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Anglo-Swiss nurse recalls Live Aid role

Claire Bertschinger was an inspiration to Bob Geldof clairebertschinger.com

This month marks the 25th anniversary of Live Aid, the historic international pop concert that helped raise millions for famine relief in Africa.

This content was published on July 28, 2010 - 13:42

It had been the television news image of Claire Bertschinger, a young nurse on a remote feeding station in Ethiopia, doling out meagre rations to a line of thousands and grimly choosing the recipients that brought the world’s attention to starvation in Africa and inspired Live Aid.

Bertschinger, who now lectures at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, was earlier this year honoured by the Queen for her life’s work. swissinfo travelled to Essex to meet the new Dame Claire.

Born in England into an Anglo-Swiss family, Bertschinger was on her second assignment with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 1985. For 20 years she fought to save lives in some of the most dangerous war zones on earth including Ethiopia, Lebanon and Afghanistan.

swissinfo.ch: What was life like in Ethiopia on a day-to-day basis?

Claire Bertschinger: It was a strange situation. I was working in a very remote area of Ethiopia, up in the Tigre province. You have to remember at the time it was a communist regime and there were at least two conflicts going on.

I was there with one other Swiss nurse and we were running a supplementary feeding centre with local Red Cross workers. There were thousands needing help.

I remember one day I was selecting who could come in [to the feeding centre] and I was only able to take 60 or 70 on that particular day. I counted ten rows and in each row there were over a hundred children. And I thought how on earth am I going to choose which ones can come in and which can’t? They were all seriously malnourished, had skin dripping off their bones and had no muscle or fat left at all.

This weighed heavily on my mind, because we could manage to feed the mother or father and a child, but what about the rest of the family? I knew they would die within a week or ten days because there was no food at all in the area.

So Live Aid and the whole aid programme that followed were vital to the survival of thousands of people in Ethiopia.

swissinfo.ch: How did you get involved with the Red Cross in Switzerland?

C.B.: I was an A&E [Accident and Emergency] nurse in Leeds in the north of England and at a bit of a loose end after a project I was supposed to be working on in Cambodia had been cancelled. So a friend and I decided to travel around Europe.

While I was visiting relatives in Geneva, my aunt suggested I apply to the Red Cross as they specialised in war zones and she thought I would be ideal with my experience dealing with trauma. She arranged for me to have an interview a week later.

I wasn’t good at French, but I knew I had to understand a bit to have any chance of being signed up by the ICRC. So I learned ten phrases in French during that week, which I could use at any time during the interview. A month later I was sent on my first assignment to Lebanon.

swissinfo.ch: You have written about coming back from these assignments physically and emotionally drained. What sort of support did you receive?

C.B.: My family, especially my parents, was very supportive. My mother wrote every week. Obviously, mail took ages to get through and I didn’t get a letter every week, they might arrive six at one time.

I used to dream about coming home to rural Essex and walking down the country lanes or across the fields, biting into a crisp apple picked off a tree, drinking beautiful cold water from the tap or just smelling the air shortly before it rained.

You’ve got to remember this was 25 years ago. Training was very basic. And in fact, just to get a day off for R&R [rest and recuperation] was very difficult. Taking time off was frowned upon. It was normal to work seven days a week. You just got on with it.

swissinfo.ch: Were there happy moments amongst all this sadness and suffering?

C.B.: You would be surprised at how much fun you can have in the poorest of situations. It only took a few weeks before the children started putting on a bit of weight and smiling again.

I used to play tag with them when they got better, or peek-a-boo. I would carry them on my back and sing. They would perform their traditional dances and we showed them how to rock ‘n’ roll. They used to love that.

swissinfo.ch: You went on to work in Afghanistan, Liberia and Kenya. How long did it take before you returned to Ethiopia?

C.B.: Five years ago, the BBC contacted me because they wanted to make a documentary in Ethiopia to mark the twentieth anniversary of the worst famine in history.

And I thought, “I don’t want to go back. What do I want to go back to Ethiopia for?” I thought the families of those I wasn’t able to save would hate me, so I was scared to go back.

But it was amazing. I was welcomed with open arms and I met some of my children and other children who had survived the famine and had graduated from universities and now were nurses, doctors, school teachers and IT consultants. There are new roads and hospitals.

Ethiopia has a very dynamic, lovely culture and everybody is determined a similar famine will never happen again. It was a delight to go back.

Andrew Littlejohn in Essex, swissinfo.ch

ICRC

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is a private humanitarian institution based in Geneva, Switzerland. It works around the world on an impartial basis to protect and assist people affected by war.

In line with its mandate, the ICRC endeavours to prevent suffering caused by armed conflict, notably through the promotion of international humanitarian law.

The original motto of the International Committee of the Red Cross was Inter Arma Caritas ("Amidst War, Charity").

The official symbol of the ICRC is the Red Cross on white background (the inverse of the Swiss flag with the words "Comité International Genève”.

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Live Aid

Live Aid was a multi-venue concert broadcast across the world on July 13,1985. The event was organised by musicians Bob Geldof and Midge Ure to raise funds for famine relief in Ethiopia.

Billed as the "global jukebox", the event was held simultaneously in London, England and Philadelphia in the US. More than 70,000 attended the British concert. Simultaneous concerts happened in other countries, such as Australia and Germany.

It was one of the largest-scale satellite link-ups and television broadcasts of all time: an estimated 2 billion viewers, across 60 countries, watched the live broadcast.

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