Tomorrow is World Red Cross Red Crescent Day – the birthday of our founder Henry Dunant in 1828. To mark the occasion, we’re asking for your Red Cross story. Read how Red Cross nurse Claire Bertschinger first inspired one of our fundraisers 20 years ago, as well as Bob Geldof…

Claire Bertschinger checking a young child in a feeding centre in Mekel

Claire Bertschinger checking a young child in a feeding centre in Mekel – ©Claire Bertschinger

Claire Bertschinger was the nurse that brought the world’s attention to Ethiopia’s devastating famine in 1984.

Stood amid thousands of starving and emaciated people, she was interviewed by BBC reporter Michael Buerk.

The interview formed part of a harrowing report, one that lives long in the memory of those who watched it on television.

The British nurse, who was working at a feeding station in Mekele, Ethiopia, with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), candidly described having to decide which children to admit to the centre, knowing that those she didn’t were likely to die.

When asked how she felt, she replied: “What do you expect? It breaks my heart.”

In a letter to the British Red Cross, dated December 1984, she wrote: “They must think that I am like a god who, with a nod of the head, can decide if they are in or out.

“You see, I have to select 50-70 children from over 1,200 who are all under nourished and sick in one way or another. All screaming – or lying too still. The pressure is unbearable. Hell! What a job.”

Claire Bertschinger sitting outside a feeding centre

Claire sitting outside a feeding centre – ©ClaireBertschinger

The television interview inspired Bob Geldof to launch the original Band Aid single and Live Aid, which inspired people across the world.

“In her was vested the power of life and death,” said Geldof at the time. “She had become God-like and that is unbearable for anyone.”

Claire, who now works for the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, has undoubtedly been an inspiration to people from all walks of life, including those now working in the charity sector.  

Andrea Luff, who works for the British Red Cross in fundraising, was inspired by Claire all those years ago.

She said: “I can absolutely identify my starting point for a career in the charity sector, and specifically the Red Cross, to a very clear and transformational moment in time.

“I vividly remember sitting on the floor in our lounge at home, watching the news. I was ten years old and it was the Michael Buerk, Claire Bertschinger piece.

“I remember images of Red Cross volunteers unloading aid and knew, right there and then, that I wanted to be part of what the Red Cross is about – and here I am.”

A Red Cross aircraft arriving at Maichew in Ethiopia. Claire Bertschinger is receiving a parcel of woolly jumpers

A Red Cross aircraft arriving at Maichew, Ethiopia. Claire is receiving a parcel of woolly jumpers – ©ClaireBertschinger

Claire, who worked for the ICRC in a dozen different countries, was awarded the Florence Nightingale Medal in 1991 and a DBE in 2010.

Recalling the moment she applied to join the Red Cross, she said: “Initially, I was very apprehensive about applying to the Red Cross because of its prestigious status and I actually thought I was not good enough!

“However I found out that my qualifications and experience… A&E, tropical nursing, travel and expeditionary nursing and knowledge of French was just what they wanted at the time.

“Having been privileged to have worked in dozens of disasters with the Red Cross, I realise what a need there is for such a unique and neutral organisation.”

Do you have a Red Cross story to tell? Share it and use the hashtag #MyRedCross on Twitter.