Within the first week of arriving in Haiti for this deployment, I had already learned more on how to be a good NGO security manager than I did in Sudan. Remember, in Sudan I was on my own with CARE and did not have a mentor. Here, I had Alex, who guided me through much of what I would be doing from here on out in my career. Now, naturally being from a military background, and thinking security was a form of that, Alex quickly put me out of that. I showed up for work in the first couple of days looking more like a soldier than a humanitarian. This was a lesson quickly put to me…do not look military, we are civilians. From that moment forward, I have made a conscious effort to change my wardrobe and approach to be more of a civilian. This is a hard lesson to learn when former military personnel enter the humanitarian world, which you will see in coming posts.
Now that I was looking like a civilian in jeans and a t-shirt, my second lesson was about to be introduced – the VSB! What is a VSB? This is probably the single most important tool for anyone deploying into the field, no matter the context. The Visitors Security Brief, VSB, is what we provide in this profession to anyone who arrives within the first 24 hours. However, back in 2010, these were still in their infancy and not always being part of a pre-arrival package, something that would change over the course of the years. So, in 2010, we physically sat down with visitors and gave a brief. In the past, I would give context overviews to people at the embassy and in Darfur, but what Alex showed me was quite impressive. We covered not only context and personal security, but things like health, climate, operational areas, and more. Each day at 1600 we would gather all new arrivals in the “picnic” area of the CARE compound and deliver the brief. Alex did this the first couple of times while I watched and learned, then I took over just before he departed.
For me, the first 20 days were an absolute whirlwind of activities and learning. We would work from 0500 to 0100, 7 days a week. I can only imagine for those who were here since the onset going at this pace. If we were lucky, we could get in 4-5 hours of sleep per night and some of would take a 30-minute power nap in the afternoons simply to recharge. The next thing I would learn from Alex was physical site security, offices and warehouses. The CARE office compound in Petionville was an old stone house and was not affected by the earthquake. He took me through things like perimeter security, walls, fencing, etc. Lighting was also very important and with power in Haiti being inconsistent, generators were required.
Guest houses, or team homes needed to be secured as our staff began to grow. It was not sustainable for us all to sleep in different areas of the office. My next lesson was how to conduct a good building security assessment. We set off to look at a few potential houses to accommodate our staff. Alex was only with me for one assessment of which I took very good notes, so not to forget what to look for. We teamed up with the logistics department who had already made bookings to see potential houses. I learned how to negotiate with the owners on what our requirements were if we were going to rent a house and ensure that they performed most of the physical security requirements, such as walls and perimeter wire. As you can imagine, most owners wanted us to perform these requirements as it boosts their property when we leave. At times, the rent would go up accordingly if they had to do the work…but good negotiating helped.
Warehouse security was another thing in itself. The CARE warehouse was another area that required positive security. Located in an area not far from Toussaint Louverture International Airport, where crime was higher and due to frequent looting, extra security was vital. As the warehouse contained essential items for distribution to those in need, it needed to be well protected. Not only did we store non-food items such as mattresses, mosquito netting and cook sets, but also food items, which were more valuable. This required full time 24/7 security protection from armed guards.
Normally, INGO’s do not like to use guards that are armed, where possible, yet in Haiti this was an absolute requirement. There are standards that humanitarian actors must follow that are set out in the Oslo Guidelines of 2015 in the Civil-Military Coordination Officer Field Handbook (We had the 2007 version). CARE, and most other INGO’s used armed (or forced) protection in their offices, team houses, warehouses and distribution sites. National security companies were limited and seemed to grow following the earthquake with the demand. That said, to this day I am not sure if half the guards were trained how to use the rusty old shotguns they were provided, or if they actually worked. A few carried side arms, but the weapon of choice was the shotgun. For most security incidents, guards were instructed to fire into the air as a deterrent if required and not shoot at people. Hearing gunfire in the night was not uncommon and a night without gunfire was like a day without sunshine. My biggest concern was weapon management, or lack of it.
Near the end of the first 20 days, our warehouse had been broken into…probably for the 4th time by this point, but that did result in a fatality. Sadly, someone had broken the rear wall and was stealing mattresses for his family to sleep on. The guards called it in to the PNH (Haitian National Police) who were actually quite quick to respond. As the gentlemen was exiting the hole he had created with a mattress, the police told him to stop and were pointing their weapons at him. His reaction was to put the mattress up to his chest, as if to protect himself, which made an officer jump. The next thing was a gunshot, which the mattress was unable to stop, penetrating the would-be thief and killing him. When I responded with the logistics team the next morning, the body had been removed, but the blood-soaked mattress was still on the ground amongst the other mattress that had been taken through the hole. The photos below show what was taken through the hole.
As is in Haiti, it was forgotten almost as fast as it happened without any afterthought. Life went on and in some areas, the people tried to continue life as normal, selling paintings and souvenirs. But this was not all in the first 20 days, the biggest adventure is coming next.
Next – Haiti Food Distribution