New refugee aid worker: cell phone

Technology speeds unification of families who have been separated in

In a stuffy tent in northern Macedonia, a half-dozen Kosovar Albanians are yelling into mobile phones, one hand cupped over one ear. Another 100 Albanians patiently await their turn.

One of the callers is Antigona. She's on the phone to Albania, where she's finally tracked down her aunt and uncle. During the chaos of NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia and Serbian "ethnic cleansing," the couple were separated from their four children. So the kids fled Kosovo with Antigona's family.

Now, after a series of calls between relief officials and refugee camps in Macedonia and Albania, a family reunion is in the works in two of Europe's poorest countries.

"I've never been in a refugee situation in an area where there was a cellular phone network," says Mike Aaronson, director general of London-based Save the Children, who has also worked in Iraq, Ethiopia, and Sri Lanka. "It's surreal."

Mass expulsions, as seasoned relief officials point out, usually happen in the third world, where the communication infrastructure is typically dismal. Having such barbarism occur in an otherwise modern Europe, paradoxically, has at least one upside: use of that most modern, most convenient of communication devices.

With Kosovo, mobile phones are indeed expediting the task of reuniting lost children with their parents. Sure, some efforts are still plagued by bureaucracy and miscommunication, say relief officials. But mobiles, despite aggravating busy signals and fickle connections, enable the various "tracing" agencies to overcome their primary challenge in the Kosovo crisis: refugees scattered across several borders.

Less successful has been an attempt to take family tracing to the next level: the World Wide Web. A Macedonian group has created an ambitious Web site for the thousands of Albanian families searching for missing relatives. It may be useful for notifying the Albanian diaspora, but for the hundreds of thousands of refugees living under tents - or in the mud - accessing the Internet sounds, well, a bit odd.

Still, this is a far cry from the Rwanda genocide of 1994, which set the modern-day standard for handling refugee crises.

As many as 1 million perished, and, in many cases, a single child survived while dozens of his relatives had been killed. Western relief officials there compiled a databank of a staggering 80,000 "unaccompanied" children. But they relied on old-fashioned methods to gather and disseminate information about the kids: walkie-talkies, bullhorns, photo displays, fliers, and mass gatherings. Westerners spent two years in Rwanda working their way through the caseload.

The Kosovo numbers pale in comparison. Since the NATO bombardment began March 24, more than 600,000 ethnic Albanians have reportedly been uprooted. It's unclear how many lost children or missing adults there are overall. But in Macedonia, for example, where the UN estimates 133,000 refugees have landed, Save the Children has recorded, as of last Wednesday, 892 adults looking for children and 281 kids looking for parents.

Unlike Rwanda, you don't have scores of children wandering around alone, says Simon Harragin, Save the Children's family-tracing coordinator and a veteran of the relief efforts in Rwanda and Zaire. With such relatively manageable numbers, tracing officers can go tent to tent, investigating an individual's whereabouts.

UESTIONING friends and neighbors - learning the context - was a key lesson learned in Rwanda, Mr. Harragin says. "There was a tendency to pick up a kid from the side of a road, take them out of the conflict, and put a nice, institutional roof over their head," he says, noting the vast numbers of orphanages built to accommodate them. "But that's not the best solution. You need to find a parent, or a relative, because that's for the rest of their lives."

The Kosovo situation is unique in that virtually all its 2 million Albanians have family in Albania or Macedonia. At some camps, relatives are visiting, meeting with friends and family, and using the informal community network to search for others. It helps that some refugees actually brought their mobile phones with them.

"They're doing most of their own spadework," Harragin says. "We're just facilitating." He says a dozen or so cases have been closed so far, with the families reunited and the paperwork filed.

To speed up the process, there is talk of using Albanian-language media, such as radio and newspapers. One Albanian newspaper already distributed free in the camps may soon include fliers with names of the missing or "unaccompanied." Likewise, radios may be passed out in the camps, with Albanian-language broadcasts of lists of names. The BBC provided a similar service during the Bosnian conflict.

Still, there will be the occasional glitch in tracing, especially this early in the conflict. With so many international agencies out in the field, they say there's bound to be overlap and duplication. CARE, for example, brought together a deaf-mute boy with his mother last week after they'd been separated and sent to different camps. But in a second case, they discovered the family had already been reunited.

"Of course we're very happy about the reunification, that goes without saying," said Melissa Ward, CARE's international program manager. "But we're a bit concerned that we had crossed wires...."

Nevertheless, you likely won't hear the Albanian refugees complaining about too many chefs in the kitchen.

Back at the Brazde Camp, Antigona's cousins excitedly wait to see their parents, who are being sheltered in a private home in the Albanian city of Durres. Eight-year-old Njomza doesn't mind that she, her three siblings, and six other relatives have been crammed together in a tent for two weeks.

"My aunt is like my second mother," she says. "But I will be very happy to see my real mother."

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