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Being there

by Leyla Alyanak
Through revolutionary upheavals and economic tidal waves, the Cuban Red Cross has gone from strength to strength.

Abraham Alier Lueth spent most of his twenty-some years – his date of birth was never ascertained – living in Cuba, far from his family. He fled southern Sudan as a child when civil war broke out and crossed into Ethiopia where the communist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam provided a safe haven for refugees on the run.

Cuba and Ethiopia were friends back then, joined by communism, their shared links with the eastern bloc, and the presence of Cuban troops on Ethiopian soil. Cuba took in 274 stranded Sudanese children, flying them to Havana and eventually putting them through school.

“The youngest was 6 and the eldest 14,” recalled Susana Llovet Alcalde, who heads the tracing and family reunification department of the Cuban Red Cross. “Most had lost their families or any contact with them. The attacks were so sudden they had no time to prepare. Some of the children were playing in the river when the bombs came. They just ran.”

By the early 1990s, the Sudanese children were heading towards adulthood and Cuba was in the grip of the so-called “special period”, initiated in reaction to the crash of the eastern bloc economies and the tightening of the US economic noose around the country. The Soviet crash took with it 100 per cent of Cuba’s foreign aid, 85 per cent of its foreign trade and 98 per cent of its oil.

“The Cuban government asked us to help find some of their relatives to reunify families, if possible,” said Llovet. It was hoped these relatives might help the Sudanese students leave Cuba and resettle elsewhere.




Message in a bottle

The first effort in 1995 failed. The students refused to cooperate, often afraid of what they might find or disinterested in families which they felt had abandoned them as children. Many didn’t even remember where they came from.

In 1996 a team made up of Llovet, a representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and a Cuban government official criss-crossed the country, interviewing the students. “They had to be persuaded one by one,” she recalled.

Eventually the ICRC Central Tracing Agency in Geneva disseminated their identities to Red Cross facilities throughout Africa and, at last, messages began trickling into Havana.

Abraham was one of the lucky ones. Both his parents were alive. For Mabany Manyang Dau, the news was sadder. Llovet recalled how his eyes fell and misted as he read the printed words on the message form. “Everyone has died,” he told the Cuban Red Cross. “But at least now I know their fate.”

The programme was a success and about three-quarters of the students received at least some news, good or bad. If not family, at least they found old friends, some link to a country which had begun to fade into distant memory. For these children of war who grew up in a distant land, the ignorance of separation was over.

Mabany and Abraham are no longer in Cuba. Their status changed from student to refugee and they moved
to Canada with the help of UNCHR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The remaining Sudanese students, still scattered among distant provinces, will leave soon.

Haitians, too, have found asylum in Cuba, but for shorter periods. “Some head for Cuba but most are washed ashore on their way to the United States,” said Joan Swaby Atherton, a psychologist who heads the Cuban Red Cross refugee programme. “It is no wonder they don’t make it. They use tiny boats, often just overloaded rowboats which tip over.”

Haitians often leave their troubled island to find work abroad. Those who make it to Cuba are the lucky ones.

They are picked up by the coast guard and delivered to one of four Red Cross camps along the south-eastern coast where they are housed in neat, orderly wood and cement barracks. Their names are taken down – several times since they change them frequently – and they are issued with basic supplies such as blankets and sheets. They receive a medical check-up, some for the first time ever. Eventually UNHCR will get them home safely but they may try again, a life and death game for desperate people.

Throughout its history – it turns 90 this year – the Cuban Red Cross has gone through dramatic shifts. Before the Cuban revolution in 1959, it provided much needed health care for the poor. But with the revolution came free, universal government health services and the Red Cross had to adapt. No longer responsible for healing the sick, it looked for new ways to contribute.

It provided first aid for the revolutionary mass rallies which at times drew crowds of half a million, and concentrated on more traditional water safety, youth and emergency work. Mostly, it came to be identified as Cuba’s ambulance service.

But the Cuban Red Cross would soon move in new directions, both as a result of a critical study of national Red Cross societies in the western hemisphere and because of the “special period” itself.

“Times were difficult and members were unmotivated. We had to find space where the state wasn’t active in order to renew interest among the people,” said Dr. Luis Foyo Ceballos, secretary-general of the Cuban Red Cross.

On all fronts

It found three such spaces: refugee work, tracing and family reunification, and international humanitarian law.

The work with Haitian refugees was new, but existing efforts to trace and reunify families were expanded. In addition to helping foreigners in Cuba find their relatives, the service was in high demand by Cubans, mostly former visitors to the US or the eastern bloc, and ex-combattants who had fought in Africa, searching for children they might have sired abroad.

The special period saw the birth of the Centre for Studies of International Humanitarian Law, which informs Cubans about their rights in wartime under the Geneva Convention. It receives financial and teaching support from the ICRC. Since its opening in November 1994, the centre has won international prizes for its research, held competitions for lawyers and doctors, and firmly entrenched the teaching of humanitarian law in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba, as well as in law and communications faculties.

The Cuban Red Cross maintains its more traditional activities – it provided the health watch for the January 1998 Papal tour. When medicine is scarce, and it often is in Cuba these days, the Cuban Red Cross helps find funds or drugs from other National Societies. It distributes donated school supplies, provides emergency support during hurricanes floods and epidemics, works with senior citizens, raises AIDS awareness and is involved in dozens of facets of Cuban life.

“We have credibility and tremendous autonomy,” said Foyo. From three staff at headquarters in 1994 it now has 17, and Foyo hopes his 22,000 volunteers will grow to 30,000 by 2000.

The evolution of the Cuban Red Cross is all the more positive and surprising given the extreme hardship and scarcity in which it is taking place.


Leyla Alyanak
Leyla Alyanak is a Canadian journalist who specializes in development and human rights.

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