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