Mali deaths highlight global danger for 'saviours': UN troops - 3,254 killed. Aid workers - 1,220. Journalists - 1,074


Since 1997, 152 aid workers have been kidnapped in Africa, but "only" 17 have been killed by their abductors—a 89% survival rate.

THERE death of four United Nations peacekeepers in northern Mali this week brought the number killed there this year to 15.

The group of Chadian peacekeepers was returning from the embattled town of Kidal when they struck a mine about 30 kilometers outside the city, said Olivier Salgado, a spokesman for the force. Six of those hurt are seriously wounded, he said.

Salgado did not speculate on who was behind the attack, the largest in months. But the al-Qaida group operating in the country recently has taken responsibility for several recent attacks on UN. peacekeepers. Kidal is also the home of a simmering revolt by a Tuareg separatist movement.

Northern Mali fell under control of Tuareg separatists and then al-Qaida-linked Islamic extremists following a military coup in 2012. A French-led intervention last year scattered the extremists, but some remain active and there have been continued bursts of violence.

UN troops are now trying to stabilize the north, and peace talks have begun between the Malian government and Tuaregs, who maintain a heavy presence in Kidal and have pushed back against the authority of the Bamako-based government.

In the 66 years of UN peacekeeping, there have been 3,250 fatalities of peacekeeping troops and staff, according to UN records dating back to 1948.

The peacekeepers’ death, underscores the deadly nature of humanitarian work, which is often underreported except by the aid organisations themselves.

According to the Aid Worker Security Database, which however does not count UN peacekeepers, human rights workers, election monitors or purely political, religious, or advocacy organisations, 1,220 aid workers were killed globally between 1997 and 2013 alone. Another 881 were kidnapped, and 1,148 wounded in various attacks.

By contrast, though the killing of journalists usually makes bigger headlines, they have murdered in fewer numbers than aid workers. Thus since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 1,074 journalists have been killed in the line of duty.

 For aid workers, though, Afghanistan is the single deadliest country, with 338 killed between 1997 and 2013. But the Horn of Africa is one of the most dangerous regions in the world, with 168 aid workers killed in Somalia since 1997, and 121 killed in Sudan.

Although Afghanistan leads in absolute number of attacks, it is Somalia, with its comparatively very low presence of aid workers in country, that has the highest attack rate.

Astonishingly, South Sudan has only been in existence for three years, but in that short time, 48 aid workers have already been killed, about the same number as those killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) since 1997, with its many troubles.

At this rate, if the conflict in South Sudan ends up as protracted as the one in Somalia which has lasted 23 years so far, as many as 350 aid workers could be dead in South Sudan. By contrast, Iraq has “only” seen 65 aid worker deaths since 1997.

However, contrary to the common modus operandi in Afghanistan and Iraq, attackers rarely use bombs or improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against aid workers. Attacks in Africa are low tech, and require close personal contact to accomplish. Shootings are the most common type of attack, with 273 incidences since 1997, followed by beatings/ stabbings at 162.  

Kidnappings too, are increasingly common. The Aid Worker Security Database indicates aid worker kidnappings have quadrupled over the past decade; since 2009, more aid workers have been victims of kidnapping than of any other form of attack, with kidnapping victims surpassing the number of victims of shootings, serious bodily assault, and all types of explosives. 

Kidnappings comprised nearly a quarter of all major attacks on aid operations in 2012, and an even greater percentage of aid worker victims (36%).

But there is one small comfort: Your abductors are unlikely to kill you. Since 1997, 152 aid workers have been kidnapped in Africa, but (only) 17 have been killed by their abductors—a 89% survival rate.

And counter-intuitive as it may seem, kidnappings can actually be a sign that the aid agency’s acceptance strategy is working. This report on kidnappings of aid workers indicates that in Afghanistan, for instance, aid workers are often quickly let free because local community elders come forward and negotiate their release.

 This indicates that the community knows and appreciates the agency’s projects and staff, and needs the services to continue. 

The kidnappers, who are mostly local Taliban forces, for their part, do not wish to  completely alienate the local population by eliminating much-needed aid projects, so they  concede to the release – but not before “flexing their muscles” before both the local inhabitants  and the aid community, and using the detention period to question the aid workers at length  about their activities and intentions. 

According to the report, these short-lived kidnappings in Afghanistan could be described as as the Taliban’s “informal registration” of NGOs.

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