A Tribute: Andrew Gethi, Humanitarian
Andrew Gethi always made a good first impression. Tall and rangy, he exuded the quiet confidence of a serious man who meant what he said. That’s what I recall when I first met him in the summer of 2000. IOM was organizing the resettlement of 4,000 Sudanese ‘Lost Boys’ from Kakuma Refugee Camp in northern Kenya to the United States, and GOAL was the partner agency running the transit center in Nairobi. Andrew, the transit center manager, was a star.
Two years later, this time proudly wearing an IOM cap, Andrew assumed responsibility for a tougher assignment – the movement of 14,000 Somali-Bantu refugees from Dadaab Refugee Camp on the Kenya border to Somalia to Kakuma Refugee Camp, a grueling three-day bus trip across bad roads and sometimes dangerous territory. Every five days for four months Andrew organized bus convoys for 500 refugees. This was not a smooth, ‘clockwork’ operation, it was fraught with daily complications, but that’s what made Andrew’s performance so impressive; he overcame or mitigated problems in a calm, energetic and sometimes even joyful manner -- even when surrounded by screaming, unruly crowds. I remember thinking, prophetically as it would turn out, “this is a guy I would go to war with.”
A few years later, Andrew participated in one of the most iconic IOM operations in the history of the Organization. After the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in Sudan, a community leader of IDPs in the Tambura decided that it was time for his people to return home to Raja. Concerned about the lack of food, medical facilities and provisions for the most vulnerable, the international community requested IOM to support the movement. Andrew was a member of the 4-person IOM ‘Operation Rescue’ team that escorted the 5,000 civilians on a 3-month, 350 kilometer overland hike through forests and across swamps. The team organized road and bridge-building teams so that the most vulnerable could travel by truck. They coordinated WFP food drops to supplement ‘wild greens.’ They ate poorly, slept in ragged tents, hiked in torrential downpours, delivered babies (33), buried the dead (43), suffered malaria and, in general, endured unimaginable and protracted stress and hardship. According to Team Leader Bill Lorenz, Andrew “never lost his resolve, positive attitude, resourcefulness and willingness to do whatever needed to be done. And he never, ever complained.”
When civil war erupted in South Sudan at the end of 2013, the humanitarian response was inadequate, most notably at field locations where inexperienced staff were overwhelmed by the degree, scope and the changing dynamics of humanitarian needs. Andrew, armed with a dozen years’ deep field experience, established the new IOM sub-office in Bor, and then relocated to Bentiu following intensive fighting and the massive influx of IDPs. As Head of Sub-Office (50 staff including 15 international), Andrew provided calm, resolute leadership for the entire humanitarian community, demonstrated good diplomatic liaison skills with the large UN integrated mission and, most importantly, did what was in the best interest of 100,000 civilians seeking protection at the site. For the past two years, Bentiu has been one of the most dangerous places in the world for civilians and humanitarian workers, but IOM management always slept a bit easier because we knew that Andrew was in charge.
Andrew, age 43, died on 29 September in a car crash in Zimbabwe on his first day of R&R.
It’s often the case that the death of someone young and strong comes to eclipse the memory of the life that they lived, but it would be terribly wrong if that were the case with Andrew Gethi. I smile to think of that quietly confident young man who made such a good impression, and realize that it’s not the first impression that matters, it’s what comes thereafter, and in this case the promise of greatness did not disappoint. Andrew Gethi is an inspiration to all of us.
Former Chief of Mission, IOM South Sudan