The UN Learned Nothing from Past Evacuation Disasters
In 2008, I was working for the UN in Kilinochchi, northern Sri Lanka. At that time, Kilinochchi, a small town of a few thousand people, was the headquarters of the Liberation Tigers of the Tamel Eelam (LTTE). One of their offices was right next door to our compound. We were a small staff of three internationals and about fifteen local staff. Technically, the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE had signed a peace agreement, but with nightly bombardments in the jungles to the south of us, along the Demilitarized Zone that separated northern Sri Lanka from the government-controlled south, nobody thought the peace would last.
Our Head of Office asked me to be the UN security focal point. This might sound surprising, as I am a lawyer with zero security experience, but someone had to be in charge of our “evacuation plan,” in case war broke out and we needed to evacuate. Not surprisingly, nobody else wanted the job. Why did I agree? I couldn’t tell you now. I literally cannot remember why I agreed to be in charge of security for the office. But I did, and that is how I found myself driving around town with one of our local staff, making a map of everyone’s house.
It didn’t take even a total novice like me long to realize we only had four Landcruisers in the office and a minimum of 18 people to evacuate, not counting staff families, the drivers and the cleaning and cooking staff. I wrote to headquarters to ask for more guidance. If we had to evacuate, would they send more cars? Who made the list? What about our local partners? What did we tell the people we would have to leave behind? The office informed me we would have to make multiple trips in the car, driving back and forth across the heavily militarized “de-militarized zone.” Who knew if the checkpoint would even be open? The LTTE were not known for their willingness to allow people to simply cross back and forth at will. Not to mention the fact that any government invasion would come from the south, via the route we would be trying to use to escape, and likely involve both ground troops and air support.
We repainted the giant “UN” symbol on the roof. Someone got out the dusty flak jackets, but cut out the plastic parts so they could go into the laundry machine. I put on one of the few, remaining, intact flak jackets, but it was so big, it came down to my knees. I had a meeting with some of the local staff about evacuating by boat. How many boats would we need? How could we get the boats? How would we get to the boats? Finally, I abandoned the boat idea as unworkable.
A few weeks later, the government began bombing Kilinochchi. Every few days, jet bombers would fly over head and drop bombs on various buildings, usually out in the woods, but sometimes in town. One UN staff member was hit on the head by a flying piece of shrapnel while running to his bunker. Whenever a plane flew overhead, people would rush towards our compound and stand outside the wall until the bombing was over. We weren’t allowed to open the gates. The LTTE had a meeting in their office next to our compound. I ran, yelling, out of the front gate: “Get away from our compound!” They looked at me sympathetically, then got into their car and drove away.
Around this time, I received an email from UN headquarters — if we had to evacuate, I must bring all the computers in the car with me. It was imperative that the computers not be left behind. I ignored this message. The LTTE sent us a letter — we were to inform them of all of our movements, including any plans to evacuate. I also ignored this message.
A security officer showed up from headquarters to inspect our bunker. He laughed when he saw it. “This thing could fall down at any moment. During the next bombing, I would get in that ditch over there. It’s way safer.” Then he left. During the next bombing, I got in the bunker because that’s what everyone else was doing and the bottom of the ditch was full of dirty water.
A few weeks after that, I traveled to the capital, Colombo, for a workshop on our activities. At the checkpoint, government soldiers went through all my bags and confiscated my contact lenses. The meeting wasn’t a success. Our office had no more activities. We couldn’t leave the compound because of the bombings and everywhere we went, people kept asking us what the UN “was going to do to stop the war.” I got tired of telling people the answer: “nothing”.
During the workshop, I interrupted everyone else’s Powerpoint presentations, telling them over and over again about the bombings, about the lack of an evacuation plan, about the ominous LTTE letter. My tone was shrill. I could tell by everyone’s faces that they thought I was loosing it. After the workshop, two senior staff took me for a drink at the bar of the five star hotel where we were staying. They told me they were worried I “wasn’t coping.” They told me that maybe aid work wasn’t for me. I went back to Kilinochchi, packed my bags, and quit. Before climbing into the Landcruiser for the last time, I sent a strongly worded email to headquarters, protesting the unsafe, insane work conditions and the lack of a clear, workable evacuation plan. No one ever replied. Touché.
Nine months later, the UN finally evacuated their offices in Kilinochchi. The town had been under non-stop bombardment for days. Most of the local staff were left behind with their families. Many ended up trapped in the north-east during the final government assault. Some died. Other staff who got out were arrested by the government and thrown in jail. After the debacle, the UN conducted an investigation and pledged to do better in the future.
Today, Politico published an article on the utter failure of the UN evacuation in Afghanistan. It all sounds very familiar to me.