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Photo:©H.D. Finck/ICRC

Horror to hope

AS A PRECOCIOUS CHILD of 7 at the start of the Nigerian civil war in the late 1960s, I became, like my father, obsessed with radio news. Each morning, as Papa shaved, he set his transistor radio to Radio Biafra. I was supposed to be engaged in some chore, like washing plates, minding my ever-crying baby brother or sweeping the compound. Instead, I always installed myself near Papa and his radio.

Much of the bulletin of Radio Biafra was fevered propaganda delivered in impassioned language. It often reported how “gallant Biafran soldiers” had “wiped off” or “vanquished enemy forces”.

Sadly for my father, and for me, Radio Biafra did not enjoy a monopoly. The British Broadcasting Corporation, Voice of America and, on occasion, Radio Nigeria had few if any accounts of Biafran soldiers’ gallant exploits. They brought instead constant news about “Federal troops” dislodging “rebel soldiers”.

A child refugee during the Biafran war, Okey Ndibe (right) is now a novelist and a writer on African affairs. He offers his views on humanity as part of the Red Cross Red Crescent’s ongoing series on the seven Fundamental Principles.
Photo:©Okey Ndibe

Wars are a menace to truth and they discount any shared sense of humanity. The cruellest thing about war is not the number of the dead or injured. Far more grievous is the certainty in the mind of a people at war that their very human identity is under siege. It’s my hunch that my parents and many other Biafrans had come to believe that, in the eyes of the ‘enemy’, they had ceased to be human.

It’s also natural that besieged Biafrans began to view the ‘enemy’ as less than human. The men who dropped huge, exploding metallic eggs at us from swift, low-flying jets (or who blocked access to food and medicine) could not be human. In 1994, much of the world stood awestruck as 800,000 Rwandans perished in a few months — in one of the gravest genocidal rages of recent times. As in Nigeria, the Rwandan media helped shape — and escalate — the tragedy.


New challenges

Warring parties and governments increasingly seek to win ‘the hearts and minds’ of local populations through development and humanitarian assistance. In working closely with those agencies, some humanitarian actors in a sense become instruments for the agenda of politicians and military forces, rather than neutral and independent humanitarian actors. Meanwhile, military forces in some cases begin direct humanitarian assistance. As distinctions between relief and politics become blurred, new problems related to security arise as belligerents increasingly see humanitarians as agents of the opposing forces.


The subsequent trial and conviction by an international tribunal of two owners of Radio Télévision Libre des Milles Collines, as well as other media owners who incited hatred and violence, is a verdict on the media’s ability to disfigure the ‘other’, whether on ethnic, religious or some other grounds. Such disfigurement must be challenged, for it often precedes, intensifies or encourages the deployment of violence against marked victims.

Rwanda’s three-month orgy of killings produced another infamous subtext: the understanding that memory, the act of remembering, can be turned into the deepest cut. Some exterminators often killed members of a family save one. The spared woman or man, girl or boy was then told that he or she was deliberately allowed to live in order to bear the burden of remembering.

A few years ago, I saw a TV documentary that focused on the plight of women in the perennial crisis in the [Democratic Republic of the] Congo. Witness after witness shared horror stories of how she was raped, by government soldiers or rebel forces — and often by both.

There was no question that the savage experience tormented them. Perhaps it had disfigured their psyches the same way that hunger misshaped the physique of millions of Biafran children, their legs like fleshless spikes, stomachs distended,
necks thin, the hair on their big, veined heads discoloured and flimsy. Their violators had counted these women as less than human — and these have perhaps also concluded that these men were no more than beasts.

Prosecution of sexual crimes as war crimes or acts of genocide in the tribunals set up to deal with atrocities in Yugoslavia and Rwanda have brought some measure of hope towards holding genocide instigators and perpetrators to account. These trials and the precedents they set constitute a different, salutary form of memory. The legal principles that mandate civilized, life-respecting standards, and the international tribunals that enforce them, are an essential part of retributive or restorative remembering.



The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, born of a desire to bring assistance without discrimination to the wounded on the battlefield, endeavours, in its international and national capacity, to prevent and alleviate human suffering wherever it may be found. Its purpose is to protect life and health and to ensure respect for the human being. It promotes mutual understanding, friendship, cooperation and lasting peace amongst all peoples.


This is the paradox of human history: on the one hand, the arc has been towards enlightenment, freedom, the evolution of humanitarian principles and technical wizardry. On the other, it has arced toward oppression, violence, xenophobia, the stigmatization of the ‘other’ and ever-more efficient and clever means of killing. In the last 20 years, for example, the world has witnessed costly conflicts in such locations as Bosnia, Lebanon, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan and Syria. Some have been sectarian wars, pitting one faith against another. Some have been driven by ethnic jingoism, ideological fanaticism or crude nationalist passions. Others have occasioned the dehumanization of minorities or mutual degradation by combatants.

And even in times of peace, our sense of common humanity can be shattered. A few months ago, a well-armed young man walked into an elementary [primary] school in Newtown, Connecticut, in the United States, and killed 20 children, some teachers and a principal. The sickening event took place 35 minutes from my own home, also in Connecticut. Even this survivor of war was left speechless, my emotions topsy-turvy.

A vital force

The human capacity for being inhumane — compounded by nature’s fecundity in spawning disasters — points to one implication: the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement will always be a busy and vital force.

As a child during the Biafran war, I saw that Red Cross ideal of basic humanity at work when I accompanied my parents to relief centres in search of food, medicines, clothes and other items. Sometimes, the number of the needy was so vast that we went away empty-handed. On such occasions, my parents’ grief was palpable. It meant that they and their five children would face days, even weeks, of hunger. Even so, there was always a sense of undying hope — and it was tied to the presence of the Red Cross and other relief agencies.

Today, the Nigerian Red Cross Society still brings succour to the suffering, be it first aid in villages beset with inter-tribal violence or tending to victims of car crashes. And the dastardly acts of shooting children at a school in Connecticut or a camp in Norway continue to activate a deeply human, noble and beautiful response. It’s what this principle is about — a veritable way of waging beauty in the midst of a war. And it’s a first step towards giving all victims of war, violence or natural woes a restored sense of their human dignity.

By Okey Ndibe
Okey Ndibe is a novelist, writer and professor of literature at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, USA.


Myanmar Red Cross volunteers came from around the country to provide neutral and impartial assistance in communities affected by violence with teams working in medical clinics, building toilets and wells, and distributing drinking water, food, blankets and hygiene kits. Their efforts were supported by the IFRC, the ICRC and various National Societies.
Photo:©Andreas von Weissenberg/IFRC

Movement in Myanmar

Nineteen-year-old Myat Sanda Khine had just enrolled at Sittwe University when inter-communal violence tore through her home city, leaving dozens dead, thousands injured and entire villages burnt to the ground. The violence, between Rakhine and Muslim communities, left more than 100,000 people displaced in Rakhine state. To read more about Sanda’s story, recent advances in humanitarian access in Myanmar, and how the Movement is facing the challenge of bringing impartial assistance to all, see our web site:

“I became a Red Cross volunteer just after the crisis here. People lost everything. I knew I wanted to help and so did my friends; now we are all volunteers.”
Myat Sanda Khine, 19, speaking about how she and others mobilized after inter-communal violence tore through her home city.
Photo:©Andreas von Weissenberg/IFRC





Your turn

What does the principle of humanity mean to you? What are the biggest threats and challenges facing this principle today? Write a 400-word story or essay. We will consider your response for our series.
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150 years of
humanitarian action

War in Europe: The fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war lead to new conflicts. After 45 years of peace in Europe, war breaks out in the Balkans (below). Movement efforts focus on assisting those affected by war and economic collapse in many former Eastern Bloc countries.

Photo: ©Reuters/Chris Helgren, courtesy

1991 Second Gulf War:
The United Nations authorizes a coalition of 34 nations, led by the United States, to go to war against Iraq in response to its annexation of Kuwait.

1991: Somalia’s civil war breaks out after the fall of its military government. As armed groups vie for control, the population suffers displacement and famine. In 1992, the United States leads a coalition of peacekeepers to restore order and bring humanitarian relief — one of the first times an international military intervention was so closely linked with humanitarian ends.

November 1991: Birth of the IFRC. The League of Red Cross and and other violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in Rwanda and neighbouring countries.

1993: The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) is founded by the United Nations to deal with war crimes that took place during the conflicts in the Balkans.

July 1994 Rwandan genocide: Over the course of roughly 100 days, somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million people, mostly ethnic Tutsis, are killed — almost 20 per cent of the country’s population.

November 1994: The United Nations Security Council creates an international tribunal for judging people presumed responsible for acts of genocide and other violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in Rwanda and neighbouring countries.

1994: The IFRC obtains international observer status at the United Nations.

1996: The ICTY hands down its first judgment, against a soldier in the Bosnian Serb army who participated in mass executions following the takeover of the
Srebrenica enclave by the Bosnian Serb army in July 1995.

Fast forward
Since 1996, the ICTY has indicted 161 people. ICRC lawyers believe that tribunals such as those set up for the former Yugoslavia herald a major step in the implementation of international humanitarian law.

1997: Rwanda’s invasion of Zaire in search of Hutu militias, boosts Congolese rebels who then capture Kinshasa and install Laurent Kabila as president. The country is renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Civil war follows with each side backed by different neighbouring countries. Red Crescent Societies meets in Budapest, Hungary and decides to become the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

1997: Rwanda’s invasion of Zaire in search of Hutu militias, boosts Congolese rebels who then capture Kinshasa and install Laurent Kabila as president. The country is renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Civil war follows with each side backed by different neighbouring countries (below).

Photo: ©IFRC

1997: To improve coordination and cooperation, the Movement signs the Seville Agreement to specify who takes the lead (IFRC, ICRC or National Societies) in various types of field operations.

1997: After years of work by the ICRC, Movement partners and other organizations, the Ottawa Treaty (which prohibits of the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel mines) is adopted.

September 2001: In a coordinated set of attacks, a group calling itself al-Qaeda hijacks four planes, flying them into New York’s World Trade Towers and the Pentagon in Washington DC. Another plane crashes in Pennsylvania. In response, the United States administration announces a global ‘war on terror’.

October 2001 War in Afghanistan:
The United States, United Kingdom and France join the Afghan group Northern Alliance to topple the Taliban regime that is believed to have hosted al-Qaeda training camps initiating the ‘9-11’ attacks.

January 2002: The first detainees arrive at the detention facility established by the United States at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. ICRC delegates begin visiting detainees.

February 2003: War in Darfur begins as two armed groups seek independence from Sudan, leading to massive civilian casualties, displacement and chronic food insecurity.

March 2003: War in Iraq is launched to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein, which the United States contends has developed weapons of mass destruction.

New awareness
In the early 2000s, the ICRC begins paying more attention to those targeted by sexual violence during armed conflicts.

December 2004: An earthquake off the western coast of Sumatra, Indonesia causes a tsunami that kills more than 230,000 people in 13 countries (below). The humanitarian response is immediate and massive. The scale, and the diversity of groups and agencies coming to help, also leads to many problems with coordination and allegations of waste.

Photo: ©IFRC

August 2005: Hurricane Katrina slams into the US Gulf Coast, killing 1,800 people and causing more than US$ 80 billion in damage.

June 2007: ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger issues a rare public denunciation of the government of Myanmar for violations of international humanitarian law against detainees and civilians.

Fast forward
New ICRC President Peter Maurer becomes the first ICRC president to visit Myanmar. He said the visit, along with government commitments to allow greater access to detainees and communities affected by fighting, offers “a new chapter in both our relationship with Myanmar government and in our humanitarian activities here”.

May 2008: The Convention on Cluster Munitions is adopted. It prohibits the use, transfer and stockpiling of cluster bombs, which scatter small ‘bomblets’ over a wide area, often injuring civilians for years to come.

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the timeline


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