Yet the tragic death of Linda Norgrove is far from being an isolated incident in her profession.
The attrition rate for international aid workers is worryingly high, with at least 181 killed since 2000, with many others surviving violent attack or kidnappings.
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In Afghanistan, in August alone, three Oxfam workers were killed in a roadside bomb and eight foreign aid workers were mown down by gunmen. Among them was 36-year-old Karen Woo, a British doctor who was due to marry later in the month.
They’re not the only civilians being targeted. In the first six months of 2010 the death rate amongst contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq was greater than that of troops. 232 contractors died against 195 soldiers, according to a professor at George Washington University, Steven L Schooner. He revealed the figures in Service Contractor magazine.
In such conflict zones it begs the question whether a distinction is drawn between people like Linda and other civilian workers. Are aid workers seen a targets now and if so will the numbers applying for this crucial work diminish?
Linda Norgrove would have been all too familiar with the danger she faced. Her heroism and selflessness make her untimely death all the more tragic. A spokesman for her employers, DAI said that Linda’s combination of high qualifications and real commitment was rare.
We are now told it was probably an American grenade that killed her, not one of her captors detonating an explosive vest. It’s a ghastly irony that one of those young soldiers who risked his own life abseiling down from a helicopter in pitch darkness, hell bent on her rescue, ended up killing her.
Local tribesmen had advised against rescue and asked for the opportunity to negotiate her release. They must have valued her highly -- and why wouldn’t they? By all accounts Linda Norgrove was delightful. She had the courtesy to wear traditional garb; had taken the trouble to learn a local language and was dedicating her life to the improvement of theirs.
But such attributes do not always protect. Remember Margaret Hassan? The Irishwoman, married to an Iraqi, did only good in her adopted country. She was prominent in opposing UN sanctions against Iraq. She opposed the invasion. She was head of operations for CARE International. She brought leukaemia medicine to child cancer victims and was well known for her work in the slums of Baghdad.
When she was kidnapped the patients in an Iraqi hospital took to the streets to protest. Local people gathered in support outside CARE’s offices. Prominent members of the insurgency publicly objected to her kidnapping. But so fraught and factionalised are internal conflicts that one writ does not rule. The world saw a video of Margaret, backed by masked kidnappers, trembling with fear as she pleaded for help.
“I don’t want to die like Bigley,” she said -- referring to Kenneth Bigley the English man whose head was hacked off on video. They did spare her that. A second video showed her being shot in the head. Her body has still not been recovered.
It’s brutal even to write these facts: how much worse to be threatened with an equally pitiless fate? We are told that Linda Norgrove was in danger of being moved by her kidnappers across the border to Pakistan; possibly handed over to al-Qaeda. If that’s true, it’s understandable that the Americans, with the blessing of William Hague, took advantage of intelligence that pinpointed her location and opted for an attempted rescue.
She was, in every way possible, a valuable hostage. Linda graduated from Aberdeen with a first class honours degree in tropical environmental science. Her PhD followed in 2002 and she was working on an MBA when she died. She was fluent in Spanish as well as speaking Dari. Since February she’d been in charge of a £94million project to develop local economies in Afghanistan.
She worked with 200 Afghan professionals to build roads and bridges, to provide hydroelectric schemes to bring electricity, to grow food crops instead of poppies and to encourage local businesses.
DAI employs 2,000 people in the area, all but 150 are Afghan. There is no hard evidence that foreign aid workers are being targeted in Afghanistan, though the Taliban did warn Pakistan against accepting foreign aid after the floods. When Linda was kidnapped the Afghans taken with her were later released.
Some think kidnapping and deaths could shrink the numbers willing to work in international aid. They underestimate the altruism and dedication of people like Linda. We should be proud that we still produce them.
Linda went to Afghanistan knowing the risks. She lost colleagues yet chose to carry on despite. There is consistency in the tributes paid by people who knew her. All speak of her inner calm as well as her kindness, intelligence and commitment to others. She was clearly adventurous too. In her too-short life she cycled across the United States, a China, then from Tibet to Nepal. But her love affair was with Afghanistan.
Karen Woo wrote to a potential funder about the journey on which she died: “The expedition will require a lot of physical and mental resolve and will not be without risk but, ultimately, I believe that the provision of medical treatment is of fundamental importance and that the effort is worth it in order to assist those that need it most.”
I bet Linda Norgrove would have said the same about the risks she took to better the lives of people in the country she so clearly loved.
Linda’s parents are grief stricken. The American forces and the British politicians who sanctioned the unsuccessful rescue are saddened. It must just be hoped that all will find succour in the belief that although the episode ended in her death she might have been spared greater, prolonged fear and brutality.
She was a clever as well as a compassionate woman who found fulfilment in her work. Her heroism is inspirational. It shines like a beacon to the young and idealistic. For all its dangers I think the stream of well intentioned and highly skilled will continue to flow into international aid.