Flying the Red-Eye to Fiji

Fiji - At 6.00am the cargo freight plane appeared on the horizon of first light. There were whoops and cheers all round. In a matter of minutes this tangible excitement soon dissolved as serious discussions about unloading and transport ensued.

A mere 48 hours prior I hadn’t even received the green light to join the surge team. And there I was, assisting with the loading of 81 tonnes of relief items onto the back of 11 articulated lorries – or rather, wrestling with deceptively heavy tarpaulins whilst sweating profusely in the early morning sun in a concerted bid to keep pace with the well drilled army guys who were orchestrating the show. All the while, trying not to show a glimpse of fatigue as the media focused intently capturing our every move.

In the early hours of 11 March I was deployed from the IOM PNG mission to join the Fiji Cyclone Winston Emergency response Surge Team. Having just come to the end of a long field mission in Papua New Hionea my energy was running low – however, with a rub of my eyes and caffeine levels teetering on red, my bag was packed, passport stamped and I was en route for Nadi, Fiji. I’d planned on recouping some much needed sleep on the plane, but what transpired were restless thoughts on the situation I was soon to be catapulted into. Questions floated through my mind in an endless cycle – “How many people were in desperate need of assistance?” “With IOM’s recent presence in the country what exactly were we planning and how would we be received?” – I’ll spare you the rest…

More than 80 metric tons of relief aid has been delivered and unloaded at the Fiji airport, and is now ready to be sent to the cyclone-affected Fijians. © IOM 2016

The flight was seamless as I was entranced with picturesque views of undulating tropical forests hugging the coast lines of the many idyllic pacific islands we passed. As we approached the Western fringe of Fiji the devastation wrought by Cyclone Winston became all too visible. With a lump in my throat I gazed out of the aeroplane window scanning the endless expanse of desolated villages and leaf bare trees.

Permanent houses that once sheltered families from the elements have been reduced to nothing more than undefinable debris strewn across the land. No situational report or newspaper article prepares you for a viewing of that sort. I couldn’t help but wonder – “What exactly am I about to walk into?”

Two government workers unload some of the boxes of supplies destined for the families affected by the Cyclone Winston last month. © IOM 2016

Having arrived at the hotel and after polite introductions to the whole team it was straight down to business... 81 tonnes of relief type-of business. Arieta Moceica (Head of IOM Office Fiji): “54,000 people have been evacuated and are residing in over 700 evacuation centres. The government is keen to get the children back into schools and learning again as soon as possible, but the return process is not yet clear. How are we going to ensure this consignment will still reach those who are no longer in the evacuation centres?” As the CCCM/DTM Officer, tracking and understanding mobility patterns is my area of expertise. That question is just one of many that myself and the team are now grappling with on a daily basis.

The relief items from IOM’s Global Administrative Centre in Manila were to arrive at Nadi airport the following morning with the ETA still to be determined. We planned to be at the airport for its arrival, but without an exact ETA, nerves from my colleagues were becoming palpable. With final preparations made, the team parted ways and went to rest in preparation for an early start.

IOM Emergency Coordinator George Gigauri examines a temporary shelter build by a family whose home on remote Taveuni island was destroyed in Cyclone Winston which hit Fiji last month. © IOM 2016

Resigned to a deep sleep I was awoken by the chiming of my hotel phone. With a zombie-like stagger I the answered the call to be greeted by a croaky yet authoritative voice – “Aaron, is this you? We are leaving for the airport at 5.30am, let’s meet at 5.00am in the lobby, be ready.” Without the promise of breakfast or a decent night’s sleep I lay back on the bed and couldn’t help but raise a smile… it was action time.

With the media in tow we waltzed through the airport shoulder to shoulder like movie stars. Special entry badges pinned to our IOM jackets permitted us to walk straight out onto the runway. And sure enough within 15 minutes the aeroplane was in full view, glimmering orange in the fresh hours of dawn.

The operation went very smoothly and within 3 hours all trucks were loaded and in convoy to a government warehouse in Suva. IOM and the Fijian Government are gelling very well. The promising outlook has forced any remaining levels of apprehension into excitement with the prospect of all this relief reaching those most in need – after all, being an IOMer this is the sort of stuff I yearn for.

The journey has indeed just begun.

The IOM team at Nadi airport prepares to unload the 81 metric tons of IOM relief supplies brought in to help the cyclone-affected population in Fiji. © IOM 2016