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Protecting human dignity

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.

With 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 Sudan.
©Anna Kari

 

With 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 Berger

Number 17

Zeljko 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 any longer.

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."


©ICRC


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 their remains

Marija Sajkas, ICRC Belgrade

War's innocent victims

For 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.

Seven 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 injuries.

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," he said.

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."


©International Federation


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.


©International Federation

 

"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 meltdown?

"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 Aires.

From words to action

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 similar commitments.


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