Today was published the short list of the nominees to the International Maritime Rescue Federation H.E.R.O Award. I found myself on the long list made public a few weeks ago, in company with 29 other nominated individuals, teams, and corporations and now that list has been narrowed down to 13 nominees in four categories. To my pride and joy I’m short listed for the first H.E.R.O. Award for outstanding service to maritime search and rescue, ‘The Vladimir Maksimov Award’, sponsored by Inmarsat; this together with three other heroes from the SAR community; “Mohammed Drissi, who has worked selflessly as the IMO Regional Coordinator for the Rabat, Morocco SAR region linking 6 bordering countries as well as Regional Coordinator and Trustee for the IMRF ; Bat-Amgalen Gursuren who is a Head of Search and Rescue Branch of Emergency Management Department in Selenge province, Mongolia; and Linde Jelsma, of KNRM in the Netherlands, who began work on the IMRF Lifeboat Crew Exchange programme in 2012 with a pilot exchange and, as head coordinator, has been key to its developing success ever since.”
The H.E.R.O. Awards 2016 recognise actions that took place, or were completed, in the period 1st July 2015 to 30th June 2016, and that period was indeed quite extraordinary in the professional life of yours truly, especially between mid October to mid December 2015. The first “action” that took place was related to the deployment of two Victoria Class fast rescue units by the Swedish Sea Rescue Society to the island of SAMOS in Greece, the “Yellow Boats” project. The migration problem had been in focus for a long time and when funding was found it was matter of a few weeks until the boats were shipped to Greece to support our sister organisation The Hellenic Rescue Team. The role of Safe Waters was to do a risk analysis and support the setting up of the SAMOS rescue station, but also to support operations until the ordinary crew had been deployed on site. After some political headache we were finally called out on a first mission by the Hellenic Coast Guard, where we found some 40 refugees in the water of which all but two children were brought to shore alive. This was a starting point for a mission that carried on for another five months, and more than 1 800 people saved, a project which was indeed H.E.R.O Award nominated on the long list on its own merits together with the one of the first mission skippers, Fredrik Forsman, that managed the situation above heroically.
The other “action” relates to my work in East Africa, more specifically in Uganda where we have our EA Headquarters, and is probably the reason for my H.E.R.O Award nomination. As many of you know, the first rule of Search and Rescue is to not become a casualty yourself, something that sometimes is easier said than done in the heat of things. The HQ is on leased land, with some 36 years left on the 49 year lease. However, the property prices in the area has sky rocketed the last few years, and the land owner decided to kick us out by simply cancelling the lease agreement. We then took her to court for breach of contract. Fighting court cases in Uganda is a nightmare proper, and it had been on-going for a while when I got a call late Friday December 4th, 2015. It was my local colleague and friend Tim calling, he had just landed in Cape Town, heading out for some time off, when our staff got hold of him to tell that our property had been invaded by police, kicking everyone out and giving the control of the property to the landowner. 24 hours later I was on a plane heading for Entebbe to try to sort things out.
To make a long story somewhat shorter, it took me four days to back track the events, through the local police, district police, land commission, High Court Execution Commission, and eventually managed to find the source of the illegal eviction order at the National Police HQ, the Inspector General Police – Legal/Human Rights (!). To his defence, the order he had issued on request of the land owner did state that the eviction should be governed by staff from the High Court – something that the District Police Commander in Kabalagala obviously overlooked (at a fee no doubt) when he scrambled some 30 policemen to carry out the eviction – without court broker. I managed to get the IGP Legal to issue a reverse order which I presented to an extremely hostile and unwilling District Police Commander (DPC). After having called the land owner, who’s number he apparently had, he reluctantly gave me two detectives and two armed policemen to join me in reclaiming the property. When we arrived at the gate the security detail of the land owner, protecting the place, refused to let us in, why I accessed the property through the neighbours gate and climbing the fence. The security guards immediately held me a gun point. In comes the Police, with their guns ready, and as a bonus my own security detail, that I had called to guard the place after having had it reclaimed, comes running with their guns raised. And some ten AK47’s were cocked simultaneously with me standing in the middle. Ok, I’ve been in that situation before, but it was somewhat uncomfortable until the police managed to calm down the situation and remove “the enemy forces”. When doing the damage assessment it was obvious that the land owner had done her utmost to make life hard for us, and witnesses reported that about the same time as the DPC called the land owner to tell her we were on the way a team went in with a chain saw to cut down our communications mast that linked our Ericsson/Carmenta sponsored rescue coordination centre with the servers up in town (a radio data “mini-link”). We had put in a good year to get that up and running… Rule number one – don’t become a casualty… well, I didn’t, neither did the organization – but it was too close for comfort. We didn’t win the war, but we for sure won the battle.
A couple of hours later I arrived the Swedish Ambassadors Residence, sweaty and dirty, to celebrate “S:ta Lucia” – a Swedish tradition kicking off the Christmas season. There I was, straight out of battle into cocktails and Christmas carols with a couple of hundred invited guests from corporations and embassies. Tired but happy I managed to get a few minutes with the Ambassador, briefing him on the latest events. He just shook his head in disbelief…
The next day I was with the DPC again, filing criminal charges against the land owner for trespassing and malicious damage to our property and equipment. And the war carries on, one battle at a time, while still trying to develop the regional SAR structures.
Even if these actions are the most dramatic, the year was very positive in many ways. We were able to support the start-up of Tanzania Sea Rescue operations out of Dar es Salaam by providing strategic advice, contacts, and by donating to them their first rescue boat. Furthermore, by sharing our intellectual property we helped SOCIEDADE BRASILEIRA DE SALVAMENTO AQUÁTICO in Brazil getting a life jacket project launched for the benefit of fishermen in the Amazonas. Not to mention hours and hours of discussions and negotiations with the Ugandan administration to clarify our role in the upcoming Lake Victoria project in which we have been a stakeholder since the project outline was presented already in 2010.
The nomination states that I’m “a role model for younger men / women who are considering international development as a possible path.”, well, if that means I’m passionate, dedicated, and not giving up no matter what, they are probably spot on. In the evening of November 15th we will know who is the 2016 H.E.R.O of heroes in the SAR community – it’s an honour to be considered.
// Mattias W