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UN Haiti Casualties Worst Ever for Staff

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Walking up the First Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, central New York City, butting against the icy north wind sweeping down the East River alongside UN World Headquarters this past week, one plodded to the promise of warmth, in a pain similar to, but certainly not as cutting as the hurt UN staff suffered with the loss of so many colleagues in the January 12 Haiti earthquake.

The headquarters staff, too, plods through daily routines, but now it is against the bone-chilling news of entrapment and death of their own, members of the global UN family, people they worked and partied with, shared news of personal triumphs and tragedies with.

More than 40 bodies of UN personnel have been pulled from the rubble and scores more remain unaccounted for and feared dead.

"Five bodies were recovered during the night," Ben Malor, a UN spokesman told Xinhua on Saturday. "It is very bad news for all of us in the United Nations. But for all of us it is a double blow. We have been there for many years helping Haiti. The second blow is us having been seriously hit. We still have hopes but it is a grave period."

"Our hearts get heavier even as we rally to assist the people of Haiti," Malor said.

The staggering casualty numbers from a single incident pale the worst of tragedies the world organization has ever suffered in a single instance. Until now that would have been the Aug. 19, 2003,truck-bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad, where 22 people were killed, including chief of mission, Sergio Vieira de Mello, then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special representative to Iraq.

Just Oct. 28, 2009, five staffers were killed in the bombing of a UN guesthouse in Kabul, Afghanistan.

More than 100 UN personnel were trapped or dead in the rubble of the Port-au-Prince headquarters of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti, known by its French acronym MINUSTAH, and related UN agencies.

The body of the special representative of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, Hedi Annabi, was recovered Saturday in Haiti. One of Annabi's two top deputies is unaccounted for. The two men were in a meeting with a high-level police delegation from China when the earthquake struck just before 5 p.m. local time (EST).

With the hope for trapped survivors of Tuesday's 7.0 (Richter Scale) temblor dwindling by hours that have stretched into days, there are many long, yet hopeful, faces at headquarters.

"Highly optimistic," Information Assistant Reynaldo Naval firmly responded Friday when asked about his colleague, Alexandra Duguay, a young Canadian woman serving as a MINUSTAH public information officer, unaccounted for and believed trapped in the pile of twisted and broken remains of the building housing UNHQ, the Christopher Hotel.

But the serious demeanor of this usually smiling and upbeat staffer, belied his concern for Alex, as she is known. She was last seen in her Port-Au-Prince headquarters office.

"Make sure you write about her in the present tense," Naval, politely cautioned.

Naval offered his own example of how the earthquake affected him.

He was in such a daze the other day walking down a hallway he passed by a just-returned fellow staffer, a good friend he was with on a previous UN mission.

"Why are you ignoring me?" Naval's friend called out, gaining an embarrassed Naval's immediate attention and apology.

When asked to characterize the exuberant, 30-ish Duguay, Naval said, "The equation between energy and perpetual motion."

Many correspondents knew Duguay, as well as Annabi, a mild-mannered, pleasant Tunisian, a veteran of the world organization, and many more staffers, sometimes only as passing face in the hallway or ones with which pleasantries were exchanged.

"You know, we (UN Staffers) sometimes discuss politics, express our different political views, but it always comes back to the United Nations first," said Naval, a Filipino, explaining staff dedication.

Bonds are forged and tightened on foreign missions so when staffers meet up again, whether on another mission or back at headquarters, friendships easily are rejuvenated, and relationships usually are picked up, if they were left off, at a previous assignment.

Explained Naval, "That's why we say 'The UN family" because we are very like family."

(Xinhua News Agency January 17, 2010)