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
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
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
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
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
“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.