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World Humanitarian Day – 19 August 2009

World Humanitarian Day is being observed for the first time this year even as attacks against humanitarian workers have reached record levels.

Humanitarian workers are the world’s ‘firemen’ and staff at the World Food Programme – the planet’s largest humanitarian agency – are regularly among the first to feel the heat.

WFP and other humanitarian workers often find themselves heading into dangerous areas rather than away from them, because if they don’t, people may die, children will go hungry, refugees will remain homeless and the ill and injured will languish untreated.

It’s not overly dramatic to say that humanitarians risk their lives to save others, although all possible security precautions are taken. Many work in countries torn apart by conflict. On Sunday, guards at a WFP compound in southern Somalia repulsed an attack by gunmen. On Tuesday, rockets and bombs hit the Afghan capital, Kabul, where WFP runs a number of recovery and rehabilitation programmes.

WFP employees also operate on the frontlines in other violent areas such as Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Colombia.

Risking their lives

Sadly, many lose their lives. Last year, 260 humanitarian aid workers were killed, kidnapped or seriously injured in violent attacks. This toll is the highest on record. Ten years earlier, in 1998, the number was 69.

Of 122 humanitarian workers who were killed on the job last year, 14 were drivers delivering WFP food assistance in Somalia and Sudan. A further 26 WFP staff were wounded and 44 were abducted or detained in the line of duty.

In January this year, two WFP food monitors were murdered in Somalia, and in June two WFP staff were injured in a bomb blast at the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar, Pakistan – an attack that killed 16 people.

Raising public awareness

This year, August 19 marks the first-ever World Humanitarian Day. It was launched by the United Nations General Assembly to honour humanitarian staff who lost their lives as well as to raise public awareness about humanitarian assistance worldwide.

August 19 is the anniversary of the Canal Hotel bombing in Baghdad in 2003 that killed 22 people, including the Secretary General’s Special Representative Sergio Vieira de Mello.

World Humanitarian Day marks a time of remembrance and regret – and of resolve to continue to help those most in need despite the dangers.