S adako Ogata, a quiet scholar of diplomatic history and political science, found herself plunged into horrific humanitarian crises from the Balkans to Iraq to Somalia when she was plucked from academia in Tokyo in early 1991 to become the U.N. high commissioner for refugees.
After 10 years in that job, Ogata, who at age 77 still manages difficult relief situations as president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, said she felt compelled to write a book to share her insights and experience.
She was in Washington this week to help promote "The Turbulent Decade," just published by W.W. Norton, about her tenure confronting refugee crises as the head of the U.N. agency.
From the first day she took up the post in Geneva, selected from a list of 16 Japanese candidates, Ogata was directly exposed to calamity, she said in an interview Monday at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel here.
In northern Iraq, there was a surge of Kurdish refugees fleeing to Iran and Turkey. In Ethiopia, 200,000 people who had taken refuge in Somalia were returning -- while 150,000 Somalis fleeing their own conflict amid drought and famine were heading to Ethiopia. In the Balkans, large numbers of Albanians were crossing the Adriatic Sea to Italy.
Ogata's brief gradually expanded to cover refugee dramas in Africa's Great Lakes region and other hot spots on that continent, crumbling security in the Balkans and the former Soviet republics, and crises in East Timor and Afghanistan.
"Something had fundamentally changed," she wrote. "Humanitarian action was not any more confined to the rear lines of political and military conflict . . . humanitarian action has moved to the heart of wars."
Ogata's most important contribution in telling the story of refugees, as stated in a foreword by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, is her determination "not to allow relief efforts to become a humanitarian fig leaf or a substitute for meaningful political action."
Relief work is not just about handing out assistance, Ogata asserted in the interview. "It is about being with the victims to ease their burden, to help them get back to normal homes and lives. . . . It is really about community building, not just physical rebuilding but about empowerment, a sense of belonging," she said.
Ogata's book also talks about how, in the end, political solutions and awareness are as important as assistance. Without plans and prevention strategies, a lot of opportunities are missed, she warns, citing the humanitarian crises in Rwanda and Sudan as cases in which the world waited too long to act.
There were moments when Ogata remembered feeling "so desperate." A band of 50 abandoned children milling around by themselves in volcanic terrain in Rwanda broke her heart, she said.
When she encountered a 100-year-old woman left behind in a refugee camp in central Bosnia, she also had to fight back tears. The woman told her that enemy gunmen decided not to shoot her because she was too old.
"When you find children who are displaced, they are sad, but they find life," Ogata said in describing the joy she felt at seeing children reading in a camp or safely sheltered from a life-threatening environment. "But old people are really sad. You listen to their stories and your heart goes out to them. You want to try to make a little difference, but at the end you cannot change the political conditions."
In the interview, Ogata said it was hard to watch the recent scandals that have beset several U.N. agencies and missions, but she cautioned that abuses of the system had always been something to watch out for.
With refugee populations seeking resettlement, she said, "some bribing" of immigration officials and U.N. refugee workers did occur in extreme situations. "The most important thing is not to keep people in the same job for a long time," she said.
Ogata said that humanitarian workers should not be exposed to combat situations, but that it was always hard to have to decide to pull out the refugee agency's staff.
An example was in Kosovo in 1999. After conferring with NATO officers, she said she knew that military action against Serb forces would be inevitable. Talks had broken down and she had to make sure 40 trucks delivered relief supplies. "When the empty trucks returned we were relieved, but also very sad," she recalled.
Ogata said she learned a lot from dealing with the military in the Balkans -- and that the military learned a lot from working with her agency. Asked if there were intense differences of opinion, she demurred, saying, "It was much more a difference of practice."
In the same breath, she pointed out that while it is important for relief organizations to be firm about certain things, "We have to be principled as well as flexible."