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“We’re still doing our job”

27-10-2006 Interview

Sami Al Dahdah, the president of the Lebanese Red Cross Society, comments on the activities of his National Society during last summer’s events and sets priorities for the future.


©ICRC/Jon Björgvinsson/lb-e-00534 
Sami Al Dahdah 

 What are your main activities at present?  

Administering first aid and transporting the sick and wounded in all parts of Lebanon. The medico-social department cares for the sick and the disabled, and distributes food aid arriving from abroad.

Our youth department works on health-related matters. There is also a psychological support programme which was set up recently. The programme was at first intended for Lebanese Red Cross volunteers, but we want to extend it to people afflicted by war. I should also mention our blood bank, which meets about 90 per cent of the population’s needs. And plans are afoot to meet the entire country’s needs as soon as possible.

Reconstruction and general food aid, however, are handled by the governme nt.

 So the Lebanese Red Cross remains quite active.  

We’re still doing our job. If we had to depend on the government to do everything, it would take years. Most importantly, the government counts on the Lebanese Red Cross. The primary role that the Lebanese Red Cross must retain, and on which I insist, is to offer young Lebanese with humanitarian concerns the opportunity to work together. There is no other organization or department of the State that does that. I believe that the main task of the Lebanese Red Cross has to be to train young people, so as to achieve peace through education. That is our main role in the Lebanese Red Cross and in the Red Cross throughout the world.

 What are your priorities for the coming months?  

First of all, first-aid services. After that, medicines, especially for people with chronic diseases, and food for infants. All health-related measures to ward off epidemics.

Blood services, too. This project is going to take time, but even so blood banks all over the country must be supported. We need a computer system linking all the blood banks and indicating the status of blood stocks. This is needed to ensure that we always have an adequate supply of tested blood products still within their shelf lives.

 How did the Lebanese Red Cross respond to the crisis this past summer?  

At the beginning of the war, when the blockade prevented us from bringing in any aid at all, I had no other choice but to allow those who wanted to send us aid to do so, provided that we could then distribute it to the population. That was my only aim. Through the Lebanese Red Cross or through other channels – it didn’t matter to me provided that people received food and medicine. But it is unfortunate that no one besides the Lebanese Red Cross was able to reach people who were trapped by the bombing.

Once the fighting was over, I set limits. We have a coordination office available for National Societies, all of which now cooperate with the Lebanese Red Cross disaster committee. In this way we have been able to send 80 per cent of the aid through proper channels.

 Donations flooded into Lebanon. How do you bring this generosity into balance with people’s needs?  

At the coordination meeting of National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Geneva on 14-15 August, I called upon donors to inquire about the nature of our needs before sending us aid. When aid is sent without prior consultation with us, there is a risk that it may be useless, or that it will be too much of a burden for us to handle. But the problem is that you cannot say no to donors! All that we can do is request that they not send any more aid.

The first-aider president 
My father was a doctor who practised medicine in the countryside, far from Beirut. We lived in a village near Byblos. My father’s colleagues all practised medicine in the capital, where they became rich. But my father did not want to leave his region, where he was the only doctor. After the First World War, when the entire region was poverty-stricken, he treated people for free and had medicines sent to them that he paid for out of his own pocket. Since there was no hospital in the area, my father had to do all kinds of minor surgery himself in the clinic that he founded. From my youngest age I was at his side helping him during my holidays. So I wasn’t far from doing Red Cross work.
  By the time war broke out in 1975, I had decided to enter any field of study except medicine because I could see that my father was not only tired but sick. So I decided to study agronomy. But one day, after having visited a friend in hospital, I went to the blood bank, where a drive to collect blood for the war-wounded was under way. The organizers recognized me, and said to me: “Please help us. You’re the son of a doctor.” From that moment on, I began to get involved. This instance of “giving them a hand” lasted 31 days, during which I never left the hospital, except once to take a bath and change my clothes!
  After that, I trained a team of around 100 young people to help the wounded in the hospital. That’s how I ended up in the Lebanese Red Cross, through the ICRC. At the time, I didn’t know that the Lebanese Red Cross had a first-aid department. So that’s how it happened that I trained the first team of first-aid workers that really worked on the ground. Then, region by region, I helped to train other teams. Within a year there were 500 first-aid workers. And it went on from there.
  Then I became head of the Lebanese Red Cross first-aid department. After 12 years in that job and after being elected to membership in the Central Committee, I became president of the society. It is an honour for me to hold this post, surrounded by colleagues who have been with me throughout my career. Let me add that the only organization to really energize me – and thereby enable me to get to where I am today – was the ICRC, to which I owe many thanks. 

 How does the Lebanese Red Cross manage to preserve its unity in this multidenominational society buffeted by opposing winds?  

The humanitarian calling is innate. That’s the first thing. And recruitment, about which we are very strict, plays a vi tal role. The second thing is how these people are trained and how we have them work together.

 How are cooperation and coordination with the ICRC working?  

I’ve never had any problems with the ICRC. There is complete understanding on both sides. Throughout my career with the Lebanese Red Cross I have always cooperated with the ICRC. And ICRC aid, especially for the first-aid department, has been delivered without interruption since 1979-1980. Since I was the department head, I’ve always been in contact with the ICRC.

During this latest conflict, our cooperation involved delivering Red Cross messages to and from family members separated from one another by the fighting, and evacuating the wounded and collecting the dead in war zones.

 Tell us about the tragic events involving ambulance workers. Tell us about the one who died and those who were wounded.  

Lebanese Red Cross ambulances were hit many times by projectiles, wounding first-aid workers and those being transported. On 11 August a first-aid worker named Mikhael Jbayleh was killed near Marjayoun. I asked the ICRC at the meeting in Geneva this past August to raise our concerns – especially about the obligation to spare those engaged in medical work – with the Israeli authorities. I look upon this as the real role that the ICRC has to play, that of a neutral intermediary. I am well aware that it is extremely delicate, but I have complete confidence in the ICRC.