Many have died at the hands of their abductors, but not many were young, female medical workers.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has had personnel present in nearly every conflict zone for decades but never before has it had two of its young healthcare workers killed execution-style back-to-back.
It’s a sickening situation for humanity and a crippling blow for healthcare in conflict zones.
Hauwa Mohammed Liman, 24, worked in a hospital supported by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) when she was abducted March 1 in Rann, Nigeria. She appears to have been killed by her captors on Monday.
The slaying follows a similar execution-style killing last month of Saifura Hussaini Ahmed Khorsa, a 25-year-old ICRC midwife, also by ISWAP, or Islamic State’s West African province group.
I am ICRC’s director for Africa, and I understand the tension that exists between different belief systems. I am part Nigerian and part Swiss, and though I am not Muslim, some of my family members in Nigeria are.
What I can’t understand is an ideology that can justify the execution of young, female healthcare workers. They were midwives, bringing new life into the world. They were daughters and sisters, and one was a wife and mother. They have no part in the conflict.
When women choose to work in the healthcare field in rural northern Nigeria, it’s not a simple decision.
The entire family– especially husbands and fathers — would have had to agree, and this is an important point for both the families and the wider communities.
Saifura was a devoted mother and midwife.
Those who knew her said she adored her two children, a two-year-old boy, and a five-year-old girl, who have not been able to comprehend their mother’s absence. Hauwa, also a dedicated professional, made the personal sacrifice to move away from her family and help the community in Rann.
We often see health workers choose the relative safety of large cities. But that leaves rural areas — like Rann — with lean medical expertise. So when health personnel such as Hauwa and Saifura choose to work in a rural region, they deserve our gratitude and everyone’s respect.
Violence against healthcare is a trend the ICRC has kept a worried eye on in conflicts globally.
Nigeria isn’t even the only country in Africa where the ICRC faces a hostage situation; one of our nurses, a German national, was kidnapped in Somalia in May.
More broadly, health facilities in conflict zones like South Sudan, Yemen and Syria have been directly attacked, cutting off communities from the care they desperately need.
As a humanitarian professional, I’m good at focusing on the work that needs to be done, but I sometimes can’t help but wonder: How would I behave as a hostage? What was Hauwa going through in her final days, knowing Saifura had already been killed? Did she know we were doing everything we could to win her release?
I think about other victims in Nigeria, the Chibok girls, and abducted women and girls forced into carrying out suicide bombings. Some hostages have come back pregnant — will their communities accept them?
I am heartbroken by the deaths of these two women. But I also wonder where this intense anger comes from that would allow someone to kill a young midwife. To fight and kill an enemy is one thing, but why stage an execution to kill women helping the community? What can humanitarian organizations do in the face of such anger?
The laws of war exist to prevent or keep to a minimum atrocities and cycles of violence. Even when the laws of war fail an individual, we must insist on their value and continue to work to advance adherence to them.
Without the laws of war, we could face violence without end. We need to collectively stand for these and give humanity a chance.
I cling to the hope that the world will do better in the future.