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Kenya: a vital hub for the Horn of Africa

07-05-2008 Interview

Long before the recent post-election violence that set the ICRC and Kenya Red Cross (KRCS) into emergency mode late last year, the delegation in Nairobi has been an important logistics and support hub for the ICRC. After five years on the job, outgoing head of delegation Pascal Cuttat explains the evolution of the ICRC's role over the years and the secret to its effective cooperation with the KRCS during the recent crisis.

  ©ICRC/P. Yazdi    
  Pascal Cuttat    
  ©ICRC/P. Yazdi/ke-e-00170    
  Rift Valley. The camp at Eldoret showground hosted 12,000 people displaced as a result of the post-election violence.    
  ©ICRC/P. Yazdi/ke-e-00160    
  Kakamega police station. A Kenyan Red Cross volunteer provides clean water to a displaced person. Over 1,300 displaced people took refuge in the police station during the post-election violence.    
  ©ICRC/P. Yazdi/ke-e-00163    
  Vighia. Kenyan Red Cross volunteers distribute blankets, mosquito nets and hygiene items to 126 displaced people.    

 You have been responsible for the Regional Delegation in Nairobi covering Kenya, Tanzania and Djibouti for the last five years. When thinking of Kenya and Tanzania, what comes to mind is abundant wildlife, stunning nature and holiday resorts, with the exception of the tragic post election violence. What was the ICRC's reason for being present in this region that until the end of last year enjoyed a certain stability?  


Indeed, in many ways, Kenya has been as a stable country with a relatively good infrastructure – the port of Mombasa, the railway and the road up to the lakes. Years ago, the ICRC therefore established a logistics hub and a support hub for our delegations in the countries surrounding Kenya. All the neighbouring states with the exception of Tanzania are at war or have been over the last few years. For example, we ran the world's largest field hospital in Lokichokio close to the Sudanese border. By the time it was handed over to the Kenyan authorities in 2006, close to 40,000 patients had been treated there, mainly victims of the conflict in southern Sudan.

Tanzania is the host of one of the largest populations of refugees anywhere in the world and particularly in Africa. One of our biggest concerns in Tanzania is the plight of the unaccompanied minors in the refugee camps. ICRC organizes family reunifications whether this is between the camps or across the border whenever possible. We have helped thousands of separated families to get back in touch with each other over the last few years.

Djibouti's problems toda y stem more from natural disasters then from conflict, as the civil war is over and the peace agreement is holding. Now the Djiboutian authorities are faced with establishing response capacities to regular droughts and floods. ICRC supports the Djibouti Red Crescent so that it is better able to address the humanitarian challenges in the country.

 What has been the biggest humanitarian challenge for the ICRC during the five years you have spent here?  

Concerning Kenya, it was always clear that ethnic clashes in this country were creating victims. Dozens of people were killed and wounded even before the post election violence broke out. This had been dismissed too easily as a phenomenon to be expected in a pastoralist environment. Most people did not take the trouble to try to understand and address the root causes of the clashes. The challenge was to turn the Nairobi delegation into one that was not only interested in this situation but also able to react to it. Disputes over land and water are increasing in the Horn of Africa. It is my deep conviction that the scarceness of natural resources combined with the tensions among ethnic groups is going to be a reason for preoccupation for years to come.

Currently of course, the most worrying situation is the one of Mt. Elgon, where tens of thousands of people are affected by conflict. Many of them are suffering terribly. It has become our job to try to alleviate the suffering by all means available to us and in cooperation with Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS).

 How would you describe the evolution of the ICRC's engagement in the region from your first days in office in 2003 until today?  

The Nairobi delegation diversified its activities In Kenya over time. We looked at the issues of inter-ethnic clash es and gave ourselves the means to address them. The delegation proposed projects and was supported both internally at the ICRC and also by donors.

It is difficult pick one example out of the numerous programmes. However, I would like to mention West Turkana and Pokot in the north-western part of Kenya. ICRC built schools for both communities to allow children to receive a basic education in an adapted environment.

The armed clashes between the two tribes had forced many families to leave the area and forced the children to drop out of school. We spent a lot of time trying to bring an element of dialogue based on cultural identity to a situation of conflict, and above all an element of respect for each other's non-combatants. We tried to engage the communities to talk to each other and to discuss questions such as: What is the common ground between a Pokot and a Turkana and the value system of the ICRC as a humanitarian organization? How can we agree on certain basics such as the protection of women, children, the elderly and non-combatants?

 As mentioned, the general elections in Kenya in December 2007 were followed by an unprecedented outbreak of violence with a heavy toll on the population in the affected areas. KRCS with the support of ICRC quickly responded to the humanitarian needs including the rehabilitation of water points and the distribution of food and essential household items to thousands of displaced people. How was it possible for the ICRC to come up with such a timely and complex response even though the delegation had only carried out small operations in the years before?  

It was a combination of efforts and capacities. The capacities already in place including the regional logistics centre, which takes care of logistics throughout Africa and beyond, the additional staff members dispatched from Geneva as part of t he newly created rapid deployment unit, the experience of the delegation with regard to all the work we had done in the Kenyan environment up to that point, and of course the capacities of the Kenya Red Cross. The KRCS alone could not have done it, nor could we alone have done it. Together we managed to put in place Red Cross action on the ground, literally two weeks earlier than anybody else.

 How would you describe the partnership between KRCS and ICRC during that time?  

The basic element of it was mutual trust and respect without internal competition. In addition, there was a very honest and permanent analysis of the situation not only on the ground but also of our partnership. It was a lesson in humility for everybody involved with a great sense of respecting each other's priorities, respecting each other's no-go areas and respecting each others needs.

 On a personal note, what is your fondest memory of living in Nairobi?  

Nairobi is an important city for my family and always will be. Not for the animals and the beautiful environment but for the people. We have friends here and for once while being on mission for the ICRC my family was not obliged to live within the framework of my work. We all had a private life here and will definitely miss it in spite of the fact that we are also very much looking forward to the next mission, which will take us to Pakistan.