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It’s all about saving lives

Mushon Vaknin, deputy manager of the Magen David Adom’s (MDA) southern district, remembers: “One day I was on my way home, when I heard that Kassams [rockets] had fallen in Sderot. I immediately turned and headed there. Teams were already on the scene, treating the injured. While we were giving first aid there was an alert siren, followed by another one, then another. We quickly got the injured to cover and took shelter ourselves while the missiles landed not far from where we were.”

For MDA teams in southern Israel, the three-week military operation in Gaza, which lasted from 27 December to 18 January, brought not only a substantial workload, but also an emotional burden knowing that their homes and families might be in danger. Racheli Ikar-Cohen, a dispatch centre worker, says: “When the siren is heard, the dispatch centre is overwhelmed with calls from frightened civilians and the required operational steps are immediately taken. But your heart and thoughts are with your children. Did they make it to the shelter? Are they frightened?”

These testimonies represent the determination, voluntary spirit and dedication to the challenge of saving lives that the MDA staff demonstrated throughout the Gaza operation and during the past eight years, during which Israeli communities surrounding the Gaza Strip were subject to regular Kassam rocket attacks.






What protection for medical missions?

At the beginning of February 2009, in Sri Lanka’s war-torn, northern Vanni region, more than 300 patients and staff in the Puthukkudiyiruppu hospital were forced to flee after the building was shelled repeatedly over a period of four days. At least nine people were killed and 20 others injured as a result of the shellings. Early in the morning of 4 February, the Ministry of Health personnel who ran the facility determined that it was not safe for patients to remain there any longer and decided to have them leave immediately. An ICRC team, which was already on the premises to support medical staff, helped the doctors and nurses to prepare the patients and to pack emergency medical supplies. Accompanied by 18 ICRC staff members, patients and hospital staff made their way to a community centre in Puttumatalan, in north-eastern Vanni – an area that lacked clean drinking water, which put the displaced patients and medical staff at even greater risk. During the following days, a ferry flying the ICRC flag finally evacuated about 300 patients from Putumattalan to Trincomalee, outside the combat zone.

In the aftermath of the shelling, some ICRC delegates stayed in the hospital to help the remaining staff build a makeshift structure for the triage of incoming patients. They rebuilt the wall of the women and children’s ward, which had been destroyed during the shelling. They also helped patients arriving at or leaving the hospital, and ensured basic hygiene by cleaning the building. ICRC and the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society staff removed dead bodies. If family members could be found, the bodies were returned to them for proper burial in accordance with local tradition.

“Both sides have been reminded several times of their obligation to spare wounded and sick people, as well as medical facilities and their personnel,” said ICRC’s Monica Zanarelli, deputy head of operations for Sri Lanka. “But this needs to be put into practice in the field.”



Warming the winter

Volunteers brought warmth to people affected by extremely low temperatures and unexpected ice storms and snowfalls in many parts of Europe. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, temperatures fell as low as minus 25 degrees Celcius, severely affecting more than 10,000 people, according to the Red Cross Society of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Red Cross Red Crescent responded by delivering firewood, stoves, blankets and food parcels to vulnerable groups, including elderly and bed-ridden people living alone, people with disabilities, poor families with young children, single mothers, returnees, refugees and displaced people. Following heavy snow storms across the United Kingdom, British Red Cross volunteers supported ambulance services across England to deal with an increased number of callouts. In Georgia, thousands of people internally displaced by conflict in 2008 — most of whom left all their belongings behind when they fled their homes — received warm winter clothing from the Red Cross Society of Georgia. At the heart of the winter, 1,250 families received new warm coats, boots, socks, sweaters and blankets, essential to protect them from the cold, particularly the children.



Wet Pacific

The Pacific nations of Fiji, Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands suffered flooding with loss of life in an unusually severe rainy season. Heavy rains and flooding killed at least 20 people across the region, forced tens of thousands of people from their homes, washed away bridges and houses, damaged water sources and ruined crops. Red Cross staff and volunteers responded by setting up evacuation centres and distributing relief items such as blankets, kitchen sets and clothing. The Fiji Red Cross Society distributed hygiene packs with antibacterial soap, condoms and information in Hindi, Fijian and English on how to curb disease.


Rebuilding hope in China

One year after a terrible earthquake hit China’s Sichuan Province, intensive efforts are continuing to rebuild homes and infrastructure. Red Cross Red Crescent projects include the reconstruction of more than 17,000 houses in three townships, agricultural aid, setting up disaster preparedness centres and providing psychosocial support. More than 35,000 volunteers and staff from the Red Cross Society of China were mobilized after the 12 May disaster, which killed some 70,000 people and left 5 million homeless.



In the favelas of Rio

In 2008, a particularly virulent epidemic of dengue fever swept through Rio de Janeiro, affecting some 200,000 people. Of these, 200 died, mostly in the favelas, those impoverished districts devoid of any proper medical or social infrastructure.

The ICRC, in cooperation with the Brazilian Red Cross, began a campaign in January to raise awareness of dengue in seven Rio favelas where, to compound matters, clashes between law enforcement agents and armed gangs are commonplace. The campaign requires the direct participation of favelas residents and paramedical personnel. Alongside, the health promotion sessions offer the ICRC the chance to gather first-hand accounts of the problems encountered by the population as a result of police operations or the power exercised by armed gangs.

The federal and local authorities are kept informed of the Red Cross activities in the favelas, as were the police battalions who patrol them. The ICRC also made sure that the armed gangs were aware of and accepted these activities through contacts established in advance with community leaders.

Since 1998, the ICRC has been running a programme aimed at reducing the humanitarian impact of violent situations involving the police, by helping the police integrate international human rights standards and humanitarian principles into their work. The programme has enabled the ICRC to train over 1,000 military police instructors from all over Brazil. Since 2006, the programme has also included the revision of doctrine, police training programmes and procedures governing the use of force and firearms in nine of Brazil’s states, including Rio de Janeiro.




Hostages Freed in Colombia

On three occasions in early February, the ICRC facilitated the release of six people held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). On 31 January, helicopters lent for the purpose by the Brazilian government and emblazoned with the red cross landed in the south of Colombia. On board were ICRC delegates and members of the organization Colombians for Peace. The following day, a Colombian soldier and three police officers were released by FARC in Caquetá department and transported to Villavicencio, where they were handed over to their families and the authorities. The ICRC’s Patricia Danzi, who participated in the operation, recounts: “These men have been in the hands of FARC for a year and a half. When they saw us, their emotions burst forth — you could see how elated they were, and you could imagine all the things that must have been going through their minds when they realized what was happening. Inside the helicopter, some of them became calmer, while others showed their feelings with hugs and kisses.” Besides the relentless media pressure, flights by Colombian air force planes over the release zone jeopardized the success of the first operation. The ICRC persuaded the Ministry of Defence to halt the flights.

The two subsequent operations took place without a hitch and in perfect coordination with the parties concerned. On 3 February, the Brazilian helicopter with the same team aboard collected a hostage freed by FARC in Guaviare department and delivered him to Villavicencio, where he was met by his family. Lastly, on 5 February, the ICRC picked up the last hostage in Cauca department and brought him to Cali. This was a former parliamentarian, one of a group of 12 parliamentarians abducted on 11 April 2002 of which he was the sole survivor. The 11 others were killed in June 2007. Their bodies were repatriated by the ICRC in September 2007



The last mile in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe Red Cross Society staff and volunteers have mobilised to protect people affected by hunger and one of the world’s largest cholera outbreaks. Seven million people — of the country’s approximately 11 million — were in need of food aid early in 2009, according to the World Food Programme, because of failed harvests, the increase in the global price of food and the high rate of inflation. In addition, by the end of January a cholera epidemic had infected more than 60,000 people and killed more than 3,100, according to the World Health Organisation. Along with international Emergency Response Units, the Zimbabwe Red Cross worked to control cholera outbreaks with safe water and sanitation, education campaigns to improve hygiene, cholera kits and medication, reaching more than 500,000 people. Meanwhile, Red Cross staff and volunteers distributed cereals, beans, cooking oil, seeds and fertilizer to some of the country’s most desperately vulnerable people including people with HIV, and orphans and other children affected by HIV. The aim was to give food every month to more than 250,000 people until the next harvest was ready. But appeals for both operations were under-funded. “We are active in all of the affected areas,” said Zimbabwe Red Cross Secretary General Emma Kundishora. “The global Red Cross Red Crescent has rallied behind the people of Zimbabwe and the Zimbabwe Red Cross. And progress is being made. But we need the funds to go the last mile.”



Fires sweep Australia

Extremely high temperatures and unpredictable winds fanned bush fires across the Australian state of Victoria, killing more than 180 people and leaving thousands homeless. Many of the dead were trapped in cars as they tried to flee. At 20 relief centres, the Australian Red Cross fed fire fighters, police and the public, treated injuries such as burns and smoke inhalation, gave emotional support and helped people contact their families. People at a relief centre said the speed and ferocity of the fires was “like nothing we had ever seen, it was terrifying”. The disaster is believed to have the worst death toll of any fire in Australian history.


In case of emergency

In November 2008, millions of people in the state of California in the United States dropped to the ground in a massive earthquake drill. The American Red Cross was involved in the exercise to prepare people for a large quake along California’s San Andreas Fault that could affect 10 million people and injure 50,000. In response, 300 Red Cross disaster volunteers opened mock shelters at 10 locations.



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