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“I’m alive”

 

The 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.

“They 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 Montreal.

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 Republic.

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 are “alive and well”.

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!”

The 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 alive.”

“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 not forget.”

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 disease.

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.

Dunant’s promise

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.

“A young corporal named Claudius Mazuet, some 20 years old, with gentle expressive features, had a bullet in his left side,”

Dunant 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.”

Over time, 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.”

The subsequent 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 priority. “The 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 traffic crashes.

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.

“A 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.

Other challenges 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 case.

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.”

Malcolm Lucard
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. Dunant
traced his parents
and told them what
had happened to
their only son.”

Author Caroline Moorehead in
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.
©
Marko Kokic/ICRC

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


A volunteer listens to a woman searching for her child, evacuated from Haiti for medical treatment.
©Marko Kokic/ICRC

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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- Prussian War.
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
being healed…
They are being healed,
so it’s also a healing
for us.”

Andreana Tampubolon
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.
©Thierry Gassmann/ICRC

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