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Flying home

Ethiopian and Eritrean prisoners of war - primarily the sick and seriously wounded - were the first to be released on 24 December 2000 by the two sides following an agreement signed in Algiers. The operation went smoothly and saw 360 Ethiopians and 359 Eritreans return to their home countries. "They didn't really feel free until we had landed," said Michael Kleiner, an ICRC delegate who was on board the plane that brought the former prisoners home to a musical welcome. "It was only then that it all became real for them and that they let themselves celebrate."

In addition 1,414 civilian internees of Ethiopian origin were repatriated to Ethiopia. They had been interned in the Ala camp, not far from Dekemhare, Eritrea. Like 1,000 Ethiopian civilian internees already repatriated earlier in December, these newly released internees crossed the River Mereb that forms the border between the two countries. With the help of volunteers from the Eritrean and Ethiopian Red Cross societies, ICRC staff from Addis Ababa and Asmara accompanied the civilians throughout their journey.

Corporate Responsibility and Armed Conflict

The ICRC's Forum report, War, Money and Survival, was the basis for a conference called Armed Conflict and Corporate Social Responsibility, organized by the British Red Cross in October 2000. The conference, held in London, sought to provide a realistic assessment of the extent to which multinational companies operating in situations of armed conflict might have a role to play beyond their business interests. The accountability of private military companies to respect international humanitarian law was one of several workshop topics. Several contributors to the Forum report were speakers at the conference, which brought together a varied audience including military officers, NGO personnel and company representatives. The workshop was an example of a successful partnership within the Movement in a new subject area. The British Red Cross hopes to pursue the issue in cooperation with the ICRC and with others in the Movement.

Historic visit

During his historic visit to Viet Nam last November, US President Bill Clinton congratulated the Vietnamese Red Cross on its work in helping some of the country's poorest people hit by devastating floods. The Red Cross is coordinating a US$ 10 million relief and rehabilitation programme which is assisting 900,000 people.

The president viewed images of severe flooding in the Mekong delta region of Viet Nam, where the Red Cross was particularly active bringing immediate relief to over 650,000 people. In a private meeting with Red Cross officials, he was told about the construction of 3,000 reinforced houses built to help families resist future floods. The Viet Nam Red Cross had already built 7,400 such houses in the past year for victims of other flood disasters in central Viet Nam.

The Red Cross representatives from Viet Nam, the American Red Cross and the International Federation, encouraged President Clinton to consider the plight of the many disabled children in Viet Nam today, some of whom are believed to suffer as a result of Agent Orange, a defoliant used during the Viet Nam war in the 1960s. The Red Cross is working at the local level to improve their living conditions and to provide other vital social support.

Improving disaster response

On the morning of Saturday 13 January, El Salvador was struck by a major earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale. Over 700 people were killed, more than 180,000 homes damaged and over 1 million people affected.

Within minutes some 1,000 Salvadorean Red Cross staff and volunteers were at work, putting the National Society's disaster plan into action, and the International Federation's new approach to disaster response to the test.

The last few years have been punctuated by major disasters in the Americas leading to large-scale loss of life. In October 1998 it was Hurricane Mitch. In December 1999 Venezuela was victim to one of the worst natural disasters to hit the Americas in the 20th century when as many as 30,000 people may have died in landslides. The severe Atlantic hurricane seasons in the late 1990s and the destruction caused by El Niño triggered the International Federation to initiate a major review of its response capacity in the Americas with the full involvement of National Societies. The resulting intensive training and contingency plans were put to a significant test when the earthquake hit El Salvador.

"We are heartened by the great work which has been done by the Salvadorean Red Cross in response to this disaster", said Santiago Gil, head of the Americas department of the International Federation. "But we must also recognize that a lot more needs to be done in the area of disaster mitigation to reduce unnecessary loss of life. There has to be more respect for the environment, for example, and we are interested in working with other partners on this."

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