NotATarget: Insight into the Reality of the Humanitarian Aid
Almaty, 20 August 2018 - World Humanitarian Day is commemorated on 19 August each year. It was designated by the United Nations General Assembly to honor the 22 staff who lost their lives in the bombing of the UN Headquarters in Baghdad in 2003. The day honors all humanitarians who have lost their lives in the cause of duty as well as those who continue working in the promotion of the humanitarian cause despite all the danger and hardships. It aims to increase public awareness about the work humanitarians do to help millions of people in need around the world as well as the importance of international cooperation and better protection of civilians, humanitarians and health workers, especially in conflict zones.
In the run-up to the World Humanitarian Day, we have had the honor to hear the real-life story of a true humanitarian who dedicated over 25 years to working with UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency. The Senior Desk Officer for Iraq back in 2003 and now a Regional Representative for Central Asia, Yasuko Oda gives an insight into the reality of the humanitarian aid world, her work and life before and after 2003 tragedy in Iraq.
- Ms. Oda, UNHCR is known as one of the key UN entities delivering humanitarian aid, can you please tell us a little bit more about your work? Was there anything particularly memorable from your professional experience?
Refugees need international support and protection, having to flee their homes, like Syria, Somalia, South Sudan, to name a few. Central Asia has been hosting many from Afghanistan. All of them deserve attention. Over 25 years with the organization, I faced so many unforgettable scenes that it is just not possible to choose “most” memorable one.
I would say what happened on the 19th August 2003 in Baghdad, Iraq, was and still is too heavy for all of us. In short, the United Nations office in Iraq was hit by a suicide bomber with truck load of explosives. Many were injured and 22 colleagues lost their lives, including the head of the UN Iraq then, Mr. Sergio Vieira de Mello. After 15 years, I still cannot come to terms with this.
That time, my job was at the UNHCR in Geneva, titled Senior Desk Officer. My role was to help my colleagues who were working in Iraq and surrounding countries. I was always on the phone. Just before the 19th August, as usual, I was talking with a colleague in Baghdad about a project to help Iraqi refugees returning to the country. He said he would have to visit the UN office very soon to finalize a document for the government. I said that it was not urgent. He was not at the destroyed site on that day. I was very scared. On the other hand, there were many people who happened to be at the site unfortunately. For example, two academic researchers from the UK, visiting the UN. One passed away. The other, Mr. Gil Loescher survived, although he lost two of his legs. I met with him 10 years after the incident. He said he needed 10 years to be able to talk about it.
On the day of the attack, the entire world was watching and discussing what happened and why the UN was targeted. Everyone was glued to the television. Those days, main sources of information were TVs. Many of my colleagues were emotionally affected and badly. I remember I was so busy with on-going errands that I could not even attend the memorial ceremony. Someone had to do routine behind-the-scenes works no matter what happened. I cannot even remember how I managed a huge volume of paper work then.
- What was your work like before and after the attack? What has changed since the 2003 tragedy?
Many of us were wondering how we would continue our work after such a targeted attack. Operational assumptions, security measures and also funds made available for staff safety were thoroughly questioned. I cannot go into details here, but the situation was very complex and many lessons were learnt.
Back in 1991, I used to walk around in Baghdad and in Sulaimaniyah town in northern Iraq, visiting here and there, going to restaurants, meeting with people. There were fighting and shootings sometimes, but as international aid workers, we were not targeted. I was able to negotiate with warring parties from whom refugees/internally displaced were fleeing. I was considered neutral. My work had concrete results, like gaining access to people and saving their lives.
To be honest, targeting of the UN in Iraq in 2003 made me think of changing my job. To repeat, I still cannot come to terms with what happened on the 19th August. In the end, I did not, but I adjusted my mindset over the years. The office introduced a lot of new staff trainings and improved our safety measures.
And then, is the work still rewarding? Yes, it is. As a matter of fact, refugees still need support and protection.
According to the UN, in 2017, a total of 506 aid workers were reportedly killed, injured or kidnapped in 240 incidents globally in 49 countries around the globe. 179 humanitarians were reportedly killed in 98 major incidents, with the highest deaths occurring in Syria, South Sudan, CAR, Nigeria and Bangladesh. 141 aid workers were kidnapped in 20 countries with the highest number of kidnappings occurring in DRC, South Sudan and Somalia.
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