‘I know how many more lives he would have touched. It’s an interrupted story’

I had taken Jean-Sélim to the airport with my son two days before he died at work, on duty – a duty that could have continued for much longer. He had to go back to Iraq and complete the last month of his mission; it was the first time we’d been apart in six years.

Jean-Sélim and his son Mattias-Sélim.
Mattias-Sélim beside a photograph of his father, Jean-Sélim. Photograph: Laura Dolci-Kanaan

I didn’t know that was the last time I was going to see him. For several years I couldn’t use the entrance to Geneva airport where we had given ourselves the last kiss, not knowing it would be the last.

We were a humanitarian couple. We met in early 1997 in Bosnia both working for the United Nations. We were young and equipped with a lot of dedication and ideals. We had a common passion for trying to understand war, and trying to make a difference. It was also a very big love, a love of shared intent. What I really like about my husband was that he was one of the very few people I met in life that had this amazing combination of human intelligence and book intelligence.

I know he led life the way he wanted and it wasn’t easy – there’s always a lot of personal conflict when you decide to take that path. There is some comfort in that we were both involved in humanitarian work, but it doesn’t take away the pain. You learn to live with it and over time things become slightly lighter. But there’s a before and after; so the 19 August 2003 is a defining date in my life and my family’s life, and it will always be.

Years pass, but when I think of him, and so many others, I know how much more he would have given professionally, how much more he would have contributed, and how many more lives he would have touched. It’s an interrupted story. Somebody decided to turn the switch off that day, and didn’t ask for permission.

Laura with their son Mattias-Sélim.
Laura with their son Mattias-Sélim, who was only three weeks old when his father was killed. Photograph: Laura Dolci-Kanaan

We, the UN, are a target of terrorism as an organisation. This was difficult to accept on a personal level and it took a long time for the UN to understand that. But despite the UN being deficient at times in responding to survivors’ needs, I continue to work here because I thought it was the best way to provide our son with a testimony of his father’s values.

I miss Jean-Sélim as the companion I had chosen, as my friend, my lover – but I mostly miss him as my colleague. No matter who dies, these colleagues are there to do an important job. After an experience like this aid workers need to be able to have time, space, and professional aid to recover so you can go back and help other people. In that respect there has to be more awareness.

To remain alive after such a traumatic event and to give meaning to life takes a lot of work. Surviving may not be that difficult, but to go back to fully living, after something like that, takes a lot of energy and commitment. You also have to continue to believe in humanity and be positive. There’s amazing stories of great humanity out there, and that’s what we should celebrate.

‘I can’t remember a day she told me she was scared’

French national Bettina Goislard was killed at the age of 29 while working for UNHCR in Afghanistan in 2003. She left behind her sister Julie Goislard, who owns a bookshop in Paris.

You never get used to the fear that something could happen to your loved ones

Bettina was a second mother to me, we were really close. She would always find time to call me and I knew her satellite phone number by heart. When she died, I was a 21-year-old student.

At the time Bettina went to Afghanistan, our father was working for the French embassy in Baghdad as a diplomat, so we were worried for his security. We thought, if something bad would happen it would be in Iraq. You never get used to the fear that something could happen to your loved ones.

After Bettina’s death, our father went to Angola, Iraq again, Tripoli, and Kurdistan. Each time, I prayed for him not to be kidnapped or killed. But this is how our family works; my brother also works for the French foreign office.

Bettina Goislard.
Bettina (left) was assisting refugees in Afghanistan when she was killed. Photograph: Julie Goislard

Of course, we were all aware of the dangers Bettina could have met in Afghanistan. I imagine she was too, though she was so committed to her work and mission, she didn’t often mention these dangers.

I can’t remember a day she told me she was scared. Even if she had been, she wouldn’t have said anything as she didn’t want us to worry about her.

Bettina was 29 when she was killed by two members of the Taliban, in a small road of the Ghazni bazar, on the 16 November 2003.

Even if you know about situation in Afghanistan, you can’t imagine that one day you’ll have a phone call telling you your sister has been killed. That she will never be 30; that she will never have the chance to build her own family; and that her life came to an end so quickly.

There is nothing to comfort you in such grief. Nothing but knowing that she died in a country she loved, with people she loved, doing what she did best: helping others rebuild their lives. She was incredible, and this is what makes her death even more painful. I am sure she would have accomplished great things in the humanitarian field.

As far as I can remember, Bettina always knew she would live a life on the field. It was a short but full life, and I know that it has not been vain. But I can say there has not been a day since her death I haven’t thought about her. I am so proud about what she accomplished, and it is always nice to see she’s not forgotten.

‘Christopher was no superman or picture book saint, but this loyal, brave and exceptional man was my little brother Chris’

Christopher Howes, a British national, was killed at the age of 36 in Cambodia while working for the Mines Advisory Group. He was abducted by the Khmer Rouge, and left behind his sister Patricia Phillips.

Christopher Howes
Christopher Howes was posthumously awarded the Queen’s Gallantry medal in 2001. Photograph: PA

My brother was needlessly murdered by the Khmer Rouge almost 20 years ago, while carrying out humanitarian work.

He was working with the Mines Advisory Group (Mag) in Cambodia to clear mines and unexploded ordnance, managing a de-mining team of more than 20 local staff. He had served with the Army’s Royal Engineers for seven years before moving to Mag, putting into practice his engineering skills to make this world a better place. He was passionate about the landmine cause and always assured us he was good and very careful at his job, and would not be hurt.

But on the morning of 26 March 1996, as his team was preparing to start clearance work in a village in the province of Siem Reap, a group of 30 armed Khmer Rouge guerrillas emerged from the nearby forest.

The team was surrounded and then stripped of their equipment. Christopher was told to return to Mag for ransom money.

Talking through his interpreter Houen Hourth, he refused, selflessly pledging to remain with his team and urging their release. The situation was already dangerous and difficult, and tensions increased when a number of de-miners managed to escape. Christopher tried to urge guerrillas to release the other team members, and eventually they agreed.

But they kept Christopher and Houen. Houen was killed two days later, and they held Christopher at the Khmer Rouge headquarters for several days before shooting him.

The tragedy of their deaths was made so much worse for us, our family, his friends and colleagues, as their fate remained a mystery for almost two years. It was a cruel time filled with many false rumours. But we desperately hoped that he and Houen, by some miracle, might still be alive. Sadly, this was not the case.

Christopher was no superman or saint, but this loyal, brave and exceptional man was my little brother. He was handsome with his blonde curly hair, an accomplished horseman, holder of a pilots’ licence, and so much more.

The void and sadness left in our lives by my brother’s needless murder remains undiminished. He had so much more to give. For his selfless bravery Christopher was posthumously awarded the Queen’s Gallantry medal in 2001. At the cost of his life, he showed his love and loyalty for his fellow men.

These remarks were taken from a speech Patricia Phillips made at the World Humanitarian Day memorial at Westminster Abbey on 18 August.

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