By Lara Palmisano

Sunrise during a Disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR)  mission in Tonj, South Sudan. © UNMISS/L.Palmisano

Sunrise during a Disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) mission in Tonj, South Sudan. © UNMISS/L.Palmisano

Two Italian aid workers, Greta Ramelli and Vanessa Marzullo, were kidnapped by Islamic extremists in Syria six months ago and released on Thursday January 15. The Italian media, quoting tweets by Syrian rebels, said their release was secured after Rome paid 12 million euros to their captors (information not confirmed by Italian authorities).


A serious debate is going on about how best to handle these kinds of threats, including the payment of ransoms, discouraged by the U.S. and British governments and run counter to a United Nations resolution, but is not specifically outlawed for aid groups, companies or many European countries.


While this debate is going on, furious political and civilian followers in Italy criticized the work itself of the two Italian aid workers aggravating them with sexist comments regarding presumed sexual relations with the kidnappers. They criticized their choice of duty station, and making fun of them in several questionable ways.
Their comments are so shameful and illogical that do not deserve even to be commented.


What I am wondering is when did we lose our sense of solidarity and empathy? When did we become so indifferent to these facts?

Kidnapping and violence against foreign aid workers has gone from a rare story, mostly accidental, to an all-too-familiar situation from those working in the world’s most dangerous locales. And the most important aspect of this fact is that now aid workers are often the target of those crimes.

As per the Humanitarian Outcomes’latest report on aid worker security, in 2014 up to 460 aid workers were involved in violent attacks abroad, and 155 of them were killed. This resulted in the most violent year for foreign civilian aid operations on records dating back to 1997. The increase in attacks has been mostly due to conflicts in Syria, Sudan and South Sudan, as well as ongoing instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

I will share here parts of the beautiful and moving talk of Vincent Cochetel, from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, presented at a TEDx event at the Place des Nations in Geneva. He explored why humanitarians continue working in the face of danger and reflected on his own experiences in captivity, having been kidnapped near Chechnya in 1998 for 317 days.

“I think helping people in danger is responsible. In a war, that nobody seriously wanted to stop – and we have many of these today – bringing some assistance to people in need and a bit of protection was not just an action of humanity, it was making a real difference for those people. We have the responsibility to try…there is worse than failing: there is not even try when we can…”

His message was clear and simple: let humanitarian workers do their job; but mostly he called for an end to impunity for crimes against humanitarian workers.

In fact, humanitarian aid workers know the risks they are taking in conflict areas and in post conflict environments,yet their job is becoming increasingly life threatening.

As Cochetel said, “Attacks to humanitarian aid workers are war crimes by the international law. These crimes should not go unpunished. We must end the cycle of impunity. We should consider that those crimes against aid workers are crimes against humanity itself.”

Aid workers are not superheroes, but let’s remember their dedication and demand a better protection for them. We should not leave them alone and remain in silence, “we should not let that light of hope that they have brought to be switched off…”.