Disappearance of Canadian in Africa highlights risk of ignoring travel warnings
MONTREAL -- Tarek Loubani says he knew it was risky providing medical care to protesters at the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel in May 2018. He travelled to the territory anyway, and he was shot by an Israeli sniper through both legs.
Five years earlier, he and fellow Canadian John Greyson spent seven weeks in an Egyptian prison after being arrested and arbitrarily detained while trying to enter Gaza.
Loubani, a London, Ont. physician, said this week that Canadians who want to do humanitarian work first need to ask whether the help they can offer is worth the risk of travelling to zones designated as dangerous by the federal government.
That question is being raised in the case of Canadian Edith Blais and her Italian friend Luca Tacchetto, who have not been heard from since Dec. 15, when they arrived in Burkina Faso following a road trip that began in Italy. Blais' sister, Melanie Bergeron Blais, said Wednesday she has not received any news about her sister's whereabouts and added that the family is no longer giving interviews.
Blais and Tacchetto set off in his car on Nov. 20 from the northern Italian town of Vigonza, outside Padua. They made their way to France, Spain, Morocco, Mauritania and Mali before arriving in the city of Bobo-Dioulasso in Burkina Faso's southwest. They were en route to neighbouring Togo to volunteer with an organization working to reforest and help build a village.
Tacchetto's father, Nunzio Tacchetto, the former mayor of Vigonza, told The Canadian Press that his son, a trained architect, wanted to use his skills to help people in Togo.
"It was his first trip to Africa," Tacchetto said from Italy. "He wanted to collaborate on the construction of the village."
Tacchetto said his son, who had just turned 30 before his departure, had a love of people. "His idea was that everyone around the world was interesting, that every culture was interesting. And he wanted to be close to people, to see them in their own surroundings."
The Canadian government had issued serious warnings about Mauritania, Mali and Burkina Faso. The Global Affairs Canada website says travellers should "avoid all travel" -- the most severe warning -- to Mali and "avoid all non-essential travel" to Burkina Faso and Mauritania, mostly due to terrorism and banditry concerns. For Togo, considered a safer African country, Canada says visitors should "exercise a high degree of caution" -- the same warning it gives for France and the United Kingdom.
Loubani said in an interview he doesn't know either of the missing people. "But I would be very surprised if (Blais) told her mom: 'Hey, I'm going to Togo, and I haven't looked it up, and I don't know anything about it.' She probably thought about it and calculated the risks."
Young people from prosperous western countries should consider humanitarian work around the world, Loubani said, as long as they understand the risks. "I think my advice to young people who are thinking of working in dangerous places is: The world needs you. Only you will change the situation that exists in other parts of the world -- in collaboration with locals and supporting local struggles."
Chris Mathers, a former RCMP officer whose company provides training to federal government agencies on analyzing security risks while abroad, said Ottawa issues travel warnings for a reason. Travellers to countries under serious warnings need to be constantly vigilant about whether they are being watched by corrupt police and military or by kidnappers looking for ransom.
If Blais and Tacchetto wanted to travel to Togo -- a relatively safe place on the continent -- they should have flown into the country and made prior contact with people they trusted to take care of them. A road trip through Mauritania, Mali and Burkina Faso was not smart, he said in an interview.
"When I say they are foolish, I am being polite," Mathers said. "I've been to Mali. There is no rule of law -- nothing. If I don't like you, I shoot you. These places are lawless."
Loubani said he understands there are "adrenaline junkies out there," but very few people travel to dangerous places just for the thrill. Almost everyone, he said, "whether it's misguided or earnest, has some greater purpose that they are going there for."
Despite getting shot in both legs, Loubani doesn't regret his work in Gaza -- and he is currently considering another trip to do similar work in an even more dangerous global hot spot that he prefers not to identify.
To live is to take risks, Loubani said, adding that just walking out the door of your home carries its share of danger.
"It's the same thing for humanitarian work," he said. "You are always incurring a risk, and you have to convince yourself that your risk is worthwhile to accomplish something for other people, so that they can have the life you want to have."