Working as a field delegate in Burundi

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Julia Murphy is a field delegate with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Burundi. Having grown up in Belgium, Julia is half French and half Irish - her father’s family are based in Cork city and Julia studied for a PhD in Belfast for three years. Julia’s mission in Burundi is French speaking and her role is varied; it includes prison work while Julia also acts as a representative for the ICRC in the region.

Day-to-day life in Burundi is peaceful at the moment. “Bujumbura is a small capital which still has hippos and crocodiles in the lake,” says Julia. “Sometimes traffic jams are caused by hippos just deciding to cross the road.” This is in stark contrast to a period from the mid 90s to mid noughties when the ICRC had an operational mission in Burundi due to the ethnic conflict there. Four ICRC staff were killed in Burundi in 1996 and there is a small memorial at the ICRC office. “This serves as a constant reminder that while at the moment everything is calm, we need to be aware of our surroundings,” says Julia.

Although Burundi is at peace, the level of trauma is still quite high. “It’s on such a scale that nearly everyone has been affected by the conflict in one way or another,” says Julia. 

One might assume this trauma would be palpable in daily life in Burundi but instead Julia says “you do feel this kind of willingness to live your life fully.”

ICRC work in Burundi today involves repairing water and sanitation systems, restoring family links and reuniting relatives. The ICRC also works with prison authorities to ensure detainees are treated according to internationally recognized standards and support training in international humanitarian law for the armed forces.

Julia has been allocated a geographical zone to cover by the ICRC which is comprised of Bujumbura and its surroundings and given the country’s biggest prison is based in Bujumbura, it falls under Julia’s remit. This work sees Julia visit prisons on behalf of the ICRC. Before prison visits commence, the ICRC meets with the director of the prison to agree the terms of the Red Cross prison work. When that is agreed the ICRC goes about its work; looking at the prison facilities such as the cells, kitchen area, toilet and showers.

But the most important aspect of the prison visit is the interview with the detainee.

“Any detainee can come and talk to us and it’s completely confidential which means there are no witnesses to the interview, no prison guards, no prison authorities, it’s just us and the detainee,” explains Julia. “He/she is really free to talk about anything that might be on their mind. We might not always be able to help but at least they are given the opportunity to air their concerns.

“We get a lot of information through those interviews,” continues Julia, “and we identify certain patterns or themes. If we find that several detainees have been talking about the same subject then we will talk about it with the director of the prison at the end of the visit.”

The ICRC visits everyone, it doesn’t matter what side of a conflict they were on. The prison visits are really appreciated by the detainees with one telling Julia; “thank you for coming, we’re always really happy to see you when you come in the prison it shows us that somebody cares about us.’”

Aside from the prison work, Julia’s role sees her regularly meet with the Governor of the region, local authorities and local police, establishing a network. She then acts as a liaison between ICRC colleagues who come to work in the region, and the local authorities, as she establishes a network.

“It’s much easier then if we have a project we want to present or suggest to these authorities,” says Julia. “I’ll be the one to present it and introduce the team.”

Julia is also involved in some livelihoods projects particularly in the area of economic security such as cash for work. This sees beneficiaries identified and given work (which is paid for by the ICRC) which will benefit the whole community such as helping to build or reset a road or small jobs that most people can do. Julia accompanies the team in charge of this initiative and introduces the project to the local authorities.

Julia’s role also involves distributing Red Cross Messages and she cites this as a particularly fulfilling part of her work, “because you have a direct effect”. Julia once gave a message to a family who hadn’t heard from the person who wrote the message in over four years. “They thought the person was dead,” says Julia. “Coming to that family and giving them a letter and seeing a realisation on their faces that actually, this person is not dead, and is saying hi – that’s always the best part of the job really when you can reconnect families and give hope.”

Julia’s work presents challenges too of course and she says it’s really tough when detainees fall apart in front of her eyes, when they’re “just crying, bursting into tears, because they are afraid for their family or what the children are going to become and so on and you’re just sitting there in front of them.”

In terms of her work overall, Julia says it can be “quite tough because you’re not seeing any immediate improvements and I think that’s the case for most humanitarian work except in emergency situations. That sometimes can be frustrating but on the other hand it’s very rewarding and I have to say I really do enjoy the actual time we get with the detainees face to face. It’s really the human part of the work where you’re just sitting directly talking to the beneficiaries and while that in itself can be quite tough it’s very rewarding, especially when we can actually help the detainees in some way.”