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Afghanistan: video calls provide vital link to families of detainees

02-05-2008 Feature

Early in 2008, the ICRC and American authorities set up a system to enable individuals held at the US detention facility in Bagram to communicate with their families via video-teleconference calls. The ICRC's tracing field officer in Kabul, Haji Abu Sayed, tells the story of Janan, a nomadic herdsman who travelled long and far to see his son.


  ©ICRC/G. Muller    
  Janan registers for a VTC call at the ICRC Delegation in Kabul.    
    Despite his almost fifty years, Janan had come to the Afghan capital Kabul only twice in his life. The first time had been last year to inquire into the fate of his son, Barialai,* who had been arrested last summer by American forces operating in the country in support of the Afghan government. This time, he came hoping to be able to see him. A coup le of months ago, he had heard on the radio that the ICRC and American authorities had put in place a new system that allowed families of detainees held at Bagram Airbase to talk while seeing each other on a screen. Soon after, he sent a cousin to Kabul to inquire at the ICRC delegation. Upon his return, the cousin confirmed the news and Janan left for the trip to Kabul, together with his wife and the youngest daughter.

Janan's family is of the Kuchi tribe, nomadic herdsmen who wander together with their large flocks of animals across the highlands and the southern and mountainous eastern parts of Afghanistan for much of the year. Janan's family usually spends the summer months in the same district in Ghazni Province, and the winter months roaming neighbouring provinces in search of pastures for their animals. He and his family of twelve, six sons of which two were married, three daughters and his wife, possess a herd of 180 goats and sheep. Over the past years, the herd had provided enough to sustain them.

Sent on an errand and never returned

  ©ICRC/G. Muller    
  Haji Subhanullah, ICRC staffer, explains how the VTC works.    
    Janan recalls exactly the day when his son Barialai disappeared. He had sent him to collect some money that a villager owed him after he had bought some of the family's sheep. Three days went by and Barialai had not returned, so Janan went to the village to enquire and learned that his son had been arrested that night during a military operation by international forces. No one knew where he had been taken.

Janan went to see members of the local shura, a committee of elders, but they were unable to help him. Illiterate and not versed in dealing with the government administration, Janan and his family were at a loss about what to do in such a situation. They waited in agony for three long months. Then an acquaintance told them that at the office of the Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS) in Ghazni there was allegedly a letter addressed to them there, which had not been delivered because it had no fixed address.

 Red Cross message 'a gift from God'  

The letter, a Red Cross message (RCM), had been written by one of Barialai's cellmates at Bagram during a visit by delegates of the ICRC. It brought reassuring news: Barialai was alive, in good health and spirits and sent his greetings to his family, asking them not to worry. It was the time of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting. Barialai's letter was, according to Janan, " a gift from God " .

Over the coming months, two more RCMs arrived for Janan's family. In his letters, Barialai also asked for news from his family. Just as Janan had been worried about his son, so Barialai was worried about the fate of his loved ones back home. But Janan did not write back. The idea of writing appeared too abstract to him. He had proudly raised a large family but never learned to read or write.

  ©ICRC/G. Muller    
  Janan and his wife in the VTC phone booth, talking to their son.    
    When he heard that there was a possibility to speak to and see his son at the ICRC delegation, he was delighted. In addition, his cousin had said that the ICRC would reimburse his travel expenses, even though, Janan stated firmly, he would have sold any number of sheep to be able to see his son.

 Doubts about seeing son 'on television'  

After a trip by shared taxi from Ghazni to Kabul, they arrived at the ICRC delegation on a Monday to register for a call the following day. It was a fine spring day, and Janan, his wife and small daughter spent the time standing in the sun while waiting for their turn, observing the comings and goings other families, also coming to register for calls at the ICRC. Many were coming for the second time and shared their experiences with Janan. " I had doubts before coming here that it was indeed possible to talk to my son on television! Not anymore, " he said. When his turn came, he registered and received a slot for a 20-minute call the next day.

" What will you tell your son tomorrow? " an ICRC staff member asked. " I just want to ask him if he is fine, healthy and doing alright, " Janan replied with a smile. " And that his brother has is now married. This is the only news. Everything else is as it should be, " he added.

The following day, while Janan was relaxed and talking to others, his wife and daughter were nervous and hardly spoke. When their turn came, they were shown to their phone booth and explained how the system worked. Minutes later, the screen lit up and there he was, Barialai!

Over the next twenty minutes, Janan and his family kept their eyes fixed on the screen and kept talking, with the conversation punctuated by occasional laughter. When they came out of the booth their relief was palpable. While discretely wiping a tear, Janan said, " I would not have believed it. Thank you ICRC. He is healthy and doing well. He said that he was learning how to read books and how to recite the Koran, " and added smiling, " When he will come back, he will be a Mullah and will not want to herd sheep any longer! " He collected his travel money from the counter, and with a final wave, the family left the delegation to head back to their mountain home.

 *The name of the detainee has been changed to protect his identity.