Global perspective Human stories

Senior UN relief officials return to Iraq after six-week absence

Senior UN relief officials return to Iraq after six-week absence

Trucks loaded with food aid for Iraq (WFP)
The United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq led a team of senior UN officials across the border from Jordan into Iraq today to re-establish a permanent presence of international personnel in Baghdad for relief operations for the first time since being withdrawn on the eve of hostilities in March.

Coordinator Ramiro Lopes da Silva was accompanied by the country representatives of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Ghulam Popal, the World Food Programme (WFP), Torben Due, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Carel de Rooy, and the UN Development Programme (UNDP), Francis Dubois. They are expected to arrive in the Iraqi capital later today.

Communications, logistics, security and other key staff completed the team of 21 in a convoy of eight vehicles.

Their arrival in Baghdad will bring to more than 60 the number of UN international staff working in Iraq. Additional staff will enter the country in the north, centre and south during May to increase the delivery of humanitarian assistance to those in need.

Mr. Lopes da Silva and heads of the UN humanitarian agencies have been coordinating the delivery of emergency relief into Iraq by the UN since the war began from outside the country, while waiting for conditions in Baghdad to stabilize sufficiently to allow permanent re-entry. He will continue to administer the Oil-for-Food programme, on which 15 million Iraqis depend completely for their daily food requirements, pending any changes to the programme by the Security Council.

The team will operate from its headquarters in the Canal Hotel, which was damaged and looted along with other buildings following the collapse of law and order. The Swedish Rescue Service Agency will assist the UN’s re-entry by providing tented accommodation for staff returning to Baghdad.

In view of the return to Baghdad, UN humanitarian agencies held the last of their daily briefings in Amman, Jordan, today. UNICEF spokesman Simon Ingram quoted Mr. de Rooy as saying the first thing he would do on reaching the agency’s office in Baghdad would be to give each of his national staff a big hug of gratitude and comfort.

The gratitude is well earned, Mr. Ingram said. Throughout the long, dark weeks of the war itself and during the terrifying chaos that ensued, UNICEF’s Baghdad staff had performed heroics, he added. Setting aside the trauma they and their families had endured, they knuckled down to the task of reaching out to the city’s children, beginning the task of restoring countless shattered lives.

Recapping their accomplishments, he said they had trucked water daily to hospitals and communities in the most deprived areas of Baghdad, had cleared lorry-loads of hazardous garbage from medical facilities and had helped get vital water treatment plants back up and running. They had gone house-to-house to assess the extent of malnutrition among the city’s children under five and had assisted some of the most vulnerable and brutalized children of all, those living in orphanages and shelters for the abandoned.

Mr. Ingram said the remaining tasks were truly enormous. “With more UNICEF staff arriving back in Iraq by the day, our organization is at last acquiring the resources it needs to meet the challenges of the months ahead,” he declared.

Underlining just one of the problems, a spokesman for the Humanitarian Coordinator, Ali Hamati, noted that a survey undertaken in Kirkuk in cooperation with UNICEF found that three to four children are being injured by landmines every day.

For its part, the World Food Programme (WFP) said its humanitarian corridor from Kuwait was picking up momentum, with 29 trucks moving into southern Iraq today with a food shipment of 1,084 tons – enough for nearly 75,000 people for one month.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said three truckloads of medical aid had arrived in Baghdad with meningitis and polio vaccines and surgical kits sufficient to carry out 1,000 thousand surgical operations.

The UN High Commissioner for the Refugees (UNHCR), meanwhile, noted that dozens of Iraqis were still stuck in no-man’s-land on the windswept border with Jordan waiting to enter the refugee camp at Ruweished. Some of them had been there for a month, spokesman Peter Kessler said, adding that UNHCR called on all governments in the region to keep their borders open to Iraqi refugees seeking temporary protection.

The apparent vacuum, continuing hostilities, and the fact that some groups may well find their human rights threatened was creating at trickle of new asylum seekers, he warned, and for these reasons the right to asylum must be observed by all.