"The difficulty in working in Abidjan," says David Gressly, who was UNICEF’s Representative in Guinea before taking up the position of principal operations officer with UNICEF in India. "Was trying to support emergency operations in other countries while Abidjan itself was becoming an emergency situation."
UNICEF representatives need reliable sources. In the case of the 1999 coup in Abidjan, capital of Côte d'Ivoire, where Mr. Gressly was working as Regional Operations Officer for West and Central Africa, the source was as reliable as they come.
"It started with a phone call from my wife, who was Christmas shopping at a large department store," he recalls. "She advised that a number of military personnel had just forced their way into the store and had begun shooting. After several calls around, it became clear that a military mutiny was under way. I worked with the office staff to organize an evacuation of the office.
“Meantime, everyone in the house got to work to deal with the crisis. Bathtubs were filled with water in case water got cut off; windows were covered with blankets so that movement in the house could not be detected; lights turned low so as not to attract attention; a short run to a nearby store to stock up food was made; walkie-talkies were checked. My older kids know the routine."
Planning for emergency
Such are the situations UNICEF field staff learn to tackle. But it takes more than a coup or two to disturb the focus of someone like Mr. Gressly for long. During this period, he was concentrating on building structures and systems to strengthen the regional office's emergency response capacity. As a result, in 2001 UNICEF was able to deploy teams to support emergencies in Guinea, Liberia and the Central African Republic (CAR). In Guinea, two sub-offices were quickly set up to provide assistance to refugees, internally displaced persons and host communities.
"I am benefiting from this now as the Guinea Rep," says Mr. Gressly. "As these structures allow us to respond effectively on the ground. I recently travelled to the Kissidougou area [of south-eastern Guinea], and local authorities stated that UNICEF was the most effective agency in providing humanitarian assistance.
In Liberia, in order to respond to a sudden influx of 20,000 refugees, we organized an emergency airlift of critical supplies to Monrovia together with an emergency response team. We received the request on a Friday afternoon, had the supplies in Monrovia on Sunday and delivered to refugees by Monday. UNICEF was the first agency to respond to the refugees' needs. In CAR, we were able to do essentially the same thing, by sending in emergency supplies obtained from neighbouring countries and a response team. Once again, UNICEF was the first agency to respond."
David Gressly is clearly a man with a passionate commitment to his job.
"What I find exciting about my work is the potential for making a difference for children at all levels in the country," he says. "Each day is different, the challenges are always evolving and there is never a dull moment. I feel like I have the perfect job."