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International Aid Workers Live on the Brink of Death - 2004-07-26


In disaster areas around the world, peacekeepers, aid workers and volunteers risk their lives to help victims. But a constant threat of death has a profound effect on the lives of these workers. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke spoke with three UN peacekeepers about their experience.

Heidi Postlewait, a social worker from New Jersey, Ken Cain a graduate of Harvard Law from Massachusetts and Andrew Thomson, a medical doctor from New Zealand joined UN peacekeeping efforts in the early 1990's. They worked together in several disaster areas around the world, including Cambodia, Somalia and Haiti. Dr. Thomson says when they first met on assignment in Cambodia, they were very enthusiastic. “I think we started out in Cambodia believing that we could make peace almost wherever we went with the United Nations.”

Dr. Thomson says when he joined the U.N. peacekeeping efforts, he had no idea that he would have to deal with the consequences of two massacres: one in Rwanda, the other in Srebrenica, Bosnia.

“And to work for the UN in that situation, even though you are not responsible, you have to look survivors in the eye on the edge of those mass graves and answer that question: “Why, why did you abandon us, why did you -- the UN-- abandon us?” as you put another body in a UN body bag under a UN flag. And I never had an answer to that,” says Dr. Thomson. “And I felt great shame at being a UN worker and great anger at my bosses, whose cowardice and blindness in the face of evil contributed to those catastrophes.”

In the past, aid workers arrived to help a country at war with another. The government usually enabled them to perform their tasks and provided security. Since the 1990's, international workers are increasingly involved in the chaotic conditions of civil war. situations where aid can be abused. That makes their job all the harder as Ken Cain found at a prison in Somalia.

“And I wanted to bring in, of course, food and medicine and water, assuming that it would go to the prisoners. Instead, the militia in charge of the prison took all of it and sold it and benefited from this aid. In the meantime, the prisoners are getting more and more sick. So I am bringing more and more medicine because I am hoping a trickle of it will get to the prisoners and save their lives,” recalls Ken Cain. “In fact, it ended up being an incentive for the people who control the prison to make their conditions as bad as they possibly could for the prisoners because they knew the more that were sick and the more that were dying, the more we would panic and bring more stuff.”

Even worse, in civil war, aid workers tend to become targets of one side or the other. This life on the brink of death, so remote from what is familiar, and away from everything familiar, is profoundly unsettling, says Heidi Postlewait.

“Also, when you are out in the field you have none of the normal family support structure. You are just by yourself, and you usually end up in a country not knowing anyone, with not even a person to pick you up at the airport,” says Ms Postlewait. “So you very quickly find other ex-patriots and bond with them.”

Even though life in the field is harsh, many aid workers say they find it even harder when they return home. Ken Cain says: “When we came home at the very end of the 1990's, this was the moment when the Dow hit 10.000 and the stock exchanges in the US were really creating trillions of dollars of new wealth. It was the dot-com boom, and so the conversation and the social excitement in New York, where we returned home, was all about money and about finances and about dot coms. And we were from another planet.”

Heidi Postlewait adds: “We were three people who had never even seen the Internet yet.

“There was no Internet in Somalia,” explains Mr. Cain. “We barely knew what e-mail was and there was this new economy. So it was very difficult to come home.”

Ken Cain and Heidi Postlewait say for a long time they felt something of a post-Vietnam syndrome, a feeling of isolation that besets soldiers returning from war.

Still, Andrew Thompson says none are sorry they went through it: “I remember thinking at the time: I am alive. This is the work I want to do. It may get me hurt or killed, but it is worth it. And that’s not a feeling that you can often find in your life.”

Most importantly, says Dr. Thomson, despite some failures, humanitarian work remains important and irreplaceable.

He and his two companions describe their experiences in a book subtitled “A true Story From Hell on Earth.” Their advice to those interested in joining humanitarian missions is to fight for what they believe in but also accept realities on the ground. When they become cynical about their mission, it is time to leave the field.

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