Red Cross may try to work within IS controlled territory

The International Committee of the Red Cross has said it is trying to establish relations with the Islamic State group. RFI's Jan van der Made talked to Red Cross spokesperson Sitara Jabeen about the organisation's work in conflict zones. 

@ICRC/Pawel Krzysiek

Q: Why does the Red Cross go into territory held by the jihadist groups, in this case the Islamic State straddling Iraq and Syria?

A: The ICRC has contacts with armed groups in most countries wherever we work. Because it is very important to make sure that all people who need our help, that they get it. And as happened in war zones or conflict zones, there are people who are living under the influence of one side or another. And the Islamic State Group today is also a party to the conflict in many countries, but especially in Iraq and Syria.

In Syria there are at least ten million people who live in the Islamic State controlled areas. And these people also need humanitarian help like everybody else in Syria. And this is our priority, to meet the basic needs and all the other needs they have, together with the Syrian Red Crescent. So that is why it is important that we have a contact with them so that we are able to reach those people who are otherwise without help.

Q: What kind of problems do you expect in your contacts with this group?

A: Like everywhere else, it is not easy to have such contacts, and it is a complicated process, but we try and rely on our local networks in every country. It is a long process and it takes a big effort to do that. The main challenges are always security challenges. It is not easy for humanitarian workers to move in conflict areas, especially in Syria.

Until now, fourty ICRC Syrian volunteers have been killed while providing relief services. It is a very unsafe environment as such, and with all the air strikes going on and all the fighting taking place on the ground, it is not easy for anyone to work in that environment. But it is a challenge we are still ready to face, and the motivation we have is to reach those people who need our help.

Q: Given the fact that many humanitarian workers are being killed in these situations, how do you keep your people motivated to continue going there and provide help to the people?

A: The ICRC has functioned according to this principle for the last 150 years. We have a tradition: our sole commitment is for humanitarian services. And I know it is not easy, it is not safe and many of our own collegues have become victims as well, but at the same time we are driven by this passion that we need to keep on trying it, and reach those people who are otherwise without any help. Today, Syria is a country where it is difficult for anyone to work. But ICRC has the advantage of having a vast local network and we are able to cross frontlines and we are able to reach people in many areas that have been under siege for a long time. And when we are able to reach those people and when we are able to help them, then that is the biggest reward any humanitarian worker can ever expect. And this is what drives our motivation as well.

Q: One of the conditions is that you are absolutely impartial in any conflict. How difficult is it to remain impartial?

A: We are impartial by principle. What is difficult is to make others understand that impartiality. Other people don’t always understand things as we do. And for them, it is like ‘if you are helping the other side, because for example the other patient is more urgent than he, or she, so we take him to the hospital first, but that person is on the enemy side of someone else ..’ so they don’t always understand that. And this is why it always takes a big effort. That’s why we try to keep contact with everyone and explain to everyone why it is important for us to help this person first and not the other, and how we are not involved in the fighting, how we are not on any political side. That’s what we do for any humanitarian operation.

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