Courage and fortitude of aid workers
Sir, – This week we remember Valerie Place, who was killed 25 years ago while volunteering with Concern in Somalia. Valerie was a young nurse from Walkinstown who had worked at St James’s Hospital in Dublin before joining Concern in 1992, a time when Somalia was in the grip of a devastating famine. The following year, Valerie was managing a feeding centre in Mogadishu and was travelling from there to Baidoa, the epicentre of the famine, when she was gunned down in a roadside attack. She was 23 years old. I recall the shock and profound sorrow that went through the entire organisation at that time.
Humanitarian aid work is often inherently dangerous and Concern had lost staff in tragic circumstances before, but this was especially traumatic. It was violent, and Valerie was so young, a nurse cut down in her prime, doing a courageous and incredibly vital job – literally saving children from starvation. Very recently I was reminded again of this tragic loss from an unexpected source.
As Edward, a Dublin taxi driver, dropped me off at the Concern office, he asked me if I knew Valerie Place. “I’ll never forget that name”, he said. Edward had served with the Irish peacekeeping contingent based at Camp Shannon in Baidoa in 1993. When Valerie was killed, it was the Irish Army that was called to transport her body to Mogadishu. He was one of those who had lifted her stretcher and he remembered her earrings, the colour of her hair and how a strand of it had got caught up in one of her earrings. He was tempted to straighten her hair – he wanted her to look her best. As I got out, he said, “if you ever meet her parents will you tell them that we treated their daughter with the utmost care and respect.”
It struck me how these were two young Irish people serving in what was then probably the most dangerous place on earth, choosing to do what they could to help people in the most desperate need.
Ireland has always been an outward-looking nation, one that has channelled its empathy for those experiencing conflict and starvation into real and practical help. Valerie exemplified the best of this. She was courageous and compassionate, selflessly choosing to offer her skills and expertise where it was needed most.
Very often this is in situations that are extremely volatile and sadly, since Valerie died, aid work has become even more dangerous in many parts of the world, particularly as conflict has increased and humanitarian need has increasingly moved into zones of conflict.
The last three years has seen an unprecedented number of attacks on medical facilities and aid convoys in Afghanistan, Yemen and of course, Syria. Increasingly aid workers are in the line of fire. This week, just over a year after the siege of Aleppo, we have watched the horror of the Syrian war destroy yet another city, killing and maiming so many of its people. I think it is important that we take a moment to think of the aid workers on the frontline of that conflict, those who are desperately trying to get supplies of aid to a population brought to its knees after seven years of relentless war. The devastation of conflict, whether it is in Somalia, Syria or anywhere else, creates an incredible surge of suffering and a need for experienced aid workers to step forward. Those who have the courage and fortitude to do so, like Valerie and so many others, are truly extraordinary. – Yours, etc,
Lower Camden Street,