Volunteers on the frontline tell of a new Solferino in Libya

Publicado: 23 diciembre 2011 12:00 CET

By Perrine Bell in Libya

While much needs to be rebuilt in post-Gaddafi Libya, the roots and branches of the National Society remain solid. Volunteers, often involved for many years, have grown up with the Libyan Red Crescent as their second family.

Kais was nine years old when he took his first steps with the organization in 1984 following an introduction to first aid by volunteers at his school. Kais became a volunteer in 1994, and has recently been nominated as Director of the Benghazi Branch. His friends Oussamah, a 29-year-old doctor; Ziad, a mechanical engineer and the acting volunteer coordinator; and Walid, his brother, have been volunteering with Kais for 15 years. There are thousands like them in Libya. 

At the onset of the revolution, the Libyan Red Crescent leadership was trapped between its role as an auxiliary to government and the changes that were sweeping across the country. Thousands of people took it upon themselves to bring help wherever they could. The key for the Red Crescent was neutrality.

As most hospitals were staffed by foreign personnel who fled the conflict, the health system collapsed. Confronted with the shortage in workforce, the volunteers grabbed their Red Crescent jackets and did what they could. No one expected the civil unrest to become a civil war that would last for nearly a year. “The revolution in Libya was really that of young people eager for freedom and to create a better future for themselves,” says Patrick Schwärzler, the Head of the ICRC sub-delegation in Benghazi. “It was like living a new Solferino. Volunteers went out to the field with goodwill and the passion of youth. They looked around, assessed needs, and did everything in their power to bring help wherever they could.”
With telecommunications networks down, word of mouth took over.

Volunteers communicated the numbers of affected people, their location and their needs. Without this invaluable information the ICRC could never have reached those in need says Ghafar Bishtawi, Protection Delegate. The ICRC and volunteers worked together in areas of conflict, following the fighting day after day. As the ICRC was dealing with protection, dissemination of international humanitarian law, family-linking issues and provided relief, volunteers evacuated civilians and wounded soldiers, provided first aid and distributed food, water, hygiene kits. They worked around the clock, using their own cars and resources to pay for anything needed. They were often the first and only ones to be present on the most dangerous fronts. Two volunteers were killed and many wounded, but that did not alter their courage and determination.

People fleeing battles found themselves scattered around the country in camps for the displaced. In March, Benghazi volunteers took charge of one of these camps. Over ten months, it sheltered 75,000 people. At the peak of the crisis, Ziad, Oussamah, Walid, Kais and 200 other volunteers worked to provide for the needs. Oussamah, the doctor, ran the camp’s clinic, setting up a rotation of volunteer specialists so that all ailments could be treated.

According to the United Nations Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs, as of early December there were still approximately 63,000 internally displaced people in need of assistance in Libya. To make matters worse, refugees from Syria are crossing the Libyan border in increasing numbers, fleeing heavy fighting in Homs. The Red Crescent Benghazi camp was still full in early December, sheltering 600 adults, 49 families and 100 refugees from Somalia, Romania, Chad, Sudan and Bangladesh. There was a long waiting list even before an additional 53 Syrian refugees arrived.