From war-torn to normality

March 03, 2018

Columnist Steve Hutcheson

Acehenese children play at a refugee champ after tidal waves hit Indonesia's tsunami-battered Aceh province, Indonesia, Monday, July 25, 2005. A strong earthquake shook Indonesia's tsunami-battered Aceh province late Sunday, but there were no immediate reports of injuries or damage, seismologists and residents said. (AP Photo)

epaselect epa06270978 Afghan boys who were displaced due to war check the remains of their home, devastated by the military operations, in Bolan, on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah, Helmand province, Afghanistan, 17 October 2017. Thousands of families who were displaced from Helmand due to military offensive against the Taliban militants have returned to their homes after one year and demanded the government and the international community to help them rebuild their homes. EPA/WATAN YAR

With a bullet-proof vest on and at least 10 armed guards surrounding him, Steve Hutcheson poses for a photo.

He is about to head off to work — in Afghanistan.

The now-Rushworth resident spent the past 17 years as an aid worker in various conflict and disaster zones — far removed from his childhood attending primary school in Stanhope.

After studying engineering at Swinburne University in Melbourne, Mr Hutcheson became renowned for his photographic work.

‘‘I had a little studio in Chapel St in Prahran (in 1999),’’ he said.

For about five years Mr Hutcheson made a living shooting black-and-white photographs for the fashion industry.

‘‘It was a lifestyle as much as anything else,’’ he said.

But the end of a long-term relationship and Mr Hutcheson’s 14-year-old pet Chihuahua dying prompted him to make a drastic change.

‘‘I was really getting frustrated with what I was doing,’’ he said.

An earthquake in Turkey in 1999 caused Mr Hutcheson to realise his next move.

‘‘I thought the world needs more engineers,’’ he said.

After applying for volunteer work in the country, he was told there was no work for him there but they needed more helpers in Kosovo — where a war had been raging since early 1998.

‘‘I thought — they’re killing each other over there. I don’t know if I want to go,’’ Mr Hutcheson said.

‘‘But I eventually took the job.’’

It was the beginning of almost two decades of humanitarian work which would see Mr Hutcheson rise from the ranks of a volunteer to program manager with the United Nations.

Initially beginning his aid work in housing rehabilitation, Mr Hutcheson spent 18 months in Kosovo, predominantly working on the Unfinished Houses Project.

There, Mr Hutcheson met his current wife Akiyo, who had been doing similar work to him.

The pair set off to travel through Europe after their stint in Kosovo and in 2001 he got the call-up to return to work — this time in war-torn Afghanistan, where he would spend a total of 3 years on two separate occasions working with the United Nations.

‘‘I started off there with a non-government organisation, then I got a UN job, starting off as a volunteer and I just kept jumping up the corporate ladder,’’ Mr Hutcheson said.

‘‘I got to be a senior program manager for one of their major programs and I was also the senior UN adviser to the minister for rural rehabilitation and development and urban development.’’

Despite the impressive title, Mr Hutcheson experienced the hardships of war first-hand, often fearing for his life and not knowing if he would survive the day.

‘‘You’re driving in a convoy and you’re thinking — this is risky — guns are constantly being pointed at you,’’ he said.

‘‘I’ve had half a dozen colleagues killed — kidnapped and blown up — and our office has been blown up, my partner’s been blown up.

‘‘One of our guys was kidnapped by the Talibs for about six months.

‘‘It was full-on.

‘‘I was at a stage in the contract where I could finish... so we did.’’

Mr Hutcheson and Akiyo travelled to Australia where they spent Christmas Day in 2004 before they received another phone call — this time to head to tsunami-struck Indonesia.

Arriving 10 days after the tsunami hit, Mr Hutcheson started to feel affected by what he had experienced.

‘‘When we got to Indonesia, of course there were just dead bodies everywhere... they were piling up in the street,’’ Mr Hutcheson said.

‘‘I was pretty stressed. One of the things that isn’t well recognised is that as aid workers, we end up with post-traumatic stress disorder.’’

Shortly after, in 2005, Mr Hutcheson was recognised for his work and was awarded the inaugural Pride of Australia Medal for Peace.

It would not bring an end to Mr Hutcheson’s crisis work, however, as he was about to embark on another 18-month stint in Afghanistan after a couple of years off.

Mr Hutcheson and Akiyo bought a house in Malaysia in 2009 where they married before he rushed to the aid of the Pakistan flood victims in 2010.

‘‘We started a program over there for rebuilding houses and we ended up building around 39000,’’ he said.

‘‘We put about a quarter of a million people into houses.’’

After finishing the job, Mr Hutcheson almost immediately went to Micronesia where they had experienced the wrath of typhoon Maysak in 2015.

This would be his final job in the industry — Mr Hutcheson’s last hurrah.

‘‘I really am trying to get out of it now,’’ he said.

However, despite all the horror he has dealt with abroad, Mr Hutcheson was to face his own trauma at home when his son Ben took his own life two years ago. He was 45.

Drawing on his remarkable life experience, Steve Hutcheson will write a regular column for The News starting next week.

If this article has triggered any personal issues for readers, Lifeline is available on 131114.

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