The Balkans, Part 1 – Sarajevo, winter 1996
I get a lot of questions about how to get your first break in humanitarian aid. It’s a topic that’s close to my heart, because I dealt with the ‘field experience’ catch 22 myself. I must have been turned down by pretty much every aid agency in the UK because I didn’t have any field experience.
The route I took isn’t something I would necessarily recommend to anyone, but as I was going through some old photos I thought I would tell the story of how I got my first job in this field (over a series of posts). This photo was taken in the winter of 1996 – its me, in downtown Sarajevo, about a year after the end of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
After graduating from college, I was on the path to further academia, about to enroll in a PhD program. Stopping by at a friend’s house one morning I met a friend of theirs who had just returned from working as a logistician for MSF, and heard his stories of working on the Rwanda emergency. The conversation stuck with me, and ultimately derailed my academic career aspirations. I declined the PhD offer I had, and began to apply for jobs with international aid agencies. Depressingly, all of them declined me, the polite ones writing back to inform me that I didn’t have any field experience. Somewhat discouraged, that winter I decided to travel to Bosnia on my own to take a look around, and see whether this was something I was serious about.
In retrospect I was woefully ill prepared, I didn’t have anywhere to stay, I spoke no real Serbo-Croat, and had no institutional support if anything had gone wrong. But, there we are – I’m smiling in this photo because I’d made it – I didn’t have job, but I was in the place I’d been watching on the news for so many years, surrounded by the circus of international assistance agencies and NATO soldiers.