Detained in Myanmar: Son’s Red Cross message ends woman’s 7 month long anxious wait
“Dear Mother. How are you? We are in Bangladesh.” Some months ago, Adere Begum* would not have known that one day just nine words would change her life. But after seven months of not hearing any news about her children and wondering every day if they were still alive, it was as if these nine words had breathed life back into her body.
Sometime in August last year, when violence broke out in Maungdaw, Adere Begum had fled along with her five children. Like the other 700,000 people who escaped for their lives, they were also trying to get into Bangladesh for refuge. But the family was separated along the way and since then had no news about what had become of each other. Detained in Buthidaung Prison, Rakhine State, Adere Begum spent her hours thinking of her children. Had they survived? Were they able to flee to refuge? Were they looking for her?
As Adere Begum struggled with many unanswered questions, Myint Naign, a field officer with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), met her with a letter. He remembers the occasion well. "Adere Begum looked very downcast when I approached her. But as soon as I said, 'Your son is alive, we've been able to contact him', it was as if she suddenly came alive. She got very excited and tears welled up in her eyes," he says.
The ICRC, along with the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, had traced her children in a camp in Cox's Bazar and collected a letter and photograph, which was then delivered to Adere Begum in Buthidaung Prison as a Red Cross message. These messages contain only family news and are checked by prison authorities before being passed on to the detainees. Even so, the contents offer a glimpse of the anxiety caused by separation. "You were ill when you were arrested. How do you feel now? How are you managing your medicines? How is my sister? Is she with you or with father? Mum, I miss you all so much. We are very happy to hear that you are alive. We are praying for you. Pray for us too," the children write.
The ICRC's restoring family links (RFL) service has collected more than 2,400 Red Cross messages and tracing requests from Bangladesh and Myanmar since August 2017, and has also helped thousands of people get back in touch with their loved ones via phone calls. So far, communication has been successfully restored for more than 9,500 people.
"We tend to forget that people not only need food and water in a crisis situation; they also need information," says Odoardo Girardi, head of the ICRC family reunification programme in Cox's Bazar. The superintendent of Buthidaung Prison, Chan Aye Kyaw, agrees. "I want to thank the ICRC for providing the detainees with news from their families. The Red Cross messages are very important and help to improve the psychological condition of the detainees. It gives them joy and satisfaction when they know that their family is well," he says.
Adere Begum can vouch for the importance of these messages. "I was so worried for my family but then the ICRC brought me good news. Just knowing where my children are makes me feel better," she says.
Another detainee at Buthidaung Prison, who also received a message and photo from his family in Bangladesh, says he now sleeps better at night. "I could not rest without knowing how my family was. But out of the blue I received a message and a picture. I was delighted! This news, which the ICRC brought me, is very valuable," he says.
The ICRC teams have visited four prisons in Rakhine State since August last year, and will continue to do so, looking for the missing family members of those living in refugee camps in Bangladesh.
If receiving Red Cross messages gives hope to the detainees, then the prospect of sending these to their loved ones leaves them bubbling with excitement.
Mother is writing to you, my son. I am healthy too. I am very glad to receive your letter and photo because I know exactly where you are now. Be good my sons and daughters. - Adere Begum*
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.