What's it like to work in a war zone? Aid workers explain

by Katie Nguyen | Katie_Nguyen1 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 19 August 2014 02:45 GMT

Crispen Rukasha of OCHA Somalia. Courtesy of UN OCHA.

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Aid workers describe life in a war zone, losing cherished colleagues and witnessing the worst kind of human suffering

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – More aid workers were killed, kidnapped or seriously wounded in 2013 than ever before, according to figures published by industry consultancy group Humanitarian Outcomes on Tuesday. 

Last year, 155 aid workers were killed, 171 seriously wounded and 134 kidnapped. Afghanistan registered the highest number of attacks with 81 aid workers killed in 2013, according to the group which started collecting numbers of aid worker casualties in 2005. 

What’s it like to be on the frontlines of humanitarian work – living in a war zone, losing cherished colleagues or witnessing the worst kind of human suffering?

On World Humanitarian Day, here are some reflections from aid workers and other humanitarians around the world:   

Huma Safi is Oxfam's gender justice manager in Kabul, Afghanistan. She has been working on women's rights in Afghanistan for more than 10 years 

As an Afghan woman, I feel the pain of so many women in my country who suffer from injustices everyday and I work so they can be treated as equals.

I remember that when I worked in a women's shelter, an 18 year-old girl was brought to us. She had been attacked with acid in her home. Half of her body had been burnt and many people believed she wouldn't survive. But she was determined. While she recovered in the shelter, and despite her burns, she went to school for the first time in her life.

Now, I am so proud of her, of both her courage and how she has progressed. Even with the trauma she faced she is now educated and when I asked her what she wanted for her future, she said she wanted to be a women's rights activist like me. 

Mahmoud Deeb Daher is head of World Health Organization's Gaza sub office

For the last three weeks, there has been so much heavy fighting across Gaza. Every single day, we are witnessing so much and hearing eyewitness accounts of attacks on hospitals, schools and healthcare workers.

When I think hard, there are many aspects of my work that are rewarding. Of course, I'm pleased to hear about the arrival of much-needed supplies or a mother discovering her missing child is alive.

But, for me, the reward comes after conflict. When we know that lives were saved, people aren't living in fear anymore, and that human beings are no longer suffering. I do not only work here, it is also home for me and my family. We are part of these affected communities too. Our hope is that we will all be able live in peace, and we pray this will happen sooner rather than later.  

Crispen Rukasha is head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs sub-office in Mogadishu, Somalia 

You have to be mentally prepared to work in a war zone. But I am not alone. I am part of a big team of aid workers. We are a second family to each other and this gives me strength.   

Muna Harib is founder of Breathing Numbers, which helps refugees in the Middle East 

At a refugee centre in Amman, a 7 year-old boy called Jamal came in and struck me. He then buried his head in my arms, hit me, then hugged me and hit me again.

Jamal showed me a video of the moment a shell hit him and his mother. She was killed before his own eyes, while he was left with his intestines hanging from his body. I felt as though Jamal was seeking his mother in me, and this completely broke my heart. 

Melvin Korkor, a Liberian doctor who works in Gbarnga, a town in central Liberia, contracted Ebola while treating patients but survived. He was a student of Dr Samuel Brisbane, one of Liberia's top doctors and medical teachers, who died from the Ebola virus last month after contracting it from infected patients   

The last time I saw him was in the Ebola isolation ward where I had also been taken after testing positive for Ebola. When he saw me, he said: “My son what are you doing here?” And he passed by me and wished me well. But a few days later his own condition became very worse and he died.

Dr Brisbane was a friendly man and always encouraging young medical students to learn. He used to tell us that they (he and his generation of doctors) were getting older and that it was time for we, the younger doctors, to take over the health sector ... He used to tell us that to be a medical doctor ... you are there to serve humanity.

He wanted me to know everything about medicine. He shared everything with me. The young medical students will miss him. He used to be the light for us.

Liberia has lost a great mind and a humanitarian.

Domenico Scalpelli is the World Food Programme's Myanmar country director. He manages a $210 million operation with 300 staff in 11 field offices, serving about 700,00 people throughout the country every month 

Some of the more challenging aspects are dealing with deep-rooted community and religious conflict issues, super-imposed on a complex political environment.

In the interests of protecting conflict-affected communities, we are often confronted with difficulties in upholding to the letter core international principles, and often the principles need to be "translated" into a more pragmatic approach.  

Claire Durham is a British Red Cross Logistics Coordinator helping displaced families in Iraq.

I have served on several missions for the Red Cross in my career before, and never have I seen such a fluid crisis. The fluidity in the mass movement of people means that it can be a real challenge to plan conclusively. There are times when we are just about to deliver aid when people move on – we always need to be a step ahead. And it is heart-wrenching to see such masses of people just moving without resources or coping mechanisms for the challenges.  

(Editing by Alex Whiting)

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