Feb 18, 2009

PAKISTAN: Militants Make Aid Work Risky

The kidnapping of John Solecki of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees(UNHCR)in Quetta, Balochistan province seems to confirm the perception of international humanitarian organisations that aid work in Pakistan is becoming increasingly hazardous. In a video released on Feb.13, Solecki’s kidnappers, from the shadowy Balochistan Liberation United Front separatist group, threatened to kill him within 72 hours unless 141 Baloch women held by security agencies in Pakistan are not released. The deadline has since been extended. Solecki, a U.S. national, was abducted on Feb. 2 while on his way to work by gunmen who fatally shot his driver. The video showed a blindfolded Solecki appealing to the U.N. to negotiate his release. "I am not feeling well. I am sick and in trouble. Please help solve the problem soon so that I can gain my release," he said. Solecki’s abduction was the third attack in recent months on foreigners working in Pakistan’s north-west which borders Afghanistan. On Feb.9 Taliban militants released a videotape showing the beheading of kidnapped 42-year-old Polish geologist, Piotr Stanczak, that followed the Pakistani government’s refusal to release 30 militants as demanded. The abductors are now demanding 200,000 US dollars for the return of his body. Among the militants whose release is being sought by is Omar Saeed Sheikh, found guilty of conspiring to kill journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002. Pearl was working for the American Wall Street Journal when he was kidnapped and beheaded in Karachi by militants who then circulated a video of the gruesome act. Last November, gunmen shot dead Stephan Vance, a USAID official, outside his home in Peshawar, capital of the North West Frontier Province. In August 2008, U.S. diplomat Lynne Tracy narrowly survived an attack on her vehicle in Peshawar. As a gesture of goodwill, after the announcement by the Pakistan government of enforcement of Shariah (Islamic Law) in the NWFP on Feb.15, the Taliban released a Chinese engineer, Long Xiaowei, abducted in August along with a colleague Zhang Guo - who managed to escape. While these abductions underscore the overall deteriorating security situation in the country, it also raises concern for the safety and protection of aid workers who have become "soft targets" for militants in getting their demands met as well as raise money to run their operations. "Until recently, most international [aid workers] did not feel they were the main target, but the perception has been dented by the killing of Stephan Vance and the kidnapping of John Solecki," said Dorothy Blane, country director in Pakistan of the non-government organisation (NGO) ‘Concern Worldwide’, which has been working in Pakistan for nearly six years. Talking with IPS, she said: "I have also heard of national staff scared of admitting that they work for NGOs/international humanitarian organisations, for fear of reprisals when going back to their villages." Pakistan is not the only country where aid work is perilous. Carrying out humanitarian services in Somalia, DR Congo and Sudan’s Darfur region carry similar risks. "In many parts of the world this is the case," said Maki Shinohara, a U.N. spokesperson. "Many aid activities are carried out amid tensions in communities, and we are not armed. Even though humanitarian activities are impartial, in some cases, this is not respected and we may be seen as soft targets," pointed out Shinohara. Shinohara believes that while aid workers ‘’are not accepted targets in most cases,’’ there are places where they are seen as the enemy. "In parts of Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, aid activities are seen to be part of the efforts to stabilise the country, which they are, and are therefore seen as 'enemies' by insurgents and spoilers." The recent attacks on aid workers have put a strain on humanitarian work. "Of course these incidents highlight the dangers faced by humanitarian workers," said Shinohara. "Such attacks only lead to the suffering of people who need our assistance most." But if the current spate of attacks continues, many aid agencies may be forced to suspend work or even pull out completely. "After the Plan International attack in Mansehra [in February 2008, in which three local employees of the British aid agency were killed when gunmen stormed into their office], many agencies suspended operations for a week or two. Nobody was certain if this was the start of more attacks, or a one-off," said Blane. After Stolecki’s kidnapping a few agencies suspended operations, but Blane said she was not aware of anyone actually pulling out. Most have also learnt to cope. For example, said Blane, she would not "sit in the front seat of the vehicle" in certain areas of NWFP, but feels "free" to visit project areas in the same province. Shinohara said the U.N. workers "can only move if the [local] authorities guarantee our security." U.N. staff security, explained Shinohara, was the responsibility of the host government. It may also become difficult for aid agencies to convince new people to come and work in Pakistan. "Concern has just two expats here," said Blane. "Our policy to nationalise most posts was not driven by security, but by a belief in the national capacity." Besides, it is easier to have more local people working. "It has made life easier as we don’t have to evacuate expats from field areas. I know many agencies, with larger numbers of foreigners, have more security worries; plus the recruitment problem." One concern aired by donor agencies is effective monitoring of aid projects which cannot be done properly unless aid workers visit areas where they are underway. ‘’This is a major issue for many donors as they would all prefer access," said Blane. Anti-American sentiments run high in many of the areas where aid work is being carried out and this adds to the risks faced by Caucasians who are perceived as U.S. citizens. "I don’t think it is easy to shrug off the label," agreed Blane adding, "Not everyone who might do you harm is going to check your passport to see if it’s Swiss..." But can international aid agencies be seen as neutral and just carrying out harmless humanitarian work which most are? "I think agencies like International Committee for the Red Cross have a long-established name for neutrality, but it hasn’t always saved them from casualties," said Blane. By Zofeen EbrahimKARACHI

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