Officially recognized for his decades of selfless dedication to helping war-weary Afghans, now Alberto Cairo is continuing his service to humanity as a legal citizen of the mountainous country.
The 67-year-old Italian physical therapist spent nearly half of his life, 28 years, working with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Afghanistan, providing artificial limbs to victims of the raging war.
Having grown up in Turin before moving to Milan, Alberto entered the Afghan war theater in the 1990s during the brutal civil conflict that reduced the capital, Kabul, to rubble. Since then, more than 180,000 wounded and sick Afghans have been provided artificial limbs and other treatments under his watchful eyes.
In appreciation of his good deeds, the country’s president, Ashraf Ghani, granted Cairo honorary citizenship last month, hailing him for his long mission in Afghanistan.
“During his 28 years of service in Afghanistan, he worked day and night to help war victims, civilians and security forces get back and resume their lives,” Ghani said.
In an interview with Anadolu Agency, Cairo said he never regretted coming to Afghanistan, and in fact enjoyed every moment helping its people.
“When I was a young man, it was my intention to work for a while with some humanitarian organization. That’s why I applied to the ICRC. I was recruited and offered a mission in Afghanistan. I accepted without much thinking. It turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life, because, despite the challenges, since then I have been enjoying every single moment. I have learned a lot and, above all, had the opportunity to feel useful,” he said.
He recounted that his plans to work for only a few years with the ICRC soon changed, adding: “Now after nearly 30 years, I feel still very happy”.
The Red Cross recently marked its 30th year since the beginning of the Physical Rehabilitation Program in Afghanistan, which helped thousands of disabled people, with Cairo at center stage.
“The record number of Afghans seeking rehabilitation assistance is a reflection of the huge levels of the need,” Cairo said, adding that even with all of the people helped by the ICRC so far, it does not come close everyone in need.
Last year Taliban insurgents said they will no longer allow safe passage to Red Cross staff working in Afghanistan. The militants accused it of failing to meet its obligations to help Taliban prisoners in a jail in Kabul.
Asked about threats claiming he was involved in missionary activities, he said the ICRC mandate and mission are very clear and well known.
“We are impartial, apolitical and never involved in proselytizing or any religious activity. Our goals are purely humanitarian. I have never felt threatened by any similar accusations. It really never came to my mind.”
Since the Taliban threats, most ICRC operations have ground to a halt.
Afghanistan ICRC chief Schaerer Juan-Pedro met Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani earlier this year to share the concerns arising from the Taliban threat. However, the situation remains tense amid escalating violence across the country as the Taliban engages in landmark peace talks with the U.S.
Regardless of the political and security climate, Alberto said he wishes to see the work of all the humanitarian organizations fully understood, respected, and facilitated by all parties to the Afghan conflict.
“In particular, the ICRC has a special program called Health in Danger,” he explained. “Its aim is to make sure that every person always has access to health services whatever the situation they are living in. This implies that the health facilities, medical staff, and everybody involved in the assistance to wounded or sick persons are protected and respected.
“I would like that all the warring sides commit themselves to accept these basic humanitarian principles. It would be a huge step forward to rebuild links and relations among people and, eventually, peace.”