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“M.” – Requiem For Baghdad

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“The horror… The horror…”
(Marlon Brando in ‘Apocalypse Now’)

Dubai, December 2004
All of us, all our Dubai staff, are standing around in silence in the reception of our office. We put up the plaque our HQ gave us. “WFP FITTEST team – Dubai. Award for Merit 2004. For their outstanding global achievement and particularly for the critical support of the UN humanitarian effort in Iraq”. Each of us are in thoughts. It seems weird how in a split second zillions of thoughts and images can flash through your mind.

Robert was a bit angry at me this week. He rightfully said: ‘This plaque is something to be proud of, how come we still have not put it up? We received the plaque several months ago.’. I did not really have an answer for him. Sure, at first there was a spelling mistake, so they had to re-do it, then we had a problem finding a suitable spot, and then, and then… In the end, it were all excuses, I thought to myself. Excuses as it brought back a lot of painful memories for me… I did not want to remember that period. Did not want to remember the pain. Suppress it. Done. Buried. But that is not the right way. Robert was right, the team had done well. The team he had coordinated did well in the Iraq emergency operation, and they had to be remembered for their excellent work. Together we also had to remember how we all stuck together, as one team, despite all the pressure and challenges. Somewhere also we had to remember the pain of that period…

As we are standing in front of the plaque, I think of M. Her face comes before my eyes. I hear her laugh. Would she have felt pain? Fear? Regrets? Or would it all have gone in a flash? Like a switch. Switching off life. Done. Over. And then?

Belgium, August 2001
If you have lived through a number of humanitarian emergencies, worked long enough in relief operations, you start to develop a sixth sense. It was this sixth sense that helped us deciding to move our intervention team from Kosovo to Islamabad a few years ago. We sensed that at a certain moment the US would retaliate against the Taliban. Basing our team in the middle of Central Asia would allow us to prepare the region for a possible humanitarian emergency if the US would take military action in Afghanistan.

I told Tine just before I left home: “I do not have a good feeling. The stars are not right. Something is up.” That feeling was in sharp contrast with the one month holiday off the beaten track in Hawaii we just had. But the sixth sense was there, with big warning signs.

Islamabad, September 11, 2001
We were working in our office in Islamabad when Jalal, one of our staff, said ‘Hey, a plane just flew into the New York World Trade Center.’ And a few minutes later, the news came a second plane crashed into the Towers. We stopped all work. I knew it could not have been an accident. This was an act of terrorism. In a flash, I saw what would happen. The world was going to fundamentally change. I saw the US attacking Afghanistan. I saw the polarization of the world into Muslim and non-Muslim. I saw the invasion of Iraq.. I just knew we were going for a very rough period, with a lot of human suffering. I felt sad, very sad. When I came back to the guest house I was staying, very late at night, that night of 9/11, I just could not stop looking at the video replays on TV, displaying what happened in New York. It was so violent. So many people lost in one go. But above all, I felt “it is all coming our way. Within here and a few weeks, the world’s attention is going to be focused on our region.”

It did not take weeks. It took days. We saw them arriving at the hotels in Islamabad. All the international camera crews, with their equipment loaded onto rental cars. Setting up shop on the roofs of the hotels. All the well-known anchor people from the main broadcast stations started to report from Islamabad. The media often is one step ahead of the military. Only one step.

Kabul, January 2002.
Several months later, the Taliban was beaten, Bin Laden was on the run, and Afghanistan was ‘liberated’. I just ‘knew’ Iraq was going to be next. No matter what the world’s opinion was going to be, I felt the US was going to attack Iraq also.

Baghdad, November 2002
Richard and I spent a nice evening in one of the open air restaurants in Baghdad. Even though it was close to midnight and pretty cold outside, there were plenty of people still walking around. I loved the people there, the feeling the whole setting gave me. They were friendly, helpful, many of them very well educated. Never a harsh word. As we were walking the streets that night, people smiled at us, often to say ‘Hey habibi, how are you? Where do you come from? What do you do?’. When we would start talking to them, the subject of children and family would always come up. No matter where people come from, the love for their close ones always seems to be the main thing on their mind. We felt safe, almost at home, without the slightest sense of fear or insecurity. We were amongst good people.
The first UN weapon inspectors had arrived earlier that day. We saw them dragging up boxes with their equipment into Canal Hotel, the UN Headquarters in Baghdad.. Somewhere I knew that it was all going to be in vain. The US had already made up its mind: ‘Saddam had to go’. Even if the weapon inspectors would not find any weapons of mass destruction, any excuse was going to be good enough… After all, Iraq had oil. I could just see all the human misery a US invasion in Iraq would cause. And the anarchy, the violence that would follow. I imagined those peaceful streets of Baghdad in flames, shooting, bombing. I could see all the friendly, loving people, with eyes, filled with hatred.

Dubai, March 20 2003
As I closed the door of my apartment, on my way to work, I stopped for a moment. Something was not right. Something was different that morning. I could hear the television sets from my neighbours. Different languages, agitated voices of the reporters. It was an awkward sound. My heart started to beat real fast. I went back into my apartment, switched on the TV, and sat down. Images of helicopters, tanks, military convoys, crossing the border from Kuwait into Iraq. I picked up the phone and called Gianluca, in our HQ in Rome. It was still very early in Europe, he was still asleep. ‘Gianluca, switch on your TV. It has began. The invasion has began’.
June 2003
I met M. in Cyprus several times. She was working for another UN agency. By coincidence, we had the same travel itinerary, and spent several days on the road together: flying from Cyprus to Jordan, then driving into Erbil in North Iraq and a few days later flying to Baghdad. We talked a lot. Work, people we met in the past, our hobbies, adventure traveling, what appealed to us in this world, in people. The last time I saw her was one evening in Canal Hotel, Baghdad. For security reasons, the movement of our staff in town was restricted, and we all lived on the large office compound. A couple of guys had put together a barbeque in the parking lot which by then was filled with sleeping and storage tents. As I was walking back to my room, M. was walking towards the barbeque area. She had a strange look in her eyes. She hesitated for a moment as we were passing eachother. I remember I stood still for a moment, wondering what this look was about. I told her I was leaving for Dubai the next day.. I can not remember if she said anything, as we gave three kisses on the cheek. Maybe we did say something. Some pleasantries like ‘see you whenever I see you again!’.

A few weeks later, I received a message from her. Some stuff about work. She had decided the Iraq mission was going to be her last. In September she would quit and do something different. Enough of this type of work. It has been a good road, but this road had come to an end. The last sentence in the Email did not make much sense to me. It was about us meeting again. That it would mean a lot to her, that she would like to talk to me.

When I talked to Larisa, one of our staff in Baghdad, on the phone, she said: “you left quite an impression on some people in Baghdad.” I did not really understand what she meant. “Well, last night, I was having a drink with M., and again, it looks like you left quite an impression on her”…
Sometimes a lot of things happen, and it is difficult to pinpoint what they really mean, to make real sense out of a string of signs. But then something small happens, which causes all the rest to make sense. Now I understood the look in M.’s eyes the last evening in Baghdad. That last sentence in her Email. I sent her an Email that I was coming over to Baghdad before she left, so we would sit together and talk.

Belgium, August 18 2003
I had a long chat with Robert, our project coordinator in Baghdad. He ran the team installing the technical infrastructure for most of the UN relief agencies. Most of the conversation was about his main worry: security. He felt something was to happen, the ‘tension in the air’ was just too much. He felt some of our staff or some of our offices were going to be attacked. ‘Something bad is about to happen’, he said. I shared his feeling. I did not sleep much that night. I had a lot of my staff in Iraq and I felt very responsible for them.
Belgium, August 19 2003

This was one of the saddest days in my life. Mats called me ‘Our headquarters in Baghdad was bombed a few minutes ago. A truck full of explosives flattened most of the building’. Mats and I talked with Robert in a conference call later that day. It was bad. Robert said most of our staff was accounted for, but several of them were badly injured from falling debris, shrapnel or glass flying around. Ghis had a window frame hit his head. Michael’s face was badly cut by glass. Diya was evacuated with severe cuts in his arm and hands. Dozens of people had died. The pictures on television looked horrific. I was shocked. And felt endlessly guilty. Guilty as I had recruited these people. I had sent them in harm’s way. Guilty as no matter how good the security precautions we had taken, no matter how many times we had stressed to them all to be careful, still they, the people from my team, got hurt. It cut deep inside me. I felt guilty as I was not there to help. I should have been there with them.

Belgium, August 20 2003
As more details came in of the bombing, a provisional list was circulated, a list with names of those not accounted for, and those which were confirmed dead. I could not believe my eyes when I saw M.’s name on the list. M. was dead.
Dubai, December 2005
These thoughts and images fly, no, they scream, through my head as we are standing in front of our plaque.. It all takes a few seconds for it to come through. All of the hurt. The immense sadness and senselessness. The guilt of not having done enough. The guilt of not having said things that should have been said. So often we forget that when we say ‘goodbye’, it might really mean ‘goodbye’. A final ‘goodbye’. We might never see that person again in this life. I see M.’s face in front of me as we talked for a brief moment in time, passing eachother in Canal Hotel that evening of the barbeque. I should have taken the time to sit and talk with her. I should have known this might have been the last time ever, we had the chance to talk. But I did not. I was tired, wanted to go to sleep, had an early start the next day. But I should have. Should have. The guilt. And the horror…

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Written by Peter

January 20th, 2007 at 10:31 am

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Wapi Yo?

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Email

From: Peter Casier
To: Els
Subject: Wapi Yo?

Kampala, October 14 1999.

Elske,

End of last week, I spoke twice to Saskia over the phone. Each time for over an hour.
There were some work related problems we had to straighten out.
She was our logistics officer in Bujumbura, but also the focal point for my team. It was late in the evening. Everyone else had already left the office. I had opened the window to let the fresh air flow in, bringing with it the typical tropical evening smell. Smoked a cigarette, with my feet on the table. We started talking about life in Bujumbura, what it meant to be living away from our families, work, what we wanted to do in the future. We reflected what it really meant for us, working for a relief agency and about life in general. We laughed, saying to each other how we enjoyed Africa, how it added to the quality of our lives. Saskia….

And now she is no longer with us.

Saskia was on an assessment mission with other UN officials in the south of Burundi yesterday. They stopped at a new refugee camp, and armed men were apparently there waiting for the mission. At first they were seen as Burundi military, but they were not.
As the UN workers got out of the car, shots were fired, killing several people. The attackers then put the rest of the relief workers against a wall, and stripped them off all their belongings. Then they started walking away.
All of a sudden, one of the attackers turned around and walked back to the group, still standing against the wall. Without any obvious reason, he put his gun against the head of the UNICEF representative, and shot her. He then put his gun against Saskia’s head and shot her point blank too. In the confusion, the other UN workers escaped.

Saskia was a young Dutch woman, working for us since about four years. She was transfered to Burundi beginning of the year. I met her several times since then. Tall, blond, energetic, full of ideas and dedication, commitment. She was an enthusiast worker, trying to make a difference.

As I write this, ‘Wapi Yo’, a song from Lokua Kanza plays in the background.
‘Wapi Yo’ means ‘where are you’ in Swahili.
Wapi Yo, Saskia? This makes no sense.

Peter

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Written by Peter

January 11th, 2007 at 4:00 pm

Italians, the Art of Flying and the Laws of Probability

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Ciampino airport, Rome. Day 1 of the Kosovo re-entry.
‘Vaffanculo’, the pilot shouts, ‘Que putana de merda!’, as he pushes some buttons. The only thing we hear is a deep hesitating sound, which reminded me of my car refusing to start when we left the headlights on during the night. ‘Vaffanculo, vaffanculooooo’. The pilot is clearly an Italian, more so a Roman.

The problem with small planes is that you can see and hear everything going on in a cockpit. You’re sitting just a few inches away from reality. In a big commercial jetliner, it looks like all goes automatic. You can ‘Sit back, relax and enjoy your flight’. Our reality is a bit different at this moment. I don’t know why, but pilots that go off cursing and act all agitated don’t inspire a lot of confidence in me. I have no fear of flying, but I do not like to be reminded of the fact that flying an airplane is only part science. The rest is luck, skill, art, habit and experience. All very grey things if you ask me. A thin line between ‘to be or not to be’.. Looking at the co-pilot who is all sweating, I am sure that Shakespeare is not the first thing on his mind.

Reminds me of a flight in a small twin engine Beechcraft we once took from Mpulungu in Zambia to Entebbe Uganda. I was sitting just behind the pilot. And all of a sudden, in the middle of the flight, he goes ‘Oooooh shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit,…’, while banking sharply to the left.. The co-pilot had just dozed off, his head bouncing slowly on his chest, with his headset sliding off his ears, woke up with a shock: ‘What, what?’ ‘Thunderclouds ahead. I don’t like to flying through thunder clouds in this small plane..’. I thought: ‘And how do you think this makes me feel, eh’.

There is no science in flying.. Ok, ok, ok, let me rephrase that. The basis is science, all the rest is nothing.. Luck. Thin air. A combination of random features. Sometimes I think ‘If someone up there decided this is my day to die, then there is nothing I can do.’ Especially with the flights we are taking. Bush flights. Control towers manned by amateurs, hardly paid, hardly interested, hardly equipped. We often use old Russian planes. A Russian pilot once told me that IATA rules stipulate pilots can not drink liquor less than 24 hours before getting onto the plane, and how that the rule was translated into Russian as ‘pilots can not drink liquor less than 24 paces before getting onto the plane’.

Meanwhile, we are still sitting with a bunch of relief workers cramped behind the Italian pilot who is getting more and more agitated. Cramped in a Learjet, one of those small fancy jets you see in the movies flying business people around. Or movie stars. When they told us yesterday, we would fly to Albania using a Learjet, we thought ‘Well, if we go, we might just as well go in style!’. Unfortunately, they had not told us this was the only plane available on charter. Every man and his dog apparently were flying into Albania and Macedonia since Milosovic had signed a treaty with NATO and pulled out of Kosovo.

A Learjet, hey?!.. Hmm.. We were cramped with too many people, sitting with our luggage in between us, on our knees, looking at the lights in the plane that dimmed each time the pilot pushed the big green button. A Learjet with dead batteries.

To kill time, and to make each other obviously more comfy, we exchanged horror stories of planes with the other relief workers in the plane. Stories of the Russian crew that shuttled between Kisangani-then Zaire and Kigali-Tanzania. Flying cargo in and refugees out. The Kisangani runway was a bit too short for the Ilutshin76 plane, so the pilot had to pull the brakes real hard. As soon as the plane stopped, a crew member would jump out of the plane and throw buckets of water on the tires to cool them off. On the same airport, an IL76 got stuck, because someone had forgotten to pull away the big wooden wedges blocking the wheels. So the pilot gave full throttle trying to get the plane to move. The massive jet wash this created, blew away the corrugated roof of the only hanger at the airport, and flattened all stalls of the local market just behind the plane.

Once approaching Kabul airport, our plane was forced to do a flyby. The pilot pulled up the plane as much as possible to avoid the mountain ahead. The plane then banked that sharp, people thought it was going to roll.. The pilot announced a few minutes later: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we apologize for this aborted landing. There was a guy with a bicycle riding on the runway. We’ll try again now’. Try? Try? How about giving some confidence, eh?

I once shared offices with Nigel, our UN flight coordinator. He had the best stories ever. Of the pilot who mistook the lights of the Corniche along the banks of the Nile in Khartoum, for the runway. And had landed neatly. Onto the Nile. Of the first approach at Kigali airport after the genocide. How the UN troops had said all was safe to land, and the pilot responded ‘and what are all those tracer bullets then, I can see flying towards my windscreen?’. Of the sign at Mwanza airport that said: ‘Beware of the potholes in the runway’. Of the loadmaster on the Russian cargo plane who was not briefed his IL76 was an ex-military plane, and had heavy armor plating on the bottom. He had loaded the plane full, like he normally did, making the plane too heavy. Nigel said they flew forever at just a few meters above the ground, leaving behind them a trace of huts and houses with caved in roofs. Guess the armor plating did work well after all…

Lacking a door between the passenger seats and the cockpit, we are witnessing a story which we will add to those string of anecdotes, I am sure. A cheap Italian comedy play. The pilot tries to call the control tower, asking for a start-generator, but the radio does not work either. Of course. Flat batteries, remember.. Even I knew that! He slides open the side window and shouts at a guy walking on the tarmac, past the plane. I seem to understand that with the flat battery, and some mechanical problem, he can not open the main door anymore. So we are all locked up. Stuck in a fancy Learjet, cramped with stuff under, next and on us, hot, stuffed air.
We, the passengers, the audience, are just sitting there, laughing our heads off. The pilot tries to ignore the laughter behind him, getting more agitated every minute. One of the passengers hands him a mobile phone. First he calls a friend to get the number of the airport. Then calls the airport, is put on hold, gets agitated, and in the end, speaks to the control tower. ‘Yeah, euh, this is flight UN23-4, can you find me a start-generator please? We are the white Learjet on the left from hanger number two.’ ‘No, my left, not yours’.. ‘No, no, the white one, not the silver one’. ‘Ok, look at hanger number two, I will wave through the window. You see me now? Yeah, a start generator. How much? Just a second’. And finally he turns to us. Asks if someone has some money. They ask him to pay for the use of the start generator in cash. He does not have enough on him.

Half an hour later, we are airborne.

Italians….

Postscriptum.
Three months later, I was still in Kosovo. I thought of this story and the jokes we made in the plane, when we got a radio call from our flight coordinator at Pristina airport. The sound of hesitation and trembling in his voice, his words will remain in my head for ever. ‘Please call the security officer. The control tower just informed me they lost our incoming flight on the radar.’

BBC World Wednesday, November 19 1999
Kosovo plane crash leaves 24 dead
Nato has confirmed that all 24 people on board an aid flight died when it crashed in northern Kosovo on Friday. The plane, chartered by the United Nations World Food Programme, came down 15km northeast of the town of Mitrovica.
A spokesman for the Nato-led peacekeeping force K-For said it was too early to speculate about the cause of the crash. He said it was extremely unlikely that the aircraft had been shot down by the Yugoslav military, despite the fact it had strayed into Serbian airspace.
The wreckage was found on a steep mountainside close to the Serbian border. The K-For spokesman said Nato troops had recovered the first bodies, and that the plane’s black box flight recorder had been taken intact from the wreckage.
The plane was located late on Friday after a search involving helicopters fitted with searchlights and infra-red equipment. The hunt had been hampered by the fear of mines and the difficult terrain.
The plane disappeared from radar screens at 1213 local time (1113 GMT). The WFP said that the ATR-42 plane had left Rome at 0900 (0800 GMT) on a daily shuttle flight to Pristina. The aircraft was reported to be carrying staff from the WFP, the UN Mission in Kosovo, various non-governmental organisations and a Canadian official.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has expressed his shock and sadness at the plane crash. “Once again men and women of many nationalities have had their lives cut short in the service of the United Nations, on a mission to bring relief to the suffering and peace to a war-torn community,” he said.

An investigation would show the crash was caused by a combination of human error and an equipment failure. Someone up there had decided it was their time.

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Written by Peter

January 11th, 2007 at 3:54 pm

Pero. – Tears for My Friend

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In Memoriam for my friend Pero Simundza
Zadar, 18.03.1971 – West Timor, 06.09.2000


From: Pero.Simundza
To: Peter.Casier
Date: 23-Sept-99 15:55
Subject: Hi !

Hi Peter,

Has been a while since our dinner and drink in Tirana. Heard you got into Kosovo safe and sound.
Me, I am back at my home duty station in Mostar. I’m stuck here until I find myself another job…just another sequel to the story I told you when meeting in Tirana…
73 de Pero


From: Peter.Casier
To: Pero.Simundza
Date: 25/June/2000 01:58
Subject: update

Hi Pero,

Through the grapevine, I heard you were (finally) reassigned to West-Timor. Good for you!!!!
I should be passing by Timor late summer. Will let you know!
life is busy and interesting…

Peter


From: Pero.Simundza
To:
Peter.Casier
Date: 26/June/2000 07:57:10 AM
Subject: de Pero

Hi Peter,
Long time no see.. How’s life?
I just had the server installed, so now I have my good old e-mail address back, here in Atambua. You probably heard, I got the license and installed my little radio in Batugade, East Timor.
No real electricity power supply there, just the office generator after sunset until midnight. Still, it’s a nice place to relax after the hard working week. Attaching some pictures.
We had a terrible flood in the south of our province, I was there for about ten days in the mud up to my neck, always wet and dirty, got the flu like everyone else (hi-hi).
About 150 people died in one night…so it wasn’t all that fun as you can imagine.
I’m most likely to stay here for at least 7/8 months more…
Working hours are long (typically 12 hrs a day) but it’s OK, team is good, still a lot of things to do.
When are you come over? write me sometimes, hope all OK with you,
73 de 9A4SP a.k.a. 4W6SP – Pero

From: Peter.Casier
To: Pero.Simundza
Date: 25/July/2000 09:04
Subject: coming over

hi Pero,

The pictures you sent surely look attractive. (except the curtains, hi)
I will fly in from Djakarta via Bali on 21st.. maybe we will meet!

Peter


From: Pero.Simundza
To:
Peter.Casier
Date: 26/Jul/2000 07:57
Subject: re: coming over

Hello my friend,
Looking forward to seeing you again,
I should be back in Atambua from 2 weeks leave on 28 August.
Maybe I could fly with you to Dili and back on that day, because the flight lands in Atambua anyway..
73 de Pero, 9A4SP (4W6SP)

From: Peter.Casier
To: Pero.Simundza
Date: 26/July/2000 09:04
Subject: re:coming over

Hi Pero,
I should be traveling from Kosovo to Pakistan, then Cambodia, Laos and Jakarta. Might have to do Sri Lanka before or after Timor.
Will let you know the exact dates for the visit!
Looking forward to see you too. Has been a while !
73, Peter

From: Pero.Simundza
To: Peter.Casier
Date: 26/July/2000 11:04
Subject: coming over

Ooops… Your mission is not going to be all that short my friend..
Like I said, I should be back in Denpasar/Bali on the 27th, to fly to Kupang on the 28th.
i expect to be back in Atambua on 29th (tuesday) with WFP flight…
See You soon I hope,
73 de Pero 9A4SP

From: Peter.Casier
To: Pero.Simundza
Date: 21/August/2000 21:07
Subject: LATE reschedule:

Pero,
change of plans. This is my new itinerary.
23/8: Jakarta-Kupang
24/8: Kupang-Atambua
25/8: Atambua-Dili
30/8: leave Dili to Cambodia.

Peter


From: Peter.Casier
To: Friends Email distribution list.
Date: 7/Sept/2000 08:07
Subject: Goodbye to a friend.

Friends,

It is with profound sadness and anger I heard today that Pero Simundza – a UN colleague and fellow ham, was amongst the three UN staff who were killed during a militia assault on the UNHCR office in Atambua, West-Timor yesterday.

The UNHCR office in Atambua was attacked by a vicious militia mob who overrun and trashed the premises and vehicles, stabbed three UNHCR relief workers who were working in the office at that moment, to death. They then dragged the bodies onto the street and put them on fire. Pero was one of them.

Pero worked for UNHCR in Atambua as an international radio operator. He joined UNHCR years ago, in Sarajevo. Later on, he moved on mission to Albania, where I met him in June last year. We spent a most enjoyable evening together, ending with me operating from his station. He stroke me as a young, very enthusiastic, truly passionate person.
Since then, we kept regular contact, sending eachother news from where we were, and where we operated from.

After returning from Albania, he continued working in Sarajevo for a few months after which he was appointed to Atambua, West Timor. He was real happy with his international assignment, close to the East Timor border. He regularly crossed the border to be active from the other side, in a small house where he had arranged his shack. He sent me pictures by Email of his shack and antenna.

I looked forward to meet him during my current Asia tour, which included West and East Timor. Unfortunately, I had to reschedule my visit to Kupang and Atambua by a few days at the last moment, so Pero and I missed eachother by 2 days. He was on R&R when I had meetings in his office in Atambua two weeks ago and I walked passed the radio room he worked in. Last week we exchanged Emails again saying ‘there will always be a next time, people like us always meet again, one side of the earth or another’.

Unfortunately, Pero, I will not be able to keep my promise. You parted from us way too soon, in a senseless death. We all know the risks we face while working in emergency relief activities, but your departure due to inhumane and totally absurd violence shocked many of us.

Farewell, my friend, we will all miss you. Our thoughts go to your family remaining behind.

vy 73

Peter
ON6TT


Associated Press – Wednesday, September 6th 2000.

DILI, East Timor (Associated Press) –
Thousands of pro-Indonesian militiamen and their supporters stormed a U.N. office in West Timor on Wednesday, killing an American and two other foreign U.N. staffers who worked to help refugees and burning their bodies. A U.N. force flew into the Indonesian territory to evacuate remaining workers, officials said.

Witnesses said Indonesian security forces, long blamed for Timor’s continuing tragedy, stood by and did nothing to prevent the killings and the torching of a U.N. office in the West Timor town of Atambua. In addition to the three dead, several foreign staffers for the U.N. refugee agency escaped and three were injured, one of them seriously, police in Atambua said.
The seriously injured staffer was a Brazilian woman who was hacked by an ax-wielding attacker, officials said. The three dead workers were identified as Samson Aregahegn of Ethiopia, Carlos Caseras of the United States and Pero Simundza of Croatia.

West Timor is controlled by Indonesia, while East Timor voted last year to separate from Indonesia and is now administered by the United Nations. Pro-Indonesian militiamen in the region rampaged after the East Timor independence vote, and clashes between pro-Indonesian groups and U.N. peacekeepers have become more frequent of late.

“These were peaceful, unarmed humanitarians who gave their lives trying help those who had lost everything in conflict,” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata said in a statement issued in Geneva. “Words cannot express the sorrow all of us at UNHCR are feeling today, and our hearts go out to the families of the victims.”
(…)
Wednesday’s violence began when thousands of armed pro-Indonesian militia members and their supporters stormed UNHCR’s Atambua office. Witnesses said militiamen beat the three foreign U.N. workers to death and burned their bodies in the street. They were the first civilian U.N. staff members to be killed in Timor.
“The militiamen beat them to death inside the building. They then dragged the bodies outside, put on them a pile of wood, poured gasoline over them and set them on fire,” said one witness, who was too frightened to give his name. “It was scary.”
(…)
Before Wednesday’s attack, the United Nations had recorded 193 deaths of civilian workers since 1992, when the organization began keeping civilian statistics. Since 1948, the United Nations has lost 1,412 military peacekeepers, although the figure jumps to 1,654 when U.N. observers and police are included.

Copyright 2000 The Associated Press

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Written by Peter

January 11th, 2007 at 3:42 pm