Bob McKerrow

by David Lomas / 05 February, 2011
'You do a job to the best of your ability and then a little more.'

Just about everything about Bob McKerrow is big. The hulking body, the finger-crunching handshake, the sometimes booming voice and the indomitable spirit. The landscapes he works in are large, too - Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka to name a few - and also the human tragedy he has witnessed in those far-flung places. But he has a great deal of humility.

Take New Year's Day 1994 in Afghanistan. Snow is on the ground, it's -10°C and all around is civil war. In the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, the Afghan army commander has just switched allegiance from the president to the prime minister, another twist in the complicated blood politics of a country plagued by war.

In the middle are civilians with no place to flee being obliterated by shelling as the armies of the two factions of the "government" battle for control. McKerrow, from New Zealand, is there, too. The director for Afghanistan's Red Crescent, he knows he has to act.

McKerrow starts negotiating with the commanders of the armies of the prime minister and the president. "I managed to get radio contact with them," he says. "And I asked, 'Can we have an hour's ceasefire?'" Incredibly, they agree, and as the shelling stops, the terrified residents flee.

"Something like 20,000 ran out of their homes. We had schools, mosques identified for shelter. Some were running in the snow in bare feet. They did not have time to put shoes on."

With US$15,000 of the US$100,000 cash McKerrow is carrying with him "because we had no banks - my backpack was the bank", he buys gumboots, woollen socks and blankets for the refugees.

"We got 20,000 people out who might have been killed. When you manage to negotiate something, when you have the opportunity for 20,000 to be saved in a way, you feel good. You feel stuffed at the time but you sit back a month later with a beer in the hand and you think, 'Man, that wasn't too bad. I did quite well there,'" says McKerrow. Humility. Not quite just another day's work, but part of a remarkable life that's always had a hint of danger.

Climbing was McKerrow's first passion. First the Southern Alps as a 14-year-old, then at 17 the Andes where, as part of a team of brash young New Zealanders, he climbed 13 peaks, including seven first ascents of mountains ranging from 5200-6000m. McKerrow says his hedonist lifestyle continued until at 21, he wintered over at New Zealand's remote Vanda Station in Antarctica. It was there he had an epiphany.

"You are sitting on an oil drum on the 3rd of February 1970 and that helicopter goes and you think, 'Man, I am going to be alone with three other men for the next eight or nine months. Shit, no women, no bar, and accommodation not much better than an 1850s miner's hut.' You start thinking who the hell you are. You're halfway between teenager and man.

"It was there, during those long winter days and nights where it is just darkness, that I thought perhaps I am being a bit selfish and wouldn't it be a good idea to go to these countries [where there was poverty] and do some good."

Back in New Zealand, McKerrow joined the Red Cross and was soon serving in Vietnam. It was a posting he'd volunteered for because "I was embarrassed by the fact that New Zealand was fighting there".

Although he'd faced danger in the mountains, the reality of working in a country at war was an awakening. "I'd lost friends in climbing accidents, but there, we chose the risks. In Vietnam, people were trying to kill people - and for the innocent there was no choice, no escape, no option."

The New Zealand team was stationed in the highlands where the Vietcong were regularly mining the road in the hope of blowing up US supply trucks.

"The locals were saying it was not safe to go down the road in a truck, but you will be fine in a Land Rover. So here we were making decisions whether it was safe to do our work, whether just driving down a road could cost a life."

With the Red Cross' neutrality, ­McKerrow was able to regularly cross into what was considered Vietcong territory. It meant exposure to danger from both sides. Once he came close to death while driving back to the Red Cross base: "The sun caught something on the road and I stopped about two feet from it. It was a trip wire with a claymore mine on either side."

Vietnam was the start of a 40-year association with the Red Cross, and, in Islamic states, the Red Crescent. This has seen McKerrow work in Bangladesh (where there were more landmines following war over secession from Pakistan), Fiji after Hurricane Bebe in 1972, Vietnam (again), Ethiopia, Geneva, Nepal, Afghanistan (following an earthquake in 1976), various Pacific countries on cyclone preparation missions, Afghanistan (again), Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Indonesia (after the 2004 tsunami), Bangladesh (again) and finally Sri Lanka, where he is now based.

"You know," he says, of Sri Lanka, "in the last four months I have been dealing with a million families and every family we deal with has at least one person who was killed, jailed or crippled for life. It is absolutely tragic and it is right under my nose."

Throughout his career, McKerrow has been an action man. That's why the Red Crescent sent him to Afghanistan in the dark, dangerous days of the mid-1990s as the Taleban battled for control.

And it was why he was head of the Red Crescent delegation in Indonesia overseeing US$1 billion of aid after the 2004 tsunami.

At times he gets frustrated with the bureaucracy. It is, he believes, the curse of modern life. "I am someone who does not like bureaucracy," he says bluntly, his voice crackling down a phone line from Colombo, where torrential rain is causing major flooding.

"I am one of the last iconoclasts, or anarchists, who survives in an organisation like ours. I want to be able to help people. If there are people hurting out there, I want a truckload of food, and I want it there in an hour.

"Today we are into plans, strategies, workshops. We have become such a bureaucracy - from the UN, to governments, to New Zealand Aid. The pendulum of accountability has swung too far."

According to McKerrow, in the 1970s there was too little accountability, with Red Cross workers spending 95% of their time serving people and 5% on reports. Now, he declares, there is "50% on bull­shit and bureaucracy and 50% on serving the people".

McKerrow's outspokenness has seen him ruffle a few bureaucratic feathers and buck the system, "but I think I buck it for the right reason".

He believes too much money was collected for tsunami relief, "but in the north of Sri Lanka we have 200,000 people without houses. They have been through years of war and they need help right now."

McKerrow has acted. He's been making calls - London, Oslo. In 10 days, he's raised US$3 million.

"That is the way I operate," he says. "I am not prepared to sit back and hope someone in New Zealand or in England will raise money.

"One of my strengths now as I get older is I am able to badger and cajole people in higher levels who are sitting on money."

Does it all tire him, the suffering, the poverty, the cruelty? No, he says. "You learn to step outside yourself. You become a little detached. You do a job to the best of your ability and then a little more. And that's all you can do. People often say to me that 'you are a great humanitarian worker'. I think I am just lucky."

McKerrow says his work ethic comes from being raised by hardworking parents "trapped by their upbringing". His father, "a fine practical man", was a labourer who left school at 12, like so many raised during the Great Depression.

Jim had two jobs in his life, 28 years on the sugar boiler at the Cadbury Fry Hudson chocolate factory in Dunedin and then 20 years as a metal worker. He gave the young Bob one piece of advice: "He said to me once: 'Robert, don't die ignorant like I am going to die ignorant.'"

But it was McKerrow's mother, Eileen, "who really motivated me". A victim of the measles epidemic, Eileen was born deaf and "in 1950s New Zealand anyone deaf was considered deaf and dumb", says McKerrow.

"But my mother was a bright woman. She would read Shakespeare, she would read poetry, she taught me to knit, she taught me to write. I love my mother."

McKerrow says children's cruelty towards his mother was terrible. He remembers children throwing clods at her, and him running down the road as a five-year-old "trying to knock the shit out of them even though sometimes they would knock the shit out of me".

So from where comes this urge to do humanitarian work? "Well, when you have someone in your family who is disabled, whom you love dearly, and people discriminated against, you grow up with a huge awareness of discrimination and where it occurs."

McKerrow's remarkable 40 years of overseas service has created a unique dilemma for a man who wants to be known as a good Kiwi bloke, not "a goody-goody two-shoes".

"I have a bit of a reputation as a good partygoer," he boasts. "I am the first to do haka at 11 at night and I enjoy looking at a pretty female. I have my gruff and rough side, too. I do not need to go into all the gory details, but I have seen the inside of a few bars."

He still likes climbing mountains, taking the opportunity whenever it's on offer. But the climbs are now gentler.

And the adventurer has settled. McKerrow and New Zealand kayak legend Paul Caffyn (who has paddled around New Zealand, Australia and Great Britain) once had an attempted transtasman expedition stopped by New Zealand maritime authorities. Also gone is competing in the arduous South Island Coast to Coast race.

But at 62, McKerrow says he has no intention of slowing down on the work front. He claims he has another 10 years left in him. "I reckon I can still do some good somewhere."

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