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A matter of Principles

Two years after escaping a violent insurrection in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Katrina Elliot sits down with the same members of the armed group M23 in a Rwandan internment camp to ensure they are being treated humanely.

The internment camp nestles into the Rwandan hillside. Tall grass pushes up to the fence line of 'Section A' - a simple accommodation block and a rudimentary meeting room of wooden beams and plastic sheeting over a dirt floor. Former fighters, now internees, sit on the wooden benches under the awnings of the stark cement building in an attempt to evade the heavy rain. They are a striking group - some with crutches, some with missing limbs, and some with visible facial scars.

Inside the building, the small cement room is scattered with mattresses, military boots, and a few personal effects of the former fighters now accommodated in the camp. The sole occupant absently fidgets with his toenail has he speaks to me, his eyes slightly glazed over. While the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) regularly visits places of detention and interment, I had never imagined sitting on the cold floor hearing the concerns of a former M23 fighter.

Two years ago I was working with a United Nations agency over the border in Goma, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, when the M23 swept through the east of the country and took the regional capital by force. With many other humanitarian workers, I was evacuated from the country to escape the violence. When the evacuation was announced, a slight sense of personal relief was overshadowed by strong pangs of guilt and fear for the communities we were leaving behind. It was a frightening and distressing time, but obviously that could not compare with the ordeals suffered by so many civilians during the violent clashes.

Now, two years after having fled from these dangers, I sit face-to-face with a member of this same armed group - this time as part of an ICRC team in Rwanda. My legs are going numb from a combination of the cold air and an awkward sitting position on the ground, and the heavy rain outside makes it difficult to hear the softly spoken man opposite me. But I do believe in the importance of what I am doing.

The Geneva Conventions mandate that the ICRC visits prisoners of war, and the organisation now also visits people interned or detained in broader situations. In any country, those deprived of their freedom are highly vulnerable and are often separated from family, and so the ICRC aims to ensure that internees are treated humanely and with respect for their dignity.

In Rwanda, the ICRC Detention Team works with local authorities to ensure that the internees' living conditions are as close as possible to accepted international standards. When we arrived at the camp, we toured the various blocks and spoke to a number of internees about their conditions: about the bedding, the number of men in each room, the amount and quality of food, the conditions of the sanitation blocks, and whether their families knew where they were.

It is these issues that are our focus today. The pasts of these men and any allegations against them are no longer my concern. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (Movement) operates under the guidance of seven fundamental principles, among these being neutrality and impartiality. These principles mean that Red Cross endeavours to relieve the suffering of individuals, being guided solely by their needs and making no other discrimination or distinction.

Furthermore, the Movement does not take sides or engage in hostilities or other controversies. It is these principles which afford the ICRC some of the most exceptional access to places of detention and conflict zones. It is these principles which make me feel safe entering a Rwandan prison of 5,000 internees. While I had heard about these theoretical concepts many times, now, sitting in this small grey room, I was faced with a breathing, sweating example staring back at me.

And so - as I sat uncomfortably on the floor listening to this man talk about the last time he spoke to his family - I somehow no longer saw him as a member of a rebel group from which I had previously fled, but as a man with a story; a man with essential needs and rights; and a man who helped me to understand what it really meant to deliver humanitarian aid under the principles of impartiality and neutrality.