Jason Pronyk

At the time of the attack, Jason (right) was in Baghdad on assignment from the UN Development Group (UNDP), featured here with Col (ret.) Rocco A. Armonda, MD. Jason is currently Senior Partnerships Adviser, seconded by UNDP to UNHCR.

Jason Pronyk

How were you affected by the Canal Hotel attack as an aid worker?

On the day of the attack I had convened a meeting in my office at the UN headquarters in Baghdad. I’d recently moved my office to the ground floor, and so the glass and building fragments from the explosion targeted our upper torsos, penetrating our skulls, killing [my colleagues] Chris and Saad, and injuring Kim, Nada, Darlene and Omar in my office alone. 

In what was left of the building, Jean-Sélim Kanaan [Special Assistant to the Chief of Staff of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq], Gil Loescher [from human rights NGO openDemocracy], Henrik Kolstrup [UNDP Representative], Sergio [Vieira de Mello, the United Nations Special Representative in Iraq] and others were also trapped under the rubble as smoke, dust and debris filled the corridors. 

It was to the credit of the first responders that I survived, being airlifted to a team of neurosurgeons at a US combat support hospital north of Baghdad, and onwards to Kuwait, Landstuhl and finally Canada. To provide a sense of the chaos, in an email exchange six months into my recovery process, Dr. Armonda (Col.) narrated the chain of events: “When the UN was attacked we were 15 miles west of Baghdad… In August it had reached 130+ degrees [Fahrenheit] and we only had scant power to the OR [operating room] and the ICU [intensive care unit], and not enough to run the CT scanner. The night you arrived we were in the process of moving to our new location in Baghdad at Ibn Sina Hospital in the Green Zone. Your first operation I performed…this could be best described as damage control…” 

The Al-Qaida-attributed suicide bombing on the Canal Hotel fundamentally changed me as a person. First, physically and psychologically, with lifelong injuries, you bear the scars, loss of functions and restricted abilities. Second, you are more aware of the vulnerabilities around you – other survivors whose loss is equally permanent. Third, together, we came to Baghdad convinced the UN had a role to play at a historical moment with our Iraqi colleagues. I remain convinced the responsibilities of the UN and humanitarians are as relevant if not more today than on that desperate, sweltering August day that tore lives and families apart. World Humanitarian Day (WHD) recognizes our collective and continued loss and resilience to continue the responsibilities of the UN and humanitarian community, #NoMatterWhat.


Twenty years later, what does the attack mean to you and your work?

For survivors and victims of terrorism, the attack has a never-ending impact. Looking back, what does it mean to me and my work? First, 19 August is a memorial, marking a single event. I give thanks for living and every minute remember the 22 colleagues we lost and the hundreds injured on 19 August. For me, as a survivor, the blast echoes like it were yesterday. Second, 19 August was designated World Humanitarian Day by the UN General Assembly and remains a day to recognize and commemorate those who serve humanitarian causes worldwide. Nevertheless, attacks on humanitarian workers continue.

Following the Canal Hotel bombing, we witnessed the attacks on the UN in Algiers in 2007 and in Hargeisa in 2008; on the UN guest house in Afghanistan in 2009; on the UN house in Nigeria in 2011; on the UN compound in Somalia in 2013; and on the UN compound in Mogadishu in 2013. This list, although not exhaustive, does not include the loss of life of innocent civilians, people hit by collateral damage on their way to the market, or the UN’s partners who are deliberately targeted. This senseless violence impedes the humanitarian community’s ability to meet basic needs and build resilience. 

WHD also commemorates friends and colleagues we lost in natural disasters, such as the February 2023 earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria. The earthquake that destroyed the Christopher Hotel in Haiti, in January 2010, left a trail of destruction: over 200,000 people killed. 102 UN staff members perished, constituting the highest loss of life from a single event in United Nations history. 

WHD is also a day to recognize that more than 120 countries contribute troops and police for United Nations peacekeeping missions, serving in the world’s hotspots: Sudan, DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo] and CAR [Central African Republic], among others. In 2022 alone, 77 police and civilian personnel died serving the Organization. The UN is undiminished by these attacks.

Third, what it means to me and my work is that now more than ever, the world needs the UN as an enabler of multilateralism. Success requires Member States to uphold the principals of the UN Charter and invest in the institution, preparedness, and conflict prevention and resolution. As the UN Secretary-General sets out in his New Agenda for Peace, prevention and sustainable development are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. For me, as a survivor of a brutal terrorist attack, WHD is an opportunity to recognize loss and continued suffering, promote tolerance, and reaffirm a commitment to the ideas of social justice that brought many of us to Iraq and other equally challenging duty stations. WHD is a chance for forgiveness for the harms done and suffering inflicted on many of us. Memory, commemoration and forgiveness can be meaningfully accompanied by taking action to protect humanitarian workers and hold perpetrators accountable.


What does the attack and the UN’s response convey to the world today?

The bombing of the Canal Hotel was the first major attack on the UN that targeted development workers. It was considered one of the darkest days in the history of the United Nations. This was a moment where our global humanitarian response system also permanently changed. The suicide bombing coincided with a profound frustration and outrage at the invasion of Iraq, with far-reaching consequences for the people of Iraq and the wider region, including the rise of extremist groups. The UN’s response then and since remains, #NoMatterWhat, testament to UN colleagues frequently on the front lines in the most difficult places during the most difficult times, from Kabul to Kyiv. 

What the attack conveys to the world today is not only the continued challenges of nation building and the cost of armed conflict on civilian lives, but the overwhelming need to address the underlying conditions that contribute to violent extremism. What the attack conveys to the world today, with a profound development deficit and fragmentation of multilateralism, is that seismic shifts are required so the past is not (again) prologue. This can be achieved by enhancing the role of the UN as a global platform for dialogue, negotiation and cooperation to prevent conflicts, promote peace and prepare for the complexities ahead of us. 

This collective message of resilience of the UN’s humanitarian mission is captured well in the words of former UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, who also lost his life in the line of duty: “But although the dangers may be great and although our role may be modest … the work of the Organization is the means through which we all … build dams against the floods of disintegration and violence.”