The people behind the Red Cross emblems

June 24th, 2009 - 9:05 am ICT by IANS  

Geneva, June 24 (DPA) Almost getting killed on the first day on the job might be enough for most people to reconsider their line of work, but for some the incident just gets filed away as a story to tell in passing later in life.
Silvana Mutti of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was sent to the Caucasus, right in the middle the first war between Georgia, Russia and separatist groups in the early 1990s. It was her first assignment for the humanitarian organisation.

“On my first night I was almost killed by a stray bullet,” Mutti says, briskly sweeping her hand over her head to mimic the whiz of the projectile.

Her more poignant memory, however, is of the case-load of wounded people coming into the ICRC compound in need of medical care. After she “fell in love with the work of the ICRC” in that first war zone and more than 11 years of working for the organisation, in places like Colombia and Iraq, Mutti says nothing could make her leave the organisation.

“I could never really leave the ICRC,” she says. To give up that direct contact with civilians … no.”

She recalls joyous villagers hugging her and pouring drinks when she brought them letters from detained relatives.

Her colleague, Christophe Vogt, was given Rwanda as a first assignment in the mid-1990s. He arrived just after the genocide in which around 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus and been slaughtered and when refugees were starting to return home.

After 13 years with the Red Cross, serving in Colombia and the Balkans, Rwanda proved the toughest, not least due to the sheer number of bodies, says Vogt.

Vogt and Mutti agree that while teamwork is vital to their jobs, much responsibility is placed on the individual ICRC worker to get the job done.

“It depends on you,” said Mutti.

One official tells of the first delegate sent to visit Nelson Mandela in prison who was not well liked by the anti-apartheid icon. Things improved only when a younger and more savvy ICRC staffer was sent in. Since his release, Mandela has repeatedly thanked the ICRC for the visits.

Vogt’s favourite example seems as much a lesson in personal relations as in the absurdities an ICRC official can encounter.

“It was my birthday, I was turning 34 and I had a chat scheduled for that day with a commander of a militia group,” he says matter-of-factly about the five-hour drive into the jungle.

Vogt had been trying to secure the release of some hostages. He held many sessions with the militants to no avail, though the commander had always insisted Vogt drink alcohol with him, something he normally refused during work hours.

But it was his birthday.

“We drank whisky and we spoke about the hostages. Then suddenly, as I was about to leave, he changed his face and began to shout,” Vogt remembers. “And there he was, standing in front of me, one of the three hostages I was looking for.”

The militia leader then told Vogt: “Now take him and disappear or I’ll change my mind.”

Vogt, sitting in his office in Geneva, says he had never been so surprised by a birthday present.

Another woman, who asked not to be named, said she joined the British Red Cross movement as a struggling actress in need of work.

What was meant to be a temporary secretarial job turned into a passion for humanitarian work, and over a decade later she traces her life though the conflict zones and natural disasters that have made her career.

But the job does not always produce amusing stories. Italian Red Cross worker Eugenio Vagni, has been in captivity in the Philippines for over 150 days. Others have been killed or severely wounded in the line of duty.

One Red Cross worker recalls a place he describes as “the end of the desert at the end of the world” where he was based for several months at the heart of a conflict that the media rarely reported. The stress levels were high and some colleagues cracked.

Vogt says that in Rwanda only three of the 10 newest members of the ICRC team managed to stick it out for more than three weeks before asking to be sent home, horrified by the inhumanity around them.

So why do they do it?

“It is a humanistic care about humanity and human beings. Some people work for banks and make money, others are interested in human beings,” says Roger Mayou, the director of the Museum of the Red Cross in Geneva.

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