Beyond the call of duty
by Bob McKerrow
against insurmountable odds, the staff and volunteers of the
Afghan Red Crescent have not faltered in their devotion to duty.
A Federation delegate describes how working with them has helped
him renew his own commitment to the Red Cross and Red Crescent
When in December 1993 I first visited Abdul Basir, head of
the Afghan Red Crescent’s International Department in
Kabul, one wall of his office had been blown out by a rocket
a few days earlier. Fortunately, Basir was not in his office
at the time. A blanket, flapping in the wind, served to keep
out the winter cold. All the windows were shattered, which
made it easier for destitute women queuing outside to put
their heads through to attract Mr Basir’s attention.
As I was talking to Basir, one of his staff rushed in. He
urgently needed to make a photocopy of an important document
for a young orphan who was travelling overseas for medical
treatment. Basir dug deep into his pocket and gave 1,000 Afghanis
of his own money to his colleague who walked the 30 minutes
into the city centre to make the copy.
At the time the Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS) must have
been one of the few, possibly the only, National Society headquarters
in the world without electricity. This meant no lighting,
no telex, no fax machine and no photocopier: in short, virtually
no contact with the outside world.
In addition, Abdul Basir had not been paid for six months,
owing to a collapse of traditional fundraising sources brought
about by 15 years of conflict in Afghanistan. But he, along
with his 350 colleagues at the ARCS national headquarters,
still came to work daily knowing there would be no pay at
the end of the month. A number of staff members had to move
their families from Kabul to safer parts of Afghanistan or
to Pakistan and are lucky if they see them once a year. Those
who have chosen to keep their families with them have been
forced to move three or four times in the last two years as
the conflict switched from one side of Kabul to the other.
Fortunately, through the support of the Federation and the
ICRC and the generosity of National Societies, things have
improved dramatically since that day in December when I first
walked into Abdul Basir’s office. The old generator
has been repaired and the once dim rooms are brightly painted
and equipped with heaters to warm the winter air. The British
Red Cross has built a workshop where a large fleet of vehicles
is serviced regularly. Staff now receive an incentive allowance
from the Federation in lieu of a salary until traditional
fundraising sources can be reactivated.
The lack of modern equipment and conveniences and the enforced
separation from their families notwithstanding, the ARCS staff
and volunteers provided assistance to 1.25 million beneficiaries
“Commitment of this kind is common within the Afghan
Red Crescent Society,” said Sakhi Dad Fayez, President
of the ARCS. Evidence of it is everywhere. When I visited
Samangan in northern Afghanistan, the ARCS clinic there was
still operating. Despite the fact they had not received supplies
or salaries for a year, Dr Hasamudin Hamnawa was still at
his post with two nurses and a pharmacist. When I asked why
he had stayed, he replied, “It is our duty. The Jihad
(holy war) is over. Now it is up to us educated people to
help rebuild Afghanistan.
Similar stories abound and they make Federation delegates
like myself question and renew our own commitment to our work.
Many times I have asked myself: “Would I still be working
in Afghanistan if I hadn’t been paid for six months?”
I know the answer.
The commitment is not only evident among the full-time staff
in Kabul, but pervades the ranks of the volunteers. “Over
the past nine months, up to 150 ARCS youth volunteers have
been working in Kabul,” says Farooq Jalalzay, the National
Society’s head of Youth. “Most are highly trained
first-aiders who work as volunteers in ARCS medical clinics
and take part in relief distributions, survey work and social
In January of this year, Abdul Habib, a 28-year-old Red Crescent
volunteer was killed when caught in cross-fire as he was going
to help distribute relief supplies. He left behind a wife
and four children under the age of ten. Two months later,
an ARCS headquarters staff member from the publications department
was killed by a rocket on his way home from work. He, too,
left behind a wife and two children.
The heart of a volunteer
Recently I accompanied Abdul Basir on a difficult field trip
to the mountain village of Qarluk in Badakshan. The village
of 750 people in the remote Hindu Kush had been hit some days
before by a monstrous landslide that killed over 350 residents.
All except three of the women in the village had been killed,
along with a number of children.
As we arrived in Qarluk, the survivors of the landslide,
mainly men, were huddled together in an atmosphere of grief
and bewilderment. Basir hugged them one by one and then spoke
to them with compassion and dignity. He told them that we
in the Movement were grieving with them and that they must
take heart. Basir, in his humble way, gave those men hope
at a time when their whole lives had been plunged into darkness
The next day, after distributing relief supplies to each
surviving family, he mounted a borrowed horse and rode over
a high mountain pass to two other villages in the next valley
of Teshkan, where 7,000 people were under threat from a tottering
mass of rock and mud high above their homes. Basir gave the
village leaders support and encouraged them to evacuate immediately.
Then he walked two hours along a path on the precipitous mountainside
before regaining the track and his horse.
A simple man, sporting peasant clothes, a bushy beard, sparkling
eyes and an ever-ready smile, Basir’s heart is too big
for his own good. At the beginning of May, Abdul Basir travelled
to Seoul, South Korea, together with a young ARCS volunteer,
Zaheer Shah, to represent the ARCS at the Asia-Pacific Volunteer
Convention. When he was invited to go, he said, “I shouldn’t
be going. I am not a volunteer.” I laughed, answering,
“You may have a full-time position, but you weren’t
paid for six months. I think you qualify as a volunteer.”
Bob McKerrow is the Federation’s Head of Delegation
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