Fallen UN Staff Had Aimed to Help Afghans
New York, Nov 4 2009 6:10PM
Lawrence Mefful’s family and colleagues say it was typical of the United Nations security officer and devout Christian to put the well-being of others before his own safety.
So it was no surprise to them that in the early hours of 28 October, when militants armed with automatic weapons, grenades and suicide vests burst into a guest house in Kabul, Afghanistan, Lawrence rushed to protect the 34 UN workers staying inside.
Armed only with pistols, Lawrence and fellow UN security officer Louis Maxwell fought a fierce, long-running battle in the corridors and on the rooftops of the guest house before losing their lives with three other UN staff members they were defending.
“Their actions saved lives – many, many lives,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told UN staff gathered at Headquarters in New York to commemorate their fallen colleagues. “I am so grateful for their courage and bravery and sacrifice.”
Jossie Esto of the Philippines and Yah Lydia Wonyene of Liberia, volunteers with the UN Development Programme (UNDP), were the other staffers known to have died in the attack.
The fifth victim has not yet been identified but Ann M. Veneman, Executive Director of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said last Friday that the agency is gravely concerned about the fate of a colleague who was staying in the guest house and has not been accounted for.
Lawrence, a 46-year-old ordained pastor who preached to the congregation of the Lighthouse Chapel in New Jersey, United States, is survived by his wife, Emma, and two daughters, aged 17 and 18. Emma spoke at an event at UN Headquarters in New York last week in honour of the victims.
“He was passionate about his religion,” said Benjamin Owusu-Firempong, who knew Lawrence from their college days in the early 1980s, time together in the Ghanaian army and as a colleague at the UN.
Lawrence was known by both his congregation and the Ghanaian community in Englewood, New Jersey, as a generous man who often placed his hand in his own pocket to assist other people’s relatives or help put someone else’s kids through school. Once he gave away his car to a parishioner.
“He had this thing for academia,” Benjamin also told the UN News Centre. “I used to tell him he should go back and teach in some school – he earned a postgraduate diploma in mass communications, after that he went to law school and he is enrolled in a master’s course in risk management at Leicester University.”
Before arriving at UN Headquarters in New York in 2004 to work for the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) as a legal officer, Lawrence reached the rank of major and served as Deputy Director for Legal Affairs in the Ghanaian army.
Like Lawrence, close protection officer Louis Maxwell fought heroically on 28 October, fending off the terrorists for over an hour in a bid to buy time for his civilian colleagues to reach safety.
The 28-year-old African-American from the US city of Miami turned down a university music scholarship in favour of enlisting in the US Navy, before eventually joining the UN in 2007.
“We talked about it once. I was making fun of him being in a marching band… you know, typical male bonding banter – we laughed it off,” UN security officer Henry Meza said.
“In this line of work you make bonds pretty quick – strong bonds,” said Henry, stressing that Louis’ fun-loving and charismatic manner made it easy to become close to him. “He was a great guy. He looked after me and I looked after him.”
Working together every day, after long shifts guarding UN officials, Louis would relax with the rest of the close protection team by listening to hip-hop and rap music, and talking about the day.
“We would goof on each other and laugh,” Henry recalled. “I whupped his butt a few times at dominoes. If you asked him right now, he’d tell you that’s not how it went down.”
The banter between the two men started on their first day together in mid-July after Henry picked up Louis from the airport in Kabul. “I just kept looking at him. He looked at me and I said ‘I don’t know… the name Maxwell. I just kind of figured you were bigger – you’re kind of small, dude!’ I started laughing.”
He was, in fact, around 5 foot 10 inches and in very good physical shape, into fitness and healthy eating. “He ran, we’d go to the gym, run around the compound, do some PT, one day we played soccer.”
Louis was a family man always ready to talk about his mother, father and sisters. “He had two boys and he was raising his fiancée’s daughter with her, and he was all about them,” said Henry. “Under the circumstances of where we were and what we were doing, having people like Louis Maxwell made it liveable.”
The recent Afghan election was not the first time Jossie, a 40-year-old from the Philippines, and Yah Lydia, a 47-year-old from Liberia, had left the comfort of their homes and family to help people in war-torn countries emerge from conflict and turn to democracy.
Until last week, the two mothers had spent over a year in Afghanistan as part of a UN Volunteers (UNV) team of more than 50 staff working as electoral outreach and training coordinators.
Jossie, who learned about UNV from a cousin serving in Kosovo, was a schoolteacher in the 1990s before undertaking stints as a polling official in the Philippines and serving as a volunteer during elections in Liberia, Timor-Leste and Nepal.
“Jossie was everyone’s best friend,” Stuart Moran, UNV Programme Manager in Afghanistan, said. “I swear she could literally light up a room with her sparkling personality.”
The life and soul of social gatherings, especially when it came to karaoke and dancing, Jossie would often invite other UNV staff to the guest house, where she would take over the kitchen to cook traditional Filipino food.
“It is not an exaggeration to say that everyone loved Jossie,” said Stuart, who also worked with her in Nepal. “She regularly stayed late in the office and came to work six days per week. Her office was next to mine in the project headquarters and every day I still expect to see her smiling face at my desk.”
Jossie leaves behind a husband and two children, a 14-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son.
Yah Lydia, popularly known as Lydia or Mum to her friends and younger colleagues, had also served as a volunteer for elections in Timor-Leste and Sierra Leone before arriving in Afghanistan.
Lydia took the difficult security situation in Afghanistan in her stride, describing to colleagues over lunch one day the brutal violence and bloodshed she had witnessed in her homeland, Liberia.
“Lydia was very much of a wise African woman and mother,” said Stuart. “She loved to care and nurture her friends and colleagues. She really looked after her UNV colleagues and I know that this made her very happy.”
She was survived by five children ranging in age from six to 28, including 16-year-old twins, as well as one granddaughter, aged four. “Her greatest love was for her family,” said Stuart.
The two volunteers were working with (http://www.afghanelections.org/) UNDP/ELECT, supporting elections in Afghanistan. Working closely with such bodies as the Independent Election Commission (IEC) of Afghanistan, UNDP/ELECT provides project and programme design and management, mobilization of donor funding, activity coordination, reporting and the channelling of funds for electoral support.
UNV has created an online (http://www.unv.org/about-us/in-memoriam.html) memoriam for Jossie and Lydia to allow readers to leave their messages of condolences.