Humanitarian Mission in Danger for Robbery Threat

A humanitarian mission put at risk because of non-state armed groups. Paramedic safety is mandatory, but aggressions are challenging to prevent. The #AMBULANCE! community started in 2016 analyzing some cases. This is a #Crimefriday story to learn better how to save your body, your team and your ambulance from a "bad day in the office"!

Frequent episodes of criminality bother daily life, and in some cases, they can interfere also prehospital activities and humanitarian missions.

medical doctor involved in emergency service, who experienced journeys in sub-Saharan African regions for a large humanitarian organization declared that episodes of robbery and kidnapping are very frequent. The aim was of the humanitarian mission was to evaluate the management of war wounded by different actors, from local red cross branches to health centresdistrict hospitalstraditional healers, local groups and local leaders. But the threat of armed groups is always present.

During this mission, he and his team had to visit remote hospitals, field stations and red cross local branches. He was part of a small evaluation team (two experts) and had to focus on the prehospital part.
Insecurity in the area is marked by the presence of numerous State and Non-State Armed Groups while the military/political situation evolves fastly. A nurse in a remote station summarized the political situation saying that “each hill has his own landlord and they are doing very bad things for very little reasons.” It is considered an armed conflict.
Security is highly taken into consideration in the organization for the humanitarian mission, especially in case of field expedition. There are security rules to be followed, constantly updated. A field expedition is not launched if no clearance has made by the staff in charge of regular field contacts with communities, state or non-state armed groups of their geographical area. They monitor the level of risk in the field which is highly volatile.
Our organization never uses any security escort while moving and bases its security on its acceptance within the different actors. The organization, that works for more than 60 years in the context, systematically reports and analyses security incidents. Among examples, robberies are common but the acceptance of the emblem is generally good compared to other contexts. There are also reports of ambulances (in the general term, it could be people with a stretcher) being stuck for hours in a check-point and had to pay for going back home). Main perpetrators are robbers (local communities, criminal gangs) and non-state armed groups, among them militias. In the present context, there was intelligence reporting a higher robbery risk in the whole area, without any precise threat in terms of geographical area or group.

THE CASE – During the evaluation, we had to do a field trip in the area, travelling with two organization’s 4×4 cars, marked with their symbol of neutrality. There was no security escort. A security assessment had been done using both overt intelligence and direct contacts with field representatives of communities, UN, state and non-state armed groups of the area. Especially for a humanitarian mission.
On the second day of the journey, during the early afternoon, we just finished visiting a Médecins sans Frontières-supported hospital. Local leaders in the village near the hospital reported that there were robbers just in front of the road and that we had to be careful.

Suddenly, our two cars had to stop their way just after the exit of the village. A few miles further, a car preceding us was stopped by robbers and had to go back. It was an international Non-Governmental Organization car with 4 people inside.
We could not jeopardize our security and go on, deciding to stop and wait. It was the only way going to our destination. There was a short internal discussion about what to do and to decide in case of no improvement of the situation. It was decided to spend the night in the village.

Fortunately, three police cars coming from the village, called by the NGO that was robbed overtook us, going to the place of the robbery. Two hours after, they came back. The police pick-up (open jeep) suddenly braked and one police officer fell from the car, the gun going to the ground, the cannon just in front of my face. Fortunately, the weapon did not discharge.
The police officer in charge of the small detachment in the pick-up gave us the green light to go on, the road been cleared when the police force was there. We went on, using frequent radio contact (5 by 5 minutes) with the headquarters during the crossing of the sensitive place. The atmosphere was quite heavy, everyone silent, looking at the road.

We learnt after those robbers were constituted of local people, living in a settlement outside of the village and having difficult links with them. No one was injured but the outcome could have been worst.
In summary, the two cars had to stop for three hours before proceeding, once access was granted by police forces. We did not see anyone (or at least did not notice) belonging to the robbers’ community along the road, the way to our destination.

ANALYSIS – The first consequence was obviously a delay of a few hours in the conduct of the evaluation mission. Fortunately, the people in charge of the field trip had planned to keep clear slots in our schedule so we did not miss any appointment that could have to jeopardize our evaluation mission and result into false conclusions in our report. We managed to arrive in our next field base before the night, avoiding to furthermore hamper our security. We did not have any contingency plan in case we had to stop and would have improvised a trip back in the village, where our organization had a small base.
The second consequence was the stress raising among members of the evaluation mission. Everybody was silent, observing the road during the trip in the sensitive area. But there was no conflict or harsh words inside the team, which stood together. Situational awareness was higher as frequent (5 minutes by 5 minutes).

High-Frequency radio contact was maintained with the operational headquarters in Goma and occasional Very High-Frequency radio contact between the two cars. A short and informal discussion at destination allowed us to debrief on the case.
This incident had finally not serious direct consequences. No one was injured and it was considered a common incident. But it was reported both internally and externally, notably shared with MSF-supported hospital staff. It was another security incident, raising insecurity level among local and international staff, as well as, probably, inside the local village.

One year and a half later, in December 2015, due to the kidnapping of two of its staff near the MSF-supported hospital (they were released one day later but the equipment was stolen), not far but in another road than the one we took months before, MSF had to close its program. It was reopened again in April 2016 when sufficient security guarantees were obtained from State and Non-State Armed Groups in the region.

CONCLUSION – Key lessons, in this case, are that insecurity incident is not always predictable, particularly when there is a background constant level of insecurity due to several illegal activities. Keeping contacts with Non-State Armed Groups is not easy when they are not really structured and that the political situation is highly volatile, marked by the appearance/disappearance of new armed actors in the region. But still, knowing the geographical, economic, ethnic, historical, social and political issues of a particular region can help to understand potential risks for security.
Finally, no one knew about the community involved in the robbery attemptPolice and local people said they were acting illegally due to economic reasons and poverty. There was no sign of any political activity but who knows? Were there any difficult links to the nearest village? Had they access the MSF supported hospital? Were there looking specifically at the car in front of ours?

Let’s say that the immediate action of the team following the event was good. We stopped. We knew that in case of red light, we could spend another night in the village. We looked for other information and waited for the green light to be given to go on to our way. During the following hour, constant contact was kept with our headquarters. Even that, one could stand that we could have better assessed the local situation and especially the presence of communities along the road that could be in potential conflict with the village we were crossing. Including the most recent reports and news from local leaders and law enforcement actors.

During this humanitarian mission, he and his team had to visit remote hospitals, field stations and red cross local branches. He was part of a small evaluation team (two experts) and had to focus on the prehospital part.
Insecurity in the area is marked by the presence of numerous State and Non-State Armed Groups while the military/political situation evolves fastly. A nurse in a remote station summarized the political situation saying that “each hill has his own landlord and they are doing very bad things for very little reasons.”

It is considered an armed conflict.
Security is highly taken into consideration in the organization, especially in case of field expedition. There are security rules to be followed, constantly updated. A field expedition is not launched if no clearance has made by the staff in charge of regular field contacts with communities, state or non-state armed groups of their geographical area. They monitor the level of risk in the field which is highly volatile.
Our organization never uses any security escort while moving and bases its security on its acceptance within the different actors. The organization, that works for more than 60 years in the context, systematically reports and analyses security incidents. Among examples, robberies are common but the acceptance of the emblem is generally good compared to other contexts. There are also reports of ambulances (in the general term, it could be people with a stretcher) being stuck for hours in a check-point and had to pay for going back home). Main perpetrators are robbers (local communities, criminal gangs) and non-state armed groups, among them militias. In the present context, there was intelligence reporting a higher robbery risk in the whole area, without any precise threat in terms of geographical area or group.

THE CASE – During the evaluation, we had to do a field trip in the area, travelling with two organization’s 4×4 cars, marked with their symbol of neutrality. There was no security escort. A security assessment had been done using both overt intelligence and direct contacts with field representatives of communities, UN, state and non-state armed groups of the area.
On the second day of the journey, during the early afternoon, we just finished visiting a Médecins sans Frontières-supported hospital. Local leaders in the village near the hospital reported that there were robbers just in front of the road and that we had to be careful.

Suddenly, our two cars had to stop their way just after the exit of the village. A few miles further, a car preceding us was stopped by robbers and had to go back. It was an international Non-Governmental Organization car with 4 people inside.
We could not jeopardize our security and go on, deciding to stop and wait. It was the only way going to our destination. There was a short internal discussion about what to do and to decide in case of no improvement of the situation. It was decided to spend the night in the village.

Fortunately, three police cars coming from the village, called by the NGO that was robbed overtook us, going to the place of the robbery. Two hours after, they came back. The police pick-up (open jeep) suddenly braked and one police officer fell from the car, the gun going to the ground, the cannon just in front of my face. Fortunately, the weapon did not discharge.
The police officer in charge of the small detachment in the pick-up gave us the green light to go on, the road been cleared when the police force was there. We went on, using frequent radio contact (5 by 5 minutes) with the headquarters during the crossing of the sensitive place. The atmosphere was quite heavy, everyone silent, looking at the road.

We learnt after those robbers were constituted of local people, living in a settlement outside of the village and having difficult links with them. No one was injured but the outcome could have been worst.
In summary, the two cars had to stop for three hours before proceeding, once access was granted by police forces. We did not see anyone (or at least did not notice) belonging to the robbers’ community along the road, the way to our destination.

ANALYSIS – The first consequence was obviously a delay of a few hours in the conduct of the evaluation mission. Fortunately, the people in charge of the field trip had planned to keep clear slots in our schedule so we did not miss any appointment that could have to jeopardize our evaluation mission and result into false conclusions in our report. We managed to arrive in our next field base before the night, avoiding to furthermore hamper our security. We did not have any contingency plan in case we had to stop and would have improvised a trip back in the village, where our organization had a small base.
The second consequence was the stress raising among members of the evaluation mission. Everybody was silent, observing the road during the trip in the sensitive area. But there was no conflict or harsh words inside the team, which stood together. Situational awareness was higher as frequent (5 minutes by 5 minutes).

High-Frequency radio contact was maintained with the operational headquarters in Goma and occasional Very High-Frequency radio contact between the two cars. A short and informal discussion at destination allowed us to debrief on the case.
This incident had finally not serious direct consequences. No one was injured and it was considered a common incident. But it was reported both internally and externally, notably shared with MSF-supported hospital staff. It was another security incident, raising insecurity level among local and international staff, as well as, probably, inside the local village.

One year and a half later, in December 2015, due to the kidnapping of two of its staff near the MSF-supported hospital (they were released one day later but the equipment was stolen), not far but in another road than the one we took months before, MSF had to close its program. It was reopened again in April 2016 when sufficient security guarantees were obtained from State and Non-State Armed Groups in the region.

CONCLUSION – Key lessons, in this case, are that insecurity incident is not always predictable, particularly when there is a background constant level of insecurity due to several illegal activities. Keeping contacts with Non-State Armed Groups is not easy when they are not really structured and that the political situation is highly volatile, marked by the appearance/disappearance of new armed actors in the region. But still, knowing the geographical, economic, ethnic, historical, social and political issues of a particular region can help to understand potential risks for security.
Finally, no one knew about the community involved in the robbery attemptPolice and local people said they were acting illegally due to economic reasons and poverty. There was no sign of any political activity but who knows? Were there any difficult links to the nearest village? Had they access the MSF supported hospital? Were there looking specifically at the car in front of ours?

Let’s say that the immediate action of the team following the event was good. We stopped. We knew that in case of red light, we could spend another night in the village. We looked for other information and waited for the green light to be given to go on to our way. During the following hour, constant contact was kept with our headquarters. Even that, one could stand that we could have better assessed the local situation and especially the presence of communities along the road that could be in potential conflict with the village we were crossing. Including the most recent reports and news from local leaders and law enforcement actors.

READ ALL THE CRIME FRIDAY REPORT!

 

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