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The siege of Sarajevo and beyond [IRC at 75]

Posted by Kate Sands Adams on 26 August, 2008

A wounded Bosnian refugee boy  IRC Photo
A wounded Bosnian refugee boy  Photo: The IRC
As we observe our 75th anniversary this year, IRC president George Rupp is blogging about one moment from our rich history each month.

Sarajevo. Winter 1993. The Bosnian capital is under siege by Serbian nationalist forces. Artillery pieces entrenched in the surrounding hills lob shells and mortars at hospitals, markets, and schools. From rooftops, snipers mow down civilians as they fill water buckets or line up for bread. All roads leading into the city are blocked, as are shipments of food and medicine. Water, electricity, and heat are cut off.In their offices in the heart of the beleaguered city, a small group of IRC aid workers hit upon an innovative plan: a seed distribution program to help the increasingly desperate Sarajevans grow fruits and vegetables in their backyards or apartment terraces. It is the first step in what will become the IRC’s most heroic relief effort—an effort that will continue for 14 years and involve lifesaving work throughout the Balkans.As one former IRC staff member in Sarajevo said at the time, “We were seeing an industrialized country descend into chaos. It was an environment for which none of us had any previous experience.”

In response, the IRC improvised and adopted unorthodox methods.

In order to cope with the logistics of moving tons of aid into battered Sarajevo, for example, the IRC contracted with local factories to produce as many supplies as possible inside the city. The IRC also provided seed grain to farmers to reduce the number of food convoys. In a city gripped by panic and starvation, this economic activity helped people to withstand some of the miseries and also helped them to resist fleeing their homes.

One project was deemed so risky few considered it feasible. Braving withering sniper fire, IRC engineers drew water from the Miljacka River, which winds through the center of Sarajevo, and piped it to safer areas of the city as drinking water. They hid the pumps and filter systems in tunnels to protect them from shelling. By August 1994, the daring project—which was funded by financier-philanthropist George Soros and enlisted the leadership of legendary disaster-relief engineer Fred Cuny—had succeeded in restoring water to Sarajevans’ taps. No longer would they have to dodge sniper fire while queuing up at dangerous central water taps.

Meanwhile, the engineers painstakingly repaired Sarajevo’s bombed out electrical and heating systems, projects that took two years to complete. Over 600 tons of supplies were transported over treacherous Mount Igman on a narrow, winding dirt track controlled by Serbian gunmen.

By the time the 1995 peace accords ended the siege of Sarajevo, the IRC had saved thousands of lives and brought food, water and light to the city’s populace.

We then shifted our focus to the victims of war and to destroyed communities in Bosnia and elsewhere in the Balkans.

In 1998, when clashes between advancing Serbian forces and rebels in Kosovo ignited the last of the Balkan wars, the IRC launched one of its largest aid programs, providing extensive humanitarian aid and repairing thousands of homes, electrical facilities, roads, hospitals and schools. The IRC distributed food and medicine to tens of thousands of people in Croatia, lent assistance to Serbian refugees fleeing Croatia and Bosnia, and established emergency aid and reconstruction programs in Macedonia and Serbia and Montenegro

As peace gradually returned to the Balkans, the IRC began closing its programs, having assisted millions displaced by conflict. The IRC’s program in Serbia and Montenegro and Kosovo closed in 2004, followed by Croatia in 2005. The Bosnia program closed in April 2006.

The IRC’s years in the Balkans were without a doubt some of the finest in our history. 

And that story has continued in the United States.  Since 1993, the IRC has resettled 21,804 refugees from the Balkans here. Some have joined us as IRC staff members at our headquarters in New York and in many of our resettlement offices across the country. These cherished colleagues remind us every day of the IRC’s legacy in and from the Balkans.

Postscript: Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader who oversaw the killing of thousands of people by sniping and shelling in the siege of Sarajevo and later directed the Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 men and boys, was arrested last month on war crimes charges after 13 years as a fugitive.

Posted in Europe, history | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Afghanistan: A lasting commitment [IRC at 75]

Posted by The IRC on 31 July, 2008

An Afghan boy at an IRc hospital shows his scar from surgery. (IRC photo)

An Afghan boy at an IRC hospital shows his scar from surgery. (IRC photo)

As we observe our 75th anniversary this year, International Rescue Committee president George Rupp is blogging about one moment from our rich history each month.

In December 1979, the Soviet Union airlifted troops into the mountainous country of Afghanistan.  The Soviets and their Afghan allies took the capital, Kabul, and launched nine years of war with indigenous resistance groups. Thus began three decades of conflict and massive displacement for the Afghan people, along with the devastation of their country.Within weeks of the Soviet invasion, the IRC rushed to the aid of Afghan refugees who poured into bordering Pakistan. In 1988, when the Soviets withdrew, the IRC established operations in Afghanistan itself to help its people rebuild. The IRC has remained at work with suffering Afghans in both places—through the rise to power in Kabul of the extremist Taliban regime in 1996; the U.S.-led invasion to overthrow the Taliban in 2001; elections establishing a permanent Afghan government in 2004; and, by 2008, renewed concern over a resurgence of Taliban guerilla fighters. The IRC’s efforts in Afghanistan are now the IRC’s most longstanding.

The consistency and quality of the IRC’s work in Afghanistan owe much to the skill and determination of our staff members, both international and Afghan. It is doubtful, however, that when then IRC board president John Whitehead made his first visit in 1980 to the makeshift refugee camps springing up on the Afghan-Pakistan border, he could have known what a long and difficult commitment the IRC was about to make. What John did know was that a terrible human tragedy was unfolding on the border: one in three Afghans—some five million people—had fled their homeland and were living in terrible conditions.

By the end of 1980, the IRC was operating an extensive program of relief. We dispatched mobile clinics and set up dispensary tents. Scouts went into the scattered encampments to bring sick refugees to the medical tents. Vocational and self-help programs were developed. One of the IRC’s greatest accomplishments was its educational programs, which ranged from preschool to postgraduate courses and included a high school for refugee girls in Peshawar. Among the young refugees who passed through the camps was Mohammed Haneef Atmar, now minister of education, who worked for the IRC as program director in Kabul before joining the government of President Hamid Karzai.  And when I met him in 2002, President Karzai reminded me that he had once taught English at our IRC school in Peshawar, Pakistan. 

In 1989, the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan, ushering in, not an era of peace, but a new round violence and civil war. The IRC was one of the few aid agencies that continued to operate inside Afghanistan under the Taliban, with a team of Afghan national staff members who, among other activities, organized home schooling for Afghan girls forbidden an education under the regime’s rules.

Even before we established an official presence in Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal, the IRC was sending teams into the Afghan countryside to repair roads, rebuild irrigation systems, and establish public health and sanitation facilities. With the overthrow of the Taliban, the IRC ramped up efforts to help Afghans rebuild. In 2007, the IRC enrolled some 11,000 students in 400 schools and trained over 1,000 teachers.  Nearly 2,000 people graduated from our vocational programs. And we helped to establish locally elected community development councils in which villagers make the decisions.

Despite the continuing instability in Afghanistan, the IRC remains as committed to the land and its people as it was nearly 30 years ago.  Our staff is now 99% Afghan – talented colleagues, many of whom have been with the IRC for decades.  As Razia Stanikzai, an Afghan refugee and a field manager for an IRC education programs in Pakistan remarked, “We Afghans have bled a lot, and now we want our children to experience peace.”

You can read all of George Rupp’s history posts here.

Posted in Asia, children, education, history, refugees | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

1975: The Largest Refugee Resettlement Effort in American History [IRC at 75]

Posted by Kate Sands Adams on 27 June, 2008

Vietnamese Refugee children IRC photo
                                                                                        Photo: Robert P. DeVecchi/The IRC
As we observe our 75th anniversary this year, International Rescue Committee president George Rupp is blogging about one moment from our rich history each month.

On April 30, 1975, the army of North Vietnam rolled into Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam. The day, celebrated in Vietnam today as Reunification Day, marked the end of a long, bloody, and divisive war—and of the IRC’s work in South Vietnam.The IRC first became involved in this ribbon of land along the South China Sea in 1954, following the defeat of the French colonial forces and partition of the country into North Vietnam and South Vietnam. For the next 21 years, the IRC worked, first, to aid refugees fleeing south from North Vietnam and later, after American entry into the war, to aid displaced South Vietnamese and to offer them health, vocational, and educational services.Now, the North Vietnamese victory forced a massive flight of tens of thousands of Indochinese refugees. Desperate South Vietnamese climbed the walls of the American embassy in Saigon pleading for help. Over a hundred thousand succeeded in reaching American ships off the coast.

From the beginning of the crisis, in the United States and in refugee camps in Thailand, Hong Kong, and Malaysia, the IRC would make one of its longest and deepest commitments to work on behalf of refugees from Indochina.

In the U. S., the IRC took a lead role in the largest refugee resettlement effort the country has ever seen. This led to a dramatic burst of growth in the IRC’s U.S. resettlement programs.

The IRC set up processing operations at four U.S. military bases that had become refugee camps in California, Arkansas, Florida and Pennsylvania. Thirty full-time IRC resettlement staff worked in these camps, joined by scores of volunteers. Top priority was given to finding Americans to “sponsor” the refugees, which meant providing short-term housing, and help finding a job and getting acclimated to the local culture.

One of those new IRC staff members was 45-year-old Robert P. DeVecchi, who was assigned to the processing center at Fort Chafee, Arkansas. The experience proved so powerful that DeVecchi never left the IRC, going on to lead us from 1985 to 1997, when he became president emeritus. A number of other current and retired IRC staff members first joined the organization after being moved to help Vietnamese refugees.

By the end of 1975, the U.S. government had closed its processing centers—but the IRC had by then opened 16 regional resettlement offices around the country. There, IRC caseworkers found housing and jobs for the refugees, provided education and skills training, and helped them integrate into the social, cultural, and economic life of a new environment. This effort became the core of the IRC’s current national refugee resettlement program.

During 1975 alone, the IRC helped more than 18,000 refugees, almost all of them Vietnamese, begin new lives in the U.S.

During the 20 years after the fall of Saigon, some two million people poured out of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. By 1992, more than a million had been admitted to the U.S. The IRC had helped some 120,000 refugees put down new roots in America. One of these refugees, Dang Nguyen, told the New York Times in 1976, “I have a steady job, regular raises, a nice place to live, the children work hard, my wife and I are well, we have grandchildren, and next month there will be a big event in our family: We will all get our citizenship papers!”

Posted in Asia, history, refugees, UnitedStates | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

African Nations Struggle for Independence [IRC at 75]

Posted by The IRC on 30 May, 2008

The Nigerian government\'s blockade of Biafra led to widespread starvation. Famine and armed conflict claimed one million lives by 1970.
Photo: The IRC
As the International Rescue Committee observes our 75th anniversary this year, IRC president George Rupp is blogging about one moment from IRC’s rich history each month (you can find all of his posts here):

In just a few years on either side of 1960, a wave of struggles for independence was sweeping across Africa. Between March 1957, when Ghana declared independence from Great Britain, and July 1962, when Algeria wrested independence from France after a bloody war, 24 African nations freed themselves from their former colonial masters.

In most former English and French colonies, independence came relatively peacefully. But the transition from colonial governments did not always lead to peace. Internal conflicts within the newly independent countries and the continued resistance of the colonial powers in southern Africa often forced large numbers of innocent people to flee civil strife and repressive new regimes.

When more than 200,000 Angolans escaped their country’s Portuguese colonial government and fled to nearby Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1962, the IRC responded quickly. This was the IRC’s first initiative on the African continent and a demonstration of the organization’s expanded global mission and responsibility.

We supplied medicine and enlisted refugee doctors for a medical assistance program. Dr. Marcus Wooley, a French-speaking surgeon who had himself once been a refugee from Haiti, was sent to Zaire. He administered the distribution of medical supplies, performed surgery at the Service d’Assistance aux Refugies Angolais clinic and at the many border camps he visited. He devoted much of his time to teaching first aid and preventive care to the refugees and to improving the skills of Angolan health care workers.

Working with Catholic Relief Services and Church World Service, the IRC was able to send $179,000 worth of medicines, high-protein food and other aid to Angolan refugees. After 18 months, the IRC was forced to withdraw, along with United Nations troops, owing to renewed fighting between insurgents and government forces. Fortunately, local aid workers were able to take over the programs.

In 1967, the IRC became involved in a dramatic crisis in Nigeria. After winning independence from Britain in 1960, Nigeria formed a coalition government that was soon roiled by a disputed election, massacres of Ibo people, and the eventual secession of the Ibos, who claimed the southeastern part of Nigeria as the independent nation of Biafra. Civil war and mass starvation followed.

The IRC joined with other organizations in launching the Biafra Christmas Ship, which provided 3,000 tons of food, drugs, and other life-saving supplies to the Ibos. We also recruited Nigerian doctors in the U.S for volunteer missions to Biafra. At first it seemed that Biafra might survive. But famine and Nigeria’s superior army overcame the struggle for independence. The Ibos surrendered in 1970, but not before an estimated one million people had died.

The magnitude of the crisis in Biafra captured the world’s attention. But other conflicts on the African continent were hardly noticed by the general public. An IRC report presciently predicted where much of the organization’s energies would be directed in the years to come:

Refugee problems in Africa will undoubtedly multiply and intensify as the result of the complex tribal, religious, racial, national, and political conflicts. Biafra is an extreme example, but it would be unrealistic not to expect more crises . . .  IRC’s commitment to the refugee cause will require a deepening of its involvement in Africa.

Many more crises have developed, and the IRC has indeed deepened our involvement in Africa, even as we have continued to pursue our core purpose of helping uprooted people to move from harm to home.

To help: Visit theIRC.org/help

Posted in Africa, history | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

A Global IRC [IRC at 75]

Posted by Kate Sands Adams on 29 April, 2008

Cuban refugees in Miami
Newly arrived Cuban refugees wait in Miami for assignment to the care of American individuals and groups providing aid. Photo: The IRC
As the International Rescue Committee observes our 75th anniversary this year, IRC president George Rupp is blogging about one moment from IRC’s rich history each month (you can find all of his posts here):

The IRC’s founders responded to the rise of Nazi terror with swift, independent action. Thanks to the daring work of Varian Fry and others, thousands of refugees were able to escape from Nazi-occupied France. More than that, however, the IRC stayed with the suffering refugees of Europe long after the guns of World War II had fallen silent. We helped Europe’s displaced to return to their homes, and we aided the brave Hungarian revolutionaries in 1956.

By 1960, the IRC faced a crossroads. The IRC had begun as a temporary committee, arising from a crisis in Europe. The question that now arose went to the core of the IRC’s mission and was to determine its course into the 21st century. Did the IRC’s mandate extend to aiding the many thousands of refugees being driven from their homes in Asia, Africa, and Latin America?

The IRC’s leadership decided that to limit its mission to the borders of Europe would betray the impulse on which it was founded. Instead, the IRC determined that the organization had a global mission and responsibility. From 1960 to 1967, the IRC helped people fleeing Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Angola, Uganda, and Nigeria.

During those same years, the IRC began a long-term relationship with people fleeing Cuba. In 1959, rebel forces in Cuba overthrew its unpopular dictator, Fulgencio Batista. A young revolutionary by the name of Fidel Castro took control of the government. By year’s end he had drawn closer to the Soviet Union and committed a series of political executions and expulsions.

So began a new flow of refugees, one that would profoundly shape the IRC’s emerging international role.

Within a month of Castro’s rise to power, the IRC was on the scene gathering information and soon become one of the principal agencies helping Cubans to reach America, resettling more than 62,000 during the 1960s and 70s. As more and more refugees arrived in Florida, the IRC opened an office in Miami, its first resettlement office outside New York. IRC caseworkers focused on helping to find jobs, a place to live, and warm clothes for the refugees. Today, the IRC’s 25 U.S. resettlement offices carry out much the same work.

In 1969, two young Cubans hid in a wheel compartment on a jetliner bound for Madrid. One of the refugees dropped into the sea; but the other, a 17-year-old, miraculously survived the nine-hour flight. With the IRC’s sponsorship, he found a home in the United States. Then IRC president William J. vanden Heuvel reported that when asked why the young man had taken such an incredible risk, the new refugee replied, “I was looking for a better world and a new future.”

Posted in history, refugees, UnitedStates | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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