They talk guardedly on walkie-talkies, using code names. No logos mark their cars. Their office buildings contain no names that would give away their business. These are not intelligence operatives or criminals. These are Western relief workers, and this is how they have been forced to work in Iraq, where they have been targeted dozens of times since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime in April. The suicide car bombing at Red Cross headquarters in Baghdad last week, which took the lives of 12 victims, was particularly distressing to aid workers worldwide, who have come under assault in myriad conflict zones in recent years. "This is one hell of a shock," says Marc Joolen, project coordinator for Doctors Without Borders in Brussels.
The Red Cross and other welfare groups have long relied on their neutrality to protect them, but that is no longer enough. Aid workers have been pushed around in Somalia, terrorized in East Timor, taken hostage in Bosnia and murdered in Chechnya. CARE recently reported that armed attacks on aid workers in Afghanistan have increased during the past year from one a month to one every two days. James Ron, Canada research chair in conflict and human rights at McGill University, links the uptick to the growing number of people doing this work and their increased willingness to operate in hostile areas. At the same time, combatants determined to undermine order have learned that upsetting relief work is a promising tactic. "An attack on the Red Cross is a signal to everyone that peace is a long way from being won," says Mario Marazziti, spokesman for the aid group Community of St. Egidio in Rome.
Relief workers are an easy target. To build trust with locals, they typically refuse to carry weapons or seek military protection. "Aid workers cannot sit like soldiers in armored cars," says Brendan Cox, a spokesman for the British aid group Oxfam. "That would undermine the reason we are there." To improve security, many organizations in Iraq are requiring workers to travel in groups and maintain radio contact with headquarters. Red Cross reps in Jerusalem have held secret meetings with members of Palestinian militant groups to ensure the safety of workers. Often, the only option is to scale back operations. In Iraq, many groups did just that after a suicide bombing devastated U.N. headquarters in Baghdad in August. The Red Cross reduced its foreign staff from roughly 120 to 30. It plans to cut that number further.
Aid groups are trying to carry on by using local personnel. (The Red Cross has 600 in Iraq.) But it's becoming harder to function effectively. Geoffrey Keele, spokesman for UNICEF's mission to Iraq, says, "We're still implementing emergency programs, but we've lost our ability to expand them." In Afghanistan, says a senior U.N. staff member, "We are asking ourselves if we are approaching a threshold beyond which it may be impossible to operate."
--By Michele Orecklin. Reported by Bruce Crumley/Paris, Moira Daly/Toronto, Mimi Murphy/Rome, Matt Rees/Jerusalem, Vivienne Walt/Baghdad and other bureaus