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Getting Killed for Saving Lives

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Three suicide bombers stormed the office of the International Red Cross in Jalabad, Afghanistan earlier today and at least one guard has been killed. No one has so far claimed responsibility, but al-Qaeda has targeted the group in the past whereas the Taliban has not, according to the Wall Street Journal. The incident follows an attack by the Taliban last Friday on the Kabul headquarters of the International Organization for Migration.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Pakistan, the targeted shooting of two more polio vaccine workers in Pakistan on Tuesday is the latest in a shameful string of attacks carried out against these mostly female health workers by Muslim extremists over the past six months. A 19-year old woman was killed immediately and her co-worker was taken to the hospital with grave injuries.

The apparent aim of the Pakistani attacks is to help scuttle the polio eradication campaign (which is viewed as helping western countries the most)–and at the same time, not coincidentally, intimidate women against trying to fashion productive lives outside the household. The U.S. decision to mount a sham vaccination campaign as part of its plot to find and kill Osama bin Laden also helped paint a big red bullseye on polio workers’ backs.

But the attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan are also part of a decade-long trend of extremists targeting humanitarian workers (including many health care workers), whether citizens of other countries or local employees.

Indeed, attacks against humanitarian workers in Afghanistan in the first four months of 2013 are ahead of last year’s pace and could surpass the deadly peaks attained just a couple years ago.

I pulled some numbers from the Aid Worker Security Database for 2002-through-April-2013 and generated the following graph in Excel to demonstrate the point. According to AWSD’s figures, Afghanistan and Pakistan are the two most dangerous countries in the world so far this year for humanitarian and health workers, followed by Nigeria and Somalia.


About the Author: Christine Gorman is the editor in charge of health and medicine features for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. Follow on Twitter @cgorman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. dbtinc 2:25 pm 05/29/2013

    The data seems to suggest that these attacks are waning …

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  2. 2. TTLG 2:51 pm 05/29/2013

    Since it is well known that the polio vaccination campaign in Pakistan was used as a cover for CIA spying, it is no big surprise that many people there distrust it. Apparently this is nothing new. I think the claimed charity health care programs in these countries have often been used for spying as well as attempts at religious conversion and social change. So I guess it is to be expected that extremists would target these agencies.

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  3. 3. RSchmidt 3:15 pm 05/29/2013

    @TTLG, “So I guess it is to be expected that extremists would target these agencies.” I guess you don’t understand the term extremist, they don’t need justification to commit violence. You assuming their acts are justified just gives more intensive to act.

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  4. 4. Christine Gorman 5:19 pm 05/29/2013

    @dbtinc. Don’t forget that the attacks tend to be seasonal (after the winter lull in fighting.) So while it looks like the number is dropping off, the number of attacks for the first four months of 2013 is already greater than it was for half of 2012.

    Also interesting is that the number of victims was higher in both Afghanistan and Pakistan the year BEFORE the US killed Osama bin Laden.

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  5. 5. Scienceisnotagenda 5:31 pm 05/29/2013

    Their issue, not mine.

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  6. 6. davantlag 6:22 pm 05/29/2013

    I am sorry but I would rather support and encourage all those countries where humanitarian aids, rehabilitation and reconstruction projects are not screwed by subhuman brainwashed mobs.

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  7. 7. marclevesque 6:45 pm 05/29/2013


    “I guess you don’t understand the term extremist, they don’t need justification to commit violence”

    Why do you assume ‘extremists’ don’t justify their own actions to themselves ?

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  8. 8. RSchmidt 7:48 pm 05/29/2013

    @marclevesque, I didn’t say that they didn’t justify their actions to themselves. I am sure they do. That doesn’t mean the general public would find their justifications reasonable. For example, some Islamic fundamentalists believe they are justified in using violence against the west because western societies are mostly secular. That is enough for them. So when someone like TTLG comes along and assumes that their actions are justified, they are empowering these radicals. There is no justification for these attacks whatsoever.

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  9. 9. marclevesque 11:22 am 05/30/2013

    “That doesn’t mean the general public would find their justifications reasonable”

    I don’t think whether or not the average ‘western’ person finds their justifications reasonable is relevant, I think the point is working on the reduction of violence for everyone through a more accurate understanding of the situation.

    “For example, some Islamic fundamentalists believe they are justified in using violence against the west because western societies are mostly secular”

    I agree, some certainly believe that. The situation is complex too, so there are a lot of other reasons, mostly ones that can be precursors, I think, to the one you mention. For example, imagine living at the intersection of Western and Russian political interests, like in Syria or Afghanistan, where everyday, and for some for over a hundred years, you are subject to extreme conflict, destruction, and death of which you do not understand the reasons nor can imagine how to make it stop.

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  10. 10. bucketofsquid 6:07 pm 05/30/2013

    If you are going to have a meaningful discussion of these attacks you can’t simply discard the motivations of anyone. Some acts of violence are committed by the insane. Most are not. Just as the founding fathers of the USA started the revolution with acts of terrorism that continued until the English withdrew, people all over the world have understood asymmetrical warfare to be a valid diplomatic tool. (Yes war is in fact, a form of diplomacy. Not a clever one but it is standard operating procedure for the majority of the Western world.)

    The conflict between Islam and Christianity is a natural outgrowth of the conflicts between empires that eventually converted to the respective religions. Both were founded in conflict (people weren’t really all that nice to each other in those days and both religions sought to fix that).

    In the modern era there really wasn’t much conflict between Christian and Muslim or Secularist and Muslim. That changed as European imperialism replaced Ottoman, Persian and Eastern Muslim imperialism. As Europe and eventually the USA began to destroy existing nations and remake them in ways that promoted ruthless exploitation by the West, the Muslims naturally got a bit upset. The final straw was after WW2 when the USA actively supported British and French imperialism while at the same time boasting about protecting Democracy. As the big 3 murdered and overthrew democratically elected leaders and replaced them with Fascist dictators through out South and Central America, Africa and Southeast Asia to “protect Democracy”, a lot of educated people were made quite angry. Some turned to the Communists and others turned to religion.

    The short version is that Muslims, Taoists, Catholics, Communists, Peasants and downtrodden people everywhere have very good reason to hate England, the USA and any other imperial power. Just as many hate any of the aforementioned groups as hate us and for fairly similar reasons – greed, envy and fear of difference.

    Until we stop interfering in their countries they have every right to return the favor.

    Why not get angry about something that matters: Tobacco companies kill around 400,000 a year out of greed and do so deliberately. Terrorists kill about 150 per year on average and do it cleaner and more quickly. Which is worse? Four million dead or Three thousand? Are you really that bad at math?

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  11. 11. karl 10:13 am 06/4/2013

    I think the trouble here is that people won’t accept naturally a change, in this case women working, west and east working together, and the cherry on top, those untrustworthy persons that won’t follow our ways (health workers working for western institutions such as the red cross) might also be spies triying to catch one of us ( not necessarily a terrorist or something else, just one that is more like the population than the guys the health workers work for).
    if you have some time to waste, look at shows like “The Colony” or “Living with the Amish” which show closed groups and how they react to changes, after all we are like that too.

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