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Red Cross workers train for war

Trainee ICRC delegates are ambushed by rebels

The International Committee of the Red Cross expects its delegates to keep their cool in conflict zones.

Before they are sent out into the field, all future delegates must undergo gruelling training to make sure they are ready for the challenges ahead.

The training takes place in the countryside just outside Geneva, where new staff take part in a series of simulated exercises, from negotiating road blocks to assessing the needs of a bombed field hospital.

“As far as possible, we want to give them an idea of what they may face in the future,” Raymond Desmeaules, chief trainer for the ICRC, told swissinfo.

Desmeaules says the risks faced by aid workers today are high. In many modern conflicts, humanitarian organisations have suffered more casualties than armed forces.

“Twenty years ago the emblem of the Red Cross was respected,” Desmeaules says. “We took it for granted that we could go where we wanted. Nowadays we have to negotiate our movements on a daily basis.”

Idealism versus reality

The ICRC receives around 4,000 applications a year, but selects only 250 people as future delegates.

Many candidates, like 27 year old Cynthia Breitler, a former teacher from canton Valais, are motivated by the humanitarian ideals of the Red Cross.

“Here in Switzerland we are lucky to live in a beautiful, peaceful country,” Breitler told swissinfo. “Other people are not so lucky and if I can lessen these people’s suffering, I want to be there and do it.”

The training course turns part of peaceful Switzerland, however, into a mock war zone, where dangers lie around every corner and any mistake is costly.

Cynthia and fellow future delegate Urban Caluori join four other trainees in a Red Cross jeep. Armed with a map, they set off into the countryside.

Angry rebels

Before too long the jeep has to stop at a government checkpoint, where the delegates have to pick up an injured woman who has stepped on a landmine.

But the government soldiers are suspicious and angry. One of them tries to get into the jeep, brandishing his gun. This is strictly against ICRC policy: delegates must remain neutral at all times and never touch weapons.

This is an crucial moment for the trainees: can they persuade the soldier to get out of the jeep without allowing the tense situation to deteriorate?

“They need to be calm without cowering in front of the guns,” Desmeaules explained. “But we don’t want Rambos either. They should comply but not obey.”

It’s a fine balancing act and one that’s about to become even trickier.

As the delegates set off in their jeep again, the government checkpoint comes under rocket attack. Round the next bend, a rebel road block is waiting.

“Get out, get out,” scream the rebels. They are in fact disguised senior Red Cross workers themselves, but it becomes ever harder to remember that amid the rocket fire, the shouting and the waving of machine guns.

“Get on your knees and shut up,” they shout. “Give us your money, your watches, everything.”

Urban tries to talk to the rebels. “Can I stand up?” he asks. “Can I introduce myself? We are the International Committee of the Red Cross.”

Clear and calm

One of the most important tasks of the delegates is to explain clearly and calmly that the ICRC is there to help all the victims of conflict, irrespective of which side they support.

“This is something they all need to improve on,” said Paolo Secchi, the Red Cross worker who played the role of chief rebel. “They need to get the message and the ideals of the ICRC over much more clearly.”

After the day’s simulated fieldwork, the delegates have to attend a rigorous debriefing session, conducted by Josienne Friedrich, a former delegate with years of experience in Africa.

Once again the trainees are monitored closely; Friedrich wants to make sure that they report the most important things they have witnessed during the day.

Urban and Cynthia, for example, provide a good assessment of the needs of the bombed hospital, but they forget to mention that the wounded woman they picked up got her injuries by stepping on a mine.

“A mine!” exclaims Friedrich. “But this is very important. We didn’t know there were mines in that region, we are going to have to inform everyone.”


Afterwards, Urban, Cynthia and their fellow trainees have a chance to relax and reflect on the day.

“I think I made a lot of mistakes,” said Urban. “But I think the experience has helped me to know myself a bit better, a very little bit at least!”

Urban has also had time to think about the dangers involved in being an ICRC delegate. “Actually I’m not frightened,” he said. “That’s something I’ve thought about a lot, and really I’m not. I just touch wood and hope it doesn’t happen to me.”

And his commitment to the ideals of the ICRC remains intact.

“The principles of humanity are followed less and less in this world and that’s obviously a bad thing. So if I can contribute to upholding them, why not do it?”

Cynthia too, is undeterred by the experience the training has given her of the real life of an ICRC delegate. Her concern to help the innocent victims of war is as strong as ever.

“It’s a gut feeling,” she said. “I want to help the victims. I know I can’t save the world, that’s not what the ICRC is for.”

“But if we can make a difference for one or two or even three people, then I think it’s worth a try.”

swissinfo, Imogen Foulkes

The ICRC receives around 4,000 applications a year and accepts around 250.

It maintains a completely neutral stance and helps all victims of war.

The ICRC also visits prisoners of war and helps to get messages to the families of people displaced by conflict.

Aid workers are increasingly at risk in modern conflicts. Their recent casualty rates are higher than those of troops in uniform.

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