On the eve of the 28th International
Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, Red
Cross, Red Crescent highlights the event's agenda and theme
of protecting human dignity. As conference participants search
for ways to better protect individuals from the effects of
conflicts, natural disasters, poverty or health emergencies,
this issue of the magazine also features portraits of ordinary
people struggling to survive and maintain their dignity in
the face of these crises.
poverty widespread, public health threatened by old and new
diseases, the proliferation of ethnic and religious conflicts
and now the fight against terrorism, humanity seems more divided
than ever and the challenges for the participants of the 28th
International Conference greater than ever. An analysis prepared
by conference organizers confirms this stark assessment and
outlines the daunting tasks ahead for the international community.
Some of the assessment's findings include: lack of respect
for human dignity and human rights, as well as inadequate
implementation of international law, and the difficulty of
accessing people affected by armed conflict or other disasters.
More than ever, civilians are under threat in war-torn areas
and in occupied territories. Poverty and inequality are putting
people at increased risk from disease and disasters, denying
them the right to life, health and dignity. Intolerance and
discrimination marginalize groups and individuals with dire
consequences, while more people are detained without due legal
process. The uneven globalization of economies and opportunities
is creating new threats to human security on the political,
economic, cultural and environmental levels. Finally, acts
of violence aimed at spreading terror and the fight against
terrorism further complicate the work of humanitarian organizations.
A South Sudanese father caring for his ill
daughter in the Red Cross supported hospital in Yirol, South
such a bleak picture, the conference slogan of protecting
human dignity risks being more wishful thinking than an achievable
goal. But every day thousands of Red Cross and Red Crescent
volunteers do protect human dignity through their gestures
of compassion for those in need. The next step is to build
upon the work of these groups and individuals throughout the
Movement to identify sustainable solutions to humanitarian
crises and reaffirm the importance of respect for human rights
and humanitarian law.
To do this, conference participants will develop an "agenda
for humanitarian action" that defines concrete goals
in four key areas: those missing as a result of war or internal
violence, the arms issue, risk reduction to disasters and
changing attitudes towards people living with HIV/AIDS. The
impact of this agenda, as well as the conference declaration,
will be measured by what happens long after the meetings and
discussions are over. Behind each commitment must follow immediate
action. For the victims of conflict, poverty and disease can
no longer wait. They need our assistance now.
The risk, as the negotiations get underway, is that defining
solutions gets pushed aside because of political expediency.
In times such as these, it is vital to raise the voices of
the victims. Red Cross, Red Crescent sets out to do this as
with a collection of testimonials from people whose lives
have been torn apart because of conflict, poverty or disease.
The aim is to show that the four key areas of action within
the agenda are about real people facing real problems.
|Jean Milligan and Jean-François
Maric, a Serb, was 21 when he disappeared on August 4, 1995,
inside Croatia at the height of the Balkans war. Two years
ago Zeljko's father, Cedomir Maric, learned his son had died.
Now he devotes his time to helping other families still looking
for missing loved ones.
The Marics were overjoyed when, after two daughters, a son
had been born. Zeljko grew up to be a soldier and joined the
army in 1995 - not to fight but to play in a military brass
band. On 4 August 1995, he disappeared.
"I still do not understand why he did not pull out with
the rest of the troops," says Cedomir, who on that day
fled with his family to a safer place. "There was no
need for him to stay there. What was he thinking of. I don't
know. I really don't know."
At first, it never occurred to the Marics that Zeljko could
be dead. Their only son had to be alive, in some prison perhaps.
"He was just a musician, not even a soldier. He never
harmed a fly in his life," whispers his father.
In 1995-96, the ICRC organized the repatriation of prisoners
released from various places of detention in Croatia. "When
the first group of prisoners from Croatia arrived in Belgrade
by bus, I was there. I quickly realized my son was not among
the passengers. I showed photographs of him to some men to
see whether they knew anything about my boy. When a second
group of prisoners was released, again he was not among them.
I was devastated and simply cracked up. I could not go on
After a while, a third and last group of prisoners arrived.
I did not have the strength to face them. Instead of me, my
brother went there. The news he brought back wasn't good.
My wife continued to live in hope. We were hearing all sorts
of stories... that there were some prisoners who were digging
an escape tunnel, that some Croatian families had adopted
Serbian boys in order to save them. But I knew none of this
was true. And then, at one point, I said 'enough.' I had the
desire to put an end to the self-inflicted pain and anguish."
Little girl in Tuzla holding the photo of a
family member who went missing during the war.
©Paolo Pellegrini / ICRC
His darkest fears were confirmed after receiving a report
from the Croatian Helsinki Committee. Included were a list
of dead Serb soldiers and a few eyewitness testimonies. And
there, under number 17, he found his son's name followed by
an anonymous testimony confirming his death.
"Even now, I can't say I am absolutely sure it is true,
but bearing in mind the number of years that have passed and
the credibility of the source, I do believe that this is genuine
information. Much harder than finding out about this was he
moment I had to break the news to my wife.
“For a moment, I thought it would be better if I did
not tell her and let her keep hoping. I thought fathers had
to be tougher. I waited until I had to publish the Helsinki
Committee's findings in our association's bulletin. Without
uttering a word, I put the document in front of her eyes."
She did not shed a tear. "She is that kind of a woman,
she keeps the pain to herself," says Cedomir. The first
time he heard her crying was last year, at the family cemetery
in Knin. He then realized it was about time they started talking
to each other if they wanted the wounds to heal.
The Marics' story is no different from those of the other
2,728 families currently registered as refugees from Kninska
Krajina, who are still looking for any information about their
missing family and friends.
These days, Cedomir is spending most of his free time running
an association he set up to help other families from Kninska
Krajina find missing loved ones. He explains that what binds
his members together is hope. Not hope for a happy ending
to their search for missing relatives. Few believe they are
still alive. But rather hope that it may be possible to find
|Marija Sajkas, ICRC Belgrade
War's innocent victims
Virginia Maria it is too late, she has already experienced
the devastating effects of anti-personnel mines. However,
many organizations - including the Angolan Red Cross with
the support of the ICRC - are involved in mine awareness activities
in Angola, trying to teach people about the dangers of mines
and helping communities to prevent accidents.
people are walking slowly, step by step, around a small outdoor
obstacle course at Neves Bendinha. You can see the concentration
on their faces. It is hard work getting used to a new leg,
made not of flesh and bone but of metal and polypropylene.
Two women are taking a rest after a tiring training session,
leaning on the bars used for support.
"I was in the field, looking for firewood with some friends.
I was walking ahead. Suddenly there was an explosion, and
I and my friend who was just behind me got hurt," explains
32- year-old Virginia Maria Lundo. The blast of the mine burnt
large parts of her face, and severely damaged her leg and
her hand. At the hospital she had to amputate the leg and
two fingers. Her friend was lucky and received only minor
Virginia Maria is one of thousands of people who have been
maimed or killed by the mines and the unexploded ordnance
which litter Angola as a result of the 27-year-long war. A
couple of years after her own accident, her brother lost his
leg while cultivating the fields.
Several years after the incident, Virginia Maria came to
Neves Bendinha orthopaedic centre in Angola's capital, Luanda.
Here she was fitted with artificial legs and taught how to
walk with her new limbs. Neves Bendinha is one of three ICRC-supported
orthopaedic centres in Angola, providing free-of-charge prostheses,
crutches and other orthopaedic devices to both civilian and
military amputees. At the centre in Luanda, approximately
100 people are fitted with artificial legs every month. Some
of the patients were injured years ago, others more recently.
In April this year, a ceasefire agreement was signed in Angola.
In July the government ratified the Ottawa Treaty, which bans
all use of anti-personnel mines. Nevertheless, unknown numbers
of mines are still contaminating the roads, the fields, and
areas used for wood collection and other essential household
activities around the country. According to the United Nations,
at least seven of the country's 18 provinces, accounting for
around 40 per cent of the countryside, are heavily mined.
Virginia Maria's two-year-old son is running around among
the amputees, happily unaware of the dangers that he will
return to when his mother has finished the fitting and the
training in Luanda and will go back to her home village. Virginia
Maria does not talk to her four children about what caused
her maimed face and her lost leg. "I will," she
says. "But now they are too young to understand."
She believes that more awareness is necessary to avoid future
accidents. "The area was not marked and I did not see
the mine before it exploded. People need more information."
|Lena Eskeland, ICRC Luanda
Fighting for their lives and others
Stigma and discrimination
deny people living with HIV/AIDS the treatment, care and support
they need. In Laos, Poom Mah Intidet and Anouxy Bounthaleuxay
are part of a Red Cross programme to overcome the taboos that
prevent people in their community from talking about the disease.
Few people with
HIV/AIDS escape the stigma and discrimination that often comes
with the disease. HIV-positive people are driven underground
as a consequence, fearing the prejudice and intolerance of
communities that are not prepared to accept them. The epidemic
continues unabated and soon becomes everyone's problem. One
HIV-positive man in Laos is fighting back and talking openly
about his disease with friends and family. Sometimes the response
is not always easy to accept.
"Just a few days ago I told my in-laws that I'm HIV-positive,"
said Poom Mah Intidet. "My wife was against it for a
long time, but I want my status out in the open."
Poom Mah's village of Huey Que sits on the upper reaches of
the mighty Mekong in northern Laos. He was once the well-respected
director of Paktha district's forestry department. Now, illness
keeps him at home and his days are spent minding the children.
In the early days of his career, Poom Mah thought nothing
of travelling to neighbouring Thailand for regular 'visits'
with sex workers. About a year before his marriage, he decided
to end these trips. Contented, with a young family and a promising
career, news of his disease came as a massive blow.
Poom Mah said frequent headaches, stomach aches and the appearance
of skin lesions signalled something was drastically wrong.
"My health deteriorated. And it didn't help that the
government kept posting me to different places for work,"
Poom Mah suspected it might be HIV/AIDS. "I wanted to
know and contacted my brother in Vientiane. He arranged for
a blood check and three weeks later I found out I was HIV-positive."
Promoting awareness of safer sex practices
is crucial to fighting the epidemic.
© Jenny Matthews / International Federation
While devastated by the news, Poom Mah focused
on doing something about the spread of the disease. News of
a peer education programme run in his village by the Bokeo
branch of the Lao Red Cross prompted Poom Mah to contact Anouxy
Bounthaleuxay, the project's HIV/AIDS officer. During their
first meeting, Poom Mah offered to be a volunteer for the
local HIV/AIDS programme. He believes people need to be better
informed about the dangers of HIV and would like to play a
part by sharing his story with them.
Official HIV infection rates are relatively low in Laos,
but the remote nature of many rural areas signify that many
of these figures are the result of guesswork. Its proximity
to several countries with high rates of infection suggest
that the number of people living with HIV is rising rapidly.
The combined remoteness of many communities and the diversity
of languages mean that health education is a challenge.
In his three years with the local Red Cross branch, Anouxy
believes he has seen changes, particularly in the attitudes
of young people towards HIV/AIDS.
"Students in the provincial capital, Xuey Xai, now talk
openly about sex and HIV/AIDS with their friends," he
said. "Our local radio station, Radio Zone, helps by
airing segments on topics like HIV and sexually-transmitted
diseases three times a week. It reaches about 10,000 people."
Anouxy added that his job had made him a familiar face in
the three districts where he works — well known even
to police manning checkpoints along the Mekong. Even the occasional
request for condoms no longer surprises him.
|Sushila Kukathas, Laos Red Cross.
Climate of uncertainty
Juan Frutos' home town
of Santa Fe in northern Argentina was washed away in devastating
floods in April 2003. He had recently left the chaos of economic
crisis in the capital Buenos Aires to tend to his sick mother
- the floods took away everything he had.
"It took just a few hours for the floods
to wash away my house, my neighbourhood and my life,"
says Juan Frutos, standing in the empty warehouse that he
now calls home. "Wet photos and some clothes from the
Red Cross, that's all I have left. There's no clean water
to drink, and we haven't even got beds to sleep on. How are
we supposed to try to rebuild our lives?"
Juan Frutos is one of 400,000 affected by the massive overflow
of the Salado River, in April 2003. In only two days, the
Santa Fe region received nearly twice its average annual rainfall.
Thirty people died and 150,000 were evacuated to safety. Seven
million acres of agricultural land were engulfed, triggering
an upsurge of waterborne diseases. Damage totalled over 200
million US dollars.
"It was five in the afternoon when the water rushed in,"
remembers Frutos. "Some people fled, others stayed to
protect their belongings. The water kept on rising - by the
time I got hold of a canoe to help others it was up to my
neck. People were marooned on rooftops, thinking they were
going to drown. Someone was shouting: 'Who has a gun? We should
shoot ourselves rather than die by drowning.'"
Meteorologists, environmentalists and journalists had long
warned about the risk of severe flooding, but basic principles
of disaster preparedness were not adhered to. The local paper
issued a warning in late March, and on 26 April reported that
helicopter pilots had noted "an enormous mass of water
coming towards the city".
Now Frutos looks much older than his 57 years. The lines on
his face show the legacy of constant hardship. His back is
bent, as if weighed down by his troubles.
"I left Santa Fe when I was 25, to seek
my fortune in the capital," he says. "I ended up
selling hot dogs. I never had a family, so I used to take
care of a bunch of street kids, giving them a bite to eat
and trying to keep them out of harm's way."
At the time, Argentina was one of the wealthiest countries
in Latin America. But in the mid-1990s the situation started
to deteriorate when the volatile global financial system put
pressure on markets. Four years of recession culminated with
the default on loans and a freeze of savings and deposits.
Popular anger took to the streets throughout Argentina. Frutos
vividly remembers people looting shops and supermarkets in
search of food. For the first time, the middle class joined
in with other vulnerable groups. "Business already was
scarce. Overnight I could not make ends meet," adds Frutos.
At the same time, his mother fell ill. He left his ruined
business and street kids, and went back to his home town,
where he earned a small income as a shoemaker.
"Today no one has money, not even to pay for shoe repairs,"
he says. "I fix their shoes for food, or anything they
can give me."
Given the interconnectedness of the global economy, it is
unlikely that Argentina will be the last country to suffer
socio-economic disasters, often accompanied by natural calamities.
States, and people, with economic troubles are often unable
to prepare for or react to floods, earthquakes, fires and
the like. So should the Red Cross and Red Crescent start developing
preparedness programmes to ward off the worst effects of economic
"We cannot and do not compensate for political failures,"
states Santiago Gil, head of the Americas department at the
International Federation. "But we can help people prepare
for and avoid exposure to situations that can increase their
vulnerability. The main examples of this are community-based
programmes in health, water and sanitation, first aid, HIV/AIDS,
disaster preparedness and other risk-reduction programmes."
|Paola Chorna, International Federation, Buenos
The pledging system initiated at the
27th International Conference will be repeated during this
conference. This system offers participants an opportunity
to make concrete gestures towards the realization of specific
points in the agenda. Pledges will be posted on the ICRC web
site (www.icrc.org) to allow for a sharing of ideas, effort
and resources between governments and National Societies making
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