December 19, 2002
On August 12, 2002, MSF volunteer Arjan Erkel was abducted by three gunmen in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, a republic of the Russian Federation. In this profile of Arjan, long-time friends and colleagues offer an insight to the choices that brought the 32 year old Dutch citizen to Dagestan.
Arjan Erkel is well-known in MSF as a dedicated, honest and hard-working colleague. Not exactly an idealist, but certainly someone with his heart in the right place. He first went to the field for MSF in 1998, in Tajikistan, and both his experience and personal interests eventually brought him to Dagestan.
One former and two current MSF-Holland employees have special ties with him. Arjan Hehenkamp, Jules Pieters and Michiel Hofman have been friends of Arjan since their youth. Arjan Hehenkamp, now MSF-Holland's General Coordinator for southern Sudan, has even known him since birth.
"Our parents lived nearby. I'm two years older than he is but I was still 'Little Arjan' and he was always 'Big Arjan' because he's taller. Arjan is a deeply honest, optimistic person. He has experience of the former Soviet Union and is well aware of the dangers of the Caucasus."
Arjan came into contact with MSF-Holland through his study of cultural anthropology at Nijmegen University. His graduation project in Koboko refugee camp in Uganda was commissioned by MSF-Holland. The organization wanted to know what the refugees in the camp thought of the aid MSF provided.
Jules Pieters thought that Arjan was the right man for the job. He had known him since they were in the scouts together. Pieters now works for the World Health Organization, but when the time came for Arjan to concentrate on his project, he was coordinating the Emergency Desk at MSF-Holland. "I thought: this guy's got what it takes. You need commitment for this kind of work, but sometimes you also need a certain detachment so you don't get carried away by your emotions. Arjan had this combination."
"That research project in Koboko set him firmly on track for MSF. If you travel around a lot, you disengage a bit from the normal world and you don't adjust all that easily to an office job. At MSF he found exactly the right lifestyle."
"I wasn't surprised when he decided to work for MSF, but many people in his surroundings might have been," says Michiel Hofman, who works in Moscow as General Coordinator of MSF-Holland projects in Ingushetia and Chechnya. Hofman also knows Arjan from their scout days. "Initially, he was more interested in the commercial sector. For a while he was even a stock-exchange trader, but he didn't feel comfortable among top salaries and leased cars. He thought about becoming an academic but during his time in Koboko he became enthralled by the practical work of MSF."
Though his research was in Africa, Arjan developed a special interest in the Caucasus and Central Asia. His first mission was in Tajikistan, from November 1998 till January 2000. He later returned to the region three times in addition to an eight-month mission last year as project coordinator in Sierra Leone.
"A contributing factor was, of course, his first mission in Tajikistan," says Michiel Hofman. "Your first mission always makes the deepest impression. What's more, he now speaks pretty good Russian."
One poignant aspect is that Arjan Erkel was also on the sideline during the last abduction of an MSF-Holland worker in the Caucasus, Kenny Gluck, MSF coordinator for Chechnya, who was kidnapped last January. Kenny was released just as Arjan arrived to temporarily bolster the team in Moscow.
"Arjan was particularly aware of the reality of the threats associated with the kidnapping," says Michiel Hofman. "He felt deeply responsible for the team in Dagestan, and we often talked about how we organised safety in Ingushetia. Tension had been mounting in recent weeks, especially after the kidnapping of Nina Davidovic [the coordinator of the Russian aid organization 'Druzhba' who was abducted in July]. Arjan knew that he could also be a target."
© 2013 Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)