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Humanitarian workers risk their lives to help others and they deserve more support

Aid workers put their life on the line for others, but then often suffer residual trauma

Wednesday December 16, 2015

Red Cross aid worker Christoph Hensch working in Chechnya in 1996.

This article was first published in The Age on 16 December 2015.

In the very early hours of the morning, about 3.30am, I woke up startled by loud noises in the building. Still waking, it took me a short while to realise that something was very wrong. By the time I was sitting up in bed and pulling on some trousers, the door opened. In the semi-darkness a masked man stepped into my room.

He didn't respond to my greeting. The man lifted his right hand, pointed a gun at me and pulled the trigger. I felt the full impact of the bullet in my shoulder, and let myself fall back onto the bed. Out of instinct, I didn't move. The gunman left the room leaving me for dead.

It sounds like script for a cheap TV movie. But this is what actually happened on 17 December 1996 in a clearly-marked Red Cross hospital compound in Chechnya, Russia. In that event, six of my colleagues, all international healthcare workers, were murdered in cold blood. The only reason: they were providing much-needed medical care and relief in an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) surgical hospital set up to help people wounded in the war-torn region.

On 17 December ever since, the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement quietly mourns all those who were killed while performing their humanitarian service.

Understandably, being shot and losing my colleagues was a terrible shock. It was equally shocking to my employer at the time, the International Committee of the Red Cross. Almost 20 years ago it was virtually unheard of that a Red Cross hospital would be deliberately attacked with intent to kill humanitarian workers.

Nowadays, targeted attacks and bombings of healthcare facilities are not an aberration. They are part of a trend. Only very recently we witnessed the terrible bombing of hospitals in Kunduz, Afghanistan, as well as in Yemen and Syria, killing dozens of innocent health workers and patients.

Over the last three years almost 1,000 aid workers experienced violence that resulted in either death or injury. These people are much more than a statistic. This year, in Yemen, Red Crescent volunteers, two brothers Khaled and Mohammed Bahuzaim, were shot dead while trying to evacuate people wounded in the city of Aden. In Mali, a Red Cross volunteer named Hamadoun was ambushed and shot while driving an aid truck to fetch equipment for a hospital. In Syria, Israa al Habash died when two bombs hit her relief convoy, which was delivering 20,000 vaccines for children and a dialysis machine for patients with renal failure.

The direct impact of each attack is immense. The indirect results are even more widespread. Consider the suffering experienced by tens of thousands of people who no longer have access to life-saving medical care. Routine care like child birth, fractures and other ailments all become life-threatening. Brittle and damaged healthcare systems are stretched to breaking point. In Chechnya alone, years would pass after my colleagues were murdered, before Red Cross and other humanitarian agencies returned.

Consider also the invisible cost that humanitarian workers are paying: the stress and trauma from working in insecure environments, experiencing and witnessing acts of violence and suffering they cause. A recent survey by the Guardian revealed that up to 79% of aid workers experienced mental health issues as a result of their work. Nearly one-third of all aid workers suffer from trauma - several times the rate of the general population, according to a study by the Antares Foundation.

These studies reflect my experience. It took many years to make sense of what happened to me and my colleagues on that fateful day and to overcome the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.

I want to make a personal call for every aid worker to get the help they need to remain in good health. In countries like Australia, millions of dollars are budgeted to help defence personnel recover from trauma. Many aid workers cope with similar conditions at the frontline, yet we don't receive the same levels of support. We need funds made available to support our physical, mental and emotional health.

We also need all governments, all combatants everywhere, to recognise the value of neutral and impartial aid and respect those who provide it.

Today I commemorate the lives of my colleagues who were murdered for being humanitarian workers, and all the others killed, injured or kidnapped in the line of duty.

Humanitarian aid is provided by individuals who are willing to put their lives on the line to help others. They deeply deserve to live a life without residual trauma. They deserve to be acknowledged for their willingness to put their lives on the line to help others. Because the alternative, war zones without medical care and life-saving humanitarian assistance, is too horrible to contemplate.

Christoph Hensch is a former Australian Red Cross staff member, international Red Cross aid worker and past Executive Director of the Mandala Foundation.