Guinea: "People are afraid of a vacuum and chaos"

Georg Cunz, Head of the ICRC delegation in Guinea, explains that the organization intends to enhance its presence in the country in order to meet the humanitarian needs resulting from the recent clashes.

What are the consequences in humanitarian terms of the violence in Guinea?

The clashes in Guinea are taking a heavy toll in humanitarian terms. We do not have any precise figures at the moment, but according to the accounts we have received from our colleagues in the Red Cross Society of Guinea (RCG) and from our own observations, it is possible to say that all over the country, hundreds of people have been injured - some of them seriously, with gunshot wounds - and dozens killed. In the capital Conakry, on Saturday and Sunday alone, RCG volunteers evacuated over 400 casualties, 200 of whom were so badly injured that they required hospitalization.

Many people died in clashes with the police. At the same time, public buildings, banks, police stations and the homes of government ministers or of figures close to the Government have been wrecked and set on fire. Looting is extensive and we are seeing an increasing number of purely criminal acts. There is widespread uncertainty and a fear of a vacuum and chaos.

The army is also firing lots of warning shots in an attempt to enforce the curfew and even if the firing is not direct, stray bullets are causing quite a few victims.

The immediate problem is access to care and food in a completely disorganized country racked by violence. Nor must we forget the grief of the affected families, or the fact that many people will remain disabled and marked for life by the events.

How has the ICRC responded?

We have been able to do a great deal in Conakry and Nzérékoré in the Forest Region, where we are present. We have placed 14 ICRC vehicles at the disposal of the Guinean Red Cross for the evacuation of the wounded and for the collection of bodies in the capital. At the height of the violence, some 600 first-aid workers deployed by the RCG throughout the country provided first aid and ferried the injured to the appropriate facilities.

The ICRC also supplied three provincial hospitals with first-aid kits for war-wounded patients and the university hospitals of Conakry with surgical kits.

We have continued to deliver emergency food supplies to the main prison in Conakry where a very large number of cases of severe malnutrition had been noticed before the riots.

What are the reasons for such an explosion of violence in Guinea?

Tension has been rising since the first nation-wide strike at the beginning of 2006 and the second in June, as the number of victims of the violence has steadily grown. The situation today is the outcome of widespread discontent in the population, the civil service and the workforce. The protest movement, initially led by the trade unions, turned into rioting and spiralled out of everyone's control. The crackdown is fierce.

What further developments are possible?

The situation is calm for the time being, but the RCG is still evacuating the injured. The general strike and the state of siege are continuing. The fact that the port of Conakry has virtually come to a standstill, as have exports of mining products, is likely to have a serious impact on the economy and the population's standard of living.

Negotiations between civil society, trade unions and religious institutions, on the one hand and national authorities, such as the Assembly or the Economic and Social Council, on the other, have resumed half-heartedly, but nothing is really happening. Perhaps the Guineans will be responsive to pressure from the international community, which now makes its aid contingent on respect for fundamental freedoms.

Will the ICRC pursue its operations in Guinea?

Of course. We are even going to step up our programmes. Our priority is to remain operational throughout the emergency, then to take stock of what needs to be done to protect civilians and subsequently to approach the military and political authorities. We must also check on the conditions of detention of persons arrested during the events. It will likewise be necessary to solve the problem caused by the rioters' destruction of many main prisons: anyone arrested in the near future will inevitably be detained in completely unsuitable premises. In addition, we are planning to boost hospitals' capacity to provide emergency treatment for the injured.

It remains for us get back in touch with our contacts, most of whom can no longer be reached. Nobody actually knows where the Government is. It must be remembered that the destruction of public buildings up and down the country is going to hamper the authorities' operations for some time.