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A Brush With Death Taught Me Luck Alone Won't Keep Aid Workers Safe

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Yannis Behrakis / Reuters

By Melanie Murphy

I used to think that most guns sound like they do in the movies -- a big bang, followed by screaming and oncoming sirens.

When I was working in southern Sudan a few years ago, in a small town called Renk, I realized one Saturday morning this was all wrong.

It was early, the sun was rising and so was I. My four colleagues were snoring down the hall.

Our calm, peaceful morning was shattered with sudden gunfire, like the cracking of a whip, repeated multiple times in quick succession. It was not the deafening bang I imagined, and there were was no screaming or sirens, but we all knew right away where the noise came from.

We lived in a small compound surrounded by a tall brick wall, far too high to see over, so we had no idea what was going on outside.

We ran to our living room and lay on the floor in silence covering our heads, each trying our best to pretend we were not afraid.

As we lay there, I remembered thinking how unprepared I was -- we all were -- to be in that situation. At the time, I knew there were risks, but my youthful naiveté led me to the conclusion I was immune to them.

Now I am older, more experienced. Now I know better.

Fast forward eight years and I now work as the safety and security adviser for CARE Canada, an international humanitarian organization.

Every attack on an aid worker puts everything we are trying to do at risk.

Security advisory roles are still relatively new in humanitarian organizations, but they are becoming more common as our agencies are called to respond to emergency situations in increasingly hostile environments.

Our life-saving interventions require security training for our staff, coupled with strong organizational capacities to both mitigate risks and respond to incidents such as staff kidnappings, injuries and deaths. Sadly, these have increased remarkably within the sector over the past 10 years, as conflict has been the primary driver of humanitarian need.

Every morning I walk through CARE's front lobby past two large marble slabs that take up nearly an entire wall. Inscribed on these slabs are the names of CARE staff that have tragically lost their lives in the course of their work over CARE's 70-year history.

On a small table nearby sits a digital photo frame with the names of more staff projected slowly, silently across it. We are unable to carve these names on a third piece of marble because the wall cannot support another slab or the structure will be damaged.

It's an analogy I think about as I start each day. When our staff are targeted, the foundation of our work crumbles, for if we cannot keep our staff safe, we cannot do our work. Every attack on an aid worker puts everything we are trying to do at risk.

August 19 is World Humanitarian Day. It's a day set aside to remember those who have lost their lives in the humanitarian service to others and celebrate the commitment and sacrifice that underpins such efforts.

Governments -- including Canada -- are critical to this equation. To safely provide aid amidst conflict, humanitarians must be seen as impartial actors so we can reach those caught in the middle. We need governments to respect and advocate on our behalf the importance of humanitarian principles of impartiality and neutrality so we can safely provide help.

It's also a time to commend organizations that are prioritizing the safety and security of their staff and encourage those that are not doing so to address this urgent need.

A month before the Saturday morning incident described above, my Sudanese colleague, Adam, was killed in Darfur when a group of armed men demanded he hand over his satellite phone. He refused. They shot him.

He should have handed it over. If he did, he would probably still be alive. But no one told him that. He was unprepared. Just like my colleagues and I were as we laid on our living room floor waiting for the gunfire to end.

It lasted for 20 minutes and as suddenly as it started, the bullets stopped.

Relieved and thankful, our small team was left unscathed. We were lucky.

Yet in an increasingly hostile world for those doing their best to further humanitarian goals, mere good fortune should not be the cornerstone of safety and security for aid workers.

Melanie Murphy is safety and security adviser at CARE Canada

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of CCIC or its members.

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