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Stop shooting at us

Each year on 17 December we honour our Red Cross and Red Crescent colleagues killed for their humanitarian work.

Therese Powell, an Australian physiotherapist working in Iraq with Red Cross, reflects on the day of remembrance.

The first steps taken by an amputee learning to walk again are full of pure ecstasy and agony. So much joy etched on a face.

Over the last two years, I’ve worked with teams in Iraq, delivering prosthetic limbs, orthotics and physiotherapy services to people with disabilities.

I know what it means for children like 12-year-old Thanoon, who lost his lower leg in a bomb blast, to be fitted with a prosthetic. I have seen too what it means when people like Thanoon cannot get the help they need because of violence against healthcare and aid workers.

An attack on the doctors, nurses, aid workers and others who are trying to save lives in war and conflict is an attack on our very humanity. All too often these attacks are targeted and humanitarian operations are suspended.

Last year my colleague Hanna Lahoud, an International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (ICRC) staff member, who is also a physiotherapist and paramedic, was shot dead while working in Yemen. He had dedicated his life to helping others.

Hanna’s death wasn’t just a tragedy for his family and friends. It also led to more trauma for the Yemeni people, who are caught up in one of the world’s worst-ever humanitarian crises.

After Hanna’s death, further threats and security concerns led to the withdrawal of all our staff in Yemen for half of last year. That crippled humanitarian operations and work such as life-saving surgery, repairs to water systems and food relief.

This year, 83 aid workers have been killed around the world and 173 injured or kidnapped while delivering aid in war zones, according to the Aid Worker Security Database. Despite this tragic toll, there is some positive news: those numbers are less than half that of last year.

In the past two years, 661 aid workers have been killed, injured or kidnapped. They were people trying to help the men, women and children wounded in war, many who had also been left without food, water or a roof under which to sleep.

Today, 17 December, is a day of sorrow and remembrance for Red Cross and Red Crescent staff and volunteers. It marks the 22nd anniversary of an attack on a Chechnya field hospital where armed men murdered six staff of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

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

The ICRC hospital in Novi Atagi, Chechnya where a group of armed men murdered six of our colleagues on 17 December 1996. Photo: ICRC/Boris Babanov

I cannot forget the shock and pain I felt two years ago when my colleague Lorena Perez was killed while working in Afghanistan. A physiotherapist, she was shot in cold blood, as she helped her patients.

That day Lorena was doing what she did every day; working with patients with spinal cord injuries and children with cerebral palsy, teaching people how to live better lives and giving hope where there was little.

Afghanistan is one of the most dangerous places on earth for foreign health workers. Twenty-seven aid workers have been killed in 133 attacks this year alone. A further 33 aid workers have been abducted according to the United Nations.

Here in Iraq, we have been forced to delay our medical and humanitarian operations several times because of security incidents, threats or concerns.

When this happens, hope can turn to despair for children like 12-year-old Thanoon, who has already been through more than any child should have to endure.

The explosion that took Thanoon’s lower leg killed his dad, his nine-year-old sister and four other relatives. He and his mum were the only survivors. After the blast he felt shame, he didn’t play with other children nor did he go to school.

Recently we fitted Thanoon with a new prosthetic leg and it changed his life. He now plays football with his friends and is back in school.

This lease of life is precious.

Last year in Tripoli, Lebanon, we supported a wheelchair basketball team from Iraq to participate in a competition held in memory of Hanna Lahoud.

The competitors from Iraq, Afghanistan, India, Syria and Lebanon showed how sport can unify people, heal old conflicts and dissolve barriers. Lifelong friendships are forged and it helps people build a resolve to tackle life with new strength.

Does the death of aid workers like Lorena and Hanna make us want to stop what we are doing? Never. It strengthens our resolve to work harder.

Spanish physiotherapist Lorena Perez (38) who was killed while working for the ICRC in Afghanistan in 2017. Photo: ICRC

Every day we remember our fallen colleagues, the beautiful qualities that made them who they were, and how they put their lives on the line to help others.

All forces and groups fighting in conflicts around the world must stop shooting at us. Not next year, not tomorrow, but today. We are not – and never have been – part of their fight.

For the last two years Therese has been leading rehabilitation health services in Iraq for the ICRC.

Even in war there are laws