Harvard Public Health Review
Summer Fall 2006

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Humanitarian Crises

Disaster in Berini

Mock humanitarian relief exercise gives students a reality check

There was almost no moon on the night of April 28 as young relief workers in training hunkered down near the hurricane-battered coast of the fictitious South American nation of Berini. Choosing for their campsite a peaceful inland spot, 25 men and women dined on military-style MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), pitched tents, sprayed DEET on each other, and settled into their sleeping bags. Suddenly, angry screams raked the silence--and the mock exercise in disaster response staged at Harold Parker State Forest in North Andover, Massachusetts, began to seem all too real to the students taking part.

A dozen '"soldiers' "dressed in ragged jungle camouflage swooped down from the woods, waving weapons. '"Out of your tents!'" shouted their commander in chief, a black-haired masked figure in heavy boots. '"Everyone on the ground, face down,'" cried a soldier. The militia took four hostages, forcing them into the shadows just paces ahead of a gun barrel.

Playing the role of militia leader was none other than Michael VanRooyen, who co-directs the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative with Jennifer Leaning, professor of the practice of international health at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). Both VanRooyen and Leaning were preparing students for certification from the Inter-University Initiative on Humanitarian Studies and Field Practice, a joint program of HSPH, MIT, and Tufts University's Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

Students knew they would be traveling to a lush coastal land that was geographically prone to wild storms and volcanic eruptions. What they didn't know was that they'd face not only devastation on an epic scale, but a series of bedeviling human interferences.

Representing four non-governmental agencies--ersatz versions of Save the Children, Catholic Relief Services, the International Federation of the Red Cross, and the International Rescue Committee, all coordinated by the mythical organization known as Berini Republic Assistance in Disasters--participants met with challenges they will confront in the real world of humanitarian relief: entering an unfamiliar region; surveying heavy damage; conducting rapid assessments of survivors' needs; establishing communications with each other and the outside world using crude, unreliable equipment; caring for the sick and injured; and dealing with misinformed or misguided government officials, volunteers, and members of the news media.

Said Melinda Foran, a candidate for the MPH degree at HSPH in Population and International Health: '"This simulation was a good exercise in developing intuition during difficult situations. These are not events you want to face for the first time and discover that your first instinct is wrong.'"

Paula Hartman Cohen has written about science and health for Newsday and other major newspapers.

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