Dr Unni Krishnan isn’t satisfied with just making the world a better place. He wants to change the world. And he believes it’s possible.
Dr Unni describes himself as a possibilist. Twenty-five years of saving lives and finding solutions in some of the world’s most desperate situations has taught him not to dwell too much on blind optimism. Nor does he waste time on the hopelessness of pessimism.
“It’s important to understand that it is always possible to do something. If you just wait for the world to make things happen by being an optimist nothing will change.”
He speaks with a calm intensity. Passionate but gentle. It’s almost hard to imagine how someone who has looked so much tragedy directly in the eye can be so cheerful.
“Take cholera for example,” he tells me, “It’s a race against time. Six hours. A child could die from dehydration in six hours. You can’t waste time thinking everything will be ok, it’ll all just go away. Nor can you throw your hands in the air and say there’s nothing we can do. You have to start thinking you can make a difference and that it’s possible to make a difference. Because a disease or a disaster need not be a death sentence. And a safe place for children in crisis need not be somewhere else. That’s the point. You might call it being a possibilist.”
As a boy growing up in Kerala, India, Unni remembers the monsoon season. He remembers the futility of umbrellas against the rains. And he recalls when the puddles became ponds and then lakes that might as well have been oceans.
In some places the water was black with mud. But Unni’s mother would point out the lotus flowers blooming in the middle of the filth. “Unni, you can choose to see the darkness of the water,” she would say, “Or you can see the beautiful flower that has emerged. The choice is yours.”
It’s a message Unni has carried with him all over the world. To the remnants of villages ruined by cyclones and earthquakes, to communities ravaged by killer viruses and to camps of frightened children sheltering from violent conflict.
It was after a monster earthquake – Latur, India, 1993 – that Unni began to see things in a different light. He was leading a response team on the ground in the aftermath of the quake. 52 villages destroyed, 30,000 injured and about 10,000 dead. Among the debris and the chaos, Unni began to think about the invisible impact of disaster on the human mind.
“Disability you can see. People in a wheelchair or on crutches. But how do you actually tell the story of someone who is traumatised. Since there were not many guidelines, no standards, we thought of trying out more unexpected things which made me really understand that you can do things in a different way.”
One day, in a taxi leaving the impact zone, tired and dozing on his way to the airport, Unni was thinking about the children. How they were not coming out from their houses or shelters. Not going to school. Shaken and scared, they would not come out to play. Nobody had any answers. Unni decided this was a serious problem.
Suddenly he was struck by the sound of about two hundred children in one of the slums by the side of the road. Having not seen children together for weeks he told the driver to stop.
“There was a bear charmer,” he told me, matter-of-factly. “He had a ring of fire and the bear would jump through it. The children would laugh and clap and the charmer went around collecting coins in a hat. I waited. My driver waited. I missed my flight. I didn’t care. Afterwards, I asked the bear charmer how much money he’d made from the show. He said around 100 rupees (about $1.50). So I said I would double his daily rate.”
Unni asked the charmer if he would perform in a village 300 kilometres away. He’d have to bring his wife and his children and, of course, the bear. The driver wouldn’t have it. So Unni found another. They began the journey two hours later.
“In the front seat there was the new driver, the bear charmer and the bear,” he continued, smirking. “The driver refused to let the bear into the back seat! In the back was the wife, their children and myself. I knew the driver was tired but he never slept. You don’t sleep when you’re driving and there’s a bear sitting next to you!”
The next morning the troupe reached the village. They used a loudspeaker to announce that the first show would begin at 10am.
“We were a smash hit! There were children coming from all over. We set up a makeshift performance area and this would become our ‘temporary learning space’. School classes started there and we said very clearly that one of the lessons would be about bears and how they perform.”
This was not a story about how performing bears can be useful in the wake of disaster. In fact, Unni has not employed a bear charmer since (though he does work with clowns from time to time), it’s about the idea of reintroducing a sense of normalcy to children who have been traumatised. And that sometimes you need to use unique methods to have the most impact.
“Children do not particularly like psychiatrists and doctors; they are scared of specialists who conjure up images of being poked with needles. And these are long lasting effects we are talking about. But unless you address those invisible needs, you can’t put people – especially children – back on their feet,” he rocks back in his chair. “You don’t get everything from a manual or a handbook.”
One of the difficulties in dealing with trauma in children is that each circumstance is unique. Every catastrophic event prompts a different response. Unni tells me about the recent earthquakes near Fukushima, for example, and how afterwards many of the children affected would not flush the toilet because the sound and the movement of the water would jog memories of the tsunami.
But of all the calamity Unni has witnessed, it’s the conflict that concerns him the most.
“The hatred that triggers bitter conflict is the number one most difficult and frightening issue,” he explains. “This is born of a thing in people’s minds. I’ve worked in countless earthquake zones, hurricanes, flood – if you look at these natural disasters, they can sometimes bring the best out in people, it binds people, they want to help their neighbours, their communities, even sometimes the neighbouring countries.
“But conflict and violence and war, it polarises people. So even the neighbours who used to like each other, start hating each other. Remember what happened in Rwanda...”
Unni was working in South Sudan, in a child friendly space - a lifeline for children in disasters and for those displaced and separated from family. It was during the bloody ‘civil war’ in 2013, Unni was taking pictures when he met two children he says he’ll never forget in his life.
“I could see them sitting together involuntarily hugging each other every few seconds. Of the hundred children in the space, these two…there was something about them.”
I detect a slight quiver in his voice.
“They told me their story. One was four and the other was nine. They both had been playing a few days before in a place called Bor, Jonglei State.
“They heard some noise, shouting. Then they saw a group of people marching in. They hid. A few minutes later they saw the mob pulling several people out and they shot two people point blank. One woman and one man. It was the father and mother of these two children.
“Immediately the elder child grabbed the smaller one. Suddenly she was transformed into the mother of her four-year-old sister. They started running, joining a wave of people heading towards the River Nile. In the night they got on a boat and crossed the river. And from there they ended up in our refuge where I met them.”
It’s from children like this that Unni appears to draw his energy and determination to create change. Not that he’s immune to the emotions that are bound in this line of work.
He admits that he cries on certain days, wishing that the world could be a little more generous. More compassionate. But he is also buoyed by the fact that there is, at least, a vehicle for him to do the work he does. And that there are people willing to trust and to support the mission.
He also admits that the moment he stops feeling those feelings – pain, frustration, compassion, hope, desperation - this will be the moment he’ll switch career.
Unni can’t tell me how many crises he’s been deployed to.
“If you ask me how many missions I’ve been on or how many projects I’ve run I won’t remember that. But I remember playing football and flying kites and painting in crayon with children in 40 different countries worldwide.”
He speaks of the lessons he’s learned from children. How they have opened his mind. And how, often, their stories and experiences teach life’s simple lessons more convincingly than professors at prestigious universities.
“I like kites”, he explains. “One evening in Afghanistan I was flying kites with some children. Kites had been banned by the Taliban, who were no longer in power but still around, so you needed to be careful. Until recently it was only missiles that had been painting pictures in the sky.
“I was struggling. My kite was not going up. These two little children came and told me, ‘Look, man, you’re holding it the wrong way. Kites fly against, not along with the wind.’ It was one of the best lessons I ever learned! I thought they were making a great statement not just about kites but also the social pressure they were going through”.
This story reminds me of the lotus in the dirty pond. It explains a lot about how Unni sees the world. Often in metaphors and in tune with the finer details.
Unni is here in Australia working on the launch of an Emergency Health Unit, a new global capability to provide frontline medical and health assistance in crises settings.
Part of the project involves developing an idea that he hopes will tap into the good intentions of doctors, nurses and particularly students. He calls it the ‘Uberisation’ of humanitarian aid. It aims to provide a platform to facilitate the people who want to apply their expertise to the cause of saving lives and protecting children’s rights in disaster zones.
He’s greatly encouraged by the general willingness of people who want to help, despite their geographical distance and by the collective capacity of organisations like Save the Children.
“It’s really great to feel that you are part of something bigger and better than your individual self. That there is something driving us, working as this centripetal force – pulling everybody together into the centre – which, in our case, is children.
“I think that’s a very important and powerful thing to remember, knowing there’s a community that backs us and supporters and journalists who believe in us and our ambassadors who are talking about us. And they know we’re not into something small like ‘making a difference’, we are actually into changing the world. It’s comforting to know we have that support, because we can’t fight this battle alone.”