Humanitarians at risk: interview with the head of our Yemen office

This post is part of our 'Humanitarians at risk' series, dedicated to World Humanitarian Day which will take place on 19 of August. The series features testimonies of humanitarians around the world who risk their lives daily, while saving those of others. World Humanitarian Day is our opportunity to recognise the personal sacrifice made by humanitarian professionals and pay tribute to those who were injured or killed while doing their job.

René De Vries is the Head of the European Commission's humanitarian aid office in Yemen. Between 2004 and 2011 recurring armed clashes in the north of the country have seen six major cycles of fighting and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. In the last six months, a dramatic upsurge of clashes has led to the displacement of an additional 42 000 people.

Why did you become a humanitarian worker?

I was working in Nigeria in the oil fields and when I came back to Holland a friend encouraged me to attend a presentation by 'Médecins Sans Frontières' (MSF) on their work. I signed up to a roster and two weeks later I was called for a pre-departure training. A week later I was asked if I was ready to be deployed and ended up in Goma in the aftermath of the Rwanda crisis. I thought, 'wow this is tough but it's also very rewarding!' Humanitarian work is far more rewarding than working in the oil industry. That's how I rolled into it: doing two short missions initially and then realising that was what I wanted to do.

What are the particular challenges you face working in Yemen and how do you overcome those?

There are quite a few challenges in terms of security and access. Travel inside the capital, Sana’a is now quite restricted after some incidents and threats by certain groups. These groups are mainly targeting Western foreigners, sometimes based solely on their appearance. This is really very unfortunate as Yemenites are extremely hospitable and friendly. But these are the types of restrictions we have to work with. We follow standard operating procedures very carefully so we know what we can and can't do. These precautions help us be better prepared in terms of security and protection. Working with a group of people you can rely on and who are in turn comfortable relying on you helps a lot. With my colleagues we have a brilliant team with a great cultural mix. It’s a bit like being the head of a family, which works together, has its challenges but ultimately works things out. That's a nice way to work!

With these security constraints how do you monitor projects in the field?

We do still have the opportunity to travel to project sites with partners in order to monitor, such as with UN agencies, the Red Cross or international organisations like 'Oxfam',' Care' or 'Save the Children'. Visiting the projects is not only an opportunity to see what is being done but also to meet and talk to some of the people receiving aid. We speak to officials, to some of the groups who are in conflict and we try to pass on messages on humanitarian principles: humanity, neutrality, impartiality and operational independence.

What motivates you to wake up and go to work every day?

Well, I've never had a dull moment! There's never a day which is the same as the previous day. The fact that this is my third year with ECHO on the same posting shows that I'm still interested. I appreciate and respect what ECHO is doing and Yemen is just a fascinating country. It is one of the most interesting countries I've worked in. In terms of the impact of what we do, to give an example a recent UNICEF report stated that ECHO has financed the nutrition treatment of 57 000 severely malnourished children. Whether we saved all 57 000 lives I don’t know, but even if it's half I think it's worth it. That's the biggest reward.

Interviewed by Stéphanie O'Keeffe, Communication Officer, European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO)

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