sad day for humanity
On 17 December 1996 six ICRC colleagues were
brutally murdered as they slept in their quarters inside the
Red Cross hospital compound in Novye Atagi, Chechnya. Yet
this bloody deed was more than a taking of human life: it
was a frightening display of contempt for the Red Cross and
all it stands for – for who, more than those who strive
to heal the wounded, are worthy of respect? Those who risk
their lives to save others, are they not the very essence
of humanity? This attack is more than murder.
At the airport as I stood on the tarmac waiting
with the families of the deceased, I shared their grief as
the President of the cause that their loved ones had held
so dear. But I also felt their pain on a personal level –
as a man feels pain in loss – for I too have a family
which I cherish. I tried to imagine my own anguish, had I
been in their shoes. Of course, I could not.
A light went out on 17 December. A light which
burns for all of us in the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.
In losing these colleagues we not only lost friends, but we
lost a glimmer of hope: the belief that what we are doing
is good and is seen to be good; the belief that human beings
care enough about each other to fight their wars fairly and
spare those not involved in the fighting; the belief that
the women of Solferino started something which reflected human
values and that those values have not become a naive irrelevance
today; that this barbarous act is not a sign of the times
but that it is an isolated incident never to be repeated.
Alas the evidence betrays that hope. In recent
years we have seen a frightening rise in the frequency and
violence of attacks directed at the Red Cross, and indeed
other humanitarians. It is vital that we stand together and
face reality head on – we cannot delude ourselves that
the danger will be muted by our anger and tears. We must get
out there and do the work we have been given to do by the
international community – the Geneva Conventions are
underwritten by States the world over and we must look to
them to take concrete action and harness the anarchy of modern
At the same time, we in the Red Cross and Red
Crescent Movement must use our combined strength to make people
aware of what we do, make them realise that we are helping
those who are entitled to help. It is laid down in the Geneva
Conventions that such humanitarian work must be respected.
I, as President of the ICRC, believe that it is up to us to
remind warring parties that all Red Cross and Red Crescent
staff must be protected. In a world where violence is accelerating
out of control, we all as human beings need to hang on to
a few basic principles. For to condone a violation of those
principles would surely spell the doom of humanity.
I call on you all, all of you in the Red Cross
and Red Crescent family and the States party to the Geneva
Conventions, to share with me the grief of having lost Fernanda,
Hans, Ingeborg, Nancy, Gunnhild and Sheryl, and to show solidarity
in rising to the challenge of carrying on their battle: the
battle to shine a light of humanity in the darkness of conflict.
Those who tried to put out that light on 17 December did not
succeed in putting it out forever – it burns still bright.
Cornelio Sommaruga, President of the ICRC