ICRC: A Lifestyle

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) accepted me in 2001 as one of their infamous yet unknown delegates. After having attended the HEI and after having worked and travelled before that, the reality of my life fundamentally changed when I arrived in a small ICRC aircraft (“Red 607”) in Kenema, Eastern Sierra Leone. I started to do such previously unimaginable things such as talking to prisoners in private and speaking with the prison director afterwards; organizing relief distributions for 12’000 families, who returned home after the conflict; or asking villagers questions together with a nutritionist in order to find out how successful our seeds distributions were one year before.

The young girl from Sierra Leone is back with her family after two years of separation – family reunion organised by the ICRC from Sierra Leone to Liberia, 2002.

The ICRC became very much my life, as I was identified with the organization not only when I had to represent it in front of administrative authorities, military commanders, or the Sierra Leonean Red Cross Society. After this first mission, the ICRC moved me to neighbouring Liberia, where I was working with up to 80 Liberian staff and volunteers to deliver thousands of “Red Cross Messages” to lost family members and to organize hundreds of family reunifications of unaccompanied children with their parents. It was an extremely gratifying experience to bring news about loved ones to desperate people.
But the situation was difficult: We only had access to part of the country, and the conflict finally reached Monrovia in what Liberians called the Three World Wars (three attacks on Monrovia in summer 2003). We could only continue essential lifesaving activities out of a residence and a hospital we supported. I was evacuated twice, and once I stayed with the core team behind. In between attacks, we were able to move and distribute food, blankets, and water, trace missing family members, and repair some of our destroyed equipment. I saw the ICRC at its best, using limited resources to save as many lives as possible. I will never forget the energy with which our Liberian staff, many of whom have lost their houses and belongings, worked. And the people of Monrovia will never forget the ICRC as one of the few organizations, which stayed with them during their most difficult time.

Stray bullet in our office, Liberia, “Second World War”, 2003.

After the artillery shells, stray bullets, and child soldiers, I had to get used to a different type of unfamiliar circumstances when, after a long break, an Email announced my next posting in “Jenin, in the Occupied and Autonomous Territories”. As a responsible for two small offices in the North of the West Bank, I became a very tiny humanitarian actor in one of the most mediatized conflicts of the world. Both sides are very aware of the need for a humanitarian intermediary, be it for the safe passage of ambulances or the exchange of prisoners. On a daily basis, I would speak with people, who didn’t like each other (to express it diplomatically) about humanitarian issues, help to organize family visits for detained Palestinians, transmit family messages, and collected allegations about violations of international humanitarian law (IHL). Privately, I had Israeli and Palestinian friends, who often asked me on which side the Red Cross stood. I answered in the same way as my colleague, who was asked if he preferred Palestinian or Israeli food. He said: I prefer Japanese.

ICRC office in Jenin, 2004.

My present posting is in a place at least as foreign as Japan: Since January, I call “Abéché” my home. Abéché? I asked the same question. It’s in Eastern Chad, in the desert, on the 700 km border with Sudan’s Darfur region. With a team of 10 expatriates and around 30 Chadian staff, we work to establish the link between Sudanese refugees and their families back in Darfur, repair defunct water systems and monitor the situation of the Chadian population. And of course, we visit detainees and organize speeches about IHL to various “arms carriers”. I don’t know how the population can live in this adverse environment, let alone accommodate 200’000 refugees. To even try to start to describe the conditions under which we work, would not give justice to the diarrhoeas and the car breakdowns of our delegates.

Along the 700 km of border between Darfur and Chad, on a satellite phone, 2005.

After West Africa, the Middle East and the Sahel Zone, what will be next? I don’t know. The most frequent question I have to answer (apart from: “who is cleaning your laundry?”) is “How long do you still plan to do this?”. Answer: As long as I see a sense in the work, as long as I don’t become cynical, as long as there is something to learn, and as long as I haven’t met my princess. How many people can claim that they see a sense in their work, and that they enjoy it at the same time?

Marcel Stoessel

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