LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
What would you say to someone you hadn't spoken to in years if you had only three minutes? We follow that question to South Sudan, where 2 million people have been displaced by a civil conflict that began in December 2013. The International Committee of the Red Cross is helping people trace their relatives and giving them three minutes of cell phone time to talk. We gave our East Africa correspondent, Gregory Warner, the next three minutes to tell us about it.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Imagine you hadn't been able to talk to your brother in two years, and when you finally reached him, you got this.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The Thuraya phone you are calling cannot be reached at the moment. Please try again later. (Speaking Arabic).
WARNER: Chan Majok, age 32, scowls at the phone under a Red Cross tent in the U.N. camp in the capital, Juba. It took the International Community of the Red Cross, ICRC, a month to arrange this call after Majok found his photo in a Red Cross booklet of faces. Majok's eldest daughter, age 12, is living with this brother. She hasn't spoken to her since they were separated in the fighting.
CHAN MAJOK: Hello?
WARNER: On her second try, she does connect - but only for a moment.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The network is not good.
WARNER: The ICRC is using satellite phones because the government has cut off cell phone service to the northern county of Unity State to foil rebel forces. ICRC field officer Nour Basonugo Hussein says they also have to monitor each call for forbidden topics.
MOUR BASONUGO HUSSEIN: Like the security situations, the political situations - no, no, no.
WARNER: Like I was attacked in this village?
HUSSEIN: No, no, no.
WARNER: My family was killed?
HUSSEIN: No, by this tribe or other tribes - no, no, no.
WARNER: Are you allowed to say that you lost people?
HUSSEIN: Yes, yes.
WARNER: The rest is between the lines. Sometimes, a program meant to close the distance between families can seem to increase at. Nyakueth Kuong scheduled this call with her husband. She hasn't spoken to him since she fled to this camp in February. No one could explain why the call went unanswered.
PETER TEAK MOK BOAR: (Foreign language spoken).
WARNER: Another caller, Peter Teak Mok Boar, does manage to reach his wife in the village of Ayut. But she and the children say they're desperate for basics - clothes, school fees, electricity. The conflict has disrupted planting cycles, and government soldiers and their allied militias have even stolen people's goats and cows.
BOAR: (Foreign language spoken).
WARNER: He had a good job before the war. He was an oil company driver in the capital, sending money back home. Now he's too upset to notice the Red Cross volunteer frantically pointing to his wrist. His three minutes end mid-sentence.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Time over.
WARNER: Time over?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Three minutes strictly.
WARNER: Three minutes only.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Only.
WARNER: The time limit is so everyone can get their turn, which Chan Majok, the woman from before, returns to do. She makes one last attempt to get news of her eldest daughter.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE STATIC)
WARNER: And then, through the static...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Hello.
WARNER: ...Her brother's voice.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Hello? Hello?
WARNER: Her daughter, he tells her, is fine. The family is fine. Chan is now beaming, one hand covering her splayed teeth. She even manages to slip in her goodbye just microseconds before the cutoff. I, meanwhile, am three seconds over my three-minute window. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Juba.
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