A local man has just returned home after a month of organizing a refugee camp in Greece that has more residents than Nelson.
Jan van ‘t Land was manager of the Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières or MSF) operations in northern Greece. His work was concentrated on running the Idomeni camp, population 13,000, located on the border with Macedonia in a farmer’s field. The residents are mostly Syrian refugees attempting to get to Germany.
“There are thousands of people sitting there in the mud,” he said. “It was minus 14 when I was there and raining and cold. When they arrive we distribute tents and blankets. Then they try to find a place in that field. When it rains it becomes a giant muddy place with standing water. It’s horrible. Google that camp and you will see pictures of what it was like.
“And in the morning they go and stand in line for their sandwich and tea. It takes about three hours waiting in line, and then they get back in line for lunch, unless they are ill and they stand in line for the doctor.”
Women with make-up and fancy shoes
He said most refugees are urban Syrians who had a high standard of living, and that makes the experience somehow tougher than for poorer people.
“They are not shepherds from the Somali desert. They are in relatively good health and not poor. You are from Damascus, you sell everything you have, take your savings from the bank, leave, and pay half of it to the smuggler who takes you from Turkey to Greece. But then you get stuck. Babies are being born and there are modern diseases like cancer and diabetes.
Photo credit: Médecins Sans Frontières
“Their living standard in Damascus was about the same as here. You can see the women still have their make-up and totally wrong shoes for a long march through Europe in their fancy clothes, and then to live in tents in the mud and having your child cry all the time. It is very miserable.”
“The young guys smoke their cigarettes and talk, and they are fine. But the old people and the mothers with kids are having a very hard time.”
A barbed wire border
The reason they are stuck in Idomeni is that Macedonia closed the border.
“They put up a barbed wire border with nasty looking Macedonian border guards on the other side. The people got stuck in the mud literally because it was a big field, an agricultural field. There is a railroad crossing the border there. That was the place they hoped to cross.
“It was not an official UN site and the government said no, you cannot have a camp near the border, it is a military zone, it is private land, there is no access through, it is a horrible place, no water, no sewage, so they will have to be relocated, but there were no other places. So what to do with them? They said we don’t care, because they are not supposed to be there in the first place.”
MSF has about 200 people on site but only nine doctors and about 15 nurses. Van ‘t Land himself is not a medical doctor, but a biologist with a PhD in evolutionary genetics.
“We also provided tents, toilets, water and sanitation, sewage, and food distribution. You can imagine in one camp of 13,000 people, three meals a day is 39,000 meals you have to prepare somehow. We had 50 or 60 chemical toilets that have to be cleaned a few times every day, then they have to emptied, so you have to arrange trucks to empty them.”
Photo: Van ‘t Land says he conducted hundreds of media interviews at Idomeni (Photo contributed)
Why is MSF, a health care organization, doing all this non-medical work at Idomeni? Because no one else was, according to van ‘t Land.
“And you have to give them a bowl to eat from. Plastic bags have to be thrown somewhere so garbage is enormous. You have to run a town of 13,000 people. We had to rent the fields from the farmers. It was a very demanding logistical operation.”
As an example of the kinds of procurement MSF decided to do, they bought 9,000 wooden pallets on which to place tents during days of torrential rain.
His management job involved co-ordinating staff and volunteers to do hundreds of different tasks and spending money on the right things at the right time. He was also responsible for liaising with people like the unhappy mayor of the next town, the managers of overwhelmed nearby hospitals, and the farmers who were reluctant to receive payment for their land: “This is my land and I need to farm it. You cannot bribe me,” they said.
A seasoned veteran of difficult situations
Van ‘t Land said this is not the most difficult kind of liaising he’s done, and recalled working in Somalia “where you have to make very sure you have your security measures in place, you have to know who the most important war lords are and deal with them. You have to make deals and create a safe zone where you feel comfortable working.”
He has being doing similar work for MSF since 1999 and his list of jobs is so long he had to think hard to remember them all: Burma, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Somalia, Afghanistan, Kenya, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, India, Nepal, Pakistan.
His toughest assignment?
“Northern Uganda, because the Lord’s Resistance Army was there with crazy brainwashed 14-year-olds. You have to deal with child soldiers without a conscience who were kidnapped when they were three and have seen and done the most horrible things. You cannot deal with them, little roaming groups of boys. Terrible. After six months we had to stop the whole operation. Whatever we did was too dangerous.”
A preference for working in ‘very unwelcoming environments’
At the suggestion that perhaps he thrives on risky situations, van ‘t Land says, “No, I try to minimize risk. I don’t like risk. What I like is to work in very unwelcoming environments. It’s a challenge to make it work, to help people nobody else wants to help because it is [supposedly] impossible to help them, and to show that in fact it is possible if you do the right things with the right people. That is very satisfying. In Greece it was not difficult and not dangerous, but nobody wanted to do it.”
But his preferences might be changing. Van ‘t Land met his wife, Shelina Musaji, in 2004 on an MSF project. They moved to Nelson two and a half years ago after researching a number of attractive Canadian towns. Now they have two children, ages 5 and 8. She works as a doctor in Kaslo, and van ‘t Land says they are less inclined to do dangerous work in faraway places.
“In Greece I had to cry, seeing the 3 and 4 year olds. It is heartbreaking if you have children. You feel more. And at the same time it makes you more aware of the risks you are taking. It is not a place to have your children grow up. You need a safe environment, not a war zone.”
To see a short video of van ‘t Land talking about the camp, go to the online version of this story at nelsonstar.com.