I cannot forget them. Their names were Aslan, Alik, Andrei, Fernanda, Fred, Galina, Gunnhild, Hans, Ingeborg, Matti, Natalya, Nancy, Sheryl, Usman, Zarema, and the list is longer. For many, their existence, their humanity, has been reduced to statistics, coldly recorded as "security incidents."
For me, they were colleagues belonging to that community of humanitarian aid workers that tried to bring a bit of comfort to the victims of the wars in Chechnya in the '90s. They were nurses, logisticians, shelter experts, paralegals, interpreters. And for this service, they were murdered, their families torn apart, and their story largely forgotten. No one was ever sentenced for these crimes.
I cannot forget them. They live in me somehow, their memories giving me meaning every day. But they are also haunting the dark street of my mind.
As humanitarian aid workers, they made the choice to be at the side of the victim, to provide some assistance, some comfort, some protection, but when they needed protection themselves, it wasn't there. When you see the headlines of your newspaper these days with the war in Iraq or in Syria—aid worker abducted, hostage executed—but who were they? Why were they there? What motivated them? How did we become so indifferent to these crimes? This is why I am here today with you. We need to find better ways to remember them. We also need to explain the key values to which they dedicated their life. We also need to demand for justice.
When in '96 I was sent by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to the North Caucasus, I knew some of the risks. Five colleagues had been killed, three had been seriously injured, seven had already been taken hostage. So we were careful. We were using armored vehicles, decoy cars, changing patterns of traveling, changing homes, all sorts of security measures.
Yet on a cold winter night of January '98, it was my turn. When I entered my flat in Vladikavkaz with a guard, we were surrounded by armed men. They took the guard, they put him on the floor, they beat him up in front of me, tied him, dragged him away. I was handcuffed, blindfolded, and forced to kneel, as the silencer of a gun pressed against my neck. When it happens to you, there is no time for thinking, no time for praying. My brain went on automatic, rewinding quickly the life I'd just left behind. It took me long minutes to figure out that those masked men there were not there to kill me, but that someone, somewhere, had ordered my kidnapping. Then a process of dehumanization started that day. I was no more than just a commodity.
I normally don't talk about this, but I'd like to share a bit with you some of those 317 days of captivity. I was kept in an underground cellar, total darkness, for 23 hours and 45 minutes every day, and then the guards would come, normally two. They would bring a big piece of bread, a bowl of soup, and a candle. That candle would burn for 15 minutes, 15 minutes of precious light, and then they would take it away, and I returned to darkness. I was chained by a metal cable to my bed. I could do only four small steps. I always dreamt of the fifth one. And no TV, no radio, no newspaper, no one to talk to. I had no towel, no soap, no toilet paper, just two metal buckets open, one for water, for one waste. Can you imagine that mock execution can be a pastime for guards when they are sadistic or when they are just bored or drunk? We are breaking my nails very slowly.
Isolation and darkness are particularly difficult to describe. How do you describe nothing? There are no words for the depths of loneliness I reached in that very thin border between sanity and madness. In the darkness, sometimes I played imaginary games of checkers. I would start with the black, play with the white, back to the black trying to trick the other side. I don't play checkers anymore. I was tormented by the thoughts of my family and my colleague, the guard, Edik. I didn't know what had happened to him. While trying not to think, I tried to fill up my time by doing all sorts of physical exercise on the spot. I tried to pray, I tried all sorts of memorization games. The darkness also creates images and thoughts that are not normal. One part of your brain wants you to resist, to shout, to cry, and the other part of the brain orders you to shut up and just go through it. It's a constant internal debate; there is no one to arbitrate.
Once a guard came to me, very aggressively, and he told me, "Today you're going to kneel and beg for your food." I wasn't in a good mood, so I insulted him. I insulted his mother, I insulted his ancestors. The consequence was moderate: he threw the food into my waste. The day after he came back with the same demand. He got the same answer, which had the same consequence. Four days later, the body was full of pain. I didn't know hunger hurt so much when you have so little. So when the guards came down, I knelt. I begged for my food. Submission was the only way for me to make it to another candle.
After my kidnapping, I was transferred from North Ossetia to Chechnya, three days of slow travel in the trunks of different cars, and upon arrival, I was interrogated for 11 days by a guy called Ruslan. The routine was always the same: a bit more light, 45 minutes. He would come down to the cellar, he would ask the guards to tie me on the chair, and he would turn on the music loud. And then he would yell questions. He would scream. He would beat me. I'll spare you the details. There are many questions I could not understand, and there are some questions I did not want to understand. The length of the interrogation was the duration of the tape: 15 songs, 45 minutes. I would always long for the last song.
On one day, one night in that cellar, I don't know what it was, I heard a child crying above my head, a boy, maybe two to three years old. Footsteps, confusion, people running. So when Ruslan came the day after, and before he put the first question to me, I asked him, "How is your son today? Is he feeling better?" Ruslan was taken by surprise. He was furious that the guards may have leaked some details about his private life. I kept talking about NGOs supplying medicines to local clinics that may help his son to get better. And we talked about education, we talked about families. He talked to me about his children. I talked to him about my daughters. And then he'd talk about guns, about cars, about women, and I had to talk about guns, about cars, and about women. And we talked until the last song on the tape. Ruslan was the most brutal man I ever met. He did not touch me anymore. He did not ask any other questions. I was no longer just a commodity.
Two days after, I was transferred to another place. There, a guard came to me, very close—it was quite unusual—and he said with a very soft voice, he said, "I'd like to thank you for the assistance your organization provided my family when we were displaced in nearby Dagestan." What could I possibly reply? It was so painful. It was like a blade in the belly. It took me weeks of internal thinking to try to reconcile the good reasons we had to assist that family and the soldier of fortune he became. He was young, he was shy. I never saw his face. He probably meant well. But in those 15 seconds, he made me question everything we did, all the sacrifices.
He made me think also how they see us. Until then, I had assumed that they know why we are there and what we are doing. One cannot assume this. Well, explaining why we do this is not that easy, even to our closest relatives. We are not perfect, we are not superior, we are not the world's fire brigade, we are not superheroes, we don't stop wars, we know that humanitarian response is not a substitute for political solution. Yet we do this because one life matters. Sometimes that's the only difference you make—one individual, one family, a small group of individuals—and it matters. When you have a tsunami, an earthquake or a typhoon, you see teams of rescuers coming from all over the world, searching for survivors for weeks. Why? Nobody questions this. Every life matters, or every life should matter. This is the same for us when we help refugees, people displaced within their country by conflict, or stateless persons.
I know many people, when they are confronted by overwhelming suffering, they feel powerless and they stop there. It's a pity, because there are so many ways people can help. We don't stop with that feeling. We try to do whatever we can to provide some assistance, some protection, some comfort. We have to. We can't do otherwise. It's what makes us feel, I don't know, simply human.
That's a picture of me the day of my release. Months after my release, I met the then-French prime minister. The second thing he told me, he said, "You were totally irresponsible to go to the North Caucasus. You don't know how many problems you've created for us." It was a short meeting.
I think helping people in danger is responsible. In that war, that nobody seriously wanted to stop, and we have many of these today, bringing some assistance to people in need and a bit of protection was not just an act of humanity, it was making a real difference for the people. Why could he not understand this? We have a responsibility to try. You've heard about that concept: Responsibility to Protect. Outcomes may depend on various parameters. We may even fail, but there is worse than failing—it's not even trying when we can.
Well, if you are made this way, if you sign up for this sort of job, your life is going to be full of joy and sadness, because there are a lot of people we cannot help, a lot of people we cannot protect, a lot of people we did not save. I call them my ghost, and by having witnessed their suffering from close, you take a bit of that suffering on yourself. Many young humanitarian workers go through their first experience with a lot of bitterness. They are thrown into situations where they are witness, but they are powerless to bring any change. They have to learn to accept it and gradually turn this into positive energy. It's difficult. Many don't succeed, but for those who do, there is no other job like this. You can see the difference you make every day.
Humanitarian aid workers know the risk they are taking in conflict areas or in post-conflict environments, yet our life, our job, is becoming increasingly life-threatening, and the sanctity of our life is fading. Do you know that since the millennium, the number of attacks on humanitarian aid workers has tripled? 2013 broke new records: 155 colleagues killed, 171 seriously wounded, 134 abducted. So many broken lives. Until the beginning of the civil war in Somalia in the late '80s, humanitarian aid workers were sometimes victims of what we call collateral damages, but by and large we were not the target of these attacks. This has changed. Look at this picture. Baghdad, August 2003: 24 colleagues were killed. Gone are the days where a U.N. blue flag or a Red Cross would automatically protect us.
Criminal groups and some political groups have cross-fertilized over the last 20 years, and they've created these sort of hybrids with whom we have no way of communicating. Humanitarian principles are tested, questioned, and often ignored, but perhaps more importantly, we have abandoned the search for justice. There seems to be no consequence whatsoever for attacks against humanitarian aid workers. After my release, I was told not to seek any form of justice. It won't do you any good to you, that's what I was told. Plus, you're going to put in danger the life of other colleagues. It took me years to see the sentencing of three people associated with my kidnapping, but this was the exception. There was no justice for any of the humanitarian aid workers killed or abducted in Chechnya between '95 and '99, and it's the same all over the world. This is unacceptable. This is inexcusable. Attacks on humanitarian aid workers are war crimes in international law. Those crimes should not go unpunished. We must end this cycle of impunity. We must consider that those attacks against humanitarian aid workers are attacks against humanity itself. That makes me furious.
I know I'm very lucky compared to the refugees I work for. I don't know what it is to have seen my whole town destroyed. I don't know what it is to have seen my relatives shot in front of me. I don't know what it is to lose the protection of my country. I also know that I'm very lucky compared to other hostages. Four days before my eventful release, four hostages were beheaded a few miles away from where I was kept in captivity. Why them? Why am I here today? No easy answer.
I was received with a lot of support that I got from my relatives, from colleagues, from friends, from people I didn't know. They have helped me over the years to come out of the darkness. Not everyone was treated with the same attention. How many of my colleagues, after a traumatic incident, took their own life? I can count nine that I knew personally. How many of my colleagues went through a difficult divorce after a traumatic experience because they could not explain anything anymore to their spouse? I've lost that count. There is a price for this type of life.
In Russia, all war monuments have this beautiful inscription at the top. It says, "(Russian) No one is forgotten, nothing is forgotten."
I do not forget my lost colleagues. I cannot forget anything. I call on you to remember their dedication and demand that humanitarian aid workers around the world be better protected. We should not let that light of hope they have brought to be switched off.
After my ordeal, a lot of colleagues asked me, "But why do you continue? Why do you do this sort of job? Why do you have to go back to it?" My answer was very simple: If I had quit, that would have meant my kidnapper had won. They would have taken my soul and my humanity.