In 1967, when the Biafran War broke out in Nigeria, France was one of the few major nations supportive of the newly independent Biafra region. A number of French doctors volunteered with the Red Cross to provide assistance in a blockade established by the Nigerian military. They, in addition to Biafran health workers and hospitals, were subjected to attacks by the army and even witnessed civilians being murdered and starved by the blockading forces. The doctors publicly criticised the Nigerian government and the Red Cross for their seemingly complicit behaviour and concluded that a new aid organisation was needed that would ignore political and religious boundaries and prioritise the welfare of victims.
One of the doctors was Bernard Kouchner, who along with some others founded Groupe d’Intervention Médicale et Chirurgicale en Urgence (Emergency Medical and Surgical Intervention Group). At the same time, Raymond Borel, the editor of French medical journal TONUS, had started a group called Secours Médical Français (French Medical Relief) in response to the 1970 Bhola cyclone, which killed at least 625,000 people in what was then East Pakistan. In the days preceding Christmas of 1971, the two teams merged to form Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) — a global humanitarian organisation focused on medical care and anchored on the three core principles of independence, impartiality and neutrality.
Jean-Christophe Rufin was a young doctor in France when MSF (which in English, is called Doctors Without Borders) was founded, and signed on as one of its earliest members. The grandson of a physician who was interred in German concentration camps during World War II, Rufin was deeply inspired by MSF’s ideals and spent many years with it before pursuing other things — he was the president of Action Against Hunger, the French ambassador to Senegal and is the second youngest of the members (informally referred to as les immortels, or the immortals) of the prestigious Académie française.
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