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Diary of a new delegate

16-04-2014 Feature

Mark Thomlinson is an ICRC delegate who has recently begun his first mission in Jammu and Kashmir. Mark’s role involves visiting people detained in connection with the situation there and monitoring their treatment and living conditions. In his diary, he explains what working in an ICRC field delegation is like and how it differs from his old life in the UK, where he spent two years working in the ICRC’s London office.

Read part 2 of Mark's diary here: Getting the picture - working as a new ICRC delegate in India



ICRC Headquarters, Geneva

© ICRC / D. Baumann


What, in three-and-a-half weeks of training, can be done to prepare someone for ‘the field’? What is ‘the field’? At least I know where it is for me: Jammu, a city in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Having worked for the ICRC for the past few years in London, I know something about what the work entails: monitoring conditions of detention, working with the authorities to ensure they meet international norms…but it’s all a bit abstract.

So I arrive, in the dark, to a hamlet half an hour from Geneva carrying 23kg of clothes, books about Kashmir and other things I considered necessary when packing in my home in comfortable London. And here I am: Ecogia, the ICRC’s residential training centre. I check in and get chatting to Nathan, a Canadian also recently hired as an ICRC delegate. But it is late, and tomorrow will be a big day: day one of my new life as an international aid worker.

Training for the field, I discover, involves a wide mixture of different activities: presentations about the different ICRC approaches to helping victims of armed conflict; guided group work on dealing with stress and working in potentially insecure environments; learning about planning and conducting field trips; and a number of practical exercises. This all culminates in a real-world simulation involving actors playing the role of refugees, health workers, military commanders and government authorities. There are also real Land Cruisers, uniforms and guns. It is excellent practice and, to be honest, quite exhilarating.

Arrival in Jammu

My first day in Jammu coincided with the weekly general meeting, in which I was introduced to the team (names I remember: five; names forgotten: everyone else). Handover with my predecessor has started, and what doing a ‘prison visit’ means is now less abstract. Now I know that beyond just turning up at the jail, there is a huge deal of planning, reporting and admin to do.


In Jammu, the ICRC supports a physical rehabilitation centre run by the Indian Red Cross.
© ICRC / B. Milpas

In Jammu and Kashmir, or J & K, as it is colloquially known, the ICRC started its programme of visits following an agreement with the Government of India made in 1995. The team covering the J of “J & K” (Jammu) visits eight jails, which vary hugely in size. The biggest in this region can hold almost a thousand inmates, while the smallest only a couple of dozen. I had a lot of briefings in New Delhi, where I was told about what the ICRC does in India and the region and about some of the history.

I am told that India –like every country – is a place of contradictions. While many people live in poverty, there is a huge amount of wealth and creativity here: the CEOs of Microsoft, Pepsi, and Mastercard are all Indian.  India has a space programme and a highly sophisticated science sector but also a thriving astrology industry. I have a lot to learn about this culture.

First prison visit

It’s seven thirty in the morning, and we are in the car. Actually, it is seven thirty-two: my last-minute preparations have delayed the group.

This visit is part of a regular cycle of visits that the team carries out, typically once every two weeks to different places of detention. The aim is to monitor the conditions and treatment for detainees in Jammu and Kashmir and work with the authorities to ensure they meet international norms. The meetings and exchanges we have with the prison administration and its hierarchy are all confidential, which helps foster a constructive environment of trust and open discussion.




We set off in two ICRC cars with big red crosses on them. I run through a mental checklist: authorization from the ministry, passport and visa copies, ICRC badge, forms for registering new detainees, forms for interviews with detainees we’ve met with before , and more forms. By now we are almost out of Jammu and I am wondering how I will start the meeting with the prison governor. My big boss from Delhi is with us and supporting the visit, but I am the Team Leader; I am tasked with managing all the preparation, meetings, reporting and follow-up.I am apprehensive, but fortunate to have the backing of a very experienced colleague.  

On the way back, we stop in a roadside dhaba (café) to fill our stomachs. As the sun sets, I think to myself that this beats my old London rush-hour commute.