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Family links: eyes wide open

23-05-2003 Feature

Healing the physical wounds of war is one thing. You might even forget the pain. But the pain of separation takes longer to wear off. A report from Michèle Mercier in Amman.

Samar is 24 years old and is a member of the ICRC tracing team in Amman. Her first experience of working for the ICRC coincides with a particularly difficult period for the Arab world. Coming face to face with the confusion and distress of the people who use the tracing service has opened her eyes to the real value of the family, something she had not been fully aware of until now. These two stories tell of her experiences. We have changed the names of the people concerned.

 Somewhere in Germany  

One day, 25 years ago in Palestine, a couple got divorced. The husband left the region, taking their two children and leaving his ex-wife, whom we shall call Farah, with no idea where they were going.

For over 20 years, the children had no contact with their mother. Farah’s son eventually became a ski instructor in Germany. It eventually dawned on him that his mother must still be alive, and he realized that he wanted to see her again, so he contacted the German Red Cross and gave them what little information he had about the short period he had spent in Palestine.

The German Red Cross passed his request to the ICRC’s Jerusalem delegation, who quickly discovered that Farah, now remarried, had been living in Jordan for over 20 years.

Farah’s new husband had been keen to help her find her children, and had tried to obtain information from her ex-husband’s family, such as where he was living. Sadly, no help had been forthcoming from that quarter, and the search had b een abandoned.

When the Jerusalem delegation contacted the ICRC delegation in Amman they had no such problems, and Farah was soon at their office, ready to speak to her son by phone for the first time. The first call was answered by his voicemail, so a member of the tracing team left a message. The family waited respectfully. The end was in sight, but the anguish continued.

A little later, Farah’s son was on the line. He had changed his surname and was using a German name to distinguish himself from his father, who has a criminal record. He could speak only German, his mother only Arabic. A German ICRC employee had to interpret for them, but the feelings got through despite this filter, and the air was full of emotion. The mother wanted to hear her son’s voice, even if she couldn’t understand a word he was saying. He promised to get his finances sorted out so he could come and visit her in Jordan. One day. Soon.

 Dead or alive?  

The case of Khaled was particularly difficult and dramatic. He was taken prisoner during what people of the region are calling the “Third Gulf War”. Messages written by these prisoners are routed from southern Iraq via Kuwait to Geneva, and from there to the addressee.

One of these messages was addressed to a Jordanian Palestinian family in Amman, and announced that their son had been captured but was in good health. When the head of the tracing bureau in Amman delivered the message to the family he was in for a bit of a surprise. At first, he thought the family were just reacting rather emotionally to the news. In fact, they were stunned. A friend of Khaled’s had already brought them his ID card and clothes, telling them he had seen their son’s corpse. The family had already published the death announcement.

They simply could not believe that the Red Cross message was true, although they were deeply grateful to the person who had delivered it. They now have to start putting a whole chapter of their lives behind them … and start preparing to welcome home the son they had symbolically buried.