THE MAGAZINE

Protecting Soft Targets in Tough Places

By John Barham

Elsa Serfass, a young logistician working for Paris-based Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), known in the United States as Doctors Without Borders, was fatally shot by guerrillas last June while traveling with coworkers to the town of Ngaoundai in the Central African Republic. They were attacked even though the jeep they traveled in was clearly marked and even though the MSF always alerted guerrillas to their movements.

The incident was just one of several fatal attacks MSF staff has recently suffered in Africa. The attacks underline how nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have become soft targets for the insurgents, bandits, and corrupt government forces that roam the failed states of Africa and the Middle East. In addition to gunfire and explosions, NGO staff also face the risk of kidnappings, intimidation, and rape.

“There was once some respect for journalists and NGOs, but that is no longer the case,” says Ivan Deret, a desk officer at France’s Triangle Génération Humanitaire.

Traditionally, many NGOs have rejected muscular protective measures to shield their personnel. “It’s a principle that NGOs are not armed, neither the guards nor individual workers. We are in the Central African Republic and Darfur to alleviate suffering until permanent help comes. We do not allow weapons,” says Deret.

There have always been exceptions, such as in Somalia, Northern Iraq, and Yemen, where weapons are widely held. In those cases, best practice calls for the use of armed escorts at all times. NGOs are now beginning to recognize the need to extend that practice on a case-by-case basis.

“We do not advocate for the use of armed guards or armed protection, but in some areas, it is necessary,” says Eric Le Guen, a former French army officer, who now works as global security advisor for the New York-based International Rescue Committee. “Our global security policy gives country directors discretion to decide if it’s a reasonable measure to take,”  he says.

Première Urgence, a French aid organization, agrees to use armed guards sometimes, albeit reluctantly. “When we have them, they are not allowed to use [their weapons], and our aid staff are not armed,” says Thierry Mauricet, the group’s general director.

NGOs still prefer options other than arms. Triangle Humanitaire has reinforced defenses at its compound. “We’ve increased the height of our walls by 30 to 40 centimeters, but we do not use barbed wire because that is provocative. We put broken glass on the parapet as deterrent, and we light the walls at night. But we don’t use cameras,” says Deret.

NGOs also manage risks by investing in good relations with local community leaders, warlords, UN forces, and government officials. “We try to be attentive and withdraw to base before danger appears. It requires a daily evaluation of risk. It’s a question of having to decide to stay or leave, based on the evaluation of rumors and contacts in the community and other NGOs,” says Deret.

While death and injury are the most extreme risks these organizations run, they are rare. Theft and disease are more frequent. “Banditry is the biggest threat in unstable regions of great poverty,” says Mauricet, who notes: “We arrive with substantial resources [and that] exposes us to a great number of risks.”

Theft of cash, cars, and computers, and demands for “tolls” at ramshackle roadblocks manned by gunmen are common throughout Africa’s conflict zones. 

Le Guen notes that road accidents cause about half the injuries and deaths suffered by NGOs in the field.

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