Luke Somers: A story demanding to be told

When the tendency to hold crisis at a distance can feel like wisdom, the sacrifices of those who venture into the deepest wells of human despair – as Luke Somers and many others have – are brought into sharp relief and demand to be told.

Hani Mohammed/AP
In this 2013 photo, Luke Somers, an American photojournalist who was kidnapped by al-Qaida, poses for a picture during a parade marking the second anniversary of the revolution in Sanaa, Yemen. Somers has been killed in a failed rescue attempt.

It is one of the ironies of war that those most disposed to help often end up being the easiest victims.

This weekend, the parents of Luke Somers learned that he died in the very place where he felt he could do the most good. "He was so dedicated to the story of the Yemeni people," Alex Potter, an American friend who lived in Somers's building in Yemen, told The New York Times. "I remember sitting with him, and he would go through each photo asking, 'Is this one going to be the one that elevates the voice of real Yemenis?' "

A month ago, Peter Kassig was beheaded by the Islamic State after being captured a year before while delivering medical aid to war-torn areas of Syria. "If I do die, I figure that at least you and I can seek refuge and comfort in knowing that I went out as a result of trying to alleviate suffering and helping those in need," he wrote to his parents at one point during his captivity.

Somers was killed Saturday when a US military raid to free him failed. He had been kidnapped in the Yemeni capital, Sana, in 2013, and was reportedly set to be executed. A barking dog apparently tipped off Somers's captors to the raid.

His kidnapping, like that of Kassig and others before, speaks to the dangers of war zones. But his life, like that of Kassig and others before, speaks to accomplishments known only to the largeness of the human spirit.

From Afghanistan to Syria, American efforts to help victims of war are hampered by the understandable need to take few risks and to stay safe. Entering the diplomatic corps or joining an aid agency, after all, should not require walking a deadly security tightrope. Yet aid offered from behind a blast wall is less effective than aid offered hand to hand and heart to heart, and for some, the severity of the need outweighs the calculation of risk.

These stories are often told only in retrospect, when tragedy has given them added poignancy. But at a time when food-aid agencies say they are running out of money because of the need worldwide, and when the tendency to hold crisis at a distance can feel like wisdom, the sacrifices of those who venture into the deepest wells of human despair are brought into sharp relief and, in many ways, demand to be told.

Before he was killed at the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in Sept. 11, 2012, Ambassador Christopher Stevens was known as the ambassador who had an irrepressible love for the Middle East. "He felt that he could make a difference, without being Pollyanna-ish about it," principal deputy Secretary of State Liz Dibble told Time magazine. "He had a dream of making a difference in Libya and I think he was."

The next American diplomat killed abroad, the following April, was Anne Smedinghoff, who likewise hated being told to stay safe within the walls of US diplomatic compounds in Afghanistan, The New York Times reported. She was killed when she finally got to chance to step outside those walls; a suicide bomber attacked a ceremony to dedicate a new school. Ms. Smedinghoff was helping to deliver donated books.

"She particularly enjoyed the opportunity to work directly with the Afghan people and was always looking for opportunities to reach out and help to make a difference in the lives of those living in a country ravaged by war," her parents said in a statement. "We are consoled knowing that she was doing what she loved, and that she was serving her country by helping to make a positive difference in the world."

For his part, the British-born Somers, who grew up in America, went to Yemen to teach English but soon was caught up in the Arab Spring in 2011. He became a photojournalist so that he could chronicle ordinary Yemenis and their struggles. (His work can be seen here.)

He "was really dedicated to Yemen and he spent over two years there continuously, telling the stories and documenting the people that he met," Tik Root, a freelancer who met Somers in Yemen, told CNN. "He really, truly seemed to enjoy it."

The English-language Yemen Times wrote: "Luke loves Yemen and wants the best future for Yemenis."

Kassig went so far as to convert to Islam during his captivity, changing his name to Abdul-Rahman. Two years ago, while on spring break from Butler University – in Lebanon – he found his life's purpose and canceled his flight home.

"Yesterday my life was laid out on a table in front of me. With only hours left before my scheduled flight back to the United States, I watched people dying right in front of me. I had seen it before and I had walked away before," he wrote to friends and family, explaining his decision at the time, in an e-mail since excerpted in the Indianapolis Star. "I have run until I could not run any more."

He stayed and eventually founded an aid group, Special Emergency Response and Assistance, that provided medical treatment and training to areas that other aid groups avoided. He was captured at a checkpoint in Raqqah, which is now the Islamic State capital.

The list of Kassigs and Somerses and Smedinghoffs is, of course, endless. But to them – and, in many cases, to their family and friends – so is the power of the ideal that they stand for: A life lived for something greater. 

"There's this impression, this belief that there is no hope," Kassig told a CNN crew before he was captured in 2012. "That's when it's more important than ever, against all odds, to try to do something."

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