First contact with SCI
In November 1962 at the age of 23, I found myself in Gibraltar and wondering where to go from there. I had originally set out from the UK a month or so previously from St Peter Port in Guernsey in the Channel Islands where I had worked the summer behind the bar of a couple of holiday hotels. I had previously studied at University in the UK, had a Bachelor of Arts degree and had taught Secondary School for half a year but was not happy and had decided to take to the road for a year or so to sort out my life.
In the only cheap hostel accommodation to be found in Gibraltar, we were all talking about where to go next and how we would do it, not many of us had enough money to really do anything exciting and I had nearly put my name down to teach for a year and thus make Gibraltar my home for quite a while. This plan was ended by the arrival of two young Englishmen who had just come from Algeria where they had been working at a voluntary work camp near the Moroccan border. They talked in such glowing terms about it all and how vital the work was which was being undertaken that I became enthused along with a couple of English lads who had an old Fiat so we decided to go straight there and see for ourselves.
The next day we left on the ferry to Morocco and on arrival headed east along the main road to Algeria. The car was not in good condition but we finally made the border at Oujda. The next day we crossed into Algeria without any incident and proceeded to Tlemcen where we reported to the address of the organization we had been given, namely the ‘Service Civil International’. After a few days there they told me that I was to leave for Khemis that day but the two lads had already decided it was not for them and had headed off for Cairo, never to be heard from again as far as I was concerned. While in Tlemcen I effectively became a member of SCI by agreeing to work for six months after signing along the dotted line.
I enjoyed the trip out to the project and was thrilled to see the old Foreign Legion Fort in which we were staying. I agreed to help out on the ‘chantier’ for a while until suitable work was found for me but, after only a few days, I accidentally crushed the tip of a finger and had to give up working on the site. I found myself confined to the camp doing all manner of work which came to include cooking for everyone for a few weeks and because I was one of the few with a driving license, I got called on to drive all the vehicles from time to time, including the large truck. I also had to help out with tending the volunteers who had succumbed to illness, which all too often was Hepatitis, or Yellow Jaundice as it was more commonly called then. They would usually be sent back to Europe after getting over the worst of the symptoms. There was milk and vitamin distribution to the local children as well as still helping to make the fort more habitable as we had inherited it in a vandalized state from the bitter departing troops. I also seemed to spend much of my time in trying to keep the water pump in the village below the camp in working order and when this was not possible we would have to get our water in 200 litre drums from the source in the valley using the truck or even the Land Rover if the truck was not available.
After the three weeks I spent cooking for everyone in the fort I was sent (or was requested to go) to the town of Maghnia to relieve a teacher in a Lycée who had to take five weeks off for an operation. This involved teaching English in French and it was something I felt I managed well enough mainly because I spoke reasonably fluent French at the time, having spent three months in Lyon when I was fifteen and had further formally studied the language in more detail.
Maghnia was full of many nationalities including a Russian team of mine experts who were undertaking a massive mine-clearing programme along with few hundred Algerian soldiers. There was also a Revolutionary School there whose aim was I think, to foster struggles for independence in other countries similar to the one the Algerians had just achieved for themselves. In the town cinema in the evening one heard many languages, often English and some of that was from native Africans from existing European colonies south of the Sahara. It was an interesting few weeks, and then it was back to the fort. My next task for a while was to drive one of our nurses on her rounds of the clinics stretching into the northern Sahara where I saw some terrible examples of the effects war and mines have on unsuspecting civilians. More often it was children who were getting hurt by the mines. There was also much evidence of malnutrition of the general population but particularly among the women and children. I also got to help out with a new team of our volunteers working on repairing local infrastructure such as water pumps and engines for pumping water etc. It was an interesting time and in between this kind of work I would be called on to drive to Tlemcen for supplies or take donated clothing to local towns and villages which left little time for me to get involved again with the actual building of the new village. I suppose the closest I would get to it was when I would take the lorry with a team of volunteers and villagers to gather sand or gravel from the river bank a few kilometres away.
I had initially undertaken to stay for six months, and close to the time this was due to end we received a request from a new organization for some experienced volunteers for their first project which was to be in Iran and due to start almost immediately. A few of us decided this would be a very complementary addition to our Algerian experience and coupled with the fact that the fare to the initial camp in Paris was paid for by them we decided to apply.
I had not been very happy with the management of the Algerian project where work leaders seemed to come and go with seemingly very little intelligent or forceful direction from Europe. Maybe because of this lack of direction, I had been lucky to have drifted from one interesting job to another and had experienced a great time; I also felt that I had, in my little way, been able to help the situation in this war-torn area, with its suffering from malnutrition and official neglect. I had stumbled into this work, but it suited me and I really looked forward to a new challenge in a totally different country and climate.
The original reason for the Khemis Camp I was told was to build a new village to replace one destroyed by the French early in the seven year war whose people had been living in tents and shanties all the time since. When I left there was not much to show for the progress on the ‘chantier’ so I was pleased to hear later that it had been completed successfully. Some of the reasons for the slow work on the ‘chantier’ had been the poor health of so many volunteers and the constant branching out into different fields of work as the need arose. An example of these was my teaching spell of five weeks and the later work on the mobile repair team.
Which should have been given priority? There is no easy answer for this but our work seemed very much to be based on “fighting the fire”, in other words, priorities seemed to be given to problems which rose from time to time and not based on firm directives from Paris. As mentioned earlier there was very little sign of cohesive leadership or forward thinking on the part of SCI and the frequent changes of camp leader and work leader was not helping in any way with the morale of the volunteers, who very much did what we were asked to do and made the most of the wonderful surroundings in which we had found ourselves. The social life of the camp was generally very good but I have heard some people later criticized the excessive amount of alcohol consumed by some of the volunteers.
On the return of the other nurse I was soon asked to go on yet another adventure and was detailed to tow back our second Land Rover from several hundred kms away on the road to what was then Colombe Bechar. Our SCI Doctor had made a tour, I am not sure of the reasons now but, enough to say that the Land Rover had broken down and it needed retrieving. The most economical way of doing it was for ourselves to fetch it. Harry, at the age of 50, our oldest volunteer, accompanied me on this trip. I briefly mentioned him earlier as a member of the mobile repair team. He had been a British Army Sergeant Major who had served as a Quartermaster in WW2 and had found himself at the Battle of El Alamein amongst others and was a very pleasant person though it could be said his mind was like an open sewer and he had the language to match. He had galvanised us all at Christmas into cooking something special by creating a camp oven made with a 200 litre oil drum and lots of earth. It worked well and it was not just because of this oven of his that he was well liked by all, he was a very positive man and his positive attitude to the local situation was infectious.
The road we took was well sealed with one of the major minefields running parallel to us for much of the way. It was looking a little cloudy and well into our trip it began to rain, then to pour and finally it became a desert storm accompanied by copious lightening and thunder. The rain was falling in such intensity that Harry later likened it to travelling behind a truck carrying a fire hydrant aimed at us, as it was hitting our windscreen so heavily. We finally deemed it too dangerous to go on, it was getting dark and we did not want to hit a seriously flooding wadi, (a normally dry riverbed), which in these conditions can become raging torrents. So I gingerly drove off the road, still wary of mines and waited for the storm to subside. We waited a long time; hours in fact as even when it had stopped we felt it was still too dangerous to proceed in the dark on account of flooding. Harry helped pass the time by reminiscing about El Alamein, likening the effect of the lightening we had experienced to that of the lights created by the barrage of guns when the battle opened up. He said however, that the noise we experienced of the severe thunderstorm was nothing like the battle, it was only the lighting up of the night sky that really brought it all back to him.
While waiting for the storm to subside he also told me more stories about the battle but the one that sticks in my mind is his one about the ants. As a Quartermaster he was not in the fighting and found himself at one point in the middle of the battle, using one of the camp toilets. He sat there in the din and mayhem which was the battle but felt very calm when he noticed on the sand under his feet ants going about their work of food gathering. He suddenly realised that ghastly as it all was for him and all around him, he could not help but realise that these ants were oblivious to the history being made at the time and helped him cope with it all.
In the first light of day we set off again after an uncomfortable night in the car only to find how right we were to have done what we did. We shortly arrived at the town of Ain Sefra but the Land Rover we had come to rescue was still beyond this town on the Bechar road, and the water that was flowing through this little town had become a raging river, and with no bridge over it, all through traffic was barred from proceeding. This even included the large land trains which would have been swept away like matchsticks had they attempted a crossing. We were advised to take a hotel room, which we found without any trouble. The town had been quite busy when the French were there and these people were very much the middle class of the city, the shop owners, professional people like teachers, doctors, nurses etc and now they had all gone in the previous months. There was still a group of Foreign Legion soldiers in the town who were confined to barracks and waiting their turn to evacuate the country. Their Caserne was very close to the hotel and when we went for a walk in the evening we could hear what sounded like a drunken free-for-all going on inside; bottles being thrown and smashing on the stone floors, the men shouting in several languages and we were rather glad these people were no longer being let loose on the town.
We had to wait two, or maybe three nights before we could gingerly set off to cross the still very considerable flow of water in the wadi in order to continue with our rescue mission. The water that was still raging rose above the bottom of the doors of our Land Rover and I was concerned about continuing but nevertheless followed the example of other drivers who were more experienced than me. A couple of hours after the successful crossing we came across the broken down Land Rover, attached a towrope and set off on our return trip. Being towed is not the most interesting means of travel but when the road is absolutely straight and there is nothing much to look at in the way of scenery, it gets very boring. Harry and I decided to go 50 kms as the tower and then swap for the next 50. We finally made it successfully home and then the realisation that this had been no ordinary trip gradually sunk in.
There is no doubt in my mind that the experience of those six months was a pivotal time in my life and I found working as a volunteer satisfactory and the pocket money we were paid each week was enough for our needs, even if some, or most of it was spent on alcohol by some of us. Friendships made at the time have lasted to the present day despite many years of non-contact in some cases. The experience I gained from this time served me well and helped to shape the next decade of my life which saw me involved in a couple more camps, one in Iran and the other in India.
I moved from Algeria to Iran to join a project planned by The European Working Group (EWG) where I ended up work leader and which involved building a village of 116 houses with outhouses as well as a school, bath and an adequate water supply. I am convinced I would not have been made work leader without having the benefit of the Algerian experience which had obviously been an important factor in my being selected for the position.
One very valuable aspect of my time spent in both countries was the need to work with the locals themselves who were generally of the Moslem faith. We never had a problem with this and given the hysteria in the world at present on this subject we can only look back on those times with pleasant memories and respect for the people we met and worked with. It is a pity that this kind of experience is not available to more people; we all certainly had our thinking broadened by these cultural contacts.
Comparing the work camps in Algeria and Iran is like comparing chalk and cheese as the latter was very much controlled by the European main office and we remained focused on the task in hand. The Algerian SCI experience seemed a very amateurish affair in comparison though perhaps it is not fair to be too damning because the two projects were very different in nature and the needs of the local population with which we were working were very different. Maybe methods used in Iran would not have worked in Algeria and vice versa.
Because of the year or more that I had been working as a volunteer I decided to go back to University on my eventual return to the UK and attained a Post Graduate Diploma in Social Administration at the London School of Economics. This course was aimed at the problems of working in the “Developing World” and with this Diploma I was able to get work as the Co-coordinator of the EWG’s new focus for voluntary work in Iran by using only skilled volunteers, often working singly as part of an Iranian establishment such as in nursing, agriculture and building.
When this organization closed down due to political pressure in Holland I left and pursued a different type of employment and lifestyle but the experience gained served me well in much of my work in the years to come.
My experiences helped me change my direction in life and the return to University on a course which would allow me to work in an administrative position in relief work. I also mentioned the benefit of having worked closely with Muslims both in Algeria and Iran.
I certainly became more tolerant of diversity in the world but I also travelled for three months in India, Pakistan and Ceylon after leaving Iran which completed in many ways the experiences gained in Algeria and Iran.