An everyday test of courage and character. This is how 27-year-old Berna Beyrouthy, a paramedic with the Lebanese Red Cross emergency medicalservices, describes the daily challenge of bringing neutral and impartialassistance in a country feeling the strains of war just over the border.
My very first experience of war came when I was a little girl growing up in Lebanon in the early 1990s. I still remember the feelings of uncertainty and the cries of fear as my parents and I cowered in underground bomb shelters not knowing what was going on above our heads. But from those dark days, I also vividly remember a strong sense of solidarity and the reassuring kindness of our friends and neighbours. I remember when someone who was injured found shelter in our family car and my father took him to the hospital. This experience no doubt played a part in my decision to join the Lebanese Red Cross as a volunteer over seven years ago.
Back then, in 2006, another of Lebanon’s wars brought the cruel realities of conflict to my region. As the south of the country became ablaze with rockets and gunfire, thousands of terrified civilians fled to Mount Lebanon, where I live, and I saw up close what war can do to people and their families. It was impossible to ignore the human suffering on our doorstep. One Sunday afternoon, after church services, I signed up to be a volunteer with the Lebanese Red Cross.
“How do you
help others, when
your own family
bitterly accuse you
of ‘helping the
As the main provider of emergency medical services in the country, the Red Cross has a special place in our society. In a volatile country, deeply divided along political and sectarian lines, the Lebanese Red Cross is one of the few organizations that brings all of us together for a single purpose: humanity. The Red Cross is also one of the few organizations in the country which has earned respect and trust from all sides — a very precious asset in a region plagued by suspicion and political agendas.
A major test
Between 2007 and 2010, we experienced a period of relative calm in the country. My main role as a volunteer was to be part of our emergency medical response teams which meant being called out to road crashes, accidents and other medical emergencies. We worked well together in our teams made up of young Lebanese from all walks of life. It was, of course, difficult at times but there is no comparison with the situation we are facing now. Nothing could have prepared us for what was to come.
In 2011, the conflict broke out in neighbouring Syria. As I write now, more than 1.6 million people have fled to neighbouring countries. Around 517,000 refugees have come into Lebanon and are in urgent need of medical assistance, shelter and basic supplies. I am now a staff trainer, responsible for ensuring our volunteers are equipped with the knowledge and skills to deal with this growing emergency in the border areas.
Initially, we were treating people with minor injuries such as cuts and shrapnel wounds. As the fighting intensified, we began receiving people with life-threatening gunshot wounds to their chests and heads. It can sometimes take up to four hours for us to transfer these people to the hospitals. With our long experience of war, our teams are technically very skilled in essential actions such as triage, first aid and medical evacuation. But the Syrian crisis has presented us with a new challenge and is testing our courage and even our ability to uphold the Fundamental Principles, perhaps like no other time in our history.
How does a Lebanese Red Cross volunteer from the Shi’ite community feel when the wounded Sunni patient he is carrying to the ambulance, tells him that he hates Shi’ites and wants to see them all killed? How do you remain strong when your ambulance is pulled over and your patient dragged into the road by an angry local? And how do you continue to volunteer and help others, when your own family and neighbours bitterly accuse you of ‘helping the enemy’?
These are the kinds of daily challenges we are now facing and it’s a fundamental test of character to let neutrality win over the expression and defence of
your own opinions.
Neutrality has always been a problematic and puzzling concept in much of our society, but today I believe it is more critical than ever. I am fearful that politics will interfere with our work and erode the compassion and solidarity that we try so hard to foster within the communities we serve.
Unity is another of the Fundamental Principles that can come under serious strain in times of conflict. Our National Society reflects the diverse mix of political and religious groups that make up our country and, since the establishment of the Lebanese Red Cross in 1945, never once have we allowed the conflict dividing our society to drive a wedge between us as humanitarians.
Until now, even in the darkest of days, we have remained united as a neutral and impartial organization. I am confident this will continue and it is the volunteers that will drive it forwards. It is our volunteers — young men and women, from all corners of our country — who are clambering into ambulances, unloading heavy relief goods and masking their own fears with words of comfort. They are the true guardians of our Fundamental Principles and national unity.
27-year-old Lebanese Red Cross (LRC) volunteer Berna Beyrouthy during a training exercise.
Photo: ©Lebanon Red Cross
LRC personnel transport a Syrian refugee injured in fighting between Syrian government troops and rebel fighters in June 2013.
LRC members inspect the scene of fighting between supporters of rival factions in November 2012.
Photo: ©REUTERS/Ali Hashisho
LRC workers carry a wounded woman after a car-bomb explosion in Ashafriyeh, central Beirut, in October 2012.
Photo: ©REUTERS/Sharif Karim
This segment in our series about the Fundamental Principles explores how the principle of humanity is intimately linked with our ability to be neutral and impartial in delivering assistance during times of crisis and tension.