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First Person: Iraqis ‘not abandoned’ after 2003 attack on UN Baghdad

The then New York-based Elpida Rouka had accompanied the Executive Director of the Office of the Iraq Programme on a mission to Baghdad and survived the deadly explosion which killed 22 of her UN colleagues.

The 19 August attack is commemorated annually by World Humanitarian Day.

“A young 25-year-old barely two years into the UN at the time, I was in equal measure bright-eyed and bushy tailed practically cajoling the Executive Director of the Iraq programme to take me along on that August mission to Baghdad. I was naive about the workings of the world, not always a pretty sight, and the organization’s role therein. 

Elpida Rouka, survivor of the bombing of the Canal Hotel in Baghdad on 19 August 2003 holds her damaged UN Laissez-Passer.
UN Photo/Violaine Martin

Elpida Rouka, survivor of the bombing of the Canal Hotel in Baghdad on 19 August 2003 holds her damaged UN Laissez-Passer.

Other than the personal cost, I suffered latent PTSD that manifested years later, and the personal cost to so many, I had not yet realized the cost to the organization. Baghdad changed everything for the UN. How we do things. Who we are. What the world thinks of us. What we think of us. 

I could not fathom why late Secretary-General Kofi Annan did not order the UN out of Iraq; years later, when I worked in his Cabinet, we made our peace. And yet I myself returned to Iraq four years on, not as an aid worker but as part of a political mission, a continuation of sorts of what Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN Special Representative in Iraq, who died in the attack, and his team had started that fateful summer. I had at last “consciously” embraced the UN blue.

UN terrorist target

Canal will always serve as a reminder, albeit a tragic one, of what the UN blue flag, for the first time a direct target of a terrorist attack, represents or must represent. 

I am now about the age many of those we lost on that day would have been. They embodied the spirit of the UN flag, defying risk, rising above politics, speaking up for those whose voices were silenced, talking truth to power, challenging more powerful groups when those are wrong, pushing against all odds and going back. 

They and everyone else we have lost and keep on losing since in too many conflicts where we have failed to bring about peace will continue to serve as a compass to course-correct, lest we forget that the oath of office encompassed the preamble of the UN Charter: “We, the peoples…”  

Several missions – Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Syria – and physical and emotional scars later, I continue to carry my scorched and shrapnelled UN laissez-passer from that August 2003 to remind me exactly of that.

Changing nature of conflicts

Personal protective equipment (PPE) is widely used by UN staff for example in Mali (pictured).
MINUSMA/Harandane Dicko

Personal protective equipment (PPE) is widely used by UN staff for example in Mali (pictured).

It is hard to tell whether 20 years on Canal has any meaning to the outside world or even to the younger generations of international civil servants, other than to the survivors. In many ways the nature of conflicts and UN engagement therein has changed significantly in two decades, with modern peace operations set in increasingly complex, constantly shifting, high-risk multipolar settings with involvement of non-State actors and violent extremists, asymmetry of use of force, spillover of conflict beyond borders, great power fallouts and ensuing deepening of global mistrust. 

Operating behind T-walls [protective concrete barriers that surround UN compounds in conflict-affected countries], out of sandbagged fortified compounds, in armoured vehicles, clad in PPEs [personal protective equipment] and wary of extended exposure to the locals is often considered the norm. 

In Iraq, children run with kites in Domiz Camp in Dohuk.
© UNICEF/Diego Ibarra Sánchez

In Iraq, children run with kites in Domiz Camp in Dohuk.

At the same time, the organization is challenged to be accountable to its own and to those they serve. We still have many lessons to learn from Canal when it comes to the latter, for our missions to be fully prepared for the worst, for our staff to be conscious of the complexities of the places we are deployed in, and for our leadership to be able to clearly communicate what it is we are doing there.

The same goes for the Member States which at times present us with impossible mandates. Yet the UN’s response to Canal was right in one major aspect: the UN did not abandon the Iraqis on that day, and in doing so it acknowledged the sacrifice of those who lost their lives in the pursuit of truth; those who remain a moral compass.”

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