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Fragile hope in Pakistan

Of the 2 to 3 million people who had fled fighting in Pakistan earlier this year many have by now returned home again, prepared to risk a volatile security situation and unsure what they would find there. An earlier assessment among the displaced found they “now live with insecurity and uncertainty as a basic premise in their lives”. Children lived in unhealthy conditions; many without even soap, said Umar Riaz, a medical doctor and a member of the joint assessment team of the Pakistan Red Crescent Society and the International Federation. “They need to engage in sports and other social activities to cope with the situation,” he said. To help people and communities adapt, the Pakistan Red Crescent ran psychosocial programmes in its eight camps. In mid-2009, the National Society, the ICRC and the International Federation were helping 400,000 displaced people, 50,000 living inside camps and 350,000 with host families.

In July, the Pakistani government announced that more than 2 million people who had fled the fighting in the Malakand Division of the North-West Frontier Province could return to their homes.

However Pascal Cuttat, head of the ICRC delegation in Pakistan, stressed, “Families who choose to return must be safe and have access to food and basic public services.” Security remained volatile in some areas and, with the economy disrupted by fighting, many families faced hardship as they returned. Apart from helping the displaced, the ICRC, which has been in Pakistan since 1947, has set up a surgical field hospital in Peshawar to treat people wounded in conflict. The ICRC also supports a physical rehabilitation centre that helps patients disabled by their injuries return to a normal life.



Tajikistan teams tackle mudslides

In April and May, floods and mudslides destroyed 200 houses and damaged more than 400 in south-east Tajikistan, a country that faces up to 50 disasters a year. The Red Crescent Society of Tajikistan immediately released 135 tents from its disaster preparedness stocks and set them up in an area allocated for new settlements to house more than 530 families. The Red Crescent also provided blankets, plastic sheeting and hygiene articles. The National Society was aided by two teams of Red Crescent disaster response experts from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Sirodj Imomov, disaster management coordinator in the Tajikistan Red Crescent branch in Kurgantube region, said, “In recent years, as part of our disaster preparedness plan, we trained local teams of Red Crescent volunteers. This time, we assessed the situation and provided medical assistance, primarily for people who were in shock, in deep depression or had fainting spells. This pattern was developed long before the disaster. It helped to save lives and mobilize local resources.”


©International Federation

Italian Red Cross helps
Rebuild after quake

More than 300 people died in an earthquake near Rome, the capital of Italy, on 6 April, which also left 48,000 homeless. The disaster also took the lives of two young Italian Red Cross volunteers, Daniela Bortoletti and Martina Di Battista.

In response to the quake, 750 Italian Red Cross volunteers from all over Italy joined Red Cross staff to provide rescue services, ambulances, mobile kitchens and relief goods. They also set up and ran camps to house with a capacity of 6,000 people.

Italian Red Cross spokesperson Tommaso Della Longa said preparedness was the key to the fast response.

“The Italian Red Cross is a big organization but in a matter of hours all branches, including the most remote ones, were working together, mobilizing considerable resources across the country. In 24 hours we had volunteers from all over Italy. You cannot achieve such a response without investing in preparedness. We saw people of all ages and professions taking leave from jobs to come to Abruzzo and help. What was yet more amazing — they all knew what to do in this type of situation — another vital element of preparedness.”



The higher, the safer in Yemen

Flash floods — often made worse by blocked storm drains — threaten lives, houses and livelihoods in Yemen every year. Before the rains, it is possible to drive about half a kilometre across the floor of the massive Wadi Murr, skirting the sandbanks, backed-up tree trunks and other debris. More flash floods, higher temperatures, more storm surges at the coastline and less predictable rainfall have affected the country of 23 million people. The key priorities are to keep the wadis (river beds) and storm drains clear of rubbish and to persuade people to settle higher — harking back to the tradition of building homes on cool mountain tops that were more secure from human threats. Meanwhile, to lessen the risk of floods, Yemen Red Crescent Society volunteers are engaged in an awarenessraising effort to encourage people not to dump rubbish in storm drains.



Floods in Colombia

In early 2009, the Mira River rose 20 metres above its average level, flooding more than 10km of land and severely affecting more than 30,000 people in Colombia. The flood washed away houses, crops, livestock and agricultural infrastructure, and harmed the fishing industry. In addition, health centres, schools, water systems and some government buildings were damaged. In coordination with the ICRC and the International Federation, the Colombian Red Cross mobilized experienced volunteers who provided search and rescue, relief, shelter, water and sanitation, and health care. The Red Cross also sent hygiene supplies to hospitals and set up a crisis centre to monitor the disaster.



Scaling down in Sri Lanka

Following the end of the decades-long conflict between the army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the ICRC reviewed its operations and presence in Sri Lanka at the request of the government. By July it closed four offices in Eastern Province and suspended activities in this region. Activities carried out from Vavuniya and Mannar were put on hold pending further clarification and agreement with the government.

In 2008 and earlier this year, the worsening conflict between the army and the LTTE trapped 250,000 people in a rapidly shrinking area along the northeast coast. They faced intense fighting and lacked food, water, sanitation and health care. The ICRC worked with the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society to evacuate thousands of sick and wounded from the combat zone by sea and to facilitate the delivery of food and limited quantities of medicines into the area.

During the fighting ICRC reminded the government and the LTTE of their obligations to comply with international humanitarian law, emphasizing that it required all parties to refrain from harming civilians, allow them to receive aid and enable humanitarian agencies to work safely.

The ICRC continues to help some displaced and resident civilians, and visits people detained in relation to the conflict.



Reporting wars

Are existing rules of armed conflict strong enough to protect civilians, including journalists? Does the relationship between the media, the military and aid groups need a rethink? These were some of the topics debated during Reporting Wars: Challenges and Responsibilities — two conferences aimed primarily at journalists and journalism students held in Australia and New Zealand in May and organized by ICRC and, in Wellington, ICRC and the New Zealand Red Cross. An Australian News Media Safety Code was launched at the Sydney conference asking news organizations to ensure staff sent to conflicts are properly prepared for the risks and aware of relevant areas of international humanitarian law.



Final Philippines hostage released

ICRC employee Eugenio Vagni was released from captivity on 12 July after being held for six months by armed militants in the Philippines. Vagni, 61, an Italian water an habitat engineer, was kidnapped on 15 January with two ICRC colleagues, Andreas Notter of Switzerland and Philippine national Mary Jean Lacaba on the island of Jolo. Notter and Lacaba were freed in April.

“I am happy because I am free. I thank all the people that led to this happening,” Vagni told reporters on his release, struggling to remain composed as he talked of his excitement at seeing his wife and family. In captivity he meditated and thought of his family and happier times. “I come from Italy. I missed football, my family and Tuscany too.”

With the Philippine National Red Cross, the ICRC continues to distribute food and household essentials such as soap and cooking oil to people forced to flee their homes. The ICRC also continued to train prison staff and repair facilities in jails to help improve conditions.




Defending albinos’ right to life

Superstition has led to the killing of more than 60 albinos in Burundi and Tanzania. They face lifelong discrimination, mutilation and even death. Their body parts are believed to bring good luck in business. “The killings of albinos must stop and their dignity be restored,” said Anseleme Katyunguruza, secretary general of the Burundi Red Cross, which is providing humanitarian aid to 48 albino children and adults sheltered by authorities in the township of Ruyigi. The Burundi Red Cross plans to use cultural gatherings to explain to the most suspicious that there is nothing supernatural about albinism; that in fact it is a health condition that cannot entirely be treated. Focusing on dropping bias, critical thinking and non-violent communication will be the key to influence behavioural change in the community.

In Tanzania’s Pwani village, one man with albinism is making history. “When I was born, my mother tells me that the traditional midwife made a grimace when she saw me. No one welcomed the arrival of a strange baby. But my mother protected and kept me,” said Hamis Ngomella. He faced constant discrimination throughout his childhood; schoolmates called him names like mzungu which means “white man” in Swahili. Ngomella took on special education training and graduated as a teacher of children with special needs. He is among the few in his village to make it to college. He is now the chairman of the albino association and represents the Red Cross in a regional disaster management committee. “We need to claim back our dignity,” he said.



Volunteers in action in Jakarta

The Indonesian Red Cross Society deployed seven ambulances and 42 disaster response volunteers and paramedics in the aftermath of July’s bomb blasts at two major hotels in Jakarta. The blasts killed nine people and injured more than 40. Volunteers provided first aid and other humanitarian support, and transported five injured people to the hospital. Two restoring family links teams worked with hospitals to identify those who were lost or injured so families could be informed. The National Society also responded to requests from hospitals for Rhesus A Negative blood for survivors.




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