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We lost 5 colleagues in a suicide bombing today

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WFP office bombed in Islamabad Pakistan

Today, it is my birthday. But not much reason to celebrate. This morning, someone got into our office in Islamabad, Pakistan, and blew himself up.

He took the lives away from Botan, Farzana, Abid, GulRukh and Mohammad. Our colleagues and friends.

Botan Al-Hayawi (41) was Iraqi. He leaves behind a wife, two sons and a daughter. Botan was on mission in Peshawar when suicide bombers blew up the Pearl Continental Hotel in June. I met Botan several times back in 2002 and 2003 when I worked in Iraq.

Yesterday, Botan posted something on the Interagency ICT discussion forum:

I arrived to Islamabad last Monday morning with a busy day planned. I had just returned to Islamabad after recovering from the Peshawar blast on June 9th, 2009, which left me with some minor injuries but did not break my spirit.

He wrote this less than 24 hours before someone took his life away.

Farzana Barkat (22) was an office assistant. She worked in our logistics office, right next to where the suicide bomber blew himself up. A young woman at the start of her life.

Abid Rehman (41) was our senior finance assistant. He leaves a wife, two daughters and two sons. I worked with Abid when I was based in Islamabad from 2000 to 2002. We always exchanged friendly and teasing jokes as I stretched the finance unit with my urgent requests.

GulRukh Tahir (40) was our receptionist. She leaves behind a husband.

Mohammad Wahab (44) was our finance assistant. He leaves a wife, two daughters and two sons.

I am a bit numb at this moment. I think back of all the people I have known, and who lost their lives in the line of duty. Abby, Saskia, Pero, M.….

I think how it is possible to be close to those we want to serve, without having to isolate ourselves with barbed wire and sand bags. I think how we can still work in places we are still needed, but know we are at risk. Algeria, where our offices were bombed in 2007. Somalia, where we lost two colleagues earlier this year. Sudan, where we lost several drivers over the past years… Only to name a few.

It is strange.. It is only after the hours go by that the cruelty and the reality of the act today really seeps through… And the consciousness that if we are to work in a higher risk environment, there actually is not one place, where one is totally safe. Where would that be? In the office? They drive a truck through the gates and blow it up. In the guesthouse or the hotel? Same thing…
You can restrict the movements of staff and reduce field visits to minimize the risk, you can drive armoured cars – as we do in some operations – but then again, what holds them from blowing up an anti-tank mine underneath your vehicle as you stop in front of the traffic lights? What holds anyone from gunning you down when you get out of the car. Even when you think you are safe in the office compound.

Security for humanitarian workers has been more and more restrictive on what and how we can do our work. “Protecting ourselves” is a must. But how far does that conflict with being able to do our work, which entails having direct contact with those we serve? Should we all pack and go home?

I do not know the answers. I know one thing. This is not a happy birthday for me…

This song keeps on playing in my mind…

Picture courtesy The Nation

Written by Peter

October 5th, 2009 at 7:21 pm

UN and US, more than one letter of difference?

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Warning. This piece is highly opinionated and reflects my personal views.

Picture by Robert Kasca, taken on the rubble after the bombing of the UN HQ in Baghdad

Letter to the Editor of the New York Times (Source)

Re “For Terrorists, a War on Aid Groups” by Samantha Power (Op-Ed, Aug. 19):

As an aid worker who has worked in the Middle East for more than 10 years, I applaud Ms. Power’s call for more protection for nongovernmental organization workers in conflict zones, but she doesn’t mention an important element.

In recent years, the United States government has both contracted out for more aspects of development and humanitarian assistance in conflict zones and connected this foreign aid more closely than ever with strategic and military goals.

By publicly linking these objectives, the United States government has placed aid workers in the position where they may not be seen as neutral development professionals working solely for the benefit of the people in host countries, and has caused some people, especially in places where the United States military is involved, to see aid workers as representatives of an unpopular foreign policy or as part of an occupation administration, making them more vulnerable to attack.

Garrett Dorer, Cairo Aug. 20 2008

This letter represents the view many humanitarian workers have, since 9/11. The US unilaterally invaded two sovereign countries, Afghanistan and Iraq. The humanitarian workers were given all the financial resources needed to provide relief aid during and after these military actions.

And we, the aid workers, were effective: no-one saw children starving on the television. There were no reports of massive deaths due to the outbreak of diseases. Food, medical aid and shelter were flown in and distributed as almost a school example of how humanitarian assistance should be run. Did that directly or indirectly soften the public’s opinion about the military actions?

As the humanitarians proved to be effective in their Afghanistan and Iraq aid efforts, how far have they brought down the threshold for any country to take unilateral military action against the other? And even worse: how far have they aligned themselves with military actions? Part of the planning for military actions? How far are aid workers seen as accomplices.
Consequently, up to what level are we, aid workers, now seen as “representatives” of an unpopular foreign policy of one country? And consequently, up to what level are we, aid workers, now targeted by terrorism and other hostilities as much as the US is?

For us, UN aid workers, we always half-jokingly say: “Between the US and the UN, there is more than a one letter difference”, but that is not how it looks like to the outside world.

Picture courtesy Robert Kasca

Written by Peter

August 26th, 2008 at 1:05 am

Posted in Soapbox

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Humanitarians Become Terrorist Target.

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UN office bombed in AlgiersThis news article sums up the recent terrorist attacks against the UN:

In 2007, Al-Qaeda and its affiliates have threatened or targeted U.N. officials and peacekeepers in conflict zones in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan and southern Lebanon, where six U.N. peacekeepers were killed in a bombing in June. Even before the Algiers attack, the United Nations was already investing millions of dollars in fortifying its facilities and convoys in response to threats in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But the Algiers attack — the deadliest for the United Nations since insurgents bombed its Baghdad headquarters in August 2003 — provided a blunt reminder of how vulnerable the international organization is. (…)

Since the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad, I have always believed that we, international humanitarian organisations, will become the soft targets. As the “hard targets”, e.g. the UK and US foreign missions, isolate themselves, lock themselves up behind walls of concrete, we -humanitarians- can not. While often the streets of US embassies are barricaded, our work is on those streets, in the field, working with the people.

We -humanitarians- are working in the most remote places, often as the only expats around. How easy does that make us as a target? Any malicious group who wants international press, only needs to kidnap or kill one of us, and they get plenty of international press… And that was only talking about terrorism. How about just plain crime and banditry?

To give you an idea, WFP (UN World Food Programme) had 36 people killed, injured or detained this year only… That is a sharp raise from the previous years.

We’re in for a rough ride… How much do we protect ourselves? With what financial implication? For example, a typical field 4×4 vehicle costs about US$25,000. But working in a high risk area will easily add US$15,000 in ballistic blankets and HF/VHF radios for security measures.

How much risk is acceptable, to the organisations, and to the staff themselves? How much do those security measures isolate us, and disables us from doing the work we are set to do: work with the people.

Picture courtesy Fayez Nureldine, AFP/Getty Images

Written by Peter

December 27th, 2007 at 3:54 am

Posted in Articles

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The Jihadis – A Close Encounter with the Terrorists

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‘The Jihadis’ is not their real name. I also censored the name of the country this all happened in. You never know…

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, our office in [a country in the Middle East, not so very popular in the West] was solely run by female staff. They were a dynamic bunch, and each time I went on mission there, we had loads of fun. You would not think much of them when you saw these ladies on the street, all scarf-ed up, or even veiled up, with dark dull-coloured overcoats. But boy, once indoors, the veils, scarves and all depressive moods stayed at the front door, and they were the most amusing and dynamic bunch.

Once while I was on mission to [that country], the Ministry of Foreign Affairs invited the key people in our office for a formal evening dinner, and our staff asked me to come along.. You need to know I always dress very casual, and of course, I had no suit nor even decent shoes with me. ‘No problem’, said the lady who invited me, we will find you something. So in the evening I attended the dinner with a borrowed outfit: shoes from a colleague, shirt, tie and jacket from someone’s husband and a pair of trousers from I-don’t-know-where. I looked formal. Like a formal vagabond.

The dinner was held at the palace from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was an astonishing building, almost straight out of the movies. Beautiful carpets, lavish furniture, and luxuriously decorated walls in the huge banquet halls. While chatting over our after-dinner tea, out of the blue, the people from the Ministry asked if I could give them a presentation on emergency and disaster preparedness systems we use in our organisation.

A few weeks later…

I am both nervous and excited. It is the first time, the government reached out to us, asking for assistance. They even arranged the needed paperwork for me to bring the ‘sensitive equipment’ needed for the demonstration, into the country: Radios and modems, and all kinds of stuff that would normally get confiscated the moment you step off the plane.
I am used to get slightly harassed going through their customs check, even with UN papers, but this time, I give them a set of papers the government sent us. I can not read what was on it, but they all go a bit pale while looking at it, and for once, I get the red carpet treatment…

The day of the presentation itself, our staff set up a nice conference/meeting room in a fancy old-style hotel. Our meeting room is at the end of a long corridor. On the left side of the corridor, large windows overlook the hotel gardens. On the right, there is a line-up of doors all leading into meeting rooms similar to ours. All meeting rooms are separated with curtains, so if there is a bigger meeting to be held, they draw the curtains open to create a bigger space.

We have mobilized all our local staff for this important happening. The ladies prepared a long table with refreshments (all non-alcoholic of course), and kosher food (eh.. well not really kosher, I guess, but you know what I mean: ‘politically correct and culturally sensitive’ food)… The interpreter and all the electronics for the real time translation of my speech are tested and ready for our esteemed guests… Who are of course fashionable late. Ten minutes, fifteen minutes, half an hour.. I start to wonder if all preparation efforts are going to be in vain, and no-one is going to show up. I walk to the entrance of the long corridor and see some pretty official looking guys stepping towards the meeting rooms. They all look very serious. They have some heavy looking dudes with bulky stuff under their jackets, behind them. “These must be our guests”, I think to myself, and walk towards them, holding out my hand, to greet them. I hear one of our local staff rushing in behind me, whisper-shouting “Peter!?”. At that moment, one of the bulky-jacket dudes leaps forward, pulls me by the hand I held out, and pushes me firmly onto the side of the corridor. I just stand there, perplex, while the whole official delegation rushes past me. The one huge dude keeps standing in front of me, drilling his dark reflective Ray Ban sunglasses deep into my eyes. Nobody else thinks I am worthy of a look.

All fifteen or twenty of them walk straight into our meeting room, and take a seat. I still think I should go in and greet them, even though I don’t not understand what just happened with the ‘huge dude’. Our local staff, rush in behind me and pull me back. ‘Peter, Peter, don’t!’, she says. ‘Why not?”, I reply, “I should go and say hello, no?”. She lowers her voice even more, and whispers in my ear: ‘No, you can not’. She adds only one word which explains it all: “[Jihadis]’. Eh? Of course I know of [the Jihadis], what they are and what they stand for. They are always all over the news when it comes to conflicts in the Middle East. All Western governments label them as a terrorist organisation. “Euh.. and what are [the Jihadis] doing in our meeting?”, I ask?. “I don’t know”, she replies. She is as confused as I am.

It only takes two minutes before the delegation stands up, walks out of our meeting room and rushes into the meeting room next to ours.. None of them blink an eye, except one of the ‘huge dudes with a bulky thing under his jacket’, who says a few snappy words in the local language to one of our staff, as he passes her. “The guy said they were in the wrong meeting room.”, she smiles.
Soon enough our government delegation (the real one!) arrives, and we start. It was a bit difficult though as the curtains separating our meeting room from the one next door are not insulating the noise very well, to say the least. It is almost like I am standing in the midst of the heated discussion they have in the next room. I wonder what they are talking about… My audience understands exactly what was happening amongst our neighbours, but all through my presentation they never blink an eye.. Neither do I. But I keep on thinking how many of the people in the room next door would be on the ‘Top 10 Most Wanted’ list of any Western government.. I wonder if they would have liked my presentation?

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Written by Peter

March 15th, 2007 at 2:20 am