Hope for Peace: Finding the Missing in Colombia

Story by Viviana Cristian, National Capital Region, Disaster Response Leader and Casework Supervisor

Jordi Raich, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Bogota, Colombia

Jordi Raich, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Bogota, Colombia

As the daughter of Colombian immigrants, I was excited to have the opportunity to sit in on an interview with Jordi Raich, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation Bogota, Colombia.  For the last three generations, Colombia has been involved in a conflict that has displaced over four million people. While many Colombians have sought asylum abroad, those who have stayed have risked kidnappings, recruitment into armed forces, and forced disappearances.

Raich talked in detail about ICRC Bogota’s programs.  This has included taking part in hostage negotiations. When someone is disappeared or kidnapped in Colombia, the ICRC often acts as a neutral intermediary, speaking with all sides in an effort to visit people who are being held, ensuring their well-being, and, when possible, work towards facilitating their release and family reunification.

I couldn’t help but tear up when he recounted how the hostages wouldn’t believe they were really being released until they reached the airport.  It is important to remember that some of them had been held captive for up to twenty years.  They would then break down, some of them even singing a song from the salsa group Niche, “Hagamos Lo Que Diga El Corazón” (Let’s Do what the Heart Says).  The song is about how the crisis is now over, the bad things are in the past, so let us move on and go with our heart’s desire.

Fortunately, hostages are not held for that long nowadays; it is now a question of weeks or a few months.  In preparation of reunification, both the families and the soon to be released are counseled and brought up to date on each other’s lives.  ICRC’s role does not end with seeing the family and former captive seeing each other again.  There is follow up with the now reunited families to see how they are adjusting and if there is still a need for Red Cross services.

Throughout the interview, Raich emphasized three important points.  First, he said the Colombian Restoring Family Links (RFL) program has improved through the use of technology. Second, he believes the current peace talks between the FARC and the government will end the conflict. Third, he stated once the country enters a post-conflict situation, the RFL program will grow even more.  The guerilla fighters will be demobilizing and those fighters, among them minors, will be trying to find and reunite with family members.

For many years, I have doubted the ability of the conflict parties to agree to peace, yet by the end of the interview, Jordi Raich changed my skepticism of the peace talks to actual hope.  I thank him for that and I thank him and ICRC Bogota for all they have done to help my fellow Colombians.

During this year’s International Day of the Disappeared, it is important to recognize the work the ICRC and other global organizations do to help locate the missing and provide comfort for their families. For more information on the disappeared and the work being done to uncover their fate, please visit the ICRC’s website on the missing.

Reconnecting Families after Typhoon Haiyan

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Story by Viviana Cristian, National Capital Region, Disaster Responder, Emergency and International Services

Some might call me an overachieving Red Cross Volunteer because I am a Disaster Action Team and Services to Armed Forces Lead, an RFL volunteer, and am also Emergency Response Vehicle and trailer qualified. Yet despite that training and experience, when responding to a disaster, I am always impacted by the reactions of those affected, even if they live thousands of miles away from where the disaster took place.  That was the case when volunteering with the Red Cross to help respond to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. 

In an effort to help families in the US who had lost contact with their loved ones in the Philippines, the American Red Cross created several call centers across the country where those effected could receive help.  In Fairfax, Virginia, I and several other volunteers were instructed in how to provide Restoring Family Links services to those calling in to the center looking for information on how to contact their loved ones.

Through the call center, we were able to receive calls and help people from all over the country – from Washington State and California to Connecticut and Florida and many states in between.  Those who called were worried and frantic to hear of any news about their loved ones.  One woman from Kansas searching for news about her mother and two brothers knew that the airport near their city was destroyed and had no clue as to where they might be now.  I helped her by taking information about her mother and brothers as well as her own information so it can be passed to the Philippine Red Cross. Once the Philippine Red Cross is able to find any information, they will let the American Red Cross know and then she will be contacted with the news. However, I also told her that establishing shelters and giving people medical attention and food are the top priorities in the Philippines at the moment and that re-establishing communication may take time. 

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I calmly asked her the questions and whenever she got flustered because she did not know the answer, I reassured her, saying, “it’s okay if you don’t know the answer.  Whatever information you give us will be helpful.”  And that helped.  In the end, I gave her a phone number to call if she was able to communicate with her family members first.  She was by then more tranquil, even letting out a long sigh.   She thanked me for helping her and I knew she felt better because she took a big step in finding her family. 

I was sad and a bit overwhelmed seeing the images on the screens and hearing worry in the voices of the callers.  I got through it by reminding myself that the Red Cross was helping by taking disaster inquiries that may result in family members reconnecting and re-establishing the peace of mind that comes along with that knowledge.  I was also happy to see that the local media came and interviewed the volunteers so they were able to talk about their experiences as well as get the word out.   By the end of the day, 26 inquiry forms were filled out and cases initiated to try and reconnect family members.  It was satisfying to know that despite being thousands of miles away, we were able to help those affected by this disaster.

If you or someone you know has lost contact with family in the Philippines due to Typhoon Haiyan, please contact your local Red Cross chapter to initiate a Restoring Family Links case.

For more news stories on the work being done by American Red Cross chapters across the US to reconnect families separated by the Typhoon, please visit the following links:

Red Cross Call Center in Northern Virginia takes RFL cases for Typhoon Haiyan

Red Cross Tucson Chapter helps reconnect families that lost contact due to Typhoon Haiyan

Denver Red Cross helps 32 families who lost contact with relatives in the Philippines

Woman in Kentucky uses the Red Cross to help her find family in the Philippines