Earlier this year, when a massive bomb blast rocked the center of Kabul killing over 150 people, I immediately thought of Concern Worldwide staff in Afghanistan and contacted our country director there to see if everybody was alright.
She replied: “The bomb was so powerful that I thought it was an earthquake. From my office I could see enormous billows of smoke and I knew that many people would be dead and injured. Staff were all on their phones crying. Still, today I woke up and thought ‘we are here to support the people of Afghanistan’ and got back to work following a very shaky day yesterday.”
World Humanitarian Day
This week we mark World Humanitarian Day to pay tribute to aid workers who risk their lives daily, and to remember those who have been killed in the course of their work. It is held to commemorate one of the worst attacks ever directed at aid workers, which took place in the chaos of Iraq after the US invasion on the afternoon of August 19, 2003.
An explosion ripped through the newly established UN Mission Headquarters in Baghdad, killing 22 people, including the renowned Brazilian diplomat Sérgio de Mello, and wounding over 100 others. Sergio had succeeded Mary Robinson as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and was, at the time of his death, also serving as the UN Special Representative in Iraq.
It was a ferocious attack, an ominous sign of the extreme violence Iraq was to suffer in the years ahead, and it shook the humanitarian world to its core.
Never before had there been such a large coordinated assault on humanitarian aid workers. The fact that the mission was headed by such a well-known diplomat only added to the shock and devastation.
At the request of Sergio’s family, the UN marked August 19th as World Humanitarian Day to commemorate aid workers who have been killed in the course of their work and established a center for remembrance at the UN headquarters in New York. With the tattered UN flag taken from the ruins of the mission office in Bagdad as its centerpiece, it is a somber memorial that offers a chance for reflection amid the usual chaos of UN meetings. On the occasion that I pass by the memorial, it serves as a quiet reminder of the inherent danger of aid work in the world’s most volatile regions.
World now even more dangerous
Unfortunately, in the 14 years since that explosion, aid work has become even more dangerous. Global conflict has risen dramatically and it has had a brutal effect on ordinary people. The latest Aid Worker Security Report shows that 109 aid workers were killed in the course of their work in 2015, which is more than double the number of staff killed ten years earlier in 2005.
Today’s conflicts increasingly take place in urban areas, with civilian populations, and those attempting to assist them, caught in the crossfire.
They are also often the intended victims. Increasingly, warring parties’ respect for the protection of aid workers is being ignored, as made appallingly evident last week when six Red Cross volunteers were killed in Central African Republic.
For Concern Worldwide, the safety and security of our staff is of paramount importance. We invest heavily in comprehensive security training and rigorously update security plans for each country we operate in. We do not control the situations in which we operate, but we do control who we put into these environments and how we equip them with knowledge and training to work securely.
Ultimately, the lynchpin of our security is acceptance, so the people on the ground — that is local communities, other agencies, government personnel and all parties to conflict — know who we are and recognise the benefits that our presence brings.
This is the most effective way of minimising any risks to staff. However, it is not always enough.
A difficult year for Concern community
The past year has been especially difficult. Concern has lost staff and staff have lost family members in a number of tragic incidents. Dr. Du’ale Mohammed Adam was one such man. His story is particularly devastating. In June of last year, Dr. Mohammed and the rest of his team were preparing to scale-up operations as successive rain failures across Somalia were building up to the largest drought the country had seen in years. Dr. Adam was killed when a bomb exploded outside the busy Mogadishu hotel he was parked in front of. He was just 33 years of age, married and had five children. Somalia lost one of its few doctors that sad day and we lost a friend, colleague and a truly courageous humanitarian.
Nearly 25 years after the death of Valerie Place, a young nurse from Dublin who was killed in 1993 when she was caught up in gunfire while working for Concern in Somalia, the killing of Dr. Adam was a visceral reminder for all of us of the ultimate price that people pay to save the lives of others, to alleviate suffering and protect the most vulnerable. It is not only our staff whose lives are at risk.
In a series of air strikes on the city of Raqqa, Syria, last month, a Syrian refugee working with us in Turkey received news that his family had been killed. He lost his parents, his brother and his brother’s family. With extraordinary courage and dignity, he went back to work simply saying that he hoped “this tragedy comes to an end soon and we have peace for all people in Syria.”
For each of these tragedies, we regroup, review, adjust our presence and our movements as required and then get on with the work. This is not heroism, it is stoic resilience and humanity, matched with experience and professionalism.
These attacks devastate and destroy the lives of countless innocent, ordinary people. And when parties go to war it is the poor and marginalised who suffer most, those vulnerable groups who had no part in any decision to go to war, but who stand to lose everything, including their lives. Those are the people Concern Worldwide works with, helping them survive the conflict and to then rebuild their lives. That is why we are there and why the work is so essential.
The power of compassion
Sérgio de Mello was once described as “a cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy.” I knew Sergio. We crossed paths many times in Rwanda, Kosovo and Cambodia. He was a charismatic, committed professional trying to get the job done in often very difficult circumstances, just like Dr. Du’ale Mohammed Adam and Valerie Plaice.
World Humanitarian Day gives us a chance to pause and remember those who have died. Their commitment and the continued commitment of aid workers around the world to work in the most desperate of circumstances is a testament to the power of compassion and a reminder of our shared humanity in these fraught times.
But remembrance alone is not enough. Aid workers continue every day to operate in some of the most difficult and inhumane situations in the world. They deserve assurance to the greatest extent possible that they will not become targets.
Appropriately, the slogan for this year’s World Humanitarian Day is #NotATarget – a reminder of the need to address the high level of violence against aid workers.
Concern Worldwide welcomes the decision of the UN to spotlight this need and we hope that this campaign will be the start of a stronger, more grounded diplomatic and political push to hold the perpetrators of these attacks to account and more broadly to revive respect for protection of all civilians in conflict. After a year of attacks on medical facilities and on aid convoys, the urgent need for such a drive could scarcely be more evident.