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Man of the month: Jakob Kellenberger

15-01-2005 Article, Bilanz

The following is a translated extract from an article about the ICRC's immediate response to the tsunami disaster in Asia. It first appeared in Switzerland's German-language magazine, Bilanz, in January 2005 and is published here with the magazine's kind permission.

[NB:   Any opinions contained herein do not necessarily reflect those of the ICRC. Three of the five local ICRC staff cited as missing at the end of the article have subsequently been accounted for. ]


 For ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger, like UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, handling disasters is part of the job. The Indian Ocean tsunami called for a massive response from the International Committee of the Red Cross. This is how events unfolded at headquarters in Geneva.  

Jakob Kellenberger is looking forward to a peaceful end to 2004. He plans to work in the week between Christmas and New Year. On the other side of the world, in the Indonesian capital Jakarta, the Institute of Meteorology and Geophysics registers an underwater earthquake measuring 6.4 on the Richter scale. Other organizations even record 8.9. It is 01.59 hours CET on 26 December when the measuring equipment goes haywire. A matter of hours later, crisis manager Jakob Kellenberger and the ICRC in Geneva are in the thick of the battle to cope with the apocalyptic tsunami. It is a finely-tuned operation that gets under way at the ICRC.


 Sunday 26 December  

Only a few headquarters staff are on stand-by duty for the ICRC on 26 December. Like their boss, they are spending Christmas with their families in or around Geneva. Some have gone off to the Alps. They all have to be contactable by phone 24 hours a day and return to the office within an hour if necessary.

HSG economist Walter Füllemann, the deputy director of ICRC operations worldwide, is on his way home from church when he hears through the BBC news on World Radio Geneva of a natural disaster in the Indian Ocean with several hundred, maybe a thousand, reported dead. It doesn’t cross his mind that this might disrupt his family’s plans for the Christmas period. The ICRC, for which the Thurgau man has been working since 1989, is primarily concerned with the effects of war, not with calamities caused by nature.

The staff responsible for Asia phone to ask what relief supplies are immediately available. Etienne replies that the ICRC is ready for the worst. 
Yves Etienne, head of the ICRC’s assistance division and answerable to Füllemann, hears the news of the earthquake off the Indonesian island of Sumatra at the same time. As a geologist who worked in Indonesia before his time with the ICRC, he has an inkling of the scale of the disaster. He contacts a colleague in seismology in Geneva, who shares his misgivings. The staff responsible for Asia phone to ask what relief supplies are immediately available. Etienne replies that the ICRC is ready for the worst.

The ICRC is represented in three regions which have been affected by the tsunami. It is impossible to get through to the offices in Aceh and Myanmar, the former Burma. Phone connections with Sri Lanka are also down. The ICRC has nine offices there and through its humanitarian mission is helping to maintain the ceasefire. In Geneva there is great concern for the staff on the spot.

It will only emerge later that the ICRC staff in Sri Lanka – who number nearly 350, including 42 expatriates i.e. delegates working outside their countries of origin – are already providing first aid, together with the national Red Cross Society and volunteers.

Conflicting reports continue regarding the scale of the disaster, but Yves Etienne and his colleagues on stand-by duty decide after analysing the reliable information available to send the first aid shipments to Asia. The Kenyan capital Nairobi is the location of the biggest ICRC warehouse in the world. Normally supplies are transported from here to crisis areas in Africa such as Darfur. The depot is full of relief items such as blankets and medicines. Walter Füllemann authorizes one million francs for air transport from Africa to Asia.

For the following day, ICRC headquarters mobilizes all staff on stand-by who have not already contacted colleagues of their own accord. Nothing more can be done today: the situation is too unclear, and night has fallen in the stricken areas. In Geneva, the race against time will start the next morning.



 Monday 27 December  


ICRC headquarters, 8.30 a.m.: 15 staff are present for a task force meeting. From now on, half the group will deal with Indonesia, the other half with Sri Lanka. Over the next two weeks they will only leave their offices to sleep. There are no checklists for disaster situations or specific plans for emergency action, yet they all know what to do. ICRC headquarters staff are almost exclusively former delegates, who have a proven track record in the field. All of them have five, six or more missions behind them, all of them are old hands in crisis work. They work quickly and unbureaucratically. This is their “operational culture”, to use the jargon of relief work.

Reports of the situation in the disaster zone are still conflicting. All they know for sure is that far more than the 10,000 fatalities reported in the newspapers can be expected. The most urgent task is to find out more about the situation on the ground.

For Sri Lanka, this is relatively straightforward, as contact with the offices there is gradually restored. It soon becomes clear that the infrastructure entirely located inland is intact. The next few days will also reveal that all ICRC staff on the island have survived the disaster unscathed.

In Indonesia, things are more complicated. Contact is soon restored with delegates outside Aceh, and many of the 22 expatriates and 100 local staff are known to be safe and sound. But even staff in the capital Jakarta have no news from the provincial capital Banda Aceh. In this region torn by civil war, the ICRC has only been able to keep a small office. The two delegates have had to account for their every movement to the Indonesian authorities. TV pictures suggest that the worst must be feared for them: Banda Aceh has been completely flattened.

Jakob Kellenberger, who is also at his desk, is kept constantly informed about the fate of his staff and the progress of operations. There is no need for him to intervene personally – yet.

Hundreds of thousands of people are searching for relatives in the areas hit by the tsunami. Marco Kirschbaum, the man responsible at Geneva headquarters for the protection of prisoners and civilians in Asia, is contacted by Red Cross workers from all over the world who are specialists in reuniting families in crisis situations. Kirschbaum sends six of them to Sri Lanka. Their flight luggage is full of emergency kits and satellite phones.

Local family reunification experts are already working there. Th ey set up their satellite phones for use in temples or schools which are now providing emergency accommodation.

The ICRC is in constant contact with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (...) and with the UN. The objective: optimum use of aid, coverage of all areas, no duplication of effort.  
National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies offer headquarters their help. The ICRC is in constant contact with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which also has its headquarters in Geneva, and with the UN. The objective: optimum use of aid, coverage of all areas, no duplication of effort. Yves Etienne and his staff themselves organize the dispatch of additional aid consignments containing tarpaulins, body bags, water treatment tablets or vaccines from Asia, Europe and Africa to the disaster zone. ICRC staff are immediately sent – or sent back – to the region. They have to break off other missions or their own personal holidays without delay.

Out in the disaster area, aid operations are already in full swing. The ICRC delegation in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo is collecting relief supplies in a school near the office. Local people and tourists hand in clothes, food and hygiene items, which are packaged up and transported to the affected areas.

With the large numbers of missing persons, it goes without saying that the ICRC will reactivate its “family links” website. This invaluable service proved its worth during the floods in Haiti in summer 2004 and also during the war in Iraq. The website helps with the search for missing relatives and friends.

At 3.30 p.m. the task force meets again at headquarters. There is still no news of the office in Aceh.



 Tuesday 28 December  

Confusion in the news reports starts to dissipate with the growing certainty that the situation on the ground is catastrophic. Jean-Daniel Tauxe, the head of fundraising, starts to prepare an appeal, a request for help to donor States. The ICRC does not accumulate money in advance but requests it for specific tasks. Over the next few days Tauxe, from French-speaking Switzerland, will experience something unprecedented in his 25 years at the ICRC. Without any public appeal, a large number of donations arrive in a short space of time, including even a million francs from an anonymous source.

Relief supplies on the spot are still inadequate: it could hardly be otherwise, given the colossal scale of the disaster. An ex-Red Army Antonov 124 transport plane takes off from Nairobi for Colombo with 110 tonnes of equipment. The cargo will provide emergency shelter and medicine for 30,000 people. In addition, a second Antonov leaves Geneva, where there is another big ICRC warehouse, for the Sri Lankan capital, carrying ten tonnes of relief supplies including hygiene items, medicines and vaccines.

A water and supply expert flies from Geneva to Sri Lanka. An ICRC engineer goes from Bangkok to Indonesia. More specialists in the tracing of missing persons leave their home countries. Soon nine teams are deployed, with two satellite phones each. They take care of adults and children who are wandering around aimlessly. They establish contacts, they help where they can.

On the second day after the tsunami, the “family links” home page registers 650,000 hits. The server cannot cope with all the inquiries (...) Another server is installed. 
On the second day after the tsunami, the “family links” home page registers 650,000 hits. The server cannot cope with all the inquiries. Computer specialists at ICRC headquarters and external consultants provide assistance. Another server is installed.

One piece of good news does the rounds at headquarters: the two delegates in Aceh plus a number of Indonesian staff have survived the tsunami on an island off the coast of Sumatra. On their return to Banda Aceh, however, they find their residence completely destroyed. If they had been there, they would have had little chance of survival. The Aceh office is intact, as is one-third of the warehouse. Because of the minimal infrastructure, the ICRC can become immediately operational in the province, which has been ravaged by civil war and where the authorities still prohibit international aid. There is still no trace of the five local staff in Aceh.



 Wednesday 29 December  

The two Antonovs from Nairobi and Geneva arrive in Colombo at the same time. The unloading of the relief supplies at the airport is delayed because of the queue of planes which have landed.

At ICRC headquarters, a sort of crisis management routine sets in. Because of the time difference in relation to the disaster area, the staff have to get to the office very early. They contact the field, gather information, organize what has to be done. The task force meets during the lunch break.

During the holiday period there are rarely more than 20 out of the 800 headquarters staff present at any one time. Crisis management is decentralized at the ICRC. The aim is to have staff where their help is needed most. By the start of January, the delegation in Sri Lanka will have grown from 22 expatriates to 50 , in Indonesia from 42 to 70, with local staff and volunteers accounting for many times that number.

The lights are on in a few offices at headquarters. There is no operations centre as with Swiss Solidarity. The atmosphere is subdued but, despite everything, some of the Christmas spirit remains. Cake is available in one office, coffee in another. Staff who know each other from field operations work together as a close-knit community. They understand the importance of mutual support at such difficult times, especially for those who know people in the disaster zone, which is true for most of them.

"...even staff with years of experience aren’t used to dealing with hundreds of bodies, and it’s difficult for them." 
Michèle Jotterand, a doctor in the stress unit at ICRC headquarters, sends a message to the field that those involved in the relief operations should get plenty of sleep, eat properly and pay attention to hygiene, since their work will take days, weeks or even months. Burn-out, illness and trauma must be avoided. “All our staff have been trained in stress management,” explains operations deputy Walter Füllemann. “But even staff with years of experience aren’t used to dealing with hundreds of bodies, and it’s difficult for them.”

The Indonesian Government, which has refused foreign assistance so far, is now allowing international organizations in Aceh, the northern part of Sumatra affected by the civil war, to provide help. The aid teams have been pressing for this for days. Securing access to crisis areas for his workers is one of Jakob Kellenberger’s fundamental tasks: last March, he conducted successful negotiations with the Sudanese Government to allow the launching of the operation in Darfur; in 2000, he negotiated with Russian President Vladimir Putin to allow prisoners in Chechnya to receive visit s (which have been suspended in the meantime).

In the aftermath of the tsunami, there is no need for top-level intervention or for Kellenberger to go immediately to the disaster area, since the Indonesian Government has swung into action rapidly and work on the spot has made good progress. “I only go to places where my presence can offer added value”, explains Kellenberger. “Added value” is a concept that the top diplomat uses frequently. He sees little added value in places filled with the whirring of cameras; he finds more of it in clear and direct talks with those in positions of responsibility, should his message fail to get through at a lower level. This was already the case when, as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, he negotiated the second batch of Bilateral Agreements with the EU. Trips made in the glare of publicity, such as that of Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey, who went to Asia shortly after the disaster occurred, are not his cup of tea. Modest man that he is, Kellenberger has no desire in any case to be compared with anybody else.

Marco Kirschbaum of the ICRC’s tracing service receives phone calls from people searching for their loved ones. “All we can say to callers is that we’re doing everything humanly possible”, says Kirschbaum. “But if it’s several days since the disaster and somebody hasn’t been found in the hospitals, it’s clear on both sides that the missing person will probably be one of the victims.” Tears roll down his face.

In Aceh, ICRC doctors lose no time evaluating the situation in the emergency hospitals. The Indonesian Red Cross distributes 1,000 tarpaulins for use as emergency tents and 1,800 family kits. In Banda Aceh alone it collects 6,000 bodies.

By the third day after the tsunami, the “family links” homepage has registered one million hits. The lists of missing persons and survivors are printed out on the spot and put on display.



 Thursday 30 December  

The “Tsunami Response Action Plan” has been drawn up. ICRC headquarters expects additional expenditure on emergency aid to amount to 17.7 million francs for Indonesia and 7.9 million francs for Sri Lanka. Head of fundraising Jean-Daniel Tauxe notes that governments and private donors have already pledged the money. Jakob Kellenberger discusses the plan with the ICRC management and in a telephone conference submits the budget extension to the Assembly Council, one of the ICRC governing bodies, for approval.

Up to the fourth day after the tsunami, the ICRC President has had little need to intervene in the operations. This stems not only from the ICRC’s operational culture and decentralized structure, but also from the leadership principles of its boss. “Set clear strategic aims”, “trust the staff, unless this is patently inappropriate” and “take operational decisions as close as possible to the situation on the ground” are the most important ones. The days following the tsunami show the soundness of these principles.

The target of providing 200,000 survivors in Sri Lanka with essential items has almost been reached. 
The initial phase of relief operations for Sri Lanka is almost over. Now that the telephone network is operational again, the 88 ICRC tracing experts are helping out with the issue of death certificates and the ongoing collection of data on missing persons. The target of providing 200,000 survivors in Sri Lanka with essential items has almost been reached.

Ever since the disaster, the ICRC has attracted little attention in TV reports. A number of national Red Cross Societies want headquarters to raise its media profile, so that donors can see how their money is being used.

With the arrival of the new year, things return to normal at headquarters. A new task force will now be concerned with the aftermath of the tsunami, while the rest of the staff will deal with the other crises, wars and disasters in the world. In Aceh, despite all the relief efforts, the situation is still catastrophic. A Red Cross field hospital plus staff are flown in from Norway.

Hopes of finding the five missing local Red Cross workers alive have all but evaporated.