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East Timor: ICRC collects 10,000 messages from separated relatives

28-10-1999 News Release 99/43

" I am in good health " , read the printed cards, on which senders write down their own names and list any family members who are with them. The message is brief and simple, but for people who lost touch with their relatives during the events that took place in East Timor in early September, these cards are of the utmost importance.

As of late October, over 10,000 cards have been collected from people trying to contact their relatives. " As word spreads on both sides of the island, more and more people are making use of them " , said Francisco Otero, who coordinates ICRC tracing activities in Indonesia. " Last week alone we collected over 2,500 cards, both from East Timor and from the western half of the island, " he adds.

The cards are collected and distributed by the ICRC and the Indonesian Red Cross. Lists of people to whom cards have been sent are posted at ICRC and Red Cross offices, in camps for displaced persons and in public places. Using the return address on the cards, the recipients can easily send a reply and keep in contact.

These cards are not the only means used by the ICRC to help people get back in touch with their relatives. A satellite telephone is available in the ICRC office in Dili and over 850 calls have been made by East Timor residents to family members on other islands in Indonesia or overseas, in countries such as Portugal and Australia.

Once contact has been restored, the ICRC may be asked to reunite families living on different sides of the East Timor border. Close to 150 people have ben efited from this service since early September, with the ICRC carrying relatives from West Timor to East Timor or in the opposite direction, according to the family's wishes.

A particularly tragic aspect of such situations is the plight of young children who suddenly find themselves alone, not knowing what has become of their families. The ICRC is coordinating the registration of all unaccompanied children in Timor. A total of 96 children have been registered to date.

" So far we have managed to reunite five children with their families, " said Francisco Otero. " But half the registrations and all the reunions took place last week, so we expect these numbers to increase as our resources develop and our service becomes more widely known to the people concerned. "