As they bumped down the two-lane desert road, Lauryn Oates and her team of teacher-trainers watched as a hazy profile of Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush mountains rose up in the distance. They had spent the morning escaping Kabul’s traffic, and had just crossed the provincial border when they first caught sight of the militiamen.
Curling around the northeast of Kabul, the mountains and shallow plains of Kapisa Province form a strategic sickle long favoured by bandits, smugglers and insurgents looking to stage attacks on the capital. But this was not the first time they had been down this road. In this often violent and deeply conservative country, Oates and her team from the NGO Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan were used to pushing back against the status quo.
An hour outside of Kabul they pulled their van over next to a familiar cluster of ramshackle stands selling fruit and fried flatbread. Their driver Fattah and another male teacher got out to order. Through tinted windows, Oates kept her eyes locked five metres ahead as a half-dozen heavily armed militiamen leaned against the tailgate of their SUV, a Toyota 4Runner. “They wore camo, but one had his shirt tied around his waist. We knew they weren’t government soldiers,” she recalled.
Fattah was passing flatbread one at a time through the window when one of the younger militiamen broke off from his group, closed the few paces between the SUV and van, and slipped a folded piece of paper through a crack in the tinted window. The note fell into Oates’ lap. Hastily scribbled on the paper was the militiaman’s phone number.
Fattah confronted the militiamen; they retaliated. “We all gasped when they punched him,” remembered Oates, the windshield framing the drama beyond her reach. Fattah lost his footing. His glasses fell to the ground and through the window they could see the blood covering his face. He didn’t fight back. The second punch knocked him down as the militiamen, now all surrounding him, yelled at him in Dari. They started kicking him.
“They [were] all heavily armed,” she recalled. “A lot of these militia guys smoke hash, and they drink, too. I’m thinking, ‘Do we intervene or do we just stay put?’ But we’re watching our colleague get the crap beat out of him,” said Oates.
One of the militiamen grabbed his rifle, sauntered up to the front of the van and pointed his gun at Oates through the windshield. Behind Oates, Maliha, a Pashto teacher-trainer, started making calls, including to a cousin who worked for the local police.
Abruptly, the men looked at each other, jumped in their SUV and drove away. “We think one of those guys saw that Maliha was on the phone and they decided to take off.”
Fattah lived, but was left bloodied and bruised. The NGO workers returned to Kabul to figure out what had gone wrong. “We didn’t have a protocol for what happened there. We were all sitting in the car in a panic. Luckily, Maliha did something on her own.”
Oates has split her time between Afghanistan and Vancouver for 13 years, working as a freelance development worker. And while she has had some dangerous scrapes, the incident two years ago was the most threatening she has ever experienced. It also prompted the organization she was working with to develop new protocols for situations like an attack on the office, a fire, a carjacking or a kidnapping.
Afghanistan in recent years has become increasingly dangerous — whereas Oates’ biggest worries in the past were of average Afghans with a grudge or something to prove against aid workers, the Taliban, after many years of targeting military and police forces, have now switched tactics to deliberately attack bars and restaurants that humanitarian workers are known to frequent.
The May 31 truck bombing in Kabul’s diplomatic district, which killed more than 150 people, is further evidence of how the country’s security situation has steadily worsened since NATO ended its main combat mission in 2014.
Afghanistan is one of many countries where workers like Oates are increasingly under threat. Since 1997, there has been a significant uptick in the number of targeted attacks against humanitarian workers worldwide. According to New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, between 1997 and 2001, the number of humanitarian workers killed, kidnapped or wounded never exceeded 100 globally, per year. But by 2013, that number surged to 475, of whom 156 were killed. While the number of humanitarians killed every year has declined since its peak in 2013, annual death rates still come in at four times the 2001 total.
Toll rising for humanitarian workers
Last year was an especially bad year for humanitarian medical staff. In Afghanistan, reported attacks on medical personnel doubled from 2015 to 2016. But it was a series of bombings targeting Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospitals in Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen that finally galvanized the United Nations to adopt Resolution 2286 — a motion meant to bolster respect for the norms of international humanitarian law.
“These attacks are evidence of a broader trend: parties to conflict are treating hospitals and health clinics as targets, rather than respecting them as sanctuaries,” said UN Secretary General António Guterres in a recent speech to the General Assembly in which he called on member states to extend measures to protect other humanitarian workers in conflict zones, from educators to human rights investigators.
The United Nations itself is facing scrutiny after two of its investigators were murdered earlier this year while looking into a massacre in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
On March 12, investigator Zaida Catalán placed a call to her sister, but only her breath and the sound of men’s voices could be heard. Two weeks later, UN forces uncovered Catalán’s decapitated body in a shallow grave alongside her colleague and an interpreter.
The New York Times reported how the two UN workers had entered the isolated area known as a militia stronghold, all with little training and no safety equipment or health insurance. The UN has yet to order a formal investigation into what went wrong.
Across a bevy of intractable conflicts, there is a growing consensus that humanitarians’ mantle of neutrality, which once helped protect workers from being targeted, is slipping, as rules of war are increasingly flouted.
So how did we get here?
Abby Stoddard, who coordinates research on international humanitarian action at NYU’s Center on International Cooperation, said that a rise in asymmetric warfare following the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have increasingly made the world a more dangerous place for humanitarian workers.
Many like Stoddard point to how Western militaries coopted both international and local NGOs in their fight against terrorism. But where and how humanitarian work gets done has also changed.
Thirty years ago, most humanitarian organizations would evacuate violent areas and set up in border regions to wait for refugees. Now, a larger core group of organizations remain in country even when there is a high risk of getting hurt or killed. In this uncertain environment, some humanitarians re-iterate their commitment to neutrality, asserting it is the only way to access vulnerable people. But others have taken sides as they look for new ways to do their job and stay safe.
Typically, humanitarians have worked hard to assist everyone in a conflict without giving preferential treatment. It has helped ensure their safety and build trust on all sides. But that also means engaging with unpredictable forces whose cooperation and trust workers need — outfits like the Taliban.
After over a dozen years in Afghanistan, Oates is adamant that not taking sides is rarely if ever an option for workers like her anymore. “One question is the ethics, the other is pragmatism,” she said.
Morally, Oates said humanitarians should take a stand against organizations that actively target civilians and the humanitarian workers trying to help them. Practically, she said groups like the Taliban and ISIS are so unpredictable that it’s not worth engaging with them. But is she right? Does the century-old ideal of humanitarian neutrality not have currency in today’s conflict zones?
Michael O’Neill remembers how humanitarian work used to be, a time when working with “the enemy’ was always part of the aid worker’s toolkit. Today, despite pressure to choose sides, O’Neill said staying alive and useful in a war zone has not changed much over his career. For him, it still often comes down to three things: show and earn respect, stay resourceful and negotiate with everyone, whether they are the “good guys’ or “bad guys.”
Since the early 1980s, O’Neill has worked in conflict zones across the world, including over a decade in Sierra Leone and 14 years as Save the Children’s senior director of global safety and security. He is careful to point out who gets priority in his work: “Keeping staff safe is not an objective, really. It’s a means to an end, which is accessing vulnerable populations,” he said.
Focus on keeping staff safe by avoiding risky scenarios, O’Neill warned, and you will blind yourself to the needs of people on the ground. “If we put everybody behind a wall and you keep them there all the time, then you have to ask yourself the question, ‘Why are you there in the first place?’”
As the aid and development industry expands, O’Neill is part of a growing list of security experts who have formalized the way humanitarians think about staying safe.
Today, experts and strategists talk about a triangle of security, with each point representing different approaches towards keeping workers safe. One is protection. That means hardening the target, having fortified compounds, guards at perimeter gates and alarms everywhere. Second is deterrence, which usually means presenting a counter-threat through armed protection.
Finally, there’s acceptance, the overwhelmingly popular choice amongst humanitarian organizations and an approach that many say forms a cornerstone of the NGO approach to security. At its core, “acceptance” means engaging with the local community to cultivate understanding and build relationships with those who hold power. Gaining acceptance on all sides — not just from the international community and foreign militaries — is often key to being seen as neutral. With each cup of tea, every sit-down with a warlord or village elder, aid workers strive to build tolerance amongst warring sides to secure their presence.
For MSF and most other NGOs, building acceptance among the local population is often easier when humanitarians forgo armed protection. They will use protective measures for compounds, but tend not to have armoured vehicles, except in the most extreme cases. The UN on the other hand, said Stoddard, puts more emphasis on protection. It will have armed guards, armed escorts and close protection — meaning armed bodyguards in places like Afghanistan.
“It’s a trade-off because when you have these militarized optics it does not look good. It can sow mistrust and make you seem like a legitimate target,” said Stoddard. “Some of these militant groups have already identified the UN as a legitimate target, so it’s kind of a vicious circle there.”
In the early 1990s security through acceptance was never questioned. This was before Western governments started leveraging humanitarian aid and development to fight insurgencies and terrorism. “You could still use the global respect for international humanitarian law and the recognition of humanitarian principles as a point of leverage,” said O’Neill.
Of course, not every day goes according to plan, as O’Neill knows well.
‘It was instrumental in our survival’
Just before dawn, O’Neill woke to the snap of AK-47 fire and the dull concussions of rocket propelled grenades.
It was Oct. 23, 1992, the end of the rainy season in Sierra Leone, and he had arrived at the Red Cross compound in Koidu a few days earlier to pay his employees and make sure operations were running smoothly. Throughout the night, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel army had attacked the town to scare away civilians. That way they could come in the next day and loot people’s houses.
Amid the fighting, O’Neill painted a red cross on the compound gates to make it obvious it was a humanitarian relief centre. Then he sent out a message to the rebels as they were taking over the town. “I said this was neutral space and that if there were any civilians, military personnel or rebels that suffered any injuries, they should forward them to this compound for treatment as a neutral territory,” he said. Part of that was self-preservation, but part of it was maintaining access to vulnerable people.
When the rebels returned the next day, the government forces were caught digging dive-ins for cover and collapsed almost immediately. The young RUF soldiers couldn’t believe they had taken the town. Their strategy was to hit and run. Now they were in control of the capital of the diamond-rich Kono district, the largest town in eastern Sierra Leone. “They celebrated, whooped it up and smoked dope — like young guys who were full of power,” remembered O’Neill.
About four hours later, O’Neill could hear a group of young RUF soldiers arguing outside the gate. They couldn’t decide whether they should come inside the compound with their weapons. “That’s music to my ears,” said O’Neill. “That means somewhere in their young lives somebody told them about humanitarian law, respect for the symbol of the Red Cross, no arms on-board, all that kind of stuff.”
This sense of humanitarian neutrality is what gave him the leverage to negotiate later, he said. “It was instrumental in our survival, and ultimately, our release.”
By then, O’Neill had lived in Sierra Leone for 12 years. He spoke Mende and Krio, the two local languages, and he knew about cultural dynamics — all part of the skillset and experience vital to security through acceptance. “But this was different. These guys were living a different life and I wasn’t so sure what their connections to social norms were — like respect for strangers, respect for elders, things like that,” said O’Neill. But he never deviated from negotiation. When they took him and his driver Ali Bangura in their white Land Cruiser to see the Field Marshall 70 kilometres away, O’Neill negotiated no weapons in the commandeered vehicle. Heading deeper into rebel territory, O’Neill and Bangura boarded three canoes and angled across the Moa River with a dozen soldiers and RUF Field Marshall Mohammed.
They were now in rebel “liberated territory,” and just as with the other 100,000 Sierra Leoneans there, no one was negotiating their release. “We had disappeared off the face of the earth, last seen heading into the bush with eight to 10 rebels sitting on top of our vehicle,” said O’Neill. At that point, there hadn’t been any expats taken by the rebels. The newspapers were full of RUF atrocities: beheadings, impalings and disembowelments. To make matters worse, BBC Radio, their only lifeline to the outside world, made no mention of their kidnapping.
Pendembu lies about two kilometres from the Moa River, and for about two weeks, O’Neill and his driver stayed in the town under rebel care. Their daily ritual would culminate in a single meal, right when BBC Focus on Africa came on at 5:15 p.m. After that, O’Neill would take a 45-minute walk, so he could make it back for the re-broadcast at six.
But one day, he was returning to the house when he saw something in the sky. “This jet appeared out of nowhere,” he said. Right around six o’clock, when people were getting out of mosque and preparing their evening meals, a Nigerian Alpha jet — operated by the West African multilateral force ECOMOG — dropped a cluster bomb on the town. “It was carnage. It was awful,” O’Neill remembered.
As O’Neill counted the dozens of dead and injured, both civilians and rebels in the town panicked. Most fled to smaller villages. The rebel commander in charge of the two humanitarian workers wanted them to leave too, but they refused. “It was calculated. If they had forced us, we would have. It wasn’t worth dying for,” said O’Neill. The tactic was risky, but by setting boundaries they found a way to leverage their own independence.
Following the bombing, the leader of the RUF forces, Foday Sankoh, invited a BBC journalist to rebel territory so he could complain about the use of a cluster bomb by ECOMOG — a violation of international humanitarian law. During the interview, the BBC reporter asked why he was holding captive two Red Cross workers. “It’s for their security, but they are free to go at any time,” responded Sankoh.
Every one of his soldiers heard those words, according to O’Neill. “That was our passport out of there because when we got challenged by any of these guys, we’d say something like, ‘What? You didn’t hear what the old man said on the BBC? He said we are free to go anytime. Who are you, young man, to violate his intent?’"
The two men did leave. After 35 days in RUF territory, Bangura and O’Neill pushed through 40 kilometres of forest and elephant grass on the final day, crossing rebel lines on foot and turning themselves in at the government-controlled town of Kenema. “We constantly preached the Red Cross ethic of relieving the suffering of people,” O’Neill said. By not favouring one group over another, nobody criticized or stopped them. Both the local people and RUF soldiers accepted their neutrality.
‘They had drugs, they had guns’
When asked if he thinks what happened to him is a fair analogy to what humanitarian workers face today, O’Neill suggested that the security landscape has always been messy. “Where you have this fractionalization, like you had in Darfur or Sierra Leone, in the situation I was in, every negotiation is local,” said O’Neill. “These guys were young guys, they are disorganized, no chain of command. They had drugs, they had guns — a bad combination.”
But by showing respect, understanding who’s who and trying to satisfy the rebels’ needs — whether it’s power, money or redressing longstanding slights or injustices — you can negotiate access to vulnerable people, according to O’Neill.
His understanding of the local context, and the soldiers’ respect for the work of the Red Cross, also helped negotiate O’Neill’s eventual release.
For him, then, being neutral meant you could expect at least some respect for the work of a humanitarian — something that today is often in short supply.
Today in Afghanistan, Oates said that finding operational space to negotiate in Taliban territories is next to impossible. Some organizations have been told to directly ask Taliban commanders for protection — to not blow up a clinic or a school. “That didn’t sit too well with me,” said Oates. “First of all, there’s no guarantee that they’re going to listen to you. They can just decide they don’t like you anyways.”
In O’Neill’s experience, the young RUF soldiers who argued over whether to bring guns into a Red Cross compound had a sense that humanitarian organizations should not be abused. Today, Oates said groups like the Taliban have lost that respect. “They set a bomb off at the gate and gunmen come in and just try and kill as many people as they can until they are stopped,” she said, recalling an attack on a neighbouring compound last summer.
While O’Neill agrees that on some level Afghanistan is less predictable because of the draw down of the NATO forces and the resurgence of the Taliban, he said it's always been tough. “You have guys that have been playing both sides of the story just so they can enrich themselves,” he said, adding that there’s always a way in.
With the Taliban, that could be local power, or understanding the ancient Pashtun system of governance. “If you don’t understand the Pakhtunwali — how the code of life of the people governs how they think and how they act — then you probably shouldn't even be there.”
Go here to read the conclusion to this article, exploring how to protect humanitarian workers who see their shield of neutrality is being eroded. Thanks for permission to publish from OpenCanada.org, where this piece originally appeared.
Read more: Rights + Justice
Tyee Commenting Guidelines
Comments that violate guidelines risk being deleted, and violations may result in a temporary or permanent user ban. Maintain the spirit of good conversation to stay in the discussion.
*Please note The Tyee is not a forum for spreading misinformation about COVID-19, denying its existence or minimizing its risk to public health.