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Supplies and Logistics

‘Still hovering between two worlds’

A Banda Aceh experience by UNICEF staff member Josephine McCloskey

© UNICEF Denmark/ 2005/ Mc Closkey
It is difficult to comprehend how sudden and violent the wave had been.

COPENHAGEN, 3 May 2005 – Josephine Mc Closkey, who works at UNICEF Supply Division in Copenhagen, talks about her two-month mission for the United Nations Joint Logistics Centre (UNJLC) in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, as part of tsunami relief efforts. Josephine has worked for UNICEF for 21 years. This was her first visit to the field, and her first UN mission.

First impressions
Josephine Mc Closkey, like so many others, was deeply affected by the tsunami tragedy. She comments ‘I knew that if I was given the opportunity to help, I would do it. I was asked to do this mission on a Thursday, and left the following Tuesday.’

After spending two days in Jakarta to be briefed on her tasks, she left early one morning for Banda Aceh, the regional capital of the area closest to the earthquake’s epicentre. On her arrival Josephine toured the devastated coastal area to get a picture of what had happened, and the recovery work that needed to be done. What she saw made a deep impression. In Josephine’s own words,
‘I can’t explain what it was like. I was in the car, it was raining, and I kept thinking is it a film, or is it real? I was looking at things and it was not registering. There were fallen trees, smashed cars, a lot of water – half a metre deep in places, and people trying to retrieve things from this, people still looking for relatives. At this time they were still finding a hundred bodies a day. The situation was beyond words or tears. It was too vast for any human being to grasp.’

© UNJLC/ 2005
Josephine in action.

Working for the UNJLC
Josephine’s assignment was to report on the military logistics operation from the airport in Banda Aceh. Given the scale of the operation, this was an enormous, and vital task. The airport was the focal point for all helicopter missions transporting essential supplies, as well as relief workers to the west coast. Working closely with the Indonesian Military who were coordinating operations, Josephine also dealt with military personnel from Australia, Pakistan, Malaysia and the United States, amongst others.

Another part of her work was make passenger manifests (a list of the passengers on the helicopter), and organise passenger controls for all those – UN workers, journalists, military personnel, etc. – travelling to the badly-hit areas. Often more people than planned, or that there was space for, would arrive in the morning wanting to travel. Every day was a logistics challenge.

‘There were usually about four to five helicopters taking off or landing at any one time, the noise was horrendous, people would be trying to ask me questions (with plugs in my ears), and my phone would be ringing with some urgent request or another,’ comments Josephine.

Living conditions
Not surprisingly, living conditions were basic. Josephine slept in a tent together with 19 other people, and the compound had three cold showers for 80 residents. The working day was long, as she explains, ‘Sleep was not something I got much of. I left for the airport every morning at 7am to work a 12 to 14 hour day, having been woken at 4am by the call to prayer from loud speakers on top of the local mosque.’

An additional stress was the regular aftershocks and tremors from the earthquake. A couple of weeks into Josephine’s mission, there was a shake measuring 5.6 on the Richter Scale, which caused all the locals to leave town.

However, despite these hardships, Josephine remains enthusiastic, ‘Everyone was very supportive of each other, and there was great camaraderie in the compound. I ate, slept, and spent every second with the people I worked with. These people became a family, and meant everything to me when I was there. I will always have a special connection to them.’

© UNICEF Denmark/ 2005/ Mc Closkey
UNJLC driver Milik Zulfitri shows what is left of his house.

Poignant memories
One Sunday, a driver for the UNJLC took Josephine to the beach area, and the foundations of his house where his wife, two children aged six and two, his mother and other family members were washed away in the tsunami. He was at work driving that day and all was gone when he returned. During her mission, Josephine was constantly reminded of the strength and dignity of people affected so profoundly. She comments, ‘When we were there with him he could only express himself by putting his hand on his heart. How can you help this person and change their life? But he showed up every morning with a smile on his face to carry out his duties.’

© UNJLC/ 2005
Children would often run out to a helicopter when it landed.

Returning home
The experience of being part of such a large relief operation was very fulfilling, according to Josephine, and has also led to greater perspective on her own life, and the desire to contribute directly to humanitarian work again in the future. Returning to Copenhagen was a difficult adjustment. ‘Saying goodbye to these people in Banda Aceh, part of me wanted to go, and another part definitely didn’t. It felt like I was deserting them. I will go back there some time to see how they are doing. It’s almost as if I don’t have a choice,’ concludes Josephine.

The United Nations Joint Logistics Centre core unit, based in Rome, is an inter-agency unit, whose main objective is to develop and maintain a stand-by capacity for facilitating, if required, the timely activation and deployment in the field of a United Nations Joint Logistics Centre. UNICEF works very closely with the UNJLC, and during the first three months of the tsunami relief work, UNICEF Supply Division seconded six staff members to work on emergency logistics operations.



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