Read about humanitarian worker and author France Hurtubise

Photos and story by France Hurtubise, retired Communications delegate 

France is wearing glasses and an orange vest while smiling at the camera in an outdoor settingFrance Hurtubise, a retired Communications delegate living in Montréal, looks back on her experience in the humanitarian sector and shares her story with us. Over the course of 25 years working abroad, France traveled to four continents and worked in countries heavily impacted by conflicts and disasters.

Book cover of Grandeur et Dénuement by France HurtubiseIn May 2022, she published “Grandeur et dénuement”, an account of her years with the Red Cross (ICRC, IFRC and CRC) and the UN.

In her words:

I begin the chapter on Sarajevo with the word epicenter, which the dictionary defines as: The point on the earth’s surface where the effects of an earthquake are felt most strongly. I did not choose this title randomly. Here is an excerpt from my story: “In many ways it’s a suicide mission. Working as an ICRC communications delegate has its pitfalls. You must master the art of the parry when journalists ask questions. The ICRC does not reveal certain information, which it considers confidential. Essentially, this is to protect the people in the field who are affected by the event and to maintain its neutrality. But not at any cost… The ICRC’s commitment to confidentiality is not a vow of silence; public calls on warring parties to comply with their treaty obligations are increasingly becoming the norm. My boss describes Sarajevo as the hub of the media world, a showcase for the ICRC and a destination for the politico-humanitarian jet set. She’s not completely off the mark. A number of well-known public figures asked to travel to Bosnia to experience history in the making.”
Sarajevo was my first ICRC mission as a communications delegate in a city ravaged by a highly publicized and highly politicized conflict. It taught me the true meaning of the principle of neutrality.
Here is another excerpt: “As soon as I arrive, I can see the horror everywhere, in every street. I am struck by how close the soldiers, Serbs and other belligerents, are. The trapped residents feel claustrophobic. I am obsessed with one question: How can these men calling themselves soldiers and brothers target women carrying jugs of water?
As I write these lines, scattered images of the beginning of my mission come to mind. I recall the Bosnian Muslim city of East Mostar, deserted, bare, silent; destroyed by Croatian artillery. Across the river, the western part of the city, which is predominantly Croatian and Catholic, is barely affected by the war.
Nestled on the banks of the Danube, Vukovar, once a prosperous city, is no more than a pile of rubble. I’m overcome with sadness and incomprehension as I wander through its deserted streets where indiscriminately destroyed houses modestly reveal themselves throughout the devastated city. The majestic Danube eternally flows along its course in silence, disdainful of the wars of men.
Here I am in Sarajevo which, despite everything that has happened, still offers up surges of life and colourful alleyways. The driver takes me to the house that will be my home, located in the middle of a huge field of stones; strange bare ground devastated by artillery shells. There is a feeling of desolation. He tells me with a certain irony that the Serbian opponents like pretending that the muffled explosions are caused by incidents when gas begins to flow again, and that nocturnal machine-gun bursts are demonstrations of joy. Everyone here demonizes the Serbs. I am still overwhelmed by what I learned many years later. Reality is very different from what I see in August 1995.”
The daily challenge was working in a besieged city where each person saw only one version of the war while knowing that there were so many victims of this atrocious war beyond Sarajevo.
I will end with a last excerpt that sheds additional light on the challenges of a communications delegate: “Every day, I drive through the ravages of this merciless war in my armoured vehicle, wearing my helmet and protected by my bulletproof vest. To my right, I see slender buildings dotted with gaping holes, patched up with plastic sheeting, and everywhere, I see wrecked cars parked hastily on the sidewalk. Through these devastated streets, I head to the Holiday Inn hotel, which has become famous as the foreign journalists’ headquarters, even though it’s in the line of sniper fire. I’m barely able to squeeze my vehicle into the underground parking lot. Cars are parked carelessly, some blocking the way to those who arrived earlier. I finally find a space and hope I’ll be able to exit this rat trap later.
Celebrity journalists from the largest American and European networks are at the hotel bar, drink in hand. For many, drinking will become a crutch that will be impossible to set aside. I meet an American camerawoman who has seen a lot during her long career. She wears an eye patch, a souvenir from a piece of shrapnel that blinded her and left a gaping hole in her right cheek. She calls me over and tells me that CNN wants to interview me about the Srebrenica tragedy.
I arrived in Sarajevo the day after the fall of Srebrenica, a small mountain town just over 100 km from the capital. Some 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed by Bosnian Serb forces. It was the worst war crime committed in Europe since the Second World War.
From the first day of my arrival, I sat next to the United Nations spokesperson as journalists peppered me with questions. They did not see what ICRC delegates saw and heard in the field. ‘What is the situation? Can you confirm that it was Serb forces who killed these men? Have you spoken with Serbian authorities and what did they say?’ The answers were not always what they expected. I’m responsible for protecting my colleagues and the hostages in the field. I cannot reveal certain information. But how else do you convey distress other than by screaming? To truly understand, is it not essential to feel, to listen, to see with your own eyes? Conveying one’s impressions to people living thousands of miles away who have no idea of the political and humanitarian situation of those unjustly targeted by hate while filtering what is said to the media is a massive challenge.
As the weeks go by, I make friends with a few journalists that I trust. I share essential information with them so that the whole world can understand the extent of the atrocities committed here, making them promise not to reveal their source. The ICRC must maintain the authorities’ trust in order to continue to protect those affected by the event. It achieves by remaining neutral, but never at the expense of human dignity. The organization does not refrain from publicly commenting on certain situations, but it must avoid any unilateral or overly explicit condemnation of one of the parties.
But, here in Bosnia, the line has been crossed. It is impossible, even immoral, to remain silent. In a statement, the ICRC expresses public outrage and demands justice, ‘With regard to Srebrenica alone and on the basis of new contacts with the families of those who went missing during the fall of that enclave, the ICRC has come to the conclusion that more than 5,000 have suffered such an atrocious fate. […] We are convinced that the former warring parties do have the necessary knowledge to ascertain the fate of most of the missing persons.’  
I am a communications delegate in Sarajevo. Saying that it is a huge challenge is an understatement. You must try to understand the incomprehensible in a Slavic language and find your way around the multitude of city names that are foreign to your ears like Banja Luka, Tuzla, Brcko, Bihac, Bosanska Krupa, Vukovar and many others! In the hours following my arrival in unknown territory, I must figure out what is happening in order to quickly share the information with the media and my colleagues, while being careful not to fall into the unhealthy trap of disinformation, a weapon that is used by some of the media as well as by the authorities.”

France with a dozen CRC workers in front of a Red Cross Van, in Haiti
France (middle) with colleagues in Haiti

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