Thousands of ICRC's messages travel between Afghanistan and outside.
The ICRC's message service is part of the organisation's mandate. With six sub-offices in Afghanistan, the ICRC teams travel to the most remote regions to deliver letters and photographs. Most of the messages come from abroad. ICRC also runs a strictly confidential message service for prisoners. A huge amount of messages come from detainees, following the detention of prisoners captured in the recent US-led war against terror. Part of these were collected from prisoners held by the US in Guantanamo Bay.
KABUL, 22 August (IRIN) - Abdul Ra'uf looked puzzled when a member of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) turned up at his house in the Afghan capital, Kabul, saying he had a message for him. His face lit up when he was told that a message had come from Russia.
" It must be from my son-in-law, " he told IRIN. Sure enough the message was from his daughter's husband, Abdul Rasul, who had left for Russia five years ago in search of work. He had been trying to get a message to his relatives following 11 September through the battered Afghan postal system without much luck when he heard about the ICRC's message service.
This message was delivered to a house in Kabul, where there are no street names or door numbers. But this was one of the easier deliveries, according to ICRC's field protection officer, Ghulam Sakhi Danishjo. He had stopped eight times to ask local people if they knew of the street and Abdul Ra'uf. " This was not a remote area, which made it much easier to locate the house. "
The ICRC's message service is part of the organisation's mandate under the Geneva Convention. Those eligible for the service are vulnerable groups including women, handicapped, children under 16 and the elderly. Detainees including common law prisoners, security detainees and prisoners of war are also able to send messages through the Red Cross Message Service.
" For us it is not just a message. There is a moral and ethical thinking behind it, " Mulan Giovannini, the ICRC's tracing delegate in Kabul, told IRIN, emphasisin g that every effort was made to deliver the message no matter how far or how remote the address. " We are not a postal service: we are assisting and are filling a gap, " she stressed.
" We distribute messages by hand and we can drive for hours before we find a place, " Mohammad Ali, a field officer for ICRC, told IRIN, adding that many cases involved people who had not heard from relatives in years. " People are very shocked that we have travelled so far to take a message to them and they can't believe their eyes when they see us, " he said.
With six sub-offices in Afghanistan, the ICRC teams travel to the most remote regions to deliver letters and photographs. " Most of the messages come from abroad and not within the country itself, " Giovannini said. " People often don't have proper addresses, but we do our best to find the location. " One of the difficulties they faced when travelling to remote areas was to get the family to write a message back straight away, she added.
The messages have also served to reunite families. " We first ask the family if they are willing to take back the member and then organise transport and visas, " Giovannini said. Helping to reunite Afghan families all over the world, she cited one recent case where some Afghan children wanted to be reunited with their father in Sweden. " This is the added value to this job, " she said.
Danishjo gave another example of how the message service has brought loved ones together. A teenage girl who was studying in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif had lost contact with her family in Kabul after fleeing her home when the Taliban regained control of the city a few years ago. She was recently reunited with her family through ICRC. " I remember the look on the mother's face. She was overjoyed to hear from her daughter as she had lost all hope, " Dani shjo said. In total some 21 families in Afghanistan have been reunited since 2000.
In another case, ICRC staff delivered a message to a man in Kabul from his ex-wife in England. " The man was overjoyed to hear from her as he'd recently lost his first wife, " he said.
During the reign of the Taliban, the ICRC's focus was on reuniting families, Giovannini explained, saying that many had dispersed due to fighting when villages were attacked. " They fled and lost each other crossing borders. Some were able to get out of the country, others weren't so lucky. "
There were also many cases where people were thrown into jail for minor offences by the ministry of vice and virtue. " People would be thrown into jail and their families would have no idea of where they were and the message service was the only way for them to contact relatives, " she added. Giovannini pointed out that there were many prisons in Kabul, to which the bulk of messages were being sent.
ICRC also runs a strictly confidential message service for prisoners. While registering inmates, staff offer them the chance to write to loved ones. " There are a huge amount of messages coming from detainees, " she said. The increase followed the detention of prisoners captured in the recent US-led war against terror.
Between November 2001 and February 2002, the ICRC visited over 6,300 detainees in 66 places of detention under the responsibility of Afghan authorities or United States forces. Of these, nearly 6,000 were seen and registered for the first time, half of them received assistance from the ICRC to return home.
In collaboration with the Afghan Red Crescent Society, the ICRC collected 1,865 messages from civilians and 1,551 from detainees in January and February 2002. In the same period, 1,437 messages were delivered to civili ans and 1,390 to detainees. The message service has often provided families of detainees with their first reliable news of loved ones.
In addition to this, messages were collected from prisoners held by the US in Guantanamo Bay, in April and a further 310 from prisoners held by US forces in Afghanistan. In return, 80 and 40 messages respectively had been delivered to US-held prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and in Afghanistan.
The ICRC has been visiting prisoners detained in Guantanamo Bay since 18 January in accordance with the procedures laid down in the Third Geneva Convention. Visits to US-run places of detention in Afghanistan began on 24 December.
The largest number of messages addressed to these prisoners have come from the Middle East, Asia and Europe. There is no limit to the number of such messages that a prisoner may write or receive and, for reasons of their own, individual prisoners may choose not to communicate with their families.
Working closely with the Afghan Red Crescent, the ICRC is trying to encourage the former to distribute civilian messages too, although the ICRC takes sole responsibility for delivering messages to detainees. Some 1,000 Afghans and 100 expatriate staff are employed by the ICRC, which has been active in the battered country since 1986.Copyright (c) UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2002