Madagascar: Red Cross volunteers on alert amidst growing tension

13-03-2009 Feature

Amid the growing threat of violence in Madagascar, the Malagasy Red Cross continues to mobilize volunteer teams of first aiders all around the island, prepared to help treat and evacuate people injured in political demonstrations. A report from the capital, Antananarivo by the ICRC's Mike Myers.


  © Malagasy Red Cross    
Antananarivo, Madagascar. A seriously injured person is transferred to a Malagasy Red Cross vehicle for evacuation to hospital.    

In the small, oil-stained courtyard behind the Malagasy Red Cross (MRCS) national office, the ambulances are being cleaned out and prepared for another day on duty. Dozens of volunteers, impeccable in new white vests bearing the MRCS logo, are at work – shifting boxes of dressing kits, loading the truck, re-checking supplies in the ve hicles.

Most of them have been on standby since 9 a.m., but the opposition march is planned for 12 and it’s time to get organized and to get the teams pre-positioned at strategic points in Antananarivo, the capital of this mini-continent in the Indian Ocean.

Tana, as the city is known, has been the scene of political confrontation since mid-January, when demonstrations opposing the supporters of the head of State to those of the dismissed mayor of Tana started. In the weeks that followed, repeated protests and strikes have been the norm, with occasional violence, looting, burning and shootings that have left scores of people dead and injured. Night-time curfews have also been enforced.

In this tense situation, the MRCS has been constantly there for the victims, with teams standing by in case of violence, or sent out to establish first-aid posts near to planned gatherings or marches. The ICRC, from its office in Tana, has been supporting them with first-aid supplies, stretchers and funding, but it’s the staff and volunteers who provide the vital human element: people on a mission to help.

Giving their time and skills

Red Cross volunteers, it turns out, come from all sorts of backgrounds. A few took time out to talk about themselves and their reasons for giving up their time to be here on a sunny Saturday morning.

Rado describes himself as a shopkeeper and has been volunteering for the Red Cross for two years. He likes the training he gets and is now himself a community trainer in sanitation and hygiene, as well as a first aider. Rado was on duty the day a number of protesters were shot.

Alice's motivation and concerns are more traditional – she wants to help people who are suffering. For a year she has been involved in the MRCS water and sanitation education project and with youth training, but did not hesitate to offer her first-aid skills when the situation turned bad.

Alice has children and a husband at home who worry about her being out during these violent days – but she has made her choice and is anxious to get back to the job of preparation with the other volunteers. Both she and Rado have been here six days a week for the past month, on standby or helping the injured. Both seem ready to go on helping for as long as it takes.

Appreciated by the community

  © Malagasy Red Cross    
Antananarivo, Madagascar. Malagasy Red Cross volunteers evacuate a casualty during protests in Antananarivo.    

Their motivation is boosted by the fact that the work of the National Society has been highlighted in the local press – after all, MRCS is the only organization providing first aid and getting the injured to hospital during the current tensions. The hospitals praise their role and the communities themselve s are expressing appreciation for the volunteers'efforts.

One first-aid team leader recounts, embarrassed, that he finds it difficult to queue for bread now. " They just push me to the front, saying'This guy is with the Red Cross, let him through'.”

Njaka paid for a first-aid course in 2004, but came back to the MRCS to volunteer in January. The Red Cross gives him and others a chance to help and to make a difference, without having to take sides in the political dispute – that's why he is here. Dad is pleased and Mum is worried, but either way Njaka will be here every day he's needed. Though the waiting gets tough, he'll only go back to his real job, teaching swimming, when things calm down.

Groans can be heard around the MRCS compound – good news and bad. The march has ended peacefully and the teams are coming back in, but another demonstration is already announced, this time unusually on a Sunday and, who knows, things just might get bad. Staff and volunteers alike had been looking forward to a traditional, sleepy Tana Sunday.

Boxes are unloaded, vests returned and signed in, ambulances locked up and volunteers trickle away, heading for home. " See you tomorrow, " they say, wondering what tomorrow might bring.