Read caption Jan Egeland visited Katanika, a camp for internally displaced people in DR Congo, in 2018. The camp is housing about 50,000 people. Photo: Alex McBride/NRC

Mission impossible

Thale Jenssen|Published 14. Jan 2019
Jan Egeland usually rejects all requests for portrait interviews. This time, however, he agreed to tell us a little about himself: About what keeps him up at night, lumberjacks and how it all started with a glass of milk and a news broadcast.

"I usually say no to this kind of thing, but you have to help your colleagues," smiles Jan Egeland as he shows me into his office at the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in Oslo.

Just from an important lunch. Just before the journalists start calling. We have a scant half hour, and it soon becomes clear that Jan Egeland is talking from his perspective as an idealist and humanitarian aid advocate in this interview as well.

Milk and the evening news

In 1976, at the age of 19, he travelled to Colombia as a volunteer humanitarian aid worker.

An internationally oriented boy from the Norwegian western city of Stavanger. An opponent of the Vietnam War with a strong engagement in human rights work. He had started an Amnesty International group while attending upper secondary school at Stavanger Cathedral School. Now, he was hunting for somewhere in the world where he could go and volunteer his efforts.

Then one evening, home after handball practice, he made himself a slice of bread with Norwegian brown cheese, poured a glass of milk and turned on the evening news. The reporter was talking with a Catholic priest in Colombia. The priest said: "I would like to extend an invitation to Norwegian young people to come and work with me for social justice here in Colombia."

"I simply sat down and wrote him a letter," explains Egeland. Today, over forty years later, the 61-year-old has dedicated his entire adult life to working for people affected by injustice, war and conflict worldwide.

He is the Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, internationally recognised and – according to the Norwegian comedians the Ylvis brothers – a peacekeeping machine.

In a used car from Canada to Central America

But it was in Colombia where it all started. Or rather, in front of the evening news in the living room of his childhood home. And the priest answered his letter: "Yes, please come."

"And so I went. First, some friends and I drove a used car from way up north in Canada all the way down to Panama, through the US, Mexico and Central America. Then I went on alone to this organisation in Colombia to work with Padre Rafael Garcia Herreros and the organisation El Minuto de Dios."

Read caption Jan Egeland in DR Congo in 2018. Photo: Alex McBride/NRC

The six-month stay was enough to enthral the 19-year-old with the idea of working for peace and social justice.

"I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to help those who were worse off than regular people in my childhood home of Stavanger. I grew up in a middle-class home, but my parents told me about the war and the miserable 1930s in Norway, and how lucky I was to live in a safe, prosperous society. So, I wanted to contribute and I hoped to work internationally."

Black and white and naive

Many moons have passed since then. Wars have broken out and conflicts have been resolved. Friends have become enemies and enemies have become friends. People have been displaced and returned home again.

"My world view has changed. It was probably a bit naive and black and white back then. I thought that liberation movements, as they were called, were 'white' and the dictators were 'black'. Now, I can see more grey. But what has not changed, and has stayed constant for over 40 years now, is the idea of having an obligation to take the part of the oppressed. Often, its 'bad guy against bad guy' – those fighting each other are more similar than they would like to admit. But the injustice against those affected, the civilian population, upsets me just as much as ever. And the need to help them and protect them is the same."

Today, his job is to talk about precisely that. And he speaks, uninterruptedly, on the BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera, in the European Parliament, the US Senate and the White House. "Funding for humanitarian work is vital, but we need political solutions to end the conflicts. And those responsible for finding these solutions are powerful, well-fed men in suits and uniforms," he says again and again.

"I often get tired of listening to my own speeches, I do. I’ve heard them so many times before. But the message never goes out of date. As humanitarian aid workers, we can keep people alive. We can save them from suffering and misery and help them find a better life. Remember, it is the diplomats, politicians and military officials who can turn the trend from war to peace. We help to influence it, through our advocacy work for peaceful solutions. We can put pressure on those in positions of power by raising awareness of the abuses. It is motivating to see that we can make a difference by focusing on forgotten disasters such as Yemen, Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and others."

Funding for humanitarian work is vital, but we need political solutions to end the conflicts. And those responsible for finding these solutions are powerful, well-fed men in suits and uniforms.
Jan Egeland

An incredible privilege

And just as the message that does not go out of date, Egeland is as upset now as he used to be. Knowing that brutal violence, sieges and arms use still affect displaced people can keep Egeland up at night. But the knowledge that he is playing a part in an effort that actually helps, gets him going in the morning – every single day.

"It is an incredible privilege to be a humanitarian aid worker because we can see that it helps. We can see that we make a difference. This year I’ve been to Yemen, Syria, Congo, Venezuela, Honduras and the Central African Republic, and I’m greatly impressed by my colleagues. Many are local field workers who work around the clock, often on the front line, helping people trapped in hopelessness. So, that’s my motivation: the joy of seeing that help reaches those in need – and that it makes a difference."

Still, some wars last for decades, and there are people stuck in a life of displacement for generations.

What is it like to meet people who have no chance of returning home?

"It’s both disheartening and moving to meet people who have lost everything. In Congo, I spoke to displaced farmers. All they had was a small shack, a few tools, some clothes and a small piece of land. Then, armed groups attacked and burnt everything they owned. They had to run for their lives and barely escaped. Now, we are helping them to build something new – from nothing. It’s incredibly meaningful."

He says he is proud to see NRC’s work in the countries he visits. The difficult part comes when he has to return home from these visits.

"Many people think it must be terrible to walk around and see, smell, take in the impressions and the suffering. I don’t think it’s bad to be in the refugee camps. That’s where we plan how we can help more, what we can do better. It is actually quite uplifting. No, what is bad," says Egeland, "is leaving."

"Sitting on the plane and thinking: ‘Now I’m going home to the world’s most privileged country, and I’ll be celebrating Christmas with my children. And we won’t be wanting for anything, while those who have lost everything remain in uncertainty.’ That weighs on me just as much today as it did 40 years ago."

Syria mission

From September 2015 to November 2018, in addition to his job as Secretary General of NRC, Egeland was Special Adviser to the UN Special Envoy for Syria. It has been no easy task.

"In addition to leading the Nordic region’s largest humanitarian aid organisation, there was no evening, weekend or public holiday where I did not work with the Syria mission."

The job consisted of getting Russians, Americans, Iranians, Saudi Arabians, Turks and others with influence in Syria to cooperate on at least one thing – to ensure that help could cross the front lines and get to people in need.

"We often failed because there was only bitterness and strife. But many times, we actually did succeed because we convinced the men in power to allow free passage for humanitarian aid workers from the UN and other organisations."

He was in Syria himself earlier this year. The enormous devastation shocked him. "We drove around the areas east of Damascus city centre. The trip took many hours, and we were surrounded by continuous, massive devastation. It’s like driving through Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim and Stavanger, Norway’s four biggest cities, and everything you see has been destroyed. It shows how destructive the war has been, and what kind of firepower has been used against densely populated civilian areas."

But he tells that, even among war-stricken Syrians, cautious optimism has begun to spread.   

"In fact, there are quite a few who have some hope that 2019 will be the year where they can begin the reconstruction work, and those who have been displaced can start returning to their homes."

It is the diplomats, politicians and military officials who can turn the trend from war to peace. We help to influence it, through our advocacy work for peaceful solutions. We can put pressure on those in positions of power by raising awareness of the abuses.
Jan Egeland

We can help make things better

According to Egeland, there are many places where we can turn the tide on a negative trend. Major humanitarian crises, such as in Yemen and Syria, can be resolved. And in forgotten or neglected crises, like in the Central African Republic, DR Congo, Honduras and Venezuela, more humanitarian aid work can have a great impact.

That’s why we must engage in what is happening in the world.

Read caption Jan Egeland visits Al-Sabeen hospital in Sana'a, Yemen, in 2017. The humanitarian crisis in the country has led to an increase in birth of underweight children. Photo: Tuva Raanes Bogsnes/NRC

"Whether we are Christians or humanists, whether our political views swing to the right or to the left, we believe it is right to help those who are in need. Those who have resources should give to those who have lost everything. This is consistent with our ideals," he says, and continues:

"But it is also in line with our interests. If you want a safer world for you and your children, with less disease and with more opportunities to travel, trade and solve the world’s problems from climate to disarmament, then you cannot have whole societies that live in extreme suffering and misery. It leads to unrest and instability, and it is dangerous for all of us – even here in this small, privileged country."

A silent lumberjack

He has always felt privileged, ever since he wrote to the Colombian priest. Privileged enough to be able to take a brief holiday from the world’s crises. He celebrated Christmas at his cabin with his daughters. In the Norwegian mountains, far from people, far from the thick of the world he lives and breathes nearly 24 hours a day – every day. Perhaps it’s not so strange that he would have chosen a more isolated existence, if he had selected a completely different career path.

"I would enjoy being a lumberjack, actually," he laughs. "I love being out in the woods, using an axe and saw. The problem is that it has become so motorised, and I don’t like all the noise. But if I could be a lumberjack with a horse, an axe and a saw, I know I would enjoy it."

And that is precisely one of the things he does when he is at his cabin during the holidays. But now Christmas is over and we have entered another new year.

Do you have a New Year’s resolution?

"I’m trying to become a better person, I always am. But my New Year’s resolution is simply to work more in the coming year for forgotten and neglected crises."