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Working with ICRC: a many-splendoured thing

16-12-2003 Feature

Often a first mission with the ICRC means being a polyvalent delegate, which loosely translates as all-round, multi-purpose and versatile. Suzanne Charest reports from Addis Ababa on a fellow Canadian who found out just how multi-faceted the job can be....


When Megan Rock headed to Ethiopia with the ICRC in December 2002, she had little idea how many sorts of jobs were waiting for her.

Tasked with looking after the humanitarian needs of the Oromiya region, which extends from south of the capital, Addis Ababa, to the Kenyan border, Megan – aged 31 from Toronto – found herself immediately immersed in a large-scale relief operation.

With little hands-on experience in logistics, she relied heavily on the skills learned at the Canadian Red Cross basic training course and the ICRC integration course. Both include extensive exercises that simulate conflict and disaster situations.

That Christmas was a day that Megan will never forget. “Almost 20,000 people from the drought-affected East and West Hararghe regions had   moved southward into Oromiya,” says Megan. “They were highly vulnerable, finding themselves with very few of the basic items needed to survive the difficult conditions.” A government resettlement plan had offered land, oxen, food and money, but when so many people arrived at once the resources were not ready for them.

The ICRC stepped in, providing food and non-food items such as jerry cans, soap and buckets at a temporary settlement   for internally displaced people (IDPs).

“We worked in coordination with other humanitarian organizations on the spot, such as   Médecins Sans Frontières, which had set up a   health clinic and a   feeding centre for malnourished children under five,” adds Megan.

She also worked closely with the local branch of the Ethiopian Red Cross. “The youth volunteers were remarkable. Their energy, enthusiasm, and commitment allowed us to distribute essential supplies to this highly vulnerable group of people very quickly.”

'Mothers approached us, in shock and grief, because their babies hadn't survived the cold..' 

Although during the day temperatures at the IDP settlement were high, at night they could drop below zero. For malnourished children, particularly babies, keeping warm in such conditions became a matter of life or death. “Mothers approached us, in shock and grief, because their babies hadn't survived the cold at night,” states Megan. “We quickly organized a second distribution of blankets, allocated specific ally to children under five and expectant or nursing mothers.”

The displaced people were gradually moved to more permanent settlements, but the Red Cross continued its support. “It was exhilarating to see some of the same children from the IDP camps run to the side of the roads, waving and cheering as our trucks arrived, remembering the Red Cross from months before, " says Megan.

Next she took part in a key activity in the ICRC’s mandate under the Geneva Conventions. Along with an Amharic interpreter, she visited prisons, military camps and police stations, interviewing detainees about their conditions and providing them with a chance to send a Red Cross Message to their family. These confidential interviews provide the basis for interventions to the prison administrations that help to ensure prisons are treated humanely and have the basics of survival—food, clothing, shelter and hygiene items.

Conducting prison visits struck a chord with Megan. “It was through engaging with   detainees and detaining authorities that I felt my work could have the most direct impact,” she explains. “While you have to know how to be a skillful and sometimes empathetic listener, you also have to learn how to ask detainees the right questions, analyze complex situations and work in cooperation with the authorities to find solutions to problems.”

Last May she also ran a workshop for Oromiya prison staff, highlighting international humanitarian law and the essential principles and international standards concerning humane and effective prison management. The workshop became a model for similar sessions throughout Ethiopia.

Finally, Megan was seconded to the Cooperation Department to work on a street children project in the town of Adigrat in the Tigray region. As a former Africa programme manager for the Canadian Red Cross, she had d eveloped projects for war-affected children in Sierra Leone, so the fit was perfect.

To improve the situation of street children in the region, the project included counseling, education, vocational training and income-generating activities. Through a savings scheme, children were provided with money to buy bicycles, shoeshine kits and seeds for vegetable gardens, which allowed them to turn in profits for themselves and their families.

Christmas 2003 will find Megan back in Canada – with many stories to tell on what it's like to be truly versatile.