Exceptional few days for the Tunisian Red Crescent

Published: 8 November 2011 15:20 CET

By Perrine Bell in Tunisia

The rumor spreads like wildfire: Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has been captured. He might even be dead. A frantic search begins to check if the information is true. Today is Thursday 21 October. We are at the headquarters of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in Tunis. The Arab Spring is still in full swing.  At the same time as bells toll the end of the Gaddafi régime, Tunisia is about to experience its first democratic election polls since the fall of the Ben Ali régime. The country is in a state of ferment.
Tunisian Red Crescent (TRC) teams have been getting ready for weeks for these polling days.  A wind of positive change has been blowing throughout the country and everyone hopes that these polls will be peaceful, but the Red Cross Red Crescent always prepares to be safe rather than sorry. With the support of the Federation and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) the TRC volunteers have made sure that everything will be ready to provide help should it be needed.
Between Sfax and Tunis, 60 volunteers have received a training dedicated to first aid in emergency settings.  A permanently manned emergency operations room has been set up with a volunteer roster allowing interventions around the clock in case emergencies arise throughout the polling period.

Four ambulances have been mobilised, two of which had already been put to full use in the migrant and refugee camps of Al-Hayat and Shousha in southern Tunisia as part of the response to the migratory crisis during the conflict in Libya. 
Many of the volunteers are ready to provide support to their fellow Tunisian citizens and were already working alongside their counterparts of the TRC southern branches in the migrant and refugee camps set up for populations affected by the Libyan conflict during the first half of 2011. From setting up tents to distributing food, building latrines and providing psychosocial support, their involvement was all encompassing. Today, the future of their country is at stake.
As horns in the background hail the death of the ex-Libyan leader, the TRC was setting up a VHF network to ensure that its teams would be able to react instantly should electricity or internet problems occur during the polling period.
Bernard Bouilly, a telecommunications specialist deployed for the occasion by the French Red Cross, went through Tunis with the team of TRC volunteers and IFRC staff to locate strategic reception spots to install antennas.  One of these spots happened to be the rooftop of the house of Mr. Mohieddine Elhani, General Secretary of the TRC branch in the town of Ariana, one of the largest suburbs of Tunis. Mr. Elhani welcomed the team with open arms.  He even insisted on lending a hand to set up the antenna.
While volunteers were busy with preparations, others were taking their citizenship duties to heart by getting involved at the polling stations as observers or facilitators. They spoke later of numerous stories that marked the day such as this young mother, holding her baby in her arms, and taking his hand in hers’ as she was dropping her vote into the ballot box while whispering to him: “I’m doing this for you.”  Or an old woman, moved to tears as she was voting for the first time in her life, proudly showing her left hand’s index covered in indelible ink to prove she had voted. Queues were long though: on average two or three hours and sometimes up to six to reach the ballot box.
The elections went smoothly. There was no need to activate emergency first aid preparations and everyone was relieved. Nevertheless, this will remain a memorable occasion in the memory of volunteers for many reasons, among which the possibility to set up a real emergency intervention plan with the most stimulating of motivations: that of helping fellow citizens in case of a humanitarian emergency. This was for all involved an important reminder of the very root of their engagement: the seven fundamental principles of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement.