Cedric Hills meets homeless children in Kabul, Afghanistan, December 2002
Major Dirk van Duinen, Cedric, Major Patricia Kiddoo and Major Roland Sewell – the man responsible for getting Cedric into relief work – wait for refugees to arrive at a new camp in Korce, Albania, in 1999
The famine relief programme in Kenya, 2000
Cedric with a young child in Kenya
Cedric helps out with blanket distribution in Kabul, Afghanistan
A tent village set up to house people made homeless by the earthquake in Turkey, 2000
Interviewing a Masai tribesman in Kenya;
Cedric and Captain Elizabeth Hayward (left) setting up a training programme for disaster preparedness in India
A school feeding programme in Kenya
Cedric gets ready to jump into a helicopter in Iraq with his predecessor, Major Mike Olsen
Rebecca Hills is the daughter of Major Cedric Hills. She is a member of The Salvation Army in the United Kingdom
Interview: In Case of Emergency
by Rebecca Hills
Many people hear of a major disaster and have the same reaction: ‘I wish I could do something to help.’ Unfortunately, most people either don’t know what they can do or believe there is no way for them to help. Very few have the opportunity to be on the front line, actually doing something.
Major Cedric Hills is one of the people who does just that, working as The Salvation Army’s International Emergency Services Coordinator, based at International Headquarters in London, England.
Cedric has been involved in emergency relief for almost eight years and has served in about 20 countries, from Bosnia in 1996 through the Turkish earthquakes of 2000, famine in Kenya and floods in Mozambique, right up to the present aftermath of the conflict in Iraq.
Cedric recalls his first emergency services work in Bosnia – where he was called upon to help feed and house displaced people returning to the burned-out town of Sipovo – as perhaps the most memorable. ‘That’s when I saw things I hadn’t seen before,’ he says. ‘I can still picture in my mind the first time I drove into Sipovo – the smell of burnt houses in the air, the sight of people who had lost everything.’
He got into emergency relief work through no planning or ambition of his own. Before becoming a Salvation Army officer Cedric had worked in retail. In 1996, while appointed to The Salvation Army’s Red Shield Services – working with British troops stationed in Germany – a series of events was set in motion that was, by his own admission, to change his life.
With the war in Bosnia not long over, the Red Shield Services, along with other welfare agencies, set up ECHOS (European Christian Home Organisation for the Services) and Cedric was asked to drive to Sarajevo, Bosnia, to set up and run a welfare centre.
At the same time, The Salvation Army’s Major Roland Sewell was scouring Bosnia for somewhere that the organisation’s fledgling Emergency and Refugee Services could provide relief assistance. Sipovo was chosen and Cedric, being not too far away, was brought into the team.
The work in Bosnia started as a feeding programme, providing meals for 1,000 people at first then spreading over three kitchens to feed more than 2,000. ‘I didn’t really know what I was supposed to do,’ admits Cedric. Through his forces connections he managed to get hold of some crisps and biscuits, which he gave out along with cups of coffee. It didn’t seem much.
When Cedric returned to Sipovo a while later a family asked to see him. They wanted him to know that the ‘snacks’ he had given out had virtually kept them alive.
‘I realised then,’ he says, ‘that although we might not be able to do a lot, the little we can do makes a huge difference in times of critical need.’
It wasn’t all a success though. ‘I didn’t employ a translator but proceeded to distribute coffee,’ he remembers. ‘I gave out thousands of cups of white coffee before somebody told me that the Bosnians only drink their coffee black.’
He must have impressed someone though because, as he admits, ‘I can’t have done that badly because I was invited to do other things!’
In the years since, Cedric has seen an incredible amount of death and destruction – some caused by humankind and some through natural causes. So how does he cope with having to look disaster in the face?
‘It’s not necessarily difficult to deal with what I see,’ Cedric says.
‘One of the hardest things is coming back to the UK and dealing with people’s attitudes to what they have in the developed world – often an awful lot.’
Another memorable occasion saw Cedric caught up in the aftershocks of a major earthquake.
As the world was seeing images of the earthquakes which hit Turkey in 2000, Cedric was already there. An aftershock reaching 6.5 on the Richter scale trapped him and his team in a building.
They escaped in time to see the buildings collapse around them.
‘It was quite scary,’ admits Cedric, master of the understatement. ‘I had never been in an aftershock before or experienced what was quite a major earthquake. The aftershocks in Turkey would still have been considered major earthquakes if they had happened initially. To be in a situation where you have no control at all over what is happening is quite frightening.
‘You realise that you can’t predict when these things are going to happen and that you’re quite powerless to do anything about it. The original earthquake only lasted 45 seconds but 14,000 people lost their lives because of it.’
The Army’s work in the area was to provide tents and food for the families who had lost their homes and possessions.
Not surprisingly, being in charge of the emergency services means that Cedric has to be prepared for the news before it happens.
A recent example of this is the Iraq war crisis.
‘We started preparing as early as November 2002,’ says Cedric, ‘by putting names together of people who could be deployed and trying to find an organisation to partner with, because The Salvation Army didn’t have a presence in Iraq. We spent some time in discussion with the church in Iran. We were intending to work with them to set up refugee camps in Iran, which is where we expected refugees to flood to as soon as the war started.
‘As it happens, that situation never materialised because the refugees didn’t go. We actually never managed to get visas to Iran so we set up an operation base in Kuwait and rented a house there so we could be on hand as soon as it was clear for us to go to Iraq.’
The Army’s project in Iraq has been one of the most extensive operations of late. The work started with the renovation of schools, clinics and children’s play areas.
‘One particular kindergarten was interesting,’ says Cedric. ‘The building isn’t actually that old, 20 years or so, but it was in a terrible condition – no windows, no electrical fittings, no light fittings, nothing, There wasn’t a pane of glass in the whole building. What was also interesting was that the ruling Ba’ath Party had taken more than half of the school away and made it their offices. We found that many parents did not want their children to go to that part of the school because it held really bad memories for them.’
The Army has also set up computer workshops for children and adults, sewing workshops and a large employment scheme. Cedric says this is helping the local area to recover. ‘One of the biggest needs is for people to have some money in their pockets, so by creating employment for about 5,000 people we are helping around the same number of families and that’s having a big impact on the town.’
Harnessing the abilities and energy of local people, this time to rebuild their own homes, was a process used in the Mozambique flood relief project.
In 2000 a tremendous flood hit the African country of Mozambique. Salvation Army relief work started by supplying families with tents, food and water purifiers when the flood first hit. But the help went much further than simply offering short-term assistance.
‘Four years on, the project is still going,’ says Cedric, who will return in May this year to oversee the project’s completion. ‘We stayed with them. Families supplied with tents and food are now living in brick houses in safer areas thanks to The Salvation Army. The Army is even now building community centres for the new settlements. The people in Mozambique have a new life and a new opportunity for the future.’
It’s the ability of people to survive through the most trying of circumstances that gives Cedric a lift when he most needs it. His Christian faith, far from being knocked at the sight of so much suffering, is boosted by the way people rise up and do things that they thought were beyond their capabilities.
‘Being in emergency situations has been a spiritual high point,’ he says. ‘When you’re in a dangerous place, with so much beyond your control, you do find yourself praying hard.’
Of course, Cedric became a Salvation Army officer because he wanted to be a minister of religion. Does he still feel he is fulfilling that vocation?
‘Oh yes. I get great personal fulfilment and blessing. I feel amazingly fortunate to do the work I do. It’s great to have a job where my parish is the whole world! The people we work with are so grateful that it’s almost overwhelming. They give us far more than we give them.
‘I like the Message paraphrase of the verse from John’s Gospel: “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood.” I believe The Salvation Army is doing just that. It moves into the neighbourhood of people in need and demonstrates Jesus through practical service.’
As to the future, Cedric sees his role changing a little. The Emergency Services team is concentrating more on training, enabling Salvation Army territories and commands around the world to know what to do when disaster strikes and to be able to take on some of the work that, currently, only the International Headquarters team can cover. The training schemes will build on the work set in motion by Cedric’s predecessor, Major Mike Olsen.
Cedric hopes that proposed changes in the section will enable him to concentrate on raising the profile of the Army’s emergency services work, thereby bringing in more donations and funding. He does admit, though, that he’ll have to fight hard to resist the urge to ‘rush off the minute something big appears on CNN’!
Somehow, you get the feeling that there’s nothing much that will stop Cedric rushing off and moving ‘into the neighbourhood’ of even more desperate people.