World Humanitarian Day pays tribute to humanitarian workers killed while assisting thousands of the world’s most destitute people caught in some of the most dangerous crises on earth. This year, a special ceremony marking the 15th anniversary of the August 19, 2003 bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq was held at U.N. headquarters in Geneva. While this was the first mass terror attack on the world body, it was not the last.
“These are the faces of the United Nations. They came from many backgrounds but shared a vision. They embody our ideals and they sought to realize our ideals throughout their lives, which were so violently and prematurely interrupted.”
This short video was shot in 2003 when the wounds of the horrific terrorist attack on the Canal Hotel in Baghdad were still fresh and raw. Narrator Ahmad Fawzi was spokesman for the Secretary-General’s Special Representative in Iraq, Sergio Vieiro de Mello, one of 22 people killed that day. Fawzi escaped death because he was on mission.
As master of ceremonies of this year's event, he voices his feelings of grief with those of the survivors and families of the victims through a quote by Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, who had lost two of her children to an assassin’s bullet.
“The wounds remain. In time, the mind protecting its sanity covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens, but it is never gone,” he said.
Fifteen-year-old Mattia-Selim Kanaan was born a few weeks before his father, Jean-Selim Kanaan, was killed in Baghdad. He speaks now to the dad he has never known and tells him he shares his love for languages, sports and technology.
“I have been brought up with values of respect, friendship and solidarity and justice. These values were yours and that is what makes you so full of good spirits... I often look up to the sky and think about you, especially when something special happens... Today, I am proud to see all these people gathered here remembering you and your colleagues. I will continue to live life fully, love my family and my friends and always keep you in my heart," said Kanaan.
That day 15 years ago in Baghdad, with all its horrors remains firmly etched in survivor Carole Ray’s memory.
“Confusion reigned. People hugged. Tears were shed. Glass was still being found in possessions and brushed from hair. A debrief was given," said Ray. "The U.N. was trying to get people on flights home. We did not want to be separated, but counselors were telling us what was best.”
Ray says survivors live with feelings of guilt for having walked away unscathed.
U.N. Director-General in Geneva Michael Moller notes that horrible afternoon in Iraq does not stand in isolation, but has been followed by other attacks against the United Nations.
“At the end of 2007, we lost 17 colleagues in Algiers," he said. "Last year alone, 138 peacekeepers and 139 humanitarian workers were killed, the fifth year in a row that over 100 humanitarians lost their lives on the job.”
Adrien Vieira de Mello, who was 23 years old when his father Sergio was killed, remembers the events well.
“When we got informed of the attack, my family and I went quickly home," he said. "A short time later, we were informed from a CNN livestream on TV that our father had passed away... In March this year, dad would have turned 70. He would probably have retired... He would have enjoyed peaceful moments with his four grand-daughters and his grandson.”
Ahmed Fawzi looks slightly amused by his presentation.
“Thank you, Adrien, and I can assure you that Sergio would not have retired at 70,” he said.
In 2008, the U.N. General Assembly designated August 19 as World Humanitarian Day to honor all those who have fallen in the cause of peace. One can only imagine how much more these courageous, dedicated individuals would have contributed toward this end had they been allowed to live.