When risk is part of the job

‘You can give people lots of training… but none of that is any good if they freak out.’

Photo of an aid worker from Jordan meeting a Syrian family
Jordanian aid worker meets a Syrian refugee family. (Ben Parker/TNH)

“A roadside ambush resulted in one international aid worker wounded by gunfire and one national aid worker – the driver – killed.”

If someone asked me for the prototypical aid worker security incident report, I would offer some version of the above. World Humanitarian Day, 19 August, marks the date in 2003 when 22 humanitarians died in a massive bombing of the Canal Hotel in Baghdad. The majority of attacks on aid workers, though, are far less spectacular, more similar to the ambush in which the driver was killed.

In the more than 4,500 attacks recorded in the Aid Worker Security Database since 1997, the names of the victims and their organisations are scrubbed to protect those who wish not to be identified. The anonymity encourages reporting, but it also has the disconcerting effect of reducing to statistics the hundreds of human beings each year who encounter catastrophic violence in the course of doing their jobs.

Only recently, while interviewing attack survivors for a forthcoming book, was I able to view the violence from a first-person perspective. I noticed some commonalities about the attacks and the type of person that chooses this profession.

Learning to cope with uncertainty

A “wicked problem” has no single solution and sits amid a complex web of constantly changing variables: every possible response creates new challenges. For humanitarians working in conflicts, operational security is a classic wicked domain. Reliable information is scarce at the best of times, and hard-won situational awareness can turn on a dime.

In the days before South Sudanese soldiers raided the Terrain Hotel compound in July 2016, subjecting the aid workers sheltering there to beatings, gang rapes, and execution, no one in Juba’s humanitarian community had grasped how the conflict dynamics had shifted or that such an invasion was a probability.

As one rape survivor recalled, “Even when they were right outside the building, we were told ‘just cooperate, don’t worry, they only want stuff – we’re not the target.’”

When what was solid information a short time ago is suddenly obsolete, aid workers must make life-or-death decisions while in a state of uncertainty. Dr. Donald Bosch, Headington Institute’s Director of Risk Psychology and Hostile Environment Awareness Training (HEAT), specialises in the psychology of such moments. “There are a lot of ways in which our brain misfires in certain circumstances,” he told me. “Fight-or-flight is a primitive response, and there’s not much you can do about it. But you can be aware of when it starts coming on and try to take control back."

How to prepare for such moments? Subject yourself to doses of stress in safe environments (the principle behind HEAT), Bosch suggested. This offers a preview of how you will react, lets you recognise what the activation point feels like, rehearse what to do, and can help prevent common mistakes that can increase risk. The embodied experience is the critical feature, Bosch emphasised. “You can give people lots of training and best practices in security, but none of that is any good if they freak out in the moment.”

Organisations can foster workers’ resilience

Everyone handles trauma differently. Robert Painter was among those wounded in the Canal Hotel bombing, and he described the aftermath. “You had some people just silent, stone-faced, frozen. You couldn’t get them to talk,” he recalled. “With others, it was like they were having a seizure; their bodies shaking uncontrollably, falling on the ground.”

How aid workers are prepared prior to an event and – critically – how they are cared for afterwards, affects their ability to recover. Organisations can help or hinder this process.

After the Terrain raid, some rape survivors were quickly evacuated by their organisations. Other employers kept staff together in a safe location for a few days, providing medical care and trauma counselling and allowing the group to process the events together. Those staffers testified to the value of that time and were grateful not to be immediately flown home to their families, “where you have to pretend like everything’s fine.”

Ultimately, as Bosch said, “More resilient people get out with less damage.” A critical component of an organisation’s duty of care is to help foster this resilience, both before and after the event.

How aid workers are prepared prior to an event and – critically – how they are cared for afterwards, affects their ability to recover.

Trauma is especially hard to recover from when victims feel unsupported or betrayed by their organisations, or by local communities that they may believe failed to warn them or intervene.

“This is when the sense of meaning and purpose drops out,” Bosch said. “I’ve seen people just crumble.” At the same time, as two rape survivors told me, they felt conflicted by the obvious privilege on display.

“[The trial] only happened because we’re expats and because of international pressure,” one said. “This kind of thing happens to women in South Sudan every single day.”

Handling risk with professionalism

When working in warzones, even the best security protocols cannot reduce the risk to zero. Professionals accept this residual risk to perform necessary work.

Aid workers can be caricatured, unfairly, as risk-addicted social misfits with a saviour complex. For most, the career choice is not driven by adventure-seeking so much as seeking action with a purpose; wanting to engage in something meaningful in high-stakes situations. Moreover, the vast majority of aid workers working in conflict zones are nationals of the conflict-affected country.

Mustafa Haj Yousef imported plumbing appliances in his small town in Idlib province before the Syrian civil war. He left his business to join the White Helmets, rescuing fellow Syrians trapped in the rubble of bombed buildings. He also undertook training in search-and-rescue techniques and operational coordination, eventually leading operations for all of Idlib.

Haj Yousef turned his empathy into operational effectiveness through building skills and applying them in chaotic situations. He has seen colleagues killed and has narrowly escaped death himself in “double-tap” strikes, where the bombers return to target the rescuers.

World Humanitarian Day is an opportunity to honour the skills and sacrifice of professionals like Haj Yousef and to remember that the thousands killed, wounded, or kidnapped, in attacks large and small, all had names and families.

Painter also told me of an earlier incident – an ambush in Sierra Leone that fits the more common template of aid worker attacks. The driver of his vehicle was a national staffer who had recently completed a defensive driving course, and he executed the technique taught to escape an ambush: a quick three-point turn to reverse direction. Despite taking three bullets, he managed to drive far enough away to safely switch seats. He died in hospital a day later.

“He followed his training precisely,” said Painter, “and his skills saved our lives that day.”

The driver’s name was John Reignat.

(Abby Stoddard is author of the forthcoming Necessary Risks: Professional Humanitarianism and Violence Against Aid Workers to be published by Palgrave Macmillan.)

(TOP PHOTO: A staff member with NGO Norwegian Refugee Council meets with a Syrian refugee family in Jordan. 24 June 2018.)

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