I Felt I Had To Do Something

An interview with my colleague John Farebrother, an interpreter and aid worker with a forklift licence.

John, you are a free-lance interpreter and work, among others, for the EU Court of Justice. But interpreting is not your only profession. You are, in your own words, “a law graduate with a forklift licence” and an aid worker.

Before you became an interpreter, you worked as a logistician on humanitarian missions in crisis areas all over the world. What was driving you – adventure, the desire to help?

Both. The desire to do something worthwhile with my life, helping people less fortunate than me; but also to see and experience the more dangerous parts of the world.

What kind of help do you provide?

On my most recent mission, in Ukraine, I was working for an organisation that specialises in medical assistance. But medical assistance alone is never enough, and so we were also providing relief (blankets, food, water, tools, generators, building materials etc) to the people remaining in the newly-liberated (“de-occupied”) territories, east of Dnipro and also towards Kherson.

We will come back to Ukraine shortly. How was your first mission, how were the beginnings, did they match your expectations?

On my first day in Bosnia I was threatened with a pistol by an official at a checkpoint. But I quickly learned that most ordinary people were very welcoming and hospitable. It was a pleasure and a privilege to be able to participate in people’s lives, while being able to provide some assistance.

But beyond the immediate benefit to the neediest, I quickly came to realise that we weren’t making much difference to the overall picture; and indeed were possibly being used to serve greater local and international interests. For example, Karadžić was frequently accused of using his stranglehold on Sarajevo to blackmail the international community, only allowing aid into the city when he was getting what he wanted, or at least being taken seriously. Further afield, some countries abdicate any responsibility for providing health care for the most vulnerable sections of their society, especially refugees, because they know the international community is doing the job for them. One example is the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, while in Ethiopia, the aid sector is one of the most important sectors of the economy. And it is said the Ethiopian government used Live Aid to facilitate a forced population movement in which 100,00 people died. If there is such a thing as an “international community”.

That sounds sobering. Tell me more about the years you spent in the war in ex-Yugoslavia. 

They were the best years of my life. I went there for three months and stayed for three years. I met my wife there, and have spent a large part of my life in a Serbian/Croatian alternative reality ever since.

Chechnya was probably your most dangerous mission. You said in Chechnya one could never be sure of anything, something dangerous could happen at any moment. How can one function in such an atmosphere?

It wasn’t easy. The danger was not only from the Russian army, but also from Chechen kidnappers. All movements had to be carefully planned and kept secret until the last minute, even from local staff. Not that we didn’t trust our local team, but keeping security information on a need-to-know basis was only prudent. We had three separate residences in Groznij and would alternate between them at random. Instead of driving around in Toyota Landcruisers which are recognizable as NGO vehicles, we would travel in a convoy of three local vehicles, half a km apart, communicating via VHF handsets and HF radio (with the antennas set low down on the rear bumper so at first glance it wasn’t obviously a comms antenna). My predecessor had been kidnapped, which was one of the reasons we had such strict security rules.

What did war to the Chechens do? It is hard to imagine how people can survive in such brutality and total destruction.

The Chechens are a resilient people. They have a saying: “Let the stones cry / We don’t know how to cry / We’re the mountain people / We’re the Chechens”.

And although Chechnya is a very small place, and the total population is less than a million, they have a fearsome reputation throughout the former Soviet Union. Solženicin provides an example in his epic on the Gulag.

But it is their sense of community and solidarity that is their greatest strength. Before the war, the technocratic elite in Chechnya were mainly Russian immigrants, and most of them left when the war started, and the oil refinery stopped working. Which means that the Chechens as a community were already excluded from the white-collar sector of the economy, and were used to being self-sufficient.

Besides Serbian/Croatian and Romany in ex-Yugoslavia, you learned Russian in Chechnya. In Mozambique and Angola, you learned Portuguese. In South Africa, you learned Afrikaans. How did you learn these languages? Did you just pick them up?

When I first went to work in Bosnia, I took with me a book called “How to speak Serbo-Croat”. Every day I tried to read a bit and then apply what I had learned interacting with local colleagues (most of whom couldn’t speak English). It was very difficult at first, although it immediately opened doors at all sorts of levels. After a few months I could get by, and I never looked back. Subsequently in every country I went to I tried to replicate that experience, with more or less success depending on how long I happened to be in a particular place.

What was your most difficult mission, the mission that left the deepest marks?

Probably the former Yugoslavia, because it is the first country I worked in, the place I stayed longest, and is now effectively my second home.

Was there a moment when you thought: I can’t do this anymore? Was this the reason why you decided to study interpreting, got a conference interpreting diploma from London Westminster University and even a law degree?

There was an accumulation of experiences and events that made me decide, first of all, that rather than be constantly on missions in the field it would be preferable to be based in western Europe, and only deploy for short sharp missions a few times a year. In addition to the dangers of working in war zones and natural disasters, it is easy to fall into an unhealthy lifestyle – physically and mentally. I didn’t want to get trapped into that. I also began to reach the limits of what I felt I could achieve as an aid worker, and wanted to pursue my interest in languages.

We met in the spring of 2022 at the Court of Justice where you were working as an interpreter. In the summer, you went on a mission to Ukraine. Was this a reaction to the outrage over Putin’s aggression?

Partly; like most people, I never expected Putin to actually invade Ukraine. But with my decades of experience of field aid work, and having already worked in the former Soviet Union (Tajikistan and Turkmenistan as well as Chechnya), I felt I had to do something.

What did you see in Ukraine?

A resilient people, determined not to give in to an aggressor. A real national effort, inclusive of people from all backgrounds (especially Russian-speakers, but also Crimean Tatars, for example). I also saw that outside the war zone and the newly-liberated areas, life is continuing much as usual, despite regular air raids, and since autumn, regular power cuts.

In the newly-liberated areas, I saw people cooking outside on DIY barbecues made from bricks and metal grills or sheets. No water, no energy, no mobile phone coverage, no access to medical care, nothing to buy in the shops. And yet coping.

Some people live in houses without a roof, you told me. How do they cope?

In the newly-liberated village of Liman which is directly accessible by road from Bakhmut, I noticed, as we arrived, a very nicely painted house, but without a roof. We were distributing aid direct from a truck to the local people, and one elderly lady was unable to carry her provisions. I offered to help and she said it wasn’t far, and in fact it was the same house we had seen. I asked her how they managed to live there, and she told me they had made one room water-proof and insulated, and were waiting for the war to end to repair the rest of it. We heard similar things from a lot of people.

Were people suspicious of you speaking Russian? Did you observe hostilities between speakers of Russian and Ukrainian?

In the west of the country, near Lviv, speaking Russian is unpopular and can be met with suspicion (I only learned later). The first local colleague I met when I crossed the border seemed to treat me with some suspicion, as if he didn’t believe I was really British.

But I didn’t observe any such hostility. In the capital Russian is heard everywhere, I would estimate as much as Ukrainian. And in the east, around Dnipro and beyond, you hardly hear any Ukrainian. But they are no less patriotically Ukrainian for that. And so one lesson from that is that this is not an ethic conflict, the narrative that Putin has been peddling for years. It is a war of national defence against an aggressive foreign state.

At the border to Moldova, you were detained and questioned because Russian newspapers were in your luggage.

I was travelling from Ukraine to Moldova to renew my visa, and to spend a long weekend with my wife. I had forgotten about some Russian newspapers I had brought with me from the UK several months previously, which I would study each morning to improve my Russian, and which had remained in my rucksack.

Ukrainian drivers and vehicles are not allowed to leave the country, and so I was picked up on the Ukrainian side by a pre-arranged Moldovan driver. At the border the customs official told him to open the boot. I knew the only thing in it was my rucksack, so I got out, and was told to open it. He literally went through everything, and when he found the newspapers he took them, telling me I could repack the rest. A few minutes later a bearded young man in civvies came out and asked me if I could speak Russian. “A bit”, I replied. “Can we have a talk?” he asked rhetorically, to which I assented. We went inside the customs building, and were joined a few minutes later by a bearded soldier.

“So John”, they started, “what have you been doing in Ukraine?”

I explained that I had been working for an NGO, and showed them my ID card. They wanted to know everything about my career as an aid worker, and what had led me to that point.

“Can you prove you have been working as an aid worker in Ukraine?” they asked after a while. Fortunately I had some photos on my work phone of my colleagues and me distributing aid in Liman, which I showed them. That seemed to satisfy them, but they still wanted to know why I had some Russian newspapers in my luggage. I explained that even though it might appear to be unusual and even strange, for a linguist and an interpreter it was entirely legitimate and in no way suspicious. That seemed to satisfy their last doubts, and they told me I could go – with my newspapers. They were very professional, and at no time did I feel threatened.

Meanwhile the driver had contacted the NGO I worked for and told them I had been beaten up.

You told me about the motivation of Ukrainians to defend their country. Do you think they can win?

I believe it is entirely plausible Ukraine will prevail on the battlefield, and that Putin’s imperialist adventure will fail utterly (as his dream of resuscitating the USSR has already done). But to what extent that will be a victory is another matter. There is a great determination among Ukrainians to keep fighting and go all the way. But there are also a lot of people who are afraid of what will happen if Putin captures or recaptures more territory, or uses weapons of mass destruction. And dozens, if not hundreds of young men are being killed and disabled every day.

Indeed, no one knows how this war will end, but the Ukrainians have a right to legitimate defence. You are learning Ukrainian and want to go back. Ukrainian is and will be much in demand and if – and when – Ukraine joins the EU, it will become an official language.

I would like to go back to Ukraine later in the year, and if I do so, it would be convenient if I could stay long enough to learn Ukrainian well enough to be able to add it as a language.

A last question: What are the qualities required to be a good humanitarian worker? Empathy, stamina, effective communication, being able to work under pressure?

To paraphrase Che Guevara, one of the key properties for working to provide assistance to other people in need is love. You also need a sense of adventure, and the willingness to put up with difficult living and working conditions, and danger. But it is also important to bring some relevant skills to the table. Whether medical, engineering, or simply logistics.

Thank you for the interview. And good luck for your next mission!

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