“I could only really see the haze,” recalls Nada Al-Nashif. “I remember just a white shirt and blue shirt and blood, blood, blood,” she says, explaining that her glasses flew off and her eyes filled with blood.
Nada was sitting with colleagues around a table at United Nations headquarters in Baghdad when a truck packed with a ton of explosives blew up on 19 August 2003, killing 22 people, and injuring many more. The incident, known as the Canal Hotel bombing, took the lives of UN staff, including the head of the UN Mission in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and went down as a dark day in UN history.
The UN is set to mark the first annual World Humanitarian Day on 19 August when the tragedy in Baghdad will be commemorated, with tribute being paid to more than 700 other humanitarian workers who have made the ultimate sacrifice in dangerous conflict zones around the world.
Khaled Mansour, another survivor of the Baghdad bombing, can still see the bloody palm prints of the wounded as they tried to escape the nightmare scene, the watch ticking away on a dead colleague’s wrist emerging from under a dirty sheet on a stretcher, the cars fused into huge mangled, metal balls.
From the harrowing experience Nada and Khaled – and many others like them – have drawn enhanced resolve to help those in need in some of the world’s most hostile environments.
Nada, a Jordanian national of Palestinian origin, was country director of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) at the time. Her eardrum burst and she felt “a terrible, terrible pain,” more painful than the rest of her wounds. But she counts herself doubly lucky. Not only were her injuries comparatively mild, her own office in the Canal Hotel was a fault line where the building cracked and her desk was swept away.
“I’m very lucky to be alive,” she says. “Had I been in my room, I don’t know what would have happened.” Nada lost a finger and the skin on the back of her scalp was peppered with broken glass and shrapnel; she underwent six plastic surgery operations over four years; and she survives to continue her work in the humanitarian field with renewed vigour.
Nada feels fortunate, musing: “It missed my eye by a centimetre. It could have been my right hand, not my left. It could have been my neck, not my finger. So I’m eternally grateful.”
All the survivors had to see therapists, but she has had no nightmares or flashbacks. After a few sessions of psychological counseling, Nada went back to work part-time – but it took six months for her to get up to speed. Returning to work was “certainly, utterly” the best therapy, she says. “Sitting around and feeling low, you know, people trying to talk you into feeling like a victim of terrorism – that’s totally useless, a waste of time.”
Her experience has reinforced Nada’s commitment to humanitarian work, but it is tinged with regret at the continuing bloodshed in Iraq. “I had prayed that somehow our loss would be a catalyst for a kind of change, an understanding, a conclusion somehow,” she remarks.
“The Iraqi people haven’t stopped paying a price,” says Nada, who is now Regional Director of the UN International Labour Office (ILO) in Beirut, Lebanon.
For Khaled Mansour, an Egyptian who was spokesman at the time for the UN World Food Programme (WFP), the emotional road has been tougher, even though he wasn’t in the building at the time. He arrived shortly after to help in rescue operations while United States soldiers were guarding the building.
“I had almost to fight my way in, not a very wise thing to do with somebody holding a machine-gun,” he tells the UN News Centre. Once inside, Khaled went upstairs. “There were bloodstains everywhere in the corridors, amidst rubble and broken glass.”
Although shaken, he and a friend ferried home some of the less seriously injured from the hospitals. “That was more scary than the explosion itself. We had to stop in front of a couple of checkpoints where the soldiers were very jittery [with] hands on trigger,” he says.
But the state of shock did set in afterwards. “I took a long time off,” he says. “The first week after the explosion I continued to work, we were working 18 hours a day, running on adrenalin… But by the time I got to New York, I basically collapsed.”
Khaled had trouble sleeping, and had nightmares for the first few months. He went into therapy. So many years later, he feels anger at those who perpetrated the crime, and mourning and sadness for those who lost their lives.
The experience changed him dramatically – he no longer leads “a manic life” as before. “I take more care of my family, myself, my friends,” says Khaled, who subsequently did a stint in Lebanon and in Darfur but is now Director of Communications and Public Information for the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS). “I stopped being a cowboy.”