These are a collection of tributes to aid workers who have passed away, from colleagues, friends and family.
World Humanitarian Day: 18th August 2015 Delivered at the laying of the wreath at the Innocent Victims’ Memorial Westminster Abbey
As I prepared for this day, I thought back to the cold January morning three years ago when I listened with horror as I received news that my friend Khalil (Ken as I called him) whilst working for the ICRC in Pakistan has been abducted by miscreants unknown; I thought back to that dreadful Sunday four months later when I received news that his body has been found and I remember breaking down; and I thought of the day when he was brought back to the UK in a plain unmarked coffin. This is how Ken would have wanted it as he was embarrassed by any fuss made over him, but to his family and friends this was wanting, as to us he was returning a hero having made the ultimate sacrifice for his beliefs. But Ken is not alone in his sacrifice.
So if not honour and accolades, then what motivated Ken to work in Kenya, Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan helping people in desperate need? Why did he do what he did? For that matter why does anyone do this work? I asked him this once when I lived with him at his home in Dumfries, Scotland helping him look after his 93 year old ailing mother. The answer was simple: it was a love for caring and serving, a unwavering belief in a just and fairer world and in the humanitarian cause. There was a purity of noble intention which drove Ken and he had inner steel and an indomitable spirit. He put all this on hold when he returned home in 1998 to care for his mother. I was deeply touched by the love, care and tenderness he showed his mother and remember the innumerable cups of tea he made for her every day, which often used to lie cold and untouched. This act of making tea, however simple in itself, encapsulated the immense well of Ken’s love. He also showed me this same love and care during a very distressing period in my life.
Without question, Ken was amongst the most gentle, kind, compassionate, tolerant and loving person I have ever known. His loss has been devastating; the world lost a dedicated humanitarian and trusted colleague, a beloved brother, a loving partner, and a loyal friend to many. Three years later we are still grappling with grief and trying to come to terms with the injustice of a very dear life cruelly cut short with egregious disregard for the sanctity of life. A life that had so much to give. We relive each moment, real and imagined, of the ordeal that Ken must have gone through and the torment he must have faced, and his last moments. We continue to seek for answers and look for closure so that we may move forward and remember Ken’s life and not just the end; so that we may celebrate my dear friend Ken and not have the spectre of his death foreshadow his life.
Until that closure, this Memorial gives meaning to the loss of a loved one and reinforces the belief that this loss has not been in vain and that Ken and others like him are more than mere statistics. On this Memorial is pinned our love, gratitude and our memories, lest we forget.
For all the things I can remember, for all the things I have forgotten, for all the things I never got a chance to say, and for all the things I'll say when I see you again. These words are for you - Rest In Peace Ken; you were an inspiration and live on in our hearts and memories.
Friend of Khalil (Kenneth) Dale
World Humanitarian Day - 18 August 2015 Delivered at the laying of the wreath and roses at the memorial to the Innocent Victims, Westminster Abbey
Here today, at this memorial to the innocent victims, I want to tell you about Christopher Howes who was needlessly murdered at the age of 36 in Cambodia, almost 20 years ago, whilst carrying out humanitarian work.
Christopher was a member of the Mines Advisory Group MAG, working in Cambodia to clear mines and unexploded ordnance, managing a de-mining team of more than 20 local staff. On the morning of 26 March 1996, as his team was preparing to start clearance work in a village in the province of Siem Reap, a group of 30 armed Khmer Rouge guerrillas emerged from the nearby forest.
The team was surrounded, and under threat of armed force, ordered to their vehicles, which were then stripped of equipment. Christopher was told by the Khmer Rouge leader to return to MAG for ransom money.
Talking through his interpreter Houen Hourth, he refused, selflessly pledging to remain with his team and urging their release. The situation was already dangerous and difficult, and tensions increased when a number of de-miners managed to escape. Christopher continued his efforts to urge the guerrillas to release the other team members and eventually they agreed.
However, the guerrillas kept Christopher and Houen, and two days later Houen was killed. Christopher was taken to the Khmer Rouge headquarters where he was held for several days before being shot dead on the orders of the Khmer Rouge General.
The tragedy of Christopher and Houen’s deaths was made so much worse for their family, friends and colleagues, as their fate remained a mystery for almost two years – a cruel time filled with many false rumours, throughout which it was desperately hoped that he and Houen, by some miracle, might still be alive. Sadly this was not the case.
Christopher was no superman or picture book saint, but this loyal, brave and exceptional man was my little brother Chris. Handsome with his blonde curly hair, an accomplished horseman, holder of a pilots’ licence, crack shot, and much, much more.
He had served with the Royal Engineers for 7 years and worked for MAG for three, in Kurdistan before Cambodia, putting into practice his engineering skills to make this world a better place. He was passionate about the land mine cause and always assured us he was good and very careful at his job and would not be hurt … murder was another thing … Houen, Chris’s interpreter, his young widow and two small sons were definitely most innocent victims.
The void and sadness left in our lives by my brother’s needless murder remains undiminished. He had so much more to give.
For his selfless bravery Christopher was posthumously awarded the Queen’s Gallantry medal in 2001. At the cost of his life, he showed his love and loyalty for his fellow men.
To quote from the gospel of St John, Chapter 15, Verse 13 -
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”.
Robert White, written by Meredoc McMinn and Chris Johnson
Robert White was originally from Australia and, although he was only in his late 30s when he died in the field from serious malaria, he had had an interesting life.
He was a UN 'engineer' but by that I mean someone who could fix almost anything, with almost no tools, no materials and in next to no time. 'Whitey', as he was known, could swear like a sailor, yelled at most people he worked with and liked to have a drink late into the evening. Though he was not a great talker he always made sure everyone was included, and he was loved by almost everyone who knew him.
His national staff would follow him on any job. After one national staff member went through personal tragedy – the loss of his child to preventable illness – and then the impending end of his UN contract, Whitey made some arrangements to keep him in work. When the mission in one of the most volatile places in Sudan was in jeopardy because of a lack of accommodation for staff, Whitey worked beyond expectations to make sure there was a camp ready to house people so they could conduct peace-keeping in the area.
During the clashes in Abyei in 2008 he worked all day long helping to coordinate the evacuation of colleagues – he saw what needed to be done and got on with it without ever having to be asked. After the some 100 aid workers had been evacuated, Whitey was one of only three remaining along with the UN military, and he stayed on to keep everything on the UN compound running. He need not have done it, he could have said it was the job of the guys in uniform, but of course that wasn't him.
One night the last three remaining aid workers took shelter outside in the rain as they could not stay inside the metal containers that were the offices and accommodation units, because of concerns that if hit by bombs they would shred into shrapnel. Whitey noticed one of the other three was without her helmet and offered his – this was the sort of completely spontaneous, generous gestures that he would make.
It was his commitment that somehow contributed to his dying in the field in his late 30s. He was working on another urgent project when he got sick. But being Whitey he thought he would work through it. After a couple of days, when he could not work anymore, he stopped at the camp clinic and was admitted. He had severe malaria and his condition deteriorated quickly. He was not evacuated in time and died in the field clinic.
He had a beautiful wife and young son in Ethiopia, and a former wife and two sons in Australia, all of whom he would talk about with love and happiness. In a rare moment of candour, Whitey told me that he was trying to ‘achieve’ because that is what his father said is what someone should strive to do. That is what Whitey did, and I am sure his father would have been proud. As a colleague of ours said, 'he was one of the good people'.
This is the loss of another aid worker, in another mission, who left many friends and a beautiful family, Though his commitment was great, and his loss impacted on many of us, the work his did to bring about peace is maybe not fully understood or appreciated by the wider world.
Yuhana Deng, written by Meredoc McMinn
Yuhana was over 2 meters tall, thin like a lamppost, and a loving father of 3. He was a South Sudanese national staff, a Dinka, and worked as a driver for the UN mission. There are no proper roads maps in South Sudan, no paved roads outside the capital and travelling from community to community can often require traversing hundreds of kilometres in the bush simply using local knowledge and an understanding of the geography.
What made Yuhana exceptional were his competency, commitment and kindness. He understood that it was difficult for some of the international aid workers, especially those who were younger and had less experience in the field, or of Africa, or of post-conflict zones. He went out of his way to make them feel welcome and as assured as they could be. He would drive field officers to different parts of the regional capital which, like the bush surrounding it, had no road maps, until staff had an understanding of where they were going.
When his UN contract was in abeyance for a period due to administration difficulties, instead of staying home until he was sure he would be paid, he continued to go to work, to drive and do his job of guiding his colleagues through communities and the bush, so that the mission could do its work to keep the peace and develop South Sudan. Though not such a talkative man, now and then he would tell us a story about a community or family that enabled us to understand the people we were there to help and support.
One day there was a field mission and Yahuna was driving the lead vehicle. It was ambushed by bandits and he was shot and killed. Although international staff are regularly under threat, unfortunately often people overlook the bravery and contribution of national staff.
National colleagues have usually gone through great personal tragedy and trauma in the conflicts the UN missions seek to end. They have also usually not had the same education opportunities. And yet they often show extreme grace, courage, commitment and professionalism. In many cases they put aside possible personal biases as a result of what they or their family suffered in the conflict, in order to implement the mission mandate, and help their country and all of its people.
Yuhana was an example of this humanity.
Stephen 'Darby' Allan, speech delivered by his daughter Sarah Taylor at the 2014 National Memorial event
In preparation for this I did some reading about the day and in doing so I came across some of Gil Loescher’s recent interviews. One comment in particular really resonated with me, which I will share today, because for anyone here who has lost a loved one to humanitarian work I think you would understand, which is that when you see headlines about explosions or attacks, it will often be about the about the number of people who died.
So here is ours. ‘Stephen Allan, British national killed in landmine explosion in south Sudan 15th October 2010’. There’s usually a couple of quotes, a picture and then somewhere a single sentence: ‘He is survived by his wife and two children.’
One of the many valid points which Gil made was that it will not touch upon or describe the effect of that loss on the victims’ families and loved ones.
There will be no mention of the rest of the family or their friends. He wasn’t just a husband and a father; he was a brother, a son, an uncle and a granddad. To be frank he was a legend to all who knew him. He commanded respect, loyalty and friendship from all who met him.
So it begs the question: Why? Why did he do the job he did? Why does anyone do that type of job?
It’s actually the simplest question to answer. He loved his job; he did it because he was good at it. I would even go so far as saying he was one of the best, which is why it was such a horrific shock when he was killed. We honestly believed that he was invincible.
So finally why MAG? Why do any of our loved ones go to Sudan, Lebanon the Congo or anywhere there is risk?
Instead of answering this I will leave you with a question …
At what point in this age of knowledge and technology, is it ok to have children playing football with hand grenades?
When has it ever been ok for families to be unable to access water or food safely because their village has been surrounded by a barrier of landmines for a conflict they are not involved in?
For my father and anyone else who is part of humanitarian aid, it was because they had the skills and tenacity to do it.
He was a great believer that you cannot complain about something if you are not prepared to do anything about it. By working with MAG he achieved that and consequently saved hundreds of lives.
Tribute to Dr Veronika Rackova by Aidan Goldsmith (2016)
Dr Veronika Rackova was one of the nicest people I had met in South Sudan. As a medical doctor and a nun, Veronika was extremely passionate about helping the most vulnerable. In Yei, South Sudan, she ran the St Bakhita’s hospital where she cared for all types of medical emergencies including child birth. While not a trained psychiatrist, Veronika also responded to the great need of vulnerable people suffering from mental health illnesses. At her hospital Veronika ran one of the only two in-patient care facilities in the whole country that treats people suffering from mental health emergencies.
Veronika tirelessly responded to those effected by the humanitarian crisis and cared for refugees and displaced people that often filled her clinic. While Veronika oversaw the treatment of the patients, the day to day running of the clinic was always on her mind. She regularly travelled to Slovakia to raise money and would rely on donations from friends, churches and other groups to support her mission. Veronika would regularly miss meetings because she wanted to save petrol for the ambulance rather than come to the capital, Juba. She was constantly mindful of her limited resources and kept her patients in the front of her mind.
Veronika’s mission in South Sudan came to an end this year when she was killed by government troops while driving her ambulance after transporting a patient to another hospital. Veronika’s death leaves a real gap for those that seek medical care in Yei, in a country with very few doctors providing low cost medical care.