From a Distance
by Captain Bruce Coffey and Hugh Pilcher
Captain Bruce Coffey and Hugh Pilcher explain how the security situation in Iraq led to a new way of working – remote management from Kuwait
Captain Bruce Coffey
My wife Pauline and I arrived in Kuwait in April 2004 to be greeted with the worrying news that the International Emergency Services team we were meant to replace was at that moment fleeing Iraq. The security situation had deteriorated considerably since the bombing of the UN Headquarters in Baghdad a week or two earlier.
Initially, we hoped the situation would settle down but that never happened so we had to change the way we worked. Hands-on, day-to-day involvement had to give way to remote management.
Fortunately, I had spent two months in Iraq towards the latter part of the previous year so I knew our Iraqi staff well.
A week or so later Major Cedric Hills and I managed a quick, clandestine visit to Al Amarah to put in place our remote management system. This was one of only two visits to Al Amarah I was able to make during the 10 months we were leading the programme.
A proposal was prepared and submitted to UNHCR in Kuwait for a programme to help displaced Iraqi families settle back in areas they had fled many years before.
|Distributing bird-feed to people who had received chickens|
|A mechanics’ training project|
Our proposal was accepted and in May 2004 The Salvation Army became a UNHCR Implementing Partner.
The 10-month US$1.5 million agreement required The Salvation Army to undertake a wide-ranging redevelopment programme in four villages in Maysan Province along with providing a number of other facilities and services throughout that area.
All materials and goods were purchased from local suppliers. This had the dual benefit of helping the local economy and providing equipment that was commonplace in the area, which in turn kept training to a minimum and allowed repairs to be done locally when needed.
There was always considerable local consultation which ensured that what was provided was relevant to local need and gave the community a sense of ownership and empowerment.
Day-to-day communication with our Iraqi team was by cellphone and over the Internet. However, the networks were often down. We tried to have as many face-to-face meetings with the Iraqi team leaders as possible. To do this we had to cross over into Iraq and hold our meetings near the border as the Iraqis were unable to enter Kuwait. Crossing the border was always interesting as the rules and paperwork seemed to change each trip.
However, this inconvenience was minor in comparison to what our Iraqi staff had to endure. They faced a five-hour trip in each direction over dangerous roads that required them to travel in convoy with a number of armed personnel. Travel after dark was not safe and it was not wise to travel during the afternoon siesta time (when the roads were mostly empty) or before 7 am (roadside bombs were planted overnight).
God honoured our prayers and not once in 10 months were there any significant incidents. Eventually, we were able to get visas for some of our Iraqi staff to enter Kuwait. It is a testament to the hard work of our staff that all the contracted projects were completed on time, on or under budget and to the required standard.
Because we could not open a bank account in Kuwait, money was wired from London and had to be picked up as a lump sum. The largest single amount we received was US$250,000 (in $100 notes) and it was with some apprehension that we took such a large amount of cash in a backpack to our residence.
We were fortunate to be able to worship with a large English-speaking Christian community and we found that there were more than 100 Salvationists in the country. While the Kuwaiti authorities allow freedom of worship we needed to make some adjustments to the new environment. For instance, Friday is a holy day in Kuwait so we met for worship on that day. Christmas Day and Easter Sunday were just normal working days. But we were blessed to enjoy unimpeded Christian fellowship and worship in a country where the dominant religion is Islam.
None of the results achieved would have been possible without God’s over-riding hand of protection or without our dedicated team of Iraqi employees who faced considerable risk to bring material assistance to their people.
In January 2004 I had just returned from six years in Tanzania. I was thinking that maybe God wanted me to stay in the UK for a while and recharge my batteries. Maybe not!
Major Cedric Hills got in touch and told me he needed someone with agricultural experience to help the Marsh Arabs in Iraq. Much of the huge areas of marsh in Southern Iraq had been destroyed by Saddam Hussein’s policies. Now the Marsh Arabs were free from him but their old source of livelihood had gone.
In February 2004 I arrived in Al Amarah, Iraq. I went into research mode – I sat in villagers’ houses, ate their food, asked them questions and paid them respect. After several days my legs ached from sitting cross-legged on their floors!
I prayed harder and somehow we got there. The agricultural proposals were: vets, farm shops, farm machinery repair shops, egg-laying chickens, farm business management, date palms and cattle dips – all with training provided.
|Agriculture training programmes|
And here’s the bit where I get excited – all these ideas, born of discussions, sweat and prayer were implemented in 2004 and adapted and used again through 2005. They worked!
After the first five weeks in Al Amarah, I was sent home for a two-week break.
In that fortnight the team had to leave Iraq. Soon I was with Bruce and Pauline Coffey at the start of two years in Kuwait.
The funding from the UNHCR was great but they required a heavy paper trail and evidence of how every cent was spent. ‘Are there any receipts for the diesel you buy?’ we asked our team leader. ‘Sir,’ he replied, sounding impatient, ‘we buy diesel from a young boy at the side of the road in Al Amarah. He doesn’t have receipts – in fact he shouldn’t be there!’
So there were cultural differences, language difficulties, plenty of technical difficulties – but everything was done as proposed.
That was 2004. At the beginning of 2005 Bruce and Pauline went back home to New Zealand to be replaced by Gordon and Pauline Lewis from the UK. Graham Young also came from the UK to take up a new position of finance officer. After prayer I decided I would stay on as that would help with continuity.
The Iraqi local government was becoming more involved and the UNHCR was being more demanding. They wanted more meetings, more building specifications, more agreement between agencies and better financial transparency. They drove us mad but gave us another US$1.4 million to spend on Iraqis who fled Saddam Hussein and were returning to their country after many years.
We adapted and improved the agricultural components. My Iraqi agricultural officer, still in Al Amarah, was brilliant. He was enthusiastic, adaptable, efficient and brave. On one occasion in 2004 he was delivering chickens to village beneficiaries when men from neighbouring villages stopped him and suggested that they too would like some chickens – and pointed a gun at his head.
I got more involved with the whole scheme and helped with a health project, a water project, a literacy programme and emergency aid to displaced people – it was truly satisfying. I stayed on throughout 2005 and in March 2006 I was the last one to leave the Kuwait office as we officially finished direct involvement in Iraq. It’s amazing how God can use you when you’re willing and you have a great team around you.