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Where Soldiers Fear to Tread: A Relief Worker's Tale of Survival

3.62  ·  Rating Details  ·  173 Ratings  ·  26 Reviews
“There is going to be a shooting here and it is a toss-up who is going to get the boy’s first round. The soldier, about ten years old, is jamming the barrel of his gun hard against my driver’s face, and unless the kid decides to go for me, the relief worker, my driver is going to get his head blown off.”

Where Soldiers Fear to Tread

John Burnett survived this ordeal and othe
Paperback, 368 pages
Published June 27th 2006 by Bantam (first published May 31st 2005)
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Community Reviews

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Burnett went to Somalia as a relief worker with the World Food Program (a part of the UN) in the late 90s. He hadn't done humanitarian work before, but he was at loose ends and wanted something different, and, well, the WFP needed people capable of handling boats.

It's a complicated situation on many levels: Nobody asked the UN to come in, but then, Somalia's government wasn't in a shape to do so. Where the relief workers could go was dictated largely by where they could form local agreements for
Sally McRogerson
Jul 30, 2011 Sally McRogerson rated it really liked it
Somalia, as you may well not know cos no Brits died so we didn't bother having reports in our media, was badly flooded in 1998. This is the personal story of one UN aid worker and the cock ups that are his experience of aid relief. The kit they were sent with is very flashy, had the sponsors name writ large so it shows up should it get on the telly, but is totally unsuitable for the conditions. One package of humanitarian aid turned out to be 200 electric blankets. For a country that has no elec ...more
Jun 23, 2008 Rebecca rated it liked it
A new insider's look at the world of those who deliver emergency aid, one that doesn't paint a very pretty picture of the NGO world. Scary and frustrating by turns. I could've done with more descriptions of Somalia and the 1998 famine, and a lot less slobbering over every expat female that crosses the author's path.
Nov 01, 2015 Linda rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"I have become involved, not the way I expected, but involved. My nerves are raw and at the same time I feel dulled. I play out a role in this Danteque set piece while constantly staying alert that I don't walk into someone's bullet, yet maybe - maybe not much caring if I do. I wonder if aid workers elsewhere experience this ineluctable ambivalence toward survival. Any one of the events here would make an indelible, possibly traumatic mark in its singularity, but cumulatively, they blend into on ...more
Jul 28, 2010 Marsha rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
In this book, John Burnett chronicles his experiences as a relief worker during flooding in Somalia in 1997-1998. He had very interesting insights into the infighting and politics of the UN, Unicef, and the World Food Program. He also vividly describes the anarchy within Somalia--subclans and sub-subclans fighting for territory and power with complete lawlessness. The warlords permit the relief agencies to do their thing only because the agencies pay them to allow it, and despite huge security i ...more
Oct 26, 2015 Bettina rated it really liked it
To get straight to the point: This was an excellent read. I could hardly put it down, it highlights the complexities of the situation in a deeply personal way, and Burnett's vivid descriptions are thoroughly engaging and heartbreaking. There is something undeniably endearing about his level of reflection and sometimes unflattering honesty, the way he doesn't provide answers but rather opens the floor for new questions. These questions regarding motive have no easy answers, and he doesn't attempt ...more
Feb 27, 2015 Kate rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: africa, war-veteran
A surprisingly un-obnoxious book about doing UN relief work in Somalia. In the beginning, I really thought that the author was going to be too self-involved, but he was actually rather humble. The behind the scenes look into the political forces that govern relief efforts are startling and scary. The branding of aid by governments, particularly the US, has compromised the neutrality of humanitarian aid and the number of relief workers kidnapped and killed has increased. Burnette's big kick is th ...more
Dec 30, 2007 Claire rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A quote from near the end: “While writing this did serve as therapeutic balm that partially healed the wounds of Somalia, it could not affect the change in attitude and outlook that resulted from such experiences. There are a few short-term, a few long-term effects, both salutary and deleterious. In any case, I cannot recall the person I was before Somalia. It is for damn sure that I sometimes do not recognize the person I have become.”
I like the quote because I can relate so much to it. Africa
Mar 25, 2012 Brenda rated it liked it
It's a great read about a topic that is complicated and bound to stir up emotions. It's well written and moving. The only reason I'd give it 3 stars is the author is extremely involved in the story (naturally) and for this reason, the facts appear to be skewed in some sections. I wouldn't mind this so much if it hadn't been presented as a "factual book" of sorts that's meant to inform how humanitarian operations are run. It's an awesome memoir but the barks louder than the bike.
Jan 24, 2010 Wwchung rated it really liked it
I thought it was a telling story of the complexities in Relief work and those that put their lives on the line.
I found the section sad but all too familiar where it was acceptable for relief workers to be killed as long as the UN bureaucrats kept the donations coming. And also how keeping the donors happy and feeling good was as important, if not more so then actually providing food and supplies to those in need.
Dec 31, 2007 Carol rated it it was ok
Interesting story about the perils of a relief effort during the Somali floods in the late 90s. Unfortunately, the author's acrimonious tone quickly gets old. I admire his honesty, but he came off seeming emotionally unstable and unfit for the job he jumped into. Especially when describing himself jumping around and pantomiming sex for a village full of starving Muslims. Cringe. The ugly American.
Joe Cross
May 05, 2009 Joe Cross rated it liked it
I like the brisk pacing of the book and his concise assessments of scenarios. I'm also rather amazed at his candid portrayal of his relationships. He'd have gotten a four for ridding me of rose-tinted glasses with regard to relief efforts but the ending of the book was somewhat abrupt and messy. Overall it's still a rather good read.
Sep 27, 2010 Ellen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A look inside Somalia and the life of a aid worker employed by the U.N. Burnett is very critical of the lack of support given aid workers in very dangerous situations. Burnett is a good writer and we read about the events, but also learn about his very mixed feelings regarding himself and the whole system of providing humanitarian aid.
Aug 06, 2007 Daniel rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: everyone
fascinating look inside relief operations during tragic flooding in Somalia. written from a first responder's viewpoint and exposing the often dangerous worlds Aid workers encounter. well written, and fast paced. Also great introduction to crisis in Somalia and the politics of the surrounding region.
Jul 29, 2008 Nadir rated it really liked it
Shelves: african-affairs
highlights the sometimes slap-dash nature of relief work. It all sounds so organized when we hear about it on CNN or BBC, but the reality on the ground appears to be far more chaotic and hit-or-miss. I enjoyed hearing this "yachtie's" version of joining the ranks of relief workers in East Africa.
Oct 10, 2008 Thetorch84 rated it liked it
More like a 2 1/2. I didnt like his style of writing, although the story was interesting he just seemed so jaded with the system. While no doubt what he says is true (that the foreign relief system is broken) his alternative is that we fend for ourselves. Not a great solution.
Apr 03, 2013 Jan rated it really liked it
I found this an enlightening book about an average citizen becoming involved with humanitarian efforts. I enjoyed the author' s humor and perspective especially because I was living near Nairobi when I read it.
Oct 11, 2007 naomi rated it it was ok
it really makes think about child soliders in war torn country. how do you do you talk a child out of shotting you; a child who has no concept of life or death; a child who has been trained to kill?
Ashley Randall
Apr 23, 2011 Ashley Randall rated it it was amazing
Very gripping and interesting, while this book would scare most people away from wanting to do disaster relief work, it made me want to work for the UN all the more!
Jul 31, 2008 texas rated it liked it
i read this book because i wanted to know more about the political situation in somalia... and that was somewhat successful. but the author is such a dude!
Mar 10, 2008 Lisa rated it liked it
Not much of a fan of the guy himself, but his account of the 97-98 humanitarian relief effort after the floods in Somalia got better as the book went on.
Mike Barton
Aug 01, 2007 Mike Barton rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In 1998 I tried, unsuccessfully, to get from Ethiopia into Somalia. This book is a good reminder why that was possible the worst idea I have ever had.
Jul 03, 2009 Julie rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
worth reading, but ive read better books on the subject. still crazy to learn about what really goes on in international aid
Oct 03, 2007 Heather rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: People interested in Africa or NGO's
Interesting read about the UN, NGO's, and wealthy donors like the US and how they all work (or don't work) together.
Mussa Mussa
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Nov 22, 2007 Signe rated it really liked it
Relief work isn't for sissies. It's 70 % frustration and 30 % satisfaction. And what is more scary, the abnormal becomes normal when you deal with it long enough.

Not that I didn't know any of this in advance, but it is a compelling read never the less.
Theresa rated it it was amazing
Jul 19, 2016
Daniel Melewski
Daniel Melewski rated it it was ok
Jul 09, 2016
Jenna rated it it was amazing
Jul 01, 2016
Julia marked it as to-read
Jun 03, 2016
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