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“I can do anything”


150 years of humanitarian action 

Photo: ©ICRC archives

1975: (above) ICRC begins its first actions in Latin America during an era of dictatorship and conflict. Over the next decade, ICRC would work with National Societies to bring health care to remote communities, make regular representations to authorities concerning more than 2,000 ‘disappeared’ in Argentina, visit thousands of political detainees in Bolivia and Chile, and take on a greater role as neutral intermediary between government forces and armed groups. Meanwhile, the region’s National Societies, some of which were founded within decades of the Movement’s inception (Peru in 1879; Argentina in 1881, for example) built their competencies and played a critical role in responding to the needs of disaster- and conflict-affected communities.

Internal debate among National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies begins to question what they see as an antiquated model of humanitarian assistance based on European attitudes of paternal charity rather than partnership with affected populations, according to Beyond conflict, a history of the IFRC.

Frequent disasters
“The 1970s was a decade of frequent disasters with the League [now IFRC] issuing over 200 appeals, more than it had done in the entire period from 1945 to 1969. In 1970, there were 16 international appeals”, according to Beyond conflict.

Photo: ©Marko Kokic/ICRC

1975: (above) Civil war breaks out in Lebanon. Lasting until 1990, the war has a devastating humanitarian and economic impact. Around 200,000 people die and 1 million are wounded.

Fast forward
In 2012, a joint report by the Lebanese Red Cross, ICRC and British Red Cross concludes the Lebanese Red Cross has over time successfully built a reputation of impartiality and neutrality despite a very fractured society. “Historically, the personal acceptance of individuals has been challenged by different actors, usually on the basis of religion but at times due to the profile of an individual volunteer,” the report states. “However, after years of these volunteers demonstrating their adherence to the Fundamental Principles, they appear to have contributed significantly to the [Lebanese Red Cross’] reputation of neutrality and impartiality.”

1977: Governments adopt Protocols I and II additional to the Geneva Conventions, which include provisions to protect civilians from indiscriminate attacks and which extend protections under international humanitarian law during non-international civil conflicts.

1979: The ICRC creates its physical rehabilitation programme, a commitment to rehabilitation of those wounded by war that would grow throughout the 1980s. In 1983, the Special Fund for the Disabled extends the work to post-conflict or non-conflict settings.

December 1979: The Soviet Union invades Afghanistan.

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the timeline

FOR MANY WOMEN injured or widowed during war, the physical wounds are only one part in a cascading series of consequences that affect the survival of entire families. In the case of Wahida, a blast from a suicide bomb left her partially blinded and without arms, and without a husband. The loss of a breadwinner means she’s unable to provide for her family. “It’s not enough, but I cope with the many difficulties,’’ she says of the money and clothes she receives from the ICRC orthopaedic centre. “Without the 3,000 afghanis [US $ 60], my children wouldn’t go to school, we wouldn’t be able to eat or buy clothes.”

Wahida Photo: ©Nick Danziger

For young women and girls, a war injury can affect everything — education, prospects for marriage, their ability to work or contribute to their households. “I was 17, feeling depressed,” says Farzana, who lost her leg when she was 3 years old. “I stayed at home.” When she learned about ICRC vocational training in tailoring, she signed up and then qualified for an ICRC microloan through which she received 15,000 afghanis (US $ 300). “I bought a sewing machine for 10,000 afghanis and paid for a desk and some cloth. I paid the loan back in 18 months and then applied for a second loan.” Today, Farzana trains other women starting out in the tailoring trade and she owns the shop where she works. “I don’t pay rent! I support my whole family.”

The path to recovery is often long, painful and arduous. The gentle yet confident gestures of Karima and Rahima, physiotherapists in the women’s side of the ICRC orthopaedic centre, help many clients take important steps back towards normalcy. Karima has a special reason to be empathetic. She was 12 years old when four bullets pierced her knee, requiring immediate amputation and a prosthesis.

Niloufar (left) Photo: ©Nick Danziger

But it is not just about physical and economic self-reliance. It’s helping people get back the power to live their lives — even with limitations. “I was so surprised when I reached the centre to see so many disabled people living normally,” says 19-year-old Niloufar, paralysed due to a gunshot wound. “Up to then, I was depressed,” she recalls. “I am now another person, not the Nilofar of before. I can do anything. I am strong, I am powerful.”

A pyramid of health
It was at the Thai-Cambodian border in 1979, where more than 1 million refugees had gathered in refugee camps, that a doctor named Pierre Perrin came up with what he called ‘the health pyramid’ — an idea that helped change the way the ICRC responds to emergencies.

At the top of the pyramid are ‘curative’ medical interventions generally done at a field hospital when people are already sick or injured. In the middle are public health measures such as vaccinations or distribution of medicines, while the foundation of the pyramid is two key building blocks: nutrition and sanitation.

A persistent advocate whose mission reports were often adorned with humorous cartoons and detailed, hand-drawn charts, Perrin wrote that the sanitation situation in the camps was precarious and that medical interventions would not save lives on their own. “It is hopeless to take care only of sick people if nothing else is done for the sanitation in a camp at the same time,” Perrin wrote in one of his
many reports at the time.

The health pyramid was part of shift in thinking that helped move emergency aid response in the 1980s towards a broader public health orientation. It also set the stage for the creation, 30 years ago this June, of a small team that would become ICRC’s water and habitat unit, now an integral part of ICRC operations. Impressed by the work of water engineers working along the Thai-Cambodian border — from the Australian and New Zealand Red Cross Societies in particular — the head of ICRC’s medical operations at the time would hire, for the first time, a sanitation engineer and a nutritionist to be part of future medical interventions.
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