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World Humanitarian Day: I Was Here

Okay, today’s post is both global and deeply personal in nature.

August 19th is officially designated World Humanitarian Day 2012, marking the 9th anniversary of the bombing in Baghdad that took the life of Sergio Vieira De Mello, then serving as both the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy for Iraq. Twenty one members of his staff, all hardworking humanitarians, were killed as well.

The purpose of World Humanitarian Day is to encourage and inspire people worldwide to do something, do one little thing, to help raise awareness of the tremendous work being done by the World Health Organization and other UN agencies to help those in need across the globe.

This year’s theme is I Was Here, also the title of a ballad sung by Beyoncé Knowles. Beyoncé not only performed this song for the General Assembly at the UN Headquarters in New York and family members and colleagues of the fallen, she also has thrown in her support with several public service announcements.

There are many things you can do. The WHD website includes a page with ideas and suggestions from an array of humanitarian organizations as to how to Take Action.

My ‘one little thing’ is to write about World Humanitarian Day, helping to get the word out to others about the tremendous need that exists in our world due to natural and manmade disasters such as civil war, violence, terrorism, human trafficking, refugee flows, famine and drought.

I’ve written before about the fact that there are 15.4 million refugees and 27.5 million internally displaced persons throughout the world (One is Too Many). I’ve also discussed the horrors of human trafficking (The Ugly Truths) and of course drought and famine remain in various parts of Africa (Somalian Sorrows).

We need only look at the daily news to now read about terrible developments in Syria, Mali, Niger.

When a new crisis breaks out, no one tending the other crises gets to take down their tents and move on: rather, many scramble and more people are mobilized, more money is raised, more aid is dispensed to those desperate souls who sorely need it.

I’ve been honored and privileged to host Tracey Buckenmeyer, a member of the UN High Commission for Refugees’ team in Ethiopia, twice on this blog with the heartfelt posts Tough Neighborhood and Geographical Gingerbread Man.

I do it because I can, and because there is such need. I’m a writer and blogger, I have a tiny pulpit, and it is the very least I can do to help showcase the serious work being done in this world to help alleviate suffering and distress.

So why is this personal?

Many of you know from UN Reverie that in a past life I spent two years as the Director for Peacekeeping Policy in the US Department of Defense. As such, I worked for high level politicos (I was a civil servant) in DoD in monitoring and developing policy for potential and actual response to global crisis situations.

For 24 months my life was one long string of every conceivable crisis, hot spot and potential flare up imaginable: Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Angola, East Timor, Ethiopia and Eritrea, Haiti, Syria, among many, many others.

We worked within the US interagency structure with the National Security Council, State Department and intelligence agencies to understand, assess and develop US policy for each and every crisis area, as well as planning for eventualities in multitudes more.

Susan Rice, now serving as the US Ambassador to the UN today, was then the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, meaning her seat at the interagency table rarely got cold.

Let me say this: despite your political views, the United States and indeed many other countries of a similar mind work very hard, day in and day out, quietly behind the scenes to help the UN do its work in serving the often overwhelming needs of others.

You will never read or learn of certain efforts in the press, and that’s fine.  The machinery of governments and international organizations does seem to work incredibly slowly at times, but that is the nature of collective arrangements in which parties differ as to action. But they did and still do save lives and make a considerable difference.

Our unit worked closely with our sister office responsible for Humanitarian and Refugee Affairs; you’d be surprised how something would start as a political crisis and boil over into the humanitarian arena, and vice versa. It was no joke that we were collectively referred to as Crises ‘R Us, a play on the name of the American toy store chain.

To say that we dealt with unimaginable human suffering is an understatement.

In order to be of any value in the solutions being forged, you truly had to steel your nerves when reading the inpouring intelligence reports of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man or the extremely dire straits in which victims of natural disasters found themselves.

The time to grieve was pushed aside for another time, another day.

We also worked closely with the US Mission to the United Nations, with the UN missions of allies and concerned partners, and with the UN Secretariat staff itself.

At the time, the storied Brazilian career UN employee Sergio Vieira De Mello was the Under Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator. He had previously served in many demanding and prestigious positions, and despite his overburdened portfolio would often be given yet another hat to wear during the latest crisis de jour.

In addition to being talented and dedicated, Vieira De Mello was also charismatic and an inspirational leader. Several of the high level leaders I worked for in the US government knew Vieira De Mello professionally and respected him; his assessments were astute, and his word was given the gravitas it deserved.

One of the military officers who worked for me had, in a prior assignment, met and been involved in operations involving Vieira De Mello. He had nothing but positive things to say about this legendary humanitarian.

Every knew he was a rising star, a savvy diplomat in the political arena and highly experienced on the ground. That he one day would have become UN Secretary General is undisputed. The world lost a luminous figure that day in Baghdad nine years ago, a light who burned brightly before being darkened forever.

That Vieira De Mello and his staff members were cut down in the prime of life while working to address humanitarian needs in Iraq in 2003 is devastating. Yet there is no place they would have rather been, helping those in need.

It is a dangerous world. Bad things happen, terrible things that make you lose sleep. Almost make you lose faith.

That there are those who risk their lives to help others in the very worst of times is something to be lauded. For that reason, and to remember those who gave their lives, is why World Humanitarian Day exists.

I hope you’ll consider doing one little thing, too.

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