Regional Delegation for the United States and Canada
International Committee of the Red Cross
|News and Notes
This February, the ICRC Regional Delegation for the United States and Canada brings you a closer look at our work at Guantanamo. We also share with you an update on the ongoing conflict in Sri Lanka
and an interview following this month's successful hostage releases in Colombia
. Finally, we invite you to check out ICRC's YouTube Channel
where you can watch videos on ICRC worldwide activities.
We encourage you to forward this newsletter to friends and colleagues who may also be interested in the work of the ICRC. Please also know that you can unsubscribe at any time through the link at the bottom of the page.
As always, for the latest news, please consult our website at www.icrc.org
The ICRC Washington Delegation
The ICRC at Guantanamo: Working to Keep Families Connected
Worldwide, the ICRC visits approximately 500,000 detainees every year to assess how detention conditions, treatment, and judicial guarantees match relevant international standards. The ICRC also works to restore and maintain contact among separated family members through letters, phone calls, and other means of communication. As part of this worldwide detention effort, since January 2002, the ICRC has been regularly visiting the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.
For most internees in Guantanamo and their families, Red Cross Messages and Red Cross-facilitated phone calls are an important means of maintaining regular contact with their families. Red Cross Messages are used to exchange personal and family news, and are censored by the authorities according to standard worldwide practice.
In addition, each Red Cross Message is hand delivered in both directions guaranteeing delivery. Since 2002, the ICRC has facilitated the exchange of over 43,000 Red Cross messages between Guantanamo detainees and their families. ICRC delegates also meet with internees' families around the world, exchanging oral greetings.
In April 2008, the ICRC, through its delegations around the world, facilitated the establishment by the U.S. Government of a phone call system enabling Guantanamo internees to speak to their families on a regular basis for an hour at a time. To date, more than 250 phone calls have been organized. The ICRC at Guantanamo also facilitates "humanitarian phone calls" to connect internees with relatives when a significant event happens in their family, such as the death of a loved one.
Both the Red Cross Message and phone call service are logistically complex; they involve coordination among many ICRC delegations and National Red Cross and Red Crescent societies in the detainees' home countries. The ICRC or the National Society typically arranges for family members to travel to its offices, or sends a Red Cross representative to the family's house with phone equipment, to establish the phone call with their loved ones in Guantanamo.
"For us, the reestablishing and maintaining of family links for those interned in Guantanamo is an important and very rewarding aspect of our visit," says Jens-Martin Mehler, Protection Coordinator of the ICRC Regional Delegation based in Washington, DC. "In that respect, the phone call program has been a major step forward by creating a direct link between the internee and his family."
The activities of ICRC Washington's Protection Department, however, are not focused exclusively on Guantanamo. In the United States, the ICRC also visits regularly one person interned at the Charleston Naval Brig in South Carolina and one prisoner of war currently held in Miami, Florida. In addition, in close cooperation with delegates representing the ICRC to the Armed Forces, the Protection Department conducts pre-deployment briefings and training sessions for troops going to the field. These activities help members of the U.S. Armed Forces better understand the role of the ICRC in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.
Sri Lanka: ICRC Evacuates Over 240 Wounded and Sick from the Vanni by Sea
On February 10, a ferry flying the flag of the ICRC evacuated about 240 patients from Putumattalan to Trincomalee. They had fled Puthukkudiyiruppu Hospital in the northern Vanni region on February 4 after it sustained repeated shelling.
The patients arrived in Trincomalee that evening and received medical treatment.
The operation started after both parties had granted safe passage. Civil authorities, medical staff, the fishermen's union and church representatives also supported the evacuation. An additional 160 patients still in Putumattalan were to be evacuated on February 11.
On February 9, Putumattalan was hit by shelling that killed at least 16 patients. "We are shocked that patients are not afforded the protection they are entitled to," said Paul Castella, head of the ICRC delegation in Colombo
. "Once more, we call on both parties to meet their obligation under international humanitarian law to spare wounded and sick people, medical personnel and medical facilities at all times."
The ICRC is currently negotiating with both parties to continue evacuating the sick and wounded from the Vanni. "Medical facilities are no longer functioning. There are a few makeshift medical points, but these cannot cope with the increasing influx of patients," said Mr. Castella. "Urgent medical evacuations must continue to take place regularly."
The ICRC remains extremely concerned about the plight of civilians still trapped in the Vanni, an area that has been hard hit by intense fighting in recent days. Most of the region's population is now displaced and completely dependent on outside aid, yet none has reached the area since January 29. It is imperative that both parties immediately allow food and other urgently needed items to reach those who are trapped.
The ICRC in Sri Lanka
Fighting between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan Government started in the 1980s. A 2002 ceasefire began to collapse in 2005, and in early 2008 the government withdrew from the agreement.
In 2008, the conflict intensified in the LTTE-controlled areas of northern Sri Lanka, known as the Vanni. Under the 2002 ceasefire agreement, the Vanni covers parts of Mannar, Vavuniya, Kilinochi and Mullaitivu. The ICRC, which has been on the island continuously since 1989, continues to work in the Vanni with the agreement of both parties to the conflict.
The ICRC has helped thousands of people who have fled the fighting, providing them with basic necessities, shelter, water and sanitation. The ICRC has been visiting people detained by both sides in relation to the conflict, verifying treatment and conditions of detention, providing essential items and conveying family news between detainees and their families. The organization is monitoring compliance with international humanitarian law
(IHL) and takes up alleged breaches of IHL with the party concerned, emphasizing that the law requires all parties to refrain from harming civilians, allow them to receive aid and enable humanitarian agencies to work in safety. In parallel, the ICRC is promoting IHL to a wide range of arms bearers and civilian groups. Finally, the ICRC is providing support for the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society's work on restoring family links and promoting the principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.
|Colombia: Emotions Flow as Released Captives are
Reunited with Their Families
In its capacity as a neutral, impartial, and independent humanitarian organization, the ICRC seeks every possible means of securing the rapid release of all hostages. Between February 1 and 5, 2009, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) released three police officers, Alexis Torres Zapata, Juan Fernando Galicia, and José Walter Lozano; one member of the Colombian armed forces, William Giovanni Rodríguez; the former governor of Meta, Alan Jara; and Sigifredo López, a former lawmaker of the Valle del Cauca assembly.
Patricia Danzi, ICRC Head of Operations for Latin America, described her experience during the first two missions that enabled five of the six people to return to their families. Ms. Danzi, what impressed you most about the missions already completed?
I cannot really explain the emotions I feel. It was such a rewarding experience. In a country beset by decades of armed conflict - Colombia
- hundreds of dedicated ICRC staff have worked hard for many months and years to alleviate the suffering of those affected. Most of the time, our work goes on far from the media spotlight, and we are not always rewarded with a burst of emotion such as we felt when we helped to reunite those five men with their wives, children, siblings and parents. Among the ICRC staff who took part in these missions are many who worked behind the scenes - meeting high-level officials, driving cars, operating radios, even preparing sandwiches for the helicopter crew. None of us will ever forget those moments. The memories will help us to carry on with our work in more ordinary times, because they make us realize that the ICRC's long-term commitment to people affected by armed conflict does bear fruit.
But it was not only we who were touched by this unique experience. The members of Colombians for Peace and the Brazilian helicopter crew were also very moved by the fact that their work had made such a difference in the lives of the people who were released and their families. In fact, I am thrilled to see that the whole country has been taking part, at least emotionally, in the release missions. In recent days, people have been glued day and night to their radios and TV sets, sharing in the joy of the families that have been reunited. How did the five men react when they were released?
The soldier and the three police officers who were released last Sunday [February 1] had been in the hands of the FARC for a year and a half. Last December they heard on the radio that the FARC would release some policemen and military personnel, but until the day of their release they did not know that it was their turn to return to freedom. When they saw us, their emotions burst forth - you could see how elated they were, and you could imagine all the things that must have been going through their minds when they realized what was happening. Inside the helicopter, some of them became calmer while others showed their feelings with hugs and kisses. All of them thanked everybody profusely for having made their release possible.
On Tuesday [February 3], the FARC handed over Alan Jara, the former governor of Meta. He greeted us warmly and said, "It's very nice to see you after seven and a half years of captivity!" I am impressed at how he was able to keep up his spirits - and those of other captives - during the many long and difficult years in the jungle. We cannot imagine how it must be to live more than seven years in this humid climate, constantly bitten by mosquitoes and exposed to malaria and many other tropical diseases (with hardly any medical care available), not to be able to take a shower or change clothes for long periods at a time, and not to have a comfortable bed to sleep in at night. He said he used his time in captivity to teach foreign languages and other subjects to fellow hostages, members of the community and the FARC. Every night he would plan the next day's lessons. His captors gave him everything he needed for his "jungle school." Mr. Jara mentioned that he was able to hear the voices of members of his family on the radio on only three occasions. He showed me some newspaper clippings with photos of his wife and son - a treasure he kept in a plastic bag during all his years of captivity. What challenges did the ICRC face during and before the first two missions?
The fact that media attention has been so high has not always made things easy. Everything that participants in the missions were doing, or not doing, and saying, or not saying, was immediately reported and interpreted by the media. In the midst of media speculation of all sorts, it was very important for us never to lose sight of our goal, which was to bring the three policemen, the soldier and the two lawmakers back to their families safely, quickly and in good health.
During the first handover mission - last Sunday [February 1] - many things did not go according to plan. This delayed our work and we had no choice but to fly back at nightfall, something we hadn't planned at all! We had to coordinate our actions closely with the Colombian government, the FARC, the Colombians for Peace and the Brazilian helicopter crew, and everybody involved in the field and in Bogotá had to adapt to a rapidly evolving situation in order to cope with the unexpected.
Brazil's involvement gave the missions an international dimension. The fact that a third country was willing to provide logistical support for a humanitarian operation is very commendable. Everybody agrees that the Brazilian helicopter crew were very professional and did a tremendous job despite their lack of familiarity with the area where they have to do the flying.
Because the Red Cross emblem was used unlawfully by the Colombian armed forces last July in its rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other persons held by the FARC, coming in to FARC-controlled territory with yet another helicopter displaying the Red Cross emblem was of course still an issue for them. It was necessary to rebuild a lot of trust with them. Clearly, if we want to continue to serve as a neutral intermediary, we need the trust of all parties to the conflict. While the handovers were taking place we had occasion to take note of the points made by some FARC commanders, and we shared our views with them. We hope that these discussions will help build up trust for the future. Is it possible that more releases will take place in the near future?
The joy that we feel at seeing families come together after so many hard years apart should not allow us to forget those who are still waiting to be reunited with their loved ones. Some soldiers and police officers have been held by the FARC for over 10 years in very difficult conditions. A few days ago I was approached by a woman who asked me, "What about my husband? I don't even know if he is being held by any armed group, or if he is still alive or not!" In Colombia, there are thousands of people whose whereabouts remain unknown. The ICRC will continue to work in Colombia not only to help with the release of hostages and to find out what became of missing persons, but also to assist tens of thousands of people displaced by the armed conflict, to help victims of antipersonnel landmines, and to visit thousands of people held in connection with the armed conflict in government detention facilities.
Now Playing on ICRC's YouTube Channel
The ICRC's YouTube channel
currently features more than 100 ICRC films in English, French, and Spanish, including Panorama 08
. This moving 12-minute film shows the horrendous toll that armed conflict inflicts, threatening lives and livelihoods, forcing people to flee their homes and separating families. The film highlights the ICRC's work to assist victims of armed conflict and to promote international humanitarian law, ensuring that people trapped on the world's frontlines are protected from harm. Visit the ICRC YouTube channel to discover it and many others at www.youtube.com/icrcfilms
International Committee of the Red Cross
Regional Delegation for the United States and Canada
1100 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Suite 500
Washington, DC 20036 USA +1 202-587-4600