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Iraq: facilitating family visits to detainees

04-04-2006 Feature

At the most southern tip of Iraq, the ICRC is continuing its Family Visitation Allowance Programme (FVAP) that began in October 2005, providing financial assistance to families wishing to visit relatives held at Bucca internment camp. Kenza Saadi, an ICRC protection delegate, reports from Basrah.

Two aspects characteristic of the work carried out by ICRC employees are amplified in these unusual circumstances.

  The Family Visitation Allowance Programme (FVAP) started in October 2005. Its primary aim is to assist families visiting their relatives interned in Camp Bucca, a US internment facility in Um Qasr. The ICRC provides them with monetary assistance that covers part of the travelling and hotel costs for two people. The benefits are calculated based on the distance between their home and Um Qasr. The programme has so far assisted more than 7,000 beneficiaries.    

On the one hand, the twelve Iraqi field officers who run the programme show great efficiency and professionalism in their work. Names and numbers are taken down, private information is noted and checked, money is counted out, and envelopes are prepared and distributed.

On the other hand, the work is poignant and, sometimes heart breaking. There are many children, women and elderly men, who come to Camp Bucca to visit their loved ones. Tears are frequent: some are of joy in expectation of the visit; some of sadness when a visit cannot take place or when it is over.

Visiting relatives held in det ention camps is always emotional. The continuous support from the mothers is amazing. An elderly woman from the Ramadi area says she had never travelled before. Between smiles and tears, she tells her story. It is a tender reminder of the extraordinary love of mothers.

After a long and tedious journey, going from one point to another to register for the visit, travelling hundreds of kilometres on dangerous roads, passing through multiple checkpoints, she arrives at Camp Bucca in a daze, just as the sun starts to rise. Confused by procedures, overwhelmed by the US military presence, and still not believing that she will actually see her son, she is met by ICRC field officers. Her information is taken down, her story is told and tears are shed.

Many families express their gratitude. Not for the money; but for the opportunity they were given to visit their relatives. They say they feel re-assured by the presence of the ICRC. They talk of this feeling of hope in the midst of conflict. Others speak of the smiling faces, the patience and comfort of the organization's employees. 

For the twelve field officers, all Iraqi nationals, it is also an emotional experience. Like most people in Iraq, they are the children of many wars and have suffered great hardship. All have relatives who either died or are missing because of conflicts.

As they look at the families of the detained relatives, one says:

“We share their happiness. We share their sadness. When they are happy after seeing their sons, or when hearing of their release, we share that with them. When they are sad because they cannot visit, we share their tears.”

Another one says,

“We cannot but think of our own mothers in this situation. They come from far away, on unsafe roads, and they come again and again to see their sons.”