Claire Bertschinger

by Radiyah Shakur

How does it feel to be in the center of disaster and not have enough resources to save everyone? Well ask Claire Bertschinger, who in 1985 worked for the International Red Cross in Ethiopia during the height of its wide-spread famine disaster.

Claire BertschingerAs a young girl, Claire knew that she wanted to be a nurse and to work in Africa. It was while on a two week vacation to see Europe and staying with her aunt in Geneva that it was suggested Claire use her dual citizenship and apply to the International Red Cross based in Switzerland. Bertschinger went for the interview, learned a few phrases of French, and found herself placed in Lebanon one month later.

However, it was Claire’s work in Ethiopia that received worldwide attention. Claire, a young nurse at the time, was featured in Michael Buerk’s BBC report on the region. Surrounded by 85,000 starving people, Claire was responsible for choosing which children were allowed in the feeding station, and which were too ill to be saved. For Claire, however, all of the children needed saving. Unknown to the nurse at the time, that three minute interview with the BBC journalist made an immense impression on viewers, and led to the biggest relief effort the world had ever seen. It also inspired singer Sir Bob Geldof to create the original Band Aid single and Live Aid.

The trauma of what Claire experienced made her a recluse; and she shut herself of to the media and the public for twenty years. The burden of having to choose someone’s fate, whether they would live or die, was too much to handle. She comments in a July 2005 BBC interview that she, "felt like a Nazi sending people to the death camps… Why was it possible in this time of plenty that some have food and some do not? It is not right".

In 1991 Claire was awarded the prestigious Florence Nightingale Medal for her outstanding work. In 1993 she returned to Ethiopia with Michael Buerk to film a follow-up documentary entitled Ethiopia- a Journey with Michael Buerk. It was on this trip that Claire decided to share with the world her account of what happened. In 2005 she wrote the book Moving Mountains; and donated part of the proceeds to African Children’s Educational Trust, a small British charity. In the same year she was presented with the Woman of the Year Window to the World Award for her dedication to her work in difficult and demanding circumstances, and opening the eyes of the world to various issues and crises.

Claire Bertschinger is a registered nurse and has a Masters Degree in Medical Anthropology. She has lived and worked in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Panama, Sierra Leone, Switzerland, Indonesia, and Uganda, among other places. Just as much today, as before, she is interested in making poverty history. She now lives in the UK and runs the Diploma in Tropical Nursing at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.


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