It seems that anyone who spends enough time in the Middle East these days is destined to lose someone they know – a relative, a friend, or a colleague. Two years ago I wrote about the unfortunate death of Anthony Shadid, who lost his life on a trip to Syria and whom I had been fortunate enough to meet just before he passed. Yesterday we received the tragic news of the murder of my friend Peter Kassig, the American aid worker kidnapped in Syria last year.
I got to know Peter during my time in Beirut. His career in humanitarianism began in 2012 when he visited the Palestinian camps in Beirut. He made the decision there and then to actually do something practical to help the people of the region.
He began by offering his services to local hospitals in Tripoli, Lebanon, where wounded fighters from the Syrian crisis were being treated. As the year passed he started an NGO called SERA (Special Emergency Response and Assistance), which was focused on providing emergency medical aid and supplies.He worked extremely hard to raise funds for medical equipment that he could then donate. He also continued to provide emergency medical assistance. Peter always argued for the impossible — that he didn't want to get involved with the politics of what he was doing. He would always say that he just wanted to give practical aid wherever and whenever it was needed. But in this part of the world, identity matters, as does whom you choose to assist.
Peter was never idle. Usually when I saw him he was on the run from A to B delivering medical supplies to whoever needed them. He never had any money of his own; he spent all his resources assisting others. On the odd evening when he did take a break he was to be found in deep conversation with someone about his work or an issue he felt strongly about. He lived out his beliefs with an authenticity that is unusual. Peter was charming, eloquent, intelligent and highly passionate. It was the last trait that got him into trouble.
In 2013 he obviously made the decision that he could be of greater benefit inside Syria than from without. As a result, he started making regular forays, something we all warned him against. He was a US citizen and he had a military background; it seemed obvious he was walking a dangerous path. He compounded the risk by continuing to write posts that clearly indicated he was in Syria.
And then one day Pete disappeared. It took all of us a few weeks to notice he wasn't posting on Facebook anymore. It took a few more days of contact between friends to discover our fears for him had been realised.
I feel like we lost Pete after the news of his kidnapping. His death in some ways simply feels like he has moved to a different level in my consciousness. The long wait for news of him ended last month in the worst possible way, with ISIS parading him on camera and naming him as its next victim. The news of his death brings bitterness which comes from knowing I will never again share a drink or a meal with one of the warmest people I ever knew.
Experts have suggested the reason there is no recording of Peter speaking from a script on behalf of ISIS is because he refused to do so. I like to think that’s the case, and that he went down fighting. Frankly, it wouldn't surprise me.
Photo courtesy of SERA.