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You’re at home when you hear the cackle of gunfire followed by shouts and screams.

You run out of your house, grabbing what few possessions you can. Along with your siblings and your father, you flee into the bush.

But you have to leave your grandmother behind; she’s too frail to travel. And your mother? She was at market. When she gets home, all that remains is the charred remnants of what used to be her home.

What do you do? You’re too frightened to go back to your village. So you stay in the bush, searching for food to survive.

Eventually, after weeks without shelter, you arrive at a camp for people displaced by fighting.

You’re given food and shelter, but all you want to know is what’s happened to your mum and grandmother. You hear that the Red Cross could help.

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Restoring family links

The story might be fictitious, but the scenario is not. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to be separated from your family, not knowing where they are or even if they’re still alive. But in South Sudan, it’s a regular occurrence.

One fundamental area of Red Cross work that often gets overlooked is restoring family links. Indeed, our work in reuniting families can be traced back 100 years to the First World War.

Each year, thousands of people are separated by conflict, disaster or migration.

South-Sudan-RFLIn South Sudan, Rob Donnellan, a field delegate with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), is responsible for trying to reunite families in Central Equatoria state.

“When you flee your house, it’s very easy to get separated from your family,” said the 31-year-old, from Wiltshire.

“In this day and age many people can’t even imagine what it would be like to lose contact with your family because we’re so interconnected to everybody all the time.

“We’re on Facebook, we’re on Twitter, we’re on WhatsApp… and so to lose contact with your family just seems essentially impossible.

“However, for many people here it’s a reality that they have absolutely no idea where their family are and in many instances, whether or not they’re alive.

“And so our work in restoring family links is absolutely crucial for these people because they do not have another method of contacting their family.”

Listen to the interview with Rob.

Searching for the missing

There are a number of different methods the Red Cross will use to try to reunite families, based on the level of information that can be provided by those in search of loved ones.

Sometimes, it’s simply a case of providing a phone so they can call their relatives. In areas with no mobile phone reception, this would be done via satellite phone.

If there’s an approximate address for the missing person/people, our staff or volunteers may use a Red Cross message, which would be sent to the recipient using staff and volunteers within the International Red Cross Red Crescent Movement.

South-Sudan-RFL-3“A volunteer or staff member of the South Sudan Red Cross will go to the actual village and find the house of the person in order to give them the message,” said Rob.

“If they’re successful, they will collect a reply and bring it back to the person in the camp.”

Finally, if the information provided is not so comprehensive, the search becomes more challenging and widespread.

“If they have no idea where [their family] are… then we would open what’s called a tracing case,” explained Rob, who is on a one-year deployment to South Sudan.

“With a tracing case, we take as much detail as possible, anything that could be relevant to us helping this person… Sometimes we get very sketchy information, they might only tell us the name of the tribe and where they were living before the conflict.

“So we’d have to look into multiple places and sometimes we would even consider things like radio announcements to broadcast the names and to try to find people in different areas.”

Success and failure

Tracing missing family members often transcends international borders, so searches are carried out in conjunction with the wider Movement. There are many cases in South Sudan that originate from the British Red Cross, for example.

However, despite the best efforts of all concerned, searches are not always successful. So when families are reunited, it provides a moment of joy to be cherished amid the suffering.

South-Sudan-RFL-4“We recently met with a grandmother up in the north of South Sudan,” recalled Rob.

“She was in a really poor condition. She didn’t have anybody to take care of her, she was blind, she was living outside, and she needed help quite desperately…

“We were able to contact her grandson here in Juba… so we managed to get them to talk by telephone and then the grandson agreed to receive the grandmother.”

Rob added: “It’s all about these successes. You have a mountain of cases stacking up and a lot of them are unsuccessful for one reason or another, that’s just part and parcel of protection work, you’re not going to be able to solve every case.

“But when you do have a good one, then it’s a great feeling and it’s kind of why you do this work.”

All images ©ICRC/JacobZocherman