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Abu Bakr: "ICRC is still the biggest humanitarian service provider in our country…"

25-05-2005 Feature

Abu Bakr Gamanga is a former teacher in Sierra Leone. He started with the ICRC as the guard at a residence during the war, and today is a communication officer at the delegation in Freetown.

Wars often put human beings in difficult and circumscribed circumstances, which can make life a miserable routine particularly for those people affected. Apart from the killings, the displacement, the separation to which families are subjected and the destruction of property, wars bring along hunger, disease, unemployment and an endless number of indescribable hardships to all people. These are only a few examples of the unspeakable miseries many families in Africa suffer today. Mine did too.

My country, Sierra Leone, a tiny dot of land in the west African sub-region, was enmeshed in a war between the government and the former Revolutionary United Front for over a decade. In 1998, I was a teacher living with my family in the capital, Freetown. I was also a caretaker of a residence that belongs to a family friend. The ICRC rented this residence for its medical expatriate staff who managed a war surgery facility at Netlands Hospital.

When the ICRC rented the house, I could have been asked to leave the premises because I was not an ICRC employee, but they offered me a job as a guard. While I kept the residence, it guaranteed me a place to live with my family. This is the first time I experienced " protection " , in a sense, from this organisation. The survival and future of my family depended - and still does - on this job.

The years of war forced hundreds of thousands of Sierra Leonean people to flee their homes and live displaced in other parts of the country. The ICRC was and still is the biggest humanitarian service provider in our country, bringing relief and succour to the victims through its material and medical assistance as well as its protection actions.

 Hope and help  

My people suffered war for nearly eleven years. In the midst of all the hopeless confusions and affliction, the ICRC came to us to bring real hope and to help equally all victims, whether victors or vanquished. The ICRC humanitarian intervention is the same everywhere: providing food, water, medical services and visiting detention places and localities affected by conflicts to help improve their living conditions and security respectively. The ICRC responds to the needs, giving priority to the most urgent and crucial cases of need.

Apart from the comprehensive assistance and protection work, I think one of the greatest contributions of the organisation to Africa is its commitment to promote and spread knowledge of international humanitarian law (IHL). It reminds conflict parties to respect and protect people not participating in the conflict (including civilians), draws attention to IHL breaches and contributes to its development.

The ICRC believes that teaching international humanitarian law constitutes one of the best ways of ensuring its respect. This approach justifies the institution's effort to raise awareness and promote the implementation of IHL around Africa and around the world. The fact that persons deprived of their freedom are protected by the very set of rules they may be accused of having breached, underlines IHL the impartiality of IHL, from which ICRC receives its mandate.

 Neutral intermediary  

In my view, the war in Sierra Leone represented a microcosm of how our home, Africa, has been - and still is - decimated and bedevilled by armed conflicts and internal disturbances, with so many conflicts raging in the continent. On the brighter side, though, many peace agreements recognise t he ICRC's role as a neutral intermediary between conflict parties.

It has tremendously helped in facilitating the release of people who had been deprived of their freedom because of armed conflicts and its work has helped prevent the disappearance of so many people in Africa. This is what undoubtedly makes the ICRC Africa's best friend, no matter how anyone may look at it.

As a guard, I found a space to nurture and develop my abilities. With time, my work evolved to become a senior communication officer. The humanitarian work has taught me sophisticated communication techniques, while sharpening my own natural skills. ICRC has proven a space of growth and evolution that I expect to reciprocate in favour of other victims of war in other countries. To me, this institution is a friend of the afflicted in times of war.