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Aid Workers Under Fire - 2004-08-26

The road between Khairkhana and Qala-i-Naw in Afghanistan's Badghis province is rugged and bloody. In early June, three European and two Afghan aid workers with Brussels-based Doctors Without Borders - Medecins Sans Frontieres - were shot dead as they traveled between the group's three area health clinics.

In late July, Medecins Sans Frontieres cited safety concerns in announcing the end of operations in Afghanistan, where it says only 30 percent of the people have access to basic health care. MSF Afghan operations director Kenny Gluck reflects on how 24 years of service there through many conflicts and regimes could not ensure protection. "Having worked" he says "through the Soviet invasion, having worked through the years of the mujahadeen wars and the mujahadeen regimes, having worked through the years of the Taleban regime, this respect for MSF as an organization providing health care to people in crisis seems to have died."

The danger faced by aid workers is not confined to Afghanistan. A Johns Hopkins University study found that during a 13-year period between 1985 and 1998, two-thirds of the 375 deaths among humanitarians resulted from violence. Over half took place in Africa, especially during Rwanda's 1994 civil war. Sometimes they're caught in the crossfire between government and rebel forces, but as MSF's Kenny Gluck points out, official policies and statements can also cause trouble. He says his people working in Chechnya were endangered by a Russian general who claimed on television that the MSF teams are spies and enemies of his country. But it's MSF policy to help whoever needs it, in or out of uniform.

In Gaza, the United Nations Relief Works Agency - UNRWA - recently withdrew all but a handful of personnel. UNRWA official Christer Nordahl says bullets flying in the course of the Israeli - Palestinian conflict don't discriminate between combatants and innocent bystanders such as aid workers. "Ever since the second intifada started," he says "we have been facing very big risks of being caught in crossfire or being where indiscriminate fire takes place."

Iraq has been especially dangerous for aid and relief workers. In August 2003, a huge truck bomb shattered the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, killing UN envoy Sergio Vieira De Mello and twenty others. As a result, the UN Security Council passed resolution 1502, making the murder of a humanitarian worker a war crime. The bombing also prompted the UN to pull out of Iraq. The International Committee of the Red Cross was similarly bombed and withdrew from that country.

Humanitarian officials cite another problem - the U.S. military in Afghanistan and some other countries engages in relief and reconstruction work as part of what is called a "hearts and minds" strategy to win the support of the people. ICRC's Amanada Williamson says aid groups and the military have different roles and should maintain them for the safety of humanitarian workers. She told VOA "The problem there is a blurring between somebody who is a combatant and somebody who is strictly a humanitarian. And once those lines become blurred, that brings in an inherent security risk to humanitarians like ourselves."

Humanitarian organizations admit that there are inherent dangers in conflict zones. But they say open and candid communication with all factions and the local population along with strict neutrality - is the best protection as Cara Thanassi of the aid group CARE comments. "What CARE and other agencies throughout the years have relied on as the best way to maintain their security is to have good relations with the people. The people know what we're doing, why we're there, that we are impartial, and that we're delivering aid based on need." She adds "And, we do not have a larger political agenda that we're tied into."

Some have suggested that humanitarian groups could minimize the dangers they face by allowing military escorts or hiring private security. MSF, CARE and other organizations disagree, saying any association with weapons compromises their neutrality and invites attack. ICRC's Amanda Williamson strongly opposes any armed solutions. "We don't want to end up being a fortress. We really want to be open to the population, and to have guards at your door." Ms. Williamson asserts "To create this sort of fortress is really extremely difficult in terms of perception of our humanitarianism."

In conflicts, as in natural disasters, there is a need for quick and comprehensive humanitarian aid. There will always be risks in going into such places, but those who do say their own safety is second to addressing the needs of others.