Life on the front line

Luke Parker
Life on the front line

Hanna Taylor - humanitarian aid worker“When everyone’s dying, it’s your job is to keep people alive.” Hanna Taylor’s tone – a mixture of uncertainty and excitement – gently masks itself in a strange sense of normality.    

Leaving home again this week to continue fighting the recent Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, the Kiwi knows all too well the overwhelming challenges humanity faces in some of the world’s worst hit crisis zones.

The humanitarian worker from north of Auckland will land in the West African country’s capital Freetown on a 4-week placement as a water, sanitation, and hygiene engineer.

“My primary role is to get water to people who are affected by a conflict or disaster. This can also include sanitation through building latrines, giving out soap, jerry cans, and sanitary pads, doing waste removal, and getting sanitary and hygienic conditions restored after or during times of war or disaster. It’s also getting hospitals and schools up and running.”

Working with various aid organisations since 2008, Hanna’s specialised role has seen her fly around the globe to the heart and epicentre of major crises - the genocide in Northern Darfur in 2008, Pakistan’s floods in 2010 and 2011, the Mali coup in 2012, Sierra Leone’s Cholera outbreak in 2012, the Haiti post-earthquake reconstruction and Syrian conflict in 2013, and Sierra Leone’s Ebola crisis last year.

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“As a technical specialist,  I get picked up by different agencies around the place. With emergency work and the kinds of contracts I’ve been on, I have to be willing to go anywhere in the world for between three weeks and three months with 48-hours’ notice. You give up any kind of normality.”

The call of the wild

Hanna at river crossing in Sierra Leone in 2013

Hanna walking onto the ferry at river crossing on the way to setting up Ebola isolation units near the Liberian border - Sierra Leone 2013

Hanna’s desire to help started aged 13 when she read a National Geographic article about draught in the Sahel region in Northern Africa.

“I decided I was going to do what I could to bring water to  drought stricken parts of north Africa and from then on I began working towards it.

“I figured the best way would be as an engineer so I studied sciences in school, got into engineering, graduated, and began working in the private sector to become as good as I could be technically and build up my specialty.”

Graduating with a Degree in Natural Resourcing Engineering from Canterbury University and a Masters in Environmental Management from the University of London, Hanna says the whole focus was always getting overseas to bring water to people who needed it.

Her day-to-day role on the front lines differs with every disaster but usually includes disease outbreaks like Cholera, Typhoid, Ebola and Polio.

“In conflict, you’ll often dealing with towns under siege falling to rebel groups, bombs, shelling, corruption, front line combat zones, kidnapping, and displacement and refugee movement across borders. They’ll turn up with nothing and camp in fields and bombed-out buildings. We have to ensure shelter and get supplies and water to them to prevent disease and keep their communties stable against illness or further shocks.”

Different world, same people

Hanna says one of the biggest misconceptions from the West is that people think that the people who are affected by these crises are different from us.

“But they’re just the same as us. They care about the same stuff – they want to look after their kids, they’re in love with the guy next door, they want to finish their education, they want to make money, they want to follow their dreams.

“It’s almost like, as we read these terrible things happening, we think that they’re someone else or something ‘other’, but they’re just like us.”

Hanna with refugee family in Lebanon in 2012

With Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, winter 2012

She says life on the front-lines has changed over her time working in crises zones, and has become a lot more dangerous – the biggest change being the almost total breakdown of the rules of war.

“Conflicts are governed by international humanitarian law. When I first started in Darfur, all sides kind of agreed about how you treat combatants and non-combatants. These days there’s no rules. There’s no respect for neutrality, immunity of humanitarian workers, immunity of the press – it’s like a free-for-all.

Another major change has been how technology, especially in the media space, has affected her work.

“It used to be that when you were working in a conflict you didn’t have internet, no Facebook, no media, but now everything’s on social media. Unless it galvanises action, it can actually be quite negative because of its potential to be used to terrorise people.”

One of Hanna’s proudest moments was helping to halt the spread of Cholera in the Sahara and northern Mali in the middle of armed conflict back in 2012.

“It had got into the Niger River and the virus was travelling and threatening entire towns. Because of the fighting we had to fly our teams into Niger and drive across combative front lines up into these towns and pull together a taskforce of humanitarian agencies. We organised supplies to reach the north, and ended up getting radio messages out via Satellite phones in French managing to stop its spread.”

Setting up the Ebola childrens ward at an Ebola Treatment Centre in Kerry Town Sierra Leone 2013

Setting up the Ebola childrens ward at an Ebola Treatment Centre in Kerry Town Sierra Leone 2013

Another was overseeing nine refugee camps in Syria over their 2013 winter and not a single camp being taken over by militants, or any of the displaced freezing to death.

“A lot of people end up dying in the cold with minus zero temperatures and snow storms. The team worked incredibly hard to get tents and blankets in and thankfully everyone survived. It has been really difficult reading about the many women and children (some of them friends of my Syrian colleagues) who have perished this past winter purely because of a lack of shelter, blankets and fuel.”

The cost of doing good

But with life’s successes and the highs of saving lives, comes the everyday sacrifices of living away from home in difficult terrains and distant cultures.

“Over the last 5 years, I’ve probably been home all up for around a year,” she says. “I miss my nieces and nephew, my Mormor (grandmother), dairy products, the ocean, a crisp New Zealand sav blanc, and definitely friends and family.”

Hanna and Box man in Sierra Leone

Hanna and Boxman in Sierra Leone

When she does venture back to our shores, it’s all about unwinding and recouping – sleeping, surfing, reading, resting, and catching up with friends.

“I actually think Kiwis are pretty engaged with things that are happening overseas. I think it would be really easy for us not even to know where Syria is or what’s happening with Ebola, but I’m often really encouraged when I come home how much people genuinely care.”

It’s back here that Hanna plans her next overseas posting and the visas, vaccinations, and prep work that it entails.

“For now I’ll get back to Sierra Leone. The future is wide open… I could do anything. But as long as I’ve got energy I’d like to keep on doing this.”

Hanna’s advice for getting into international humanitarian work:

  • Firstly, think twice about it.
  • Get the support of your family and friends otherwise you won’t last.
  • You’ve got to work very hard as it is not easy to get into and they won’t just take anyone.
  • You’ll be put through all sorts of physiological profiling, physical profiling, and education. You need to show that they can drop you into a crisis and you’re not going to fall apart or lose it.
  • Get educated – learn French, Arabic, and other languages.
  • Get fit, get healthy, get strong, and get overseas even if you have to go and volunteer somewhere with a church or a school group – get some experience.
  • Show initiative. You’ve got to keep on applying, keep on hustling, and keep on talking to people.
  • But as Kiwis, once you’re in and you can show that you can do it, you’ll have the most amazing life, but be prepared for sacrifices. 

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