How can we protect aid workers from the dangers of war zones?

The killing of a veteran World Food Progamme official in Yemen raises urgent questions about the best way to shield those on humanitarian missions

Members of Yemen's security forces pictured on Saturday during a search operation following the killing of Moayad Hameidi, a World Food Programme staffer in Turbah city. AFP
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When Moayad Hameidi agreed to lead the World Food Progamme’s office in Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city, he would have been well aware of the risks involved. Mr Hameidi was an experienced humanitarian who had worked for the international aid agency for nearly two decades in troubled countries such as Iraq, Syria and Sudan.

Nevertheless, the WFP and UN reacted with shock on Friday when news emerged that the Jordanian had been killed in a shooting in the nearby city of Turbah, not long after he had arrived in Taiz, which remains under siege by the militant Houthi movement. Sadly, Mr Hameidi’s death was not the only armed attack on aid workers last week. The Doctors Without Borders medical charity said on Friday that armed men had targeted one of its teams the day before in the Sudanese capital Khartoum as they were taking supplies to a hospital.

Such attacks raise important questions for humanitarian agencies whose employees and volunteers operate in volatile environments. Although there can never be a guarantee of absolute safety, many larger organisations have invested substantially in professional security training and support. Nevertheless, they are still more vulnerable than most to the unpredictability that characterises many conflict zones.

In the short term, the WFP and MSF will have to consider how they operate in Yemen and Sudan, respectively. Aid workers are not combatants, and their organisations cannot operate on the basis that they can sustain “acceptable losses” in the way armed groups do. In the longer term, such humanitarian organisations will have to recalibrate how they assess and respond to risk. Such lessons will have to be learnt quickly if they are to avoid any further degradation of already fragile aid operations.

The need to mitigate risk for aid workers is particularly urgent because of the knock-on effect such crimes have on the very people humanitarians are there to help. Violence can lead agencies to pull back or even withdraw from a country. Attacks can also lead to a reliance on local partners for aid delivery despite the fact that such groups are often less equipped and trained for the complex task of trying to help displaced or desperate people.

Unfortunately, the recent attacks in Yemen and Sudan are not one-offs. According to a report last year from the specialist Humanitarian Outcomes consultancy, 141 aid workers died in attacks in 2021 – more deaths than in any year since 2013.

Dispelling the air of impunity that exists in conflict zones is important to curbing this trend. Although the authorities in Yemen are reported to have arrested several people in connection with Mr Hameidi’s murder, in Sudan, which has entered a fourth month of civil war, law and order has largely broken down. As The National pointed out in May, looters making off with supplies as well as laptops and cars during an April raid on Save the Children’s offices in Darfur is just one example of how criminals and bands of rogue fighters have forced many aid agencies to suspend their operations or leave Sudan altogether.

“The loss of our colleague is a profound tragedy for our organisation and the humanitarian community,” said Richard Ragan, the WFP’s country director in Yemen, speaking after Mr Hameidi’s killing. It is also a tragedy for the many Yemenis his work would have helped. Aid workers are often the last lifeline available for people whose lives have been blighted by conflict. Improving security and intelligence to protect them from the vagaries of war has to be a priority.

Published: July 24, 2023, 3:00 AM