having to sound hopeful or reassuring to their mothers and fathers who, you know… Often Bosnian families were small at least in Sarajevo, and this was their only child. And that left me wondering about the purpose of why we were there.
MF: Because it had just become so…
FH: Well, you know the world was pushing forward the humanitarian response, as the solution to the Bosnian problem. And then that incident began to open my eyes to the fact that what was needed was not the distribution of aid, but a completely different type of intervention, that silenced the guns. But it took the world four or five years and thousands of deaths, and hundreds of thousands of uprooted and destroyed lives, to wake up to the need for what finally worked, which was military intervention. But I think I had some sort of realization at that moment, after picking up the bodies of children, that there was a certain element of futility in what we were doing.
MF: How did that affect you personally?
FH: It left me sort of stunned and wondering. But I think, with the benefit of hindsight, the worst was, we didn’t really talk about these things, among ourselves. I mean, you know every day by that point, the UNHCR team was bigger, the airlift had begun. So, we had staff going out around the town and every day, witnessing… There was not a day without an incident, there was not a day without deaths being seen, without injured being seen, without narrow misses to our own team. And these were told, these stories were shared, but there was no discussion about the emotions, that each of us were going through. And we did believe in our mission. And so, I wandered around the PTT building in the dark, a bit stunned. I told my staff to stay away from the scene, I didn’t want them to see the remains that were still on the street. But we didn’t really talk about it. And the next day, we went back to work. And, at that time, my big ambition was to take a convoy to eastern Bosnia, which was also cut off by the fighting, where no aid was going. All the aid was going to Sarajevo, no aid was going to any other part of war-affected Bosnia at that point. So, we went back to that.
MF: And you did. And that was also in hindsight, a pivotal day in your life, when you did take that convoy, from Sarajevo to the eastern Bosnian city of Gorazde. What happened that day and what did you see?
FH: Well, after weeks of negotiating with Karadžić and Mladic, they kept telling us: “We’ll let you go to Gorazde, but we want to clean up there first.” And we knew the implications of what “clean up” meant. But finally, after a lot of insistence, they gave us permission to try and go. It took us a long time to get fairly close to the town. We had an escort from before. We had about a dozen French soldiers, two French armoured personnel carriers, a few military observers, a British military doctor colonel, the first British woman doctor in the elite lifeguards’ regiment. She was called Vanessa Lloyd Davies. And we set out for Gorazde, and I was accompanied by one of these young women, of outstanding courage, called Una Sequeres and a senior WHO doctor. We crossed a number of front lines, we went through towns that were battle scenes, on the way there. Then, we arrived at a at a mountain track where there was a Serb checkpoint, and we had to go up this mountain track and then down the other side into Gorazde. And the Serbs told us not to go on, the track was dangerous. They thought people are being killed on it, and it was far too dangerous for us to go up it. And we thought this was just a ruse to stop us bringing aid to Gorazde. And apart from that, night was falling, it was dusk, and we thought… there was nowhere safe. We’d been under fire almost constantly along the way. So, staying where we are wasn’t really an option. So, we moved on and very quickly on the track we came across three dead Serb soldiers, and the WHO doctor looked at the bodies and said they’d been killed in the last 20 minutes. And we put them in the back of my car. And then we went… We drove on, I mean, as we drove on, we heard automatic weapon fire behind us quite close. We had no way of telling if it was aimed at us or it was another confrontation. And then we drove on. And then, a few minutes up the track – it was a narrow track, very heavy woodland on either side – I suddenly felt… I suddenly… my… There was a massive explosion, and my vehicle, which was a soft skin (I mean, not a bulletproof vehicle), was suddenly covered in dirt, and I thought a mortar had been shot at us. So, I backed down immediately to get out of the line of fire. And then, I saw this, in front of me, was this armoured personnel carrier (APC). These weigh 12 tonnes, they’re massive machines and it was tossed in the air, like a ball, and it literally somersaulted in front of me, and landed on its back, as if it had been a light object. And then, there was heavy firing. And so, I jumped out of my vehicle, as others did in the convoy and we crouched at the side of the road in the woods, waiting for the fire to subside. And the doctor who is with us turned to me and he said: “I would be very surprised if anybody’s still alive in that armoured personnel carrier.” That for me, that moment changed an awful lot. Because, when we first heard the fire starting, I had asked Una to go into the APC, because I felt she’d be safer in the APC than in my soft skin vehicle. So, I had this vision of everybody in the APC being dead, including Una, who was my local staff member and who was there because I’d asked her to come. So, I began to feel responsible for death. Then the firing subsided. The soldiers told us we had to wait 20 minutes, in case it started again, in case they were just waiting for us to come out, to shoot us. So, we had the worst wait of my life. We didn’t wait 20 minutes. I don’t know. I don’t know how long we waited. But then we went out. We opened the APC and everybody came out alive. Una had a wound to her head, because she’d been the one person in the APC that was not wearing a helmet when it turned over. But the APC had hit an anti-tank mine and French military engineering had saved everybody’s life. But then, the APC was blocking the road, so we couldn’t move on. We used the other APC to get it off the road, so we could move on, and then we started moving again. By that point, we were all feeling very vulnerable. By that time, it was almost completely dark. And then as soon as we began to move again, the truck that was behind my vehicle hit another landmine. And then, the truck couldn’t move and we were not going to move, partially, so we were stuck there for the night. And we were all convinced that we would probably die that night. And we were trying to get through to Sarajevo to tell them what was going on. The radio wasn’t working as, for days, the only communication was by HF radios and we were having a huge difficulty getting through. We piled into the remaining APC, because we thought we’d be safest there. And then throughout the night, we heard the shelling of Gorazde. Every minute, we heard the shells going into Gorazde. And it was like clockwork. Minute after minute after minute, the whole night. And then, there was still firing, there was still some sporadic automatic weapon fire near us, enough to make us feel nervous. And we were all convinced that one side or the other was going to come and kill us in the night. And I spent half the night praying that I would stay alive and the other half praying that I would suffer a quick death. And that there wouldn’t be pain and I wouldn’t be left injured, like I’d seen the adolescence injured a few days before, that there’ll be a quick, an easy death. And I think that many of us felt similar to me. But then dawn came and we were alive and there hadn’t been an attack by the night. And there was an incredible British corporal, who accompanied this Vanessa Lloyd Davies… Vanessa Lloyd Davies who, herself – by that point, we had a Danish colonel who was with us, and you know, all the soldiers were showing fear. One of them had started screaming in the night that he hadn’t signed up for this, that he didn’t want to die. So the military command had rather fallen apart – and Vanessa, who was very brave, I think, showed the most courage among us. She sort of assumed command, and then this Corporal made us tea, on a little stove and he laced the tea with Valium, which was the best tea I’ve ever tasted. And with daylight, we all felt better, we felt relieved and then on the mountain top, there was a Serb base… the base we’d heard shelling into the town all night. And they sent down a tank that came and dragged up our truck, and we were there, with the Serbs at the top. And then I went off to a little pool in the forest. And again, you know, after all this terror, there was this sort of idyll of standing in a Bosnian forest in front of a little pool. And I washed my face and I felt the clear water on my face and the touch of the cold water on my skin, waking me, and I suddenly heard birdsong and I’ve never felt before or after so grateful, and so glad to be alive. After that time, that was the end of the time in my life when I felt invulnerable. I felt, during that night… it was almost a physical sensation of my mental defences being stripped away. During that night, beyond a sense of my own vulnerability, I had this incredible sense of guilt, that this convoy was my idea, and not only had I overrated my own invulnerability, but worst side, I’d exposed so many people to the possibility of death. And it had been, you know, what right do I have to do that? And I began to feel an incredible sense of guilt, at having put so many others’ lives at risk for my mission. And those feelings of guilt, and vulnerability, you know, were to grow worse with time, and were to pursue me. But that moment, washing my face, I felt incredibly glad and grateful to be alive. And memories of that gratitude for life, and how I felt, having reached the top of the mountain alive, after that night washing my face, surrounded by trees, listening to birdsong: that memory sustained me when I had very dark thoughts later on as a result of that experience. But anyway, then Sarajevo sent us a very well-equipped convoy of, I think they were French… there were suddenly French soldiers, I think, from a parachute regiment. They came and rescued us. But after that, the UNHCR operation went on. Didn’t stop. A month or so later, a colleague, Larry Hollingsworth, succeeded where I’d failed and got a convoy through to Gorazde. But everything changed for me after that.
MF: Have you described this in such detail publicly before? No…
MF: Fabrizio, what happened to you after you noticed everything changed? You went back to Sarajevo, and then, you started noticing things happening in your mind?
FH: I went back to Sarajevo and of course, Sarajevo hadn’t changed. It was the same place, the shelling was still going on. People were being still shot at. But whereas I’d been oblivious to that, everybody used to joke that, I would sleep through every night, no matter how bad the shelling, every time a shell fell, I felt it, I felt it in my skin, I felt shaken, and I walked around the PTT building with the sense that everybody was going to die, that I was going to die, that everybody was going to die, and I had these intrusive thoughts of death that didn’t leave me. And then I realized, you know, that we’re not invulnerable, that the UN flag means nothing. We can be hurt like anybody else. And it went further. I mean, it was, you know, it was a physical sensation, and so I started being very scared, and I was scared of everything, and I was scared for myself. I was scared for the staff. And I felt I couldn’t go on, and I stayed…
MF: Did you talk to anybody about this?
FH: No, there was nobody to talk to, and I did not want to.
MF: These feelings were completely new to you.
FH: Yes, and I was ashamed.
MF: You didn’t know how to deal with them.
FH: It was new, and to be honest I was also ashamed of the fear, of the feelings. I was ashamed of my fear. And I was the Head of the Office and, you know, the staff expected me, saw me as the leader. They had told me they drew strength from my sense of purpose and mission, and I didn’t. And I was too ashamed, I mean, I felt ashamed of everything, I felt ashamed of myself, for being so full of fear, I felt ashamed of having not made it for, to Gorazde. I felt ashamed at having exposed other people’s lives in the process. And I just grew paralyzed by fear. So after about a week, I left Sarajevo, and I’d been there for a couple of months. Incidentally, you know, at that time the French troops were rotating every three weeks, because three weeks was felt the acceptable period for the French Army to expose their troops to that level of danger. In UNHCR, we were put there until we dropped. I mean, we wanted to be there until we dropped. It’s not that we were put there, that’s unfair to the institution, because any one of us, at any point, could say we want to leave, and they’d let us leave. But we decided to stay till we drop. But I left. I’d been there a couple of months then and I left. I went to Zagreb and this shame and guilt followed me. I worked in Zagreb, I was meant to go back to Sarajevo and I just couldn’t, I couldn’t face it. I had sleepless night after sleepless night and I felt deep shame at abandoning the staff there, at abandoning the town and not doing what I’d been so convinced was my purpose. But I couldn’t face – I couldn’t face getting on a plane and facing that shelling again and facing the threat again. I mean, I’d lost any sense of invulnerability.
MF: Did it even occur to you that what you might be experiencing was trauma?
FH: No. The only thing that occurred to me was that I was a weak and a failure. I did get on a plane in the end and the plane made it halfway to Sarajevo and I was praying. I was doing everything to try and get rid of my fear and I just thought I was going to fall to bits if I landed in Sarajevo. And then halfway there the pilot turned to us – and these were the C-130 US military planes, we were strapped to the side – and said: “The airport is under heavy shelling, I have to turn around”. I took that as a sign of faith, that I was not meant to go back to Sarajevo. And then, I never tried again. But I went on working in the area. I got sent to Split, to head the office there, and from Split we were mounting a major land operation into central Bosnia. And I would go occasionally into Mostar to test whether I was still scared of fire and shelling. But I felt it when I went to Mostar, I still felt it. It wasn’t just that I felt scared and guilty. Scared in combat, and guilty when out of it. I began having all sorts of intrusive thoughts during the day and I started feeling panic for absolutely no reason. And then, I plucked up my courage, because I was so ashamed of how I was feeling, I thought I was literally going crazy and felt full of self-recrimination, and I saw a British Forces doctor, who told me that, yes, I had post-traumatic stress disorder, and that was the first time I heard of it.
MF: You’d never heard of that condition before?
FH: I had never heard of that condition before. And he diagnosed me.
MF: Soldiers are used to this.
FH: Well, he was used to that, although this was in 1992. I think the PTSD diagnosis was not, at least with those letters… Obviously the phenomenon was written about, in one way or another, since there have been wars, but those actual letters and that designation was only a few years old. But the doctor saw it and he gave me Valium, which helped. And then I went on working, but had worked, by that stage, about a full year non-stop, you know, 18-hour days, sleeping on the office floor. I was due to go on leave. So, I went on leave. Well, before that, what prompted me to see the doctor was that I’d always been good at public speaking, and I was used a lot to do presentations to diplomats on what UNHCR was doing, and we were a big source of information because we were the only ones in Bosnia operating when the place was at war. I stood up to give my normal briefing and I had prepared everything perfectly. I was describing the war, I was describing the shelling, I was describing UNHCR’s operation. And in the middle of it, I was just overwhelmed by emotion, I just wanted to break down in tears and all was over flooded in my mind – all the dead and wounded I’d seen, and I was choking. It was a full-fledged panic attack, which I’d never really had in that form before. And it was happening in the safety of the Hyatt hotel conference room, in Belgrade, where there was clearly no danger. But all I felt was death and danger, and I couldn’t breathe, and I had to stop. That was when I was convinced I was losing my mind, and then I went back to Split. I saw a doctor. He diagnosed PTSD. He gave me Valium.
MF: But there was no prescription to get any kind of therapy.
FH: No. A couple of weeks after that, I went on working. I struggled, and then I went on leave and I was convinced that all I needed was a bit of a rest, that I’d overworked myself and with rest, I would get better. And the truth is that what happened then was awful, because when I went on leave and I was outside the context of work, and I was not being driven by an incredibly supportive group of colleagues, and driven by a mission that we were still fighting for, my whole world went to bits and everything became a threat and I could not cross the street without feeling intense danger, I had constant intrusive thoughts related to injury and death. I had panic attacks for apparently no reason, at every moment and I sort of went to bits.
MF: The Valium was not doing much…
FH: Well, he wasn’t very generous in the amount of Valium he gave me and I’d used it up by then. Then I went home to Chile, and then in Chile, I started seeing a psychiatrist, which I also felt was sort of a shameful thing to do. But I felt I had no choice. I had a lot of support from my family, an aunt whom I lived with there was like a mother to me. I got well enough to go back to work and by then, I’d got offered a post in headquarters in Geneva. But I was still very much on edge. I still had great difficulty speaking without being overcome by fear. And when I say speaking, I mean even saying good morning to people, even ordering a sandwich in a restaurant. To be honest I felt was walking on a narrow precipice, with insanity on one side of it. And that I could slip at any moment, on any day, because I was having these panic attacks without reason, all the time, and I had no control over it. And part of it was this, I think, what occurred that night in the woods, in this minefield, an ambush site. It was a total loss of control. And for the first time, I was not in control. And likewise, I felt I had lost control of my mind and that my mind could do anything it wished with me and so wasn’t sure if I’d be able to work, how long I’d be able to work. I remember having an argument with Duncan Berkeley, who was then – now retired – a Senior Human Resource Officer here, and he said: “You realize you’re now entitled to a three-year contract. You’ve had your two-year contract; you are now entitled to a three-year contract”. And I told him: “Duncan, don’t give me more than a year’s contract because I’m not sure I’ll be able to manage”. So, I talked to people in personnel, they were supportive. I talked to the UN, the medical service there, and they were supportive. And, I was very lucky. I had an incredible psychiatrist and through years of therapy…
FH: Yes, yes. I got better.
MF: Did you think that it was going to be a condition that you would have to live with for as long as you have?
FH: No, I never thought. But I realized, by then, that there was no quick cure. And the cure was very slow and then, you know, here, they wanted me to become more involved in Bosnia issues, because I knew the file intimately, but I could not pick up a report from Bosnia without beginning to shake. I couldn’t deal with any news from Bosnia. It was hard. And then I felt this life is probably not for me. I took a leave of absence, so to get more or less together. And then I went off to Chile with the idea of becoming a farmer there.
MF: A farmer?
FH: A farmer and a writer. My father had died and I had some inheritance. So, I went off and I found a place in a very poor part of Chile, in a very dry part of Chile, and I had this vision of finding water and bringing prosperity to this impoverished valley. So I spent an awful lot of money, most of my inheritance, looking for water and found none. So my great project of becoming a farmer did not work out, but it was a great experience, and I am very grateful I did it. And I became nostalgic for the UN, and nostalgic for this sort of work. And the writing was not a massive success either. So after about a year and a half, I came back to UNHCR. I felt that, if I came back to this life, I had to be able to work in conflict areas, I could not be in this without being able to go back to conflict. And then progressively, over the years, I exposed myself more and more to conflict.
MF: Do you feel like you were almost regaining your young self?
FH: No. Well, by then I had regained a sufficient degree of courage to go back to those situations, and then later, my work went on in many different areas – some of them in conflict. And I was okay, but the intrusive thoughts, the most durable symptom was this inability to speak in public, because every time I wanted to, I would be assailed by memories, I think, because it was linked to my first panic attack. So that was the most durable symptom. And that took literally 22 years or 20 years of work – of therapy, of all sorts of things – to overcome. But I mean, you know, there is post-traumatic growth. I think I grew wiser, I grew more mature, I grew much more aware of my own limitations and probably to a healthy degree, much more modest.
MF: During this time, you did overcome the kind of shame that you were feeling, and you did open up to some people, to some colleagues, about what you were going through. Did you feel though that there was a stigma attached to this being a mental health problem rather than maybe a physical health issue?
FH: I felt there was a stigma attached, as I’ve said. I think the worst stigma came from myself, that I felt weak. I felt I was a failure. You know, my progress was very uneven. I would fall back into very vulnerable states, where I would be assailed again by panic attacks. So I continue to think of myself as somebody who was at the border of mental illness, or mental disability, because periodically my vulnerability will come back with a force. So, I felt I was weak. I felt I had a problem. I didn’t talk to others. I mean, I talked to friends and to some colleagues, but I didn’t let it be known broadly, because I thought it would affect my career. And I didn’t want to be told, that I couldn’t go to this place, or that place, and I didn’t want to be perceived to someone who was weak, or damaged goods. I didn’t want to be perceived by others, as I tended to perceive myself, to be quite frankly.
MF: So did you feel like you were putting on an act?
FH: Yes, I did. I felt at times that I was a bit of a fraud, that I was faking it. And then later when I was much better, I worked in Personnel. I was in charge of all field personnel in civilian field personnel and peacekeeping missions. And of course, many of the people I was there to support came with terrible signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. I mean, in Mazar-i-Sharif there was an attack on the UN compound, which left, I think, 11 people dead in 2011. And I dealt with many of the survivors.
MF: What did you counsel them to do?
FH: I counselled them to speak up. And I counselled them to see counsellors, but they were all worried. I remember one colleague had seen the head of one of her colleagues that had been hit in the attack roll in front of her, as she came out of a shelter. I told them that they had to get counselling, but they were all very nervous about their contracts, and in peacekeeping it’s bad. I think… It tells… You need to be a little more responsible in peacekeeping. Many people have very short-term contracts, so everybody was very worried about owning up to any sort of mental vulnerability, because they were convinced it would have a negative effect on their contracts. Today, people still fear that stigma. I think things have improved, but we still have a long way to go.
MF: Can you describe to what extent friendship, and perhaps marriage and family, was important to you in this process of stabilizing yourself?
FH: I got married quite a bit later after what I’ve described, but I kept on having a life that took me to many different places, and at times, exposed me to new conflict situations. In my family, my wife and later my children were always very supportive, and that did provide me a reference point and support. But you know, most of the drama was in my own head, and any form of mental illness makes people incredibly isolated and lonely, not least because it’s very hard to describe to others, who haven’t experienced it, what one goes through, and not least because one is also self-isolating and I think that’s also the problem, that because of the stigma, people don’t reach out. And you cannot rely on people who have serious mental problems or PTSD to step forward, because I think one’s first reaction is to huddle in a corner, and to go into a foetal position under bed covers and hope it all goes away, or the world stops or that one will die. So one needs colleagues to be attentive, and one needs friends to be attentive, one needs family to be attentive, and to reach out. And one needs… Family, friends, are wonderful, but they are not health professionals and you need to get into the hands of proper health professionals.
MF: You recently chose to speak about this in a video message that was sent to all UN staff. Why did you do that?
FH: That wasn’t easy for me, because I grew up in a culture where any form of exposing oneself is deemed inappropriate. But I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my career and am relatively senior now. And so I wanted to use that position to try and diminish the stigma for others, and to try and make a call also for others to be attentive to how their colleagues feel. It’s not about us but the UN is not an institution to look after itself. It’s an institution to look after those who are much less fortunate. That’s what the UN is about. But having said that, we can’t serve those people, we cannot do anything for those people, if we ourselves are not in a good state of health, a good state of mind.
MF: Does the memory of any of your own personal experiences, even after all these years, still keep you awake at night?
FH: I often wake up with memories. It’s more in my dreams that some of those memories come back and make me wake up. But you know, in this interview, I’ve described so many painful scenes, but I mean I have so many incredible memories of all the human virtues, displayed in the most contrarian situations, and those thoughts are always at my disposal also to inspire me.
MF: What are some of those virtues, in particular?
FH: Well, let me tell you. I was the Humanitarian Coordinator and Regional Coordinator in Colombia, and we would often go to villages, and the villages would come out, and they would bear testimony of the awful things they’d been through. And they would tell you story after story of suffering and horror, and then, the stories would stop. And there would be song and dance. And suddenly, the whole village would erupt with music, and everybody would start dancing. And at first, it seemed really totally surreal, and bizarre, and almost disrespectful. And then, I realized this was the triumph of humanity over suffering. This was them saying, we will not be beaten, life will not be beaten here. I mean, it’s just wonderful, and it was the human spirit prevailed and the beauty of the human spirit prevailed against the darkest backdrops.
MF: Fabrizio, thank you so much for coming on this podcast. And also, I know that this was tough, that you have never really said – to the extent that you just did – all of the things that have happened to you, and what you went through, so I’m grateful for your courage to speak out. Thanks so much for joining us.
FH: Thank you Melissa.
MF: Thank you for listening to Awake at Night. To find out more about the series and see photos of Fabrizio at work, do visit unhcr.org/awakeatnight. You can find us on Facebook @UNHCR and on Twitter we are @refugees and I am @melissarfleming. You can follow Fabrizio on @HochschildF – and please spread the word about the series using #awakeatnight.
If you were inspired and moved by this episode, do subscribe to Awake at Night wherever you get your podcasts. And, if you could take time to review the podcast it would help us spread the word and get more attention to the people who serve humanity.
Thanks to the fantastic design and studio teams here at UNHCR, and to my producers Bethany Bell, and Laura Sheeter of Chalk and Blade. The sound design was by Pascal Wyse and the original music for this podcast was written and performed by Nadine Shah – and produced by Ben Hillier.
My guest next week is a former refugee from Cambodia who found herself working to protect the very people who were responsible of killing members of her family.
MF: Hi, this is Melissa Fleming. I am in Myanmar on assignment and also visiting our team here. But I just wanted to say how delighted I am that my colleagues’ bravery, both in the field and also in opening their hearts so publicly on this podcast, has been recognized. We’ve won a silver award at the British Podcast Awards. We are excited to share the stories of even more amazing people in Season 2, so please do subscribe to hear them first and, if you can, review us to help spread the word.