Staying in Iraq: An Aid Worker's Story

The lives of international aid workers have become increasingly endangered in the past year. Commentator Manal Omar, a U.S. aid worker who has spent time working in Iraq, says despite the threats of kidnappings and death, their mission is what motivates humanitarian workers.

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Iraq's foreign minister says he's concerned the US may pull out before the Iraqi army and police are able to take over responsibility for their country's security. The foreign minister urged the UN Security Council yesterday to extend the mandate of the US-led multinational force there. Security is very much on the mind of commentator Manal Omar. Omar is an American who's been in and out of Iraq as an aid worker since 2003 and she has seen the lives of her colleagues become more threatened.


It's been over a year since the first deaths of foreign aid workers in Iraq. When I heard that those workers, Fern Holland and Salwa Omaishi, had been assassinated, I nearly collapsed. Later, as news filtered in about more people being killed, we couldn't ignore the fact of death that has always been around us. Now over time, something inside me has actually begun to expect it.

For each death, we come up with an excuse, an indirect way to blame the dead, to distance ourselves from the reality that we may be next. `She worked too closely with the US government.' `She refused to travel with security.' I feel a part of me has grown numb. When I heard that aid worker Marla Ruzicka and her assistant had been killed on the infamous Baghdad airport road, I continued my day, though the sense of emptiness in my heart weighed me down.

Since the death of Margaret Hassan last fall, I've been based in Amman and commute into Iraq. When we're there, we have to analyze and weigh each step we take. Routes are determined in advance. Locations are changed at the last minute to shake off any would-be kidnappers. I've learned not to answer questions fully because the smallest detail could be the security breach that proves fatal.

Recently, my team in Iraq had to travel through what's known as the Triangle of Death, south of Baghdad. The night before they left, I couldn't sleep, eat or drink. I couldn't rest until I received the e-mail assuring me that they had arrived safely. For me, death is no longer the greatest fear. Kidnapping is. I don't want my family watching in fear as I'm paraded on TV, humiliated and helpless.

So why do we keep going back? It's a question we international aid workers discuss frequently. It's not for the money. It's not a cowboy mentality, not for the high and not because we're emergency junkies. Instead, there's a clear pull for those of us who've been in Iraq to either come back or find a way to stay involved. I know I can never completely leave Iraq until I feel my mission is complete. As much danger and death as we internationals face in Iraq, for Iraqis, it has grown exponentially. They are on the front line. They shouldn't have to do it alone, nor should they have to rely on military forces and private contractors to rebuild their country.

Over the past two years, international aid workers' mobility and access has been severely limited to the point of making us handicapped. Unless we stay engaged, I fear our work in humanitarian aid and development assistance and the work that Fern, Salwa, Margaret, Marla and many Iraqi women have done will have been in vain. We cannot allow that to happen.

INSKEEP: Commentator Manal Omar is the Iraq director of the aid group Women for Women International.

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