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UNHCR mourns death of Dr. Annalena Tonelli

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UNHCR mourns death of Dr. Annalena Tonelli

6 October 2003

6 October 2003

Geneva/Nairobi - UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers today expressed grief at the murder Sunday night of Annalena Tonelli, a 60-year-old humanitarian worker who had dedicated the last 33 years of her life to helping Somalis.

"All of us at UNHCR are devastated by Dr. Tonelli's death," said Lubbers, who in June presented the Italian woman with the 2003 Nansen Refugee Award. "We were so proud to have been able to honour the wonderful work she did for the poorest of the poor, including many refugees, over the past three decades. She dedicated her life to helping others, carrying out her noble mission in remote, difficult places little noticed by the outside world. In doing so, she touched the lives of thousands of people, demonstrating that individuals can still make a huge difference. We mourn the loss of a truly great woman."

Dr. Tonelli was awarded the 2003 Nansen Refugee Award in Geneva on June 25 in recognition of her work among Somalis, many of them returned refugees and displaced people.

As UNHCR Representative for Somalia, Simone Wolken worked closely with Dr. Tonelli. "I am absolutely devastated to lose Annalena, whose work had done so much good for so many people," Ms. Wolken said today in Nairobi.

Dr. Tonelli was shot in the grounds of her hospital Borama, in western Somaliland, on Sunday night, but the exact circumstances of the shooting are not yet known.

Widely known simply as Annalena, Dr. Tonelli worked independently, raising from friends and family in her native Italy the $20,000 a month she needed to run her 200-bed tuberculosis hospital in Borama, in North-west Somalia (also known as Somaliland).

Accepting the Nansen medal award in June, Dr. Tonelli said she hoped the award would help refocus world attention on the problems of Somalia that have long been overshadowed by trouble spots elsewhere in the world.

"For this reason, I am grateful for the decision of UNHCR that has brought attention to my beloved Somalia," she said then, "[so that] I may now be a stronger voice for a people who have no voice."

A lawyer by training, and a devout Roman Catholic, Dr. Tonelli said she had known since the age of five that she wanted to dedicate her life to helping others. At the age of 27, she went to teach in north-eastern Kenya, an area populated by ethnic Somalis, many of whom were suffering from tuberculosis. She earned diplomas in tropical medicine, community medicine, control of tuberculosis and control of leprosy in order to better carry out what she saw as her true calling - treating TB patients. She moved to Somalia in 1986.

In Borama, she lived simply, owning no possessions and eating the same food as her patients. During her many years in Somalia, she had been in danger many times - kidnapped once and several times subjected to beatings, banditry and death threats. But she rejected any notion that her life was one of sacrifice.

"There's no sacrifice. It's pure happiness. Who else on earth has such a beautiful life?" she said earlier this year.