by Major Mike Olsen
Major Mike Olsen, former head of The Salvation Army’s International Emergency Services, writes about how The Salvation Army’s ‘can-do’ approach opened doors to its long-term work in Iraq
MAJOR Cedric Hills (International Emergency Services Coordinator) and I learned of the invasion of Iraq while conducting disaster training in South America. We decided to go to Iran – where refugees were expected to flee – and work to develop a response plan.
After two frustrating days spent attempting to get Iranian visas in London, we changed plans and decided to head to Kuwait City. Visas were granted and we landed in Kuwait on the 14th day of the war. The last scud missile had struck Kuwait City the day before. It was providence that we couldn’t get Iranian visas as the flow of refugees eastward never occurred.
|Major Mike Olsen in front of a truck used for gas distribution|
|A‘Returnees’ from Iran who had houses built for them by The Salvation Army|
We set up offices in a local hotel, hired a car and driver and set about becoming part of the international humanitarian assistance cadre, attending daily briefings at the Humanitarian Operations Centre (HOC). We asked about unmet needs and the pending plans to enter the areas of Iraq that were deemed to be secure.
As we made the rounds, we spoke to the head of the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP). He mentioned that people in the desert towns of southern Iraq were suffering because they had no fuel to cook with – ironic in such an oil-rich region. He also said the Kuwait Oil Company was prepared to donate liquid petroleum gas (LPG) for distribution. We knew we had the logistics experience to handle such a project and that here was something we could do.
Cedric headed back to London to marshal funds and volunteers and I spent the next couple of weeks meeting with oil officials, Kuwait government leadership, other NGOs and coalition representatives. In the end, after long negotiations, we were granted access to LPG at the production plant south of Kuwait City. We hired seven 50-foot trailer trucks and drivers and loaded the trucks with 4,500 large LPG bottles.
World Vision had two workers who had recently set up an office in a war-damaged hotel in the southern Iraqi city of Um Qasar and it was eager to serve as our distribution agent. After two days of loading and staging the trucks, we declined the offer of a military escort and headed for the southern border of Iraq. Our convoy of seven trucks, led by a sedan that contained only the trucking contractor and me, crossed into Iraq in the early morning hours. The heavily-armed British military police at the border simply looked on a bit bewildered as they allowed us into Iraq. We were told later that we were the first non-military humanitarian aid convoy to enter Iraq.
We made numerous trips into Iraq to monitor the distribution. It looked like we were going to be the ‘cooking gas people’ and we were contacted by coalition partners, NGOs and contractors asking for assistance in solving their cooking gas problems.
I was soon joined by reinforcements and we looked to expand our operations.
I returned to the UN World Food Programme mission director and asked what other work we could do. He told me they were in the process of surveying their ‘Food for Oil’ warehouses in southern Iraq and that, if I could find someone brave enough, this person could join their reconnaissance team.
Captain Mike McKee grabbed a sleeping bag and headed up-country. After that survey, and much negotiation, we signed a contract with the World Food Programme to re-open those closed food warehouses.
The UN had determined that Iraq was still too unstable to send in their warehouse supervisory staff so, with some apprehension, we offered Salvation Army volunteers to do the job. In teams of two, Salvation Army officers and volunteers were sent out. We gave them money to rent a car, driver, translator and quarters, as well as a UN satellite radio and computer, and sent them out.
Over the next months it seemed Captain McKee was fearless as he crisscrossed southern Iraq with his young translator, delivering and picking up staff, making living arrangements and monitoring our field operations. To support the staff we rented a large house in the southern city of Basra and used it as a staging point between Kuwait and Iraq, as we could drive there in three hours from Kuwait City, barring border difficulty.
We established our staff in Al Hillah (site of ancient Babylon), the holy city of Karbala, Nasiriya, Samawah and Al Kut near the Iranian border. It was far from easy work but it laid the groundwork and created the credibility that opened up further opportunities.
We had to use military aircraft and helicopters for our early survey trips into Iraq but we took great pains not to align ourselves with any military unit. We wanted the people that we served to know that we were military in name only and that our calling came from God.
Our staff can tell many stories of being forced down in the desert in malfunctioning helicopters, of having to drain fuel from wrecked vehicles to get back to base, of gun fights on their street. However, they are more likely to speak of the lives touched and the stories of those who blessed them.