Where Soldiers Fear to Tread © John S. Burnett
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Few fears, except perhaps that experienced during the process of dying, are more acute, more commanding than when facing a child whose finger is on the trigger of a loaded gun. It is at that instant the adamantine faith in our own ability to influence and control our fate becomes a delusional conceit. No one should ever experience that terror and yet it is not uncommon for humanitarian workers, serving in countries torn by internal conflict, to find themselves suddenly facing their death -- at the whim of a child soldier, or a militia seeking to make a political point, or belligerents in a local war who is convinced the relief worker is not neutral but is working for the other side.

Humanitarian workers serving in strange politically violent lands expect to offer themselves tirelessly to feed, immunize, heal, rescue, teach, house and relocate; they never expect to have to give up their lives. Today, relief workers are as likely to be killed in the line of their civilian duties, as are well-trained and well-armed soldiers. Indeed, more UN aid workers during the past five years have been killed than peacekeepers. Between 1999 and 2004, more than four hundred fifty men and women working for UN agencies and non-governmental relief organizations on nearly every continent had been assaulted, kidnapped, raped or murdered. Eighty UN staff members are still missing.

The dangers of the work could be no more tragically demonstrated than the killing of twenty-two humanitarian workers in the bombing of the UN compound in Baghdad in the summer of 2003, and the bombing ten weeks later of the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross that killed two staffers.
In Afghanistan, five members of a Médecins sans Frontières team were ambushed and murdered by returning Taliban. In Darfur, Sudan, nine aid workers of the US Agency for International Development were attacked and killed. These are only a few of the deaths recorded during 2003 and 2004.

Relief work has always been dangerous but it has become more so during the past ten years, especially so since the invasion of Iraq. Tragically, the security of those humanitarians, has been less a concern than getting the job done. This is dramatically illustrated during the hastily conceived flood relief operations to Somalia in 1997-1998 about which this book is written.

Somalia was then, continues today to be a shambles, torn apart by more than a decade of lawlessness and near-classic anarchy. It is perhaps the only nation without some form of central government and it is considered still to be one of the most dangerous places on earth. Its demise as a member of nations occurred in 1991 when dictator Mohamed Siyad Barré was overthrown and feuding warlords began to battle over the spoils. In 1992, Somalia suffered a famine of catastrophic proportions – three hundred children a day died in the capital city -- caused in part by natural events and to a greater degree by warlords who used starvation as a weapon. The United Nations created an emergency relief mission and sent peacekeepers to protect the humanitarian operations. Mogadishu, the capital, turned into a battleground between warlord militia, armed civilians and peacekeepers; eighteen American soldiers were killed during a two-day firefight in the streets and alleys. The soldiers withdrew never to return.

Somalia was no less a hell five years later during another humanitarian crisis. In November 1997, torrential rains on the Horn of Africa spawned destructive floods that poured through the Somali heartland, sweeping away whole villages and displacing nearly a million people. Despite the bloody history, the United Nations considered the crisis severe enough to return to this pariah land. It threw together emergency relief and rescue operations and sought those with some maritime experience to deliver up the swollen rivers desperately needed emergency supplies. I was one of those volunteers. This memoir of walking nightmares is not just my story but it is representative of the horrific experiences of relief workers elsewhere, whether facing down a child soldier in Liberia or held hostage in the Caucasus, not knowing whether tomorrow you will be shot or released. This is one account of their fears, their challenges, their confrontations, their frustrations, their pleasures, their successes -- and their deaths. Writing this story is finally a purgation of my own ghosts.

Many of us joked that we were mercenaries, missionaries or maniacs. Which begs the question why would relatively normal people knowingly risk their lives to help others in areas too dangerous to send soldiers? Personality deficiency? Or merely a different personality? It is a question that I sought to answer, not just about the others in the field but about myself.

I had not exactly lived a life of the mainstream and perhaps my own background is not representative of the others. Yet I feel I have to lay some of it out for what follows in these pages is often so outrageous, so frightening, and so typical of the lives of aid workers that it is necessary to look into the reason why one person, at least, might willingly enter such work.

After graduating from boarding school, I rebelled from the highly disciplined cloistered life that prepared its youth for careers in medicine, law, business, politics, and diplomacy, and signed on as a "workaway" aboard merchant ships – pay the captain a hundred bucks and work your butt off for the passage to Europe. Signing off a ship in Baltimore I found a job as copyboy on a local newspaper sharpening pencils for reporters, and after years of local journalism, wound up with United Press International as one of their correspondents covering the State Department and the White House. I left the newsrooms to write speeches for Congressmen on Capitol Hill, then tired of the claptrap of politics, took my family to northern Michigan where I worked on oilrigs and built a log house. I went north to Alaska, ran a political campaign, did a short season on a crab boat, then skippered a commercial boat fishing for halibut in the Gulf of Alaska. I wrote a steamy dime novel about the Last Frontier that was published then briefly wrote the daytime television show Search for Tomorrow. I had been writing the soap aboard my little thirty-two-foot sloop in San Francisco Bay and suffering intellectual burnout, I sailed across the Pacific to Tahiti and beyond. I met my Dutch wife Jacqueline in Malaysia and together we sailed across the Indian Ocean to East Africa. It is upon our arrival on the coast of Kenya that this story begins. While my own past may not be one that many can relate to, it is a history that led up to the day that I joined the World Food Program to save lives in Somalia.

Yet this background does not explain why. Was the money enough to risk my life? Was my marriage so rocky that I had to get away? Did I sign up because I really wanted to help people? Had my own past require that I merely find another adventure? Each of us had reasons to disappear into relief work, reasons that reflected an individual’s personality and personal history. One humanitarian worker, a former schoolteacher, admitted as the bullets were flying overhead in Baghdad that she remained in the aid trade because of the adrenaline rush. Another, who had been kidnapped and held for twenty-two days in a moldy root cellar in Chechnya, said he was in it for altruistic reasons, that he really felt good about himself when he was helping those who suffer. One with whom I worked in Somalia was in it only for the money that the job paid. Myself, I really did not know at the time what I was getting myself into and I signed up without much thought, eager for an adventure that was well paid. I had no idea what relief work was, what it would require physically and emotionally. I had never considered myself an altruist, a missionary much interested in helping anyone, simply a restless sailor. I was to discover, however, that at the end of the day, the reasons for getting into relief work for many of us were not the reasons to stay in it. After saving a life, I was hooked. There is something selfishly satisfying about saving lives.

Saving others, saving yourself is not without its price. Some of us were emotionally scarred by our experiences. It was unavoidable. I was as much of a stranger to violence as anyone else, the last to throw a punch. There was nothing in my own past to prepare me for the horrors that my colleagues and I were to face in Somalia. Despite a much-practiced ability as a journalist to disassociate, I found myself unable to avoid emotional intervention. I tried to disconnect, to see the horror, the deaths through the cold eyes of a professional observer. I was sometimes successful when the bullets came my way, but not when the bloodshed occurred to others within a few feet of where I stood, or indeed, in my arms. Out in the field, we saved the lives of dozens or more, many more, and that was gratifying; nothing, however, can expiate the unremitting guilt, the memory of that child for whose death I was responsible.

Field workers go where they are sent, rarely working again with those they had known in other areas of crisis. The time shared is frequently in a foxhole, under stress and immediate. And then it is over. Word comes over high frequency radio to pack up and move to someplace else where you are needed. And then it is simply goodbye, hope to see you again somewhere. Relief work during a humanitarian emergency does not often permit intimacy or promote long term friendships.

Relief workers charge weaponless and without protection on missions that are frequently away from the eyes of the international community, their quiet bravery considered only when their deaths make the news on the back page. What they endure in other parts of the world is frequently more horrifying than what is recounted here. For some, working for the UN or for non-governmental relief organizations in the field during a humanitarian crisis is the last job they will ever have.
* *
Some of the names have been changed; while all knew I was taking notes with the purpose of possibly converting them into a book, it would be unfair to hold my colleagues responsible for what was done or said during times of such ineffable duress.

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—Reprinted from Where Soldiers Fear to Tread, by permission of Bantam/Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. Copyright © John S. Burnett, 2005. All rights reserved.
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Where Soldiers Fear to Tread © John S. Burnett
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