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Crisis Response Journal Crisis Response Journal

What would you say if you only had three minutes?

Posted on 20th January 2016 at 15:23pm

Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children have been displaced or forced to flee into neighbouring countries following the civil war that erupted in South Sudan in December 2013, just two years after it became an independent state. Since the beginning of the conflict nearly two million people have been displaced within South Sudan and across neighboring countries.

Airstrip in Leer, South Sudan: Three women sort through sorghum donated by the ICRC, which has donated more than 1,600,000 food rations and provided household essentials for 600,000 people (photo: Jacob Zocherman/ICRC)

Though a peace agreement has been signed, the humanitarian consequences remain extremely concerning, says the ICRC. Because of mass displacement, entire communities are now in search of food and health care and exposed to the dangers of warfare and sexual assault. Communities were split and families separated. Many people have been separated from their loved ones and millions still desperately hope to return to their homes.

In a bid to disrupt communications, the already strained mobile phone networks were destroyed, silencing the only form of communication people had with their loved ones.

Staying in contact with family and friends keeps hope alive, but time and opportunity are invariably short. Imagine if all communication was taken away from you over night – text, email, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Skype or phone – if you had been separated from your family or loved ones and could phone just one person – and for only three minutes – who would you call? What would you say?

To help people find and keep in touch with loved ones, the Red Cross expanded its 'Restoring family links' (RFL) activities in the country last year. The service includes free phone calls, hand-written Red Cross messages for conveying family news, and a photo album of displaced South Sudanese allowing people to identify their relatives. A web page, Restoring Family Links – South Sudan, has also been set up to enable people to trace family members with whom they have lost contact. To date, more than 112,000 phone calls have been made, 7,700 messages have been hand-delivered and 700 people have been reunited with their families.

In October, British photographer Giles Duley went to Akobo, Jonglei State, to document the project, run by the ICRC and a team of South Sudan Red Cross volunteers (click here for our report on another of Duley’s projects, The Legacy of War).

Akobo is a town in Jonglei State, on the border with Ethiopia, about 280 miles from the South Sudanese capital, Juba. It had suffered through years of war, so in 2011, when South Sudan finally became an independent country, a wave of optimism swept through the town. Finally it seemed peace had come and many from Akobo moved to Juba to look for new opportunities to work or study.

In Akobo itself, many families were split as men stayed to look after their homes and farmland while their wives and children sought refuge from the fighting in neighbouring Ethiopia and Kenya. Most thought the war would be over in a few weeks and that families would be reunited.

Then the phone networks were shut down and Akobo, like many towns and villages in South Sudan, found itself shut off from the outside world. As the war raged on, the means of contacting family and friends was lost. Many were unsure if their loved ones were even alive. In this connected world, Akobo had lost all communication.

Then, in 2013, the ICRC's RFL programme came to Akobo. As part of the project, in July 2014, people had the chance to use a satellite phone. For many this would be the first time they had spoken to missing relatives for two years.

Sheltering from the savage sun under a tree on the outskirts of town, Akobo residents sat waiting patiently for their turn on the phone. They registered, as many as 200 a day, then waited. When the loudspeaker called their name, they walked forward, clutching a piece of paper with the precious number, which they handed to the ICRC staff member, who dialled it and then passed the phone back to them.

They were allowed just three minutes. 

Scroll down for photos.

Liep Wan Loang, 35 years old, from Akobo: Liep was calling his wife, whom he hadn't seen or spoken to since December 2013. He wanted to know how she was and to ask about his children. Liep wanted to say: "I miss you and our children, but don't worry, I'm doing well." (Giles Duley/ICRC) Nyanding Kuang Puol, 31 years old, from Akobo: Nyanding was calling her children who fled the fighting in December 2013. She has seven children and lost contact with them soon after they left. She wanted to know they were safe. She wants the children home so she can look after them, but for now she knows that's not possible. (Giles Duley/ICRC)

 

Wan Kiir Wan, 39 years old, from Akobo: Wan was calling his wife. He hadn't spoken to her since March 2014. He wanted to know how she was and to encourage her to be patient. "In time," he told her, "we will be together again." (Giles Duley/ICRC)

Nyiakubo Wiyual, 16 years old, from Akobo: Nyiakubo was calling her brother whom she thought had been killed in the fighting. She hadn't heard from him since 2013. During the call she started to cry. "I am crying because I thought that my brother had been killed, but now I hear his voice. I'm so happy," she said. (Giles Duley/ICRC)

 Chiey Yak Puok, 33 years old, from Akobo: Chiey was calling his sister, who he had last seen in 2013 when she escaped from the fighting in Akobo. His message for her was simple: "Two days ago my wife gave birth to a baby girl. You are an aunt!" (Giles Duley/ICRC)

Nyanchan Maluol Mot, 19 years old, from Akobo, South Sudan: Nyanchan was calling her sister. She was in an internally displaced persons camp in Juba. They hadn't been in contact since 2013. She wanted to tell her sister they had found another relative in Juba and hoped to put them in contact with each other so that her sister would not be alone. (Giles Duley/ICRC)

Chieu Lam Turuk, 18 years old, from Akobo: Chieu was calling her husband who was studying in Addis Ababa. They hadn't been able to speak since April 2015. She had news for him: she was pregnant! But she wanted him to know she was fine and that he must continue with his education. (Giles Duley/ICRC)

Chol Lul Walou, approximately 60 years old, from Akobo: Chol was calling her daughter and son-in-law, with whom she had lost contact in December 2013. They were now living in Khartoum, Sudan. When the war started, Chol was left alone and she has nobody to help her. She asked her family to send clothes and money. "Because of the war I have nobody," she said. (Giles Duley/ICRC)

 ICRC South Sudan appeal click here

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