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Humanitarian trekking in Nepal

31-05-2003 Feature

Christine Luthi likes hiking in the mountains, which is just as well since the 31-year-old’s first mission for the ICRC has taken her to Nepal. Together with a few others, she criss-crosses parts of the Nepalese Himalayas racked by conflict. They may resemble tourists – but their job is to visit detainees.

Christine talking to a chief district officer. 
Ref. NP-E-00001 
Christophe talking with a war wounded man at Shanti Shewa Griba Leper Hospital. 
Ref. NP-E-00012 

Christine will be returning to Switzerland in three months to be reunited with her much-adored cat Mousse and her dog Chip, looked after while she is away by her parents and a friend. Modern communications have made the world a smaller place but you can’t convey affection to your pets by e-mail. At least not yet.

After graduating from veterinary school, Christine left for Canada. But that did not last long and she was soon back living with her family in scenic western Switzerland, where she and her father resumed their Sunday hikes. After a while, however, Christine again felt the urge to experience something different and applied to work for the ICRC.

The organization sent her to Nepal, a country this year commemorating the 50th anniversary of the conquest of Everest and celebrating the opening of talks aimed at ending seven years of fighting between rebels and government forces.

The ICRC told Christine to take her hiking gear since her work would involve long, arduous journeys on foot. No problem for someone who is happy with an assignment that combines natural beauty and the discovery of a new world. Anyway, high heels and designer clothes were never her cup of tea. Christine was made for other things and finds this work fulfilling.

When she arrived in Kathmandu she moved into a house with a colleague from the same part of Switzerland. But they have seen little of each other over the months since Christine is in charge of the entire country west of Kathmandu and is often away for a week or two at a time.

Christine is accompanied on her missions by a young French interpreter, Christophe, who left his country a few years ago in search of new experiences – a new life. He learned Nepalese and became a tour guide before joining the ICRC.

The two work well together, both having cheery personalities and a good sense of humour.

Christine and Christophe’s main task is to go to all the military outposts and police stations in the region to visit and register anyone who has been arrested in connection with the conflict. They carry with them a written authorization signed by the ministers concerned, but often this is not enough to persuade the jailers to grant them access. They frequently find themselves in long discussion, explaining their role, quoting the Geneva Conventions, waiting patiently, smiling, and sometimes going away empty-handed. It is a difficult and thankless work.

“Visiting detainees is part of the ICRC’s mandate,” says Christine. “Our job is to assess their conditions of detention and to see whether human dignity is being respected.”

After a night spent sleeping on the packed-earth floor of a village shelter, they are up at dawn and on their way to make the most of the morning coolness. Muscles strained by yesterday’s efforts are put back to work. The mornings are often beautiful, the air perhaps cleansed by a thunderstorm the previous night. In the distance, Annapurna, Manaslu North Peak, Macha Puchare and other mountains soar 8,000 high. Breathtaking majesty and aching muscles – these are the staples of their existence as they struggle through the rugged landscape. “It isn’t easy,” says Christophe. “But it’s the only way to know what’s happening in these far-flung areas.”

 Text and photos by Roland Sidler, May 2003  

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