June 07, 2004

By Nicolas de Torrente, Executive Director Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)

By Nicolas de Torrente, Executive Director Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)

On June 2, five Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) aid workers were brutally murdered in Baghdis, Northern Afghanistan. As Hélèn de Beir, a Belgian project coordinator, Egil Tynaes, a Norwegian medical doctor, Pim Kwint, a Dutch logistician, Besmillah, an Afghan driver, and Fasil Ahmed, an Afghan translator, were driving back from their project site after a hard day's work, their clearly marked vehicle was ambushed and stopped. The occupants were then shot at close range, and all were killed. A spokesman for the Taliban later claimed responsibility for the assassination, stating that MSF was carrying out the policies of the US government, and warned that MSF would remain a target for future attacks.

At MSF, we are deeply shocked by the callous murders of our colleagues, killed as they were striving to help others. With their families, we mourn their enormous and painful loss. But our distress and grief are compounded by a sense of outrage. Such killings do not just affect one family or one organization. Instead they diminish us all. They attack the very fundamentals of our shared humanity.

Providing direct medical assistance to civilians caught up in conflict and crisis is MSF's sole purpose. In Afghanistan, we have been doing so for the past 25 years as Afghans have struggled to survive the wars that have torn their country apart. It has never been easy: when our teams crossed over the mountains from Pakistan as Soviet helicopters carried out bombing raids or when they hunkered down in Kabul as opposing mujahadeen factions reduced the city to rubble, they were exposed to tremendous danger.

But now, MSF volunteers have been deliberately targeted and killed in an unprecedented manner. And they are not alone: 32 aid workers, national and international, have been assassinated since the beginning of 2003. The responsibility for these crimes lies very clearly with those who planned and executed the murders. We condemn these unjustifiable acts in the clearest terms.

Responsibility for the Baghdis murders cannot be conclusively established before an investigation is completed. Simply put however, it is clear that the attackers see benefits in killing aid workers and disrupting their efforts. While such a calculation is abhorrent, it is not difficult to see why it might be made. Since the beginning of the war that ousted the Taliban, the US-led coalition has linked humanitarian aid with politico-military objectives. Recently, leaflets that portrayed the delivery of aid as conditional on Afghans collaborating with the US military were distributed in southern Afghanistan. The internationally backed Afghan government has made "reconstruction", including the provision of essential health services, a key marker of its legitimacy. In this context, providing aid is no longer seen as an impartial and neutral act. Unarmed aid workers are perceived to be party to a broader 'Western' political and military strategy, and they become targets for those bent on wrecking it.

MSF, as a medical humanitarian organization, provides unconditional assistance to people in Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world based on needs alone, regardless of political beliefs or relations with any military or political groups. When warring parties do not respect the integrity of impartial needs-based humanitarian action, aid workers are put at serious risk. In the end, the result is that people do not get the aid they badly need.

In the aftermath of the Baghdis killings, MSF has suspended most activities and nearly all international staff members have left the country. For many, leaving Afghanistan is a bitter experience and they are loath to abandon the Afghan people. Yet we have no option but to take this vicious and purposeful attack and the ongoing direct threats against MSF extremely seriously. Unless they are lifted and humanitarian action is respected, the assistance that Hélèn, Pim, Egil, Besmillah, Fasil, and so many other aid workers and Afghan staff like them were striving to provide will sadly remain far short of what is needed.