importance of uniting families separated in times of crisis
is becoming increasingly central to the Movement’s
response — from Indonesia, to the Democratic Republic
of the Congo and Haiti.
FIVE DAYS AFTER the 12 January earthquake
in Haiti destroyed everything they knew — neighbourhood,
home, school — the three children wandered amid the rubble
and chaos, unsure of the fate of their parents.
were crying and did not know where to go,” recalls Chantal
Pitaud, an expert on restoring family links (RFL) for the Haitian
National Red Cross Society.
A man brought them to the office
of the ICRC delegation, where Pitaud and the RFL team regis
- tered the children, helped find them temporary shelter
and tracked down their mother. After several calls and some
legwork, they arranged a reunion.
“Haitian children have suffered
tremendously,” says Pitaud. “So it was very sad
to see these three children crying… But when they were
reunited, their faces completely changed. There were big smiles
everywhere. Their mother was so happy to see them and to know
that they were safe.”
Originally created to help families
trace loved ones during times of war, the RFL network has
been increasingly mobilized in the aftermath of hurricanes,
earthquakes and tsunamis.
The Haiti response, for example,
marked the first time the Movement mobilized a rapid deployment
team from its newly created international pool of RFL experts.
Within 48 hours of the earthquake, a team of RFL specialists
representing three National Societies (Austria, France and
the Netherlands), the ICRC and the IFRC touched down in Port-au-Prince.
Equipped with satellite phones, computers and a registration
system developed from years of tracing experience, the team
met their counterparts with the Haitian Red Cross, set up
operations and began to connect people searching for loved
ones in nearby camps or as far away as Paris, New York or
At the same time, National Societies in Brazil,
Canada, the Dominican Republic, France and the United States
mobilized to connect survivors with those in the Haitian
diaspora — many of
whom were calling their National Society desperate for news.
The Dominican Red Cross, meanwhile, provided RFL services to
roughly 700 Haitians being treated in hospitals in the Dominican
Supported by the ICRC’s Central Tracing Agency,
which manages individual files on missing people and coordinates
RFL globally, the team established a web site on which people
in Haiti, or among the diaspora, could list their names or
the names of people they were searching for.
In Haiti, the
service is advertised by jingles that play on local radio
stations and via loudspeakers mounted on the beds of trucks.
Within the first week, the web site listed the names of more
than 16,000 people. Many belonged to those reported missing.
Others were simply reporting to family and friends that they
One survivor, who lost everything during the
quake, including her husband, called her son in the Dominican
Republic’s capital, Santo Domingo. “I want to leave,” said
61-year-old Marie Simon. “Please tell me what to do!”
Haiti disaster may well serve as a case study in the importance
of maintaining connections in times of crisis. News reports
told of Haitians from around the world searching for news
of loved ones, of badly injured people whisked out of the
country for treatment or of children being taken away for
adoption. Meanwhile earthquake survivors lined up en masse
to use RFL phones to call relatives for comfort, help or
simply to report: “I’m
“It’s of capital importance,” says
Chantal Pitaud. “This service gives people the force
to survive. This is especially true for people who were severely
injured and taken somewhere, even another country, to be treated.
It gives people a reason to hope.”
Remembering the dead
In catastrophes of this magnitude, however, many survivors
never find their loved ones. In Haiti, many of the missing
may stay buried in the rubble for months or lie in mass graves
to which overwhelmed morgue officials transported bodies
by the truckload. Relatively few were able to find and identify
their loved ones’ remains so they could be buried properly
and mourned in a dignified manner.
“Many will say that
in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, we should not care
so much about the dead,” says Morris Tidball-Binz, an
ICRC forensics expert who helps families and governments identify
human remains so they can be properly mourned. “But now
more people are acknowledging that management of the dead is
one of the pillars of disaster response. Because if the dead
are over looked, the affected families and communities will
The proper identification of the dead is
a sad but necessary part of RFL, he adds, because people
and communities who do not have answers, who cannot properly
mourn, have a hard time healing and take longer to recover.
In Port-au-Prince, Tidball-Binz worked with officials at
the state university hospital morgue to manage the hundreds
of corpses brought in daily, as well as to establish identification
and burial practices that increase the chances of family
members finding their loved ones’ remains.
The ICRC also provided thousands of body
bags and other supplies and helped government authorities
and National Societies spread the word that dead bodies in
disasters of this type do not pose a danger of infectious
These are some of the reasons that RFL plays an
increasingly prominent role in the Movement’s response to natural disasters.
The Restoring Family Links Strategy for the Movement (2008–2018),
adopted in Geneva in November 2007 by the Council of Delegates,
calls on the entire Movement to step up RFL efforts and awareness.
In 2009, the ICRC published a field manual called Restoring
Family Links in Natural Disasters. This training tool for
Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers and staff offers practical
guidance on a wide range of issues, from how to properly
take information on missing persons to correct recording
and burial of unidentified corpses so that they can be traced,
claimed or even exhumed later by family members.
The idea is far from new, however. It began on the battlefield
in Solferino, when Movement founder Henry Dunant came across
a dying soldier who wanted to send a message to his parents.
young corporal named Claudius Mazuet, some 20 years old, with
gentle expressive features, had a bullet in his left side,”
wrote in his memoir. “There was no hope for him and of
this he was fully aware.” Dunant comforted the man and
promised to contact his parents. After returning to Geneva,
he got to work founding the Red Cross. “But he did not
forget the young man who died in his arms,” wrote Caroline
Moorehead in her book, Dunant’s Dream. “[He] traced
his parents to Lyon, to number 3 Rue d’Alger, and told
them what had happened to their only son.”
Dunant’s dedication to the dying soldier would evolve
into a core function of the ICRC: the Central Tracing Agency,
which has collected records on dead or missing soldiers and
civilians in armed conflict from the Franco-Prussian war of
1870 through both world wars, to all the major conflicts of
the 21st century.
While the basic function has remained the
same, the mission has evolved along with the technology.
Today, tracing has a range of new tools — highspeed internet,
Skype, sms — that allows for quicker global connections,
says Olivier Dubois, deputy head of the Central Tracing Agency
and Protection Division of the ICRC.
“The tsunami of
2004 was a turning point,” Dubois says. “It was
a natural disaster that happened at the same time in many different
countries and, because it affected coastal areas, it also hit
tourists. So people of many nationalities were affected. National
Societies around the world were contacted by relatives of people
who were without news of loved ones.”
earthquake in Pakistan and Hurricane Katrina in the United
States brought further attention, while a recent ICRC study
of 4,000 conflict survivors reinforced family links as a
first and foremost concern of people interviewed was the safety
and well-being of close family members,” says Annika
Norlin, adviser at the Central Tracing Agency. “The fear
is the idea not only of losing a close friend or family member,
but also of separation.”
In both war and natural disaster,
family connec - tions not only help heal spiritual wounds,
they often provide the basic support (food, shelter, money)
critical to survival and recovery.
Today, RFL operations
are as diverse as the countries and cultures in which they
operate. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example,
Red Cross workers reconnect those separated by years of civil
war while also serving as the de facto national agency handling
mortal remains in cases ranging from casualties of war to
Red Crescent volunteers in Afghanistan handle
hand-written messages (over land, in dangerous circumstances)
and trace people scattered in villages throughout conflict
zones. The ICRC has also arranged videophone calls between
family members and detainees in US prisons in Afghanistan.
In Indonesia, meanwhile, volunteers for the Indonesian Red
Cross Society (PMI) are faced with the challenge of trying
to help migrants from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka who land
in Indonesia while trying to get to Australia. RFL volunteers
were also among the first responders to major bomb blasts
in 2002 in Bali and 2009 in Jakarta.
little bit of light”
Five years after the tsunami, the
PMI has RFL coordinators in all of its 33 chapters. “RFL
doesn’t require a big budget, but it’s high impact,” says
Andreana Tampubolon, head of RFL for the PMI. “When we
are able to contact someone and connect them with family, it’s
like being healed… They are being healed, so it’s
also a healing for us.”
There’s often a challenge,
however, when volunteers searching for answers contact other
National Societies that do not provide RFL services. In those
cases, the trail of a loved one goes cold. “That’s
hard for us,” she adds.
That lack of consistency is one
of the key problems facing the network, according to the
2008 Restoring Family Links Strategy. “Across the network,
there is insufficient understanding of the work of family links
and an inadequate sense of commitment and responsibility,” the
document reports. Faced with a general lack of resources, National
Societies must often put RFL on the back burner.
come from external sources. After 12 January, several major
internet venues — CNN, Google, to name two — advertised
their own tracing web sites. But it’s uncertain how long
those sites will be maintained and whether they will confuse
the issue for survivors or erode public confidence in tracing
if information is not properly handled.
Sometimes red tape
gets in the way. With the help of a physician, 33-year-old
Eclane Noel tracked down her 2-year-old son, Kervins, who
had been transported to the US ship Comfort, then back to
a field hospital in northern Haiti. As this magazine goes
to press, she was unable to get her son back because she
could not prove she was his parent. Haitian Red Cross workers
on the ground believe she is Kervins’ mother and are working on the
The good news in Haiti was that the ICRC delegation,
the Haitian Red Cross and many of the National Societies
involved had been engaging in RFL activities and training
well before the earthquake struck.
“Haiti shows other National Societies
throughout the world the need to prepare,” says Pierre
Barras, who headed the emergency RFL deployment in Haiti for
the ICRC. “We could count on an efficient network of
volunteers who could immediately respond to the needs… For
the people affected, it brought a little bit of light into
an otherwise very dark situation.”
Editor, Red Cross
Red Crescent magazine
Roger Bimael, 17, was reunited with his loved ones last year
after his family became separated by conflict in the Democratic
Republic of the Congo.
©Carl de Keyzer/ICRC
“He did not forget
the young man who died
in his arms.
traced his parents
and told them what
their only son.”
Author Caroline Moorehead
her book, Dunant’s Dream.
Her face lighting up with a smile, an earthquake survivor in
Port-au-Prince's Canapé Vert district tells relatives
she's okay. The satellite phone was provided by the ICRC and
the Haitian National Red Cross Society at an RFL post set up
in one of Canapé Vert's makeshift encampments.
A volunteer listens to a woman searching for her child, evacuated
from Haiti for medical treatment.
This handwritten card —dated 1 December, 1871 —was
one of thousands sent by the Agence de Bâle, set up specifically
by Red Cross officials to reunite families during the Franco-
Image courtesy of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum.
“When we are able
to contact someone
and connect them
with family, it’s like
so it’s also a healing
Head of RFL for the
Indonesian Red Cross Society
A woman searching for relatives after the 2004 tsunami at
a tracing office set up in Banda Aceh by the Indonesian Red
Cross and the ICRC.