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People in the south cut off from the world

[Iraq] Receiving news of loved ones has proven difficult in southern Iraq.
Receiving news of loved ones in Iraq has proven difficult (Mike White)

There were tears the last time Juhayna Jasim spoke to her brother, Janan, in Sweden. As bombs rained down on Basra, Iraq's main southern city, she rang to tell him her family was fine. But then he heard the explosions down the phone line to Gothenburg, and burst into tears telling her that "my family will die". Then the phone line went dead.

It was the first day of the war, and thereafter all international communications were cut. From that time on, the people of southern Iraq have remained effectively cut off from the rest of the world, with no telephone or postal communication. With several million Iraqis living abroad, countless families have been unable to let their relatives know if they are safe or not, even now that the fighting has largely ended.

Desperate Iraqis besiege journalists and the few other foreigners in Basra, pleading for the use of their of communications equipment to call loved ones overseas. Cell phones generally only work near the Kuwaiti border, so any communication is limited to rare satellite phones.

In Baghdad, the International Committee of the Red Cross has been offering Iraqis the use of satellite phones for brief calls to reassure relatives abroad that they are safe. But this can never hope to bridge their vast international communication gap.

Zaynab Malih Hushan waited outside the Red Cross centre in Basra on Saturday, trying to find someone who could help her phone her husband in Germany. The last time she spoke to him was on 9 March - well before the conflict. Since then her house has been badly war-damaged, and four children who were in it at the time were hurt. "We can't talk, we can't write - nothing," she said.

But in the case of Juhayna, fate presented her with an answer. Passing through the foyer of the children's hospital where she is in charge of the gardens, she happened to meet a reporter and cameraman from the Swedish television company STV. Pleading with them to help her contact the brother she had not seen for 22 years since he fled the country because of his political views, they agreed to let her use their satellite phone.

As soon as the connection was made, emotions overflowed and excitement turned to tears. It was a chance to tell Janan that everyone was safe, that some services were beginning to operate again, and that he did not have to worry any more. "I am good, fine, thanks to God we are all right," Juhayna shouted down the line.

Not only that, but this was the first time in more than 20 years that the siblings had been able to talk freely without worrying that the line was tapped and someone was listening to their conversation. Juhayna, however, was lucky. She is one of a very few in Iraq who have so far been able to contact their relatives abroad and tell them if they are safe.

Her husband, Sabah, said it was vital that families were put in touch with each other around the world. "People are so full of feeling right now, it is very, very difficult. Just one call after this situation, and things will be all right. But the first call is very important to say that we are safe, that we are in good condition - it doesn't matter if the next call is in one year."

Meanwhile, millions of Iraqis overseas are still waiting for that crucial first call, and the restoration of any kind of communications system which could be many months away.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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