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Libya: Red Crescent volunteers risk their lives to help others

27-05-2011 Feature

Walid, Mona and Ahmed, three young volunteers from the Libyan Red Crescent Society, had the most terrifying experience of their lives one late afternoon in mid-May when their Red Crescent vehicle was hit by gunfire.

The Red Crescent volunteers were on their way to deliver much-needed aid to a group of 150 people displaced by the fighting in Misrata. "They were short of food, and some of them were ill. We were carrying medicine, water, baby food, other food, toothpaste, that sort of thing," said Mona, vividly remembering her experience. "Just after we passed a check-point we heard shouts and explosions, and suddenly there was smoke in front of us."

Walid takes up the story. "I was sitting in the back. Ahmed changed direction immediately, realizing that we were caught in cross-fire. Then our vehicle was hit twice. One of the bullets went straight into my leg." They raced out of the area, taking Walid straight to the hospital in Zlitan, some 30 kilometres to the west. What made this incident all the more surprising was that the vehicle was clearly marked with the red crescent emblem.

Over just a few days, four Libyan Red Crescent vehicles were hit or came under fire in the Misrata area, on either side of the front line. One nurse and one patient were killed, while Walid and three other volunteers were injured.

Mona joined the Libyan Red Crescent in Benghazi as a volunteer a year ago, but now works out of the Tripoli branch. "I never expected anything like this when I joined," she said. "But the important thing is to do my job. The displaced people include lots of women I can help and counsel." Mona is one of the few female volunteers in the group, which has now been working in the area since mid-April. "I think the risks are worth taking," she added, after a moment’s hesitation.

Everywhere in Libya, Libyan Red Crescent volunteers are carrying out their humanitarian work with admirable dedication and bravery.

"We fully support these young people, but we also try to alert them to the dangers they’re facing," said Judy Owen, an experienced ICRC health delegate. "We tell them how they can reduce the risks, for example by enquiring more thoroughly about the security conditions at a given time and place."

The volunteers’ training never prepared them for such hazards. Now, they are learning the hard way that the red crescent emblem is not yet as respected as it should be in Libya. "Getting to the victims of the conflict is important, but staying alive is even more so," concluded Judy.


Benghazi Medical Centre, Benghazi, Libya. Libyan Red Crescent volunteers attend a briefing on how to treat patients with weapon-related injuries. 

Benghazi Medical Centre, Benghazi, Libya. Libyan Red Crescent volunteers attend a briefing on how to treat patients with weapon-related injuries.
© Getty Images / ICRC / G. de Moustier / v-p-ly-e-00022