When was the last time you felt gripped by crushing fear? Like the kind that might take over as you listen to friends and co-workers being killed? This is what members of World Vision's staff faced Wednesday in Mansehra, Pakistan, as their office was attacked.
Six people working to address the poverty and need of their own country. Six pairs of ears ringing from gunfire, six bodies torn apart by bullets, six families and neighborhoods left to grieve the loss of people they love. When it comes to death and violence, six is not a small number. Nor is one.
We often read numbers of soldiers killed in combat, but do we consider the blood-price paid by aid workers, both foreign and national? The Afghanistan National Safety Office (ANSO) reported that, though the number of humanitarian workers killed in Afghanistan in 2009 had decreased from the year prior, they were foreseeing a heightened risk in 2010. During 2009, 19 non-governmental organization (NGO) staff were killed, this number down from the 31 in 2008, which does not even consider kidnappings or those wounded in attacks. In 2008, 71 national and seven international NGO staff were abducted -- six killed in captivity. And each of those numbers was a friend, a father, husband or brother, a sister, wife, or mother.
Nicholas Kristof (New York Times op-ed columnist) recently commented that, "it's not news if it happens every day." If it happens every day, it is just life, no matter how awful. People were murdered in Pakistan yesterday, but that is just the part that makes the news.
ANSO compiled a chronology of significant crimes and attacks against NGOs in Afghanistan during 2007; the following are just six months of these records. (Note: AOG = Armed Opposition Group, IED = Improvised Explosive Devices)
- Jan 13th, Paktika: An NGO clinic was burned in an effort to intimidate students
- Jan 10th & 13th, Takhar: A series of IED detonates in front of a HR-NGO office
- Jan 30th, Laghman: 15 armed robbers assault NGO compound and steal assets
- Feb 19th, Paktya: Three staff of de-mining NGO are abducted
- March 8th, Sar-i-Pul: German NGO worker murdered by Mullah's gunmen
- April 3rd, Nimroz: Taliban kidnap five NGO staff including two French
- April 16th, Laghman: Taliban assault an NGO compound in a failed kidnap effort
- April 29th, Kunduz: NGO employee murdered on road to contract dispute
- May 21st, Kabul: Local boy fires shots and throws grenade at NGO expat staff
- May 29th, Nuristan: AOG enter NGO office to beat and interview staff
- June 13th & 20th, Nangahar/Nuristan: Eight NGO workers kidnapped for ransom
- June 29th, Nangahar: AOG attack and enter an NGO clinic
This is the life that humanitarian workers in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and many other places around the world choose to enter, believing the work they do is important enough to face the risks.
Many say there should be less war and more development happening in Afghanistan. And while that may be true, it is easy to say that we do not want war -- yet do we consider the cost of developing sustainable peace? Do we consider the lives that will be lost -- the danger that must be faced to see real change happen? Peacemaking demands more of us.
Having lived in Afghanistan, experiencing first-hand the insecurity and pain of co-workers being killed, this price is not far from my mind. It is something I'm currently wrestling with, as I begin look at postings back overseas. Is it worth it? Do we really change things? And while very few things feel worth dying for, if many people did not choose to take collective risks, nothing in this world would change. Many more would die.
So, what if the cost of less war, of progress and peace, is self-sacrificing courage? Today, humanitarian workers all over the world will choose this as they head to work. Is it a price more of us are willing to pay?
Heather Wilson is Marketing/Circulation Assistant at Sojourners. She served two and a half years in Afghanistan doing photography and communication work for developmental non-government organizations.