A journey through our world at war


A Congolese boy waits to be reunited with his parents, an injured mother nurses her baby in a Haitian shantytown and an Afghan mine victim is shown how to walk again.

This content was published on June 4, 2009 - 10:27

These are just several of the hard-hitting images from the new exhibition "Our World – At War" put together by the Swiss-run International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and five of the world's top war photographers, members of the VII Photo agency.

The exhibition was launched on May 8 in New York and Geneva, and will later tour 40 other countries. It brings together individual stories of loss and suffering but also shows than even in the darkest hours of despair there can be a sense of hope and pride.

The exhibition is currently being showcased at the SIG Pont de la Machine building over the River Rhône in the centre of Geneva, whose calm setting provides a stark contrast to the images from conflict-ravaged regions.

The traumatic journey begins in Afghanistan where we discover the impact of its mine-infested regions – 100,000 mine victims after three decades of war. Patients at the ICRC Orthopaedic Centre in Kabul are shown being helped by relatives and by the head of the centre, Alberto Cairo, who shows a double amputee how to walk properly.

Then there is a young 16-year-old Afghan girl suffering from mental problems, who has been abandoned by her parents at the "marastoon", or "house of refuge", in Kabul, supported by the ICRC. She is likely to spend the rest of her days there.

Fourteen years of brutal civil war have wreaked havoc on Liberia's people. The VII Agency photos show members of the "Lone Stars", the Liberian national amputee football team, practising for their upcoming Africa Cup tournament. Football gives them back a certain dignity and will to live.

But many Liberian women suffered unimaginable suffering during this period. One photo shows a woman with an amputated arm clapping and singing in church with a caption describing how rebels forced her to sing, dance and clap while they tortured her husband and raped her 12-year-old daughter.

Colombia, Georgia, Haiti

Franco Pagetti reveals the impact of 45 years of war on some of the 2.5 million Colombians who have been forced from their homes. Meanwhile, Antonin Kratochvil travels to Georgia and captures images of 20 impoverished families living in a tiny home for the displaced with only one toilet and no running water.

According to the ICRC, in parts of Georgia unemployment stands at around 70 per cent. State aid amounts to only 22 laris (SFr10) per family per month.

"The displaced survive thanks to a regime of dry vegetables and pasta," explained Kratochvil.

Next stop Haiti – one of the poorest nations in the Americas. Here the picture is bleak: chronic poverty, deforestation, violence, lack of medical healthcare and political instability. The majority of the population survive on less than SFr1 per day.

"The population often cook mud cakes mixed with butter and salt so as to fall asleep without going hungry," said war photographer Ron Haviv.

Lebanon and DRC

The painful journey takes us to Lebanon, where Pagetti shows the impact of the conflict with Israel and fighting between the Lebanese army and armed groups in 2007.

The conflict in Mindanao in the southern Philippines between the government and Islamic rebels is a forgotten war. But it has resulted in thousands of victims, 250,000 displaced and more than 60,000 prisoners. The ICRC reminds us that in January of this year three Red Cross members of staff were taken hostage in the region. One of them, Eugenio Vagni, is still in rebel hands.

The final stage of the exhibition is devoted to the long and brutal conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

"One of the worst humanitarian emergencies over recent decades," is how the ICRC describes the problems there – three million deaths, malnutrition, illnesses, a million forced from their homes, and where sexual violence is commonplace.

The conflict has killed fathers, torn families apart and "abandoned children survive like vagabonds", said Haviv.

Haviv focuses his camera on Congolese rape victims who visit "listening houses", where they can find a sympathetic ear and professional advice to deal with their traumatic ordeals.

Dignity and compassion

The ICRC says the exhibition is intended to serve as a reminder that war has not become more benign since the Battle of Solferino in northern Italy, which led to the creation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

But it also draws attention to the inspirational attempts that continue to be made, by ordinary men and women to limit human suffering in some of the most violent corners of the world, it says.

Nachtwey agreed: "When people are suffering, it doesn't mean they don't express dignity. When people are afraid it doesn't mean they lack courage. When people are in pain, it doesn't mean they don't have hope.

"Whatever else one might see or feel when looking at a picture of human suffering – outrage, sadness, disbelief – what I think is essential to take away from such an image is a sense of compassion."

Rodrigo Carrizo Couto in Geneva, (Adapted from Spanish by Simon Bradley)

Key facts

VII is a photo agency dedicated to socially committed documentary photography based in New York.
It was founded in 2001 by seven photographers: Alexandra Boulat, Ron Haviv, Gary Knight, Antonin Kratochvil, Christopher Morris, James Nachtwey and John Stanmeyer.
The Our World – At War exhibition is part of the movement's Our World. Your Move campaign, which aims to highlight today's most pressing humanitarian challenges and the power of individuals to make a difference.
It was launched in New York and Geneva and more than 40 countries worldwide on May 8. It is currently being held at the SIG Pont de la Machine building over the River Rhône in the centre of Geneva and runs from May 8 - June 30.

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The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement

The network has three components.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), founded in Geneva in 1863, operates worldwide, helping the victims of war and internal violence, acting as a neutral mediator in cases of conflict, and promoting knowledge and respect for humanitarian law.

The ICRC's headquarters are in Geneva and the organisation has more than 12,000 staff in 80 countries around the globe.

There are 186 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies around the world, which form the backbone of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. Each national society is made up of volunteers and staff, who provide a wide variety of services, ranging from disaster relief and assistance for the victims of war, to first aid training and restoring family links.

The national societies are grouped in the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which was founded in Paris in 1919.

The federation promotes the humanitarian activities of national societies among vulnerable people. By coordinating international disaster relief and encouraging development support it seeks to prevent and alleviate human suffering. It also has its headquarters in Geneva and oversees 1,300 staff worldwide.

Worldwide, there are around 100 million Red Cross and Red Crescent staff, members and volunteers.

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