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Red Cross Establishes Contacts Between Displaced Iraqis - 2003-04-30

The International Committee of the Red Cross is helping to re-establish contact between Iraqi citizens dislocated by war.

Tucked away in the tiny Swiss village of Ecogia, 12 kilometers north of Geneva, the Red Cross Tracing Service is helping the people of Iraq communicate with their loved ones around the world.

The tracing unit collects messages written in Iraq dubbed Red Cross Safe and Well cards and sends these on to relatives through the network of national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies worldwide. The head of the tracing unit, Pierre Barras, says the Red Cross has had a 90 percent success rate in establishing communication between family members.

He recalls the story of an Iraqi dentist now living in Jordan. The man had notified the Red Cross asking for news of his son in Baghdad whom he had not heard from for several weeks. Mr. Barras says the father was worried sick with fear and repeatedly contacted the office seeking some information.

Then one day, Mr. Barras says, a box arrived full of messages, and the name of the dentist appeared on a card. He says the dentist was immediately contacted and was overjoyed to know his son was alive and well.

"That was a very good relief for this person," said Mr. Barras. "His son had totally disappeared, and he was really glad to receive such news."

Mr. Barras says about 1,500 Iraqis are currently using this service. He says the Red Cross has also set up a website,, now used by 6,500 Iraqis. And it has begun satellite phone communication for Iraqis eager to restore family contacts.

Mr. Barras says that so far, many of the family reconnections seem to have happy endings, but not all do.

Another Iraqi who had been a prisoner of war in Iran for the past 20 years, he said, recently returned to Baghdad in search of his wife. He says the man discovered that his family had fled abroad. With the communication centers destroyed by fighting, he says, the man went to the Red Cross to contact his wife by satellite phone.

"Of course, you can imagine how tense and nervous a person can be in such a situation," Mr. Barras said. "Imagining that he has not been in touch with his wife for more than 20 years. So he took the phone and uttered a few stumbling words. Then a long silence followed. His wife got remarried a year ago."

Mr. Barras says the Red Cross is also visiting 7,000 Iraqi prisoners of war, registering their details, and helping to pass their messages on to relatives, too.

Arabic translators working with the Red Cross, like Nadine Omar, say the responsibility of trying to link family members is good, and at times, sad.

"Very good because at least we are trying to translate all the names of these prisoners that come to us on cards," she explained. "We really have to translate them properly so that they are able to trace them back in Baghdad afterwards with their families. And sad, because of the war. War is always a sad situation. And because some families are really hopeful to try to find some of their loved ones who were soldiers or even civilians who were caught or killed accidentally."

The Red Cross says it also has plans to help trace people who are missing as a result of the fighting. But that activity, it says, will start once security in Iraq permits.