Why We Do What We Do: A U.N. Security Officer Reflects on World Humanitarian Day

I'm thinking of the number 95.

But first a little background. In 2003 I was working with Fondation Suisse De Deminage, a de-mining organisation in Iraq. While in Baghdad, I was asked to put together a training on IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and terrorist awareness.

Following a series of three presentations, UNICEF asked me to consider joining them as a Field Security Officer, or FSO. Having observed the United Nations from the outside, I was curious as to what "the UN" actually was. I accompanied the UNICEF country representative, a marvelous man named Carel de Rooy, on a road trip. When I saw him interact with an Iraqi girl of no more than three years old, it was obvious that this guy loved what he did and why he did it - and I was sold on becoming an FSO.

I signed my first contract with UNICEF on 17 August 2003 with Chris Klein Beekman, or "CKB," a committed, caring and thoughtful man in his early 30s, married for two years and with a new-born daughter at home. He died in my arms two days later, following the bombing of Baghdad's Canal Hotel.

Injuries, death and conflict were no stranger to me -- prior to becoming a "humanitarian" in 1998, I had a lengthy career with the British military, involving tours in Northern Ireland, the Falklands and Desert Storm--but I was not prepared for the level of horror and outrage that the Canal Hotel bombing instilled in me. The UN was humanitarian, it was inviolate, it "did good things," and yet it was targeted this way? Coldly, calculatingly, callously ... and the UN was not prepared. Why should it have been? After all, the UN was in Iraq to provide life-saving interventions to the Iraqi people.

Fast-forward to 9 June 2009, and the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar, Pakistan. I had just joined the UN's World Food Programme, and the Taliban came calling with a truck bomb underneath my room. Let us say that I took the "express check out" - going from floor 4 to floor 1 in milli-seconds, with floors 2, 3 and 4 landing on top of me, causing what were viewed at the time as severe and possibly fatal injuries.

We all cry, and I am no different--the loss of my mother, the birth of my two children, the loss of CKB all led me to shed tears--but oddly, I did not cry when I realized what had just happened. I am told I was a little vocal and somewhat "agricultural" in my language.

My dear friend Botan Ahmed Ali Al-Hayawi, whom I knew from my Iraq days, visited me in the hospital, held my hand and apologized for the actions of others. He always had a ready smile. Four months later, along with four national colleagues, we lost Botan when WFP's Islamabad office was bombed.

In between Baghdad and Peshawar, I experienced:

  • being the first member of the UN (along with a UN security colleague) back into Iraq to facilitate the mission of Lakhdar Brahimi and the political negotiations process
  • co-managing the relocation and evacuation of Erez in the 2004 conflict
  • working in the emergency response in South Sudan (when home was a mosquito net on the roof of the "banana house" in Juba for five weeks)
  • relocating staff and dependents from Malakal, South Sudan, in 2006
  • co-managing the relocation and evacuation of all UN staff from Cairo in the Arab Spring of 2011

Pretty varied, I think you'd agree, but not unique. I am not the only person to encounter such things and, sadly, I shall not be the last.

I am frequently asked why I keep doing this job, and I have to say that sometimes I wonder myself. It's a question equally valid if asked of all humanitarian workers: Why do we keep doing this? Why do we respond to natural disasters, emergencies and similar events that invariably lead to UN humanitarian intervention?

There is a British military unit whose motto is "Who Dares Wins." If I were to paraphrase that to reflect why we all do what we do, I'd say: "We Dare, Because We Care." I would also offer a saying of my grandfather, who to this day remains the only hero I have: "If you are wringing your hands, you cannot be rolling up your sleeves."

The number 95? That's the number of names engraved on the memorial wall in the foyer at WFP headquarters in Rome. Ninety-five names of those who dared to care and who exemplify who we are and what we do. The memorial wall speaks far more eloquently than I can hope to.