IT’S hard to picture Bob Handby in any of the stories he tells.
A softly spoken man, his voice doesn’t add any drama to the wars or disasters he has witnessed.
Nor is his Port Fairy home what you would expect from someone who has travelled the world — there aren’t a million exotic mementos nailed to the wall. The living room is minimalist with only a few subtle photos hinting to his fascinating life.
Recently, Red Cross colleagues from around the globe made a video for his retirement from the field, spliced with their personal stories and TV footage of him speaking to media in places such as a dirty river in Rwanda or surrounded by the rubble left by a disaster.
The last three decades of Mr Handby’s work reads like a resume of destruction — but also as an inspiring tale of a council officer who saw his chance to deliver safe water for thousands of displaced people.
His initial interest began with a disaster close to home — helping families relocate from their burnt- out of homes following Ash Wednesday in 1983.
The next year Uganda, embroiled in a civil war after the downfall of dictator Idi Amin, was the first mission for the water and sanitation expert.
“It was a nasty conflict — people were killing each other and our own security was a problem,” the 61-year-old explained.
‘‘We were held up at gunpoint, taken into the bush, sat down and our staff were interrogated.
“We had one convoy I was in that split. Three cars went one way and I went another way. The people in the other convoy got shot up and injured.
‘‘I got called in to evacuate them not knowing that the people who had shot them were waiting for me.”
He doesn’t recall any lucky escapes — Red Cross workers are rarely fired at.
But some curious things do happen.
Children will step out on the road and urge aid workers not to press forward. And local advice about threats like landmines needs to be heeded.
Mr Handby did 12 missions last year alone before deciding to take a step back. He is vastly experienced in what he does, but it wasn’t always so.
“I learnt the hard way. My first mission to Uganda in 1984 I went away with no training, no briefings.
‘‘It was the civil war. I pulled up at the front office in my LandCruiser and a lady came up and handed me a parcel.
‘‘It was a blanket. I took it in shock. She ran off.
“I walked through the gate and realised she had handed me her dead baby.”
The small body could not have been more than two days old. The mother, not knowing what to do with her child, had simply given it to the Red Cross.
“My responsibility is not with the people who are dead. You can’t do much for them.
‘‘My responsibility is for the people who are alive.”
That obligation has been pushed to its very limits.
At the height of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2006 up to 40,000 Tamil people were trapped in a narrow corridor of land on the east of the island.
The shelling was continuous and there was nowhere to hide except “foxholes” that filled with water.
Mothers with newborns spent months taking cover from shrapnel until the strain became too much.
During temporary ceasefires Mr Handby and other aid workers moved in to the camps distributing water, food and blankets.
Once on the Tamil side of the wire the shelling stopped, something the women in the camps were quick to recognise.
“They were surrounding our vehicle so we couldn’t get out,” Mr Handby said.
“Because this was going on for so, so long they were reaching what I called a point of despair.
‘‘This was not a life they were leading.
‘‘So they started attacking our vehicles — climbing on the vehicle and screaming at me through my interpreter: ‘Tell your boss there’s no point bringing water any more, we don’t want to live, we want to die. Tell him to bring poison’.”
Also notable were efforts by the Red Cross to restore drinking water in Rwanda at the height of the bloody 1994 genocide.
“People forget that 800,000 people died in 100 days. I was there for 70 of those hundred days building camps for displaced people.”
He said that friendly checkpoint soldiers who had welcomed him in the morning as “Mr Bob” became unpredictable by the evening after hours of drinking with machine guns slung over their shoulders.
He was also on the ground in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, following the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that killed more than 230,000 people.
During the 1991 Gulf War he briefly met Kurdish political leader and future Iraqi president Jalal Talabani who was seated on a rug in the ruins of a school surrounded by men armed with machine guns.
During the interesting cultural exchange the political leader bluntly asked why Australia buried dead sheep affected by the drought when his people were unable to feed themselves.
In news footage of Mr Handby speaking to Australian journalists surrounded by ruin or filthy rivers, it is evident that his secondary role has been an unofficial disaster spokesman and aid advocate.
An interview with 60 Minutes after the Pakistan floods in 2010 helped generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations, according to Red Cross bosses. Mr Handby won’t speak politically for obvious reasons but knowing the reality of life in refugee camps causes him frustration in the face of Australia’s attitude towards asylum seekers.
“I’ve been in refugee camps in Jordan and some of the people in those refugee camps are third generation.
‘‘They are born into those camps and young people particularly don’t accept that this is where they will spend the rest of their lives.
“You can’t help but have compassion for the reasons over why people want to come to Australia.
‘‘I think most Australians don’t understand what these people are trying to escape from.”
While hardline laws might stop smugglers, desperate people will always find a way.
“For the individuals, whether they go to Manus Island, Nauru or Sydney — it doesn’t matter to them. They are escaping what they are escaping.”
He turns the situation around. If it was an Australian father who had led his family from war to safety “we’d see him as an absolute hero”.
Even 12 months after his last mission ended Mr Handby is still getting calls and emails from those seeking a new life in Australia.
“I get communications from people trying to reach Australia, some of them on Christmas Island.”
Being able to operate effectively also means putting some hard philosophical questions to the side.
How is it that some human beings can live in a place dubbed the world’s best small town while others die in their millions from preventable diseases?
“I’ve never tried to justify why we are so lucky and why others are so unlucky ... there’s no answer to such a question,” he said.
“When you’re in the field you have to look at things practically.
‘‘For me to do that I can’t look at things too philosophically. It’s a coping mechanism.
“I’ve never said to my children if they’ve wanted another pair of shoes, ‘you’ve already got three pairs’.”
Being an official ambassador for the charity still keeps him flying domestically.
Earlier last week he spent the day in Sydney explaining to donors how their dollars saved lives.
Colleagues have joked that he will probably never formally retire from the field.
For now Mr Handby has stopped seeking out missions. But if his phone rang with a request for help after a large-scale disaster, “I’d consider it,” he said.