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Myanmar: supporting the National Society to help reunite families

15-05-2008 Feature

When San-Hta Nyunt was planning to return to Myanmar for a holiday after completing her most recent mission as a tracing delegate with the ICRC in Tunis, little did she realise that her next mission would be in her own cyclone-hit country.

On holiday in Yangon and waiting for news of her next mission when Cyclone Nargis struck the city, San-Hta immediately agreed to lead ICRC efforts to support Myanmar Red Cross Society (MRCS) initiatives to reunite those separated as a result of the disaster.

San-Hta Nyunt, Tracing Delegate, ICRC Yangon, briefs members of her team before embarking on a field mission    
    " It was a miracle that I found myself he re " said San-Hta, a 39-year-old native of Yangon. " This is my country, and these are my people. I feel privileged to be able to help. "

Drawing on skills and experience gained in previous missions in Angola, southern Sudan, Western Sahara and Ethiopia, San-Hta quickly identified the need for experienced staff.

" When the ICRC scaled down some of its activities in 2007, we were forced to say farewell to a large number of people. The fact that so many have been willing to return to assist during this difficult time is testimony to their professionalism and dedication. "

The restoration of family links (RFL) will form an important part of the overall response to the disaster by the MRCS. Moreover, the ICRC has extensive technical expertise in this field and is able to provide support.

" The MRCS appreciates that the psychological wellbeing of people can be as important as food, shelter and water. " says San-Hta. " While perhaps it is not the first priority, it is encouraging to have the support of the National Society's senior leadership. Moreover, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, in its role as the coordinator of international support to the MRCS operation, has also embraced the need for RFL and is providing whatever support may be required " .

RFL activities and meeting the special needs of very vulnerable groups such as separated and unaccompanied children is not the exclusive domain of the ICRC and the MRCS. The United Nations is calling on numerous agencies and organizations working in this domain and San-Hta returned from her first coordination meeting with some clear impressions.

" Agencies such as UNICEF are keen to work in partnership with the ICRC and MRCS, " Jokingly, she adds " It's great that I can converse with UNICEF's head of protection in French thanks to my own knowledge of the language having studied and worked in Paris! "

How will she approach working with a National Society that acknowledges its own weaknesses in the field of RFL?

" The MRCS has appointed a very competent person to be its RFL focal point, " she explained, " It is someone who is familiar with the ICRC – that's a great start. We have already finished the translation of the forms and guidelines we will use. We are now in the process of mobilising a network of MRCS volunteers already trained by the ICRC in the collection and delivery of Red Cross Messages. Once we have finalised the procedures we will use in this operation, we will finish training and start work. "

In expectation of the large number of forms that will be required, San-Hta faces another challenge. " As far as we have been able to determine, none of the printing companies in Yangon are working yet, and it will be several more days before electricity is restored, so the ICRC's photocopier is going to be working overtime. "

More serious is the issue of what are reported to be thousands of bodies floating in waterways, laying in fields, or stuck in trees as a result of the fatal waves that accompanied the storm.

" We have to accept that the identification of most of these bodies is impossible, " says San-Hta. " The least we can do, however, is to give them a decent burial and, if we can, inform surviving family members where their loved ones are buried. The task ahead will not be easy, but it is an essential part of the process that will allow survivors the chance to rebuild their lives. "

How does San-Hta herself cope with the pressures facing her and her colleagues? " I take comfort in the fact that I can make a difference " , she says. " I am so fo rtunate that the ICRC delegation in Myanmar functions so well and has a great team atmosphere. Without their support, I could not achieve anything. "