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My Red Cross
Red Crescent story


Professor Tha Hla Shwe

President of the Myanmar Red Cross Society

My first contact with the Red Cross came way back in 1966 when I was a young medical graduate in Yangon. I went out to volunteer in a suburban township called Mingaladon, where the Ministry of Health and the Red Cross were working together in the health clinics. When I started my volunteer work, I never imagined that more than 50 years later, the Red Cross would still play such a central part in my life.

Back then, Myanmar was in the early phase of independence from the British and poverty rates were very high. I will always remember the desperate faces of people, including nuns, monks and beggars, lining up to be treated for illnesses like diarrhoea, dysentery and malaria, and the commitment of the local volunteers who had been trained by the Red Cross to give vaccinations and basic first aid.

In 1967, I went overseas to pursue an academic career in tropical medicine and it wasn’t until almost 40 years later, in 2006, that I was asked to take on the role of president of the Myanmar Red Cross. Time may have moved on, travel may be easier and the technological advances have been enormous, but the fundamental principles and dedication of the staff and volunteers thankfully remain exactly the same as I remember from the 1960s.

I was reminded of this special spirit in 2008 when Cyclone Nargis devastated Myanmar. At least 130,000 people were killed and tens of thousands injured and unaccounted for in the densely populated Irrawaddy delta. The sight of young volunteers, many of whom lost their own homes in the cyclone, working their hearts out to help others was an immensely moving and unforgettable moment in my life.

Photo: ©Nick Jones/IFRC

“She had lost a lot of blood and was going to need a blood transfusion to save her life. I was terrified and could not imagine my life without her.”
Jeremy Nguee, speaking about how blood donations from the Singapore Red Cross Society blood bank saved his wife Liang’s life.

Photo: ©Singapore Red Cross

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Launched on World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day on 8 May, the year-long MyStory project shares personal experiences with the Movement.

Patrick Couteau

Long-time Red Cross Red Crescent health worker and former senior officer, HIV/AIDS global programme

As I prepare to retire after more than 30 years of service with the Red Cross Red Crescent, it still makes me smile to think it all started with Paris Match magazine in 1978. I was working as a nurse and one day was leafing through the magazine when I came across some powerful pictures of the unfolding refugee crisis in Cambodia.

The brutal Khmer Rouge had seized the country and people were fleeing for their lives. Desperate to help, I went to the head office of the French Red Cross to offer my services. But back in 1978, I was told that a male nurse in an exclusively female team would be too much of a ‘distraction’ and I was turned away. By chance, two of the nurses dropped out and I was soon on a plane to my first war zone as the first-ever male nurse to be sent on an international mission by the French Red Cross.

The situation in the refugee camp on the border with Thailand was chaotic and we worked day and night treating all kinds of illnesses, war wounds, landmine injuries and victims of rape. The Vietnamese would often bomb the area, forcing us to run for shelter.

One day, in the midst of an air-raid panic, a pregnant refugee approached me for help and I ended up delivering her beautiful twin babies despite, as a man, never having been allowed to train in childbirth. That was the moment I knew I wanted to work for the Red Cross Red Crescent for the rest of my career.

Many more missions followed including Uganda, Angola, Lebanon, Chad and Romania during the overthrow of Ceaucescu. Helping the many hundreds of abandoned children in the orphanages is something that will stay with me forever. Many of the orphans were HIV-positive due to the infected blood transfusions they were given to compensate for lack of food.

In the 1980s, AIDS killed many of my friends and I was, and remain, determined to fight against the stigma and fear created around people living with HIV. Training a team of Romanian university students as volunteers to touch, cuddle and play with the HIV-infected orphans contributed in a small way, I hope, to the enormous battle against HIV and discrimination and deprivation of love and care. Years later, while stationed in southern Africa, HIV and AIDS again reared its ugly head and I was horrified by the devastation the virus was causing to communities. Even after all these years, I am still overwhelmed by the outreach work of Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers in the field and the bravery, kindness and compassion they display.

My memories of young Kenya Red Cross Society volunteers paying — with their own money — for the funerals of their home-based care patients, so they could be buried with dignity, still reduces me to tears. I hope their work will continue until we finally eradicate the virus forever.

Photo: ©IFRC

Estanislau Guterres

Founding member of the Timor-Leste Red Cross Society

After Indonesian troops seized control of the country, I, along with thousands of others, fled to safety in the surrounding mountains. We hid there for almost three years, sleeping in the open air and finding food and water wherever we could. I quickly learnt basic survival skills. One day my luck ran out and I was spotted and fired on by a unit of Indonesian soldiers. I lost three of my fingers and was taken away to a detention centre to be interrogated.

Eventually I was released and it was when I made it back to Dili that I became aware of the ICRC and the work they were doing with political prisoners and others affected by the occupation and the conflict. The ICRC team hired me to help translate from Portuguese into our local language, Tetum, and before long I was given more responsibilities with detention visits, tracing and reuniting families.

Twenty years later, I was still part of the ICRC team, seeing communities struggle and try to pick up the pieces of their lives. In 1999, our country experienced more violence with the vote for a referendum on independence. With the prospect of independence looking more real than ever before and the huge workload on the shoulders of the ICRC, a group of us sat together and set the wheels in motion to set up our National Society.

In 2002, the Timor-Leste Red Cross Society was officially recognized by the government and in 2009, our logo was recognized by the parliament. A lot of my friends ask me why I have stayed with Red Cross since 1979. I tell them that in my heart, I love the Red Cross. That’s why all my life, I have been happy to work with the Red Cross.

Photo: ©Kate Jean Smith/IFRC

Álex Martínez

24-year-old lawyer at the municipal judicial complex in Managua, Nicaragua

In 2009, a Nicaraguan Red Cross violence-prevention programme came to Walter Ferreti, a violence-prone neighbourhood where I lived in Managua. I wasn’t particularly keen or interested in studying, but I joined the programme as a volunteer and ended up studying law. I have been employed at the judicial complex since 2012 and, appropriately enough, my job involves providing conciliation services for young offenders.

In Walter Ferreti, conflicts between gangs were a part of daily life, so it’s strange that I should end up involved in the Red Cross project as a facilitator and not as a member of one of these gangs that I saw every day.

Everyone deserves an opportunity and when one comes along, we must make the most of it. Still, I will continue to live in my old neighbourhood. I want to get married, have a family and carry on living in Walter Ferreti.

Photo: ©Vladimir Rojas/IFRC


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