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Eastern Chad: the ICRC restoring family links

01-10-2004 Feature

Thousands of families have been separated by the ongoing crisis in Darfur in western Sudan. The ICRC, in collaboration with the Sudanese Red Crescent and the Red Cross in Chad, is helping to reunite relatives by setting up an extensive family tracing network for refugees and the displaced. ICRC delegate, Yves Heller, wrote this article.


Many Sudanese refugees have been separated from their loved ones.©ICRC/Yves Heller/ref. TD-E-00028  

To the sound of braying donkeys and crying babies awaiting their daily feed, the sun begins to rise on the Farshana refugee camp in central eastern Chad. The women wake to begin their morning chores.

Gracefully, several begin to move along the dusty paths aligning the thousands of triangular-shaped UNHCR tents that house these refugees. Some pause to banter with their neighbours and small groups soon form.

The small gatherings are, however, brief. Time may seem to have come to a standstill in Farshana camp, but these women know that the sweltering heat is approaching and that they must fetch water and firewood as soon as possible.

One group, comprised of several women skilfully carrying large clay jugs on their heads, moves towards a sand-built mound on which four tube connected spigots have been placed to provide water to the different sectors of Farshana camp. The women patiently take their turns filling their jugs and return, together, to their tents.

Two other women have taken the path toward the in creasingly dwindling shrub and trees that encircle the camp. Every day, women walk to the closest tree to cut and gather a bundle of twigs and branches that will later be burnt to cook their food. As each day passes, the wood becomes scarcer and the walk becomes longer.

But these women have long been accustomed to walking long distances. Several months ago, Sudan's Darfur region became the target of violent incursions, prompting thousands of civilians to flee the region, cross the border and settle in several camps and makeshift sites along the Chad-Sudan border. These refugees had to brave a long, blistering journey across arid land and treacherous territory in search of safety. For some, the journey to these camps took several weeks; for others it lasted up to six months.

In the midst of this abrupt and massive influx of refugees, families were forced to leave behind their crops, their livestock and almost the entirety of their belongings.

 Separated families  

Their plight has been further compounded by not knowing their relatives'whereabouts or fate. Many children followed their aunts, uncles and cousins to Chad; others have been left behind in Darfur, not knowing if they will ever see their parents again.

The ICRC has responded to the effects of the humanitarian crisis by establishing a sub-delegation in eastern Chad in the town of Abéché. It serves as a logistical base for the organization's extensive family tracing activities in the region.


The ICRC, with the help of National Society volunteers, runs a family tracing post in Farshana camp in Chad.©ICRC/Yves Heller/ref. TD-E-00031 

Since May this year, ICRC delegates have been crisscrossing eastern Chad assessing the situation there and setting up a series of family tracing posts in refugee camps covering a territory of 90,000 square kilometres. A total of eleven posts are planned, offering an extensive family contact and tracing Red Cross message and database system to more than one hundred thousand refugees.

In collaboration with the Red Cross of Chad and the Sudanese Red Crescent Society, delegates and volunteers will process these messages and try to get them to their intended recipients in camps, settlements and villages on either side of the border.

Alma Ahmadipour, sub-regional tracing delegate, has helped set up the ICRC's tracing posts throughout eastern Chad and more recently at the Farshana settlement, where, she insists, the needs are unequivocal. She spent more than six years in Rwanda, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, and Zambia helping families re-establish contacts and, in several cases, reunite. Here, however, she is particularly struck by the dramatic and sudden collapse of family structures.

" In Darfur, families were given very little time to pack and leave, forcing the separation of families of up to ten members. "

 Meeting the refugees  

Before actually initiating these tracing activities, the ICRC works closely with the refugees to explain how it can try to help them get in touch wi th relatives.

In Farshana, ICRC delegates and Chadian Red Cross volunteers stop in each of the camp's six sectors or " Islots " to organize information sessions on these tracing activities. At Islot 3, at the entrance of the camp, refugees have been informed that the Red Cross will come and speak at three o'clock. A gathering of women, men and children has already begun.

ICRC delegate Sandrine Ducrest and her Red Cross interpreter have arrived at a large, squared-shaped tent at the heart of Islot 3 to deliver their session. This time around, hundreds of women and men gather around Sandrine and her interpreter. About 200 women - some carrying small children strapped to their backs - sit to the left of the semi-circle. To the right, a slightly smaller group of men, all dressed in long white robes, stand huddled together.

Sandrine is cautious when she speaks, for she knows that contacting and unifying separated family members can be a long and difficult undertaking. As she begins to speak, the participants seek a space to sit, curious to learn more.

Through the interpreter, she carefully explains the ICRC's specific role in eastern Chad, the towns and sites in Sudan and Chad where it can try to send Red Cross messages and reach family members. " But please be patient, " she implores, " This type of work can be difficult and time-consuming. "

After her brief presentation, an exchange ensues. Some speak of separated loved ones who may be located in the adjacent Bredjing camp, others mention their children who they think fled to the settlement of Abshok.

Since convening several of these information sessions, many refugees have visited the ICRC tracing outpost in Farshana to inquire more about the service, provide information on their lost family members and, sometimes, to fill out Red Cross messages.

The service is already providing fresh hope of a renewed gathering of women, men and children.