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An 1859 Battle in Italy, and the Birth of the Red Cross

Movement, Geneva Conventions both grew from ideas of Swiss businessman Henri Dunant after the Battle of Solferino. Transcript of radio broadcast:

This is the VOA Special English Health Report.

The International Red Cross Movement grew out of a major battle in the unification of Italy. The Battle of Solferino took place one hundred fifty years ago, in June of eighteen fifty-nine. This past week, volunteers from Red Cross and Red Crescent societies around the world gathered in Solferino to mark the anniversary.


About eight thousand people marched in a torch-lit event called the Fiaccolata. They followed in the footsteps of those who took injured soldiers from Solferino to the nearest village, Castiglione.

Hannigton Segarunaya, national youth president of the Ugandan Red Cross Society, says the visit made him want to work harder to help people.

HANNIGTON SEGARUNAYA: "I am going back to Uganda in Africa to make more moves for humanity. I know where the young people come together, we have the possibility of doing whatever it takes to make the world a better place."

In the battle, allied French and Sardinian troops defeated the Austrian army. Around six thousand men were killed and more than thirty thousand were wounded.

Yet, says Swiss historian Francois Bugnion, the battle lasted only twelve hours. He says a Swiss businessman named Henri Dunant was horrified by what he saw.

FRANCOIS BUGNION: "Thousands of wounded were brought to the next town of Castiglione where he arrived and there was practically no medical assistance. So he saw hundreds of men, thousands of men, suffering awfully from very deep wounds and left to die without any real assistance."

He says Henri Dunant quickly took action. The businessman got local women to provide food and water. He also got them to dress the wounds of soldiers without concern for their nationality.

Dunant later wrote a book called "A Memory of Solferino." In it, he launchedtwo ideas. One was the idea of voluntary relief societies to provide assistance to the wounded or other people. This led to the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

The second idea was a treaty protecting the wounded and medical personnel on the field of battle. This, explains historian Francois Bugnion, is the origin of the Geneva Conventions.

Stephen Ryan is the communications officer for youth and volunteers at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. He says it is important to get young people involved in volunteer work at an early age.

STEPHEN RYAN: "Young people need to be given the opportunity to really feel like they are making a difference in the world. It gives people the opportunity to make change that they would like to see in the world."

And that's the VOA Special English Health Report, with reporting from Solferino by Lisa Schlein. Archives of our programs are at I'm Steve Ember.