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Guys with guns: stop seeing us as a target

Just weeks ago, two young female Red Cross nurses were killed in Nigeria. We all pleaded for the unconditional release of my colleagues. But our pleas and prayers, unfortunately, came to nothing.

Dorsa Nazemi-Salman is an Australian aid worker in South Sudan.

At that moment, I wanted to look in the eyes of the killers and ask them: ‘’what would you gain from the death of a young midwife who is only 25 years old? What have you achieved? Did the irony strike you: killing a person who brings innocent children to life? I felt like yelling: “does anything strike a chord in the world anymore?”

Countless questions occupy my mind when these unbearable incidents happen. Many become paralysed and darkness sets in. In time, resilience prevails and anger subsides. You realise that the goal of the act is to shake your foundations, to sew fear and distrust, putting into question the very essence of humanity.

As humanitarians our role is becoming more complex, navigating rapidly changing global battlefields, where more armed groups have emerged in the last seven years than in the previous seven decades.

Armed conflicts within countries have more than doubled since 2001. Almost a quarter of all conflicts have more than 10 armed groups, a struggle for power that is tangled up with religious, ethnic or territorial agendas. This is where I work with my colleagues every day.

At no moment in my career have I learnt to manage the sick feeling I get when I hear another friend or colleague has been kidnapped, maimed or killed.

Today, 17 December is a day of sorrow and remembrance for all Red Cross and Red Crescent staff and volunteers around the world. It marks the anniversary of an attack on a field hospital in Chechnya 22 years ago. Men with guns murdered six staff members of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

A seventh staff member, an Australian named Christoph Hensch, was shot in his bed and left for dead. He survived and continues to work for the Red Cross.

So far this year, 91 aid workers have been killed in the service of humanity, according to the Aid Worker Security Database. It’s a few less than last year’s toll of 139 lives, which was the second highest annual death count on record.

More than 4,200 aid workers have been killed or injured delivering life-saving aid since 2003.  These attacks are becoming more frequent, violent and public. Hospitals, clinics and health workers are targeted more often, denying life-saving medical life- care to so many who desperately need it. The attacks must stop. All governments and groups must do more to end these senseless deaths.

On several occasions I have narrowly escaped death. I will always remember the first crack of gunfire as I crossed the street near Afghanistan’s busy Herat market. Everything happened in an instant: people screaming and running in all directions, a motorcycle whizzing past.

I dashed back to the car with my driver and he got us out of there. It only lasted minutes, but it felt like a lifetime.

Red Cross has taught me how to put survivors of armed conflict and violence at the centre of my focus; to be objective yet passionate, fierce yet balanced, tough yet soft. But nothing can prepare you for the first time a bullet zips past your head or the concussion after a bomb knocks you down.

Navigating access to reach people affected by armed conflict is a daily struggle. Our neutrality and impartiality is tested in this structured chaos.

Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers and staff in Syria.

Nonetheless, I speak on behalf of thousands of aid workers globally when I say that nothing can dissuade us from reaching out to those who are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance.

We endure, not despite these brutal actions but because of them. We cross rivers, climb hills, walk through thick jungles, live in difficult and harsh conditions, drive through hundreds of check points, meet every chief, commander or person in charge. This is not an act of heroism, this is only humanity as shaped by our daily interaction with those who would smile to see you coming to their homes, villages, cities; despite their daily suffering.

We do not want a day to remember our open wounds. All we want is for all parties to armed conflict, actors of influence and the guys with the guns to stop seeing us as a target. We must be allowed to do our jobs unharmed. After all, leaving our jobs aside, we are also somebody’s daughter, son, mother, father, sister or brother. We are somebody’s loved one.

In memory of our fallen ICRC colleagues, Kennedy, Lorena, Hanna, Hauwa and Saifura and those still in captivity whom we are eagerly waiting to be released and returned home to their families unharmed.

Dorsa Nazemi-Salman is an Australian aid worker who is currently the head of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross operations in the former state of Jonglei, South Sudan.