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The road to Solferino

01-07-2009 Feature by Jean-François Berger

Between 23 and 28 June, thousands of members of the Movement that Henry Dunant founded 150 years ago converged on the scene of the Battle of Solferino in Italy. An emotional few days, with a subtle mix of history, friendship and reflection.

  ©ICRC/J.F. Berger    
  The Fiaccolata marchers make their way down the slope from the Piazza Castello.    
  ©ICRC/J.F. Berger    
  James Ogiehor, administrator from the Nigerian Red Cross Society.    
  ©ICRC/J.F. Berger    
  French Red Cross nurse Alexandre Fernandes being well looked after by his travelling companions.    
  ©ICRC/J.F. Berger    
  Solferino holds no secrets for François Bugnion, former ICRC director of international law.    
  ©ICRC/C. Berger    
  Roberto Antonini, head of logistics at the Italian Red Cross and organizer of the Solferino ceremonies.    
  ©ICRC/J.F. Berger    
  Leusel Meyer, senior first-aider at the Püttlingen branch of the German Red Cross (Saarbrücken district).    
  ©ICRC/J.F. Berger    
  A river of light - the Movement on the march!    

" I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve met at Solferino! " exclaimed James Ogiehor. He works for the Nigerian Red Cross in Abuja as an administrator, and this was his first visit to Europe. " I’m really impressed by how well the camp’s organized. The welcome has been amazing … "

Alexandre Fernandes is a 23-year-old nurse from Eure in northern France. He came to Solferino as part of a 300-strong group of young people from the French Red Cross and saw Solferino as a unique opportunity to " become aware of the extraordinary human experience " concentrated within the camp. The white tents of Solferino’s " Humanitarian Village " were a temporary home to almost 3,000 participants from all over the globe who had come to celebrate the 150th anniversary of what is now the largest secular humanitarian organization in the world.

Threading one’s way between the tents, buses and trucks bearing the Red Cross or Red Crescent emblem, it was hard to imagine that this was where the Franco-Sardinian and Austrian armies spent 15 hours slaughtering each other on 24 June 1859. " The astonishing thing is that until the day before the battle, neither of the two armies knew the other was there, even though they totalled 300,000 men, " commented François Bugnion, former director for international law at the ICRC. He had brought a group of ICRC staff from Geneva to explore the historic sites in the footsteps of Henry Dunant.

The Italian Red Cross had set up the Humanitarian Village on a cornfield provide d by the farmers of Solferino. The driving force behind this masterpiece of organization was Robert Antonio, who just happened to be the head of logistics at the National Society. " We planned this event a year ago. Behind the scenes, a hard core of about ten people have been working all-out with numerous volunteers to run the reception, the canteen, security, logistics and transport. For the last three weeks, we’ve been working an average of 14 hours a day. The two biggest challenges were the food and the electrics. But now everything’s sorted! "

Some 50 large tents were made available to participants from the National Societies. They included Leusel Meyer, an enthusiastic collector of Red Cross memorabilia and head of first aid at the Püttlingen branch of the German Red Cross. " You see some amazing things here … like people from the Palestinian Red Crescent and Israel’s Magen David Adom sitting at the same table! "

Solenn Crepaux (26) takes part in a regular exchange between volunteers from the French and German Red Cross Societies. She agreed with Leusel. " What I really love is this absence of borders. It just shows how much mutual respect there is! " Jean-Marie Henckaerts is a Geneva-based ICRC legal specialist. He too experienced that respect when he arrived at the camp on Friday afternoon to thunderous applause as part of a group of runners who had left Dunant’s birthplace five days previously. A 500-kilometre trip, with each runner covering 20 km a day. They ran the final stretch with a group from the French Red Cross that had left Paris at the beginning of the week. " I won’t forget our welcome in a hurry! "

The streets of Solferino are more used to the feet of walkers, once a year, at night, with flaming torches. The " Fiaccolata " commemorates the birth of the Red Cross idea following the terrible battle of 24 June 1859. This year, the route was some 10 km long. The proc ession started at dusk from the Piazza Castello following speeches by such notables as the special commissioner of the Italian Red Cross, the president of the ICRC and the mayor of Solferino. Led by the volunteers of the Italian Red Cross, marchers of every age and nationality stretched out along over a kilometre of road, greeted by cheers from local residents, who had decorate their homes with the colours of the Red Cross and of Italy. As night fell, 13,000 torch-bearers formed a startling river of light.

The march took over two hours, with stars peeping out from between the clouds. Time enough to take stock of the long road travelled by the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement over the last 150 years.