World Humanitarian Day

8 years ago today, a suicide bomber pulled his truck along side the United Nations headquarters in Iraq. 22 people were killed in the blast, including the UN’s head of mission Sergio Vieira de Mello.  Since then, August 19 has become a memorial day and also day to honor the work and sacrifices of humanitarian workers across the globe.

It’s a dangerous job. Nationals and foreign aid workers are increasingly becoming the targets of militant groups, particularly in places like Somalia and Afghanistan when the “humanitarian space” is shrinking.  The Aid Worker Security Database lists hundreds of incidents, ranging from assassination to kidnapping to car-jacking, that aid workers have have to deal with on an ongoing basis.

Probably one of the most disturbing stories I have read in a while is this harrowing tale of a Hungarian civilian UN Peacekeeper in Darfur, Istvan Papp, who was kidnapped from his home and shackled to a tree for three months.

The kidnappers were demanding a ransom of $1 million – however, the UN policy is to not pay ransoms and the responsibility for UN staff security in a peacekeeping area of operations lies primarily in the hands of the local authorities.

Initially, Mr. Papp had some degree of personal freedom – but that was not to last.

“For the first few days, I was considered to be an old man, and they appreciated that, so I was not chained. I was guarded, but I had a kind of freedom of movement, I could go to the toilet…,” Mr. Papp said. “But after 10 days, when they learned from me that I was former military – I mean, you have to tell them these things, they would get to know of it, so it is better if I tell them – they decided to chain me during the night and after two or three days they decided throughout the day also, so 24 hours a day.”

The chain became a regular and central part of the peacekeeper’s daily existence, along with a herd of camels and various trees.

“We moved from one place to the other every two or three days. Whenever we moved, first they went to look for a tree for me,” Mr. Papp said. “When they found an appropriate tree, providing shade for the day, they put one end of the chain to the tree, the other end to either my left or right leg.”

Despite the conditions he now found himself in, there was some thoughtfulness which Mr. Papp could appreciate.

“I always had the choice of which leg I would like to be chained,” he said. “During the day, as the sun was going around, I had to change my place. The chain was about three-metres long, with 96 links it. It gave me freedom of movement, just enough to move as the shade moved.”

He was eventually released to the government, who turned him over to the United Nations.

Papp’s story is moving, but it is also worth remembering that the majority of aid workers around the world are nationals of the countries in which they work. Country nationals also make up most of the victims of crimes directed against aid workers.

It can be hard, dangerous and rewarding work. If you see an aid worker today, thank her or him.