Kiwi on front line of Syr­ian civil war

Mike Seawright is jet­ting off for a job where his staff face ar­rest and ex­e­cu­tion if they choose to work for him rather than join the Syr­ian army, writes Glenn McCon­nell.

Sunday Star-Times - - News -

Mike Seawright used to be con­ven­tional. He had a boat, good pay and a sweet job as an in­vest­ment banker in the 1990s.

But as we talk this week, the con­ver­sa­tion is far from nor­mal. He is pack­ing his bags, get­ting ready to fly to the Mid­dle East on a hastily or­gan­ised mis­sion.

There, he plans to de­liver aid to more than 10,000 Syr­i­ans who have lost their homes in the lat­est waves of war­fare.

Seawright is the direc­tor of Re­lief Aid, a char­ity he founded which spe­cialises in of­fer­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian help to those stuck in war zones.

From his villa in the Auck­land sub­urb of Grey Lynn, he man­ages a char­ity which sends aid and staff to places he says no other or­gan­i­sa­tion will go.

When we meet at a nearby cafe, it’s clear Seawright’s mind couldn’t be fur­ther away from this leafy sub­urb.

He lives in Auck­land with his wife, (she does ‘‘some­thing to do with prof­itabil­ity’’) and chil­dren.

They know what he does, broadly. But he says they know more about why he does it, rather than the specifics of what hap­pens on the ground.

When he is in war zones him­self, Seawright says he is – per­haps pur­pose­fully – not very good at keep­ing in touch.

It’s not mal­ice which keeps him away from the telephone. He says it’s a cop­ing mech­a­nism.

And do his kids re­ally need to know if he’s nar­rowly missed be­ing hit by a mis­sile?

‘‘They’ve got used to it,’’ he says. ‘‘I’m not the best com­mu­ni­ca­tor back to New Zealand. When I’m there, it’s ex­cep­tion­ally busy, but it’s about cre­at­ing the men­tal space and sep­a­rat­ing New Zealand from where I’m work­ing. You’re of­ten away for long pe­ri­ods of time, so it makes it a bit eas­ier.

‘‘I try to keep reg­u­lar con­tact with my kids, but that doesn’t mean I’m up­dat­ing them on the lat­est bomb at­tacks or telling them four of my staff in Ye­men have just been killed in an airstrike.’’

Seawright has worked as the direc­tor for Re­lief Aid since set

ting it up in 2015.

It’s a small team. He brings on ex­tra staff for de­liv­er­ies, 30 will be work­ing on the ground for this mis­sion, but oth­er­wise just 12 peo­ple work in Syria.

A small group, con­sist­ing mostly of vol­un­teers, work in New Zealand en­sur­ing the team in Aleppo has the lat­est in­for­ma­tion on the sit­u­a­tion in Syria, and keep­ing the money flow­ing.

This lat­est mis­sion is in re­sponse to the dis­place­ment of an­other 80,000 peo­ple af­ter war de­stroyed more towns in North­ern Syria. But Seawright has only enough aid to pro­vide shel­ter to just over 10,000 peo­ple. His team is now as­sess­ing the needs of those who have fled their homes, to find those in the more dire of cir­cum­stances.

Al­though Re­lief Aid is cur­rently op­er­at­ing only in Syria – which is about to en­ter its ninth year of civil war – Seawright has worked in con­flicts across the globe, in­clud­ing the Pa­cific, Su­dan, Pak­istan, Afghanista­n, Iraq and Ye­men.

He says his fam­ily nor­mally hear about his war zone tales only when friends are round to share sto­ries from the front­line.

‘‘For ex­am­ple, we were driv­ing in Ye­men and the coali­tion forces started clus­ter bomb­ing the town a few kilo­me­tres in front, so we pulled over un­til it stopped. They heard that story when I was hav­ing a drink with mates, oth­er­wise I don’t tell them.’’

Seawright and other for­eign­ers used to work on the ground for Re­lief Aid as well, but in re­cent years for­eign­ers have be­come an even big­ger tar­get for ran­som or pro­pa­ganda killings.

New Zealand nurse Louisa Akavi was cap­tured in Syria by the Is­lamic State.

Her fel­low hostages were killed in pub­lic, filmed to show the world the bru­tal­ity of Isis. The fate of Akavi is still un­known, more than six years since her cap­ture dur­ing a med­i­cal run for the Red Cross in north­ern Syria. It is now an ‘‘un­man­age­able risk’’ to en­ter Syria, Seawright says.

When he ar­rives in the Mid­dle East to­day, he will be co­or­di­nat­ing lo­gis­tics from just over the border in Turkey and en­sur­ing his trucks aren’t held up cross­ing into Syria.

But the whole point of his char­ity is to go into war zones, to reach peo­ple who would oth­er­wise re­ceive no aid.

‘‘It’s about re­duc­ing risk as much as pos­si­ble. When we ar­rive at these camps, we don’t want a thou­sand peo­ple all milling round be­cause that at­tracts at­ten­tion from the air and could lead to an at­tack,’’ he says. ‘‘The Syr­ian Govern­ment, with the sup­port of the Rus­sian air force, see schools and hos­pi­tals as a le­git­i­mate tar­get – so large groups of peo­ple are noth­ing to them.’’

But he stresses that all sides of this con­flict tar­get and kill civil­ians, and aid work­ers as well.

In 2016, a sniper killed two of his team in Aleppo as they were mov­ing into a new of­fice. ‘‘They just hap­pened to be in some­one’s sights, and they were killed for do­ing their job.’’ The rea­son they were mov­ing was be­cause their old of­fice had just been bombed.

At that point, Seawright con­sid­ered throw­ing in the towel – or at least sus­pend­ing op­er­a­tions. He called a meet­ing, but no-one showed up.

His team in Aleppo took the af­ter­noon off, and went to their col­leagues’ fu­neral the next day. Then they were back to work. ‘‘I ask them why they do this. They say they just want to help. They could have left by now, they would have been out of a war zone.

‘‘I don’t know what their qual­ity of life would have been like in Turkey or Europe – but they wouldn’t be fac­ing ar­rest and death.’’

Many of his team in Syria are on Govern­ment lists for ar­rest. The Syr­ian Govern­ment has im­posed com­pul­sory con­scrip­tion, which some of his staff have re­fused.

Re­lief Aid’s sources in the Syr­ian mil­i­tary have warned the staff not to hand them­selves in.

If they do, they will be ex­e­cuted for fail­ing to com­ply with con­scrip­tion, Seawright says.

This stark warn­ing has meant the Re­lief Aid team in Syria can no longer re­turn to their homes or see their fam­i­lies, for risk of be­ing cap­tured.

‘‘Our staff are warned, all these bad things won’t hap­pen to you, you will sim­ply be ex­e­cuted as soon as you fall into Govern­ment hands – all for the sole rea­son of de­liv­er­ing aid, with no po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tion.

‘‘They have been vic­tims di­rectly, by now hav­ing no fu­ture and risk be­ing de­tained by Govern­ment mil­i­tary and in­tel­li­gence ser­vice.

‘‘Then they lost their col­leagues, and two of them lost their lives. Yeah, it’s bloody hard for them,’’ Seawright says, ex­plain­ing why he’s kept do­ing this less than so­cia­ble job.

He spent his Christ­mas at the beach, look­ing at his phone as Syria en­dured an­other brutal win­ter.

When civil­ians are forced to leave their homes due to bomb­ing and gun­fire, they walk into sub-zero tem­per­a­tures – of­ten with­out any form of shel­ter.

De­spite the cost his team in Syria pay for de­liv­er­ing aid, Seawright says there is re­ally no choice.

‘‘Each day we ask more from the our team in Syria and they keep work­ing. If they stopped, well, these fam­i­lies, they aren’t get­ting help from any­one else.’’

‘‘It’s about re­duc­ing risk as much as pos­si­ble. When we ar­rive at these camps, we don’t want a thou­sand peo­ple all milling round be­cause that at­tracts at­ten­tion from the air and could lead to an at­tack.’’

Mike Seawright

DAVID WHITE/STUFF

Syria is about to en­ter the ninth year of a vi­cious civil war where all sides have tar­geted civil­ians and aid work­ers. Staff work­ing for Mike Seawright’s aid or­gan­i­sa­tion have lost their lives.

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