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The Soviet Union and Doctors Without Borders
The Stressed Relationship Between an Invader and a Humanitarian Group


Table  of Contents

1.  The History of the Soviet Union's relationship with the Mujahideen
2. Doctors Without Borders Entrance into Afghanistan
    a. Negotiations with Mujahideen Fighters
    b. Entering into Afghanistan
3. Soviet Union's Past Encounters with other Aid Groups
4. Conclusions
    a. Post Note
5. Sources

1. The History of the Soviet Union's Relationship with the Mujahideen Fighters

    The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to aid the Communist government. Mujahideen tribes, who were opposed to the government and Soviet intervention, quickly waged guerrilla warfare on the invaders and the government. They would eventually form an alliance to better fight their enemy. During the war, it had been estimated that half the Afghan population had been displaced by the fighting, creating a disastrous humanitarian situation (BBC).

2. Doctors Without Borders Entrance into Afghanistan
    Doctors without Borders quickly realized the humanitarian situation forming in Afghanistan, and quickly tried finding ways to get help to those in need. However, as entering any war zone, there were complex challenges necessary to be over come before they could truly start their mission.

Juliette Fournot
A. Negotiating with Mujahideen
    Juliette Fournot, MSF Head of Mission in Afghanistan, realized that it would be impossible for her doctors to enter Afghanistan without the consent of one of the warring factions. Since finding consent from the Soviets to aid civilians who might or might not be guerrilla fighters seemed unlikely, she negotiated with various local mujahedeen commanders who would allow small groups of doctors to come into an area where villagers needed assistance. The negotiations weren't always easy, but MSF successfully did it's mission and aided the Afghan villagers (MSF "The Photographer").

B. Entering into Afghanistan
   To enter into Afghanistan, the MSF employees would have to go into the country illegally from Pakistan. So, as demonstrated in the Photographer, they would cross the Pakistani border at night, running up into the mountains to avoid Soviet patrols. Their eagerness in avoiding the Soviet military suggests at the least a very strained relationship between the Soviet Union and MSF. This is further emphasized in The Photographer on page 85 when Lefevre tells how his Caravan would hide from Soviet helicopters, who would be searching for similar caravans filled with mujahedeen fighters (Guibert, Lefevre, and Lemercier 85). This all suggests that any MSF personnel discovered operating in Afghanistan had the possibility of being treated the same as the fighters.

3. Soviet Union's Past Encounters with other Humanitarian Groups

The Soviet Union had not had much contact with humanitarian groups in its history. It had not signed the Geneva Conventions during the Second World War, so it was not legally obliged to follow rules on how to treat prisoners of war. However, there was a Red Cross delegation set up in Moscow during the war, to make sure that Soviet Prisoners captured by the Germans were treated well. However, the Soviets did not allow the Red Cross to observe how German Prisoners of War were being treated (The Red Cross and World War Two). Since the Soviet Union treated an international organization in this manner, it can be safely assumed that they would treat a private organization that was sneaking into the country to aid civilians of a mostly unknown enemy with even less respect.

4. Conclusions

      The Soviet Union, after its previous encounters with humanitarian groups and knowing that MSF was operating with the consent of the Mujahideen, would not have been too please with the efforts of Doctors without Borders. By helping the civilians under the Mujahideen, Doctors Without Borders weakened the Soviet Union's position inside Afghanistan. Therefore, it would be logical for the Soviet Union to treat Doctors Without Borders staff as enemies. This is why MSF did what it could to avoid the Russians rather than to try and cooperate with them, since cooperation with the Soviets probably would lead to MSF failing in its mission to help those most affected by the fighting. By ignoring this however, MSF stressed its relations with the Soviet Union. Since it is a private organization, any members captured or killed could possibly be treated the same as combatant prisoners. Also, regarding the Soviet Unions past treatment of the Red Cross during the Second World War which is an international aid organization, it could be assumed that their actions towards MSF would either be equivalent or worse, all of which point to a very stressed relationship between these two entities.

A.  Post Notes

  On June 3rd 2004 five MSF workers were ambushed and killed while returning from a village clinic. A local Taliban spokesperson claimed credit for the killings saying, "We killed them because they worked for the Americans against us using the cover of aid work/ We will kill more foreign aid workers" (Gall 5). These killings made the MSF decide to cease all operations within Afghanistan, ending  what would be almost 24 years of service in Afghanistan (MSF "Afghanistan Overview"). The irony of these killings lies in the statement of the Taliban spokesperson, who seems to forget that MSF first came to Afghanistan not during that Afghan War, but two previous when the Mujahideen fighters (Some of who would later become Taliban leaders) were receiving the aid from MSF in the form of having their families and friends be saved from death or incapacitation by the Russian invaders.

MSF workers operating within Afghanistan

5. Sources

BBC. "Afghanistan - Timeline." BBC News. 15 Mar. 2011. Web. 26 Sept. 2011. <>.

MSF. "The Photographer | Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)." Doctors Without Borders. MSF, 2011. Web. 24 Sept. 2011. <>.

Guibert, Emmanuel, Didier Lefèvre, and Frédéric Lemercier. The Photographer. Trans. Alexis Siegel. [Bridgewater, N.J.]: Distributed by Paw Prints/Baker & Taylor, 2010. Print.

"The Red Cross and World War Two." History Learning Site. 2011. Web. 25 Sept. 2011. <>.

Gall, Carlotta. "Five Aid Workers Shot to Death In an Ambush in Afghanistan." New York Times 3 June 2004, late ed., sec. A: 5. Print.

MSF. "Afghanistan Overview." Doctors Without Borders. Web. 23 Sept. 2011. <>.