In Iraq they thought we were the coalition forces. We moved around in big jeeps, not our customary white ones, but dark blue and light blue ones. We were often attacked. By the same people we were racing against time to help. It started with scattered attacks here and there against humanitarian aid workers. Stones were thrown at us, attacking our cars, groups trying to storm into our offices. Then the unthinkable happened. Our biggest direct hit in the history of the UN’s humanitarian work was on August 19th, 2003. In Baghdad, the now infamous blue and white Canal Hotel was serving as the UN’s headquarters in the country when it was hit by a truck bomb. I had been there a couple of weeks before the terrorist bombing. I spoke to Sergio before going back to Basrah where I was posted, he extracted himself from the throng of people vying for his attention in his top floor corner office. He was the most charming and successful Under Secretary General in the history of the UN – I happen to think so. He was a star in many ways-everyone wanted to be near Sergio, a friend of Sergio’s, in his presence, listening to what that philosopher/humanitarian had to say. That day we quickly chatted before I left. It was the last time I saw him. We talked about his wife Annie-a friend of mine, about his son Adrien-then in Canada, about his elder son Laurent, who had graduated from university that year. Sergio was overwhelmed that last time I saw him. He was the quintessential humanitarian with very little space to operate in Iraq at that time. He knew it was bad, he sensed it. He was right. He, and 21 other humanitarian workers, were crushed by the rubble of Canal hotel when the attack took place. The deadly attack targeted humanitarians scrambling to undo damage to a population of Iraqis scarred by two wars, sanctions and of course the rule of Saddam with what that brought in terms of insecurity, injustice, and pain.
A short time after the bombing, a seed was planted in the minds of the friends and family of Sergio, a foundation had to be started in his name. It did – http://www.sergiovdmfoundation.org. Then the idea came of having the legacy of Sergio through his foundation be the protection and safeguarding the security, independence and neutrality of humanitarian workers everywhere. It became one major goal of the foundation. Then Annie Veiria de Mello, Vice President of Sergio’s Foundation, had this nagging idea that the date of August 19th should be marked by the UN and humanitarians everywhere as the day the UN and other humanitarians were senselessly attacked while trying to do a dangerous, selfless job that nobody wanted or dared to do.
The date of the single biggest attack against humanitarian workers had to be preserved as a living memory in the conscience of the world. It did. It is. The UN General Assembly agreed to designated August 19th as World Humanitarian Day, celebrated by one and all humanitarians working around the planet. It is a day to honor the commitment of humanitarians, celebrate the lives of those who perish or are injured or kidnapped in the line of duty, and to advocate for the protection, the security and the respect of neutrality of the thousands of people who work in the humanitarian field, for the noblest of causes, doing untiring work to help the masses of humans caught in the crossfire of other humans or defenseless facing the wrath of nature, a work of saving lives and dignities that not many people have the fortitude to do, and it is these humanitarians, just like the people they set forth to help, who are the first to be attacked at the time of conflict or crisis. In East Timor, the Australian army that was there to keep the peace did not understand what humanitarians did. They called them ‘The Humans’. The humanitarians went and had blue T-shirts made with the word ‘Humans’ on it. A famous exchange took place between Major General Cosgrove and Ross Mountain who was then the UN envoy for Humanitarian coordination of the East Timor crisis. Major General Cosgrove wanted his troops to stay in their bases, while the UN wanted them to accompany the humanitarians to deliver much needed aid to East Timorese fleeing the atrocities and hiding in the hills. Cosgrove informed the UN that they, the soldiers, will provide the aid and distribute it when the time comes. To which Mountain responded “Great. We, the Humanitarians, will duly take our Swiss army knives and protect you while you do that”. The point was made, Cosgrove got it.
In honor of humanitarianism, and on this symbolic date, humanitarians worldwide come together, virtually and physically, to observe the day, to remember those who have fallen, those who continue to fall, are injured, attacked, kidnapped, suffer post traumatic stress disorder, leave families behind, contract diseases, live in very difficult conditions, to save the most vulnerable and destitute.
And no, humanitarian aid workers don’t get paid what bankers and brokers get paid, or what teenage models get paid. Nor do they make what computer software company owners make, or what celebrities make. Because what they do, despite its enormity, remains anonymous and not sensational enough. Their work is of the noblest nature, appreciated by those who receive it, and a few others who acknowledge that we as humanity are as strong as our weakest of the weak. There are fortunately those who are aware that we need to all be in this together, to help when we can, and where we can, to think of the less fortunate on this planet, to see their plight, to notice what is going on in Pakistan with the devastating floods, what Haiti is still coping with, what Congo has to suffer everyday, what Iraqis face as their reality of violence continues to unfold. We are in this together, and those who help our weakest, our fellow humans at their most needy, the women and children who are there to serve as collateral damage, statistics, news images on cable networks, those are the humanitarians we think of today.
The humanitarian workers who are paid or volunteer to come to the aid of millions of victims of crises, are like all of us, humans with families, life stories, happy and sad ones, and hopes for a better future. And yet those humanitarian workers are being attacked daily, the doctors, nurses, food aid distributors, UN staff, drivers, pilots, mine action specialists, nutritionists, planners, shelter providers, water and sanitation experts, protection officers, they are all attacked indiscriminately because the attackers get away with it, and the world lets it happen. And also because most people don’t understand what humanitarians do, especially local people who attack humanitarians that are helping them and their communities. They don’t know. They think we humanitarians are spies, agents of the West, we speak foreign languages, we look like a Benetton commercial, people of every nation, creed, race, helping people of every affected nation, creed, race, regardless of their nation, creed, race. Someone needs to tell the world what we do.
The UN and its partners decided to do just that. To be that someone who tells the world what humanitarians do. They made a fantastic collaborative film about it. It started with an idea. Sometimes brainstorming works, and this time it did. What if the idea of Matt Harding www.wherethehellismatt.com is emulated? What if humanitarians are shown working (not necessarily dancing-thank God!) around the world, like Matt did it while dancing and creating an Internet sensation? Matt is described on his website as”.. a 33-year-old deadbeat from Connecticut who used to think that all he ever wanted to do in life was make and play videogames…who never lost a staring contest…”. Heck, if Matt can do it, so can the humanitarians. And the so they did. And what’s more, Matt decided to contribute to the film by doing one of his bad dancing in Baghdad. David Ohanna, a filmmaker who the UN is lucky to have in its fold, managed the project, along with countless others from the UN, NGOs, volunteers, local foundations around the world. Film rushes came in from phone cameras used by staff, amateurs with their video cams, then filmmakers with huge cameras sent in their bit, the domino effect was happening, and it was contagious. A talented music composer from Sweden decided to write the music for the film www.kristerlinder.com and a film special effects company came on board to provide the costly help needed with the graphics in the film www.massmarket.tv and more film clips were pouring in from under the oceans, over land, the South Pole, refugee camps, you name it. What started as an idea snowballed into a team effort spanning the globe.
But isn’t that what humanitarian work is all about? The world comes together to do a job too urgent and too big for any one person or agency or nation to handle. We are a species of communal work, that’s how we survived across the centuries, we can’t live alone, we won’t survive as a human race if we do. According to Stephen Hawking, we need to collectively think of moving planets, but I’m not even contemplating that now. So much to do on this planet here and now first. We are all in this together, if we are destroying our environment, our planet co-dwellers, our world, it will affect each and every one of us. We really need to realize we are all in this together, on this third rock from the sun, that no one is immune and living in a bubble. As a group we can do so much, nothing is impossible. Before we decide to conquer other galaxies and planets, let’s make sure this planet and its inhabitants are not dying of hunger, disease, wars, drowning in floods and climate change catastrophes. Just like in my country long ago and other communities around the world, people came together to build houses for new couples, when the village would do a communal job of it, raising the central log to fix the roof, when one and all would do their bit to build, protect, provide shelter, care. We still do that, in high tech ways sometimes, in traditional ways still, but we can’t help coming together to help each other. This World Humanitarian Day 2010 film was one such minor demonstration of what we humans can do when we set our mind to it. Watch it please, think of humanitarians and how you can help our cause, think of those less fortunate than you are, who can never see the film or read this blog post for lack of computers, and a lack of that thing we so often take for granted called electricity. Celebrate this day by being one of us. We rock. Watch the film and you will see for yourself.