A National Society in transition
by Helge Kvam
Following more than 20 years of conflict, Afghanistan is now
in a difficult period of transition affecting all segments
of the population, including the Afghan Red Crescent Society.
Last year, the Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS) launched
a new mine awareness activity. Specifically targeting women,
volunteers provide awareness sessions in the areas most heavily
contaminated with mines and other explosive remnants of war
(ERW). It is not that the trainers teach the women anything
different from what they teach the men. The difference is
that they are all women — and so are the participants.
This activity does not only reflect the fact that it is now
possible for women to work and perform the training and generally
to go out more. It is first and foremost a response to a newly
identified need. Since the women move more freely, they have
also become more vulnerable to accidents caused by remnants
of the years of conflict. According to data from the ICRC,
women represent an increasing percentage of mine victims in
"Many women would not participate [in the mine awareness
sessions] if they had to be trained by or with men. They simply
would not feel comfortable," said one of the ARCS trainers,
Lida Salamzay, adding that in addition the children benefit
from the knowledge of their mothers. "Traditionally it
is the women who take care of the children and what they learn
here they will pass on to their kids." Supported by the
ICRC, the organization today has 11 female trainers.
Afghan Red Crescent Society headquarters in Kabul.
©Michael Kleiner / ICRC
The newly-launched awareness teams are only one of several
examples of the new demands being placed upon the ARCS. The
National Society has a long history of assisting people in
one of the most war-torn countries in the world. One of its
main activities is the running of 57 health clinics, including
eight mobile clinics, throughout Afghanistan. This life-saving
network seves two million people each year.
The years of conflict saw the rise and fall of several governments.
These changes have been mirrored in the ARCS, as the government
has traditionally appointed the top management of the organization.
Head of dissemination and public relations for the ARCS since
1993, Abdurrasheed Mukhlis is one of the exceptions. During
the past several years, he has had the duty of raising awareness
of humanitarian law and the principles of the Red Cross and
Red Crescent in Afghanistan. "I wouldn't say that we
have succeeded one hundred per cent. But I do believe that
despite difficulties we have managed to assist some of the
most vulnerable people of this war-torn country in a fair
In order to ensure the commitment of the ARCS leadership to
neutrality and impartiality in spite of their turnover with
the changes in governments, he has organized internal seminars
focusing on humanitarian law and the Fundamental Principles.
Meanwhile, the ICRC has been able to assist victims of war
in Afghanistan, managing to gain access to those on all sides
of the conflict, and has maintained constructive working relation
with the different governments and opposition groups in the
In the presidential office of the ARCS, the current secretary
general and president, Alhaj Qrabig Izidyar — like most
of his predecessors he was appointed by the government —
says he is concerned not only that his organization should
work in a neutral and impartial way, but also with ensuring
that the institution is perceived as serving all Afghans whatever
their ethnic background. This means that Mr. Qrabiq not only
has to appoint qualified staff members, but he also needs
to make sure that National Society staff mirror the ethnic
diversity of Afghanistan.
Even though years of internal conflict and the international
strike against the Taliban government are over, Afghanistan
still faces conflict in some areas with the current authorities
and US-led coalition forces on one hand and various opposition
groups on the other. While conditions are improving in many
parts of the country, security is deteriorating in others.
Aid workers have been murdered — in March an ICRC delegate
was killed north of Kandahar and two members of the ARCS shared
the same tragic fate in August.
The president of the ARCS underlines the importance of the
work of the 32 local branches, as they are closest to those
most in need — not least in the areas where security
is a major concern. Here it is important that they be part
of the local community and are seen as such.
With widespread poverty, a high unemployment rate and tens
of thousands of refugees returning with nowhere to live, there
will be enough to do for the ARCS in the years to come.
Mine awareness session carried out by the Afghan
Red Crescent Society health centre in district 7, Kabul.
©Farzana Wahidy / ICRC
future of the country
Afghanistan is moving toward reconstruction and reconciliation
— a process in which the National Society is committed
to play a role. More and more, the Afghan youth are becoming
involved in ARCS activities. Supported by the International
Federation, the ARCS has a humanitarian values programme which
aims at disseminating the Fundamental Principles to young
volunteers. The head of the youth department of the ARCS,
Merajuddin Zahir, puts this in practical terms: "It is
important that we have groups of youngsters with different
ethnic backgrounds. They learn first aid, they are trained
in emergency response, and they are being brought closer to
each other. Instead of enemies fighting each other they become
friends," he said, adding that, given the violent history
of Afghanistan, activities like these are where the ARCS can
play a role in reconciliation through the dissemination of
The youth department has a long history, but during the years
of conflict hardly any activities took place. Lack of experience
is one of the challenges acknowledged by the youth manager,
but involving the young is an essential part of most future
plans. As Zahir explains, "Floods, earthquakes and other
disasters are frequent, also in more remote areas. To efficiently
help the victims in the future, such training is essential
among youngsters. They are the future of our country."
Helge Kvam is ICRC communication delegate in Afghanistan.
An essential work
Some of the main activities of the ARCS are:
• Running 57 health clinics including eight mobile clinics.
• Providing community-based first aid in 23 provinces
with the help of over 14,000 volunteers.
• Maintaining five shelters for homeless people in Kabul,
Jalalabad, Kandahar, Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif.
• Offering vocational training, including income-generating
projects — many of them specifically targeting women
— such as bakeries, carpet weaving and tailoring, enabling
people to have their own income.
• Running mine awareness sessions with 34 trainers,
including 11 female trainers targeting women in particular.
• Offering first aid training and sports activities
for youth volunteers.
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