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

Liberia’s Split Families Heal, Child by Lost Child

August 23, 2003, Saturday
FOREIGN DESK

Liberia’s Split Families Heal, Child by Lost Child

By TIM WEINER (NYT) 1036 words

MONROVIA, Liberia, Aug. 22 — ”Good evening,” said the voice of Radio Veritas, the Roman Catholic broadcast service in Liberia. ”This is the Red Cross family tracing program. We bring you the names of children who are looking for their parents.
”Shaka Toe is 3 years old. His father’s name is unknown. His mother’s name is unknown. His last address before he was lost is unknown.”

The list went on, and on, and on into the night. Fifteen miles away, in Banjor, a village of tiny, scattered, bullet-pocked homes, Comfort K. Toe was listening in hope and fear, for her child, another child, not Shaka.

All over Liberia, hundreds of thousands of families have been torn apart by 14 years of war. In the latest fighting, which began in June and died down when President Charles G. Taylor, an indicted war criminal, resigned 11 days ago, many hundreds of children disappeared. Some were torn from their mothers’ arms as the forces of the rulers and the rebels clashed in the capital, Monrovia, and surrounding villages.

The names of more than 1,400 of these lost children, from infants to teenagers, are in a laptop computer at the looted offices of the Red Cross in Monrovia, where a small team of Liberians led by a Swiss, Marcus Stössel, 30, is trying to help those children find their parents.

This week, the Red Cross’s family tracing program, which dates back to World War I, has been winning some small battles in Liberia.

Krubo Toe, a small, scared girl of 12, was sitting on a couch next to Mr. Stössel’s office on Wednesday, far from home. Her mother, Comfort, runs an orphanage for about 70 children in Banjor. All are from Bopolu, a district in northern Liberia about 70 miles away, which was torn apart by fighting 18 months ago. All had fled for their lives.
Toe is a common name in Liberia, and Comfort had looked for her child for five weeks until she heard about the family tracing program and reached the Red Cross workers, who had been driven away by the looting and fighting until a few days ago.
Krubo became lost five weeks ago, caught in the crossfire as the rebels swept into the outskirts of Monrovia. This is her story, in her own words:
”I was with my ma in town. The people were many and the firings were many, and this was where my ma and I parted. While we were running, I was pushed by a boy and when I got up, I couldn’t find my mama or my aunt.

”A man named Dennis brought me to town, and we went all the way in the night to Firestone,” a rubber plantation 40 miles away, where the man, Dennis Fahn, had a sister who had a house of refuge.

The Red Cross managed to get the family retracing program fully running again on Tuesday, when Radio Veritas, knocked out last month by government shelling, came back on the air. On Wednesday, the program determined that Comfort Toe and Krubo Toe were indeed mother and daughter. The child was taken off the list of the lost.
On Wednesday morning, Krubo was driven to her village in a Red Cross truck. The whole orphanage erupted with joy as Krubo walked out and her mother wept with relief.
”This war has taken everything,” Mrs. Toe said, speaking in her native tongue, Loma. ”The children have no food, no clothes, no medicine.”
The Red Cross workers then drove across Monrovia, to Paynesville, on the edge of the urban sprawl, and to the home of Fouad and Doris Russ Fares, who were sheltering a dozen lost and orphaned children, including a little boy who called himself Tutu and who turned out to be Chuku Kpehei David, age 4.

Two months ago, as fighting erupted in Paynesville, ”a soldier boy came to me, gave me this child and said, ‘Carry him, Ma!’ ” Mrs. Fares said. ”They were running away from the rebels’ shooting.” The boy was reunited that afternoon with his parents, who believed he was dead.

In Monrovia, few wounds are healing quickly; death, both slow and quick, still stalks the countryside, where people are still living on handfuls of wild cassava roots, dying of cholera and hunger, and dodging bullets.

In Lower Johnsonville, four miles up a rough road from the edge of Monrovia, Our Lady of Fatima clinic is home to 180 severely handicapped children and adults, 120 young war orphans and about 3,000 people of all ages displaced by the war.

In the absence of its founder, Sister Sponsa, a tough 78-year-old nun from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., who has worked in Liberia since 1970 and was far away, raising money in the United States, when Liberia erupted 11 weeks ago, it was run by Victor Wilson, 30, a Liberian crippled by polio.

In June, the clinic was robbed of $2,500 by government militiamen and by mid-July it was down to its last four bags of rice.

Sister Sponsa, on crutches and with sight in only one eye, is in Hazelton, Pa., trying to fly back to Monrovia. She was reached by telephone Thursday morning from her clinic as a United Nations World Food Program truck with rations of corn meal struggled up the road.

”Even in the last war, in 1990, we have never wanted for food,” she said. ”They managed to survive, somehow. I almost cried last week. And I don’t cry too easily.”

A World Food Program official who delivered the corn meal, Ramin Rafirasme, said far more desperate places than this clinic would be found as aid workers push into the countryside.

”It’s going to take years of work,” he said, ”and thousands of peacekeepers to secure this country.”

CAPTIONS: Photo: Doris Russ Fares takes Chuku Kpehei David, 4, who showed up with a soldier as crowds fled Liberia’s war, to his parents after two months apart. (Photo by Jehad Nga/Corbis, for The New York Times)

Liberia: Searching for Family

    MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) — The faces of children peer down from posters on street corners all over this battle-scarred capital pleading with Liberians to help reunite families shattered by war.
    Passers-by scrutinize each child in crowded rows of hundreds of photographs on the posters under the sign “Where Are Our Parents?” The posters were taped up by aid workers.
    The Red Cross is tracking more than 1,800 Liberian children reported separated from their families during this west African country’s last, three-year civil war — a fraction of the millions displaced in the 14 years of conflict.
    About 800 other children have been reconnected with parents or other relatives, though the reunion, is not always picture-perfect.

    The tracing effort is the largest ever attempted by the Red Cross in West Africa, said Marcel Stoessel, part of the program.
    “We’d like to solve these cases as soon as possible,” Stoessel said.
    Most of the children being traced are now living in Guinea and Sierra Leone, Liberia’s northern and western neighbors. Other children are in Ivory Coast, Ghana, or in Liberia itself.
    The reunion campaign is one of many humanitarian programs getting under way as Gyude Bryant, a longtime civilian campaigner against Liberian warlords, settles into office. Bryant was sworn in Tuesday as chairman of a two-year interim administration to lead Liberia out of devastating factional power-struggles and into elections in 2005.
    Bryant took over a nation in ruins, just two months removed from war and with thousands of fighters still in arms.
    Warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor resigned in August ahead of the signing of a peace deal, and now lives in exile in Nigeria. More than 4,000 U.N. troops are in Liberia to keep the peace. It is a force that will grow to about 15,000 — the largest U.N. force in the world.
    Sieges in the 2 1/2 months before Taylor’s exit killed more than 1,000 civilians in the capital, capping nearly a decade and a half of conflict estimated to have left more than 150,000 dead.
    Warring groups in Liberia — allied with rebel factions or government forces — have been notorious for recruiting child soldiers.
    Stoessel acknowledged that a small number of the children being traced were fighters in the war. “But they are just like other children and need to find their families,” he said.
    Not all parent-child reunions are joyous ones.
    Robert Mayson, 42, was reunited with his 10-year-old son Richmond on Thursday — the first time they’d seen each other since May, when the boy ran away from home in Buchanan, Liberia’s second city.
    Mayson, who is separated from Richmond’s mother, rode in a Red Cross truck to a tin-roofed shack in the heart of Monrovia where his son had been living under the care of another family.
    “I didn’t throw you out of the house,” Mayson said to his son upon seeing him.
    The boy, dressed in torn jeans and an oversized black T-shirt, said nothing and stared at the ground.
    “I don’t know what your problem is,” said Mayson. “You are from a good family. Why must you suffer yourself.”