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What the world lost aboard Ethiopian Airlines 302

Updated 2:55 PM ET, Tue March 12, 2019

Editor's Note: Michael Bociurkiw is a global affairs analyst and a former spokesperson for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. A native of Canada, he has written for the Globe & Mail, the Winnipeg Free Press and frequently comments on Canadian television. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

(CNN) - There was no active war zone, no violent weather system, no kidnapping -- none of the dangers that humanitarian aid workers routinely experience around the world. And yet several tragically lost their lives on Sunday on an airplane that, ironically, is so technologically advanced it is billed as one of biggest success stories in modern aviation.

Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed Sunday with 157 passengers and crew aboard. The passengers on board the new Boeing 737 Max represented at least 35 nationalities.

The humanitarian aid industry, in particular, took a huge blow. According to the United Nations, there were 22 passengers associated with the world body on the flight. The World Food Program was the most severely hit UN agency, with seven of its staff on board, including Michael Ryan, its Irish-born global deputy chief engineer. Above and beyond that, various aid agencies -- from Save the Children and the Norwegian Refugee Council to Catholic Relief Services -- had staff aboard ET302.

Gone is an entire corps of experts and workers focused on issues as diverse as championing the cause of Arctic marine life to maintaining security in Uganda to easing the suffering of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

To put the loss further into perspective, the death toll dwarfs the number of UN staff lost in the bomb attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad in 2003 and is just below the number of deaths in the car bomb attack on the UN building in Abuja in 2011 -- 22 and 21 respectively.

"It's devastating, it's heartbreaking," agency chief David Beasley told CNN's Christiane Amanpour. "We lose people out on the field, the battlefield, natural disasters almost every single day. But we don't expect something like this."

Who the world lost

Among the victims was Jessica Hyba, one of 18 Canadians on board who worked for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as an external relations officer based in Mogadishu, Somalia. Described by a colleague as "a humanitarian warrior," she had worked previously for Care Canada in the emergency response to the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.

There was also Hong Kong native Victor Shangai Tsang who worked as a policy officer on sustainable development goals with the UN Environment Program. He was described as a "champion of gender and the SDGs."

And Save the Children is mourning the loss of Tamirat Mulu Demessie, a child protection in emergencies technical adviser, who "worked tirelessly to ensure that vulnerable children are safe during humanitarian crises."

As CBC News anchor Adrienne Arsenault put it on Sunday, given the large number of aid workers aboard, ET302 was a "planeload of potential."

The cost of loss of life

With almost a half million humanitarian aid workers worldwide, it is rare for a commercial flight to take off without one on its flight manifest. And when such a large number are lost in one go, especially in these circumstances, the pain and sense of loss is multiplied.

Even before the crash, the sector was facing a host of challenges -- ranging from significant funding gaps to global conflicts lasting longer and becoming more lethal. An increasingly complex world requires people with a host of skills and commitment.

When things do go wrong, a rare camaraderie exists among aid workers that's almost hard to describe. A typical UN career, for example in my case, can take you from one man-made and natural disaster to another, working with people from many nationalities in close quarters and under extremely challenging conditions: Our connective tissue tends to be very strong and remains that way for life. Many of our friendships have been forged in terrible circumstances -- wars, famines, cyclones, tsunamis, disease outbreaks and amid unspeakable attacks on innocent civilians.

And with mental health problems rampant in the industry and with agencies doing little to address the problem, we tend to rely on each other years or even decades after our assignments or deployments are completed.

"The global community of aid workers is like the family you choose," my former UNICEF colleague Tanya Accone told me. "We are knit together by our common experience of living a highly mobile vocation to international public service -- these are the people you celebrate your milestones with, who you depend on in a family emergency, who you sweat the big and small stuff with. Our network is much closer than seven degrees of separation, so when this sort of things happens it reverberates around the world and many of us are affected."

When the past is prologue

Watching investigators walk through the debris in Ethiopia brought back some of the painful images I experienced while walking amid the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in Eastern Ukraine. There are similarities between the two crashes in the sense that relatives will likely face a painful process, as they wait to receive the remains of their loved ones.

I was part of a team of international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe who arrived at the crash some 24 hours after it came down on July 17, 2014. Alongside the mangled bodies we found personal belongings ranging from plush toys and travel books to personal notes written aboard the aircraft.

Knowing that the impact of the fuel tanks created a fireball that reached up to 1,600 Celsius, melting the wings and vaporizing most everything around it, I knew that some relatives would not receive any remains whatsoever. That's why it is so important to preserve precious personal belongings that have survived the crash and repatriate them to loved ones.

In the case of ET302, it is important to preserve the work undertaken by the humanitarian aid workers who lost their lives. Those lost in the line of duty would want nothing more than for their work to continue -- especially in the quest to heal an increasingly fragile planet. We owe them nothing less.


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