Côte d'Ivoire: Red Cross ambulance teams in high gear
Following the second round of presidential elections on 28 November 2010, violent street protests and clashes resulted in hundreds of wounded. From day one, the volunteers of the Ivorian Red Cross have been providing first aid on the spot and evacuating the seriously injured to the nearest hospital.
Évariste Gballou and Soualio Diomandé, who lead Red Cross first-aid teams in Abidjan, describe their experiences and impressions.
In the middle
On one side, there was a hostile crowd, advancing and screaming; on the other, a military checkpoint refusing to let anyone through; between them was a Red Cross ambulance with an injured person inside trying to get to the hospital.
"Then we heard gunshots," says Évariste Gballou, who was coordinating the Red Cross first responder teams that day in mid-December. "That stopped us in our tracks. As soon as the gunfire stopped, we went back to helping the victims. They are always our first priority.”
In the post-electoral period, tensions are running high. Fearing for their safety, entire neighbourhoods are barricading themselves from outsiders – be they civilians, police or even ambulances. Sometimes mutual distrust between the camps is so extreme that Red Cross teams often find themselves stuck in the middle, with each side accusing them of siding with one of the others.
On December 16, a march on state television headquarters in Abidjan degenerated into violence. The volunteers of the Red Cross had provided first aid to almost 160 injured people by the time the day was over.
Red Cross ambulance teams were on the brink, responding to calls for assistance and transporting victims to hospital, often working in difficult conditions. "We're always afraid of getting injured ourselves, but being responsible for others keeps me focused on the job," says Gballou, who has been volunteering for the Red Cross since he was a teenager.
"Since 2002, we've seen this kind of thing, so I was prepared. But for some of our volunteers it was their first time," he says.
Access to the wounded, the best reward
"When tensions rise to a boiling point, this is exactly when Red Cross teams are needed the most," says Soualio Diomandé, another team leader. But for every incident of hostility and mistrust, there is also one of joy and appreciation, he says.
His team was refused access to its headquarters on the 16th by a group of young people manning a barricade blocking the only road into their neighbourhood. Despite the fact that they have been working in the neighbourhood for years, the locals would not let them in.
Yet only the next day, they were called back to the same area to evacuate a victim and were cheered and thanked for their assistance, Diomandé says.
"We're sometimes confused with other international organizations," he says, and this can complicate things in a country where tensions run high and humanitarian actors are not always perceived as neutral. "It can be hard to convince people of your impartiality."
But in the ensuing days and weeks, their long hours in the neighbourhoods have paid off as locals have begun recognizing the importance of their work, the risks they're taking and the results they produce.
"I'm still getting calls from victims we evacuated and their families to thank us," Gballou says. "I even went to the hospital to visit someone who had been wounded, after his life-saving operation," he adds. "The feeling of seeing him there, alive and well, is indescribable."