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Bringing families back in touch with each other: hundreds arrive daily at the ICRC

14-10-1999

ICRC Dili - September 11,1999 - Separated family members are coming to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in their hundreds desperate to make contact again with their relatives.

   

Ref. TP-N- 00033-12

Many families were torn apart with the violence which erupted in East Timor at the beginning of September. The re-established tracing office in Dili is the focal point for hundreds of daily visitors - most of whom think they know where their relatives are but cannot contact them.

People have the option either to write a Red Cross message (RCM) entitled " In good health " or, if they have a contact number, to make call to relatives on the newly-installed satellite phone. Most of the messages are destined for Kupang and Attambua in West Timor. At the same time the names of people who have written messages in West Timor and in Darwin, Australia are posted on a bulletin board in th e ICRC compound and has become a magnet for the local population.

So far, around 2300 RCMs have been collected in ICRC Dili and around 3000 from West Timor by the ICRC and the Indonesian Red Cross (PMI). Around 30 satellite calls are made a day in what is only the second time the ICRC has used new technology to bring families back in touch following a successful similar experience in the Kosovo crisis earlier this year.

One visitor, a woman alone with six children in Dili is desperate to contact her husband who she thinks fled to Darwin. " I am alone here and it is really difficult. He doesn't know whether we are dead or alive. "

Says Ruth Kottman, responsible for tracing in ICRC Dili: " It is becoming clear that this is the thing people are asking us for most of all. They are extremely anxious to make that first contact so they know where their family members are but also to tell relatives that they are back in Dili and safe and well. The first satellite phone call was extremely emotional - it is a great comfort to hear the voice of a Srelative again for the first time since their ordeal of the past few weeks. Only when we have been able to re-establish family contacts will we begin to have an idea of how many people remain unaccounted for. "

In order to reach as many people as possible, the ICRC plans to develop a system of collecting and broadcasting names over radio stations to give listeners the chance to locate their relatives'whereabouts.