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Date: 15 Apr 2003
2003 Nansen Refugee Award to Italian humanitarian. UN High Commissioner for Refugees
NAIROBI / GENEVA - Annalena Tonelli, an Italian woman who has devoted more than three decades to helping Somalis in remote corners of the Horn of Africa, has been named this year's Nansen Refugee Award winner.
Announcing the award, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers said Tuesday that the Nansen Award Committee had picked the 60-year-old Italian humanitarian in recognition of her selfless dedication in the service of the Somali community, the majority of them returned refugees and displaced people. A lawyer by profession, Dr. Tonelli also has diplomas in tropical medicine, community medicine and control of tuberculosis.
The Nansen Refugee Award is given annually to individuals or organisations that have distinguished themselves in work on behalf of refugees.
Dr. Tonelli has spent the last 33 years working with the Somali people in Kenya and Somalia - the last six years with returnees in Borama, a remote corner of north-west Somalia also known as "Somaliland." She currently runs a 200-bed hospital in Borama.
Single-handedly, Dr. Tonelli has set up outreach clinics to support her 30-year-old fight against tuberculosis among the nomadic Somali communities. She has raised funds, on her own, to run the clinics, care for the patients, and raise awareness on HIV/AIDS and the harmful effects of female genital mutilation (FGM) practised by Somali communities. Fluent in Somali, she has also established a school for the deaf in Borama and organizes visits by surgeons from a German charity who have so far restored sight to more than 3,700 people.
High Commissioner Lubbers noted that the Italian doctor had chosen to live simply and humbly, taking no payment for her tireless work.
"Dr. Tonelli lives a modest life, eating the same food she gives her patients and she owns no property," Lubbers said in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. "Over the past three decades, and particularly in these troubled and rapidly changing times, her quiet devotion to helping those in need is living proof that individuals can still make a tremendous difference."
Dr. Tonelli says she lives a life of "radical poverty" in order to be accepted and effective among the poor and suffering. She has resisted joining any organization, preferring to work entirely independently, and sees her life as one of "pure joy" rather than sacrifice.
The Nansen Refugee Award, named after Fridtjof Nansen - world-famous Norwegian polar explorer and the world's first international refugee official - was created in 1954. Previous recipients include Eleanor Roosevelt, King Juan Carlos I of Spain, Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, Medeçin Sans Frontières, the late Tanzanian President Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, the people of Canada, Graça Michel and Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti. Last year, the award went to the captain, crew and owner of the Norwegian container ship, "Tampa," which rescued hundreds of shipwrecked asylum seekers in the Indian Ocean in August 2001.
The award, which includes $100,000 for a refugee project of the recipient's choice, will be formally presented to Dr. Tonelli on 25 June at a ceremony in Geneva, Switzerland.
20 October 2003
"The Death of a Nobody" by Maggie Black.
In inhospitable and obscure reaches of the world, rare individuals still pursue a vocation among the poorest of the poor. Annalena Tonelli, who was murdered in early October in the remote Horn of Africa, was the rarest of her kind.
Her work belongs to a vanishing era of heroic missionary endeavour – except that she was entirely on her own. She spent 30 years tending TB patients and social rejects among the nomadic Somalis, first in Kenya and later in Somalia itself. In all parts of that troubled land, her reputation was unparalleled.
Annalena, a 60-year-old Italian, could have garnered the celebrity of a Mother Teresa for Africa if she had tried. Instead she chose invisibility and an almost surreal humility: she wanted the fewest possible barriers between herself and those she lived and worked among. She chose to be “without a name, without the security of a religious order, without membership of any organisation”.
She avoided all status and recognition, accepting a prestigious award from the Pope for her services as a “voluntary worker” only under heavy pressure from friends. A devout Christian among a wholly Muslim population, the only faith she ever proselytised was the doctrine of love.
Although the ideal of service to the poorest overseas is somewhat passé, Annalena was the opposite of old-fashioned. She had a genius for organisation, and became a leading expert in the treatment of TB even though her qualifications in health – she was a lawyer and a teacher – never extended beyond diplomas.
Centre of excellence
Her pioneering treatment of outpatient TB was taken up by the World Health Organisation, which conferred on her 250-bed TB hospital in Borama, Somaliland, special status as a TB centre of excellence. The hospital also provided the hub for a range of health and social outreach programmes supported by UNICEF, UNHCR and Caritas International among others.
Annalena worked closely with everyone and had excellent relations with many local mosque leaders, whose public support she obtained for health messages at Friday prayers.
Two years ago Annalena began to work against what is known in Somaliland as “female cutting” or “circumcision”. Surgical excision of external genitalia and the almost complete closure of the aperture is inflicted on all young girls as an extreme form of protection against male sexual predators before marriage. The practice was mistakenly believed by Somalis to be sanctioned by the Koran.
Annalena respected the extreme sensitivity to outsider interference in a custom endorsed by centuries of tradition. In Borama, the team of three she established – a sheikh, a midwife, and a social worker – have persuaded almost all the local circumcisers to abandon their “weapons” and take up other professions instead.
Most recently, she had begun to provide HIV/AIDS care and prevention. Because she loved and welcomed all such patients, and her staff did likewise, her efforts attracted grateful admiration from the Somaliland authorities. But they were less appreciated by local hardliners imbued with old attitudes towards the sick.
Life-threatening illness in the desert was a serious threat to group survival; in the old days victims were isolated and even discarded. Attitudes die hard. Within this frame of reference Annalena’s hospital and programmes were incomprehensible sources of dangerous contagion, and provoked deep hostility.
Did grievance lead to murder?
Despite her attempts to be as close as humanly possible to the least advantaged, she was still a foreigner, or gal, in a world where kin and clan are paramount. In one incident, her house was stoned and her life threatened because an HIV-positive mother and child from another district had been sent by ambulance to her hospital. Now, it would appear, some similar grievance against her nurture of the stigmatised sick has led to her murder.
In many African countries today, internecine ethnic and religious wars have led to unprecedented levels of risk for courageous humanitarians. Last year in Merca, in southern Somalia, a Swiss – Verena Karrer – was shot dead in the compound where she ran a hospital and school. The reasons were as impenetrable as in Annalena’s case.
In Merca, Verena’s Somali colleagues try to carry on her work. What will happen to Annalena’s programmes? No matter how devoted her Somali staff and network – devastated as they will be by her loss – Annalena is irreplaceable.
In June, visiting Borama under UNICEF’s auspices, I met Annalena Tonelli. Very rarely in a lifetime is one privileged to come across someone whose humanity and commitment are so transcendent, so stratospherically beyond the miserly measure most of us enjoy. Although she was in her own mind the simplest possible person – “I am nobody” is what she said – Annalena was extraordinary.
In our fame-obsessed world, the death of this “nobody” should not go unmarked.
(Maggie Black is a UNICEF consultant and a UK-based writer).
by UN High Commissioner for Refugees

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