David Haines: RAF engineer who became a highly respected aid worker but was kidnapped and murdered by terrorists

A family man who devoted himself to humanitarian work and was admired for his warmth with the refugees he met
Click to follow
The Independent Online

A man capable of leadership who was much loved, David Haines turned his 12 years' experience as an RAF aircraft engineer to helping civilians in war zones rebuild their lives. He found his vocation in Croatia at the end of the ethnic conflicts of the 1990s, arranging the resettlement of people the turmoil had displaced. He travelled there in 1999 and, in the wake of the fighting which had ended only in June that year, worked for a German charity, Arbeiter Samariter Bund. He became head of a regional office managing a large project funded by the European Commission to get people back to their homes or find new ones.

"It was as if he had been sent by God to help," remembered a former landlady, in whose rooms he had lodged in the town of Petrinja, about 50 miles south of the capital Zagreb, and whom he called "Mama".

The gentle-featured Scotsman brought humour and energy to projects including the rebuilding of a kindergarten in Benkovac, close to the Dalmatian coast, where strife had been fierce, and the arranging of a concert, Music Against Mines, in Petrinja in 2003. He eventually made his home near by at Sisak. It was several years since he had been divorced from the wife who had been his childhood sweetheart while growing up in Perth, Scotland, and he kept in touch, taking pride in the achievements of their daughter, Bethany, then just beginning primary school.

There was to be a new love in Croatia, his translator, Dragana Prodanovic. "They were so in love. You would see them walking close to their home holding each other's hands," a friend said. "They were like young teenagers in love." Meanwhile admiration grew for his humanitarian work: "He got under people's skin", one man said. "He thought like the people he was trying to help." There was even a nickname: "The Crazy Scotsman".

Haines and Prodanovic set up a business supplying furniture and equipment for kitchens, much needed in a country emerging from the dust and wreckage of war. They were overjoyed when she became pregnant at the late age of 41, and married in Croatia in November 2010, he delighting his wide circle of friends there by turning up at the ceremony resplendent in a kilt. Their daughter, Athea, is now aged four.

But the family man also thrived on adventure, and in 2011 he united his preoccupations – the plight of civilians recovering after conflict, and the dangers from left-over weaponry – by joining Handicap International, the group that helps to prevent children being killed or maimed by hazards such as undiscovered land-mines. He went to Libya in the wake of the fall of Colonel Gaddafi in October that year to work with disabled and vulnerable people whose lives the revolution had devastated. Handicap made him its Head of Mission there.

The following year Haines joined another charity, Nonviolent Peaceforce, which derives its policy of sending unarmed peacekeepers and making "space for dialogue" in trouble-spots largely from Quaker philosophy. Haines took his growing experience of building empathy with traumatised people to the newly formed nation of South Sudan, which had been torn by internal conflict since independence from Sudan in 2011. He was considered a valuable worker because of his knowledge of best practice in insecure places.

By 2013 Haines had moved on, to the Paris-based charity L'agence d'aide a la coopération technique et au développement, known by its acronym, Acted, which describes itself as politically and religiously impartial and which did its earliest work in Afghanistan and Pakistan. For Haines the challenge of the latest land aflame, Syria, beckoned.

Acted gave Haines the task of searching out suitable places where tents and provisions could be pitched for the swelling tide of refugees. He crossed the border from Turkey in March 2013 on a three-day tour with the organisation's Italian co-ordinator, Federico Motka.

Colleagues admired Haines's warmth with the refugees he met, and his practical knowledge, such as his worry over a camp's lack of latrines. "He stopped with every child and made a joke with them," one said. "Those three days I was with the best guy in aid work."

Haines and Motka, their driver and their translator were returning to Turkey and had just left the village of Atmeh, where a camp lies on a hillside among olive trees, to take a short cut along a farm road, when the kidnappers struck. Two fast cars driven by masked men in black staged a highly professional ambush, one vehicle screeching in front and the other behind, shooting out the travellers' tyres so even making a dash for it was impossible.

The kidnappers shouted in formal Arabic that the men should get out, and when they did, stuffed Haines and Motka into a car boot, letting the others go. Motka was freed two months later.

It was the start for Haines of months of beatings so bad even his captors, from the group calling itself Islamic State, felt the need to give him medical attention. He was moved frequently from place to place, and for a time shared cells with each of the two Americans, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, who were murdered before him, in unknown desert locations thought to be in Syria or Iraq – their apparent beheadings, like his, recorded on video.

The boy who first tasted love of new places on childhood caravanning and camping holidays is remembered by school colleagues from Perth Academy in Scotland as occasionally exuberant, with a stubborn streak, considerate, aware of when he could be of use, and when not. On leaving school he worked briefly for Royal Mail before joining the RAF. When he left the military he carried on his career with Scotrail, the train operator, before devoting himself to humanitarian work.

His father, also an engineer, was employed in England when Haines was born, in Holderness, East Yorkshire, near Hull. After bringing up their family – David and his brother Michael – in Perth, Herbert and Mary Haines moved to Ayr. David Haines is survived by his first wife, Louise, and their daughter; and by his second family in Croatia.

David Cawthorne Haines, aid worker: born Holderness, East Yorkshire 9 May 1970; married firstly Louise (marriage dissolved; one daughter), 2010 Dragana Prodanovic (one daughter); died Syria or Iraq c.13 September 2014.

Comments