If there's a conflict or natural disaster that springs to mind over the past four decades, chances are Port Fairy's Bob Handby was there to help. KATRINA LOVELL reports.
From war zones to natural disasters and outbreaks of disease like Ebola, there is so much Port Fairy's Bob Handby has seen in his lifetime of working with the International Red Cross.
Name a major conflict or disaster and chances are Bob was in the thick of it.
But after almost four decades since his first overseas mission, he has finally put pen to paper, literally.
Two years of COVID lockdowns have given Bob the time to finally finish a book about his experiences, something he wrote by hand.
Stories of convoys being shot up in Uganda, women in Sri Lanka climbing onto the car bonnet begging for help and living in a tent high up in Iraq's inhospitable mountains are just some of the stories he tells.
"I give the good stories and the bad stories. Some of them are confronting, some of them are humourous. I wrote it to get it out of my head," Bob said.
He also published You Will Go, Won't You? because Australians don't really understand what Red Cross does internationally.
"Many people say it's an unusual title. I've been saying for 10 years if ever I write a book that will be the title," he said.
The title is a tribute to his wife. She has not only supported him in the 35 missions across 20 countries he has been on - some for months at a time - but is probably the reason he actually went in the first place.
As a local government employee in the Dandenongs in 1984, Bob received a call from the Red Cross out of the blue asking him to go to Uganda.
His experience working in the aftermath of the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires helped make him an ideal choice, but Bob's first response was "thanks, but no thanks".
When he told his wife Judi, her reply was "you will go, won't you?"
"Ten days later I'm on a plane thinking 'what the hell am I doing here?'"
In hindsight, that first trip overseas to Uganda was probably his most dangerous mission.
In 1984, Uganda was in the middle of civil war - dubbed the Bush War - with rebels attempting to bring down president Milton Obote.
He was eventually overthrown in 1986 but when Bob arrived they were "in the thick of it", and he found himself working in the middle of a conflict zone.
In fact half his missions overseas were in conflict zones - in later years he spent more time working on natural disasters like the Boxing Day tsunami and Pakistan floods.
In most conflicts there was usually two defined parties but in Uganda, he said, "you never knew who was fighting who".
"One convoy that was shot up that I was involved in we never ever knew, even to this day, who actually shot up the convoy."
Four Red Cross vehicles had set out from Kampala that day, and it was not long after Bob had stopped off to do some other work when the call came over the radio to say they had been hit.
"They were screaming for help," he said.
By the time Bob arrived, there was just an empty car sitting in the middle of the road full of bullet holes and blood.
The injured, who luckily survived the attack, had been taken back to the capital for medical care but at that time they didn't know how badly they were hurt.
Bob always carried a cake of Velvet soap in the back of the car and, noticing the fuel tanks under the car were leaking, decided to plug it with the soap.
"As I'm lying under there, three soldiers turned up. I could see their boots but I didn't know who they were," he said.
"I very nervously wriggled out from under the car and I'm looking up at these blokes with hand grenades and bullets hanging off them, wild looking characters."
When he explained to them what he was doing, they simply asked for the soap and walked off back into the bushes. "I hopped back into the car covered in blood and drove back to Kampala," Bob said.
There were a number of incidents like that in Uganda, he said, but letting Judi know back home he was OK usually meant a US$10 a minute phone call or a letter - which could take six weeks to arrive.
"You didn't do that very often," he said. "I never kept any secrets from Judi, but I didn't always fill in the gaps neither."
His work often involved a high level of confidentiality. Knowing that any correspondence might be monitored, you had to be careful what you said or how you said it.
One day in Uganda a nurse radioed to advise of a "build up of troops" nearby and suggested evacuating the hospital.
She was told to not convey information over the radio because it was effectively telling the government where to send in the rockets. Despite the warning, the nurse got back on the radio and said "repeat, there's a build up of troops".
"We worked on the assumption there was always someone reading our communications or listening to our conversations," Bob said.
Bob was in Rwanda during much of the 1994 genocide that claimed 800,000 lives. "The war went for 100 days and I spent 70 days there," he said.
"You're just dealing with so many people who had lost family, friends or neighbours or children."
Bob has seen the movie Hotel Rwanda but says it doesn't portray how bad it really was. "One of the reasons was you couldn't smell anything in the movie. The whole country smelled like death," he said.
In 1991, he spent three months living in a tent in some of the most inhospitable parts of the world.
After the Kuwait-Iraq conflict, Bob was sent out from Baghdad to live among the Kurdish people in the mountains - a place so remote they had to walk much of it because it couldn't be reached by car or tractor.
"It was tough. Hot in the day and cold at night. No relief from it seven days a week," he said.
"I spent six weeks there and then was shifted to the Iraq/Iran border and did similar stuff there."
In 2006, he found himself in Sri Lanka - a conflict that he says Australians knew very little about then, and still don't.
He said he would ring Judi to assure her that he was safe despite the mass killings he was sure she would hear about on the nightly news.
"But it never even got a mention back here. It wasn't in the papers or on the news, 70 innocent people were attacked by the government," he said.
At the time, Bob was working with 40,000 internally displaced people who were being "held as virtual human shields". The memory of desperate women surrounding his car is still fresh in his mind.
"They worked out that the only time they weren't being shelled was when the Red Cross was there because we'd negotiated a cease fire. The women started surrounding our vehicles and trying to stop us leaving," he said.
"One day the women were surrounding my car and climbing up on the windscreen on the bonnet of the LandCruiser hanging onto the windscreen wipers screaming at me through the window."
The translator's words are chilling. "Don't bring water anymore, bring poison. We'd rather be dead than living like this," they'd screamed.
"I tell that story because some of their sons and brothers and fathers get on a rickety old boat trying to come out to Australia and when they get out here we treat them like shit."
The Red Cross ambassador's last real mission was in Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak at the height of a spike in cases. Nervously, he went to help build an Ebola treatment centre.
There are lessons from his experiences there that he said he wished the world had paid attention to with the coronavirus pandemic.
"It's hard to measure your impact. Sometimes the impact is immediate, like with Ebola, and other times it's not quite so clear," he said.
TV journalist Chris Bath, who has written the forward in the book, credits Bob with having saved thousands of lives, something he reluctantly agrees is probably true.
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