A museum of tolerance

BY WANJOHI KABUKURU – Opposite the Palais de Nations in Geneva is an imposing yet quaint building atop a hill. There is little that is quite catchy of this building and it is easy to assume it and walk on to more interesting ventures and sites within Geneva.

Red Cross Museum entrance

One only takes a second look at the building when you realise you are looking at the backside of the  headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (ICRC). This world reknown symbolic organisation that has signified hope in times of war and calamity is what entrances for a second look.  Entrance into this building is highly restricted, not so the Musee International de la Croix et du Croissant Rouge, Geneve (French for Museum of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent), which is incidentally on the rear of the building. Whenever in Geneva for a visit a well deserved rendezvous in your itinerary beckons in the form of the Musee International de la Croix et du Croissant Rouge. Being a lover of art and a historical buff, I chose not to let the opportunity go and dived into it headlong after all museums, libraries and archives have been second homes to journalists.

Little did I know that all what we write about as environment, human rights, political gamesmanship strikes a similar cord with this museum reputed to be one of the best in the world. Though the museum is in Geneva it oozes East African issues such as human rights violations, fragile political structures and natural calamities.

Henry Dunant Life size

The captive moments of this museum begins right from the entrance. To enter the museum one uses a trench from the UN side and as you enter the enclosed glass walls of the museum’s entrance you  are ‘greeted’ by stone figurines of bound and blindfolded prisoners of war, with a reflection of yourself in their midst. A stark reminder of what human rights violations are all about.

This marks the beginning of an unforgettable experience of the ugly face of war. My guide today is an auto-guide which takes me through the entire museum right from the time the Red Cross was conceptualised by Swiss businessman Henry Dunant after he witnessed the gross atrocities of war in Italy during the Battle of Solferino. Interactive technology makes the experience a near perfect travel in time. Video displays, slide shows and the audio guide am carrying take me through the entire episode of twentieth century conflict history. The story of how Dunant struggled for years to set up Red Cross and also make the major powers sign a pact of rules to be observed during combat are amply explained in the museum tour.

Indeed at the heart of Geneva and the entire history of Switzerland, Dunant has a special place, as other than the setting up of the Red Cross he contributed in making Switzerland well known for its neutrality, especially with the signing of the first ever Geneva Convention of 1864, which set the rules on conduct of war. Dunant’s busts and his selfless devotion to humanitarian assistance and human rights are Geneva’s pride and a common feature at the ICRC headquarters, museum and one strikingly positioned at the entrance of Geneva’s “old Town’ sculpted by Genevese artist Luc Jaggi.

The Records cards of the 1st World War, containing a record seven million of them all with information of prisoners personal details of their histories to trace them and also reconnect them with their families are to be found in this museum. All these are part and parcel of the Red Cross work, which involves the nerve wrenching work of tracing relatives, comforting the wounded, and reaching out to the captured and lost in dire times. The museum is a repository that is recognised by UNESCO as an archives of the International Prisoners of War Register.

Well the sobering truths of humanity’s dark side are not yet over until one reaches the Reconstructed cell, which is a 3 metres by 2 metres cell which is reported to have housed some 17 inmates. There are 34 footprints on this cell to help one conjure the disturbing images of incarceration and also empathise with the work of humanitarian workers.

“The Wall of Time” which chronicles wars and natural disasters which have continued to plague and devastate mankind ever since the Red Cross came into being is a sombre reminder of responsibility. As I complete my tour of the museum I wonder how intertwined the work of humanitarian assistance is related to human rights. I gather the museum is soon to undergo renovations to become a “Museum of Hope” which will have three thematic themes notably, “Defending human dignity”, “Reconstructing the family link” and “Refusing Fatality”.

At the ticket office as I return my audio guide I am confronted by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s quote “Everyone is responsible to everyone else for their for everything.” I agreed that tolerance is key.