World Humanitarian Day: It’s Personal

Four years ago, the UN General Assembly designated August 19 as World Humanitarian Day, choosing this particular date in commemoration of the 2003 bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad in which 22 people lost their lives. The idea is to set aside one day a year to remember humanitarian workers who have been killed or injured while carrying out their work. The theme for this year’s World Humanitarian Day is an upbeat ‘People Helping People’ and the commemorations actually kicked off last week in New York with a new song ‘I was here’ by Beyoncé and a video message from UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon.

Encouraging people to reach out to those in need is a good message. But it’s also important to pay tribute to those who have given their lives in humanitarian service. I still vividly remember that August day in 2003 when news began to trickle out that there had been an explosion at UN headquarters in Baghdad. The reports came in dribs and drabs – through emails and phone calls. I was living in Geneva at the time and remember my shock at hearing that Sergio Vieira de Mello had died in the blast. Everyone knew Sergio. And then a phone call from a Dutch friend who said, ‘Beth, there were two Americans in the blast – Arthur Helton and Gil Loescher – we don’t know what’s happened to them, but I thought I’d pass the message along as you might know them.’ And a while later, getting the message that Arthur had died and that Gil had been airlifted to Germany with serious injuries. Of course, I knew them both. Arthur, a brilliant human rights activist who had worked steadfastly on refugee issues for years. And Gil, a researcher working on refugee issues – I’d known him and his family for years. Gil lost both legs in that explosion and his survival was touch and go for a long time. I found myself turning to the daily updates from his family on the Caring Bridge website as he underwent months of surgeries and rehabilitation. Gil not only survived, but has continued his work on refugees, particularly those living in protracted situations.

World Humanitarian Day brings up painful memories for me, memories of friends and colleagues who have been injured or lost their lives while trying to alleviate suffering. It is good to remember that sometimes helping people is personally risky. The Washington Post periodically runs photos of U.S. military personnel killed in Afghanistan and Iraq and every time I see those photos, I pause and look at the faces, trying to imagine the loss their families feel. I always feel sad when I look through those pages, but I’m glad the Washington Post offers its readers the chance to see the faces of those who lost their lives in service to their country. The United Nations has a website—Remembering the Fallen—but you have to know it’s there and look for it. It’s an appropriate time, on this World Humanitarian Day, to take a minute to look at the faces of UN staff who have died because of their humanitarian work and to reflect on their service to others throughout the world.