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Pakistan: satellite phones help bring relief to family members separated by floods

24-08-2010 Feature

Floods continue to imperil the lives of thousands of people in Pakistan. The ICRC and the Pakistan Red Crescent Society have so far provided emergency aid including food, clean water and medical care to over 200,000. Separated family members are among the growing number of flood victims. Jessica Barry reports.

   
  ©Pakistan Red Crescent Society    
 
Dera Ismail Khan: ICRC field officer Muhammad Hazrat collects information from flood victims about missing persons.    
   


   
  ©Pakistan Red Crescent Society    
 
A flood victim makes a call on an ICRC satellite phone to his brother in the Punjab.    
   


   
  ©Pakistan Red Crescent Society    
 
Dera Ismail Khan. The ICRC gathering information from displaced villagers about missing people.    
      

As floods surged through people’s homes and villages in north-western Pakistan, their mobile phones got swept away along with everything else, making it impossible for families to contact relatives living in other devastated areas, or even to let loved ones know that they, themselves, had survived. Even those families lucky enough not to lose their phones could not charge them in villages where the power supplies went down. Others who had lost their money could not pay to phone from call centres that were still working.

Three weeks on, the situation in the north west has improved somewhat and there has been less rain, but nevertheless the ICRC’s ‘Restoring Family Links’ (RFL) service is still much in demand in remote areas.

Helping separated family members keep in touch with each other through the use of satellite phones, and short, ‘I am alive’ messages called salamats , is an integral part of the RFL service which the ICRC implements in conflict zones around the world. But it can be equally valuable as a means of communication for families seeking news of each other during disasters such as the devastating floods that have hit Pakistan.

" Our priority is to re-establish these broken contacts as fast as possible, " explains Miriam Zampatti, head of the ICRC's RFL programme in Islamabad.

The RFL team in Peshawar is small, just three ICRC field officers and ten Pakistan Red Crescent Society (PRCS) volunteers, but their impact has been huge. Between them they have visited dozens of villages in Dera Ismail Khan, Kohistan, Swat and Shangla districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province since 4 August when the team, working in pairs, was first able to get out into t he stricken areas. To date, they have helped over 230 people make phone calls to relatives living elsewhere in Pakistan, or abroad.

    

 Satellite phones come in handy  

When families hear that the ICRC is helping people to make free phone calls to relatives they cannot reach by other means, they come flocking.

" In some places, people walk for up to three hours to reach where we have set up the phones, " says ICRC protection field officer Akthar Jehan, who has helped numerous women make calls to their relatives.

" I lost all my money in the flood and then someone told me that the ICRC was offering free calls, " commented one man who used the RFL service in Mingora. " I went there as I wanted to ask my relatives to send me money. I am living in someone else's house now. "

Making contact with the flood victims'loved ones has not always been easy, even with a satellite phone. " Should someone's list of contact numbers have been washed away along with all their other possessions, the frustration can be enormous if they don't know the number by heart, " comments Akhtar. " If they can remember the telephone number of a friend who might know the person we are trying to reach, we will call them first and try to get hold of it. We won't give up until we have tried all the possibilities. "

The devastation the RFL teams have seen around them in the villages, and the simple logistics of getting from one place to another, have been daunting. Working together, the PRCS volunteers and ICRC staff sometimes walk for between three and eight hours in a day to reach remote areas.

" One volunteer who is currently in Khoistan was telli ng us that he and his colleague had to cross a flooded river on a wire pulley " , remarks ICRC field officer, Atif Shabaz. " It was the only way to get to the other side, and very dangerous. "

Facilitating contact between separated family members using satellite phones is only part of the RLF service. The teams also register unaccompanied children, and take details of people who have gone missing. They help, as well, when unidentified dead bodies are buried to make sure that clothes, personal documents and jewellery, are saved and kept safe to facilitate identification of missing persons. As the flood waters recede and the full extent of the devastation becomes clear, tracing the missing and helping with the identification of human remains will become ever more of a priority for the ICRC.

One of the most effective ways in which separated family members can get news of each other during emergencies is by sending an ICRC salamat greeting. These messages can be channelled through ICRC delegations. Since the beginning of the floods, ten such messages have been sent by flood-affected families to their loved ones being held in detention places abroad, reassuring them that they are safe and well. The messages were handed over during regular visits to detainees by ICRC delegates.