Travelling – it’s all about the journey. All about the spectacular places you see, the food you eat, the fear and excitement of the unknown and the cultures and customs you experience and are often invited into. You click frantically in a desperate attempt to capture as many memories as possible, and if you’re like me, you try to keep notes and write about the unique, random and sometimes bizarre moments that will no doubt occur at regular points throughout the journey.
Local Rwandan band
However, during my most recent trip to Rwanda and the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) it dawned on me that one of the most important aspects of my travels and time abroad has been the people I’ve met, and crucially, the things I’ve learned from each and every one of these people. I have come to realise this cannot be underestimated or overlooked in regards to its value, relevance and impact.
Kim and I (halfway up a volcano)
International travelers inspire. Their sense of adventure and courage in the face of the unknown is at times baffling, but more often than not, totally energizing. They are often brave, curious, open, and unafraid to try new things, unburdened by logistics, and often equipped with a sharp and equally patient sense of humour. Those who travel live for the moment and instead of asking “Why?” the question is usually “Why not?”
Some may remark it is an irresponsible and risky existence, but I would say the outcomes of these risks are moments that will stay etched in the memory for a lifetime. From my personal experiences during my explorations I have encountered all manner of personalities, and this has undoubtedly been paramount to my own personal growth. It has inspired me to do things I had probably never before considered.
I have become more open and confident in meeting new people and more eager to strike up a conversation. My willingness to try new things has known far fewer bounds in recent years, and whilst I try my very best to be as careful and respectful as possible, I think the dive into the unknown is a truly formative experience.
At various points on my recent trip, I interacted and spent time with a group of people who truly emphasized the diversity and collective adventurous spirit of the international worker and traveller.
Firstly I reunited with three good friends who have all carved out their own individually international paths in recent years. Inga (from Norway) volunteered with me in Rwanda in 2010 and since then has gone on to spend an extended period teaching at an international school in Kigali. She has also spent time teaching in refugee camps in Lebanon (predominantly home to Syrian refugees) and is now about to begin a PhD at Oxford University researching education in refugee camps, which will once again take her to camps in East Africa and the Middle East.
Kirsty (from Canada) is a web designer and online entrepreneur currently based in Rwanda and responsible for this great website www.livinginkigali.com. She also travels extensively and a major part of this is dedicated to her work with disaster relief projects. In the past few years she has been to Haiti, Bangladesh, Malawi and most recently, Nepal as a volunteer for an organisation which sends volunteers to assist with work after major disasters (www.hands.org).
Finally Kim (from the US) is also a former fellow volunteer in Rwanda. Since our work together in 2010 she has lived in Bogota, Colombia and Dar es Salam, Tanzania and travelled a great deal during this time. It is safe to say that Kim has experienced some of the very real challenges of life in major international capital cities and has been a constant and reliable source of knowledge and advice during the past few years.
So, as you can imagine, the stories and experiences shared when we all came together were humorous, intriguing, eye-opening, but most importantly they provided a very real insight into a wide variety of life experiences and challenges.
(L-R) Johnny, me, Inga, Kirsty and Kim
We all signed up to hike Mount Nyiragongo in The DRC and personally I was a little reluctant when the volcano hike was in the planning stages due to cost and risk. Eastern DRC is an area rife with extremely dangerous rebel groups that reside in the dense forests and often unleash brutal and devastating attacks on surrounding towns and villages. It is the reason why there are large numbers of UN peacekeepers based in nearby Goma.
In addition to that Nyiragongo is an active volcano, which last erupted in 2002 leaving the town of Goma covered and destroyed by lava. The people are still rebuilding their homes and lives today. However, with a bit of peer pressure and that adventurous spirit, I was persuaded to sign up for the hike. Why not?!
Looking into the belly of the volcano
Freezing, but happy at the ridge of the volcano
Also in our group for the volcano climb was Johnny from Ireland. Now if you want to hear stories about international adventures, Johnny is your man. He is currently on an 8 year mission to visit every country in the world. At the time of meeting him he was up to about 145 countries. How does he fund this you may ask? Well, a few years ago he was in a 9-5 office job which he disliked. So, he set up a travel blog/website and once this gained interest and popularity, it quickly attracted advertisers and he realised this was a liberating and exciting way to earn money. He recently celebrated breaking the $1 million mark for income generated by his online work. This is one of his websites; http://onestep4ward.com/.
Kim, Johnny and I
The hike was tough, but chatting with Johnny and hearing his many stories from almost any country you can think of helped pass the time and keep our minds off the sometimes gruelling ascent and knee-jerking descent.
At our hotel in Goma before beginning the hike we met Finbarr O’Reilly, an international correspondent and photographer, who was based in Africa when Mount Nyiragongo erupted in January 2002 and arrived on the scene the very next day. He has been visiting and working in the DRC ever since. He has also spent time working in Afghanistan, Darfur, Niger, Somalia, Libya and many other ‘hotspots’ which have exposed to him to some of the most emotionally challenging scenes you can imagine. This is his photography website http://www.finbarr-oreilly.com/.
We also shared a ride with Finbarr back from Goma to Kigali and in the car with us that day was Paul. Paul’s job is to work in conjunction with the US State Department organising hip hop workshops around the world. The overarching mission of the project is to promote diplomacy, reconciliation and trauma relief amongst young people who have been affected by various challenges often due to war and conflict.
It was fascinating hearing about such a program and how it has achieved such positive results in a diverse set of countries to date. Paul has facilitated these all over the world and it was really very cool to hear about such novel and unique methods of providing assistance and support to young people across the world.
So, in the space of just a few short days I was able to speak with, and more importantly, draw inspiration from a fascinating collection of people. Our volcano hike group was truly international and this is what I love.
Of course, this is not solely reflected in this one specific trip. It has been the case everywhere I’ve travelled/lived, and it is one of the reasons the travel bug gets you. You never know for sure who you are going to meet, where they will be from or what their background is. The one thing you can almost guarantee though is that whoever you cross paths with at that particular time will have a new story to tell, a new place to recommend and an ability to open your eyes to a new perspective that you may not have considered previously. And that I have found is priceless.
Almost four years ago to the day I began my random musings on this blog. In that time it has evolved from a predominantly word-based account of travels and the daily life of living internationally, to (I hope) an increasingly image-focussed reflection upon the diverse, distinct, and unique environments I am lucky enough to find myself in.
Two years ago I marked the second full year of this blog with a selection of images that captured the essence of that period.
Two years on again, I would like to repeat this exercise with ten carefully selected images from the period April 2013 to April 2015, which are collectively some of my favourites from this time and provide a small glimpse into another two years of travel, exploration, and life as an expat.
1. December 28th, 2013 – Angkor Wat, Cambodia
An incredible sunrise at one of the world’s most ancient and mysterious archeological sites. It is moments like this that make the cramped buses, early mornings, and days of unwashed clothes completely worth it.
2. December 18th, 2013 – Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar
Taken as I stood on a bridge with the city of Yangon sprawled around me, this image sticks in my mind as the famous Shwedagon Pagoda seemed to be visible across the whole city.
3. July 2013 – Prague, Czech Republic
I’ve never actually written about Prague in this blog, but it’s where my teaching life began in 2009, so it holds a special place in my heart. Visiting again in 2013 reminded me just how wonderful the city is. One of Europe’s finest.
4. Georgetown, Guyana
My home for one year until June 2013, Georgetown (and Guyana) has a vibrancy that’s hard to explain in words. You really have to experience it to realise how the diverse cultures fuse together to create an intriguing country.
5. December 2013 – Bagan, Myanmar
Sunrise over the ancient pagodas in Bagan. It’s hard to put into words quite how beautiful this morning was, so hopefully the photo provides some idea.
6. January 1st, 2014 – Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Spending the first day of 2014 in Ho Chi Minh City was a nice way to kick off a year that involved more travel and exploration. It was my first time in the south of Vietnam and I plan to return one day.
7. March 2014 – Sandwip, Bangladesh
The photo may speak for itself, but Sandwip (a small island west of Chittagong) was a total joy to experience when I stayed there for a few days with a colleague’s family. This photo was taken one early evening, and it’s one of my personal favourites from any of my travels.
8. August 2015 – Dartmoor, Devon, UK
It’s always nice to go home. Sights like this make it all the more worth it…
9. July 2014 – Huye, Rwanda
This is less about the actual image and more about the significance of the location. Fours years after leaving Rwanda, July 2014 was the first time I set foot once again in the Land of a Thousand Hills. It was a special feeling to be back there, even if just for a week.
10. March 2015 – Jessore, Bangladesh
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less travelled by, And that has made all the difference.”
The summer just passed brought about a number of reunions with good friends, familiar faces, and people who have defined recent phases of my life.
It began with a slight diversion to my usual route home from Bangladesh to the UK. A night spent sprawled out on a metal bench in an eerily quiet terminal building at Dubai Airport preceded a feeling of deja vu – boarding a Rwandair flight through to Kigali. The airport in Dubai felt disorientating as I contemplated a journey that began in Chittagong and would end in Kigali.
As I read ‘Inzozi’ the Rwandair inflight magazine, some very familiar emotions hit me. Upon landing and disembarking the plane, I would once again set foot on the continent of Afica and more specifically Rwanda, the country that taught me so much in such a short space of time.
Four years previously I landed in Kigali, and I had little idea if I’m honest of quite what the following ten months had in store for me. I needn’t have worried. Things have a way of working out and overall 2010 was a year that will undoubtedly stick in my mind for many positive reasons.
Before returning home to the UK for a few weeks this summer I spent 10 days back in Rwanda. Many people have since asked me how it felt to return to the country and quite frankly the only response I’ve been able to provide is, “Great…it was great.”
Not particularly inspring, or informative I’m well aware, yet that’s exactly how it felt. It was emotional too of course as I met with former students who are continuing to carve their own successful paths in life.
So, as in previous instances of being stuck for the right words, I will resort to images. Below is a selection of photos which sum up a summer of green hills, friendly faces, and of course…familiar homes both in Rwanda and the UK.
Some weeks ago I contributed a post to the Asian University for Women’s Center for Teaching and Scholarships blog. It is a space for teachers and professors to reflect upon their experiences as educators. I thought I’d share this post on my personal blog also, as it seems like an appropriate time. The current school year has recently come to an end and I’m feeling proud of the students I taught this year, as they have now successfully graduated from the one year Access Academy course and will move on to the full undergraduate program in August.
One of the most rewarding aspects of this job is the influence you can have on the education of your students. It sounds obvious of course, but well-planned lessons, engaging subjects, and interactive instruction is the catalyst for an effective learning environment. There may be times when you reflect on a specific class you have taught, or a topic you have covered with your students, and wonder if they gained as much from it as you had hoped. However, overall your support, guidance, and enthusiasm have the ability to direct your students on the path to independent and inquisitive discovery both inside and outside of the classroom.
Personally though, I have become aware during the past five years of incredibly varied teaching roles that it’s not solely my students who (hopefully) have this opportunity. From preparing lessons, teaching classes, facilitating discussion, and, crucially, from listening to my own students, I too have learned so much, and in many ways it has significantly reignited my individual desire for learning.
Upon completion of my Masters Degree, and prior to embarking on my life as a teacher, I spent 18 months working in an office. The job was fine enough and helped to clear some mounting post-university debts whilst introducing me to the day to day responsibilities of paid employment. However, it led to a noticeable stagnation of my motivation to seek out new knowledge. This may very well have been a consequence of my own personal misguided path, but the nine to five routine left me demotivated in other aspects of my life, and whilst I didn’t recognise it at the time, I needed something to change.
In hindsight I did learn tangible lessons from my first ‘proper’ job. It clarified in my head that having progressed somewhat zombie-like straight from school to university, I now needed to explore beyond that particular bubble. At this point I didn’t really know quite where that would take me, but as I reflect on the places I’ve lived, worked, and visited since that fork in the road, I feel pretty satisfied with the choices I made.
It began with an important and life-changing decision to rectify the dissatisfaction of 18 months behind a computer screen, and it was at this juncture I travelled to Rwanda as a volunteer teacher in a rural secondary school. It was a challenging year, but also highly rewarding. One of the main reasons for this was my assignment to teach Entrepreneurship.
My initial reaction was to panic and focus entirely on the fact that I considered myself to be the least entrepreneurial person I knew, most probably due to my cautious and frugal nature; two qualities that no career entrepreneur would ever claim to possess. However, once I set about building a syllabus, seeking out resources, discussing ideas with my peers, and thinking logically about how I could best guide my expectant students, it became something of a new and exciting challenge.
Entrepreneurship requires a great deal of “out of the box” thinking – something many of my students were not accustomed to. Therefore, in order to teach the students before me, I had to learn, and I had to learn fast. I recall sleepless nights, confused faces, and undoubtedly one or two lesson plans that in hindsight may not have been the most effective. Yet, by the end of the year this experience had taken me back to the period prior to my office job. I was driven to learn once again.
At AUW this experience has been no different. Teaching ‘Interpreting Texts’ in the Access Academy has provided me with broad scope to develop a course that covers a range of topics and utilizes a variety of sources and authors. This past year we studied issues relating to identity and gender. We debated the merits of anthropological research and scrutinized the influence of modern media on our lives. We investigated how fear and stigma perpetuates the global HIV crisis, and we spent time reading about the intricacies of a divided Sudan. We read textbooks, journals, academic texts, editorials, blogs, and even found time to analyze the lyrics of Simon & Garfunkel, The Beatles, and The Kinks.
Each week I feel I learn just as much as my students, and of course lesson preparation and in class instruction account for the bulk of this. What should not be underestimated though, and is a factor that has become abundantly clear during my time at AUW thus far is the knowledge I gain from my students.
We’re from contrasting regions of the world and they have faced significantly different journeys to my own, so whenever we discuss a topic in class or they write a response, I am exposed to new thinking and new perspectives I may have otherwise failed to consider. The wonderful consequence of this is that unlike my previous non-teaching job, which at times left me feeling uninspired and lacking direction, I now have no option but to learn and grow as both a teacher and a person, and to strive to consider the world around me. It is thanks to this job and my inspiring students that I am able to experience these opportunities.
This blog doesn’t really follow a set format as such. I tend to focus on anything that has interested or entertained me, an event that perhaps defines a place I’m in, a person or group of people I’ve met who have inspired me, a reminder that I don’t live in the UK, or just about anything I feel inclined to record through words and images.
On occasions my blog is serious (see previous posts about UN peacekeepers, reflections on life, etc.), but occasionally it’s the ramblings of a madman. So, welcome trusty readers to my 31st blog post, and allow me to introduce you to a friend of mine. Well, I guess you could say he’s my roommate.
From here on in this roommate shall be referred to as ‘Lenny’, the name I assigned him. In fairness Lenny may not even be male, but for the purposes of this blog post he is, and his name is Lenny.
Lenny arrived one day quite unannounced and made himself at home immediately. I left my desk to make a cup of tea, and when I returned I found Lenny enjoying his own liquid refreshment, attached to an empty fruit juice carton.
I soon realised he’s both agile and determined….
I wasn’t too sure what to feed him, so it’s been a case of trial and error. I’m sure he gets his fair share of mosquitoes, but this piece of guava seemed to take his fancy.
He was more suspicious of these sultanas.
The guava also attracted another of his kind, who I presume is now my second (and as yet unnamed) roommate.
Lenny looked on in intrigued confusion.
We’re both still getting used to each other’s presence, however. On occasions if I get too close or make any sudden movements, Lenny retreats.
And spies on me from a safe distance.
Lenny appreciates creativity and the arts. He enjoys many literary genres. In this instance his book of choice was the Georgetown phone directory…
He also enjoys American sitcoms and has excellent taste.
Yet, his favourite hobby by far is spying on me, and keeping a watchful eye on my movements. The other day he literally spent about 15 minutes just watching me. He needs to get a life…
Nevertheless, I can often feel those beady eyes fixed on me.
Lenny’s friend hasn’t quite built up the same courage yet, and prefers to keep a safe distance. In this case he peered down at me from a crack in the wall…
Although occasionally I catch him when he least expects it. Here he is in my coffee mug, the scamp.
And a very poor attempt at maintaining his anonymity…
So, there you have it. That’s Lenny (and his unnamed friend). He goes about his business in a quiet and unassuming manner, rarely disturbing me, unlike the mosquitoes – the bane of my existence. Lenny is of great use here as he snacks on them. I once saw him try to hunt down a fairly sizeable moth. He failed of course, but I was quite proud of his pluckiness and his spirit!
This isn’t actually the first time I’ve shared my home with a gecko. I had many scaly-tailed roommates in Rwanda too.
For anyone inclined to question my sanity at this point, never fear; Lenny says I’ve got nothing to worry about.
I’d like to take this opportunity to share a wonderful project initiated by two great friends of my family. ‘Wild and Precious’ was created by Liz Scott and her husband Stuart. Combining a wide ranging set of skills developed through their respective jobs, they have dedicated this corner of the internet to documenting and presenting the stories of ordinary people who have very different tales to tell. The collection of short films is a growing mission and they are all wonderfully produced.
Last summer I was very honoured to be asked by Liz and Stuart if I would be interested in discussing my experience in Rwanda. I jumped at the chance as I had never done anything like this before, and I was really thrilled to see the fruits of their labour a few days ago. You can view the short film here;
I was especially humbled that they asked me, given the nature of the other stories they have documented previously. I hope you enjoy viewing their films, and I’m excited to hear the stories recounted on their website in the future.
Their project is inspired and named in recognition of a poem by Mary Oliver, entitled ‘The Summer Day’.
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
In many ways the final two lines reflect perfectly why I continue to write on this blog. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have been on this journey, and my way of acknowledging this is by documenting it through words and images.
I’d like to take you back one year if I may. In February 2012 I took on the task of putting into writing the fascinating experiences of Retired Major Ezaz Afzal’s time as a Bangladeshi UN Peacekeeper in Rwanda, a country that at the time (1994) was practically staring into the abyss. Here is that blog for anyone who missed it the first time around.
Having spent a year in Rwanda myself, speaking to Major Ezaz was all the more significant, and a few weeks after our first meeting he very kindly allowed me to take up some more of his time to discuss his second UN mission. He swapped a tiny, war-torn country in East Africa for a bitterly divided corner of Eastern Europe, and as our discussion commenced his first words were telling;
“To tell you the truth I felt like I was taken from a hot frying pan and placed directly into the fire.”
Retd. Maj. Ezaz Afzal
He now found himself in Bosnia and part of yet another controversial UN peacekeeping mission. The recording of our meeting has been sat idly on my laptop for almost a year now, so I thought it would be fitting, twelve months on from my first blog about Major Ezaz, to produce the long overdue second installment.
It’s a trickier task this time as my knowledge of the war in the former Yugoslavia is not nearly as in depth as my knowledge of the Rwandan genocide. However, my willing interviewee once again offered a fascinating insight into his experiences, and that’s what I’d like to present.
Major Ezaz was deployed to Bosnia in July 1994, merely two months after returning to Bangladesh from Rwanda (via Kenya). I was somewhat shocked to discover he experienced such a swift transition between missions, particularly given the nature of the conflict he not only left behind in Africa, but the one he was about to enter.
He didn’t head to Bosnia directly, or alone though. The regiment was composed of fellow Bangladeshi soldiers, many of whom had served together in Rwanda and who now became members of UNPROFOR (The UN Protection Force) in the Balkans. Their voyage from South East Asia took a slight detour due to a month of cold weather training and acclimatization in Germany and Slovakia, which would prove crucial.
This was followed by an overland journey all the way from Hungary to Zagreb (Croatia) and finally into Bosnia. According to Major Ezaz this was a wonderful experience as they witnessed some beautiful European sights en route. I imagine that is one of the positive aspects of being a peacekeeper, the opportunity to visit and pass through places you may not normally find yourself.
The final destination for the Major and his men was Bihać, a small city in the very north west of Bosnia, which sits almost right on the border with Croatia. Crucially the city itself had been designated a ‘UN Safe Area’ and thus a humanitarian corridor. In effect it should therefore have been a demilitarized zone, protected from outside attacks.
However, if I tell you that Srebrenica was also one of the six UN ‘safe areas’ during the conflict, this will no doubt provide you with some indication of their success. In July 1995 over 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were massacred in Srebrenica by Serbian soldiers and paramilitary groups, led of course by Ratko Mladić. Dutch UN peacekeepers were present in the town at the time. It was essentially genocide. Far from ‘safe’.
By the time the Bangladeshi regiment had arrived in Bihać in the middle of 1994, the city and its residents (mainly Bosnian Muslims) had already been under siege for two years, completely surrounded by a joint force of Croatian Serbs and Bosnian Serbs. I asked Major Ezaz what he expected from the mission as he arrived in Bosnia. His response was suitably to the point; “In the army we don’t expect, we just hear the orders. The worst expectation is death.”
The mandate for the UN mission was frustratingly similar to the one encountered in Rwanda. In most cases there was no authorization for direct engagement, aside from a fire when fired upon policy. Yet, in the Major’s eyes this became frustratingly vague and once again, as had been the case in Rwanda, it often left UN troops feeling powerless and forlorn.
He exclaimed, “We were not weak, however the problem was we began to feel weak once we could not save lives.” He continued by stating that at times he and his troops were left a little bewildered by the whole sorry situation.
“For three months I was asking myself, what is this? Why is this happening? Why is no one helping? Who are the criminals? Who are the good guys? Who are we?”
Retd. Maj. Ezaz Afzal
It’s a candid and frank revelation, which demonstrates the issues peacekeepers must often grapple with when stepping into a mission. Of course the Balkans is steeped in great history, and is a melting pot for a wide range of cultures. Therefore the exact dynamic of the conflict that engulfed the region is intricate and far from straightforward.
The confusion and blurred definition of identity encountered by Major Ezaz and his comrades was intensified by the often unpredictable nature of threats. As it had been in Rwanda, a very real danger came from the disorganized nature of the fighting. He explained;
“In both Rwanda and Bosnia many ‘fighters’ were not trained soldiers, so there was always the fear of unpredictability, which comes from maniacs and mad people having arms. The paramilitaries are one of the biggest problems – young boys with little maturity, who don’t care who they hit, and where a sense of responsibility is completely missing. Once they have a weapon in their hand they feel they have to fire at something, they are not answerable to anyone.”
Retd. Maj. Ezaz Afzal
Whilst explaining that the unpredictability of the violence was similar to Rwanda, the threat posed was intensified in Bosnia due to the weapons and armory at the disposal of the forces they faced. I got the impression the ferocity of the fighting was unlike anything Major Ezaz had faced before.
“In Rwanda it was mainly small arms, where I could duck down and save myself, but in Bosnia it was big shells, and it was too difficult to know where they were coming from. You just hear a whistling sound, but you have no idea where it is coming from. After 4 or 5 days we all came to understand that if you are hearing the shell you are safe…if you don’t hear the sound it means the shell is on you.”
It also became apparent from our conversation that peacekeepers were viewed rather differently in Bosnia than in Rwanda. For the most part in Rwanda peacekeepers were not widely targeted by the opposition forces. Of course it’s important to remember that 10 Belgians were brutally killed by Rwandan Hutu fighters in the initial days of the conflict (as I mentioned in my Rwanda blog), but after this very few peacekeepers were directly targeted.
Yet, in Bosnia the picture was somewhat different according to the Major. “In Rwanda people weren’t generally aiming or firing on peacekeepers, but in Bosnia this was more common.” He told me about the men from the Yugoslav Olympic shooting team who became snipers.
“Killing a man was a game for them. Peacekeepers were well protected with armor, so it was much more difficult to kill them.”
He pointed to his neck to show where snipers aimed their shots. He also heard there was gambling and bets placed on the sniping and killing of UN soldiers. “If someone was successful he might get a case of beer. The peacekeepers were fun for all of them, and they were quite sure nothing would happen.”
This caused me some confusion. The question that immediately entered my head and which I directly posed being; if it was obvious the UN troops were deliberately targeted, why did they not respond in kind, as the mandate permitted? Major Ezaz explained that in his view the UN were too fearful of the risks and implications direct retaliation would bring.
“If WE start engaging THEM it instantly creates an even bigger conflict. However, now it’s just an ‘isolated incident’ and the UN were not ready to fight Yugoslavia, so it was safer not to retaliate to these incidents.”
Clearly this must have been incredibly frustrating for peacekeepers. Major Ezaz recalled one occasion when he and his troops were driven to demanding action.
“One of our own Bangladeshi APCs (Armored Personal Carrier) was hit by a missile. There was no way this was a mistake as it had clearly been a guided missile. One soldier was killed and seven were injured. We were so angry and frustrated that we threatened to defy orders and retaliate. Eventually NATO responded with airstrikes.”
All of the anecdotes provided emphasized what an intricate process it must be for the UN in carrying out a peacekeeping mission. A diplomatic minefield played out in extremely hostile conditions, where split second judgments have the potential to significantly change the fragile state of affairs.
“Into the fire” – that’s how my interviewee alluded to the metaphoric heat of the conflict at the beginning of our discussion, but he was quick to emphasize that one of the toughest parts of the mission was the freezing temperatures his regiment faced in the icy winter months. One of the greatest problems came from trying to administer the successful transit of supplies into Bihać. Being surrounded by Serb forces often meant that all avenues were shut, even to the UN.
“The siege of Bihać left us without supplies for 100 days, and we didn’t have basic food for 42 of those. We lived on MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) during that time. There was a fuel shortage for 3 months and we had to burn everything, including the furniture, and all soldiers huddled in one room to keep warm. We were completely unaccustomed to the freezing -14 degree temperatures, and it really was a very tough time.”
I couldn’t help but wonder, if the regiment had been for example, British, or American, or French, and not Bangladeshi, whether troops would’ve been left so isolated and under-supplied with essential provisions?
I asked the now retired Major to provide the worst memory from his time in Bosnia, and he recalled two, both of which have stuck in his mind ever since. The first was a precarious situation that arose during the transit of supplies at a Croatian Serb checkpoint.
On this particular day the Croats were in an uncooperative mood. In allowing the peacekeepers safe passage, they demanded two guns in return. This was of course out of the question, but in no time at all the situation deteriorated and before anyone could react, the Bangladeshi Commander in charge had been grabbed by the collar, thrown to the ground, and a gun pointed at his head. Major Ezaz described what happened next.
“We had no idea how to react. They were pointing a gun at my colleague’s head and all I could think was what can we do? So I got close to the soldiers and I offered whatever they wanted and pleaded with them not to hurt my colleague. I was practically begging them. In the end we negotiated and offered other items, anything they wanted, anything but guns. After almost two hours of negotiations we gave them a huge amount of cigarettes, special food, and beers.”
It’s remarkable how the power of negotiation can be such a crucial survival tool. I recall Major Ezaz citing its necessity in Rwanda also. I asked how important it is for a peacekeeper and he laughed, exclaiming, “I’m very good at it! I need to get my job done. If I need to beg, I’m ready to beg. If I need to be harsh I’ll be harsh, but my one aim is to get my job done.” Upon meeting Major Ezaz it’s easy to see why he’s a successful negotiator.
The second memory was one I found particularly poignant, tragic, and reflective of how war inevitably claims innocent victims. He was watching a horse one afternoon. It was stood alone in a nearby field, and as he told the story it is clear the image and memory remains extremely vivid in his mind. The scene he described seemed so peaceful, and the tone of his voice dropped and was melancholy as he described what happened next.
“I was just watching the horse, admiring it. It was so beautiful and such a strong animal, full of energy. Suddenly I heard the whistle of an incoming shell and I ducked. After the explosion I stood up and I found there was no horse…it vanished. I walked towards the site and after about fifty yards I found only small pieces of the animal.”
The sadness in his eyes was obvious and symbolic of a conflict that claimed thousands of innocent lives and how peace can be destroyed so abruptly. He summed this up calmly a few moments later when he remarked, “Bosnia is a place of beautiful people…but many beautiful people died.” This story and the manner in which Major Ezaz delivered it was probably the most striking moment of our conversation.
There were some incidents of redemption however, amidst the chaos and heartache of the conflict. Major Ezaz and his colleagues often experienced very positive relations with local civilians. He and his colleagues would buy chocolates from Zagreb and bring them back to Bihać to give to local children. He showed me a video of a group of kids gathered around the entrance to the UN camp and a number of soldiers dishing out the treats.
Sometimes people would bring food for the peacekeepers. He recalled one such moment when a small girl came to the fence around their base and presented him with a piece of bread. She had been sent by her mother who knew the soldiers had been struggling due to the severe shortage of supplies. As Ezaz told this story his face gleamed with a real fondness. He also spoke of the times he was invited for meals in local homes.
From our two conversations I have sensed a sincere feeling of responsibility he clearly felt towards the people he had been sent to help. In both Rwanda and Bosnia it became apparent that he made a real effort to get to know the local people as much as possible and to understand their struggles and their innocence in the war zones he entered.
Through the medium of Facebook he has even been able to reconnect with Bosnian friends he made during his time there. However, one of the most heartbreaking consequences of the conflicts, which became visible to him, was the breakdown of relationships.
“It was so sad – friends became enemies, families were torn apart, people were divorcing because of simple differences. I couldn’t understand why.”
I concluded by asking Major Ezaz what he considered to be the chief similarity between the situations he encountered in Rwanda and Bosnia. He replied without any hesitation;
“Ignorance. The leaders misled the masses and tricked them into believing they could wipe out a people. They tried to convince the masses they could remove and erase a whole people from society by killing. This is absolutely impossible – you cannot kill every member of one group. There will always be one voice left to stop it.”
It is of course debatable whether the UN is that voice. On too many occasions their silence as an organisation has spoken volumes. However, I have come to learn from my conversations with Major Ezaz that despite what I may think of the UN as a collective decision-making entity, there is no doubt that it is often represented on the ground by a fearless and committed group of individuals of all nationalities, and it was a privilege to meet and speak with one of these individuals in Chittagong, Bangladesh.
I thanked the peacekeeper turned Director of Security for his time once again and for another fascinating insight into the experiences that come from wearing the famous blue beret of the UN.
Major Ezaz finally left Bosnia in November 1995, after one year and four months. He admitted to feeling a little let down by the mission and has since questioned its motives. In his mind the Bosnian Muslims had been left to fight and save themselves, in what was often an unequal contest. He exclaimed quite frankly,
“The people of Bosnia eventually accepted that Europe was not going to help them.”
In the end Bihać was effectively liberated by the joint effort of Croat and Bosnian Muslim forces in the summer of 1995. Today it is a growing tourist destination due to its location on the River Una, and peace has gradually been restored.
Once again I’d like to express my since thanks and gratitude to Retired Major Ezaz Afzal for taking the time to speak to me and also allowing me to use some of his personal photos. I hope I have done your story justice and represented it accurately.
Water shortages, cockroaches, malfunctioning plumbing, blackouts, limited medical facilities, occasional unwanted attention from the local community, toilets that don’t always flush, the relief of having a toilet with a seat (and the despair of not!), school meetings which last hours and often result in stalemate or nothing of any note, sporadic bouts of overwhelming homesickness, little outside communication, facebook withdrawal, and infrequent and overcrowded public transport. These are exactly the kind of issues WorldTeach volunteers commonly face in their daily lives. I experienced it, and the visits I made to my volunteers last term proved these are challenges posed to many volunteers worldwide. Of course, most of these challenges are actually quite trivial in the context of the countries WorldTeach places volunteers. Yet every challenge can be considered a terrific learning experience, and for each one there is an equally rewarding encounter.
Not quite as easy as turning on a tap…
In my role as Field Director I have been able to view the experience of volunteering with WorldTeach from a different angle. For a start I’m no longer a volunteer, which instantly reduces the pressure in some ways, but certainly increases it in others. However, far more importantly I am able to get a sense of the volunteers’ experiences with the additional value of prior insight. I do, to some extent, have an idea of how they may be feeling and how certain challenges may cause more stress than others.
Anyone who followed my updates from Rwanda (seems a while ago now right?) will recall the epic battles fought with the ever present and constantly multiplying and growing ants I cohabited with. I duelled valiantly with them, but there was only ever going to be one winner, hence why I’m now in Guyana and they remain warm and cosy in their underground lair in Rwanda! My point being that if one of my volunteers raises any insect-related fears or concerns, I like to think I’d be able to offer some constructive and reassuring advice, rather than simply screaming (in a high-pitched and panic stricken voice) “RUN FOR THE HILLS….THEY’LL ONLY GET BIGGER!!” Hopefully this applies to additional scenarios besides solely mutant ants.
This was in fact tested a few days ago when two volunteers informed me they had just encountered a scorpion in their house. It scurried across the floor and past their bare feet during the evening. Now, in this scenario I don’t think I offered any actual advice, aside from stressing (like a concerned and slightly irksome, stating the obvious, parent) “In future wear something on your feet and don’t leave piles of clothes around,” (as this is where it emerged from). They sent me a photo and my response was, “That looks flipping scary!” I did actually say flipping too, no need for profanities, even if it was a large, black, poisonous (unconfirmed) tail-wielding beast from the abyss. I’m pleased to say though that these volunteers didn’t need any advice from me as they’d already handled the situation with great aplomb by this point. Their solution being, and I quote directly from one of the guys….
“I ran and got my real camera and took some pics….then I squished it with a shoe.”
Classic maneuver, and justification for the session I facilitated during our training at the start of the year entitled, ‘Insect Armageddon: The Art of the Squish.’ Anyway, I’m pretty sure Bear Grylls used this exact technique during one of his escapades in the desert. I also have no doubt that Ben Fogle has dabbled in the old shoe squishing method during his many travels.
Now, arguably the most enjoyable role in my job as Field Director is visiting the volunteers at their sites. I’d be lying if I said I don’t miss the experience of living in a more remote location within a tiny community. Village life in Rwanda was such a journey of random discovery. Georgetown does offer some exposure to this, but as my previous blog may have revealed, living in a capital city is certainly not the same as living in a village (newsflash). Still, perhaps I get the best of both worlds. I am able to experience firsthand the placements in Guyana, but enjoy access to some home comforts in Georgetown. I do reminisce about Rwandan village life a great deal, but maybe with the benefit of time and absence, I’m romanticising it in my head, selectively recalling the aspects that were so compelling, and discounting those that tested my comforted western resolve.
The view from my front door in Rwanda
Let me tell you a little about the sites we have placed volunteers in Guyana this year. There are a total of nine people in the group placed at four different locations across the country. Two are placed just outside Georgetown. One person in New Amsterdam, three in Bartica and the remaining three situated in Port Kaituma (map provided below). Each site presents unique challenges and charms.
Port Kaituma is probably the most remote. Accessible by plane or a two day boat journey (so I’ve heard) from Georgetown, it certainly seems to provide volunteers with the classic rural placement. Set deep in the dense ‘jungle’ of northern Guyana, from the sky it appears to be quite an insignificant little place. However, once you’ve landed and make your way into town you soon find out this community is pulsating with energy. Some positive energy…some not so positive. The mining industry is arguably at the heart of this, with the accompanying mining population acting as the arteries pumping life into the community. It‘s clear there is money available here, and I’ve heard stories of people going into a shop and paying for toilet paper with gold! It almost has a Wild West feel to it. Centred around just a couple of main streets you get the sense that everyone knows each other and consequently I imagine it takes on the sensation of living inside a bubble. The people I met were very friendly, especially the guys who shouted “Hey white boy!!” every time I passed. Banter.
The plane to Port Kaituma
Coming in to land in Port Kaituma
Port Kaituma is extremely muddy. Immediately prior to my visit, there had been some rain and thus the whole town resembled a mud-bath, or the perfect location for a wellington boot-wearing convention. I of course wasn’t prepared despite prior warnings and spent the whole visit resembling a Labrador on ice as I attempted to navigate the ‘roads’. On a more serious note, I made a comment earlier alluding to some of the energy in Port Kaituma being less than positive. It is noticeable in a community that serves as a thoroughfare or a temporary home for miners working in the surrounding area that certain services and trades feature quite apparently once the sun goes down. You find an edginess at this point and it reinforces the Wild West persona. It’s not a particularly dangerous place at all, and I felt far safer than in Georgetown, but it reminds you that particular issues, which are perhaps conveniently hidden from us back home, can manifest themselves so publicly in other places.
One of the volunteers with her class in Port Kaituma
Oh, and one more interesting little fact for you. Port Kaituma is actually very close to ‘Jonestown’ – the famous site of Jim Jones’ cult, which led to the deaths of 918 people (predominantly American citizens) on 18 November 1978. 909 of these were due to mass suicide/murder. In fact Leo Ryan, a US Congressman at the time was actually murdered by one of the members of the cult at the very airstrip I landed on and took off from in Port Kaituma. You can visit the site today, however nothing much remains and it is surrounded by thick undergrowth.
Bartica has certain similarities to Port Kaituma. It sits right at the door to many of the mining areas in Guyana and is known as the “Gateway to the Interior.” My visit was generally spent on the outskirts of the town as the volunteers are placed at a school there. One of the highlights of the visit was actually the journey. To reach Bartica you have to complete part of the leg by boat, and of course depending on the weather you can either sit back and relax, or cling on for dear life as your body is thrown around like a ragdoll. Fortunately both legs I timed it perfectly (complete fluke of course) and was able to sit back and enjoy a very pleasant river cruise! I like Bartica as a placement for our volunteers. The location has a pleasant balance of being rural, yet volunteers have convenient access to amenities in the town. They also have some great characters on their school campus, including the friendliest security guards I’ve ever met and a caretaker who was perhaps even friendlier. Well, I think he was being friendly…he had a thick accent so it was hard for my unaccustomed ears to decipher everything, especially as he was using a lot of Creole also.
On the boat to Bartica
The dock at Bartica
Volunteer teaching in Bartica
We have one volunteer in New Amsterdam, which is the second biggest settlement in Guyana. It’s down the coast from Georgetown and having visited just for the day, and spending most of it at the school, I didn’t get much of a sense as to what kind of a place it is. It does seem to represent a slightly scaled down version of Georgetown, and I plan to visit again in the coming weeks.
Finally, our remaining two volunteers are placed together at a school just on the outskirts of Georgetown. It’s a big school with around 1,000 students, and my visit was memorable for one main reason. I saw the biggest butterfly/moth creature I have ever seen. I was sat in the classroom and this thing flew in through the window.
My initial thought was how this bird is bound to distract the already excitable students. Then I realised it wasn’t a bird and was in fact a large flying insect that was bird-sized, and at that point I started to shuffle uncomfortably in my chair as I’m not a huge fan of bird-sized flying insects. I willed it to pass back through the window, but of course within seconds it had flown straight for me and landed on the upper corner of my chair, just by my shoulder.
I should add that I was at the time observing one of my volunteers teach a class and thus as soon as the winged insect of doom had landed by me all eyes had centred on my location. How would this strange foreign man react? This was the question etched across all the young faces.
Well, I’ll tell you how I reacted. I laughed nervously, remained where I was, whilst edging to the corner of the chair so at one point only one ‘cheek’ was perched on it, and soon succumbed to my irrational fear by shuffling across the room. Cue giggles and pointing. Eventually one of the students got up and shooed it away back out the window, and the giant flying insect incident was over.
Fortunately the students were very sympathetic and didn’t mock my ridiculous behaviour. Well, they probably did, but in their politeness they must have saved it for once I had departed. I was however reassured by my volunteer that she too had been struck by a similar fear, but was grateful that mine had stolen the embarrassment.
I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed all of my visits to the volunteers’ schools and sites. The opportunity to observe them teaching brought back a lot of great memories from my time as a volunteer teacher. It was also a reassuring and affirming experience, as I discovered that I could actually pass on some constructive advice to many of them. They’re a good bunch, and it was heartening to see how well they have settled and the hard work they are doing at their schools. As a volunteer you can never change the world, but as long as you give it your all and care about your work you can certainly make a positive impact.
Students in Bartica
The school campus, Bartica
Georgetown from the air
One of the volunteers with her students in Georgetown
I was very recently asked by WorldTeach to write a blog about how I would define a “successful volunteer.” This is my response based on personal experiences and observations.
I slumped down on my bed, placed my head in my hands, took a deep breath, and this is how I remained for the next few minutes. Paralyzed by feelings of bewilderment and disorientation, for several moments the emotions were quite overwhelming.
Five minutes prior to this I had been sat down to breakfast at a table with four Rwandan catholic nuns, whom I had met for the first time the previous evening. The bulk of the conversation was carried out in French, and thus I spent the majority of the meal straining my ears and anxiously hoping that in the depths of my mind there remained some knowledge of the language that I had ceased studying eight years earlier.
Once breakfast was over I made the short walk back to my house to encounter what was undoubtedly a defining moment. I found all I could do was sit there, still. The silence was intense, suffocating almost. Where was I? Who were these people? Why am I here? What do I do next? Why is there no water coming out of the taps?
The answers to these and many other questions revealed themselves at regular points throughout the proceeding weeks and months, and as they did so they provided me with a reassuring clarity and logic. I was a volunteer teacher at St Bernadette de Save, a secondary school in the small, Rwandan village of Save, and I was there for a very important reason; this was what I had chosen to do.
In my opinion one of the crucial factors in being a “successful” volunteer is having a firm desire and a clear reason and purpose for wanting to do it. I say this because there are certainly times when you stop and question particular aspects of the experience, and there are times when you feel like you may crumble under the weight of the challenge.
However, in constantly reminding yourself of exactly why this path was taken, and the motivations that drove you to pursue it, you never lose sight of what an incredibly rewarding and significant phase in your life it is and always will be.
In my own case the WorldTeach Rwanda program was perfect. I had spent one whole summer crammed into a small wooden booth in my university library, reading countless books and writing a thesis on the role of gender in the 1994 genocide. It was here a fascination with the tiny country was born.
Three years later I landed in Kigali and during the first two weeks I and my fellow volunteers visited two significant genocide memorials. Personally this signaled the end of one journey and the beginning of another. The impact of the genocide became abundantly clear to me in a manner that books hadn’t been able to fully reflect, and as the year progressed I would experience several further moments of similar magnitude.
For example, on one occasion a student of mine revealed he had lost his father, three brothers, and two sisters during the country’s darkest hour. His story was not uncommon, but as I became exposed to the new, recovering Rwanda, I was overwhelmed by the strength and courage people showed, and subsequently inspired by their resolve and determination.
There is no rigid blueprint for producing a “successful volunteer”. Success varies for each person, and it is therefore almost impossible to form a conclusive definition of what exactly it means. Duck now if you want to avoid being struck by a gigantic cliché, but volunteering is a journey of self-discovery and an exploration of your personality, and for each person this will inevitably vary.
However, from my experiences in Rwanda, Bangladesh, and now Guyana, I believe there are core attributes one must possess if they are to live life as an international volunteer to its fullest. No one person or moment can dictate your experience, and it’s up to you to decide how it will define you in the present, and even more crucially, the future.
Adaptability is vital. Your routine and comfort zones will be thrown on their head, and there’s only one way to deal with this…embrace it! I have constantly been amazed at how far we can push ourselves and how strong the human mind and body is capable of coping with change. In Rwanda, the initial panic of discovering no water would ever trickle from the taps in my house was soon replaced with the exhilarating feeling that came from donning a head torch and collecting rainwater in a bucket at 11pm at night.
The shock felt when told by my Headmistress I was the new Entrepreneurship teacher at St. Bernadette de Save was forgotten almost instantly upon meeting my students. I realized there was so much I would learn from them. Being receptive to change and unpredictability is a must, and the results always bring great fulfillment.
A successful volunteer will be sure to pack an abundance of respect and open-mindedness in their suitcase. Although sounding obvious, it can be surprisingly easy to lose sight of these two closely connected and vital attributes when faced with situations and scenarios that place you far from your comfort zone.
In my role at the Asian University for Women in Chittagong, Bangladesh, I witnessed precisely how paramount respect and open-mindedness is. Hundreds of students brought together from 12 different countries across Asia. Many of whom have left their families for the very first time to study in a country and city in complete contrast to their homes.
Yet, the manner by which these students face and embrace this colossal change, demonstrates perfectly that by recognizing and positively accepting cultural contrasts and distinctions, we are far more able to build meaningful and positive relationships in the long term.
Finally, I will offer one piece of advice to any prospective volunteers out there. Prior to leaving home and embarking on the wonderful journey that awaits you; find a large box, cram all of your expectations inside, padlock it, and hide it away in a deep, dark wardrobe. You won’t need them where you’re going!
Expectations are inevitable, but they have the potential to lead only to disillusionment or frustration under the weight of a predefined pressure. The excitement that comes from the unknown is what makes international volunteerism so very special and significant. If you approach it with an open mind, a willingness to learn and to accept, and an attitude of determination and hope, you emerge at the end of it a wiser and healthier person.
The title of this blog is a quote by Lorna Wilson.