“I've seen horrible things. I've seen massacres. Human suffering. These are not easy sights to see. The best way I found to deal with that is just to be determined to fix it in some fashion.”

UN Humanitarian Coordinator and Resident Coordinator for Yemen David Gressly has seen some of the worst of man's inhumanity to man during a career of more than 40 years in peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance and development. In this episode, he talks with podcast host Melissa Fleming about what has driven him to devote his life to helping the most vulnerable in some of the most fragile places on earth.

With more than 20 million people in need of assistance and a seven-year ongoing war, Yemen is among the world's worst humanitarian crises. But it’s not just conflict that threatens the Yemeni people. As David explains, every three days someone is injured or even killed by landmines or unexploded ordnance. During this eye-opening conversation, David shares his concerns about the dire situation in Yemen and the likelihood of being able to sustain the humanitarian response in the year ahead. 


Full Transcript +


Melissa Fleming 00:07

From the United Nations, I'm Melissa Fleming, and this is Awake At Night. Today, my guest is David Gressly, the UN's Humanitarian Coordinator and Resident Coordinator for Yemen. Welcome, David, and good to have you here in our studio in New York.

David Gressly 00:35

My pleasure.

Melissa Fleming 00:37

So you're based in Yemen, what brings you to the US?

David Gressly 00:40

Well, basically, I've come on a larger trip to see where we can mobilise support politically for the humanitarian assistance we need to do as well as the economic assistance that I think needs to come into Yemen in its time of crisis. So I've been in the Gulf region, as well as Washington and New York, in an attempt to build up support for Yemen. [There are] many crises around the world, it's time to keep Yemen at the top of that, with 20 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, one of the worst, if not the worst, catastrophes that the world is dealing with right now. [It is] important that we keep that going.

Melissa Fleming 01:21

Yemen has been...I think we have been calling it the world's worst humanitarian crisis for years now, how long has this conflict been going on for?

David Gressly 01:32

This is a seven year war. Seven year war. My concern is that I've worked in many countries - Congo, most recently, in South Sudan or Sudan, where conflicts have gone on much longer, 20-25 years. The difficulty is, after that much time, you fundamentally see a change in the country. You have a generation, maybe two generations of children who know nothing but conflict, that changes the psychology of a country. It's not just the devastation. It's what it does to transform people's attitudes towards violence and how they survive and Yemen is on that path today. So we need to find a way to stop them going down that same path and stop the fighting as soon as possible.

Melissa Fleming 02:21

What does famine look like? I know that you spend a lot of time travelling around the country, meeting people, checking out the situation. Could you describe what it looks like to just be with populations who are on the verge?

David Gressly  02:37

As always, it's always the youngest children that are the first indicator that there is a serious problem, malnutrition, severe malnutrition, is probably one of the hardest things to see in a hospital. A child who's become so fragile, they can't lift their hand sometimes so...Mothers trying to do the best they can to keep them alive. Hospital staff who are overwhelmed, overwhelmed, trying to do the best they can for each family. I've seen hospitals where they could no longer take in patients. And they've told...already, particularly women who are about to deliver, they're told, ‘There isn't any space here, we can't take you. You've come here, it took you two days to get here. Unfortunately, you're going to have to go on to another province, to see if they have space.’

This is real. I've seen this on the ground. And it's really, you know, some patients don't survive the trip to get to the hospital because of the number of days that it takes to get there and the costs that it takes to get there. We tried to intervene. We do provide stipends for transport and so forth to help people to come in. But sometimes that's not enough, either. And I worry also, as we go forward in time, towards the end of this year, we're running out of funding for fuel for the hospital. We’re running out of fuel, money for fuel for water systems. Lack of water systems means more disease. Lack of hospital means no means to treat those people who are more susceptible to disease. It's a very bad combination that we look at going down the road.

Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, David Gressly, visits an IDP site

Melissa Fleming 04:27

I believe you told me that Yemen imports 90% of its food?

David Gressly 04:34

Almost all of its food commercially, yes, and some of its humanitarian assistance as well, which means they're very dependent upon income to buy the commercial imports. And if you don't have a job and most people won't when an economy collapses, then you have a serious problem. You have also a civil service that's not being paid right now. That's being asked to do all of the work for the hospitals, the schools, keeping the same water systems I mentioned before running without a salary. And that's a real worry because people won't do that forever, and you slowly lose a public sector that's good, that's been very good for delivery of these services. And over time, even when the conflict ends, you may not have a public sector service left. So it's really worrisome in that regard.

So we need to find a strategy that complements the humanitarian side to get into the more economic issues. What can we do to help business do better so that they can generate jobs? Surprisingly, there are many things that you can do in that regard; opening the ports so that company essential commodities can come in without major restrictions, making sure that factories are on the “no strike” lists so that airstrikes don't take that capacity out or at least the people know that, even if it's not a target, that it never will be a target, and they can invest in that. And then there are certain livelihoods that have been totally restricted by the conflict including access to the red sea fishing area. So fishermen don't have the kind of access they had before so that industry has collapsed. Why not...let's get that going again, so that they have a livelihood. And that way we can find a path to unlock the economy and let this economy take care of Yemeni directly so that they have a job, the dignity of a job, and the income that comes with the job to take care of their families. We need to start this work now in anticipation that peace will come.

Melissa Fleming 06:45

Can you think of somebody or a family you've recently met and just describe what that was like and what they were telling you that they wanted.

David Gressly 06:55

Recently, I mentioned the West Coast and I travelled from the port city of Aden which is where the recognised government is currently headquartered, drove up the West Coast all the way to the port of Hudaydah which is on the front line between the the forces out of Sana'a and those from the government. More specifically, I remember going just south of Hudaydah into some villages along the coast and talking to families there, because they hadn't seen much for the international community there was… you were constantly being pulled aside, ‘I've got a story to tell you. I wanted.. You have to hear this story.’

And usually it was a mother that said, ‘My children are not in school, I can't get fresh water because the fresh water is on the other side of the front lines. If I get water here it’s salty from the ocean. I can't get to the hospital, it's on the other side. There's no clinic here to support us. My child is malnourished. My sister was wounded in the leg and can't get medical treatment.’

The same time I was there, one bus was destroyed by a landmine...I think eleven people were killed that very day, in that very district. About every third day, every second to third day, someone in Yemen is injured or killed by landmine or unexploded ordinates. So we need to also attack those kinds of problems to eliminate that danger in that area that could not even access their fields because of landmines. So, you know, it's everywhere they turn; no health, no water, can't even access our fields, can't get across the line to get to hospital or to get water. It's a difficult situation. And they hold on to you [and say] ‘You've got to hear my story. You've got to hear my story.’ And I think they want me to tell that story.

Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, David Gressly, at a school

Melissa Fleming 08:58

What do you personally do with those kinds of stories when you go back home?

David Gressly 09:04

I've put several 1000 kilometres on road travel in Yemen to see this. I've seen IDPs that live surrounded by landmines. You know, I worry about...how many schools have I seen that have been destroyed? Sometimes because they were used for storage for munitions and they were either deliberately blown up by retreating forces or an artillery shell hit it or whatever. I've seen villages, most recently in Al Jawf, you can't even go into the village because it's fully contaminated with landmines. Nobody lives there. It's a ghost city - a beautiful ghost city. The architecture is wonderful but nobody can live there. This is the reality so they have to move somewhere else and depend upon humanitarian assistance to stay alive. So it's, you know, these are the things we need to roll back. We need to find those opportunities. That village, we need to find a way to make sure it's clear of landmines so that people who want to move back can do so and try to live a normal life again.

Melissa Fleming 10:13

I once travelled through Yemen, it was before this conflict and I thought it was one of the most beautiful countries I've ever seen and then the architecture is just so unique and stunning. I mean, what is it about Yemen, do you enjoy living there?

David Gressly 10:30

I enjoyed it a great deal. First of all, the people are fantastic and despite the conflict, they maintain a very good sense of humour about life, and are highly resilient. Secondly, the country is extraordinarily beautiful; mountainous in areas, beautiful coastline, open plains and so forth that are just extraordinary. But the architecture you can tell it goes back centuries, something that needs to be guarded as well, that cultural heritage. We cannot underestimate… I've not seen a country that has that kind of cultural heritage so well distributed throughout the country. And that I think too needs to be protected.

And there are things that are working against it now. I mean, IDPs, you know, the internationally displaced that move into cities, they put a severe strain on water and sanitation systems just by sheer… There's 4 million IDPs and most of them are now with host families, that puts a major strain on urban systems and the urban systems are starting to break down. And we need to keep that in mind because they also are breaking down in the Old City areas.

And these are beautiful buildings, six-seven storeys high, as you know. But if the drainage systems are dysfunctional, it can start to undermine these older buildings and they can collapse causing injury or worse, and the loss of that cultural heritage. So we need to watch all of these things and see how we can intervene to protect Yemen for the period until the conflict is over.

Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, David Gressly, visits hospital

Melissa Fleming 12:14

Don't you ever get frustrated at these parties that they continue to fight? And if this is the result, so much suffering?

David Gressly 12:23

Well, the war needs to stop. What I see is so much potential that's been lost, it's really hard, and to see how people are suffering today. It's just like, ‘Come on, we don't need this, it’s time to move beyond this. Let's think about the people of Yemen first, before thinking about everything else.’ Until that attitude is there, the possibility of this war continuing is very, very real. So we really need a collective effort to find the political will to bring this to an end.

Melissa Fleming 12:57

I believe your family is definitely not with you in Yemen. I think your wife is in Arizona in the US…

David Gressly 13:05


Melissa Fleming 13:06

...so half a world away? Does she ever worry about you?

David Gressly 13:10

Ah, no, I think she's okay with what I do and the work that I do from that point of view. But it, you know, it's not easy maintaining a relationship over that distance. You know, it puts a lot of burden on her. We have a large family, and even though they're grown now, they had to get grown. And, you know, puts a heavy burden on her. So I very much appreciate that.

Melissa Fleming 13:41

What does she do when she hears Yemen in the news, and there was an attack or an explosion?

David Gressly 13:48

She's pretty relaxed. She knows. She's lived in these environments too. We met in Kenya, as Peace Corps volunteers many, many years ago and we've been together in many countries so she knows how this works and yeah, and you know, I think she trusts my judgement to stay out of trouble. So. So from that point of view, I think it's okay.

Melissa Fleming 14:14

And I believe you have six children?

David Gressly 14:17

Last time I counted, yeah, there were six children.

Melissa Fleming 14:19

Wow, and all grown, have any of them followed in your footsteps?

David Gressly 14:24

Not directly, I think one or two might. But that's their choice. And this is not the kind of life everybody wants to lead. And anyway, so they're making their own choices right now. And let's see, let's see how that goes in the future. But they all enjoy the international life that we had. The languages that they also learned while living overseas so whatever they do in the US, they still draw back on that and they really appreciate that they had that experience.

The other thing I would say about them is that they're very tight with each other. They take care of each other. They were the commonality throughout all of these years that we lived overseas. And, yeah, when they have a Skype call, it's because they have been across many time zones, they come and go on the conference. A conference call might go on for three, four hours, but not with the same participants the whole time. Some pop in, some pop out and so forth. So it's really nice to see how they really take care of each other, and they like each other and they're friends with each other so that's very satisfying as well.

Melissa Fleming 15:43

What did you do before video calls?

David Gressy 15:47

That's a good question. Well, we were together up until that time, so that was not such a problem. Yeah, when we lived in Mauritania, you couldn’t even make a telephone call outside of the country at that point. That was in the early 80s so yeah, the world has transformed and in some ways have made this kind of family contact or any kind of relationship contact much easier than it would have been in the past. I think it would be extremely difficult to maintain any kind of relationship without what we have today. That makes a big difference.

Melissa Fleming 16:21

I mean, I'm sure most people think that a marriage and kids is living in the same place and bringing them up together. But humanitarian work involves needing to go to places that are dangerous and remote and that take you away from your family so that requires, I guess, a lot of understanding?

David Gressly 16:45

It does. It does. It gets tested [the] understanding too! So but yeah, you know, it's been good so far. My wife once told me once, one time I was working late, she called me and said, ‘Look, as long as you're out doing something that might save somebody's life, you can stay until two o'clock in the morning, I really don't care. But if you're working on revising a PowerPoint presentation, get your duff back here for dinner.’ So as long as the priorities are right, she's okay with that.

Melissa Fleming 17:17

She sounds like an amazing woman. Yemen is a very long way from where you grew up in rural Missouri, in the United States. Do you ever wonder how you got here?

David Gressly 17:33

Sometimes. But I've always been interested in being overseas. My parents, like my first two years were in Germany, my father was in the army in Germany, and they had.. My parents had a great time living there. They talked about it constantly as I was growing up. I had a great, great uncle and a great aunt, who were some of the first Peace Corps volunteers in India, in fact. And I remember when they came back and talking about their experience so this taste of what might be beyond the horizon I've always had and so in that sense, no, it's not a surprise that I've ended up in Yemen. I've ended up in a lot of places and they're all fascinating places. I love it.

Melissa Fleming 18:19

But you... you grew up on a farm, I believe?

David Gressly 18:21

That's correct. Yeah.

Melissa Fleming 18:23

And what did your parents do and what was the environment like and school like?

David Gressly 18:29

Ah, yeah, we grew up on... I grew up on a farm, it was about 1000 acres, cattle, maize, soybeans, primarily some wheat. A lot of work. A lot of work. You're expected to start at a young age, actually. But yeah, it was good work. Honest work, as they say so you learn that early on. Yeah.

Melissa Fleming 18:52

So before school you were out tending the cows or..? How do we picture this?

David Gressly 18:57

More after, before I was not really an early riser, I'll be honest with you on that regard. But yeah, a lot of work after school, but during the summer, it was full time. A lot of it was using equipment - driving tractors and cultivation was a big thing in the summertime also, we made hay bales and I mean, that was my constant exercise.. just lifting hay bales. Thousands of them, and putting them into a barn and so forth.

So there's a lot of physical labour just cleaning; keeping the fences clean and cattle and moving the cattle around so that they could be in the right pasture at the right time. There was always something every day. I really loved it when I woke up and heard it was raining outside because I knew I had the morning off at least before continuing on. But you know, you learn to appreciate what work provides. And that kind of work was also, I think, rewarding in a sense you knew you were making your own contribution to the family. It was real work in that sense because it was necessary work. Yeah, it was a great experience in retrospect. Not so much always going out every day but in retrospect it was. It was very good.

I went to a small rural school to start with; two school room house. Eight grades, two teachers and when I was in fourth grade, my sister was in third grade sitting next to me and my younger sister in first grade just on the other side of the room. So that's how I grew up so that was a good experience, too. We had really good teachers and they knew how to stagger the teaching to keep all of us engaged. What I really remember though is the snow was cool. We had deep snow, it was really good in playtime, recess time.

Melissa Fleming 20:45

I can imagine it's very cold there too. Very snowy. But the day must have come when you were no longer going to work on the farm or was the expectation that you stay and this was going to be your future on the family farm?

David Gressly 20:59

Oh, my parents were very open about it, you know, they just wanted me to do what I wanted to do. And from, you know, a pretty, pretty clear certain point, I think it was in the 80s, they finally understood that ‘Yeah, this is what he's going to do’. So it’s not a problem. [They were] very supportive throughout that period.

Melissa Fleming 21:20

So how did you get...I believe you, you went to the Peace Corps?

David Gressly 21:24

Yes. You know, in exploring what I wanted to do after university, one of my advisors counselled me that this was, you know, if you want to work overseas, particularly in the development area, and I specialised in international development in economics, this is a good way. They gave me twelve options of where to go in the world and I chose Kenya so that was a nice choice.

Melissa Fleming 21:49

What was your experience like there, and I believe you said you also met your wife there?

David Gressly 21:54

Yeah. She was also a volunteer. She came about two years after I did, which is why I stayed for years there. I extended after I met her basically doing training and...But yeah, I worked on Lake Victoria. I was basically a business advisor for a cotton cooperative around the lake region there. We gave out loans, basically to farmers and that resulted in a significant increase in cotton production in that area. And that cooperative became the second largest exporter of cotton in Kenya, after about a couple of years. So that was very satisfying and very, very nice to work with. I had a motorcycle to do all my work. It was fun driving around and along Lake Victoria so that was a great experience. And then after four years, I decided maybe it's time to get back to the United States. I made two telephone calls in four years to the United States.

Melissa Fleming 22:51

That's it? So you went back home and saw your parents and then quickly you...

David Gressly 22:57

Well, I was already registered to go to graduate school so I went to get an MBA together with my wife. And then we went back overseas to Mauritania.

Melissa Fleming  23:07

What is it about the Peace Corps that's attractive?

David Gressly 23:12

It's that very special thing I think that you get from living quite close to communities isolated from where you come from originally, and becoming embedded in a culture in a way that...it’s the only way you can do that, actually, suddenly, it just changes your perspective on everything. And I draw heavily on that experience to this day. I really do because it taught me how to work with people in a much different way than if I had never had that experience.

Melissa Fleming 23:45

How so?

David Gressly 23:46

I just listen a lot more. I think I try to see things through other people's perspective, it's important to try to put yourself in not your thinking, but just from their perspective, how they're seeing the world. As I say, I learned much more when I'm listening than when I'm talking so better to listen.

Melissa Fleming 24:11

But the stories you get when you're listening. I mean, you went on to some very difficult postings in places where again, there was war; South Sudan or in the Sahel and tonnes of suffering. How do you take in those stories and digest them yourself?

David Gressly 24:34

Yeah, it's a very good question. I mean, I've seen horrible things. I've seen massacres. I've seen where small children have been dragged off into the jungle after being hacked to death. They're horrible things out there. I don't even want to go into all the detail. It's also the human suffering; famine, near famine, malnutrition. Yeah, these are not easy sights to see. The best way I found to deal with that is just be determined to fix it in some fashion. You can absorb it emotionally, but there's a limit to how much you can absorb emotionally without becoming frankly speaking, dysfunctional, and the best way to manage that is to find a strategy to try to take care of the problem that you've found. Not always easy, not always successful, but it gives you a certain level of determination to try to find an answer. And I find that the way....That's how I cope with that, just go back and let's get this, let's see what we need to do to make this better.

Melissa Fleming 25:39

When you see that kind of man's inhumanity to man before your eyes, how does that influence the way you view humanity itself?

David Gressly 25:53

I think we have to be careful to acknowledge that these are not fully aberrations, not specific to any given place. That there are, at a certain point, anywhere human beings can do this kind of thing. And we have to have that in the back of our mind all the time. And if it's not happening, we need to understand how we safeguard the fact that that's not happening. It's not automatic and we often forget, because it doesn't seem to be around us that much of this existed in our own pasts. And how did we get to the point where maybe we don't see this every day? And what do we need to do to make sure that that doesn't return?

Melissa Fleming 26:50

You were in South Sudan, I think from 2004, it was to become a new country...

David Gressly 26:57

If the referendum passed, yes.

Melissa Fleming 26:59

Right. What was it like being at the birth of a new country?

David Gressly 27:05

Well, I was only there a month after the birth of a new country, but most of it was the process that led to that. It was quite extraordinary, because the British administration of that territory was actually Anglo Egyptian. It was largely isolated, and so not terribly developed and then, of course, two wars in the 70s and another one that started in the 80s and went up until 2004, which also kept it pretty isolated. And so in many ways, it was not only a new country, it was a clean slate in many ways, which offered many opportunities. Unfortunately, not all of them were taken.

There were no roads, there were six kilometres of paved road at that time, in the whole of the area. And that was compounded by substantial numbers of landmines. You couldn't even drive to Juba at that time. You could come in by river on the Nile but that was it. So Juba became a time capsule, it looked like it did in 1983 when the war started, nothing had changed. I even went to the UN guesthouse and they had a little library there. The newest book was, this was in 2004, 2005 excuse me, the newest book was printed in 1983 and a lot had happened in terms of atrocities during those years and I heard those stories over a number of years.

I remember once I was just...I was with the UN mission there and I just hitched a ride on a bus that was going from one site to another and basically it was all national staff on the bus plus plus myself and they were all talking and we were talking and we went over a very small bridge probably not much bigger than the distance from here, a little bit further than yourself, maybe that far. And that was it. But everybody was quiet. They turned quiet. We were on our way to the airport and it was so quiet I noticed that so I asked us ‘Why did everybody stop talking?’ because they were just looking outside. And they said ‘You know, this used to be the line of death, you know, anybody who crossed that bridge was shot.’

So this was a situation on the ground, and people were displaced all over the country. Cattle, by the way, as you know, are central to the economy and one of the first things we needed to do was get displaced people from, in this case Western Equatoria which is far to the west and south of the country across the Nile and then up the Nile back to their original home. So we ended up organising a move of about 14,000 people and 150,000 head of cattle for a several hundred kilometre march across South Sudan, so it's a huge rodeo so to speak, but we didn't want, you know, the more vulnerable, the women, children, elderly to make that same hike up.

So we had to rehabilitate a an old steamboat actually, that used to be a passenger boat before the war on the Nile, and we got a barge pusher, basically, that you would see on any river, we found that and then basically push this passenger boat down the Nile, in this case, to the city of Bor where they had originally come from. So the idea was to do two movements to get everybody back home. There was nothing in terms of roads, nothing in terms of infrastructure. It was just extraordinary. And at a certain point, we got to an area where people were from, I mean, they were going all the way to Bor but some would have to come back south and and they would see people that were relatives on the other bank. Now fortunately we're only going a few miles an hour, a few kilometres an hour, so it wasn't that fast. So people would be running alongside because they hadn't seen each other in fifteen years, basically. And so they were just trading news about families that they hadn't seen, a literal running conversation as we were going by and each village that we passed, it was like that. It was a giant homecoming.

And it happened to be a Sunday that we got to Bor town and since it was Sunday, the mothers dressed their children up in very, you know, Sunday fine clothes and, you know, they all looked beautiful. And, they started singing and we came around the last bend before we [were] coming into the city, a town of Bor, and they were singing hymns. And then on shore, there was another large group of women who knew we were coming and they were there to receive the families and they started singing. And it was becoming this alternating singing going as we got closer and closer together so that when we finally landed, it was just this giant, giant homecoming after 15 years. Beautiful.

Melissa Fleming 32:59

What is keeping you awake at night these days?

David Gressly 33:02

I am worried about the ability to sustain the humanitarian response and the deterioration I see on the ground. Good, not perfect, response to our appeal but good enough to keep people alive and keep people, I hope if all these pledges come in, through the end of the year. I worry next year with all the priorities out there, if we can sustain that. And I think that's my number one concern.

Number two, I've mentioned the issues of fuel, just to keep basic functions going. We can't afford to lose that. The salaries, we can't afford to lose, those who are delivering the service, the Yemeni who are delivering these services. I worry that the piece will not come and that this will continue for a long time and that I think would be the greatest of tragedies. Because it will not be the same country. There are many people, Yemeni as well as non-Yemeni that really adore Yemen but this can change a country. We have to avoid that.

Melissa Fleming 34:15

That's an awful lot to wake up in the night thinking about. What do you do in your downtime?

David Gressly 34:23

That's a theoretical question. Not much downtime. Let me be honest, there's really not much downtime. It's a constant race to keep things moving. Because you got to find the funding, you got to find the access you got to find. Keep everybody happy on the team and balancing this and doing briefings and keeping the interest up. It's a full time. Yeah. It's an all time job.

Melissa Fleming 34:52

David Gressley, thank you so much for joining us on Awake At Night.

David Gressly 34:56

My pleasure. Thank you so much.

Melissa Fleming 35:06

Thank you for listening to Awake At Night. We'll be back soon with more incredible and inspiring stories from people working to do some good in this world at a time of global crisis.

To find out more about the series and the extraordinary people featured, do visit un.org-awake-at-night. On Twitter, we're @UN and I'm @melissafleming. David is @DavidGressly. Subscribe to Awake At Night wherever you get your podcasts and please take the time to review us. It does make a difference.

Thanks to my producers Bethany Bell, and the team at Chalk & Blade: Laura Sheeter, Cheri Percy, and Fatuma Khaireh, and to my colleagues at the UN: Roberta Politi, Darrin Farrant, Geneva Damayanti Tulin Battikhi, and Bissera Kostova and the team at the UN studio in Vienna.

The original music for this podcast was written and performed by Nadine Shah and produced by Ben Hillier. The sound design and additional music was by Pascal Wyse.