Reflections from a Canadian Red Cross worker in Iraq

Vatche Arslanian from Oromocto, New Brunswick has been working as a senior logistician with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Iraq since July 2001. The following is an interview with Arslanian in January 2003.

What is your job in Iraq?

I manage 40 staff and am responsible for 65 vehicles, 55 generators and five warehouses. I provide support to major humanitarian programs that focus on water and sanitation rehabilitation, orthopaedics, health, and relief. I also support the internal operations of the Iraq ICRC delegation by providing transportation, maintenance for vehicles and generators, procurement and warehousing services.

Describe your average workday.

No two days are alike. An average day starts at around 7 a.m. as I'm an early riser and ends at around 6 p.m.

I begin the day by reviewing the internal mail messages and assigning tasks to each section of the logistics department. At 8 a.m. we have a staff meeting to discuss and plan the activities of the day. Afterwards I contact the program coordinators to follow up. On a regular basis I meet the head of each operational section to provide guidance on various logistical issues. I visit the workshop and the warehouses. I contact ICRC logistics support base in Amman, Jordan to coordinate the shuttles, cargo and the arrival of the pending shipments. Due to the sanctions, all the items imported from outside of Iraq must transit through Jordan.

The afternoon consists of more meetings. I liaise with the ICRC Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland to deal with upcoming issues or seek instructions. I occasionally meet with representatives of the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Do you travel throughout the country?

I travel throughout Iraq regularly, as we have sub-delegations in Basra (520 km south-east of Baghdad) and in Arbil (400 km north of Baghdad), as well as two other offices to the north in Dohuk and Sulaymaniyah. Occasionally my work takes me to Amman, Jordan.

How would describe your work and the help you are providing to the Iraqi population?

I would describe it simply by two words, challenging and rewarding.

We have to deal with numerous challenges. For instance, the heat in the summer can rise to 55 to 60 =B0C. The distances we travel are quite far. We need a green light from the UN sanctions committee to import any items, except for medicines. Procurement is a time-consuming task, as we cannot find all the items and materials needed because of the sanctions.

The possibility of a war has weighed quite heavily in the balance. The Iraqi population is very worried about the prospect of war, and this reflects in all the facets of life, especially during the last few months. It is extremely important to have lots of patience, flexibility and optimism.

The work is rewarding, because helping to bring a smile and dignity to a fellow human being is deeply fulfilling. It is the best reward that one can have and beats by far what one obtains from acquiring wealth, power and prestige.

Describe one of your most rewarding experiences in Iraq.

I will never forget participating in the January 2002 repatriation of 700 Iraqi Prisoners of War (POWs) from Iran. It was touching, highly emotional, but deeply satisfying. The ICRC was the first contact towards a new life for the POW's who had been imprisoned from between 12 to 20 years.

Describe the ICRC delegation in Iraq and the people you work closely with.

It is a medium-sized delegation with 35 expatriates and 365 local Iraqi staff. There are 18 expatriates working in Baghdad, three in Basra, and 14 in the north. They come from countries such as Switzerland, Germany, Norway, France, Greece, Canada, Austria, Lebanon, Netherlands, Australia and Ireland. They are from all walks of life, represent different age groups, have a variety of professional backgrounds and possess a wealth of experience.

The delegation gets along quite well. We have a unique camaraderie and support each other. Many of us form friendships for life. We share the privilege of doing fulfilling work.

What is your environment like? What is it like working in Iraq?

At present it is tense, which is understandable under the current circumstances. In addition to the normal programs that the ICRC delivers in Iraq, during the last five months we have been making contingency plans. We are working very hard to ensure that if something happens, we are ready to fulfill the mission of the ICRC, which is to alleviate the suffering of the victims of war.

The Iraqi people are very friendly, generous and polite. The ICRC is liked and respected by the population and the authorities. Our local Iraqi staff is highly qualified, and some staff members have worked with the ICRC for many years.

Life in the city of Baghdad is interesting. It is an old city, rich in history.

Do you have any additional comments or thoughts?

Since I arrived in Iraq in July 2001, I have enjoyed my work and the camaraderie with my colleagues.

I am certain that the Red Cross is making a difference in Iraq. It is satisfying to know that the Red Cross is alleviating the suffering of many vulnerable people in Iraq who have suffered the effects of two wars, and 11 years of harsh economical conditions. The value of the Iraqi currency has decreased by 600% since the early 1980's, leaving the majority of the population struggling to purchase the basic necessities.

Humbled by the strength in the human spirit and motivated by the difference the Red Cross makes in people's lives, Vatche Arslanian is a Canadian Red Cross delegate.

A native of Oromocto, N.B., Arslanian is a former member of the military, town council and was deputy mayor briefly. Arslanian has been an active volunteer with the Canadian Red Cross since 1991. He helped with fundraising and relief programs when 1,000 Kosovar refugees were housed on the Canadian Forces Base in Gagetown, N.B. in 1999.

Arslanian participated in his first overseas mission with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Georgia (part of the former Soviet Union) in 2000. As a senior logistician, he managed 43 local Red Cross staff and operations that provided 5,000 tons of relief materials monthly.

Since July 2001, Arslanian has been on his second ICRC mission as a senior logistician in Baghdad, Iraq. He is scheduled to return to Canada in June 2003.

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