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Cambodia: Red Cross messages turn anxiety into hope

29-10-2013 Feature

Red Cross messages allow people to share family news when traditional means of communication have been disrupted. With ICRC support, the Cambodian Red Cross Society helps people in prison stay in touch with their loved ones on the outside.

Seoung helps Srey Neng reply to the Red Cross message from her husband.  

Seoung helps Srey Neng reply to the Red Cross message from her husband.

Bun Seoung, a Cambodian Red Cross volunteer, is a very special postman. In the 21st century, when most people in Phnom Penh are connected with the rest of the world in real time via Facebook and Instagram, Bun Seoung is still hand-delivering every single letter. His motorbike is all rusted up from the thousands of kilometres he has travelled to meet with each individual recipient.

“These Red Cross messages are so precious”, he explains, “because they have the power to reunite family members, to banish anguish and uncertainty.”

Srey Neng

It takes three hours by motorbike over dusty trails and through gigantic puddles to reach a small village close to Kompong Speu, where Srey Neng, a young mother of two, lives. She is suspicious at first when Seoung tells her he has news for her from her husband, from whom she has not heard for over a year. She’s anxious and hardly dares take the message he is holding out to her. She grasps her baby tightly against her chest when Bun Seoung finally reads her the letter out loud.

“He’s in a prison in Thailand, but in good health,” explains Seoung. Tears roll down Srey Neng’s cheeks as she clutches the message. “I thought he was dead. All this time I never stopped worrying and wondering what had happened to him”.

Bun Seoung at work delivering a Red Cross message.  

Bun Seoung at work delivering a Red Cross message.

Seoung explains to Srey Neng that she can reply to the message, and that the ICRC will deliver it to her husband. “I’m so relieved”, she says. “I can’t afford to visit him in Thailand, but at least we can write to each other, and finally feel reunited, in a way”.

Perseverance pays

Message delivered, Seoung is back on his bike with several hours’ ride in front of him before the day is done.

“It takes lots of determination to find the families”, explains Seoung. “Sometimes I need to make the trips two or three times before I finally find them. There is no way of knowing if they will be there the day I plan to visit them. But I don’t give up easily”.

When other means of communication such as telephone lines and the postal system are disrupted or not available, the work of Bun Seoung and other Red Cross volunteers like him is a lifeline. In 2012, the Cambodian Red Cross helped separated families members send nearly 14,000 Red Cross messages to each other – mostly between detainees and their relatives.