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.
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.’’