Tony Banbury returns from Haiti / By Dan Woog

On Jan.17, Tony Banbury left Westport for two weeks in Haiti.

Two and half months later, he's finally home.

It was a challenging, nerve-wracking, exhausting and fulfilling experience. It was also just the latest assignment in a career spent in the world's most dangerous zones.

It was also par for the course when you are -- as Banbury is -- the United Nations Assistant Secretary General for Field Support.

"Field support" is another way of saying "peacekeeping operations." Banbury has made a career of assisting displaced populations, helping stabilize governments, and creating order out of chaos around the globe.

He did not start out as a world traveler. Banbury grew up in West Hartford, and graduated from Tufts University. But he wanted to see a new part of the world and -- having researched Cambodian refugees in Thailand -- he bought a one-way ticket to Bangkok.

He thought he'd work directly with refugees. But the U.N. Border Relief Operation had only one human rights officer to handle 300,000 refugees. Banbury's hiring instantly doubling the staff.

After two years, Banbury returned to school. He earned a graduate degree at Tufts' Fletcher School of Diplomacy, then added a diploma of higher studies from the University of Geneva.

His next position was in Cambodia -- he had learned to speak the language -- doing "second generation" peacekeeping (elections and human rights work). He moved on to Haiti, then Bosnia (where he got to know a number of people who are now in jail).

With a wife and new baby, the offer of a new U.N. position -- working with the Secretary General at New York headquarters -- was enticing. He spent time in Washington, D.C. with the National Security Council in the White House and Department of Defense, then went back to Thailand for six years with the World Food Programme. Traveling to the remotest parts of Asia, he learned what village life means for large swaths of the world's population.

When Banbury was posted to U.N. headquarters last June -- and moved to Westport -- it was the first time he'd lived in Connecticut since he was 18.

Seven months later an earthquake devastated not only Haiti, but the entire U.N. Banbury had worked in "sudden onset natural disasters" before -- the Pacific tsunami, a Burmese cyclone, the Kashmir quake -- so he knew what needed to be done in Haiti. However, the January disaster did more than rock the capital city of the poorest nation in the hemisphere. It also destroyed U.N. headquarters there, killing the organization's top two leaders and 100 other staff members.

Five days after the quake, Banbury took a team of about a dozen workers to Haiti. They found chaos: thousands of people still trapped in rubble; a country whose communications, health, food distribution and economic systems were overwhelmed, and a U.N. mission traumatized by the loss of bosses, colleagues and relatives.

A psychiatrist from Africa instructed Banbury on the natural human reactions to trauma. Banbury learned that one way to minimize long-term damage to the U.N. staff was to give them some control over their destiny. At the same time, however, he had to take command, and organize search-and-rescue teams along with long-term relief efforts. Inevitably, those two demands conflicted with each other.

A once-quiet base near the airport turned into a beehive of activity. For six weeks, Banbury's team slept on cots. With 200 others, they shared a toilet and shower designed for only a few people. Conditions were horrendous -- but at first Banbury barely noticed them. He couldn't; he was working from 7:30 a.m. to 2 a.m.

No one can sustain such a pace. Sensing burnout, Banbury instituted a rule: Lights out at midnight. Still some colleagues worked on, by candlelight.

Finally -- after an almost-too-tough-to-talk-about assignment -- he is home. I asked about the transition from Port-au-Prince to Westport.

"I've thought about that a lot," Banbury said, 72 hours after his return. "It's unbelievably different. In Haiti there are people literally on your doorstep, and all of them need help. Being face to face with human deprivation gives you a real important perspective on life.

"Here's just one thing we had to do: try to move 250,000 people living on hillsides out of untenable situations, before the rainy season begins this month and water starts gushing down. That's incredibly stressful, but also very rewarding. You know you're doing something life-changing for people.

"I got back to Westport at 9 p.m. on a Friday. The next morning, I was supposed to be at North Compo for a Little League game. Those bleachers are a long way from Haiti.

"But I was extremely happy to be back, for my four kids. We love living here. The peace, the water, the walks -- Westport is a wonderful place."

Banbury took a week off, before returning to U.N. headquarters in New York. He said: "It was so nice being here -- going to games, not worrying about everything I worried about before.

"But I can't stop thinking about everyone still in Haiti, with the rains about to come."

Dan Woog is a Westport writer. His blog is www.danwoog06880.com; his e-mail is dwoog@optonline.net.