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Echoes from the past, glimpses of the future

IN LATE AUGUST 1945, a young man named Fritz Bilfinger was the first ICRC delegate to reach Hiroshima after the city was devastated by an atomic bomb. “Conditions appalling,” he wrote in his first telegram to the ICRC’s representative in Tokyo, Marcel Junod. “City wiped out. Eighty per cent of all hospitals destroyed or seriously damaged… Effect of bomb mysteriously serious…”

Just as Japanese Red Cross Society nurses and doctors were dealing with a horror beyond their imagination, Bilfinger had come face to face with the unknown, a situation far beyond any of his previous experiences.

The archives of the ICRC, the IFRC and many National Societies are full of stories that echo Bilfinger’s struggles. Artefacts, letters, photos and drawings reveal an ongoing effort to find solutions in extreme, often hostile conditions.

Thanks to the courage, hard work and humanity of those volunteers, delegates and staff over the last 150 years, the humanitarian of the 21st century has a worldwide network of colleagues and a body of knowledge and law that now backs up and protects (albeit imperfectly) their efforts.

But even in today’s world, which boasts a vast humanitarian sector, we still face many unknowns. The need for courage, humanity and innovation is as great as ever. Just as Movement founder Louis Appia drew meticulous sketches of rolling stretchers and ambulance wagons (above) in order to share best practices with fledgling relief societies, today’s delegates and volunteers are solving complex problems with new ideas and the creative use of the latest technology. Movement efforts to share evidence-based first-aid procedures and best surgical practices, develop early warning systems and track disease via cell phone networks are just a few examples.

A special edition

This edition of Red Cross Red Crescent magazine, which commemorates 150 years since the official creation of the ICRC, is dedicated to these humanitarian innovators: volunteers, delegates and staff who have worked tirelessly to make the world a more humane place. They come from all walks of life, but their common humanity has compelled them to act even in the face of grave challenges.

We mark 150 Years of Humanitarian Action with a historical timeline, accompanied by current-day stories that reflect many of the same challenges our predecessors had to tackle. Our feature focus is the conflict in Afghanistan, which in many ways is emblematic of the problems faced by humanitarians today. The series on Movement history will continue throughout the year as we look at the evolution of National Societies and the 150th anniversary of the first National Societies. Then, in early 2014, we will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the first Geneva Convention by analysing the historic, current-day and future challenges for international humanitarian law.

In a world where neutral and impartial humanitarian action is still not universally understood or respected, these anniversaries remind everyone that humanitarianism has endured and, that the values espoused by both Henry Dunant and today’s humanitarian ambassadors represent norms of behaviour that must be respected.

These milestones are also a chance to reflect on the key questions facing humanitarian action. We hope the stories in this issue will help inspire this examination and, on page 28, we describe how to contribute your voice to the discussion. How should the Movement adapt? What have we learned? What are the most inspiring trends? The most threatening? Given what has been achieved — starting from scratch — in the last 150 years, what can we and must we achieve with the tools we now have before the Movement’s 200th anniversary? It’s your future. Now it’s your move. Let’s write history, together.
Malcolm Lucard
Editor, Red Cross Red Crescent magazine


One of the first ICRC delegates, Louis Appia, used sketches to share humanitarian innovations.
Photo: ©ICRC archives




That spirit of courage and invention in the face of hardship continued when ICRC teams performed surgery in a remote Yemeni desert in the 1960s.
Photo: ©ICRC archives




Today, the Movement uses technology to reconnect families, send out storm warnings and sanitation messages during natural disasters or, as pictured in the IFRC project above, track the spread and treatment of infectious disease.
Photo:©Benoit Matsha-Carpentier/IFRC


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