Refugees Magazine Issue 110 (Crisis in the Great Lakes) - Unsung heroes : Local staff are indispensible

Local staff are indispensible.

They're often the first into a new crisis and the last to leave. Local staff are indispensible and frequently put their lives at risk, but they're also often unsung heroes.

By Peter Kessler

Cesar Tshilombo is no stranger to war, but living on the edge still didn't fully prepare him when conflict engulfed eastern Zaire in 1996.

'I was not afraid because I had already lived through two wars,' Tshilombo said, recalling the fall of Goma where he was working as a radio technician for UNHCR. 'But I was worried for my kids, and I was worried for the people who were really exposed, like the drivers.'

As the rebels advanced on Goma, Tshilombo worked until the last moment to ensure local employees received salary advances. As he scuttled home at midday, shells were already falling on the town. Monitoring humanitarian radio traffic, it became clear that expatriate workers were preparing to evacuate the town.

Tshilombo came face to face with that anguished moment local staff working for international organizations have increasingly experienced in recent years: a deteriorating local security situation, the pullout of foreign officials and a very uncertain future for staff left behind. It was a bitter-sweet moment. 'I monitored the preparations for the internationals leaving,' Tshilombo said. 'It was a normal thing to do because they were especially targetted.'

National staff are the backbone of humanitarian operations, often the unsung and sometimes even forgotten heroes of dangerous situations. It is a job with obvious attractions - salaries are good by local standards and humanitarian work is both prestigious and often the only one available in faraway crises. But more and more, staff are also being asked to put their very lives on the line.

When international workers flew eastwards from Goma to Kenya and safety during the rebellion in 1996, Tshilombo, his wife Aimerance and five children, fled 40 kms westwards to try to escape the fighting. En route, he saw the type of violence he had witnessed in his youth and had hoped his family would never experience. 'I saw horrible things in Sake town,' he said. 'But what I saw in nearby Mugunga (refugee camp) was really bad.' Hundreds of thousands of refugees were trapped for several weeks in Mugunga and suffered terrible physical hardships before scattering in all directions in late 1996.

Tshilombo, other local staff and returning expatriates, continued to live with violence and massive human suffering for many months afterwards as they tracked tens of thousands of refugees through the Central African rainforests.

In March, 1996, a particularly popular and key UNHCR staff member, Louis Musafiri died from injuries he sustained in a traffic incident while driving a group of refugees to a nearby airstrip. 'Louis was a personal friend, really someone I looked towards', Cesar Tshilombo said. 'Louis had the qualities of the kinds of people whom I had always imagined worked for humanitarian organizations.'

Louis Musafiri was one of 36 UNHCR staff who were deliberately killed, died or went missing during the Great Lakes crisis. Many others were injured, beaten up or threatened.

Cesar Tshilombo is still with UNHCR, now in its office in Kinshasa, the capital of the renamed Congo Democratic Republic. His wife continues to live many hundreds of miles away across the country in Goma.

The Great Lakes only emphasized a disturbing trend which has become more apparent in recent years - that field workers, both expatriate and local, are no longer immune to the violent surroundings in which they work. While expatriates can often fly out of extreme danger, UN regulations make few provisions for local staff who have family, homes and roots in the immediate vicinity.

The security of ALL humanitarian workers will be a major issue for years to come in the wake of events in Central Africa.

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 110 (1997)