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Restoring family links: strengthening the response of the Movement

28-11-2006 Interview

Building on the Agenda for Humanitarian Action adopted by the 28th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in 2003, the ICRC has launched a global initiative to strengthen the Red Cross and Red Crescent Family Links Network over the coming decade.

RFL global initiative launch

 Interview with Renée Zellwegger Monin, deputy head of the ICRC Central Tracing Agency and Protection Division and chair of the Project Advisory Group.  

 What is the history behind this project?  


The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has been responding to humanitarian needs for decades by restoring contact between separated relatives. In past years, international and internal conflicts, natural disasters and migration have all produced their share of separated families. Following events such as the conflict in Darfur, the tsunami in Asia, Hurricane Katrina and the South Asia earthquake, hundreds of thousands of people lost touch with their loved ones. Putting them back in touch with each other is an essential task.

Acting on the basis of its principles, the Movement, with its worldwide network of National Societies and its longstanding experience and expertise in this area, is particularly well placed to address the needs of people without news of family members. Building on various resolutions of the Movement and on the Agenda for Humanitarian Action adopted by the 28th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in 2003, the ICRC decided to launch this project aimed at strengthening the existing family links network and improving the service across the w orld.


 What are the goals of this project?  

Acting through its family links network, the Movement must continue to address RFL needs in a wide range of situations, maintaining and increasing its capacity to assist people in accordance with the role assigned to it by the States. With so many players involved, it is essential to think about how the network functions and how service delivery can be enhanced.


 How will these goals be reached?  


The aim of the project is to develop a 10-year RFL strategy for the Movement covering such areas as needs assessment, resources (human, technical, financial), communication, accessibility of the service and ownership of the service by individual National Societies and the Movement as a whole. This is the first time that an RFL strategy is being devised for the entire Movement and it is a fascinating endeavour. The ICRC is being assisted in its task by an Advisory Group comprising 19 National Societies and the International Federation. The group has met four times since the launch of the project. Its task is to assist in drafting the strategy, in particular through working groups focusing on specific components of the strategy, and in planning and organizing four regional conferences taking place at the end of 2006. The draft strategy will be discussed with National Society leaders during these conferences. After a broad consultation process within the Movement, the strategy will be presented to Council of Delegates in 2007.

Regional tracing conferences in 2006 

UK - The Red Cross message – a priceless tool


UK - The Red Cross message – a priceless tool 

In 1996, Anna McIvor was one of 11 people taken prisoner by an armed opposition group, while travelling in Indonesia. Anna, who is originally from Bournemouth, was detained for five months. During this time, she was able to get back in touch with her family in the UK by sending and receiving Red Cross Messages.

“As soon as you get contact with the outside world, it gives you the hope and the strength to carry on,” said Anna.

“The position of the Red Cross was very important in that they were neutral. They could come in and give letters and take letters back without compromising either side.”

Keeping in touch through the Red Cross message 

Malyun, aged 30, lost contact with her family ten years ago, when civil war forced her to flee from her home in Somalia. “It was very difficult, but I had to leave to save my life,” she says.

Malyun tried to get on with her life, moving first to Holland and then to the UK. She feared that she would never see her family again. Then last year, we contacted her to say that a Red Cross Message had arrived. It was from her mother, Hawoo, now living in a refugee camp in Kenya.

Malyun was overjo yed. “I thought that my mother was dead, so it was very happy news for me,” she recalls.

Mother and daughter reunited after eight years 
  ©British Red Cross    
Emotional reunion of Sally and daughter Saidmatu at Gatwick airport. 

Saidmatu thought she had lost both of her parents when her village in Sierra Leone was attacked in 1994. With her father dead and her mother nowhere to be found, Saidmatu was taken to a refugee camp. She was just eight years old.

Sally, her mother, actually survived the attack and came to the UK. She believed that Saidmatu was dead until two years ago, when a friend in Sierra Leone sent word that they had seen her. Sally came straight to see the British Red Cross, to ask for help with finding her daughter. Within days, we had put them back in touch.

In March 2003, the Red Cross reunited Sally and Saidmatu at Gatwick airport, after eight years apart. “This is the best day of my life,” Sally said.

Found after 60 years 

Alexander Solowiew was separated from his mother and two brothers when they were deported from Poland to the USSR at the outbreak of the Second World War. After the war, Alexander settled in the UK, but never heard any news of his missing family.

In 1996 his daughter, Anne, contacted the British Red Cross, asking for help with tracing her uncles. Sadly, Alexander died before his family could be found. But in August 2000, we discovered that his brothers, Stephanas and Grigorijus, were alive and living in Lithuania. When Anne went to meet them, she learned that Alexander's mother had never lost hope that he had survived the war.

Anxious for news from Kosovo 

Zaim lost contact with his mother, brother and sister in 1999 when he fled from fighting in Kosovo. Anxious for news, he asked the Red Cross in Glasgow to help him locate them.

After taking down details of the last known whereabouts of Zaim’s family, we helped him to register on the Red Cross’s family links database for people in Kosovo. Although he couldn’t find any of his relatives’ names, he was able to send them a Red Cross message at their last known address.

Three months later, a Red Cross Message for Zaim arrived from Kosovo. His mother had received his Red Cross Message and was overjoyed to hear he was still alive. However her message also contained some distressing news. His brother and sister had been killed. Two Red Cross volunteers stayed with Zaim as he read the message.

Finding Pieter 
  ©British Red Cross    
George reunited with niece and nephew from the USA. 

George greets us with a smile and a warm-lingering handshake as he invites us into his flat in Reading.

We are not just visiting any man named " George " but George Czas, the 79-year-old Ukrainian who in December 2003 met his niece and nephew from the United States for the first time thanks to the Red Cross. He was separated from their father, his brother Pieter, in 1948 when Pieter ran away from a displaced persons camp they were both staying in.

As I sit down to hear George’s story, I realize that I am following in my colleague, Cindy Thompson’s, footsteps. Almost two years ago, she knocked on the same door, unaware that she was about to start an international search that would span three countries.

Cindy, tracing and message coordinator, Berkshire Branch, went to George’s house after being informed by the UK Office that the Citizens Advice Bureau in Reading had received a request from him.

" George said he was looking for his brother, Pieter, and it wasn't until halfway through filling in the tracing form that we realized he was looking for a second brother as well - Adolph. Cindy says with a smile " but then we realized he was talking about two brothers. "

After helping George fill out the tracing forms, which are documents providing detailed information on the person being traced and the enquirer, Cindy sent them to Mary Cole-Adam s, a tracing and message caseworker at the UK Office.

Mary says: " Whenever we receive a tracing form, we look at the information the enquirer has given to try and find where we should start our search.

" In this case, George said that he had lost contact with his brother, Pieter, in England and that he believed his brother had returned to Germany to look for his parents. The family on the other hand came from the Ukraine, so one area of possibility would be to contact the Ukrainian Red Cross to see if the family was repatriated there after the war. Finally, George indicated on the form that he thought his brother had gone to America. "

Based on all this information, Mary sent a copy of the tracing forms to the Red Cross societies in the Ukraine and America, and to the International Tracing Service (ITS). The main idea is to search for non-German persons who had gone missing or had been displaced during World War II and to help separated families be reunited. Still today, more than half a century after the end of the war, tracing inquiries are continuously arriving at the ITS.

While waiting for an answer, Cindy kept George informed of any new developments until one day something special happened. Cindy recalls: " I had a phone call from George’s warden housing provider telling me to come down. George had just received a letter from the United States from his family and he couldn't get his head around it. So I jumped up from my desk and shouted, ‘I have found his family’ and ran to see him. "

It is not hard to see that the letter from his family has changed George’s life. His face as he mentioned his nephew’s name says it all. George is one of the lucky ones. Not everyone finds their family after more than 50 years of separation. As I leave his home, he says with a smile: “The Red Cross has been working hard and I think the world of them.”

Abdulrahman’s story 

Abdulrahman and his family have been living happily in North London for 14 years. But there was a time when he thought he might never see his family again. He recalls: “I came to UK in November 1990 with Ahmed, my 5 year old son. Ahmed was born with a hole in his heart and needed an operation. I decided to take him to England and seek the medical care he needed”. Abdulrahman’s wife and 4 other children stayed at home in Somalia. 

Shortly after leaving for London, an armed uprising erupted in Mogadishu, forcing Abdulrahman’s wife and children to flee South. “It was terrible, I lost contact with not only my wife and children but also my parents. I felt so helpless being so far away from them and everyday was spent worrying about them, sometimes it was very difficult to eat and to sleep well at night”.

Abdulrahman contacted his local British Red Cross branch to ask for help in tracing his family. “I filled out some forms which asked for details about myself and the relatives I had lost contact with. I wrote a small message for my wife and prayed that eventually it would be delivered to her”.

It was nearly two years before Abdulrahman received the news he had been waiting for. The Red Cross had managed to trace his family. “On hearing this wonderful news I quickly applied to the Home Office for permission to bring my family to the UK and this was granted. I will never forget the excitement I felt when we were finally reunited at Heathrow Airport – there were times when I thought I’d never see this day.” 

About the International Tracing and Message Service 

Around the world millions of people are forced to flee their homes and leave their country following natural disasters, war and persecution. Like Abdulrahman, many become separated from their loved ones and, often with no working phone or postal service back home, have no way to contact them. The British Red Cross International Tracing and Message Service, as part of a global network of similar services in the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, works to assist those who desperately need to make contact with their relatives. In 2005, the service traced around 700 people, which is nearly two people a day.

The International Tracing and Message Service works through the global network to establish the whereabouts of relatives separated by armed conflict or disasters and to put them back in contact with each other – through a Red Cross Message. The message leaves London and is sent to the appropriate Red Cross or Red Crescent Society in the country where the missing relative is thought to be. If the missing relative is in a conflict area the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), who have a special mandate to work in war situations, can help.

The Red Cross has trained staff and volunteers who do door-to-door interviews and work with local community groups to find the intended recipient of the message. By the nature of the situation in which the writer and their family find themselves, the address may be a refugee camp, in a prison, or an address that no longer exists so the process can take some time.

The service is neutral and impartial, ensuring that there is no discrimination in regards to nation ality, race, religious beliefs, class or political opinions. The International Tracing and Message Service is free, and is for use by close family members who have been separated by war or disaster only. It is paid for from the Red Cross funds and is highly valued as a major part of the organization’s worldwide humanitarian work to relieve suffering.

Abdulrahman is now helping other Somali people who have recently arrived in London. “I have been volunteering with the Red Cross for over four years now, supporting asylum seekers and refugees and it is so rewarding to be able to give something back to the organization that reunited me with my family”.

Angola – Candice


Angola - Candice 

 By Trudie Smak, tracing volunteer, Netherlands Red Cross  

  ©ICRC/T. Gassmann / ao-e-00169    
Luanda. ICRC Central Tracing Agency office. 

The door opens, but in the darkness behind I only see a vague figure. “Candice?” I ask. The door opens a bit further and I assume that this is an invitation to enter. I’m shown into a tiny room with heavy curtains drawn and only a crack of light showing through. By now my eyes are used to the darkness and I see a small figure in a colourful African dress and an expressionless face. The dark room is crammed with a couch and two armchairs between which there is just enough space for the coffee table. This is Candice's home and hiding place.

I star t by telling Candice about the Red Cross and what we may be able to do for her. While I talk, she moves laboriously and I notice she is very pregnant. Then, answering my queries, she slowly unfolds her story.

She has never been to school but learned French from employers in Angola. Later she worked in a hospital where her duties included managing the pharmacy. A rebel sympathizer, Candice regularly removed small quantities of medicines. One day soldiers came, arrested her and took her to prison. There she was tortured and raped. Candice was eventually rescued from prison and ended up in the Netherlands.

As she tells her story, Candice seems distant and unmoved. She stops from time to time as if she can see it all happening again. Finally she says that she has not seen her children in all this time and that she doesn't know what happened to them after she was arrested and suddenly, tears fill her eyes. The children are her own son and a girl she found abandoned by the roadside and who she raised as her own.

We fill out a Red Cross tracing request form together.

On the way home I think of a photo I recently saw of a refugee camp: an enormous plain cramped with thousands of people sheltering under plastic sheets, how do you find two small children in such a place, if that is where they went? They may not even be together anymore. My hope vanishes.

Six months pass. One day a friend of Candice's comes to the office to ask if there is any news for her. There has been no news. But to be sure, I call our head office. And to our surprise, I'm told that Candice's name appears in the newly arrived Gazeta . Published by the tracing service of the Angola Red Cross, the Gazeta contains the names of people searching for, or being sought by, loved ones in the wake of decades of conflict in Angola. A tracing request was filed for Candice by her sister. A first and welcome sign from her lost family. And perhaps a starting point for the search for her children.

I visit Candice a few days later so she can write a Red Cross message (a brief personal message to a relative made otherwise unreachable) to let her sister know where she is. Once again the passage is dark, the same figure in the doorway. The curtains are open this time. A beautiful chubby girl of six months is kicking in a baby seat on the couch. Even when I compliment her on the baby, Candice remains serious and still.

Is she happy to have found her sister? She simply nods. After a while she says " I hope the children are with her. " Candice writes her message and I play with the children. “Here,” she suddenly says in Dutch, “the letter is finished”. She has managed to learn a little of our language and pronounces it well. I compliment her on it, but it seems to leave her indifferent. I remind her how the Red Cross message system works and assure her that I will inform her immediately if we receive something for her. I follow her to the door. There she turns and I see that she is weeping – big, silent tears. She softly says “J’ai peur”.

I hope with all my heart that we will soon receive news on Candice's children. The scars on her body will always remain, but the wounds to her soul might chafe a little less.

Democratic Republic of Congo – the return of Marcelline


Democratic Republic of Congo – the return of "Marcelline" 

 One day fighting broke out in northern Katanga province, forcing residents to flee their homes. In one village the exit was so hurried that a small child was left behind, crouched crying beside the lifeless body of an old lady, next to a burning hut.  

  ©ICRC/Jean-Patrick Di Silvestro / cd-n-00065-33    
Goma, ICRC mission. Pictures of unaccompanied children posted in an attempt to find their parents 

The little girl was discovered by an officer in the national army who took her home with him to Goma, in North Kivu province. She didn't know her name or her parents'names, so the officer called her by his wife's name, Marcelline, and approached the ICRC to see whether there w as a possibility of finding her parents.

The answer was yes – through the international Red Cross / Red Crescent tracing network. The ICRC started with some key information – the date when the child had been found and the name and location of the village – but not the names of the parents or anyone else who might be able to help. With help from volunteers of the Red Cross Society of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, delegates began their search in Kitenge, a large village near Lubumbashi that has taken in many people fleeing the fighting in the countryside. Some of them surely came from Marcelline's home village.

Everyone encountered from that village was asked to describe the circumstances in which he fled. It was concluded from the interviews that two people were missing following the events: a man and a three-year-old girl. People thought that the girl must have been consumed by the fire in the hut because her grandmother, who was found dead at the scene, had burns on her body.

It took three weeks to find the little girl's parents. When they heard that their daughter was alive, the mother fainted and the father announced his intention to leave for Goma immediately. The Red Cross volunteer told him that this was unnecessary and that the girl would be brought to Kitenge as soon as possible. Reassured, the parents told the rest of the story: they had left Fyfy, the girl's real name, in the care of her grandmother while they were away working in the fields. When the fighting started they were forced to flee through the forest, where they spent three weeks before finding refuge in Kitenge.

It all took some time, but " Marcelline " finally returned. A small crowd gathered at the airport to witness the joyous event. Her parents haven't forgotten the man who saved her life. They now call her Fyfy-Marcelline.

Sudan – long-awaited news from a missing son


Sudan - long-awaited news from a missing son 

 ICRC tracing volunteer, Joseph Kuol, tells how the ICRC's tracing service was able to reunite a Sudanese man and his mother who had lost contact for two decades after conflict came to their home town.  

  ©ICRC/B. Heger/SD-E-00854    
Gereida, internally displaced persons camp, ICRC family news tracing office. 

Matok's life's story has been one of separation and tears. Twenty years ago, his village in southern Sudan was attacked, forcing him to flee. He lost contact with his family and since then has always dreamed of finding them again. Today, the 30-year-old from the Dinka ethnic group lives in Australia with his wife and three sons.

He was at school when the fighting broke out. Amid the chaos, his father burst into the school; the family had to flee immediately. Rushing to their hut (called a tukul ), Matok and his father found the remains of what had been their home. To their dismay, Matok's mother and brothers were nowhere to be found.

The ten-year-old boy and his father fled the ashes of their village looking for refuge. Walking long days through the dry land of southern Sudan, they finally reached Khartoum where they lived in a makeshift house within a camp for displaced people. They scrounged for food and water, struggling to obtain the basics for their survival.

Matok's father did not survive the harsh living conditions in the camp and died four years later. Now, the 14-year-old lad had to fend for himself. Somehow, he made his way to a refugee camp on the outskirts of the Egyptian capital Cairo. Matok lived there for two years and eventually resettled in Australia to build a new life.

In the following years he gave up all hope of seeing his mother and brothers again. Last month, however, by sheer coincidence he met a man from his home village. The man said he'd met Matok's relatives a couple of years ago in a village close to the southern Sudanese town of Rumbek.

Matok contacted the Australian Red Cross to help him trace his family. He filled out a " Tracing Request " , specifying his mother’s and his brothers’ names – these he would never forget – their village and ethnic origin, and wrote a message.

The Australian Red Cross transmitted the enquiry to the ICRC Tracing Agency in Khartoum and after a short time the request reached the sub-delegation of Wau charged with handling the case in Rumbek.

In August 2006, the ICRC set out to find Matok’s mother. The search in Rumbek began with a meeting with the village chief: In southern Sudan, the chief is the memory of the village. He often knows the location of all village members, including those who may be in refugee camps in neighbouring countries. On hearing about Matok’s mother, he immediately recognized her and knew the village where she lived, named Cuilbet.

After a four-hour bumpy ride on rough tracks, the ICRC pulled in to Cuilbet and about a dozen children ran after the car. A very tall man and an old woman   dressed in rags approached the vehicle. The woman's face lit up with joy. She seemed hypnotized by the ICRC flag on the car, fluttering in the wind.

Before the team could even enquire about Matok, the tall man pointed to the woman next to him and said: “She is my mother and she says you have a message for her. Her name is Achol Kuol Akot”. Surprisingly, she was the addressee of the Red Cross Message.

The old woman shed silent tears of joy. The young boy by her side was her son Malual, Matok’s youngest brother. She held the Red Cross message as if it were the most precious of jewels.

“For years and years, each time a white car stopped in front of her tukul , she would ask if there was a Red Cross on it " , the boy said. " She had always told us, my brothers and I, that one day the Red Cross would come and give us news of Matok”.

The ICRC then helped the old woman write a reply to her son. This Red Cross Message will travel thousands of miles that separate Matok from his mother, filling his heart with many happy tears.

Cambodia – the long road home


Cambodia - the long road home 

 Many years of armed conflict have severely disrupted the lives of many people in Cambodia, forcing millions to flee their homes. Thousands of families were torn apart in the turmoil and relatives have often waited for news of their loved ones for decades. The Cambodian Red Cross Tracing and Red Cross Message Service is there to help them.  


June 2006 – An old woman sits outside her humble hut in the village of Chan, about 80 kilometres northeast of the capital, Phnom Penh. Every day, 82-year old Ven Oeng spends her time resting, leaning on her stick to relieve the pressure on her bad back. She only moves to cook her lunch and feed her pig.

The world as she had known it changed on 14 June. At around 2 pm, a white Cambodian Red Cross (CRC) car pulled up outside Mrs Ven's hut. On board was a man, a woman and two girls . Without waiting for the others, the middle-aged man ran straight towards Mrs Ven. As he came closer she studied his face for a moment and then embraced him tightly. Both burst into tears, overcome by emotion. After 23 years of separation, a mother and son had finally found each other again.

" I can hardly believe my eyes. My dream has come true. This is my son, Bin Than, also known as Tin. He was forced to join the Khmer Rouge and leave the family when he was 17, " said Mrs Ven, wiping away the tears with her scarf. Turning to her long lost son, she added, “I dreamed of you almost every night. I prayed for your life and your safe return. I had to assume that you were dead but I never gave up hope of seeing you again. "  

Holding his mother tightly, Mr Tin introduced his wife and the two girls: “When I left, I was alone, but now I am married with four children: two boys and these two girls aged eight and six. The boys couldn't come with us because they are at school. Mother, I would like you to meet your daughter-in-law and granddaughters. " But Mr Tin's joy was dampened with sadness when his mother told him that his father and three brothers had passed away in the meantime, leaving only her and his sister.

 A welcome visit  


Mr Tin explained how he had gone about finding his mother. He lives in O Choam Krom village in Battambang province, a remote and isolated hamlet hardly ever visited by outsiders. Because of the high cost of transport, he wasn't able to travel to the nearby district city. " One day last year our neighbour had unexpected visitors, her parents from Kompong Speu province. They had lost contact since 1979, " he explained. " They got my neighbour's address from the Red Cross Tracing Agent in Kompong S peu. She had filed a tracing request for her parents in 2004. She told us that the Red Cross offered this service free of charge. "

" After that, we were just waiting for the Red Cross to visit our village again. Finally, in January 2006 a Red Cross worker came to our house. He told us about the tracing service and filled out a registration form with our details. Several months later, he brought us a message from my mother asking us to come and see her. We couldn't afford to go but the CRC came to our aid once again and now we are here. "  

While in recent years there has been a decline in tracing activities, the needs are still acute. In Battambang province alone, to date the CRC has handled more than 1,650 tracing requests both from within and outside the province. Nearly 900 cases involving more than 3,500 people were resolved successfully. 

The ICRC has been supporting the CRC Tracing and Red Cross Message Service since 1988. During the third quarter of 2006, the service was still working on 82 cases, two thirds of which involve family contacts between Cambodia and other countries. During the same period, it handled nearly 3,500 Red Cross Family Messages, an increase of about a third compared with the same period in 2005.

Unfortunately, many Cambodians are still waiting for the happy ending experienced by Mrs Ven and her family.

Indonesia – going door-to-door to reunite families


Indonesia - going door-to-door to reunite families 

 The earthquake that struck the Yogyakarta area of Java on 27 May 2006 killed thousands of people in a matter of minutes. Immediately after the disaster, I helped survivors in Bantul regency, my home area, to access medical care.  

  ©CRC/Ivy Susanti I    
Umi Alfiah, coordinator of the Restoring Family Links programme in the Yogyakarta chapter of the Indonesian Red Cross. 

I am Umi Alfiah, the coordinator of the Restoring Family Links (RFL) programme in the Yogyakarta chapter of the Indonesian Red Cross, the Palang Merah Indonesia (PMI). I am currently studying Japanese literature at the Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta. I started volunteering for the Youth Red Cross   when I was still in high school. I came ac ross the RFL programme by chance when I was selected to participate in a seminar on family links in Jakarta. Since then I have been trying to reunite families separated by disasters.

The Bantul regency was among the areas worst affected by the 5.9-magnitude quake. I helped to identify the bodies of victims and took charge of the sad task of informing families that their relatives had passed away. These are the most difficult parts of the job, which, I believe, may sometimes discourage volunteers from joining the RFL programme.

A few hours after the quake, we found a voting card on a body that had been brought to a Yogyakarta hospital. The name written on the card was Tugiman. When we visited the address given to find Tugiman's family, we were told that there were two villagers with the same name. The Tugiman who survived the quake knew the other Tugiman and informed us that he was known in the neighbourhood as M. Noor. That is how I first met Legiyem, M. Noor's niece, and the other members of his family. By the time we managed to track down the family, M. Noor had already been laid to rest at Tegaldowo cemetery, which was used to bury unidentified quake victims. Later, we helped the family and Legiyem visit her uncle's graveyard to pray and we arranged for them to obtain his death certificate so that they could get financial support from the government. It was a sad day for me.

Much of my work involves carefully collecting and compiling information. In mid-June, some colleagues and I visited Grhasia mental hospital in another part of Yogyakarta to do an assessment. A doctor told us that four patients had been separated from their families during the quake and ensuing chaos. We took pictures of them and talked to them to find out their addresses. Sixty-year old Ginem told us that she lived in the Jetis area but she could not remember her full address. Since I live near this area, I took time to visit the neighbo urhood with a colleague to try to find her relatives.

 A day to remember  

  ©CRC/Ivy Susanti I    
Umi Alfiah talks with Legiyem and her cousin Sumarsilah near their destroyed houses in the Jetis sub-district of Yogyakarta province. 

When we showed her photo to the villagers, they immediately recognized her. After a while, we suddenly came across a familiar face, that of Legiyem, whom we had met previously to inform her that her uncle M. Noor was dead. But this time we had better news and she was delighted. The last thing she had heard of her aunt, Ginem, was that a few days after the quake she was taken to a hospital in Solo, Central Java. On 20 June, five days after our first unexpected encounter with Ginem at the mental hospital, we managed to reunite her with Legiyem. It was a day unlike any other.

As of September, the PMI had collected 162 tracing requests and restored contacts between 144 families separated by the quake. Twelve cases are still being worked on while the remainder found their family members without our help. We are also still trying to identify three bodies and find their relatives. This is a long process, yet I see it as a good opportunity to raise awareness of the RFL service.

Iraq – dangers of humanitarian work


Iraq – dangers of humanitarian work 

 Uday H.* has been a volunteer at the Baghdad branch of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society (IRCS) for 15 years. Recently, he has been facilitating the exchange of family messages between detainees and their families. The IRCS and the ICRC have been collecting and distributing about 6,000 such messages every month.   


The security situation in Iraq has been steadily worsening for the past three years. Thousands of people have been arrested. Following the bombing of the holy shrines in Samarra in February, acts of violence, including clashes and random killings, robberies and the destruction of property spread to various parts of the country. Large numbers of families fled or were forced to leave their homes. Many of them never officially change their addresses, which makes the delivery of family messages ever more challenging.

IRCS volunteers have to be extremely careful while working in different areas of Baghdad. Anyone considered a'stranger'in a neighbourhood is suspicious and could easily become a target. This includes IRCS volunteers delivering family messages from detainees to their relatives.

One day in May 2006 I found out just how dangerous this job is. I had gathered all the family messages I couldn't deliver because the recipients had recently changed address and was looking for a car to drive me back to the IRCS'main office. An old man offered to give me a lift.

Most of the roads were blocked, forcing us to pass through the Dora area, a part of the city I usually try to avoid for security reasons. The old man was using minor roads to avoid traffic jams when a truck suddenly blocked our way. Two masked armed men jumped out, forced us out of the car and started questioning us rudely.

" I'm a tribal leader " the old man introduced himself, mentioning his tribe. They quickly released him. I was next: " Who are you? What are these papers? " they asked me. I was afraid to explain my work for fear of being misunderstood. So, I simply said: " I am a postman " . They didn't like my answer. The old man tried to help but one of the masked men screamed at him: " Get on with your own business or you will join him " . The old man left. I was blindfolded and forced into the truck.

Soon afterwards, I was taken into a house, still blindfolded. I was terrified as I could hear sounds of screaming and beating. My kidnappers started interrogating me: " If you are one of us you are safe, otherwise you will die, " they said. Yet I didn't even know who they were.

All of a sudden, my cell phone rang and one of the ki dnappers answered. " Whose phone is this? Who owns it? " he asked. " This is the phone of an IRCS tracing employee working for the IRCS Baghdad branch. His job is to deliver messages written by detainees to their families, " the person on the other side of the line explained.

The kidnappers then accused me of collaborating with US forces. I started to explain, feverishly and in detail, the nature of my work. They looked at my IRCS identification card again. Finally, they put me back in the truck, drove for a while and threw me on the street. " You were saved by a miracle, " the kidnappers told me. I begged them to give me back the family messages but they refused, assuring me with sarcasm that they would take care of delivering them.

I asked a passer-by to help me. When I finally got home, it was already late. I was so exhausted that I passed out. When I woke up, I called my IRCS supervisor who informed the ICRC and the authorities. 

He also decided to ask the Imams of the mosques in the Dora area to help us recover the stolen messages. They agreed and during Friday prayers called on people to return the messages, reminding them that they were for those unfortunate families whose relatives had been detained by the Coalition Forces. Nonetheless, no one has yet responded to the appeal.

Now I wonder why the kidnappers did not kill me. Was it God's mercy and the pity he had for my old mother or for my two-year-old daughter? I don't know! All I know is that I thank Him every day for keeping me alive. I also think that my humanitarian work saved me. The kidnappers eventually realized that I was simply helping grieving families whose loved ones were taken away from them.

  * For security reasons the writer's full name has been withheld.  

Yemen – family news from Guantanamo


Yemen - family news from Guantanamo 

 Since January 2002, the ICRC has been regularly visiting hundreds of detainees at Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba. For many of these people, the Red Cross Message system is the only way of keeping touch with their families.  

San'a', Yemen, 2004. Brother of a Yemeni Guantanamo detainee receiving and writing Red Cross messages. 

In Yemen, maintaining contact between Guantanamo detainees and their families is a major task for the ICRC's delegation in Sana'a. In collaboration with the Yemen Red Crescent Society, the traci ng department has facilitated the exchange of 1,400 messages since April 2002.

Two relatives of Guantanamo Bay detainees, who regularly use this messaging service, share their feelings with the ICRC.

 Amina A, mother of a Yemeni detainee in Guantanamo Bay  

 How did you feel when you learned that your son was detained in Guantanamo?  

When the fateful letter arrived, I felt something was wrong. The children were whispering incessantly; they told me not to be angry and that my son was detained in Guantanamo!

Ever since, I have felt awful. He is my only son and is so young. We don’t even know how or when he was arrested. Following the loss of my parents, my daughters and husband are all that I have left, and they helped me calm down. But we are not as we were before, and always feel pain in our hearts.

When I told my husband what had happened, he fell down and lost consciousness. Afterwards, for three days he stayed alone in his room, without eating or drinking, and didn’t want to see or talk to anyone. Since then he doesn’t sleep at night and is getting worse.

Before he went on his travels, my son had said he was on a quest for knowledge, that he would look for a job and send us money, but he didn’t send us anything and I haven’t seen him since.

 How do you spend your days?  

I think about my son all the time. When I am hungry, I feel his hunger. When I finish eating, I wonder how he feels. My days pass slowly, and the family counts the seconds unti l we will meet him again. God willing, we will see him this month. We pray for him and all the detainees and wait patiently for his messages. If only I could see him face to face!

 Is there somebody supporting your family?  

In these dark times, my husband has to provide everything since he is the family’s only breadwinner. Despite his poor mental health following this tragedy, he goes to work every day to support us.

 Under the exceptional circumstances of your son being detained so far away, how do you maintain contact?  

The exchange of Red Cross Messages is our only means of contact with our son. When the ICRC office first informed us that there was a message from him, I could not wait to collect it and went there myself. On the way, I imagined I was going to see my son and embrace him. Once I held the message, I felt like I was greeting him and holding his hand This reassured me.

 Given what has happened to you, what message regarding detention do you wish to convey to the world and others in your situation?  

Though I have many feelings weighing down on my heart, they are difficult to put into words. Being a mother, I feel for every mother who is going through the same thing. I tell them: “be patient”, and I ask God to free our sons soon.

 Ali S, brother of a Guantanamo detainee  


 How do you feel about the presence of your brother in Guantanamo prison, so far from Yemen?  

A brother is strongly affected and feels very sad when his brother is so far away and in prison: I am in terrible pain because of this situation. When he finished his exams at secondary school he wanted to use his year off to travel. Here, means for making a living are quite limited, and since he had a wife, daughter, a widowed mother and small brothers, he said he would travel to the Gulf, continue his studies, and try to build a better life for his family. But God must have planned something else. Apparently he went to Pakistan and we only found this out on discovering that he was detained in Guantanamo.

 How does your mother feel about her son being detained in Guantanamo?  

Her heart is almost torn apart. She cries all the time and is very sad to be separated from her son and because there is no reason, justification or evidence for him to be there.

 How do you keep contact with your brother?  

We mostly use the Red Cross’ messaging service but also contact him through normal mail, since we found the postal address on one of the messages.

 What do these messages mean to you?  

All of us – my mother, sister-in-law, niece, little brothers and I – feel a great deal of relief when we receive them. It is as if he is close to us and we are speaking to each other about what is happening in our lives. Once, for 7 months the messages stopped arriving. We were very sad, but the arrival of messages is in God’s hands.

 Was this your first contact with the International Committee of the Red Cross?  


We didn’t know the ICRC before, but we had heard about the services it provided, its charity work and so on. We got to know its value through the Red Cross messages.

Interviews: by Amal Murtaja and Ronald Ofteringer. Translation from Arabic: Tine Vermeiren

Georgia - a shattered memory finally restored


Georgia - a shattered memory finally restored 

 Galina Rakhmanova lost her memory as she watched her life go up in flames, when her house burned to the ground during the conflict between Georgia and Abkhazia. For many years she had no contact with her family, which had left for Kazakhstan before the fighting broke out.  

Galina Rakhmanova 

The house was an inferno, Galina like a mad woman. Panic stricken, she tried to go back into the flames to save at least something of her past, her papers and pictures, all the memories of the happy years spent in Abkhazia from 1969 until the terrible conflict of 1992-1993. They tried to hold her back, but she fought them off, screaming, and only stopped resisting when the last walls came down. Her entire life went up in smoke.

Another life started. She remembered almost nothing. Someone had taken her to a shack on the outskirts of Sukhumi and told her: " You can use this house. The owners fled the fighting. If they come back, just leave. " There was a garden with a few beds of vegetables, flowers and some fruit trees. She spent entire days in it, gazing emptily about her. She panicked afresh every time a plane passed overhead and during the bombing. 

 A first separation  

When the war ended, Galina slowly started to recover her sanity and her memory, to have a hazy recollection of what had happened. The doctors'diagnosis was clear, however: stress, shock, depression, partial amnesia. Galina became aware that her life had been shattered by the war. She wandered the streets of Sukhumi, which lay in ruins, vainly seeking a familiar face. Sometimes she cleaned people's houses, to earn enough to eat.

Galina had family. She was born in Smolensk, after the Second World War. When she was two, her parents left for Kazakhstan. She grew up there, finished school and married Ivan Rakhmanov, a stonemason. In 1969 the family moved to Abkhazia, where Ivan worked on the construction of a hydraulic centre on the banks of the Ingouri river. The couple lived in Primorskoye, in Gali district. Galina also worked, helping to build a poultry farm in Otchamtchiry and in the greenhouses in Okhourei.

In 1985, the Rakhmanovs settled in Sukhumi. But something wasn't right with the family, and Ivan returned to Kazakhstan alone. The girls grew up and joined their father, aunt and grandmother in Kazakhstan to continue their schooling. Galina Rakhmanova was happy for her daughters: Ira, Valia and Tania would be well educated. She felt lonely, but had her work, her neighbours, her friends. Then the war broke out, bringing unhappiness and death. All her papers, including her passport, the addresses of her children, her mother and sister in Kazakhstan, were destroyed in the fire. And because of her amnesia, Galina couldn't find them anymore.

After several y ears, Galina Rakhmanova had almost recovered from the horrors of the war. Her one remaining problem was high blood pressure. She managed to remember the addresses of her relatives in Kazakhstan and wrote to them, but never received an answer. She lived alone, in resigned despair.

Then one day, a staff member of the ICRC mission in Abkhazia showed up at her door. " Are you Galina Rakhmanova? Your family is looking for you. "

For all those years – since August 1992 – Galina's children, her mother and her sister had been actively looking for her. But the Abkhaz post office had ceased to function in the wake of the war. And Galina’s old address was no longer valid – the house had burnt down - and the new one unknown to her relatives.

 Reunited in Kazakhstan  

Someone suggested to her eldest daughter that she contact the ICRC office in Kazakhstan. The office staff started looking for the women who had disappeared in war-torn, blockaded Abkhazia. Liana Abidzva, of the ICRC office in Abkhazia, scrupulously followed up every lead before finally concluding that the elderly woman who lived in a small house practically hidden by the foliage of the orchard had to be the Galina Rakhmanova whom her mother, her sister, her daughters and the grandchildren born after her disappearance had been seeking for years.

Galina was overjoyed. She could hardly believe what was happening. First she spoke to her family on the phone. Then the Red Cross enabled them to exchange messages, filed papers in Smolensk, where Galina was born, and managed to obtain a copy of her birth certificate and some of the other documents destroyed in the fire. In the meantime, Liana befriended the entire Rakhmanov family. One day, Galina decided to return to Kazakhstan to live with her family.

All the formalitie s were completed. Liana bought a train ticket for Galina and took her to Adler train station. " I will never be able to thank the ICRC staff in Abkhazia enough for their good will, the determination and patience they showed in reuniting our family, in allowing us to be happy again, " Galina said before leaving for Kazakhstan. " On 17 August, my mother will be 90 years old; on that day I will be   with my family, I will embrace her. Thank you again, from the bottom of my heart, for having made this possible. "

Peru - reunited after two decades


Peru - reunited after two decades 

 My name is Silvia Mera and I’ve been working for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Lima, Peru, for 13 years. During that time I’ve witnessed pain and anguish, but also emotion, hope and joy.  


Peru went through almost two decades of internal armed conflict. The fighting claimed 70,000 victims. These included 13,000 missing persons, according to the statistics of the truth and reconciliation commission ( Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación, CVR), set up in 2001 to clarify the circumstances under which both members of armed groups – the Shining Path and the MRTA (Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement) – and agents of the Peruvian state committed human right s abuses between 1980 and 2000. The ICRC, aware of the need to alleviate the pain of thousands of people who still do not know what has happened to their relatives, worked with other organizations to draw up a list of missing persons. That was the context in which we were asked to help reunite Evita Orihuela García with her family.

Until she was 13, Evita lived in a village in the Peruvian mountains, one of the areas worst affected by armed violence. In 1983, a group of armed men from the Shining Path tried to enlist her by force. She and a cousin managed to escape to a nearby village. In theory, they were safe. But a group of soldiers arrested and ill-treated them, accusing them of being members of the Shining Path.

After they had been forced to do housework for these soldiers for almost a month, an officer ordered them to be transferred to another part of Peru, where they were abandoned. Afraid of further threats and humiliation, Evita and her cousin decided not to go home.

Years later, CVR staff were in Ayacucho collecting evidence from the families of people who had disappeared. A relative of Evita’s told the story of how she had disappeared in 1983, and her name was added to a preliminary list of missing persons.

In 2004, Evita was located by members of an NGO investigating the whereabouts of missing persons in the department of Junín, a long way from her home village. By then, Evita was 34 years old and had four children. And she wanted to know what had happened to her family.

After confirming that this was indeed the woman whose name appeared on the list of missing persons, the ICRC decided to help reunite her with her family. As the person in charge of the case, I asked Evita to give me the names of her closest relatives. I then consulted the Peruvian registry, which contains only 60% of the Peruvian population. On the basis of information in the registry , I sent telegrams to some of her family living in various parts of the country.

Evita wasn’t sure that her relatives would respond. “Supposing they’ve moved? Supposing these are other people with the same names?” she asked herself as the days went by. But a week later, I got a phone call from someone who said he was Evita’s elder brother, Salvador. Once he told me the details of his sister’s disappearance, I knew we were talking about the same person. I told him that his sister was safe and well. Salvador burst into tears, thanking us for finding her. I was so relieved, and so pleased, but I knew that the job wasn’t finished yet. The following week, I arranged for them to be reunited. It still moves me to remember their endless hugs, kisses, tears and laughter.

In armed conflict, the chances of finding a missing person alive, and being able to reunite them with their family, are remote. Nonetheless, cases like that of Evita and Salvador give one the strength to keep going, with the conviction that the Red Cross really does relieve suffering when it restores contact between members of families.

Chile - Family reunited after decades apart


Chile: Family reunited after decades apart 

 Delta Elba Ramírez Urra, who lives in Curicó, Chile, and her brothers Abel and Blas, who live in Neuquén, Argentina, lost touch some 50 years ago. They were recently reunited thanks to the joint efforts of the Chilean and Argentine Red Cross tracing services.  


Delta was separated from her brothers in the early 1960s when their parents went to work in Argentina, taking Abel and Blas with them and leaving her behind. At the time, very little contact was possible between Chile and Argentina, and she soon lost touch with her family.

For many years, Delta longed to know what had become of her brothers. One day, upon hearing a radio programme about someone whose mother had been located in Australia after many years of separation, Delta decided to contact the Chilean Red Cross.

When Mirta Ávila, head of the tracing services of the Argentine Red Cross, received a request from the Chilean Red Cross concerning Abel Ramírez Urra, she had very little hope of finding him. All she had to go on was the fact that Abel had been living in the town of Neuquén in 1961. She nevertheless contacted the Argentine Red Cross branch closest to the town in question. When volunte ers there consulted the electoral roll, they found someone by the name of Abel Ramirez Urra who, as it turned out, was Delta's long-lost brother. When Abel heard that his sister was looking for him, he was overcome with joy and wanted to get in touch with her right away. After so many years, he had just assumed that she was no longer alive.

A short time later, the two brothers were reunited with their sister in Curicó. " It was wonderful for Delta and her brothers, and for all those present, " said Emilia Albornoz, vice-president of the Chilean Red Cross branch in Curicó and head of its family links service. “The sister and brothers wept and hugged and couldn't let go of each other. For them, it was a dream come true. " A few months later, Delta and her brothers met again in Neuquén, where they spent the Christmas holidays together for the first time in nearly five decades.

Bolivia - restoring family links – a vocation


Bolivia: restoring family links – a vocation 

 Elsa Zuna Orlandini is the oldest volunteer in the Bolivian Red Cross. She has worked in the tracing department for over 35 years.  

  ©Bolivian Red Cross, Ana Rosa Boyán    
Elsa Zuna Orlandini, Bolivian Red Cross volunteer 

My whole life has been dedicated to the Red Cross. My children, my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren all know how much I love the organization. It has given me everything. At over 70 years of age, I’m continuing the work that has marked not only my life but that of my family.

I’m grateful to my children for understanding me and for supporting me when I asked for their help. For the days I spent away from them because I had to go to some remote area. For listening to my stories about people they didn’t know, but could imagine they knew, forever asking me “how did you do it? finding information, re-uniting them with their families …”

Now I’m retired and I have some happy memories. B ut I have some sad ones too. For instance, I remember trying to find someone in Santa Cruz de la Sierra. A Cuban woman wanted to know the whereabouts of her son, having had no news of him for over 16 years. “One day, his father said he wanted to take the boy on holiday with him to Bolivia, but what I didn’t know was that the document he got me to sign was a notarial instrument,” she explained, in the tracing request that reached me.

After fruitless investigations in the town of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, with the assistance of the Red Cross tracing official there, we decided to extend our search. His mother couldn’t rest. Love for her son kept her going and she didn’t give up. For us, finding Pablito became an obsession. We felt as if we knew him through the stories his mother told, and he was always in our thoughts.

Finally, after over four years, we received a reply from Montero in the province of Santa Cruz; they’d found Pablo, who was now a young man. This story might have started with the love of a mother, but it didn’t have the happy ending we’d hoped for. The message that arrived from Montero read: “Don’t look for me. I’m living happily with my father. I don’t want any further contact with her. Just tell her I’m OK.”

To this day I recall that moment with a mixture of pain and incredulity. How can you give a message like that to a desperate mother? It was the hardest job of my life. I cried, silently, and sent the message to Cuba. There was no reply from his mother. We never heard any more about her.