Hotline helps Ethiopians separated by conflict stay in touch

A shack covered by plastic in Sudan’s Hamdayit refugee centre has become a source of smiles, sighs and tears for Ethiopian refugees, thanks to a hotline set up to trace relatives.

Like many who fled the conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, Nassant Sio came to the ramshackle shanty town to try and contact loved ones left behind or separated in the scramble to flee.

“I spoke to her and she is well,” Sio said of her mother, as tears rolled down her face.

“And I reassured her about our fate,” added the 33-year-old woman who fled the border town of Humera with her husband.

A sign outside the shack reads in English “restoring family links”.

The phone and message service has been set up by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent.

More than 43,000 refugees have crossed into Sudan since fighting broke out in Tigray on November 4, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said as he visited Sudanese camps this week.

The Hamdayit transit centre is crammed with some 30,000 refugees, most of whom fled with a few belongings and the clothes on their backs.

And in the chaos of trekking for hours in the blazing sun or crossing a river on makeshift boats, many families were separated.

The hotline and message service has been in strong demand.

Ten Ethiopian refugees surrounded an ICRC delegate seeking news of a family member one recent day.

The delegate sat on the ground, a translator at his side, typing a message on a computer that would be sent to headquarters in Geneva.

From there the message requesting information about someone left behind in Tigray or lost on the way to Sudan is then relayed to another ICRC delegation closer to where those people may be.

“Yesterday I sent out 90 messages,” the ICRC employee said, declining to be identified.

– ‘No news of her’ –

Burhani Gebermakel, a 50-year-old farmer, is distraught.

He fled Humera alone — while his wife, his daughter, his son and his daughter-in-law were in Maygaba in the western part of Tigray.

Gebermakel has not heard from them since.

“I don’t want to send a message. I want to speak to them on the phone. I want to hear their voices. That will reassure me and I will know they are still alive,” he said.

But telecommunications with Tigray are cut.

Inside the shack, two cell phones are placed on a small table.

Red Crescent workers tirelessly tap in numbers for Ethiopians who have relatives outside Tigray.

One woman asked to place a call to Addis Ababa, speaking quickly to a relative to say she is safe in Sudan and asking that the rest of the family be informed.

“This way they will know that I am alive, here in Hamdayit,” she said.

The calls are free but limited to three minutes only, to give everyone a chance to get in touch with a loved one.

But not everyone is lucky enough to be able to make calls.

That’s the case for Tasagi Gazdeher, who has had no news of her mother for 18 days.

“I came from Humera and my mother lives in Burhat. It is not far but it is impossible to communicate because both towns are in Tigray,” Gazdeher said.

The 31-year-old said he sent her mother a message but has not received any replies yet.

“I have had no news of her. I wrote to her to say I was safe and sound, and I also gave her my Sudanese (cell phone) number.

“I hope she will receive the message. I need to feel reassured and she does too,” she added.

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