“I have experienced many aftershocks. After the tsunami in Aceh, Indonesia, we had them the whole time. I was even there when the Nias earthquake near Sumatra happened. In these cases, I was either sitting at my desk or lying down in bed. But when you lie in a tent on a very thin mat, this feels completely different, somehow more threatening”, says Jürgen, commenting on the first aftershocks he experienced sleeping in a tent in Sindhupalchowk district, in Nepal, where he and I went to distribute relief material. By the end of the 3-day trip, we were both used to them, and could sleep through the night without being bothered too much.
Jürgen Mika, member of the Welthungerhilfe Emergency Response Team (ERT), arrived in Nepal on 2 May, to join the other two ERT-members, Birgit Zeitler and Rüdiger Ehrler. They had been in Kathmandu just two days after the earthquake struck Nepal on 25 April 2015, causing so far more than 8,000 deaths and severely damaging almost 290,000 buildings. Jürgen is part of the Welthungerhilfe ERT since 2006. He has seen his fair share of natural disasters, wars and extremely dramatic situations. Each context is different, and so are the impacts of the disaster, the needs of the population, and the cultural differences to take into considerations. But one thing remains the same: the way the Emergency Response Team functions. “We are professionals”, explains Jürgen. "We know the drill and we know how to get things done. You need experience, so that things that seem to be complicated become routine, and you know from the day you arrive what you are supposed to do."
“Logistics is the biggest challenge”
And this is exactly how it went in Nepal too. Landed in Kathmandu at 6 a.m., Jürgen had time only for a cold shower in the hotel (hot water became available only later in the week) and a quick update from Birgit and Rüdiger; after that, he immediately went to the airport again, to attend the Logistics Cluster Meeting.“By now, I know a lot of people in this field, so I know where and whom to go to, when I need something.” An immediate outcome of Jürgen ’s ability to use his old and new connections was the satellite phone and BGAN (a small, light-weight satellite terminal that allowed us to connect to the internet, when in the middle of the most remote Nepali villages) he came back with, given to us for free through the Emergency Telecommunication team.
In Nepal, Jürgen mostly looked into logistics but in his several years of work, he has taken on almost every role, according to what the situation required: "We all have a certain field we are specialized in, but we also need to be able to replace each other. You have to be flexible in these situations and able to adapt to whatever the situation requires”, he explains to me.
His first two days in Kathmandu Jürgen spent entirely at the airport, waiting for our tarpaulins to arrive from Dubai and taking care of the custom clearance process and storage procedures. “Logistics”, he says “is always the biggest challenge in these emergencies: getting the material in and making sure it reaches the beneficiaries. Whether it is because the destinations are small islands like in the Philippines, or because the infrastructure is completely destroyed like in Haiti, or because of landslides and bad mountain roads like in Nepal – the problem is the same, and you need to know how to respond, but also how to be patient, as there is often a lot of waiting to do, in these cases.“ Once our load finally arrived Jürgen arranged for the transport of our material to Sindhupalchowk; another quick visit to the airport, and he managed to secure some trucks from the World Food Programme.
“It is not the images of destruction that I take with me, but the good things that happened”
Our trip to the mountainy area of Sindhupalchowk was not without difficulties; we never knew where we would spend the night, ended setting up our tents always in the dark, spent hours packed in a car with 8 people on very bumpy roads and had to get off more than once, either to enable our car to drive through a particularly hard spot or to push a pick-up that had gotten stuck in front of us. On the last stretch of the trip, Jürgen had to sit on top of the load of blankets that the truck was carrying, because there was no more space in the cabin. The roads were so narrow and so bumpy – and the slopes so steep – that he preferred to get off and walk the remaining distance. Cutting through the fields, he made it to the village before the truck came. “The trip was quite hard, even for someone as experienced as me. But I knew that once back, I would end up laughing about it. And that’s exactly how it went: I now have definitely a lot of stories to tell to my family and friends when I am back in Germany”, he says, laughing as he remembers those days. This trip, he shares, will be the fondest memory of his short stay in Nepal.
In the end, it’s not important what we went through. What matters is that we reached the really needy people. It wasn’t easy for us, but it has been much harder for them these past weeks. And we managed to offer them some shelter, some comfort – this repays me of any difficulties I might have had on the way.
“When I go back from a mission”, he continues “it is not the images of destruction that I take with me, but the good things that happened: the support we managed to give to the affected population, the generosity and friendliness of the people I met.” This must be the only way, I think to myself, to cope with such a demanding job, where the emotional and mental stress is as high, if not more, than the physical one.
Jürgen left Nepal on 11 May, only two days after having been back from Sindhupalchowk, where he coordinated the distribution of 2,000 tarpaulins and blankets to three of the most remote areas in the district. After a short stop at home, to see his wife and his two little girls, he is then off to Pakistan, for a 3-week training on pre-disaster market assessment. After that, he still doesn’t know where he will go – Iraq, or maybe South Sudan. “I never know what comes next, but I love my job, so I will go where I am needed”, he concludes. I can see from his face that he means it. His brain is already switching country, ready for the next assignment and for the next challenge.