Humanitarians under fire

The recent murder of two UN investigators and multiple bombings of MSF hospitals have contributed to a rising sense that the mantle of
humanitarian neutrality is slipping. Stefan Labbé shares stories from Afghanistan and Sierra
Leone in this exploration of the changing threats to aid work around the world.


As they bumped down the two-lane desert road, Lauryn Oates and her team of teacher-trainers watched as a hazy profile of the Hindu Kush mountains rose up in the distance. They had spent the morning escaping Kabul’s traffic, and had just crossed the provincial border when they first caught sight of the militiamen.

Curling around the northeast of Kabul, the mountains and shallow plains of Kapisa Province form a strategic sickle long favoured by bandits, smugglers and insurgents looking to stage attacks on the capital. But this was not the first time they had been down this road. In this often violent and deeply conservative country, Oates and her team from the NGO Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan were used to pushing back against the status quo.

An hour outside of Kabul they pulled their van over next to a familiar cluster of ramshackle stands selling fruit and fried flatbread. Their driver Fattah and another male teacher got out to order. Through tinted windows, Oates kept her eyes locked five metres ahead as a half-dozen heavily armed militiamen leaned against the tailgate of their SUV, a Toyota 4Runner. “They wore camo, but one had his shirt tied around his waist. We knew they weren’t government soldiers,” she recalled.

Fattah was passing flatbread one at a time through the window when one of the younger militiamen broke off from his group, closed the few paces between the SUV and van, and slipped a folded piece of paper through a crack in the tinted window. The note fell into Oates’ lap. Hastily scribbled on the paper was the militiaman’s phone number.

Fattah confronted the militiamen; they retaliated. “We all gasped when they punched him,” remembered Oates, the windshield framing the drama beyond her reach. Fattah lost his footing. His glasses fell to the ground and through the window they could see the blood covering his face. He didn’t fight back. The second punch knocked him down as the militiamen, now all surrounding him, yelled at him in Dari. They started kicking him.

“They [were] all heavily armed,” she recalled. “A lot of these militia guys smoke hash, and they drink, too. I’m thinking, ‘Do we intervene or do we just stay put?’ But we’re watching our colleague get the crap beat out of him,” said Oates.

One of the militiamen grabbed his rifle, sauntered up to the front of the van and pointed his gun at Oates through the windshield. Behind Oates, Maliha, a Pashto teacher-trainer, started making calls, including to a cousin who worked for the local police.

Abruptly, the men looked at each other, jumped in their SUV and drove away. “We think one of those guys saw that Maliha was on the phone and they decided to take off.”

Fattah lived, but was left bloodied and bruised. The NGO workers returned to Kabul to figure out what had gone wrong. “We didn’t have a protocol for what happened there. We were all sitting in the car in a panic. Luckily, Maliha did something on her own.”

Oates has split her time between Afghanistan and Vancouver for 13 years, working as a freelance development worker. And while she has had some dangerous scrapes, the incident two years ago was the most threatening she has ever experienced. It also prompted the organization she was working with to develop new protocols for situations like an attack on the office, a fire, a carjacking or a kidnapping.

Afghanistan in recent years has become increasingly dangerous — whereas Oates’ biggest worries in the past were of average Afghans with a grudge or something to prove against aid workers, the Taliban, after many years of targeting military and police forces, have now switched tactics to deliberately attack bars and restaurants that humanitarian workers are known to frequent.  

The May 31 truck bombing in Kabul’s diplomatic district, which killed more than 150 people, is further evidence of how the country’s security situation has steadily worsened since NATO ended its main combat mission in 2014.

Afghanistan is one of many countries where workers like Oates are increasingly under threat. Since 1997, there has been a significant uptick in the number of targeted attacks against humanitarian workers worldwide. According to New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, between 1997 and 2001, the number of humanitarian workers killed, kidnapped or wounded never exceeded 100 globally, per year. But by 2013, that number surged to 475, of whom 156 were killed. While the number of humanitarians killed every year has declined since its peak in 2013, annual death rates still come in at four times the 2001 total.

Last year was an especially bad year for humanitarian medical staff. In Afghanistan, reported attacks on medical personnel doubled from 2015 to 2016. But it was a series of bombings targeting Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospitals in Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen that finally galvanized the United Nations to adopt Resolution 2286 — a motion meant to bolster respect for the norms of international humanitarian law.

“These attacks are evidence of a broader trend: parties to conflict are treating hospitals and health clinics as targets, rather than respecting them as sanctuaries,” said UN Secretary General António Guterres in a recent speech to the General Assembly in which he called on member states to extend measures to protect other humanitarian workers in conflict zones, from educators to human rights investigators.

The United Nations itself is facing scrutiny after two of its investigators were murdered earlier this year while looking into a massacre in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

On March 12, investigator Zaida Catalán placed a call to her sister, but only her breath and the sound of men’s voices could be heard. Two weeks later, UN forces uncovered Catalán’s decapitated body in a shallow grave alongside her colleague and an interpreter.

The New York Times reported how the two UN workers had entered the isolated area known as a militia stronghold, all with little training and no safety equipment or health insurance. The UN has yet to order a formal investigation into what went wrong.

Across a bevy of intractable conflicts, there is a growing consensus that humanitarians’ mantle of neutrality, which once helped protect workers from being targeted, is slipping, as rules of war are increasingly flouted.

So how did we get here?

Abby Stoddard, who coordinates research on international humanitarian action at NYU’s Center on International Cooperation, said that a rise in asymmetric warfare following the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have increasingly made the world a more dangerous place for humanitarian workers.

Many like Stoddard point to how Western militaries coopted both international and local NGOs in their fight against terrorism. But where and how humanitarian work gets done has also changed.

Thirty years ago, most humanitarian organizations would evacuate violent areas and set up in border regions to wait for refugees. Now, a larger core group of organizations remain in country even when there is a high risk of getting hurt or killed. In this uncertain environment, some humanitarians re-iterate their commitment to neutrality, asserting it is the only way to access vulnerable people. But others have taken sides as they look for new ways to do their job and stay safe.

Typically, humanitarians have worked hard to assist everyone in a conflict without giving preferential treatment. It has helped ensure their safety and build trust on all sides. But that also means engaging with unpredictable forces whose cooperation and trust workers need — outfits like the Taliban.

After over a dozen years in Afghanistan, Oates is adamant that not taking sides is rarely if ever an option for workers like her anymore. “One question is the ethics, the other is pragmatism,” she said.

Morally, Oates said humanitarians should take a stand against organizations that actively target civilians and the humanitarian workers trying to help them. Practically, she said groups like the Taliban and ISIS are so unpredictable that it’s not worth engaging with them. But is she right? Does the century-old ideal of humanitarian neutrality not have currency in today’s conflict zones? 

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Michael O’Neill remembers how humanitarian work used to be, a time when working with ‘the enemy’ was always part of the aid worker’s toolkit. Today, despite pressure to choose sides, O’Neill said staying alive and useful in a war zone has not changed much over his career. For him, it still often comes down to three things: show and earn respect, stay resourceful and negotiate with everyone, whether they are the ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys.’

Since the early 1980s, O’Neill has worked in conflict zones across the world, including over a decade in Sierra Leone and 14 years as Save the Children’s senior director of global safety and security. He is careful to point out who gets priority in his work: “Keeping staff safe is not an objective, really. It’s a means to an end, which is accessing vulnerable populations,” he said.

Focus on keeping staff safe by avoiding risky scenarios, O’Neill warned, and you will blind yourself to the needs of people on the ground. “If we put everybody behind a wall and you keep them there all the time, then you have to ask yourself the question, ‘Why are you there in the first place?’”

As the aid and development industry expands, O’Neill is part of a growing list of security experts who have formalized the way humanitarians think about staying safe.

Today, experts and strategists talk about a triangle of security, with each point representing different approaches towards keeping workers safe. One is protection. That means hardening the target, having fortified compounds, guards at perimeter gates and alarms everywhere. Second is deterrence, which usually means presenting a counter-threat through armed protection.

Finally, there’s acceptance, the overwhelmingly popular choice amongst humanitarian organizations and an approach that many say forms a cornerstone of the NGO approach to security. At its core, “acceptance” means engaging with the local community to cultivate understanding and build relationships with those who hold power. Gaining acceptance on all sides — not just from the international community and foreign militaries — is often key to being seen as neutral. With each cup of tea, every sit-down with a warlord or village elder, aid workers strive to build tolerance amongst warring sides to secure their presence.

For MSF and most other NGOs, building acceptance among the local population is often easier when humanitarians forgo armed protection. They will use protective measures for compounds, but tend not to have armoured vehicles, except in the most extreme cases. The UN on the other hand, said Stoddard, puts more emphasis on protection. It will have armed guards, armed escorts and close protection — meaning armed bodyguards in places like Afghanistan.

“It’s a trade-off because when you have these militarized optics it does not look good. It can sow mistrust and make you seem like a legitimate target,” said Stoddard. “Some of these militant groups have already identified the UN as a legitimate target, so it’s kind of a vicious circle there.”

In the early 1990s security through acceptance was never questioned. This was before Western governments started leveraging humanitarian aid and development to fight insurgencies and terrorism. “You could still use the global respect for international humanitarian law and the recognition of humanitarian principles as a point of leverage,” said O’Neill.

Of course, not every day goes according to plan, as O’Neill knows well.

Sierra Leone

Just before dawn, O’Neill woke to the snap of AK-47 fire and the dull concussions of rocket propelled grenades. 

It was October 23, 1992, the end of the rainy season in Sierra Leone, and he had arrived at the Red Cross compound in Koidu a few days earlier to pay his employees and make sure operations were running smoothly. Throughout the night, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel army had attacked the town to scare away civilians. That way they could come in the next day and loot people’s houses.

Amid the fighting, O’Neill painted a red cross on the compound gates to make it obvious it was a humanitarian relief centre. Then he sent out a message to the rebels as they were taking over the town. “I said this was neutral space and that if there were any civilians, military personnel or rebels that suffered any injuries, they should forward them to this compound for treatment as a neutral territory,” he said. Part of that was self-preservation, but part of it was maintaining access to vulnerable people.

When the rebels returned the next day, the government forces were caught digging dive-ins for cover and collapsed almost immediately. The young RUF soldiers couldn’t believe they had taken the town. Their strategy was to hit and run. Now they were in control of the capital of the diamond-rich Kono district, the largest town in eastern Sierra Leone. “They celebrated, whooped it up and smoked dope — like young guys who were full of power,” remembered O’Neill.

About four hours later, O’Neill could hear a group of young RUF soldiers arguing outside the gate. They couldn’t decide whether they should come inside the compound with their weapons. “That’s music to my ears,” said O’Neill. “That means somewhere in their young lives somebody told them about humanitarian law, respect for the symbol of the Red Cross, no arms on-board, all that kind of stuff.”

This sense of humanitarian neutrality is what gave him the leverage to negotiate later, he said. “It was instrumental in our survival, and ultimately, our release.”

By then, O’Neill had lived in Sierra Leone for 12 years. He spoke Mende and Krio, the two local languages, and he knew about cultural dynamics — all part of the skillset and experience vital to security through acceptance. “But this was different. These guys were living a different life and I wasn’t so sure what their connections to social norms were — like respect for strangers, respect for elders, things like that,” said O’Neill. But he never deviated from negotiation. When they took him and his driver Ali Bangura in their white Land Cruiser to see the Field Marshall 70 kilometres away, O’Neill negotiated no weapons in the commandeered vehicle. Heading deeper into rebel territory, O’Neill and Bangura boarded three canoes and angled across the Moa River with a dozen soldiers and RUF Field Marshall Mohammed.

They were now in rebel ‘liberated territory,’ and just as with the other 100,000 Sierra Leoneans there, no one was negotiating their release. “We had disappeared off the face of the earth, last seen heading into the bush with eight to 10 rebels sitting on top of our vehicle,” said O’Neill. At that point, there hadn’t been any expats taken by the rebels. The newspapers were full of RUF atrocities: beheadings, impalings and disembowelments. To make matters worse, BBC Radio, their only lifeline to the outside world, made no mention of their kidnapping.

Pendembu lies about two kilometres from the Moa River, and for about two weeks, O’Neill and his driver stayed in the town under rebel care. Their daily ritual would culminate in a single meal, right when BBC Focus on Africa came on at 5:15 p.m. After that, O’Neill would take a 45-minute walk, so he could make it back for the re-broadcast at six.

But one day, he was returning to the house when he saw something in the sky. “This jet appeared out of nowhere,” he said. Right around six o’clock, when people were getting out of mosque and preparing their evening meals, a Nigerian Alpha jet — operated by the West African multilateral force ECOMOG — dropped a cluster bomb on the town. “It was carnage. It was awful,” O’Neill remembered.

As O’Neill counted the dozens of dead and injured, both civilians and rebels in the town panicked. Most fled to smaller villages. The rebel commander in charge of the two humanitarian workers wanted them to leave too, but they refused. “It was calculated. If they had forced us, we would have. It wasn’t worth dying for,” said O’Neill. The tactic was risky, but by setting boundaries they found a way to leverage their own independence.

Following the bombing, the leader of the RUF forces, Foday Sankoh, invited a BBC journalist to rebel territory so he could complain about the use of a cluster bomb by ECOMOG — a violation of international humanitarian law. During the interview, the BBC reporter asked why he was holding captive two Red Cross workers. “It’s for their security, but they are free to go at any time,” responded Sankoh.

Every one of his soldiers heard those words, according to O’Neill. “That was our passport out of there because when we got challenged by any of these guys, we’d say something like, ‘What? You didn’t hear what the old man said on the BBC? He said we are free to go anytime. Who are you, young man, to violate his intent?’”

The two men did leave. After 35 days in RUF territory, Bangura and O’Neill pushed through 40 kilometres of forest and elephant grass on the final day, crossing rebel lines on foot and turning themselves in at the government-controlled town of Kenema. “We constantly preached the Red Cross ethic of relieving the suffering of people,” O’Neill said. By not favouring one group over another, nobody criticized or stopped them. Both the local people and RUF soldiers accepted their neutrality.

When asked if he thinks what happened to him is a fair analogy to what humanitarian workers face today, O’Neill suggested that the security landscape has always been messy. “Where you have this fractionalization, like you had in Darfur or Sierra Leone, in the situation I was in, every negotiation is local,” said O’Neill. “These guys were young guys, they are disorganized, no chain of command. They had drugs, they had guns — a bad combination.”

But by showing respect, understanding who’s who and trying to satisfy the rebels’ needs — whether it’s power, money or redressing longstanding slights or injustices — you can negotiate access to vulnerable people, according to O’Neill.

His understanding of the local context, and the soldiers’ respect for the work of the Red Cross, also helped negotiate O’Neill’s eventual release.

For him, then, being neutral meant you could expect at least some respect for the work of a humanitarian — something that today is often in short supply.

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Today in Afghanistan, Oates said that finding operational space to negotiate in Taliban territories is next to impossible. Some organizations have been told to directly ask Taliban commanders for protection — to not blow up a clinic or a school. “That didn’t sit too well with me,” said Oates. “First of all, there’s no guarantee that they’re going to listen to you. They can just decide they don’t like you anyways.”

In O’Neill’s experience, the young RUF soldiers who argued over whether to bring guns into a Red Cross compound had a sense that humanitarian organizations should not be abused. Today, Oates said groups like the Taliban have lost that respect. “They set a bomb off at the gate and gunmen come in and just try and kill as many people as they can until they are stopped,” she said, recalling an attack on a neighbouring compound last summer.

While O’Neill agrees that on some level Afghanistan is less predictable because of the draw down of the NATO forces and the resurgence of the Taliban, he said it’s always been tough. “You have guys that have been playing both sides of the story just so they can enrich themselves,” he said, adding that there’s always a way in.

With the Taliban, that could be local power, or understanding the ancient Pashtun system of governance. “If you don’t understand the Pakhtunwali — how the code of life of the people governs how they think and how they act — then you probably shouldn’t even be there.”

Game-changers: Rwanda and the War on Terror

Eighteen months after Michael O’Neill crossed the Moa River, the slaughter of over 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda and the ensuing conflict precipitated a massive exodus of Hutu civilians who fled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Among them were commanders of the Hutu Power movement and the interahamwe, a mob of genocidal executioners. Back then, it was far more typical to evacuate a conflict zone, set up at a border area, and wait for refugees. So humanitarian organizations set up on the DRC side of the border and began handing out millions of dollars of aid.

But when MSF France pulled out, saying their work was propping up the Hutu militias and letting them regroup, the humanitarian world took a hard look in the mirror. People began to challenge the idea that humanitarians could be neutral. Ultimately, Tutsi forces from Rwanda invaded the DRC, an event that precipitated what some have described as “Africa’s World War.”

Since then, Stoddard said, MSF has become one of the biggest NGOs in the world, not only because of the kind of work it does, but because it has fiercely hung onto a sense of neutrality.

“[MSF workers] tend to be in the places where many others are not. When you have a field hospital that can treat trauma patients from the local community, but also any fighting forces from any side, that’s going to be accepted by the Taliban,” she said.

Offering medical services to all sides has allowed organizations like MSF and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent to negotiate their way into active conflict zones where people are most vulnerable. But this is also seen by governments in Afghanistan and Syria as going too far in aiding the enemy. “In a sense, they’re at risk from both sides,” said Stoddard. “It’s a very difficult situation to be in.”

Today, big development and aid organizations have come to a consensus that you can’t wait for a crisis to end to start doing development. “Before it was just, ‘Keep these people alive, give them food, water, shelter, try to get some latrines set up and the camp managed, and we’ll try to address their situation when they go back to their country and build schools,’” said Oates. Now people understand that many of these “in-country” conflicts take generations to wind down, with many displaced people living in camps for decades.

“The figures are there,” MSF’s international president Joanne Liu told OpenCanada earlier this year. “We have 65 million people in forced displacement, 20 million of them are refugees and about 40-45 million are internally displaced people.”

Aid and development work aren’t the only things converging. Stoddard and O’Neill both say the biggest pivot for humanitarian security occurred with the advent of the war on terror. “When an entity like the United States says neutrality is only useful as long as we say it’s useful, that we can discard it when it no longer serves our purposes — that was huge,” said O’Neill.

In the humanitarian world, Liu calls this the “fear factor.”

“There’s this fear, with the war on terrorism, that the enemy seems to be everywhere, and that gives a license to abuse, a license to kill, and to cross red lines that used to not be crossed as often, like bombing a hospital, like not protecting a refugee.”

That fear, according to O’Neill, is bound up in the rhetoric around “with us or against us”; the coopting of the humanitarian agenda to win hearts and minds; and the idea that foreign agencies and militaries could reward people who collaborate. “One village provides intelligence about the location of militants and they get a food distribution. The other one doesn’t, and they don’t. That’s not humanitarian by any stretch of the imagination,” said O’Neill.

O’Neill also points to private security companies camouflaging themselves as humanitarian workers in Iraq; Colin Powell in Afghanistan referring to the humanitarian community as “force-multipliers” for a “common mission”; and Richard Holbrooke in Pakistan saying that NGOs provide 90 percent of the intelligence in Pakistan. “We don’t need this,” said O’Neill. “First of all, it’s not true.”

Much of the problem, according to O’Neill, is bound up in the 3-D approach — where development and diplomacy fall under the aegis of defence, the least qualified sector to oversee the process. This is where the line between humanitarian work and military intervention really starts to blur.

“Development cannot be a manipulation. Building stuff is not development, it’s construction,” said O’Neill. For him, the heart of development work is helping people reach their potential. But if you are manipulating people by rewarding them for collaboration, they instead become dependent on your largesse. Those not willing to play the game get shut out.

In Afghanistan, the 3-D approach manifested itself through the creation of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), something O’Neill said helped paint a target on the backs of humanitarian workers. According to him, combining military strategic activities with relief and development work confuses people as to who is an armed actor and who is not. “What’s the difference between and Who’s going to make that distinction in Masar-i-Sharif? Some Taliban guy standing at a checkpoint, seeing another white Land Cruiser going by with a logo on it in English?”

Stoddard said the groups that ended up working with the PRTs were mostly for-profit contractors that basically became arms of the U.S. government or military. “They had very heavy armed protection and it was a whole different ball game for those people,” she said. The PRTs are no longer there, and even though the conversation around military-humanitarian collusion has dried up, humanitarian workers are still struggling with the partnership’s violent legacy.

While in Afghanistan the PRT system further confused the idea of humanitarian neutrality, in American halls of justice another front emerged with the signing of post-9/11 counter-terrorism laws. Today, NGOs are still hesitant to engage with local stakeholders, despite the 2009 Supreme Court ruling in United States of America, Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, which sought to clarify what material support to terrorism encompasses. “It makes them fearful to speak to the parties that they have to speak to in order to guarantee their safety and negotiate access,” said Stoddard.

Stoddard advocates for a broad humanitarian exemption from laws that fold aid and development work into the realm of material support to terrorism. Instead of blanket regulations that make it impossible to reach out and speak to key people on the ground, she said the onus should be on the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control to prove an organization is trying to divert money towards terrorist groups.

Under the Obama administration, the U.S. government started the Partner Vetting System, a pilot program that forces any organization looking for support from USAID to vet their local partners. In Afghanistan and a handful of other countries, NGOs will have to give bios and backgrounds on anyone working under their umbrella. It is meant to hedge against diverting U.S. resources to terrorist groups. “But what the NGOs have said is that this actually endangers [them] because it feeds into the narrative that [they] are all spies for the U.S. government,” said Stoddard.

A new generation of humanitarians

An ideological divide often runs lockstep with a generational gap, the younger generation influenced by the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Oates is of that generation of aid workers who arrived post-Rwanda, post-9/11. For her cohort, security is a way of life, and neutrality is never taken for granted. Oates said the ones that stay are the ones that understand long-term commitment to a specific region allows you to work safely. But for those who hold neutrality as the basis for staying safe, the rotation of workers keeps humanitarians from taking sides. This divide was thrown into sharp relief a year ago in northern Afghanistan.

In the fall of 2015, Taliban forces overran the northern city of Kunduz. As Afghan and U.S. forces attempted to take back the city, an MSF hospital was targeted and bombed by a U.S. warplane. Of the 42 killed, 14 were MSF staff members. Some have claimed that the Afghan security forces on the ground intentionally gave false coordinates to U.S. forces as retribution for the hospital treating Taliban fighters. Oates recognizes the bombing as a horrible accident, but stops short of fixing this mistake into a wider attitude of Western military aggression towards humanitarian neutrality. “In the case of Kunduz, that wasn’t something that NATO wanted to happen. That was devastating for them from a PR perspective. It led to a lot of changes.” She said that ISAF took a number of proactive steps to make sure an attack like that wouldn’t happen again.

On the other hand, Oates said, the Taliban intentionally attack humanitarian targets. “When they do take out a clinic or a school — which they do absolutely routinely — there’s no internal protocol changes. We’re dealing with two fundamentally different beasts.”

For Oates, you can’t compare the coalition with Taliban forces and other insurgent groups because the latter don’t have the same stake in protecting civilian populations. “That said, it’s not like we put a NATO flag on our office and say, ‘We’re with them,’” said Oates. “But realistically, we have to recognize that one side is trying to kill us and the other is not, though they make mistakes sometimes.”

In an environment where a majority of the killings and property damage is committed by one side, neutrality is a myth, according to Oates. “The Taliban are fascists, they’re murderers and they are destroying the country. As a humanitarian, you should pick a side of the fence on that one.” For her, that means looking at the environment, picking your battles, and constantly asking yourself: what is the maximum we can deliver here without selling our souls?

But staying out of harm’s way in Afghanistan is getting increasingly more difficult. For years during the occupation, the biggest threats were roadside bombs. Oates and her colleagues would monitor roads, try to keep movement down in the mornings when bombs would usually go off, and stay clear of military convoys. But just when they figured out how to deal with roadside bombs, the Taliban switched to complex attacks, detonating a bomb at the gate of a compound and then following that up with gunmen inside the walls, for example.

“The irony is that the harder time the Taliban have, the worse it gets for us,” said Oates. As the Taliban are weakened by direct military engagement and targeted assassinations, life gets worse for the average person, according to her. Part of this is because commanders have a hard time controlling their people in the field — especially when regional leaders and fighters are killed and replaced by younger and more hot-headed recruits.  

Security in Taliban strongholds also depends on who the shadow governor is. “We’ve heard some things the leadership have told them, like, ‘Stop blowing up schools. It’s not making us look good. Stop murdering and beheading innocent civilians.,” said Oates. But the Taliban leadership is in Quetta, their Pakistani stronghold. So when local leaders disobey orders, the leadership stands by their subordinates’ decisions because they don’t want it to look like there is a lack of internal cohesion. In the end, you have some Taliban commanders who are more interested in attacking Afghan soldiers and police, but others that consider any organization linked to foreigners as fair game.

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Whether or not humanitarians manage to convince warring sides of their neutrality, aid and development are not going to stop. So in this changing landscape, what do experts and aid workers say are the keys to upping their chances for survival?

Whether it’s the “bunkerization” of compounds, providing armed guards and armoured vehicles, or building acceptance in a community, these old rules are continuously being adapted as they go. Over the last dozen years, Oates said she has tried them all, and while she overwhelmingly prefers to work under the radar through an acceptance approach, in Afghanistan, she said it’s not enough.

After the attack on her colleague Fattah, and then several shootings in her neighbourhood, security protocols at Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan were restructured. Everyone in the organization has a list of emergency numbers in their phone; they regularly run mock attacks to practice lockdown procedures; and they have reinforced steps to disengage with aggressors in multiple situations.

“You look at that situation and think, ‘What would I do?’” said Oates. “But you can’t do that in this situation because they are behaving irrationally.” After decades of war, humanitarian workers have to assume the absolute worst because Afghan society is very traumatized and uneducated, so people’s behaviour is unpredictable, according to Oates. “A lot of the cases of violence here are not about the insurgency at all. It’s just people being kind of fucked up and you don’t know what they’ll do next.”

Even though Oates rejects the idea of being neutral, she still would rather stay safe with her ear to the ground than with an armed mercenary at her side. She said that security personnel and program staff have totally different missions — one is keeping staff alive and safe, the other is delivering services. In her experience, humanitarian organizations often don’t have a good internal discussion about finding a balance. “In these big UN agencies, they’re often concerned about liability, so if they can just keep you in one place behind a wall, that’s what their interest is,” said Oates. But, she asked, “at what point are we not really delivering that service, when we’re so restricted in how we operate and move that there’s actually no point in us being here?”

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Last year, Oates was on a trip to the city of Mazar-i-Sharif. When she and her colleagues locked themselves up for 48 hours in a basement pool hall, it was not because of the beer, or even the soccer championship between Afghanistan and India blaring from the TV.

A cacophony of sirens, gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades roared about 500 metres away. The Indian consulate was under attack.

Every now and then Oates and her pool-playing colleagues would pause briefly to look at each other. Then they kept playing. “It’s scary for a few minutes, and then, it’s just the new normal — you’re playing billiards in the basement and kind of tuning out the gunfire,” she said. “You want to be scared in those kinds of situations.” This, falling into apathy, is what scares Oates the most.

But this new normal means the security situation is getting worse. When asked what her breaking point is, Oates’ usually warm manner wrenches into a stoic resolve.

“You can throw anything at us and we’re staying. The others have gone home. It’s a tougher environment now, but at the end of the day, you have the real-deal people left.” 

Illustrations by Sami Chouhdary