Voices from Within: Stories from the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement Covering a Decade of War Surgery in the Middle East and North Africa


Throughout its history, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has been closely associated with life-saving assistance, surgical operations, physical rehabilitation, reconstructive surgery, psychosocial support, safer behaviour in environments contaminated by weapons and other efforts to assist the wounded. In times of conflict, this is commonly referred to “war surgery”.

It all began in 1859 when Henry Dunant, a Swiss businessman, witnessed the aftermath of the Battle of Solferino and the thousands of wounded and dead soldiers left untreated and uncollected on the battlefield. He organized volunteers from neighbouring villages to provide food, water and medical treatment to the wounded, no matter which side they had fought on. This experience led Dunant to advocate for neutral and impartial care for wounded soldiers, and in 1863, he and his peers in Geneva founded the International Committee for Relief to the Wounded. This Committee became the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), with the mission of protecting and providing humanitarian assistance to people affected by armed conflict and other situations of violence.

Inspired by this example, a few European countries set up their own Red Cross societies, run by volunteers, to care for the victims of natural disasters. Thus the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement was born. War surgery in armed conflict, and the equivalent services in natural disasters, have remained a pillar of the Movement’s identity. Today, war surgery takes a holistic approach. It is seen as a process that aims to medically treat wounded people and provide them with rehabilitation to minimize the resulting functional disability and effect on their mental well-being, allowing them, insofar as possible, to resume their lives and regain their dignity.

Humanitarian organizations often provide war surgery services in the aftermath of emergencies, such as armed conflict and natural disasters. These emergencies can quickly degrade a country’s health system: hospitals may be damaged or destroyed, medical supplies may be scarce, hospital administration may be paralyzed, and few hospital staff may be available. In such cases, humanitarian organizations step in to support hospitals and the overall health system, seeking to save lives, reduce disabilities and restore the dignity of the wounded. The Movement insists that those in need should have access to medical care, and that that care should be neutral. As such, the Movement does not discriminate between wounded combatants, and aims to provide the highest quality care to all those in need. Humanitarian law specifically protects medical transportation and civilian and military medical services, in particular hospitals. By law, they must be protected and allowed to carry out their work at all times and must not be attacked.

The humanitarian medical professionals that perform war surgery do so away from the comfort of their secure and adequately resourced home bases. Instead they find themselves in primitive and often chaotic settings where surgical operations are performed with very basic medical equipment and in close proximity to front lines or other dangers.

This report tells the stories of medical professionals who have gone on these assignments, and serves to commemorate those who have been injured, abducted or killed while conducting humanitarian activities. This report also tells the stories of survivors and how the Movement has improved their lives, highlighting the hope and resilience they have shown in spite of what they have faced.