30 years of humanitarian commitment

Publication date: Feb 04, 2022

From food aid to technological aid to enabling people to communicate across the world, no one had the same idea before!

Jean-François Cazenave, Monique Lanne-Petit, Robert Chassagnieux: three friends, the desire to help others, but without really knowing how. That's how the adventure started. The general indifference towards the massacre of Kurdish refugees in Iraq in 1991 revolted Jean-François and he decided that it was time to act. It was then that he mobilised his friends and the month of March 1991 marked the beginning, which, from then on, would not stop. Together, they created the association Pyrenean Solidarity for the Kurdish People to collect donations, clothes and food. The determination of the volunteers led them to ensure the proper distribution of the goods brought in. The encounters with these populations who were forced to flee their homes, and were confronted with a feeling of abandonment and complete indifference were to be the starting point of TSF’s history.

Pyrenean Solidarity for the Kurdish People became Pyrenean Solidarity, in the hope of pursuing similar actions elsewhere. A few months later, the association is again on the field following the invasion of Slovenia and Croatia by the troops of the Yugoslavian People's Army. From September 1992 to 1995, 56 humanitarian convoys left from Pau (France) to Posusje, in Bosnia, where the aid was sent.

"The people who came to us would take out a piece of paper from their shoes with one or more names and phone numbers. They asked us to contact their relatives who were abroad", remembers Jean-François, President of TSF, "but we could not continue to call all these contacts when we returned to France".  The need was identified. "If they managed to contact their relatives all over the world, they would become a priority in the eyes of their families who would do everything possible to help them”. But cell phones did not yet exist, the only way available at the time was the Mini M: a telephone equipped with a satellite antenna. Solidarité Pyrénéenne managed to get one thanks to the city of Pau (South-West France), where the association was born.

July 1998, in Kosovo, people were fleeing the massacres of the Serbian leader Milosevic. Solidarité Pyrénéenne decided to intervene in Albania, along the Kosovar border.  "At the foot of the mountain, the Red Cross and charitable organizations were already there to help them. But to our amazement, it was to us that the displaced people were flocking to call. What we had imagined, was proving to be true: their need to communicate was real, and as vital as their need for food or medical care", says Jean-François. Eight days later, the first foreign vehicles arrived from France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Austria and further afield to pick up their loved ones. The team was ready to create Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF).

In April 1999, Solidarité Pyrénéenne went back to Macedonia and settled in the north of Skopje, where more than a million people had just been expelled by Milosevic. They set up its one and only satellite phone in the middle of a field, while a gigantic queue of refugees stretched over a kilometer. They all wanted to make a phone call! "We had just invented the first humanitarian telecommunications," recalls Jean-François.

Created in July 1998 after returning from Kosovo, TSF took over from Solidarité Pyrénéenne in April 1999. From that moment on, the association becomes the NGO specialized in humanitarian emergency telecommunications. Gradually, the founders left their previous jobs to fully dedicate themselves to the development of the NGO. From 1999 to 2021, TSF has been involved in more than 150 major crises, providing communication means to more than 20 million beneficiaries and over 850 local and international humanitarian organizations.

Today, after 30 years of humanitarian action of its founders, TSF pursues its mission to protect and assist people affected by humanitarian crises through telecommunications and new technologies. In these situations, these means can allow them to regain a perspective on life.