Human Journalism – best articles from

by Juan Luis Sánchez / translation: Blanca García

  • A telecommunications NGO installs satellite phones for the refugees on the Libyan border
  • “In five days we’ve made more than 2000 calls possible”
  • Three minutes per person to calm the family down, ask for help, find a lost relative

You are Tunisian and you want to go back to your country. You are Egyptian and you want to get away from an imminent civil war. You are black and you are scared of the racist campaigns beginning to take shape. You are from Bangladesh and in your endless journey to Europe a revolution has exploded in your face. You are one of the hundreds of thousands of people who squeeze together in the Libyan border, trying to get out. You want to be one of the 140.000 that have already made it. But you’ve been trying for days… and it looks like it might take a while.

You can’t stop thinking: I should call home. Tell my parents, my siblings, my children that I’m fine. That this is slow, that we don’t have enough food or water, that we sleep out in the open, that the children’s cries resound everywhere… but that I’m alive. That I’m alive. You must be very scared when you watch TV or when you read what little comes out in the local newspaper. You should call home but you don’t have a phone; or its battery ran out and there’s not a free socket in many kilometers; or you lost it. Or you had to sell it.

Let’s drop the fiction, even if its just out of respect for the real stories, but let’s keep the feeling – the need to say “I’m alive” – to better understand the importance of, among all the chaos and in a situation that is already being defined as a humanitarian crisis, suddenly you see a hand-written sign on the hood of a car: “Call your family”. Free.

“In five days, we’ve made possible more than 2000 calls”, says Allan Sebastian, technician of the french NGO “Telecommunications Without Borders” (TSF), to whom that car with the sign belongs. He arrived on February 24 with three more colleagues and for 5 days they’ve been installing every morning two satellite telephone posts in the most crowded places: Ras el Jedir border checkpoint and Choucha refugee camp, the huge waiting room in this situation.

Each person has 3 minutes to make their call. “Most people use them to call their families”, says Allan, “and you hear them scream of happiness, cry. Many of them haven’t been able to speak to anyone in one or two weeks”

Allan has been especially moved by an Egyptian woman who arrived at the TSF car with her two children. “The younger one must have been around 2 years old, and the older around 8”. Her husband had died and she had started her journey towards the border with her kids and her sister, whom she lost in the crowd. “This woman had sold her phone and she didn’t have a way of finding her sister”. She finally did thanks to her free 3 minute phone call.

Another less usual case happened on the 25th. Two young men from Mali, Masi and Mohamed, went to the border without papers and without a passport. As we’ve said before, being black in Libya is right now a danger bonus after the rumors that speak of black Africans being hired as mercenaries by Gadafi’s regime. Masi and Mohamed were able to call Mali’s embassy in Tunisia and a couple of hours later a car arrived at the border to get them out of there and take them back to their country.

And like those, 700 stories every day. “More people come every day”, says Allan. The line around their car becomes longer every time. Most of the people, foreigners who were working in Libya permanently or as a stop on their way to Europe: from Mali, Ghana, Philippines, Somalia, Vietnam, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Korea, Morocco… “There are many from China too, but the Chinese government has set up their own attention and communication posts”, Allan tells us.

The Telecommunications Without Borders equipment, which has been in 60 countries since 1998, has been used these days to give a satellite internet connection to the humanitarian organizations working on site. ACNUR and Red Crescent personnel, as well as Tunisian doctors, have been able to coordinate their efforts thanks to the minutes of internet connection provided by TSF. Since Saturday, part of the refugee camp has satellite WiFi for emergency workers.