Close calls as an aid worker


Ahead of World Humanitarian Day, we asked Abdullah Ampilan what life is like as an aid worker. Here, he shares some of the scrapes he has encountered in the line of duty. But, please, no one mention it to his mum!

Abdullah Ampilan at work in South Sudan.

Abdullah Ampilan at work in South Sudan.

“My son, I pray for you wherever you are,” says my mother during our last conversation over the phone a few days ago. Since I started working outside the Philippines, my mother worries every time I am deployed. She is well acquainted with the challenges and uncertainties about my work as a humanitarian worker as we were displaced as children due to conflict on my home island of Mindanao.

I always reassure my mother that aid workers are well looked after with all kinds of policies and security measures in place to keep us safe. However, there are a couple of stories I don’t tell her; I’ll share them with you now…

Scorpions and wild bees in South Sudan

In 2010, I was in a remote State of Warrap in South Sudan when conflicts between warring tribes broke out nearby. There were on and off conflicts at the borders between Sudan and South Sudan, which added to our tensions. We monitored the situation everyday and we were ready to execute our evacuation plan when needed. 

My left foot was paralysed and I was in extreme pain for 10 hours.

As well as conflict, the people of Warrap State also face danger from natural hazards. The dry season, which usually lasts for 6 months in South Sudan, is one of the most difficult challenges that people face annually.

During this period, water becomes very scarce and very long queues formed at the hand pumps we constructed, as people and their livestock were so desperate for water. Even the smallest creatures were competing for water and there were incidents of wild bees attacking households and injuring people in their quest to find water.

Whilst living in a tukul (a traditional hut, made of mud, timbers and grasses) I was stung by scorpions – twice! The first time it happened, I thought that it was the end of my journey: the pain was the strongest I’d ever experienced. My left foot was paralysed and I was in extreme pain for 10 hours. There was no anti-venom vaccine and I refused to drink pain killer because I wanted to monitor the pain so that I would know if it started radiating towards my heart. I prayed to God and was ready to accept any eventuality, but I was terrified.

Heat and missing passports in Pakistan

In 2011, I was part of the humanitarian assistance in Pakistan responding to the worst flood in the history of that country. Life was not easy, especially during summer when temperatures in Sindh Province reached 48 degrees celsius. There was a problem with electricity and at night my room temperature hit a stifling 39 degrees – so I resorted to sleeping on the roof!

We were often evacuated hurriedly due to insecurities in the area. One of the unforgettable experiences was when Bin Laden was reported to have been killed in the northern part of the country. There were tensions everywhere and many offices closed for security reasons. Unfortunately for me, my passport was in Islamabad awaiting a new visa when the government offices decided to suspend work. I was very worried thinking that if we had to evacuate I could get stuck at the airport with no passport!

Locked down in Afghanistan

I have never regretted my decision and I’m happy to be doing one of ‘the world’s most dangerous jobs.
Whilst in Afghanistan in 2012, my team was greeted with news about suicide bombings, road side bombs and fire fights almost every day. We were locked down in our guest houses on many occasions because of the insecurities. Despite the situation, I was able to travel to remote provinces deep into the mountains and valleys for my work. There I found serenity: people busy with farm work and livelihood activities who seemed to sense no sign of the troubles. I often still think of the ordinary Afghan children, men and women who are working hard to make both ends meet in the face of many challenges.

At the moment, I am in Liberia, which is relatively peaceful after the peace agreement of 2003 ended 20 years of civil war. On World Humanitarian Day I will think of my fellow humanitarian workers who are in less peaceful locations and especially the communities that they work alongside.

Being an aid worker is a long way from my original career of teaching. In 2000 the government declared an ‘all-out war’ on the Muslim separatists in Mindanao. One million people were displaced and I heard about their suffering every day on TV and on the radio, it was then that I decided to work with those affected by conflict.

Despite the scorpion bites, the discomfort and the uncertainty I have never regretted by decision and I’m happy to be doing one of ‘the world’s most dangerous jobs. ‘ Although, of course, I’d never describe it like that to my mother!

Abdullah Ampilan

Abdullah Ampilan

Abdullah (aka Duoi) started his journey as a community and humanitarian aid worker with Oxfam in Mindanao, Philippines in 2002. He left his comfort zone as a teacher and a nurse to do humanitarian and development work in and outside of his country mostly with Oxfam. He loves writing stories of people and places where he works. He is inspired by the efforts of ordinary women, men and children affected by disasters and conflicts in rebuilding their lives and livelihood.