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A sad day for humanity

On 17 December 1996 six ICRC colleagues were brutally murdered as they slept in their quarters inside the Red Cross hospital compound in Novye Atagi, Chechnya. Yet this bloody deed was more than a taking of human life: it was a frightening display of contempt for the Red Cross and all it stands for – for who, more than those who strive to heal the wounded, are worthy of respect? Those who risk their lives to save others, are they not the very essence of humanity? This attack is more than murder.

At the airport as I stood on the tarmac waiting with the families of the deceased, I shared their grief as the President of the cause that their loved ones had held so dear. But I also felt their pain on a personal level – as a man feels pain in loss – for I too have a family which I cherish. I tried to imagine my own anguish, had I been in their shoes. Of course, I could not.

A light went out on 17 December. A light which burns for all of us in the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. In losing these colleagues we not only lost friends, but we lost a glimmer of hope: the belief that what we are doing is good and is seen to be good; the belief that human beings care enough about each other to fight their wars fairly and spare those not involved in the fighting; the belief that the women of Solferino started something which reflected human values and that those values have not become a naive irrelevance today; that this barbarous act is not a sign of the times but that it is an isolated incident never to be repeated.

Alas the evidence betrays that hope. In recent years we have seen a frightening rise in the frequency and violence of attacks directed at the Red Cross, and indeed other humanitarians. It is vital that we stand together and face reality head on – we cannot delude ourselves that the danger will be muted by our anger and tears. We must get out there and do the work we have been given to do by the international community – the Geneva Conventions are underwritten by States the world over and we must look to them to take concrete action and harness the anarchy of modern conflicts.

At the same time, we in the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement must use our combined strength to make people aware of what we do, make them realise that we are helping those who are entitled to help. It is laid down in the Geneva Conventions that such humanitarian work must be respected. I, as President of the ICRC, believe that it is up to us to remind warring parties that all Red Cross and Red Crescent staff must be protected. In a world where violence is accelerating out of control, we all as human beings need to hang on to a few basic principles. For to condone a violation of those principles would surely spell the doom of humanity.

I call on you all, all of you in the Red Cross and Red Crescent family and the States party to the Geneva Conventions, to share with me the grief of having lost Fernanda, Hans, Ingeborg, Nancy, Gunnhild and Sheryl, and to show solidarity in rising to the challenge of carrying on their battle: the battle to shine a light of humanity in the darkness of conflict. Those who tried to put out that light on 17 December did not succeed in putting it out forever – it burns still bright.

Cornelio Sommaruga, President of the ICRC



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