To this day, I remember conducting my usual routine of getting dinner ready with CNN on in the background on August 19, 2003, and then stopping when I heard that a terrorist attack had taken place against the UN in Iraq. The world would eventually discover that the attack had taken the life of the Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG) Sérgio Vieira de Mello and 21 of his staff. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi would eventually take credit for the attack and publicly announce that de Mello was the target.
I still feel the profound outrage I felt that day upon hearing the UN had been attacked. In my opinion the UN represents the best intentions of the world, and those serving the UN do so because they believe they can make an impact. I knew about the famous UN blue berets in large part because my cousin served in the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). She always speaks warmly of her time there and has kept her blue beret as a symbol of those memories.
Today marks the 10-year anniversary of the Canal House bombing, and is recognized as World Humanitarian Day -- the one day of the year the world takes a moment to remember those who gave their lives in the quest to alleviate human suffering and help those who would otherwise be forgotten.
Since 2003, the world has changed. U.S. combat forces have withdrawn from Iraq and are expected to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014. Syria has been entrenched in a two-year struggle, and tensions continue to surface in places like Darfur, South Sudan, Mali, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic. Humanitarians are serving in areas where it is difficult to distinguish between government and nonstate actors, and they are expected to address more difficult complex crises requiring improved coordination and cooperation with a myriad of actors.
Humanitarian aid workers are increasingly viewed as potential targets, not solely for political gains but also for economic ones. The Aid Worker Security Database releases an annual report raising awareness of the dangers faced by humanitarian workers throughout the world. Not surprisingly, according to the Aid Worker Security 2012 report, the most dangerous countries for aid workers to operate in were Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan, South Sudan and Afghanistan. In the last year, the humanitarian community cheered following the release of two Médecins Sans Frontières workers from almost two years of captivity, and we shared our sadness during the InterAction 2013 Forum Gala Dinner remembering staff lost from organizations ranging from World Vision to Helen Keller International.
According to the Aid Worker Security Database 904 aid workers have died -- both national and international staff in the past 10 years. The types of incidents range from kidnappings to accidental deaths as a result of vehicle accidents or crossfire in conflict zones. Yet, as incidents involving international staff have decreased, due to greater reliance on tools and techniques such as remote management and the acceptance strategy, incidents involving national staff have increased. While the deaths of Sérgio Vieira de Mello and his staff are still remembered each August 19, we must remember every day what they stood for and represented. Every day around the world, humanitarians risk their lives, whether they are from Australia or Somalia. The stories of humanitarians lost because of their service to others are not ones you hear on the evening news or read about in your local newspaper. It is up to us to make their stories known so they can serve as inspiration to those who believe the world can become a better place through a cup of rice, a water well in a village, or holding the hand of child being vaccinated.
Lauren Rajczak is the Security Coordinator at InterAction, the largest alliance of U.S.-based NGOs. August 19 is World Humanitarian Day. To join the conversation, use the hashtag #WHD2013 or follow WHD on Twitter.