Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 20 September 2019

Brave women aid workers celebrated on World Humanitarian Day

At an event in Dubai, a survivor of the 2003 UN headquarters bombing in Baghdad tells of the loss of 22 friends and colleagues

Men and women from the Red Cross treat a baby in the eastern Ghouta region of Syria in December 2017. Abdulmonam Eassa / AFP
Men and women from the Red Cross treat a baby in the eastern Ghouta region of Syria in December 2017. Abdulmonam Eassa / AFP

It is 16 years since dozens of United Nations workers were wounded and killed in the Canal Hotel bombing in Baghdad, yet the survivors will never forget the friends and colleagues they lost that day.

Each year on August 19, World Humanitarian Day, UN veterans including Diyar Faris contact one another to share memories. And they honour the aid workers risking their lives today.

This year, the day is dedicated to the work done by women aid workers like Ms Faris, 37. The Iraqi had only just started work setting up a telecoms support operation at the UN building on the day of the attack.

“There were hundreds of people in the building for a big meeting when a cement mixer filled with explosives detonated outside," she told The National on Monday.

“I was about to leave when the bomb went off. The whole building shook and there was smoke and bodies everywhere."

The whole building shook and there was smoke and bodies everywhere

Diyar Faris, UN telecoms engineer

The suicide truck bomb was detonated just before 4.30pm, sending explosive shards and debris tearing through the hotel, demolishing part of the building.

Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN’s top representative in Iraq, was one of the 22 dead. The bomb was detonated beneath his office window. More than 100 people were injured.

“I was on the second floor. We were directed to the emergency exit, past bodies on the floor," said Ms Faris.

“They were our colleagues, and they were bleeding but we were told not to touch them, just get out as fast as we could.

“I did not know if they were alive or dead.”

Ms Faris was given little time to process what had happened in the aftermath of the attack by the Al Qaeda offshoot group.

The next day she was called by the UN Department for Safety and Security to help bereaved families identify bodies of the dead held at Baghdad airport.

The experience only strengthened her desire to work in humanitarian aid.

A UN worker stands in front of the Canal Hotel blast site after UN staffers held a memorial 30 August 2003 in front of the devastated former UN headquarters in Baghdad, the scene of a massive car bomb 19 August that killed 22 people including UN special envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello. The service was a final tribute to lost colleagues following the release of all of the remains of the dead. AFP PHOTO/ROBERT SULLIVAN (Photo by ROBERT SULLIVAN / AFP)
A UN worker stands in front of the Canal Hotel blast site after UN staffers held a memorial 30 August 2003. AFP

Ms Faris, who now works for the World Food Programme in Dubai, was among women aid workers from a host of NGOs who spoke at an event near International Humanitarian City on Monday. The UN marks the tenth World Humanitarian Day this year.

“You adapt to this work, without thinking about what happened,” said Ms Faris, who left Iraq in 2006 and has a four-year-old son, Keyan.

“I was asked to communicate with families in Arabic to find out what they needed to deal with what had happened.

“I showed them how to collect the body of their loved ones and process the documentation required so they could take them home.

“Iraq was a dangerous place then as UN staff were targeted by different militia.

“We lost many of our colleagues who were threatened with being shot if they continued to stay and work in Baghdad."

DUBAI , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , AUGUST 19 – 2019 :- Diyar Faris , WFP speaking during the World Humanitarian Day Event held at the Humanitarian City warehouse in Dubai. ( Pawan Singh / The National ) For News. Story by Nick Webster
Diyar Faris speaks about the UN headquarters bombing at an event in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National

About 250,000 aid workers are women, providing life-saving support to vulnerable people caught up in crises in some of the world’s most dangerous places.

Since August 2003, more than 4,500 aid workers, men and women, have been killed, injured, detained, assaulted or kidnapped while carrying out their work, about five attacks per week on average.

Bathoul Ahmed is a public information officer for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

“We are giving a voice to the refugees and displaced people who we meet,” she said.

“I was working on the response in Mosul when Yazidi women held hostage by ISIS were released.

“We were there to receive them at the checkpoint.

“These women had been through the most horrific experiences imaginable, but when they saw other women at the checkpoint it felt like they could relate to us.”

Women and girls from northern Iraq were abducted and forced into sexual slavery by ISIS fighters, who are estimated to have executed more than 5,000 Yazidi civilians.

The genocide triggered a US led bombing campaign in Iraq in 2014. There now estimated to more than 500,000 Yazidi refugees.

“These women ran towards us and began hugging us, just because we were women,” said Ms Ahmed, who has been conducting field work for seven years in the Mena region and on the Greek island of Lesbos, the first port of call for thousands of refugees fleeing war in Syria.

“They just wanted someone there who could relate to what they had been through.”

To commemorate August 19, the UN launched a global campaign to pay tribute to the specialist work done by female aid workers to save lives and alleviate human suffering.

The campaign tells the story of a day in a life of 24 women, showing the range and diversity of their roles in humanitarian action in a series of short films and written testimonies.

Bathoul Ahmed from UNHCR tells of the violence Yazidi women were subjected to under Isis' rule of Mosul. Pawan Singh / The National  
Bathoul Ahmed from UNHCR tells of the violence Yazidi women were subjected to under Isis' rule of Mosul. Pawan Singh / The National  

“There is a perception that most humanitarian workers are men, but this is just not true,” said Mageed Yahia, director of the World Food Programme.

“Many women are also risking their lives in the work they are doing.

“We estimate 40 per cent of the humanitarian workforce is now women, and anticipate that to grow to 50 per cent.

“They are working side-by-side with men, and also leading many humanitarian operations around the world.

“It is important we shed light on their vital work.”

Updated: August 19, 2019 08:43 PM

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