This year’s World Humanitarian Day is being commemorated at a time of increased risk for the thousands of aid workers who put their lives on the line every day to help millions of people affected by conflict and natural and human-made disasters.
The United Nations says humanitarian workers are in far greater danger today than 20 years ago, when the U.N.’s headquarters in the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, Iraq, was bombed. The attack killed 22 staffers, including Special Representative Sergio Vieira de Mello, and injuring some 150 others.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, says so far this year, 62 humanitarian workers have been killed in crises around the world, a 40% increase from the same period in 2022. Another 84 aid workers have been wounded and 34 kidnapped.
“The statistics are grim,” said Ramesh Rajasingham, head of OCHA’s office in Geneva. “Every year, nearly six times more aid workers are killed in the line of duty than were killed in Baghdad on that dark day.”
“International law is clear,” he said. “Aid workers are not targets. Perpetrators must be held to account. Impunity for these crimes is a scar on our collective conscience.”
OCHA says the highest number of attacks against aid workers is in South Sudan, followed closely by Sudan. Aid worker casualties also have been recorded in the Central African Republic, Mali, Somalia and Ukraine.
World Humanitarian Day was established in response to the attack in Iraq 20 years ago on Aug. 19, 2003. Survivors and family members of victims, as well as U.N. senior officials, diplomats and members of the public, attended a ceremony Friday at U.N. headquarters in Geneva to pay tribute to the workers who have lost their lives in humanitarian service.
“Far from the spotlight and out of the headlines, humanitarians work around the clock to make our world a better place,” said U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
“Against incredible odds, often at great personal risk, they ease suffering in some of the most dangerous circumstances imaginable.”
Ahmad Fawzi, who acted as master of ceremonies at the event, was spokesman for Sergio Vieiro di Mello when the terrorist attack on the Canal Hotel in Baghdad occurred. He escaped death because he was away on mission. However, the scars remain to this day.
“It has been said time heals all wounds. I do not agree,” said Fawzi.
Quoting Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, who lost two of her children to assassins’ bullets, he said that while “the pain lessens, it is never gone.”
With his voice breaking, Fawzi shared a painful memory of accompanying the remains of his lifelong friend Nadia Younus, who was killed in the Baghdad terrorist attack, to her final resting place in Cairo.
“It seems like only yesterday that Nadia and I shared our last dinner together in Baghdad,” he said.
Another emotion-filled memory was conveyed by Mujahed Mohammed Hasan, a survivor of the Canal Hotel bombing. He said he was happily planning his wedding on the day he was injured. He recounted years of painful treatment, of shattered dreams, of fighting for survival.
He told the room full of dignitaries that the support of his family gave him the strength and empowered him “to stand before you now, proudly reflecting on a 20-year journey of my life that has changed me into an ambitious, happy, proud individual determined to make a difference in the lives of those in need.”
“My journey is ongoing, and I continue to heal and grow every single day as I choose not to be a victim,” he said.
The United Nations says 362 million people in the world need humanitarian assistance.
In the face of skyrocketing humanitarian needs and despite security and other challenges, OCHA has vowed that “the U.N. and its partners aim to help almost 250 million people in crises around the world — 10 times more than in 2003.”