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A vital go-between:
Red Cross messages in Angola
by Antara Sen
In Angola, the resumption of hostilities has again delayed the prospect for a solution to the conflict. After 25 years of civil war, nearly a quarter of the population - 3 million people - has been displaced. For many of them, the ICRC programme that traces missing people and connects scattered families offers a glimpse of hope.
Joaquim picks his way through the garbage, the charcoal fires, crawling babies and women picking lice out of each other's hair. He checks the numbers on the tents. Scores of tents are scattered all over the compound and it is not easy to find those you are looking for, especially since the zones grouping the tents are not clearly marked. He finds the tent number, but not the person. Right number, wrong zone. And he resumes his search, pushing his way through the assault of curious eyes and expectant faces. This time he finds the right tent. But no, not the right person. The man Joaquim is looking for is out. "Give me the message, I'll pass it on," volunteer several voices in unison. But that's something Joaquim can't do. It would be too great a loss if the message didn't reach the person concerned.

In this displaced camp in Coalfa, in the province of Huambo, Joaquim is the voice of hope. An ICRC tracing delegate, he is the only link between a husband and his wife, between a mother and her daughter, between brothers and sisters, between family members torn apart by a civil war that has engulfed Angola for a quarter of a century. He is part of a widespread messaging system, organised by the ICRC and in some regions the Angolan Red Cross, that allows people ripped out of their homes and thrown apart by bombs and bullets to get in touch with each other. To find out if their loved ones are alive - somewhere, in some other displaced camp.

So Joaquim moves on to the next number. By now he is the Pied Piper of Huambo, trailed by a rapidly growing crowd. His search takes him inside the main building of the Coalfa wine factory. Like almost all industries in the region, the factory closed down some time ago. And the compound and the building has since been converted into a displaced camp. Every day, hundreds of people are fleeing their homes in this country ravaged by war, taking with them fragments of past lives, but hardly ever a survival kit for the great unknown. As they are bundled into trucks, vans or tractors, families get torn apart. There is no time to wait for someone to come home. Or to get home yourself. Waiting could mean death. And maybe the one they were waiting for is already dead. In the frantic rush for life, there is little time to plan the future.

Among the giant funnel and gargantuan pipes in the wine factory, Joaquim seeks his target. "Marcellina K.?" he announces loudly to the crowd surrounding him with barely contained excitement. There is a flurry of activity and the woman concerned emerges from the crowd. For a whole year, she has been waiting for this moment, clinging to her one hope, of finding her husband. She was in her home in the town of Somba in Huambo province last year when the war broke out. Her husband had gone away on business. She didn't have the luxury of planning her future. Chased by bombs and artillery fire, the luckier ones of the village piled onto a truck and fled the only land they called their own. Marcellina was on that truck, with her two toddlers. And ever since she settled in this makeshift camp for the internally displaced, she has been trying to find her husband. Then someone said he was in a certain camp for the displaced in Lubango, 400 kilometres south of the city of Huambo. It was the only news she had of her husband in months. Steeling herself against false hope, she had sent a message through the ICRC messaging system to the camp in Lubango. And today, Joaquim, is here looking for her.
"This is from your husband," says Joaquim as he passes her the letter. A shy smile spreads across her young, harried face, her eyes light up with a joy that pierces your soul for the one moment that she looks at you, before quickly looking down at the letter she holds in her hand. There are no thank-yous, no polite conversation at moments like this.

"So what will you do now?" Joaquim calls after her. "Now that he knows we are alive, maybe we will get together again," she says softly over her shoulder. Nothing is certain, nothing planned. Every step in the life of these deslocados in Angola is a surprise.

Encouraged by Marcellina's luck, a boy from her village pushes forward through the crowd. "Please look carefully, there could be a message for me, Faustino S.," he pleads. He is looking for his father, who lives in the capital Luanda. Faustino lived with his father, a driver in a private company. During a short visit to Somba, war struck and he was forced to flee. He hasn't had any news of his father since then. Now, stuck in a colony for displaced people, unable to move out of the region, with no money, no means of living, and dependent on the charity of humanitarian organizations for the very basic necessities of life, he waits every day for news from his father. The father who could take him away from here, back to a life of his own. What he doesn't know is if his father still lives and works in the same area. Things have changed drastically in Angola in the past year. Renewed fighting has claimed lives and homes, destroyed cities and shut down businesses. And his father may not even be alive.

In a country with millions displaced, the ICRC tracing agency offers that flicker of hope, which may some day translate into a happy father's proud announcements about his reunited family. For what is taken for granted elsewhere, like the pleasures of a family life, of being able to live with your spouse or bring up your children, often becomes a luxury in today's Angola. In the first half of this year, 2,147 messages were collected and 1,636 distributed. As the country plunges further into civil war, not all messaging centres can work freely. And the process is painstakingly time-consuming. But the rewards - whether it is bringing a child to her parents or bringing news of a husband to a wife, or just keeping the hope of survival and the dream of rebuilding one's home alive - are more than worth it.

Antara Sen
Antara Sen is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi.

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