Humanitarian Aid in War Zones

Ray Taylor

A Skerries Historical Society talk often looks back a century or two and usually addresses some aspect of life in Skerries. Not so for the September presentation. Ray Taylor’s ‘Humanitarian Aid in War Zones’ referred to events distant in space, not time. War has yet to be consigned to history.

When confronted with the tragedy of war, most of us can only offer money. Giving money certainly helps – very little can be done without it – but Ray wanted to do more. Aid agencies won’t just take anyone – you have to have the right skills and experience to visit a war-torn area. Ray lacked experience, but he didn’t lack persistence. Eventually, the Department of Foreign Affairs decided they had a use for his talents.

There’s a huge amount you have to do to help yourself before you can help anyone else. Ray was in at the deep end to start with but he quickly learned about protecting himself from diseases like malaria, typhoid and giardia. Aside from the microscopic disease-bearing parasites, there are larger animals to watch out for. Who knew that green mambas are fiercely territorial? You don’t want to get on the wrong side of one of these snakes as without treatment, their bite is usually fatal.

Traffic accidents are not confined to fast-car-owning residents of the developed world. It’s easy to forget basic road safety when you are worrying about how to feed and provide shelter for thousands of displaced people. Then there’s fatigue – aid workers often work fourteen hours a day for weeks on end. By its nature, providing humanitarian aid in a war zone is a dangerous occupation. Bombs can fall from the sky without warning. There are mine fields to be negotiated, tanks and artillery to be avoided, booby traps left by retreating soldiers to watch out for. You have to develop the right mindset to deal with all of this.

And you haven’t even begun to work with the victims of the war yet. How do you keep going when you are faced with the worst that humans can do to each other? When you see children maimed by gunfire? Or you are faced with a father who begs you to shoot him so that his dying son will qualify for emergency evacuation? Ray told us positive stories – little Lucy got a prosthetic arm and a chance at a new life, Perdi was saved from malnutrition without shooting his father due to the dedication of local medical workers. But there were many stories that didn’t end so well.

So how does Ray do it? An aid worker needs to have a real skill to offer, to be alert to dangers, to be strong enough to keep going without enough sleep. But there’s something else that’s essential – a sense of humour. Despite the harrowing nature of the subject, there were also laughs in Ray’s talk. Like the American pilot who explained that it would be quite safe to do a cargo drop from a plane without doors because they’d be strapped in. But while demonstrating he fell out of the plane as he had forgotten to secure the end of the strap. Luckily, they were still on the ground! Later they successfully made the cargo drop. You can find out more about it in Ray’s book: Mr Ray Would Like a Monkey: Memoirs from the Front Line of Humanitarian Aid.