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Life on mission: A British delegate in Afghanistan

19-08-2013 Feature

On World Humanitarian Day, we hear from Rory Moylan, a British protection delegate with the ICRC, who recently completed his first mission to Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. We spoke to him on his return to London.

ICRC careers - we spoke to British ICRC delegate about his experiences in Afghanistan on his return to the UK Rory's job was to visit detainees and try to protect the local civilian protection by speaking to the authorities and opposition about their obligations under the law of armed conflict, or international humanitarian law. Before joining the ICRC, Rory spent time working for an NGO in Afghanistan, where he also learned to speak Dari. 

The extraordinary becomes routine

‘A typical day would be spent in the office’, he says. ‘That’s what people are surprised to hear, that despite the strange circumstances you’re still at a desk most of the time.’ But the work is varied. ‘One day, you might be visited by a district governor who wants to talk to you about the situation where he works, and the next you’ll be working on a security incident, or talking to some villagers who want to discuss what they think might be a violation of international humanitarian law, or the progress of an ICRC water and sanitation project.’

It is strange how quickly the extraordinary circumstances in which you are working become routine, he says – it’s a very unusual environment but you’re there to get on with a job. ‘In Mazar, we were quite free to walk around but it depends where you are and what country you’re in - we were quite lucky in that we could drive ourselves around and move about freely in the city’. In fact, it is the only place in Afghanistan where ICRC staff are able to drive around on their own.

Freedom to act based on need

Part of the reason Rory was drawn to the ICRC, apart from being impressed by ICRC staff he had had contact with socially in Afghanistan, was the way that it was funded allowed it to act to respond to the greatest needs.

The application process, he reports, was quite intense at points, with a lot of waiting involved.  One needs to do a lot of preparation beforehand and depending on where you are applying from, one may go through the national Red Cross or Red Crescent society first - in Rory’s case, the British Red Cross. The interviews in Geneva were quite nerve-wracking, he says: ‘imagine 4 guys interviewing you in front of another 6 or 7 candidates who are in the same room.’

Rory felt his language skills were key in landing the role. ‘A language like Pashto or Urdu is a great asset’, he says. French and Spanish are still very relevant but the ability to speak ‘operational’ languages definitely gives an applicant an extra edge.

Difficult circumstances, but life proceeds as normal

Before he joined the ICRC, Rory was offered a six-month contract in Afghanistan with an NGO. ‘I said to myself, I’ll go, and if it’s terrible and I don’t feel safe then I’ll leave, but I just want to see what it looks like.’ He goes on, ‘but once you get there you see that although it’s a difficult place to be, it’s an interesting, vibrant country too, where people are making the best of a bad situation.’

When he wasn’t working, they would play sports - Afghanistan is a nation of volleyball addicts, he reports. Another popular sport is Buzkashi, which is often compared to polo but is played with a headless calf or goat carcass instead of a ball. The decapitated animal is dropped into the middle and the players drag it around by holding the dead goat or calf under one leg while on horseback. ‘It looks just like a chaotic Rugby scrum’, he says. Not a natural horseman, he remained a spectator.  

Find out more about careers with the ICRC.

Image credit: © ICRC / S. Lenelle