Caught Up in the Unfolding of History
by Major Cedric Hills
Major Cedric Hills, International Emergency Services Coordinator, explains how The Salvation Army began its work in Iraq
IT’S said that most people remember where they were on the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I imagine the same could be said for other world-changing events. I’ll not forget the day when a member of my corps (church) rushed into my office carrying a portable television. He set it down on my desk and switched it on. ‘You must watch this,’ he said. The day was 11 September 2001 and we watched in silent horror as the second of the twin towers in New York was hit by a hijacked plane – history unfolding right before our eyes.
|An Iraqi woman who received sewing training, with her child|
|An elderly Marsh Arab in front of her traditional mud-built home|
|Major Cedric Hills with an Iraqi boy who benefited from a Salvation Army education project|
|Marsh Arab children in front of a Salvation Army Emergency Services vehicle|
Just over two years later I found myself sitting in the lounge of the officer’s apartment at the Salvation Army conference centre in Santiago, Chile. A number of us squeezed into the room to watch the news, aware that something world-changing was happening. We listened as President George W. Bush announced that the invasion of Iraq was to take place. Some events are so significant they remain permanently etched on one’s mind.
A few months later, seated in a comfortable apartment in Kuwait, I watched as a chain tied to a tank pulled down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, Iraq. As locals ran over to triumphantly beat the statue with their sandals it appeared this act would mark the end of the conflict and the beginning of a new chapter in the history of Iraq.
As we now know, this event was neither a beginning nor an end, just another significant moment in a lengthy and very complicated story.
The Salvation Army’s involvement in this particular story started much earlier. On 26 November 2002, with war in Iraq looking ever more likely, a meeting was convened at the House of Commons, London. It was called by Caroline Spelman MP, overseas spokesperson for Her Majesty’s Opposition. The subject for discussion was ‘Humanitarian contingency plans should there be a conflict in Iraq’. The Salvation Army was represented by Colonel Mary Elvin, an officer of the United Kingdom Territory. The guest speaker was Larry Hollingworth, United Nations emergency coordinator.
At this meeting it was stated that any conflict in Iraq would result in a humanitarian disaster of huge proportions. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and UN agencies were urged to plan a response. Damage to Iraq’s infrastructure would be inevitable and aid deliveries would be extremely challenging. Other potential scenarios were aired – the risks posed should the conflict involve chemical weapons, the challenge of huge numbers of refugees fleeing the country and in need of medical care in addition to food and shelter.
Those attending felt that while the humanitarian needs within Iraq should take highest priority, the dangers posed within the country during the conflict meant that initial relief would likely be focused upon refugees fleeing the country. The rehabilitation of Iraq and assistance to war victims inside the country could not be undertaken until conflict was over and it was safe to enter.
Rarely do emergency response organisations have opportunity to prepare for deployment. It was important for us to ascertain if The Salvation Army should respond and, if so, what form this response should take.
Our standing within the NGO community and the esteem in which we are held by the public are such that there is often an expectation that we will be central to any international relief effort. Every day, enquiries from Salvationists around the world were being fielded at International Headquarters to the question: ‘What is The Salvation Army planning to do?’
Would there be a call for the release of personnel? How would any relief operation be funded? Our own oft-used slogan, ‘Where there’s a need, there’s The Salvation Army’, probably contributed to the expectation that, should the need arise, we would be there.
The Salvation Army has a long experience of supporting military units. Many of our territories provide welfare support to troops and their families and this relationship was carefully considered as far as the Iraq response was concerned. It was seen as very important for us to remain neutral and not align ourselves with any of the possible military coalition. In our humanitarian response ministry we operate as a non-governmental organisation and we take all steps to protect this neutral position.
The logistics of mounting any response were challenging. To this day The Salvation Army has no established presence in the region. Neither Iraq nor any of its five neighbouring countries had a Salvation Army office. Yet the possibility of linking with local people, working through existing structures and building capacity within a group who have a long-term presence in the region would remain our preferred means of operation.
Communications and meetings took place with potential partners. These included Christian Aid, Tear Fund and Save the Children. The Middle East Council of Churches gave an open invitation for us to link with them – potentially exposing us to their extensive network of churches throughout the region.
The most promising link came quite unexpectedly, with a group we had no previous relationship with – Elam Ministries, which supported a network of Persian-speaking Christians and had links to Christian churches in Iran. The humanitarian scenarios were considered, with expectations of large refugee movements looking to be the greatest challenge to humanitarian organisations – and all estimates suggesting that Iran would bear the brunt.
Locations had been identified in western Iran for the establishment of huge refugee camps. Our previous experience of providing feeding kitchens in Albania during the Kosovo crisis suggested we might be able to contribute valuable assistance along with other NGOs.
In January 2003 an assessment visit was agreed and plans to travel to Iran were made. Attempts to secure the necessary visas for travel were unsuccessful, despite our best efforts, and our plans were aborted. The visit to Iran never happened and it seemed that God was securely closing that door.
The flurry of activity among humanitarian agencies continued. Attending one such coordination meeting we learned for the first time about plans to establish a Humanitarian Operations Centre in the small neighbouring country of Kuwait. Fears were expressed about potential military links, but the ease with which we could gain entry to Kuwait, its close proximity to southern Iraq and the possibility of dialogue with a large number of international agencies encouraged us that we should plan to visit Kuwait and assess the viability of establishing a forward support office there.
The International Emergency Services section at International Headquarters has responsibility for coordinating humanitarian relief activities in countries where there is no established Salvation Army presence. But the decision as to whether such a programme should be launched rested with senior leaders at IHQ.
On 31 March 2003 a Crisis Action Group (CAG), was convened by Commissioner Margaret Taylor – then International Secretary for Programme Resources. All the IHQ commissioners (or their delegated representatives) met to review the options after which recommendations were made to Commissioner Israel L. Gaither – then Chief of the Staff.
It was agreed by CAG that Majors Cedric Hills and Mike Olsen should seek visas for entry into Kuwait for an initial two-week stay in order to conduct a needs assessment visit.
If the assessment revealed opportunities for developing a programme, Major Olsen would remain in Kuwait with Major Hills returning to the UK to coordinate The Salvation Army’s international response.
The recommendation to the group was that the personnel deployed in the region should have as wide an international representation as possible. All personnel should be available for a two-month secondment, be in good health and have the support of their family.
An exit strategy was to be developed as part of the assessment process and it was stated that there was no anticipation whatsoever of creating a permanent Salvation Army presence in the area.
Great care was taken in clarifying that our role was to be one of assistance to the Iraqi people and that their needs should determine any policy. Partners were to be carefully considered and donors should be in no doubt as to our mission and mandate.
When the news of this historic decision was shared with the Salvation Army world in an International News Release, not all responses were positive. Some questioned the appropriateness of basing ourselves close to the Humanitarian Operations Centre in Kuwait – believing the military presence might impact upon our neutrality.
With these wise words of caution in mind, Major Olsen and I departed for Kuwait. As we arrived and set up our temporary office in a Kuwaiti hotel I had no idea that this would mark the start of an extensive humanitarian programme. God may have closed doors earlier – but as I reflect on ministry opportunities since, I believe he knew where he wanted us to be and who we were to serve.
The exit strategy didn’t develop during the initial assessment visit. As one door opened so did another! While our earliest steps to coordination took place with other international agencies, we quickly established relationships with local Iraqi people. It was their commitment to help meet needs among their communities that encouraged us to lend support, encouragement and resources to the recovery and rehabilitation of their country.
The following pages tell the story of work achieved – and these stories are significant. The programme in Iraq remains unique in that the goal of using personnel from around the world was met in some small measure. Our international team was not as diverse as we might have hoped but personnel used represented all five geographical zones of The Salvation Army.
The bringing together of people from different nations, working side by side with others of different culture and faith, is a living demonstration that diversity does not have to mean division and that differences can be overcome in order to work together for the good of those in need.