For five days last month, David Holdridge traveled by jeep among thousands of starving refugees in northern Iraq. He covered some 3,000 miles and hardly slept. Not long after his arrival, time came to lose meaning for him.
"Days have no significance in a situation like that. For a thousand bucks, I couldn't have told you whether it was Wednesday or Saturday," says the official with Catholic Relief Services, a Baltimore-based international aid organization.
Holdridge, who monitors Europe, Asia and parts of Africa for CRS, was in Iraq to get a first-hand look at the grim conditions there. He and CRS officials from other countries were trying to determine how the organization can continue aid to Iraqi war refugees and residents of the Baghdad area, a prime target of allied bombing during the Persian Gulf War.
Since last August, when Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait led to international sanctions against Iraq, CRS has supplied Iraqi war victims with food, oil, medicine and other supplies valued at $4 million.
According to Holdridge, the Iraqi government has the capacity to pay for such supplies and seems to understand that it must make that effort or face the devastation of the country.
"Iraq's government must do this for its people to survive and for the country to stay intact," he says.
Back in Baltimore since last Wednesday, Holdridge has found that his work days aren't much easier than they were in Iraq. In recent months, he says, he and other CRS workers have averaged 13-hour days, seven days a week, at the organization's headquarters in the 200 block of W. Fayette St.
"My job has become very tiring, both physically and mentally, and I think all my colleagues in the relief field would agree that matters in the world are worse now than they've been in the last decade," says Holdridge, who appeared physically tired in an interview yesterday.
During his 10 years with the CRS, Holdridge, 46, has worked in Lebanon, Tunisia, Morocco and Senegal. CRS, founded in 1942, was created by U.S. Roman Catholic bishops to send relief to Third World nations.
The current predicament, Holdridge says, has resulted from more than bad timing -- the Iraqi refugee crisis, an earthquake in Costa Rica and a cyclone in Bangladesh, all within weeks.
CRS recently has given $25,000 to the Costa Rican Catholic church for relief supplies, and $250,000 to another Catholic relief group in Bangladesh.
"If all we had to do was provide food, medicine and other materials to people, then our jobs would be pretty simple. Bangladesh and Costa Rica will be repaired in time. What worries us the most are places like Iraq and certain parts of Africa and Eastern Europe, places where political instability creates all kinds of difficulties that linger for years," says Holdridge.
In those regions, CRS and other relief groups give material assistance and lobby national governments to help their own needy citizens. The relief organizations try to convince governments that withholding aid from their people can bring political and economic pressure from the rest of the world community.
"Along with other relief groups, CRS was involved in creating cease-fire zones in Angola and Ethiopia so we could distribute materials to people there," says Holdridge. "We're a small voice, but by doing something like that, we can show that a permanent cease-fire might be possible."
The current spate of international calamities has made matters tough not only for CRS staffers but also for the organization's donors, Holdridge says.
"We've had to go back to our donors, asking them to give on a very frequent basis," he explains, describing most CRS donors as "working and middle-class Americans."
Donors to relief organizations reportedly are more willing to help when a natural disaster strikes. They are less prone to give when a calamity results from a political situation that they may not completely comprehend or sympathize with.
"It requires some courage not to get so stretched thin that we do nothing well," says Holdridge. "On the average, CRS stays in countries of extreme need for 25 years. We don't ambulance-chase. Before the first relief truck rolls in, we've focused on the root causes of the problems in a particular country and decided on a long-term plan. That includes political action. We're not just dropping off supplies and hitting the road."
He says the next major hot spot could be Eastern Europe, where comatose economies and tensions caused by nationalist conflicts could create of refugees into Western Europe.
"That would have a major impact on the amount of relief that industrial nations give to the Third World," says Holdridge. "Western Europe is traditionally a strong donor to Third World countries, but if you see refugees start heading west from Eastern Europe, then everything would change. Western Europe's attention would be fixed right there, in their own back yard."