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Shahnaz Photo: ©Nick Danziger

“I couldn’t leave
these women”

“I HAD NOTHING,” says Shahnaz of the day not long after her husband disappeared that she first went to live at the marastoon (‘place of assistance’ in Pashto), an asylum for destitute, widowed and mentally challenged women provided by the Afghanistan Red Crescent. “I couldn’t turn to my family, they didn’t have anything to spare, they were living off the land in Nejrab. Like my husband, one of my two brothers disappeared at the same time. With nowhere to go and unable to support myself, I moved to the marastoon, where I lived for five years.”

Today, Shahnaz, at 54, is one of two women at the Kabul marastoon in charge of helping those with mental health problems. There is no task too difficult or too degrading for Shahnaz. She cares for these women and children who have been abandoned or whose parents are imprisoned as if they were her own, cleaning, consoling, cajoling them through their moods, which in the blink of an eye can turn as quickly to violence as to docility.

The workers in Afghanistan’s marastoons (first set up by the government in the 1930s, and then given over to the Afghanistan Red Crescent to run in 1964) are an example of how time-honoured, local systems of protection and assistance have been built up and supported by Movement efforts and investment. Other National Societies have supported the marastoons and, in 1994, the ICRC intervened to rescue people at the Kabul marastoon, when it was the front line in the country’s civil war.

In 2001, while I was working on a story for this magazine, Shahnaz talked about those days, when her daily commute had become a matter of life and death. “I was terrified of the bombing. But I couldn’t leave these women on their own. There would have been no one else to look after them.”

Speaking a few months ago, during my most recent visit, the memories are still fresh. “I would leave my home and cross the city and the front line and barricades that were not far from the marastoon. I knew it was dangerous and I was scared. When I couldn’t leave my children at home, I brought them with me to work. One day Basir, my oldest son, and one of my daughters, 7 at the time, were injured. I was also hit by shrapnel. I still feel pain in my arm and hand when I raise it.’’ Shahnaz even brought orphans and women to her own house when, at one point, the marastoon became unsafe.

Shahnaz’s story is an example of the transformative nature of humanitarian action. Today, she sees herself as one of the fortunate ones, able to work and make a difference in the lives of others during a time of relative peace. “I am a lucky mother, my children are all happily married, the orphaned children I looked after have been adopted… I have a good life that makes me think I am a very successful woman.”

1864 “Almost
by the cold”

These are the words of Charles Van de Velde, describing the conditions as he journeyed north to Denmark as part of the Committee’s first-ever delegation to an international conflict. The mission would influence the future of humanitarian action and the budding efforts to create an international convention. It also marked the first use of the red cross emblem. Van de Velde and Louis Appia set out in the winter of 1864 to observe, meet with and help organize assistance on each side of a conflict between Danish and Austro-Prussian forces. Freezing temperatures were not the only hardship. Danish authorities, press and military officials were openly critical and sceptical of this ‘neutral’ mission in which the Danes were attacked by a far superior fighting force. This new ‘committee’ should be condemning the aggression against the Danes, press reports said, not sending offers of help to both sides. Later, Van de Velde asked to go under the flag of truce to the Prussian hospitals to collect the names of Danish prisoners and wounded, and share news with anguished Danish families. The mission was turned down as ‘communication with the enemy’. “Surely this illustrates,” he wrote, “the need to ensure that the resolution concerning the neutrality of volunteer aides is put into effect.”

©ICRC archives

Louis Appia
Photo: ©ICRC archives









Charles Van de Velde
Photo: ©ICRC archives









Clich here to continue with the
Focus on Afghanistan series.




See an interactive timeline
of ICRC history at:

1864: The Committee’s first delegation helps shape the course for the Geneva Conventions and the future of neutral humanitarian field work.

Photo: ©ICRC archives

August 1864: First Geneva Convention signed by 16 states. Officially named the Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field, the document’s ten articles laid the foundation for neutral humanitarian action and called on warring parties to respect medical personnel in the field.
“Finally, all Europe had united to study the means of putting a curb on the brutalities of war, and to create instead a striving among the nations, the peoples, the races, to vie with each other in dedication to humanity.”
From the memoires of Henry Dunant

Photo: ©ICRC archives

1864: By the end of 1864, there are already 11 National Societies for the care of war wounded in Europe.

Photo: ©ICRC archives

1866: The Geneva Convention is first applied in the war between Prussia and Austria.

History in the making
Starting 8 May, the IFRC will launch an interactive, online historical timeline showing the creation and evolution of National Societies. Go to:

Photo: ©Conor Ashleigh/IFRC

Fast forward
In 2012, the Republic of South Sudan, the world’s newest country with one of the Movement’s newest National Societies, ratified the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols. Today, 166 countries have signed the Conventions and both 1977 Protocols, which trace directly back to the Convention created by the founders of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement.

Click here to continue the timeline


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