Tunisia: a Guantanamo internee and his family exchange news by phone for the first time

25-04-2008 Feature

Wednesday 27 February, 3.00 p.m., in the family home of Guantanamo internee Ahmed (fictitious name). Four pairs of eyes focus anxiously on the cellular phone which Ralph Wehbe, ICRC delegate in Tunis, has brought. In a few minutes, Ahmed's father, brother and two sisters will perhaps have a chance to speak to the young man they haven't seen for many long years for the first time.

Ahmed's mother is the only person missing. She died at the end of 2007, but she will be very present in their thoughts throughout the day. It was actually after her death that the ICRC intervened to facilitate the establishment of telephone contact so that the family could exchange condolences and family news. It is the first time that the ICRC has organized this type of phone contact with a Tunisian family after approaching the authorities of the Guantanamo prison camp.

The ICRC has been visiting the Guantanamo Bay internees (in Cuba) since January 2002 − about 300 people from some 30 countries to date. By May 2007, the organization had facilitated the exchange of almost 30 000 Red Cross messages between persons deprived of their liberty and their families back home.    
Ahmed's family have to wait for another ten minutes until the call is put through. Finally there's an American officer at the other end. " I can't believe my ears! " says Ahmed's father with visible emotion. " We've got through! " shouts the younger sister enthusiastically. Contact has at last been established between Tunisia and the Guantanamo detention camp in Cuba.
And for an hour Ahmed and his family are able to talk to each other and exchange news. " I hadn't heard his voice for over five years. His voice has changed so much! " exclaims his younger sister.
It's a very moving moment for both the detainee and his family. Overcome with emotion, Ahmed's elder brother sheds tears of joy when he hears his brother's voice. Lost for words after so many years of separation, he struggles to find something to say. " He didn't realize what was happening to begin with. He was so surprised and delighted, " says his father.
" It's essential to be able to reunite a family at a time like this. If it's physically impossible, we have to find other ways of enabling family members to talk to each other. It's a gesture of humanity, " explains Ralph Wehbe, who has come to visit the family to make sure that the phone call goes smoothly.
" It's thanks to my mother that we've been brought together, " Ahmed's younger sister emphasizes. " She's still watching over us from heaven. " In the context of its humanitarian mission, the ICRC helps persons who have been deprived of their liberty because of an armed conflict to restore contact with their families and to keep in touch. To do so the organization uses mainly the Red Cross message system – written messages are exchanged between the members of a family who have been separated and who cannot be reached by other means because of the conflict. In certain cases, particularly when there is a death in a detainee's family, the ICRC intervenes on a strictly humanitarian basis to facilitate contact by telephone.