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Photo: ©Nick Danziger

“We would have died”

IN MANY WAYS, THE MOVEMENT’S EFFORTS in Afghanistan are emblematic of the gains and challenges faced by humanitarians today, 150 years after the creation of the ICRC. We asked photojournalist Nick Danziger, who has reported on conflict in Afghanistan for three decades, to return and talk to people about what it means ‘to prevent and alleviate human suffering’ on the battlefields and disaster zones of the 21st century.

Like many in the village of Hazar Bagh, in the far north of Afghanistan, Qualam was a farm labourer, working in cotton and wheat fields, when her village came under attack during a Taliban offensive not long before 11 September 2001.

In the panic that gripped the village, Qualam could not find all of her five children. She made the difficult decision to save the sons already with her rather than search for the others in case they should all perish in the bombardment.

“We knew the danger, that it could happen at any time as it had happened to neighbouring villages,” says Qualam. She walked with her children for two days and three nights, their stomachs aching from hunger, their bodies shivering from cold before finding shelter at a camp for the displaced in Khoja Bahauddin.

It was at this camp that Qualam first heard of the Afghanistan Red Crescent, the ICRC and other humanitarian organizations such as Médécins sans Frontières (MSF), which provided blankets, soap, tarpaulins, sugar and food. “Without ICRC’s intervention, we would have died of hunger,” she recalls.

It was also Qualam’s first encounter with organized humanitarian groups and the notion that civilians have rights under international law. “I didn’t know there were laws to protect civilians who are not part of the hostilities,” she says.

“At the camp, through MSF, I followed a course on hygiene. I became a hygiene trainer… Now that I am back home, I do the same thing, it’s my public duty.”

More than 11 years after I first met Qualam at the Khoja Bahauddin refugee camp, the story of her desperate flight on that night in 2001 has haunted me. Meeting her again, most recently a few months ago, reminds us how Dunant’s vision continues to save and change lives.

In fact, many of those helped here in Afghanistan have been empowered with the health, energy and expertise to help others, be they friends, neighbours or strangers. Tens of thousands of people have had their lives changed for the better. They’ve been sheltered and fed, received news from loved ones via Red Cross messages or had their story heard while in detention. They drink clean water or can walk and work more easily due to a prosthetic limb.
But even with all that’s been learned and achieved, the challenges are still daunting. What is now a diverse humanitarian sector does not have all the answers, resources or access it needs to alleviate the underlying poverty and violence. Health and aid workers face threats to their safety and security, humanitarian work is sometimes confused with political aims and, despite the Movement’s global scope, many combatants and civilians have little notion of the ICRC, humanitarian law or the red cross and red crescent emblems. We have come a long way in 150 years, especially in recent decades. But sadly, our story is in many ways similar to what Dunant witnessed on the battlefield at Solferino.


Clich here to continue with the
Focus on Afghanistan series.



150 years of humanitarian action

1850s: The conditions are ripe for organized international humanitarian action. The movement against slavery intensifies while awareness about the plight of prisoners and psychiatric patients grows. Military forces are creating better systems for medical treatment during conflict although they often prove woefully inadequate despite advances in medical knowledge. Leading medical minds advocate for new systems, including volunteer networks for treating the war wounded. Press reports about wartime conditions for wounded soldiers shock the public and shame some governments into action.

©ICRC archives

November 1854: Florence Nightingale arrives in Turkey with 38 nurses from England to care for soldiers wounded in the Crimean war. Even though conditions in war hospitals are atrocious, the volunteer nurses are not at first welcomed by military medical staff. Injured soldiers suffer in overcrowded, dirty rooms without blankets. Many die from typhus, cholera and dysentery.

24 June 1859: The armies of France and Sardinia clash with Austrian forces near the north Italian village of Solferino. Swiss businessman Henry Dunant witnesses the bloody aftermath, helps organize aid to wounded soldiers and returns to Geneva deeply moved and committed to improving the lot of people injured in battle.

©ICRC archives

1861: Clara Barton becomes one of the first volunteers at the Washington Infirmary at the outbreak of the US Civil War. She would later become a key ally of ICRC founders Henry Dunant and Gustave Moynier and went on to found the American Red Cross.

©ICRC archives

1862: Using his own money, Dunant publishes 1,600 copies of A Memory of Solferino and begins an intensive lobbying campaign to gain support for his idea of an international volunteer corps to assist wounded soldiers in war.

17 February 1863: Creation of the International Committee for the Relief of Wounded in the Event of War, precursor to the ICRC and the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement.

November 1863: The first Red Cross National Society is founded in Stuttgart, then part of the Kingdom of Württemberg. The Württemberg Red Cross would become part of the German Red Cross in 1921.

Click here to continue the timeline


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