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ICRC keeps communications open

[Iraq] A woman cries as she phones relatives abroad from the Red Cross headquarters in Baghdad.
A woman cries as she phones relatives abroad from ICRC headquarters in Baghdad (Mike White)

With most communications between Iraq and the outside world still nearly impossible, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has started new programmes to keep families in touch. In the capital, Baghdad, on Saturday, it revived a free satellite telephone service for Iraqis to contact their loved ones overseas.

The programme had been launched during the first days of the war, but had to be suspended because staff were unable to get to work.

Now it has six Thuraya satellite phones and 10 staff offering a free two-minute phone call to anywhere in the world to Iraqis wanting to reassure their relatives of their safety after the war.

An ICRC communications officer, Ahmed Khalid, told IRIN in Baghdad that about 100 people a day were already using the service, and he expected this number would grow as word spread about the service.

He said many people had no money, and were overjoyed at the opportunity of being able to make a free call. "This is a life-saving thing for them and they really appreciate it. They feel there is still something good in life. Their hearts have been hardened by what has happened - we give them hope in a way."

Ahmed said in an environment where there was so much sadness, it was gratifying to be able to make people happy. "Some people become so excited they begin to scream very loudly. Some people won't let go after two minutes - what do you do? We excuse them because they miss their family members and they just want to hear their voices."

And the smile on the face of Jenefia Messak said it all after she had phoned her son in Holland. They had not spoken since before the war broke out nearly six weeks ago and he had been extremely anxious about the family's safety. "I am happy, so happy now," she said.

Meanwhile, the ICRC has also set up a system for Iraqis to send written messages to their relatives overseas. A spokeswoman, Nada Doumani, said the safe-and-well messages were filled out by Iraqis with the names and contact details of family members abroad written on them. They were then sent to Geneva, where family members were phoned or the messages posted to them. More than 100 people a day are also using this service.

Doumani said a reverse contact process had also been established with a website set up in Geneva enabling Iraqis around the world to list their family members remaining in the country whom they were worried about. ICRC posted these names on boards outside its Baghdad headquarters, and those named could then use the free satellite call to make contact.

Meanwhile, on the streets of Baghdad it has not taken long for entrepreneurs with satellite phones of their own to set up business. Dozens of men with Thuraya phones stand on busy thoroughfares renting the phones for people to call abroad now that there are no normal phone connections, Internet or postal services available.

One such man, Salah Abd al-Razzaq, said each minute cost about US $3, and he was still getting about 20 customers a day. However, when he first started a week ago, although the price was up to three times that amount, at least 50 people a day were willing to pay it in order to contact their relatives.

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:

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