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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

Victims of War
By AnnaMaria Stephens, 97

Kristin Kalla, Third/Marshall '87, witnesses the aftermath of war in her work at the Trust Fund for Victims in The Hague, the Netherlands.

“This is the first time that an international court has recognized the need for restitution for victims of the world’s most horrendous crimes,” Kalla says.

When Kristin Kalla, Marshall, ’87, visited the Barlonyo displacement camp in Northern Uganda this February (photo below), a small girl in vibrant villager garb grabbed hold of the friendly muzungu—or “white person.” “She would not let me put her down,” says Kalla, who carried the five-year-old child in her arms for more than two hours.

For Kalla, the senior program officer at the Trust Fund for Victims (TFV), part of the International Criminal Court (ICC) based in the Netherlands, this was an uncharacteristically lighthearted moment. Most of her work deals with the darker side of humanity.

“I oversee the assistance TFV provides to victims of war crimes that come under the jurisdiction of the ICC,” says Kalla, who started her current position in 2007. “I manage all of the support, the programs, the staff, and the field operations.”

Those war crimes include the conscription of child soldiers, sexual enslavement, rape, torture, murder, pillage, and the destruction of property. Kalla has met men and women whose noses, ears, eyelids and lips were lopped off—a common tactic of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda. “They’re walking images of terror,” explains Kalla. She’s also worked with girls who were forced into marriage with LRA rebels and bore their children. “Those children remain very vulnerable. When they come back to their communities they’re often stigmatized.”

According to a 2009 TFV progress report, active projects in northern Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo currently reach an estimated 226,000 victims. Approximately 39,000 people benefit directly from TFV-sponsored services—counseling, reconstructive surgery, community workshops, education grants, and entrepreneurial start-up funds—while their families and communities benefit indirectly from the initiatives.

“This is the first time that an international court has recognized the need for restitution for victims of the world’s most horrendous crimes,” Kalla says.

TFV’s programs are funded by voluntary contributions from more than 100 ICC member states (the United States is not a member) as well as donations from individuals, organizations and corporations. Eventually, funding will include fines and forfeitures levied against those convicted by the ICC, which was formed in 2002. Kalla, who leads a staff of 10 and is one of the few Americans in the organization, admits that the new administrative process is challenging.

“Sometimes the core values of working in a humanitarian context are different than in a court system. A court is there to arrest those who have committed crimes and to prosecute them,” says Kalla. “The policies and rules have not been set up to provide emergency, immediate assistance. That’s been a bit of a struggle.”

Working in senior management, however, has been a welcome change for Kalla, who spent much of her career in the field, doing public health and humanitarian work (with a focus on victims of sexual violence, reproductive health, HIV/AIDS, and child welfare) in countries racked by famine and war, including Ethiopia, Rwanda and Kosovo.

Today, Kalla lives in the historic center of The Hague, a bustling seaside city that is home to more than 150 international organizations. Her comfortable apartment is filled with furnishings and decorative objects picked up along the globe-spanning path that led her here. Kalla’s favorite, which hangs in her kitchen, is a piece of bark from a baobab tree that was painted for her by Ethiopian street children when she worked for UNICEF.

Kalla’s interest in the plight of refugees and the displaced is easily traced to her own family history. Her Arab father fled Palestine for the United States in the wake of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Kalla’s parents, now divorced, founded
a Chicago-based nonprofit called PALAID International, which collected medical relief supplies for Palestinians. In 1969, when she was five years old, Kalla visited refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria.

“She never forgot the throngs of children wanting to touch her and talk to her,” says Kalla’s mother, Greta Hughes. “It may be one reason she’s chosen the field that she has.”

Hughes remembers how attached Kalla was to a beautiful doll, bigger than she was, given to her by a favorite uncle. The children in the camp were awed by it—couldn’t stop admiring it.

“That doll was my best friend,” says Kalla. “And my first reaction was to yank it away. My mom must’ve said something to me, but it was up to me to decide. I left the doll at the camp. That was the first time I really understood what it meant to sacrifice.”

In 1982, after graduating with honors from Point Loma High, Kalla enrolled at UCSD’s Thurgood Marshall—then known as Third College—and “flunked out” within a year. “I discovered the beach community,” she laughs. “Surfing, boys, beer. I didn’t study.”

But she also discovered an advocate in Third College Provost Faustina Solis, who hailed from a background in public health and civil rights. “[Solis] told me to take a year off, and then come back,” recalls Kalla. “She said she’d determine if I were still worthy.”

Kalla’s parents cut her off financially, forcing her to get her priorities in order. In 1984, Kalla returned to UCSD with Solis’ blessing. Solis says she took a particular interest in students like Kalla. “They decided at a young age to do volunteer work and leadership activities. They had more understanding of the world in general.”

In 1985, Kalla applied to participate in Operation Crossroads Africa, a grassroots cultural exchange program. Once accepted, volunteers had to come up with $2,900 to cover expenses. Kalla mentioned her fundraising to Solis. “Without a word, she took out her checkbook and wrote me a personal check for $500. She told me to help other people—especially young people.”

The summer before her senior year, Kalla traveled to rural Botswana with Operation Cross­roads, where she spent three months helping diagnose tropical diseases, immunize, and aid in pre- and post-natal care. She returned to UCSD with a fresh perspective, and completed her major in Communi­cation Theory with a minor in Feminist Theater.

After graduation, with ambitions of becoming an actress and documentary filmmaker, Kalla spent four years in Hollywood, working as a casting director and socializing with the stars. “That lifestyle was not for me,” she finally decided. “I needed a career with more meaning and substance.”

Kalla enrolled at UCLA, earning a Master’s in Medical Anthropology/African Studies and M.P.H. in Maternal and Child Health. She attributes her interest in reproductive health to a devastating chapter in her father’s history, which she first heard about when she was 12.

“My father’s mother died when he was 10,” Kalla says. “She was pregnant for the seventh time. The [Arab-Israeli] conflict was coming and the situation was intense. She found a chair and jumped off onto her pregnant belly. The fetus died but did not abort.”

She doesn’t know her grandmother’s exact motives, only that the story haunts her. “I realized she had no choices. I have an acute awareness of what women have to sacrifice. It’s the same in every culture.”

Throughout her career, Kalla has witnessed a lot of human suffering. She has lived in difficult conditions and endured years of exhausting, demanding field work. Now, at TFV, she is translating her vast experience into administrative work, while encouraging the “young and hardy” to follow their hearts into the field.

“Following my heart is something that served me,” Kalla offers as advice. “If you think about things too much, you won’t take the risk. It does mean you’ll get hurt, but it’s worth it in the end.”

AnnaMaria Stephens, ERC 97, is a freelance writer who lives in Seattle.