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Williamson Interview - 2003-04-01


MR. BORGIDA:
Now joining us, Amanda Williamson, with the International Red Cross here in Washington. Ms. Williamson, you've been with us before. You kind of know the drill, so let's move right to the topic at hand, at least for you. And that is the current state of the humanitarian situation. How would you assess it at this point?

MS. WILLIAMSON:
It's very difficult to have quick and easy overall assessments. We have our teams still in Baghdad and in the north and in Basra. What we have seen is immediate effects, in which we have been certainly focusing our efforts on, are in the fields of medical and water and sanitation. The priority for us now is to try to fan out from where we are in Baghdad and in Basra and in the north to really get to areas that are a little bit of black spots, if you like, in the country, where there have not been humanitarian organizations present, to try to see what the situation is there.

Our teams have moved out of Baghdad into towns around the city, to look at the medical situation there and to check on the water situation. Similarly, in Basra, we have reinforced our team there and we continue to visit the hospitals and check on the medical supplies, and also to try to address this water problem in Basra, which is a big problem for us.

MR. BORGIDA:
Are your teams finding that it is a secure environment in which to operate? Because that has been one of the issues that many people have cited, that in a hostile environment, humanitarian and relief groups aren't able to work as easily.

MS. WILLIAMSON:
It's always a very complex operation, working in a conflict zone, for precisely that reason. It's always a delicate balance between our own security and trying to respond to what we see are humanitarian needs. The ICRC is somewhat different in that the parties to the conflict have an obligation to allow us to work. The red cross is our emblem, if you like. We don't move around with armed escorts. And that is really our protective armor. And so far we have been somewhat pleased, I think, in that we have been able to move around and that the parties to the conflict seem to recognize our work and are committed to allowing us to work so far.

MR. BORGIDA:
Now, soldiers on both sides, however, have not been quite as insulated from the hostilities, obviously. And that's where I want to go next, and ask you directly, the Red Cross has been able to see Iraqi prisoners of war under American and British care, as it were, and it appears they are being cared for. Why not American prisoners of war under the direction and custody of Iraqis?

MS. WILLIAMSON:
Well, we can certainly understand the urgency that the people feel about this. We know from years of experience of just how anxious and the anguish that families face, waiting to hear news of their relatives. We also know how valuable it is for prisoners to have this first contact with the outside world. So, we understand the sense of urgency.

What we can say is that our efforts continue in Baghdad. We have impressed upon the Iraqi authorities that this, for us, is a priority. We also recognize that they have publicly committed themselves to allowing the ICRC to visit. And it's very important to know that we don't want to do anything that might jeopardize that process. We don't want to qualify the substance of our discussions, but it has been constructive so far. And we have no reason not to believe that these visits might take place. We just hope that, of course, it's as soon as possible.

MR. BORGIDA:
With all due respect, this is an answer that we have been hearing for at least 24 hours, that you want to talk to the Iraqis, that you believe they will be mindful of the Geneva Convention, but I have to ask you again, at the same time, there are families, as you said, who are wondering why the Red Cross, insulated as you have described, cannot get to see their loved ones. And I would have to ask you again, why can't this effort be more intense, more effective, and certainly more successful as far as the families are concerned?

MS. WILLIAMSON:
Well, that is, as I say, a very legitimate question, and we can very much appreciate, as I say, the sense of urgency. All I can say is that we continue strenuously, in Baghdad, we have daily contacts, we continue to pursue our efforts. And we really hope that it is as soon as possible. But we don't read too much at this stage -- there is very often a delay between the capture and the actual process of allowing the ICRC to visit. There are practical and logistical considerations to weigh. But, not to sound complacent, we appreciate the urgency. But we don't read too much into this stage. And as we say, we have no reason not to believe at the moment that we will not gain access.

MR. BORGIDA:
Who are you talking to in Baghdad? Can you tell us that, the Iraqi officials?

MS. WILLIAMSON:
We have contacts with the highest authorities in Baghdad.

MR. BORGIDA:
I'll take that for now, and the next time you're back, we'll see from there. Amanda Williamson, with the International Red Cross, coming to visit us on relatively short notice. We appreciate you coming. Thank you.

MS. WILLIAMSON:
It's a pleasure.

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