In 48°C and body armour, UNHCR extends its work in southern Iraq
BASRAH, Iraq, August 18 (UNHCR) - UNHCR is steadily moving back into Iraq; in the north, to Baghdad in the centre and now to Basrah in the south. Tracey Buckenmeyer, the head of sub-office Basrah, describes the agency's efforts to implement a normal UNHCR operation - or what passes for normal in Iraq.
You don't know what a bad hair day is until you've had your head crammed for hours into a steel helmet in 48°C degree heat.
I'm on mission in Basrah, Iraq. It's slightly cooler than Kuwait where I am officially posted, but after you add in the "PPE (personal protective equipment) factor" - having to lug around 14 kg of body armour including a helmet - you are back up into the scorching and sweaty end of the thermometer. Luckily no one can see that you are as wilted as wet spaghetti under the flak jacket.
UNHCR is slowly and steadily moving back into Iraq; to Erbil and Mosul in the north, to Baghdad in the centre and now, to Basrah in the south. Of course, we never really left. Our Iraqi national staff held the proverbial fort throughout these tumultuous past six years, delivering the program to the Iraqi displaced, returnees and refugees despite the spikes in security and the absence of international staff.
A lot of attention has been focused on Baghdad and the central governorates but it was no less challenging in the south where our staff lived through the same tensions and stresses, including Operation Sawlat al-Fursan (Charge of the Knights), when the Iraqi army drove militiamen from Basrah in March 2008. A member of my staff is a journalist and I have urged him to write his own story of these anxious times, a story far more interesting than my own.
My story is about our efforts to once again become fully functional in Basrah and implement a normal UNHCR operation. Well, normal for Iraq. By the end of the year we hope to have two international staff permanently based in Basrah, working closely with our national team there - now numbering 12 field staff - to cover the governorates of Basrah, Missan, Muthana, Diwaniya and Thi Qar. Our team in Kuwait will be downsized, providing logistics and administration support.
The south, Basrah in particular, settled down after the Charge of the Knights over a year ago. Civilians are moving freely, commerce is picking up and security has improved, though sporadic bomb or missile attacks are still part of daily life.
Our staff can monitor our projects - shelter, quick impact projects, distribution of non-food items - and work with our protection and legal centres. They meet regularly with the government and our counterparts from non-governmental organizations.
We, the international staff, still have to move with armed escorts, live in protected compounds, and follow strict security regulations. But we are now able to meet inside Iraq with our teams. After we evacuated in 2003, these meetings had to take place in Kuwait or Jordan, irregularly at best.
We are also starting to meet with local counterparts and local partners. They may seem small but these are significant accomplishments bringing us closer to the people we are trying to help, closer to our work, closer to Iraq.
Now I look forward to the day when the body armour is left hanging in the closet and our only escort is a GPS guiding us to our project sites. Until then, I can live with the bad hair.
By Tracey Buckenmeyer
in Basrah, Iraq