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Fiji --
Walking a tightrope

by Andrew Macalister

Free at last! Two former Fijian government ministers, Ratu Mosese Volavloa and Ponipate Lesavua, enter the Red Cross compound after their release, surrounded by welcoming staff and volunteers.

When armed gunmen stormed Fiji's parliament buildings on 19 May 2000 and took the prime minister and members of his cabinet hostage, the Fiji Red Cross found itself in the midst of a prolonged stand-off between rebel leaders and Fiji's military. Its sensitive handling of the crisis put the Red Cross at the centre of the national stage and earned it the trust and confidence of both sides.

The South Pacific hostage drama lasted 56 days and was largely attributed to ethnic tension. The population in the small Pacific state is made up of 51 per cent indigenous Fijians and 45 per cent Fijian Indians. The then prime minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, is a Fijian Indian heading a multiracial government elected under a new constitution drafted following an earlier series of coups in 1987. The gunmen, led by Fijian businessman George Speight, sought an end to Indian political power, and a reassertion of the rights of indigenous Fijians. Their takeover of parliament triggered looting, the imposition of martial law, widespread protests and social chaos. The events showed a darker side to the stereotypical image of Pacific islands as sleepy tropical paradises, prone to natural disasters, but free from political strife.

Pressure from all sides

Throughout the crisis, the Fiji Red Cross was the only organization given continuous access to the hostages. Although inexperienced in situations of internal conflict, it admirably fulfilled its role as a National Society, delivering medicine, bedding, toiletries, food and home comforts to the hostages, dispensing medical care and carrying Red Cross messages between the hostages and their families. Each day, John Scott, director-general of the Fijian Red Cross, would run the gauntlet of gunmen guarding the parliamentary compound to visit the hostages. He was perpetually in the media spotlight, and even received death threats. Other staff and volunteers worked long hours sourcing medicines and supplies for the hostages, running a round-the-clock ambulance service, and educating the wider public on the role of the Red Cross - all in addition to their normal programmes.

Gaining and maintaining access to the hostages was a delicate balancing act. The Red Cross needed authorization from both the rebels and the military in order to visit the hostages. The military, while recognizing the Red Cross's role as a neutral intermediary, was concerned that supplies intended for the hostages would be diverted to feeding and supporting the rebels who remained inside the parliamentary compound. And the hostage-takers needed to feel confident that the Red Cross would not disclose information to the military that might threaten their own security. "The hostage-takers knew that the Red Cross had a role to play somehow," said Scott, "but they weren't sure what it was. At first, they were very happy we were doing things they knew they would have to do themselves at some point, such as providing the hostages with mattresses and towels."

According to Scott, however, full understanding of the Red Cross role only really developed after some of the hostage-takers fell sick themselves. "We brought in medicines for them, and suddenly they realized that we were not just paying lip-service to the idea of neutrality. They saw that we were prepared to help anyone who needed it, without casting judgements." Further proof of this came after a violent incident in the seventh week, when the Red Cross evacuated six rebels injured in a shoot-out with the military.

What's neutrality?

An additional challenge was to win the trust of the Fijian people. In the small state capital of Suva, where everybody knows everybody's business, it was hard not to be seen as taking sides. In the early days of the crisis, indigenous Fijians claimed the Red Cross was on the side of the hostages because they were providing them with assistance. When the Red Cross refused to disclose the condition of the hostages to the media, for fear of jeopardizing its access to them, Fijian Indians accused the Red Cross of covering up the claim that the prime minister had been beaten. "We quickly realized we had a big job to make people understand about Red Cross neutrality," said Scott.

It was at this point that the ICRC, which had sent a delegate from Geneva to be on hand to assist the Fiji Red Cross, initiated and funded a 60-second radio and television public service announcement. The spot, performed by one of the country's most popular rock bands, was played throughout Fiji. ICRC officials also met with Speight, and continued to help the Fiji Red Cross to obtain access to all the people held by the authors of the coup. "At the end of the day, the Fiji Red Cross showed they were absolutely capable of managing the crisis," said the ICRC's head of mission, Peter Lutolf. This meant the ICRC could remain in an advisory and support capacity. "Really, this is a good example of a National Society. In the way they work and are organized, they are very good. They have done everything really well," added Lutolf.

The Federation, whose Pacific regional delegation is based in Suva, also assisted in a variety of ways, such as procuring mattresses and blankets to boost the Fiji Red Cross's own supplies and providing administrative support. It also saw the rewards of some of its capacity-building programmes, such as a communications workshop held for Pacific National Societies earlier in the year. The workshop helped the Fiji Red Cross successfully manage the intense media interest, especially during the early days of the crisis.

The Australian and New Zealand governments also made donationsof 100,000 Australian dollars and 100,000 New Zealand dollars respectively to assist the National Society during the drama. The contributions were most welcome, as the Fiji Red Cross had had to cancel its annual door-to-door appeal in June and was facing increased costs, such as the extended ambulance service, providing much of the food and supplies for the hostages, and organizing counselling for when the hostages were released.

John Scott, director-general of the Fijian Red Cross,talks strategy with the Federation's Abbas Gullet and theICRC's Peter Lutolf.

The ultimate reward

One of the most notable features of the hostage drama was the way that the Fiji Red Cross was able to step in and play a lead role throughout the twists and turns of the crisis. With only 20 permanent staff, a skeletal network of branches, and a tenuous financial position, the Fiji Red Cross is one of the smaller members of the Movement. "I never thought I would be in this role," said John Scott. "At the Fiji Red Cross, we were busy with seven community programmes and were well-thought-of in the community, but I was not geared up for this at all."

The real rewards, after this unexpected period in the spotlight, may come in the form of an increased membership and a more secure funding base. The pivotal role it played during the events raised the profile of the Fiji Red Cross to an unprecedented level throughout the Pacific. Speaking after her release from captivity, the former assistant minister for agriculture, fisheries and forestry, Marieta Rigamoto, said: "This is the one time that the public profile for the Red Cross has really hit the sky. They have always helped during disasters and the Red Cross is always there, but due to this crisis I think every household in Fiji now knows the Red Cross. For all of us, while in captivity, the Red Cross was our only hope, providing the only contact between us and our loved ones. It was the one thing we lived for. We are very grateful."


A new chapter in the drama was opened following the arrest of George Speight and some of his supporters in August on charges of treason. True to the principle of neutrality, the ICRC requested and obtained regular access to the detainees, in order to check on their well-being, provide them with assistance and offer them the chance to communicate with their families - just as had been done for the hostages of these same people not many weeks before.


Andrew Macalister
Andrew Macalister is an information delegate working for the New Zealand Red Cross.

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