Into the Lions’ Den

Syria (by Rodrigo Abd)

Into the lions’ den


Last updated 05:00 22/07/2012


She is a veteran pf war-torn countries and has ventured into the unknown to one of the most unstable places in the world – Syria.


Judy Owen has a cosy wee home in Auckland’s Onehunga. The living room is small and neat, warmed by a heat pump.

The walls are adorned with paintings she’s picked up from Ethiopia and Cambodia – there is a kiln from Afghanistan in one corner and a glittering little miniature Pakistani truck in another. On the bench lays a map of Syria – her next destination.

Owen sounds like an adventure tourist. She’s not. She’s the only Kiwi Red Cross worker in Syria, assigned to do work in the country that has endured serious internal fighting since March last year.

Last week, the International Committee of the Red Cross announced a state of civil war after a rebel bomb killed three leaders of the regime, including the brother-in-law of President Bashar al-Assad.

Owen is in the thick of it. We were unable to contact her following the explosion, but we did speak to ICRC media delegate Cecilia Goin, who is based in Syria. Goin says the situation in Damascus has definitely got “more tense and volatile” this past week.

“We are all in our houses – just to be safe. The city is very quiet – very quiet. We are OK. We’re just taking the necessary measures not to be out walking on the street. There is no need to be out in the circumstances. It is better to be at home watching TV. We are just following the event. We don’t know what’s going to happen,” she says.

Weeks earlier, Whanganui-born Owen seemed calm. It was just days before she flew to Geneva for briefings, then to Damascus.

She’s done it all before. At 58, she has been doing it for more than 30 years, because, quite simply, she knows she has a skill that can make a difference.

She rattles off a list of places she’s worked: Somalia, Afghanistan, former Yugoslavia, North Caucasus, Uganda, Indonesia and the Sudan. And warns she may have left some out.

It’s life-threatening work, but “I don’t know if I fear for my life”, she says.

“There’s always going to be a scenario that someone is going to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but I have a great deal of faith in the Red Cross.

“I know that once I leave Onehunga and go to Damascus, I’m going into a conflict area. I know that.”

T HERE ARE eight New Zealand Red Cross aid workers in a medical capacity in conflict areas around the world. Owing to her experience and expertise, Owen is the only one who has been sent to Syria. A lot has changed in the 32 years she has been doing aid work. Where once there were two sides to a conflict, there are now often several. Her role has changed too.

“With the first contracts I did we looked after the wounded, but in the early 90s they changed our job description and we became known as a health delegate. We started checking people who were detained and there was a lot more emphasis on public health work.

“For example, if you’ve got a village of 5000 people that have got caught up in the fighting, we might have to move them 50 kilometres down the road. So you put them in a field and have to provide shelter, food and water,” she says.

“And clearly if there is someone shot in front of you, you’ve got to be able to throw in an IV line and stop the bleeding, so there’s a lot more layers to it. The French have a word for it which is polyvalent – it means multi-skilled. In New Zealand, we’d say jacks of all trades.”

The nature of her work means Owens is always in danger.

“I’ve been caught up in tough situations. I was in Sri Lanka when the Sri Lankan air force came over and dropped bombs on this little village. It was old-fashioned bombing too – like World War II stuff, where they opened the doors and the bombs came down.

“I saw them come out – that’s how close I was. I couldn’t even talk, my voice was so shaky, but I managed to rally the troops and we evacuated all the wounded to the hospital. That shook me up for quite a few days,” she says.

She’s also been held up at knifepoint in Libya for her laptop and at gunpoint in Bosnia. And although being a woman can have its setbacks in a conflict zone, it does have its advantages.

“I think it can be a positive thing. As I’ve got older, people see me as a middle-age woman and sometimes that can work in my advantage.

“I’m clearly not a threat to anyone. Sometimes people can see there is a little bit of experience and perhaps a tiny bit of wisdom tossed in there, too. It can open doors.”

A dark wooden bookshelf lines a wall of her home and hosts a vast collection of books. There’s Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom and Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East.

She loves to read and has a passion for international affairs and politics. She could be a politician herself. Her steely gaze is unwavering and prying any intimate details from her takes some doing. She knows the party line too and as a representative of the Red Cross says everything they’d want her to say about neutrality and impartiality.

She paints them in a good light. How could she not? The International Red Cross has been assisting in conflict zones since its creation in the 19th century and continues to do so today.

When overseas, Owen works 10 to 12-hour days with very few days off. She only wears 100 per cent cotton clothing and carries a backpack with her “lucky mascot”, a little fluffy kiwi, on it for protection.

Packing, leaving and returning are all part of her everyday life – a life which appears rather solitary. She lives alone, has never married and has no children. She had a cat that died after 20-odd years and now she plays with her neighbour’s cat.

When she returns from a stint overseas, she catches up with friends, goes for walks, listens to the radio and reads. It’s these things that anchor her back to normality. Sometimes it’s more difficult than others to sink back into a more normal, more comfortable lifestyle.

“You become totally involved in what you’re doing over there and all of sudden you have to take a deep breath and disconnect yourself,” she says.

“I have to confess, I was a bit disconnected when I came back [after a year in Darfur in 2007]. But I decided a few years ago that if I was going to continue doing this work, I would have to set up safeguards. One of those safeguards is that I never compare.

“So when I come home I’ll go out for lunch and dinners and I don’t compare what people did or didn’t have. If I compare all the time, say to myself, ‘Oh, I won’t go out and have a coffee with my friends because people are starving in the country I just came from’, I wouldn’t have lasted doing this job.”

There are few, in fact, who have endured as long as Owen. The job certainly comes with sacrifice. She notes missing milestones – family events, friends’ birthday parties – before admitting to “some missed opportunities” in her life.

But I’ve decided to go,” she says. “That’s a choice I’ve made.”

In her 20s, Owen used to party both before and after an overseas aid trip. She would also crave a cheeseburger and vanilla thickshake upon her return. Now she craves a good coffee. Times have changed. Owen has aged, her once strawberry blonde hair is grey. As a self-confessed homebody, she likes her quiet time and admits to becoming a little bit more reflective on things than she used to be.

In February she’ll return from Syria to recommence her job at Auckland Hospital and resume her gentle life in suburbia.

She shows no signs of grinding to a halt. “I never say never. I’m conscious I’m maturing in my years, but while I have my health and energy and the interest, I’ll just quietly keep going.”

– © Fairfax NZ News



We can all be great, because we can all serve others in some way.”

– Dr Martin-Luther-King, Jr (and Mother Teresa)


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One Response to “Into the Lions’ Den”

  1. craiglock Says:

    Reblogged this on Brave Journalists and Reporters.


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