With over two decades experience as a humanitarian worker, Dominique Féron reflects upon the challenges of working in one of the world's most dangerous countries.
As a humanitarian worker for almost 20 years now, I have been confronted, directly or indirectly, to all kinds of violence and threats – like most of us who chose to embrace this career and make it a point to spend maximum time in the field. Amongst ourselves, we often choose to laugh at these experiences, as usually they all ended well, since we are there to tell them. Unfortunately it is not always the case for others.
While I was an expert for ECHO in Afghanistan (2003 to 2005), I often had to go to very remote places in the South and the West of the country to monitor projects aimed at facilitating the return of refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) to their places of origin. The risks related to such missions were multiple, from flying in tiny planes in adverse weather and landing on small airstrips which looked anything but safe to the fear of being ambushed or coming across some Improvised Explosive Device (IED), also known as a roadside bomb - especially on roads near Kandahar where it had become a pattern. But with all security measures in place, humanitarian actors always felt these were measured risks they had some grip on. Yes, Afghanistan is a dangerous country, and had been for a long time, but there was this general feeling that as long as you behaved by the book of security rules, you would be fine - at least in 2003/2004.
Nevertheless, security is not an exact science - far from it. I remember that once, I made a very stupid mistake, which luckily drew no consequences as far as our safety was concerned, but easily could have. I was attending a meeting with a district governor who had control over vast stretches of land dedicated to poppy cultivation, in full display. While chatting around a cup of tea, I could not help but to comment on it (which showed my ignorance of the context I was in!). Nobody seemed to take much notice, and the meeting ended in good spirit, as it had started. But the next day, the governor chose to destroy several poppy fields – apparently a direct consequence of our conversation. However, instead of destroying his own, he razed those of others, thereby upsetting local villagers who, in turn, could have easily retaliated against foreigners, since a foreigner's visit was at the origin of their losses. Fortunately, nothing happened. But it goes to show that, in the humanitarian sphere, none of our actions or words can be taken for granted. And this is something which we sometimes still struggle to grasp, even after years of experience. Lawless countries or environments do not fit with our "western" way of thinking and acting, and therefore the unthinkable can happen at any time.
At the end of May 2004, I had gone to Badghis province, in Western Afghanistan, to monitor a project run by MSF Holland, which ECHO was funding. I met a wonderful team, working in very difficult circumstances in the middle of nowhere, dedicating themselves to improving access to health services for a population which was deprived of any such services. Their work was amazing: they were truly saving lives on a daily basis. I spent a few days with them, and at the end, told them how impressed I was by their work. And by their commitment! One week later, on the 2nd of June, five of them were murdered in cold blood on the road between Khairkhana and Qala-i-Naw, in Badghis. This was exactly the same road we had taken together, just a few days earlier…
When a colleague rang me up to inform me of what had happened, I burst into tears. I could not help but thinking "Why them? They were doing nothing but saving lives! This is so unfair!". I then started to wish I had never met them, so that they would remain anonymous names on a piece of paper, as had always been the case so far when I had heard about tragic losses of humanitarian aid workers. But this time everything was too real, too painful - a cruel reminder that behind names of those fallen in Somalia or Chechnya (where I have never worked) were personal stories just as the ones of these wonderful colleagues who had just paid the ultimate price in the cause of humanitarian work.
A month after this attack, all MSF sections withdrew from Afghanistan. Once again, a tragedy had hit the humanitarian community and the direct consequence was that most vulnerable populations were cut off from life-saving humanitarian assistance. Something the attackers, whoever they may be, should remember.
After missions with different International Agencies and NGOs in former Yugoslavia, South Africa, Uganda, Congo(DRC), Rwanda, Guinea, North Korea, Vietnam, and East Timor , Dominique Féron began working for ECHO in 2003 as a field expert in Afghanistan. He has since been posted in Nepal and Tajikistan, and is presently a Rapid Response Coordinator in ECHO's New Delhi Regional Support Office.