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Memorial for 'great unseen stories' of fallen humanitarians

05 September 2014


Remembered: the hotel housing the UN headquarters in Baghdad, after a suicide attacker set off a truck bomb on 19 August, 2003. The date is marked each year as World Humanitarian Day 

Remembered: the hotel housing the UN headquarters in Baghdad, after a suicide attacker set off a truck bomb on 19 August, 2003. The date is ma...

WHEN the medical director of SOS Bosnia, Dr Elaine Laycock, needed to reach a haemophiliac child in Bosnia during the Balkans War, Tony Ritchards, an aid worker from London, agreed to drive her. Shortly afterwards, during a mission to carry food parcels into Sarajevo, Mr Ritchards's truck crashed, after coming under fire. He and two other aid workers were killed.

"We met their bodies coming back to Heathrow in a cargo plane," Dr Laycock recalled last month. "They were in black plastic body bags, and there was no ceremony, no music. We felt that there should be something to commemorate humanitarian aid-workers killed on duty."

Plans are now under way to establish the first national memorial for fallen humanitarian aid workers in the UK. It is due to be installed in two years' time at Westminster Abbey.

Dr Laycock said that she had been "amazed" at the response to her suggestion for such a memorial, which is backed by large charities. "People have said: 'Why didn't somebody think of it before?'"

The memorial would be installed in the cloisters, she said, "because they are open, and they are free. . . Although this is a great Christian institution, it is a memorial to all faiths and to no faith, because people of all and none are being killed."

The memorial will not be in place until 2016, but the commitment to memorialising aid workers began last month, with the laying of a wreath at the Memorial to Innocent Victims. It was laid by Dr Gil Loescher, who survived the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad on 19 August 2003, in which the UN envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello was killed. The day is marked annually as World Humanitarian Day.

Figures released by the organisation Humanitarian Outcomes last month suggest that the number of aid workers killed, kidnapped, and seriously wounded annually has reached the highest ever recorded: in 2013, 155 aid workers were killed, 171 were seriously wounded, and 134 were kidnapped. This represents a increase of 66 per cent over the previous year.

In July, humanitarian workers were killed in South Sudan by armed fighters while they were supporting the mission to reach malnourished children, the executive director or UNICEF, Anthony Lake, said last month.

"This is one of the great unseen stories of our times," the Sub-Dean of Westminster Abbey, Canon Andrew Tremlett, said. "When someone is injured or killed, it appears for a moment in the media spotlight, then other things come along. The memorial is way of giving some sense of permanence to the lives that had been lost."

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