Impossible Decisions

This post is by Adam Tousley, who currently works for an INGO in northern Iraq.

Buddhist protests_crop

Photo provided by author; source unknown.

On 25 August 2017 in Maungdaw Town, Northern Rakhine State (NRS), Burma, I was planning to go for a run at 6:00 AM.  The day before, the United Nations Department of Safety & Security, who were a three-hour boat ride away, stated that despite the heightened tension between the Rohingya and Rakhine communities there was nothing overly concerning. Instead I woke up at 3:00 AM to a large exchange of gunfire outside my INGO guest house.

There is a common nightmare for some people finding themselves naked in public places.  Take it from me; waking up semi-naked in a gunfight in Burma is far worse, especially if you’re a bearded pasty white dude.  Our buildings were targeted by small arms gunfire, and my organization was singled out for attack on social media (thanks Facebook).  After two days in hibernation my colleagues and I were directed to evacuate.

No one can be fully prepared to lead a base through evacuation in a rapid onset emergency.  For those who have, you may remember the frustration in finding a carefully developed evacuation plan was not as developed as you had envisioned (at least I hope I’m not the only one).  What had been the worst-case scenario on your risk assessment yesterday was the reality today.  The road you could run on yesterday is now a no man’s land.  All the missed details in planning are now gaping holes in the sinking ship that is your life.  You’re forced to make critical decisions with no information and deal with a micromanaging HQ on the other side of the world.

Whereas the day before you espoused the principle of humanity, today you are making cold calculated decisions.  Whereas the day before everyone in the base was one team, the current circumstances force you to categorize people as expatriates and nationals.

As a U.S. citizen I’ve had the unique experience of working for INGOs under both national and expatriate contracts. During my first mission under a national contract I felt like a second-class citizen without access to the same benefits as my expatriate colleagues.  This aspect is exacerbated when implementing an emergency evacuation plan.  Limited resources and context force you to evacuate only expats and inpats, with the logic that national staff have the coping mechanisms to blend safely into the community.  While in theory this is logical, no coping mechanism was going to help our Rohingya staff on the day which the UN accused the Burmese Army of genocide.  On this day, our Rohingya staff became the most vulnerable.

The Humanitarian Principles:

  • Humanity means that human suffering must be addressed wherever it is found, with particular attention to the most vulnerable.
  • Neutrality means that humanitarian aid must not favour any side in an armed conflict or other dispute.
  • Impartiality means that humanitarian aid must be provided solely on the basis of need, without discrimination.
  • Independence means the autonomy of humanitarian objectives from political, economic, military or other objectives.

Rohingya families flooded into the guest house with the assumption that being with expatriates would provide them some protection from the Burmese Army. The consequence is that our two-week supply of emergency food would last only days, and a building full of people was more vulnerable to attack. From the perspective of our team there was no choice but to open our doors to Rohingya families.  Affording protection to those in need is basic human being 101 and damn the consequences.   The order for us to evacuate made being a decent human being much more complicated.

I can remember vividly a conversation I had with one of our Rohingya staff:

Me: I’ve been told we need to evacuate.  Tomorrow we’re taking a vehicle to Buthidaung (a town in NRS) and then a boat to Sittwe (capital of Rakhine State).

Rohingya colleague: Take me with you, I need to get back to my family in Buthidaung

Me: You can, but if the Army finds you at the check point, they’ll take you and I don’t know what would happen.

I also remember telling the Rohingya families and staff taking shelter in our guesthouse that we were leaving the next day.  That night, they left.  I cannot honestly say what I would have done if our Rohingya colleagues insisted to join the convoy out of NRS or beseeched us to stay.  In hindsight, if expatriates stayed, we could have become reliant on the Rohingya staff members for food and water. Taking our Rohingya colleagues with us was not an option; they would have been detained at the checkpoints by the same Burmese Army actively murdering their people in the surrounding villages.  My saving grace was that the Rohingya staff knew this before I did, and I was never forced to make that call.  Decisions were made with the best information we had at the time, which was no information at all.

I’m not a stranger to hard and cold decisions in an emergency.  I’m a U.S. Army Veteran (Enlisted Infantryman and then Field Artillery Officer), having served in a leadership role in Iraq, and I am at peace with what I did.  What I can’t reconcile is how quickly the humanitarian principles are discounted when it comes to the categorization of expatriates and national staff.  In transitioning careers from military to humanitarian, I sought out a more idealistic way of living, but find my current role requires the same cold and calculated decision-making process for the sake of the “big picture”.  As my career moves into more senior roles, I struggle to retain the same attitude of idealism which lead me to the humanitarian sector.

After NRS I had the opportunity to work in the Bangladesh refugee camps and meet the same Rohingya staff who were now refugees, and thankfully all of them survived.

Writing this post was therapeutic.  I still keep in contact with the Rohingya colleagues who were with me that day and shared this post with them first.  While I was worried I would receive judgment, instead they showed understanding, renewed friendship, and humanity.


2 thoughts on “Impossible Decisions

  1. Pingback: Old Contenders | Missing in the Mission

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