Friday, 18 August 2023 07:16

First Person: ‘Immense psychological injuries’ following 2003 attack on UN Baghdad

A former member of staff of the World Food Programme (WFP) has been talking about the “immense psychological injuries” he has suffered following the deadly terrorist attack on the UN offices at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, Iraq in 2003.

Khaled Mansour, now a writer and journalist, was the WFP spokesperson in Iraq at the time and narrowly missed the massive explosion which killed 22 of his UN colleagues.

On World Humanitarian Day which was established to mark the 19 August attack, he reflects on his life since and what he has learnt.

UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré
Former WFP staff member, Khaled Mansour, is a writer and journalist

“The terrorist attack against the UN headquarters in Baghdad devastated me on the one hand, but it also radically reconfigured the way I think of my life and of the humanitarian aid effort.

I was in my car, heading back to the office, and just a few hundred metres away from the building when it was bombed and quickly collapsed. I was not physically harmed, but the psychological injuries were immense.

Colleagues whom I worked with only a few hours earlier were either pulverized, or the remains of their bodies lay under sheets in the parking lot. I am still sometimes haunted by the blood and body parts I touched as I groped my way along darkened corridors shrouded in dust.

I spent the rest of the afternoon and the evening driving with an Iraqi colleague around Baghdad to check on the wounded, put them in touch with their families and comfort them.

I was very angry at the UN, at the stupid, murderous terrorists, and probably ultimately at myself for having survived while 22 others did not. This is what I found out through months and years of psychotherapy and self-reflection.

Looking back at what happened, I still feel sad at the huge loss of lives and potential, but I have also learned a great deal, and I was able to go back to work in conflict areas and think more critically of why this happened and whether it could have been avoided at all.

Mourning loss

After taking several months off, mourning this huge loss, I slowly went back to work. Two years later I even served as the UN Spokesperson in Beirut, during the Israeli 33-day bombardment of Lebanon in 2006.

This does not mean I returned to what I was on the morning of 19 August 2003, before the attack took place. I like to think that I had become a more sensitive and considerate person, also more reflective about the limitations of humanitarian work and the need for massive reforms in the international system of governance.

I thought a lot about the politicization of humanitarian aid to the extent that, 10 years later, I developed a graduate course on this issue and taught it at the Department of Law at the American University in Cairo.

This politicization got more institutionalized in Afghanistan in 2001 and moved to deeper levels of integration in 2002 in the months of preparation for the war on Iraq. This has not changed, as we have seen in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine, Myanmar and other catastrophes over the past 20 years.

It should have been no surprise to see public opinion in the Middle East and South Asia turning against the UN and other aid agencies, which stood accused of having become a partial tool of the West.

None of this is to excuse, much less justify, a vicious strategy by terrorist groups. It is to try to understand the environment in which these groups recruit and operate.

It is also to show the negative impact on the innocent people who are crushed between the political machinations of the international community on the one hand, and the armed groups (or States), which control their lives, on the other hand.

Idealists and realists

Aid workers are no idealists, and many of them understand how politicized their work and how instrumentalized their own lives have become. Still, many of the most realist among aid workers find their position in various conflict areas untenable.

United Nations staff members march around the Secretariat in New York to express their distress over the bombing of the UN Headquarters in Baghdad on 19 August. In the background are the flags of the United Nations members. (26 August 2003)
UN Photo/Mark Garten
United Nations staff members march around the Secretariat in New York to express their distress over the bombing of the UN Headquarters in Baghdad on 19 August. In the background are the flags of the United Nations members. (26 August 2003)

There is an urgent need to reinstate the humanitarian principles through practical measures to transform funding mechanisms and governance systems, and to work for more transparency in the aid industry.

We need to save this noble mission from becoming just a … [ceremonial] tool … because failing this, this tool will soon become useless, and the deaths of aid workers in Baghdad, and in many other places afterwards, will amount to nothing more than collateral damage.

We need to unshackle aid workers and aid agencies. This would truly honour the memory of my fallen colleagues, instead of all the ceremonies that will take place around the world to commemorate the passing of 20 years since this carnage.”