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World Humanitarian Day: UNHCR colleagues reflect on losing colleagues, taking risks to serve the world's most vulnerable


World Humanitarian Day: UNHCR colleagues reflect on losing colleagues, taking risks to serve the world's most vulnerable

With humanitarian workers around the world increasingly becoming a target for violence, colleagues and families of some who have died in the line of duty discuss both the gratitude and guilt of surviving - and the reasons to keep serving.
20 August 2009
Remembering the fallen: at a memorial ceremony in Islamabad in June 2009, UN and UNHCR staff paid tribute to Aleksandar Vorkapic and other UN staff killed in the bombing of the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar, Pakistan.

GENEVA, August 20 (UNHCR) - Sometimes Hélène Caux dreams that she goes back in time and urges Aleksandar Vorkapic to join her and other colleagues for dinner and enjoy the light breeze on the terrace of the UNHCR guesthouse in Peshawar, Pakistan rather than return for dinner at his own nearby hotel.

In reality he did go back to the Pearl Continental Hotel - and was killed in his fourth floor room when a suicide bomber's truck loaded with 500 kilos of explosives smashed into the building on June 9 this year while Vorkapic, an information technology specialist from Belgrade, was serving on an emergency mission.

"When a colleague you've been working with is killed in the line of duty it leaves you with deep scars and a sense of vulnerability," said Caux, a communications officer normally based in Geneva, who was also on an emergency deployment. "A feeling of guilt also, simply because you escaped death and your colleague did not," she added, reflecting on World Humanitarian Day, which was marked on August 19 and which carries great significance for UNHCR staff, since the agency has had 30 employees killed in the line of duty since 1987. Of them three were killed in Pakistan this year alone.

By extension, the families of killed staff also become victims of the increasing trend of attacks against humanitarian aid workers.

"Families' initial feeling is shock; even if they knew that their loved one was working in a dangerous place, they never think it's going to happen to them," says Dubravka Suzic-Kofi, a psychologist who has headed UNHCR's staff welfare section for the past ten years. "Then comes anger, and they start to blame a person, the organization, fate, God or whatever."

Julie Goislard, for example, remains haunted by unanswered questions, six years after the brutal murder of her sister Bettina, a UNHCR protection officer working in Afghanistan. However, she still tries to cope. "To overcome my loss, I had to cling to personal memories: the things that made her laugh, the candies she used to hide in her drawer, the movies that she liked to watch," she wrote in an e-mail message to Suzic-Kofi two days before World Humanitarian Day. "Many other UN staff have been killed and many more will unfortunately also lose their lives," she added.

In 2008, a record number of 260 humanitarian aid workers were killed, kidnapped or seriously injured in attacks across the world. On average, incidents of this nature have been three times more than recorded in the previous nine years.

Laurence Djeya, a UNHCR secretary from Côte d'Ivoire is one of the names behind these statistics. She survived a September 2000 kidnapping in the hands of Liberian rebels in Macenta, Guinea, who shot and killed the head of UNHCR there in the same incident.

After her release from captivity in the Liberian bush, she began helping anyone in need of moral support at work, in her neighbourhood and at her local church in Abidjan, the economic capital of Côte d'Ivoire, where she lives with her husband and five children, three of whom she adopted. This, she says, is her way of giving thanks for having survived an ordeal, which she only managed to overcome because of the love and support of her family, friends and co-workers, and UNHCR's staff welfare section.

As humanitarian workers paid tribute to their colleagues' courage and reflected on their experiences on the first World Humanitarian Day, two more UN staff were killed in a bomb attack Wednesday in pre-election violence in Afghanistan.

Sadly, the list of humanitarian casualties is growing, but UNHCR staff like Hélène Caux understand why it's still important to take risks to help the world's most vulnerable people, like the 25 million refugees and internally displaced people the UN refugee agency serves.

"I worry for my colleagues and friends in Pakistan," says Caux. "They are exposed every day to insecurity and still they honour their commitments and dedication to the displaced and continue their crucial work to help thousands of desperate people."

By Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba