Red Cross volunteers, the unknown soldiers of Lebanon’s wars

With more than 45 stations across Lebanon, the LRC responds to emergencies anywhere and anytime.
Saturday 02/06/2018
Lebanese Red Cross ambulance is seen in Labwe, Lebanon, last July. (Reuters)
Lebanese Red Cross ambulance is seen in Labwe, Lebanon, last July. (Reuters)

BEIRUT - “Call 140” — the magic toll-free number that most people in Lebanon have on their mind when facing an emergency — reaches the Lebanese Red Cross (LRC), the volunteer-based, non-profit organisation that has proven to be life-saving in times of war and peace. Its neutrality in assisting parties of conflict and efficiency in dispensing emergency medical services earned it the wide support and respect of the Lebanese public.

Founded in 1945 as an auxiliary to the Lebanese Army’s medical services, the LRC was essentially running dispensaries, a nursing school and a blood bank centre with 12 volunteer emergency workers. Today it operates 46 stations for Emergency Medical Services (EMS), 35 youth centres, 13 blood transfusion centres and a disaster management units with 14 teams. It counts within its ranks some 8,000 volunteers, including 3,800 paramedics and a fleet of fully equipped 300 ambulances that serve as mobile intensive care units.

“The strength of the LRC lies in the fact that it has always fully respected and implemented the movement’s seven principles,” said LRC Secretary-General Georges Kettaneh. “During the (civil) war when the whole country was divided and partitioned among the various militias, the LRC was the only health institution that could cross checkpoints and move from one area to another to carry out its mission.”

Years of armed conflict, internal disturbances and tensions between Lebanon and Israel and among different groups in Lebanon have meant the LRC’s assistance has been required by various communities and armed actors. This has allowed the LRC to demonstrate neutrality and impartiality and build trust and credibility with all segments of society.

Nonetheless, the war did not spare the LRC, which had 15 volunteers killed while carrying out humanitarian duties.

Impartial and non-discriminatory assistance to those in need is at the core of the humanitarian mission and principles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, which marks its international day each May 8. In addition to impartiality and neutrality, helping the cause of humanity, independence from political or partisan influence, voluntary-based services, unity and universality guide the work of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies worldwide.

The experience and reputation that the LRC earned during the wars in Lebanon made it the leading emergency medical provider in the country. With more than 45 stations across Lebanon, the LRC responds to emergencies anywhere and anytime.

“Responding to all emergencies in war and peace is a main duty of the Red Cross. In 2017, the EMS has carried 272,000 tasks and the blood bank provided 26,000 blood units,” Kettaneh said. “However, despite the large number of missions, the society is only able to respond to 80% of the requests that it receives.”

With 80% of calamities in the Middle East and North Africa region caused by wars and violence, the provision of emergency first aid by neutral operators is essential to saving people’s lives. As such, societies in Arab countries have asked LRC trainers to initiate their staff members on dealing with emergencies.

“We have a whole team of professionals responding to requests in the region,” Kettaneh said. “The LRC has assisted other national societies like the Iraqi Red Crescent, the Jordanian Red Crescent and the Syrian Red Crescent in first aid techniques, disaster risk reduction and the provision of water, sanitation and hygiene assistance in emergencies.”

The LRC’s major leap into a full-fledged medical emergency provider occurred after the end of the Lebanese civil war (1975-90), explained Kettaneh, former director of the EMS who joined the LRC at the height of the war, when he was 14.

“During the war, the LRC had no real clear strategy or vision. It was substituting the state in responding to emergencies. Today we have a new management, a 5-year strategy to improve primary health and mobile clinics and capacity building in emergency assistance and psychosocial support,” Kettaneh said.

“Besides its readiness to respond to any emergency, the LRC’s strength lies in the fact that it is present in every region and it is highly accepted by the society. Our volunteers continue to be a great example of fantastic dedication and commitment.”

LRC’s annual budget also increased from $5 million to $27 million. That allows for advanced training of EMS volunteers in basic life support, the creation of a chemical biological, radiological and nuclear team and the overhaul of the ambulance fleet, which included adding defibrillators, heart monitors, respirators and pulse oximetres. Some 30% of the budget is contributed by the Lebanese Ministry of Health and the rest comes from donations.

With an annual fundraising campaign in May, LRC volunteers, who make up more than 80% of the society’s workers, have been roaming the streets with their coffers carrying the Red Cross emblem to collect donations from an enthusiastic public.

“May God protect you,” said a motorist as she slipped a 20,000 Lebanese pound ($13) bill in the coffer. “Hope you will not need us,” responded the volunteer.