Humanitarian organizations working in conflict zones face an array of difficulties in their work. Not least among them is being a target of threats and violence from people who see them as helping the enemy. Several humanitarian workers discussed their experiences at a seminar Tuesday at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington.
War breeds suspicion and mistrust. So the aid workers from conflict-ridden countries said one of their hardest tasks is maintaining an appearance of neutrality while doing their work.
Abdel Mitaal Girshab is executive director of the Institute for Development of Civil Society in Sudan. He said his staff is closely watched by the security forces when they conduct workshops on human rights, women's rights and education around the country.
"We have emphasized that we are neutral, we are just giving knowledge and skills," said Girshab. "We are not saying, 'You will be working with this party or that party.' But still this is being watched with a big exclamation mark, where are we going with these people?"
As deputy director of the Tribal Liason Office in Afghanistan, Masood Karokhail coordinates dialogue between tribal leaders and development agencies in Kabul. He said his staff of more than 200 people working across the country are constantly aware of threats.
"As we say in Afghanistan, you have to have two eyes at the front and two eyes at the back of your head for any staff on the ground, which is how you deal with these realities," said Karokhail.
Karokhail said some humanitarian groups in Afghanistan refuse to work with foreign military personnel, including those in the U.S.'s Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT). "But when we used to discuss with local leaders or local stakeholders, they would say we need to have access to the PRT because the PRT is present in our province."
Karokhail said local leaders saw value in working with the U.S. military, especially when its troops are hunting al-Qaeda or the Taliban in their regions.
Maria Emma Wills is a researcher at Colombia's Historical Memory Commission. It collects testimonies of victims of massacres and other atrocities. Wills said international aid agencies can provide a measure of protection for local workers.
"I think they have a role of shielding people who are working on the ground, because the armed actors think twice before attacking someone whom they know is connected to international agencies," said Wills.
According to Canada's Aid Worker Security Database, 102 humanitarian workers were killed around the world last year. Eighty-eight of them were local staff workers.