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Ben Barber

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Killing Journalists and Aid Workers

Posted: 04/15/2012 3:00 pm

A new and horrible virus has infected millions of people on the planet -- an ideological, religious virus that allows them to murder peaceful, unarmed aid workers and journalists.

For decades, as a reporter I had an invisible shield, allowing me to wade into bloody conflicts, interview the killers and the families of the victims.

We crossed the frontlines of battles, carefully waving a white T-shirt and our press passes, making no sudden or threatening moves that might set off the hollow-eyed 18-year old conscripts and guerrilla fighters in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Kashmir, Nicaragua, Cambodia, Burma the West Bank or the Western Sahara.

Humanitarian aid workers had the same immunity from attack. Riding in vehicles marked with a Red Cross or parked by smoldering hospitals they treated both sides and had little fear either side would either attack them or interfere with their work.

We were proud that we could cover these conflicts without carrying guns. But times have indeed changed.

When I walked the streets of Kabul recently, the aid group I worked for required that I be accompanied by an Afghan guard with a pistol under his shirt.

When I visited villages in Iraq during the American occupation, I had to wear a bullet-proof vest and a helmet. Instead of showing up with a notebook, camera and interpreter, I'd arrive in an armored Humvee with a machine gunner seated at the rooftop turret.

When I thought of my children and family back in America who wanted me to return home safely, I concluded reluctantly that this is what I must do.

Even if many brave journalists and aid workers still ply the al Qaeda and Taliban infested roads of Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan, I wonder how much longer it will be before the fanatics, thugs and zealots tighten the noose on them.

U.N. resolutions against violence on humanitarian workers have been ignored and the toll of unarmed reporters and aid workers continues to climb. The Overseas Development Institute reported that "in 2008, 260 humanitarian aid workers were killed, kidnapped or seriously injured in violent attacks -- the highest yearly toll on record... The fatality rate of aid workers from malicious acts alone surpassed that of United Nations peacekeeping soldiers in 2008."

Many years ago I rode by car, bus, train, truck and even oxcart from the winter in New York City to the steamy monsoon of Bombay and Calcutta. Today I would likely be kidnapped, killed, beheaded, excoriated, harangued, obliterated and eliminated.

In recent days, in Yemen, an American English teacher was shot and killed on the street for no other crime than not being Muslim.

In Afghanistan, 10 medical humanitarian aid workers including an eye surgeon who had for many years provided free treatment to Afghans, were executed in 2010 -- Taliban zealots called them spies and missionaries.

In Pakistan, an elderly, aid worker was kidnapped and has been held hostage by al Qaeda for months.

Some aid workers are now are carrying guns in conflict zones. One of them told the New York Times: "me and my people, we're easy pickings -- we're meat" to the zealots.

It is evident that reporting and aid programs suffer when you can't get out into the field.

Some will say -- and rightfully so -- that the majority of Afghans and other Muslims want to live in a free, tolerant society and open up to the modern world. They are grateful for the clinics, schools and modern medicine.

But car bombs still rock the streets of Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen and Lebanon. In the name of God, a French-Algerian young man shot Jewish children in the head in France.

A decade ago, some people foolishly believed that globalization would reduce differences among races and religions around the world. If all youths wore blue jeans and ate McDonalds, the urge to jihad and kill the other would dwindle, they said. It was a vain hope.

Instead, within each community the most backward and intolerant people have become the standard bearers of the old ways.

Even if the zealots are less than 10 percent of a population, a few men can paralyze a country with terrorism and cruelty.

Today, although we are less and less able to protect reporters and aid workers from the zealots, we need more than ever those who risk their lives to bring truth and aid to the world.