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  • 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 lives.

  • We also need to demand 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 travel, 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 nerves 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.

  • I was 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.

  • But 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 or three years old.

  • Footsteps, confusion, people running.

  • So when Ruslan came the day after,

  • 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, 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:

  • "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.

  • (Laughter)

  • 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 met 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