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“He did not forget”


150 years of humanitarian action

1906: The San Francisco earthquake proves the value of American Red Cross trained personnel during peacetime. The Japanese Red Cross sends US$ 152,000 to help quake victims.

Movement grows
National Societies continue to expand disaster response activities during peacetime. By 1913, the British Red Cross had trained some 57,000 people in first aid. The Empress of Japan, an early patron of the Jampan Red Cross, creates the Empress Shôken Fund to supprt the work of National Societies around the world.

1914: First World War begins. The so-called ‘War to End All Wars’ engulfs Europe and parts of Africa. The Movement responds to the first global conflict with humanitarian action on many new fronts. Roughly 10 million soldiers, and an equal number of civilians, are killed.

August 1914: The ICRC creates the International Prisoner of War Agency in Geneva’s Musée Rath. More than 1,200 volunteers work to restore contact between people separated by war, including prisoners of war, civilian internees and civilians in occupied territories.

Photo: ©ICRC archive
January 1915: (above) First-ever visit by an ICRC delegate to prisoners of war in Gardelegen camp, Germany. More than 10 million prisoners of war are held during the war.

1915: Poison gas used in trenches.

Wartime mobilization
National Societies expand dramatically. In Germany, 250,000 men and women enrolled to provide care for the wounded in 84 hospital trains and more than 3,000 hospitals. Some 63,000 French personnel served in hospitals, motorized surgical units and kitchens. When the US entered the war in 1917, Red Cross membership jumped from 300,000 to 20 million and the National Society recruited 20,000 nurses to serve with American forces.

1917: The ICRC receives the first of three Nobel Peace Prizes for its work during the First World War.

February 1918: The ICRC appeals to all warring countries to renounce the use of chemical weapons.

April 1919: First ICRC visit to civilian detainees in Hungary.

Photo: ©ICRC archive

New roles for women during war The conscription of young men in many countries created oppor-tunities and roles for women in Red Cross relief work, such as this ambulance driver evacuating the wounded from the front lines.

1919: Marguerite Cramer becomes the Committee’s first woman member. Pauline Chaponnière-Chaix, Suzanne Ferrière and Zénaide Dessonnaz are the first female delegates.

Fast forward
In 2011, roughly 46 per cent of newly recruited ICRC delegates were women.

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the timeline

THE IDEA WAS THERE AT THE INCEPTION, at the battle of Solferino, when Movement founder Henry Dunant came across a dying soldier who wanted to send a message to his parents. “A young corporal named Claudius Mazuet, some 20 years old, with gentle expressive features, had a bullet in his left side,” Dunant wrote in A Memory of Solferino.

Dunant promised to contact his parents and after returning to Geneva, “he did not forget the young man who died in his arms,” wrote Caroline Moorehead in her book, Dunant’s Dream. “[He] traced his parents to Lyon, to number 3 Rue d’Alger, and told them what had happened to their only son.” Just over a decade later, the idea was institutionalized when ICRC created the Basel Agency to provide tracing services and other aid for sick and wounded soldiers. At the outbreak of the First World War, the ICRC created the International Prisoner of War Agency in Geneva to help restore contact between people separated by war. A year later in 1915, the ICRC conducted its first-ever visit by a delegate to a prisoner of war camp.

Almost 100 years later, mobile phone and internet technology have revolutionized family tracing. Today, delegates and volunteers help people search for loved ones using mobile phones, satellite links and the internet while a new ICRC Restoring Family Links website ( now helps people initiate their own searches.

Still, most Red Cross messages are written on paper and hand delivered, carried into neighbourhoods on foot or bicycle by ICRC delegates or Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers. A volunteer for the Afghanistan Red Crescent, Saddiqa reads messages with Mohammed Ali Hakim, the ICRC tracing officer, to make sure they contain nothing that would compromise the ICRC’s neutrality, independence and impartiality. Most of the letters are in Pashto, others are in Dari, Urdu or even English. “Some have fine drawings, they’re quite remarkable because they have been drawn with a biro [ballpoint pen],” notes Saddiqa. Messages like these are then delivered by volunteers or staff such as Abdul Razaq, who has worked for many years on the front line of Afghanistan’s conflicts including the civil war in Kabul in the 1990s. “Rockets were falling everywhere, it was very dangerous. Every day I was picking the dead and injured fighters and civilians off the streets.”

Saddiqa with Mohammed Ali Hakim
Photo: ©Nick Danziger

Today, Abdul says delivering Red Cross messages is one of his favourite duties. “It’s often overwhelming, people are so happy to receive news from a loved one. Sometimes they have gone missing, they do not know what has happened to a son or a brother… and then you bring a message.”

Nothing replaces face-to-face contact, however. In Afghanistan, for example, the ICRC organizes bus trips to Bagram Air Force Base for relatives of people detained there and sets up video links to other US military facilities such as the US Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The ICRC’s work on behalf of people deprived of liberty has also evolved dramatically. In places such as Takhar prison, a tough, basic facility in Afghanistan’s Taloqan province, the ICRC helps prison officials make basic conditions of detention more humane. The population of 527 detainees is nearly four times what the prison was built to hold, so half of them live in makeshift tents in the main courtyard. In addition to meeting with detainees and delivering messages, the ICRC has helped improve the prison’s health clinic, upgraded latrines, installed a water tower and begun a shelter that will cover part of the courtyard and protect detainees from strong sunlight and rain. Abdulrab Motmaen, the prison director, says the ICRC’s help has transformed the quality of life in a way that the government cannot. Detainee Mohammed Hakim agrees, “Clean drinking water and the clinic have made an enormous difference to our lives.”

Photo: ©ICRC archives

‘At all times humanely treated’

War is hell. But as the above phrase from the 1929 Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War implies, humanity can be maintained in the way those who are detained are treated by their captors. In this practice exercise by Afghan authorities recently, the ICRC was invited to observe and make comments relative to international humanitarian law. It is part of the comprehensive efforts the ICRC has been making during this conflict, as in many others, to dialogue with all parties to the conflict on issues of proper treatment of detainees, protection of civilian populations, use of weapons that could cause indiscriminate death to civilians and many other issues.


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