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Thousands march to mark 150 yrs of the Red Cross

world Updated: Jun 28, 2009 11:40 IST

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At least 8,000 people took part in a torch-lit march on Saturday evening to mark the Battle of Solferino in northern Italy, the event that led to the creation of the Red Cross.

"It's really a very good thing to see so many people, especially young people, who are motivated to be committed to humanitarian work," Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, told DPA.

"I am pleased people are here just to remember the disaster of war. ... They are also all aware the fight for peace is never-ending."

Carrying large flags of the Red Cross and Red Crescent and glowing red torches, marchers followed the paths that rescue workers and medics took during the battle to retrieve wounded soldiers and bring them to safety and medical care.

Tens of thousands of soldiers were wounded and killed during the fighting June 24, 1859, between Franco-Sardinian forces and Austrian troops.

Henri Dunant, a Swiss businessman who witnessed the battle and the carnage, was moved by the lack of adequate medical care and began to help the soldiers.

In his memoir, Dunant wrote: "The women, seeing that I made no distinction between nationalities, followed my example, showing the same kindness to all these men whose origins were so different, and all of whom were foreigners to them."

Recalling the reactions of their ancestors, the people of Solferino lined the streets to encourage the marchers and shouted out the phrase used by the women of the area 150 years earlier: "all are brothers."

Dunant's idea from Solferino, to build neutral volunteer medical services to aid during wars, led to the creation of the Red Cross movement, which, 150 years later, boasts millions of workers and volunteers in more than 186 countries and territories, offering assistance in times of peace, conflict and natural disasters.

The march is part of a week-long "humanitarian camp" the organisation set up, bringing together 500 youths from 149 national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies to come up with a 10-year global action plan for the world's largest humanitarian movement.

Also participating are thousands of aid workers and volunteers from the Italian, French, German and other national societies from several continents, each carrying their flags and wearing their national uniforms and costumes.

Many of the Italians have been involved in the ongoing rescue and aid efforts to help victims of the recent earthquake that devastated a section of the country. Other participants came directly from similar disaster sites and conflict zones.

Abu Baker, 32, from the Sierra Leone Red Cross said that he joined the movement after he saw the power that the emblem - a red cross on a white background - could have during the civil war that ravaged his country for a decade.

"I am with the Red Cross for life," he said.

In one instance, armed men were about to enter a hospital that was caring for wounded child soldiers - youths who were forcibly recruited into Sierra Leone's rebel movements. Abu Baker was at the hospital caring for his injured father.

"They were about to slaughter them all, right there," he recalled. "But then they saw the emblem, and they stopped. They would not do it in front of the red cross, and that is why those children are alive today."

The torch-lit march and opening ceremonies to honour Dunant and the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies took about four hours and covered 8.8 kilometres.

As the marchers reached their destination - the battlefields of 1859 - fireworks exploded from atop a hill, the white and red colours of the humanitarian movement dominating the night sky.