Volunteering for the Red Cross in the Central African Republic: why it is not for the faint of heart

Published: 2 March 2014 8:36 CET

Olivier Nyssens is a psychosocial delegate with the Belgian Red Cross, deployed to the Central African Republic with IFRC, to provide support to Red Cross volunteers who are witnessing the atrocities of the current conflict first hand. Based in Bangui for four weeks, these are his observations.

I arrived in Bangui at the end of January to support volunteers with the Central African Republic Red Cross Society (CAR RC) who have been on the front lines of the violence since it escalated in December. They have seen the unimaginable, collecting the bodies of those who have lost their lives in the conflict; bodies which have been massacred and neglected, left lying in the streets of the capital of Bangui. Teams of Red Cross volunteers escort the bodies to the morgue, doing their best to identify the victims to ensure they can be returned to their families. In the early days, they were transporting up to 40 bodies a day, and at times, were called upon to dig trenches and organize burials.

It is a job not for the faint of heart.

While people of Bangui flee the city en masse, CAR Red Cross volunteers help distribute food, dig latrines and promote proper hygiene in a bid to ward off the spread of disease. They provide first aid, and are often threatened by those taking part in the conflict.

In the midst of such chaos, a family is being formed. There are 600 Red Cross volunteers working in the capital. They are as young as 17 and as old as 60. In those first few weeks, many volunteers slept at the Red Cross headquarters. It was safer than making the daily journey through the city, and it ensured they were available 24 hours a day. Separated from their families, they became a family themselves, cooking dinner together, and settling down to sleep on the cement floors of the classrooms.

Some volunteers are also victims of this conflict. They too have had belongings or property destroyed; some have lost a loved one. Yet they continue to give of themselves, to help their fellow country men and women who are also suffering.

I am amazed to see the work done by these volunteers in extremely difficult conditions. Generally, Red Cross volunteers intervene after a disaster has occurred. Here, the disaster repeats itself every day, with the wounded being taken care of just as new ones appear. Danger can arise at any street corner, in any neighbourhood. And it is hot, with the temperature hitting 41 degrees Celsius on any given day.

As a psychosocial delegate, it is my job to help these volunteers cope with the atrocities they have seen. When I first met them, they had been living in this atmosphere for close to two months. Their resistance impresses me, even more so that they are very calm, smiling and ready to continue. Their motivation is strong. "I am committed and I continue," they say. "It is to serve all the people.”



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