Conflict & Justice

A BBC program is reuniting Somali families torn apart by conflict


Internally displaced Somalians gather outside their makeshift shelters in the Hodan district in southern Mogadishu to listen to proceedings from a 2012 parliamentary election.


Feisal Omar/Reuters

It’s 2 p.m. on a boring weekday afternoon and you need distraction. You turn on the radio, and what do you get?

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In the US, you might get music or local news (or, if you're really lucky, something from PRI). But in Somalia, if you tune into the BBC’s Somali radio service, you'll get something very different: An announcer slowly reading a list of names, ages and places.

There is no music and very little explanation. But if you're a regular listener, you know exactly what is happening and why it could change lives.

For more than a decade, the BBC Somali service has partnered with the Red Cross to air "Baa Fin" — or "Missing Persons." It's a daily show dedicated to reuniting some of the millions of Somalis who have lost touch with loved ones in the country’s civil war.

It seems to be an approach that works. While the exact number of success stories is hard to calculate, the ICRC estimates that 300 people were reunited through the service in 2012 alone — an average of almost one person per episode.

Baa Fin is particularly important because it's a radio show. In Somalia, radio is by far the most influential source of information.

"The Internet is not accessible in most of the Horn of Africa, and it’s not accessible in refugee camps," explains Muhammed Ali, a former presenter and current producer for the show. "And publication of newspapers requires literacy. Many people can’t read or write, so radio becomes the medium that can cut across these barriers."

So Baa Fin offers a service that's still badly needed. Somalia remains one of the world’s few truly failed states, and, since the early 1990s, a huge number of people have been displaced or fled to neighboring countries by the fighting. In the chaos, many families have been separated.

The show is a deceptively simple attempt to solve that problem. Loved ones provide short, simple descriptions of missing people, and the show airs them together with a contact number for an office of the International Committee of the Red Cross. People can then call in if they have any information.

The ICRC also actively seeks out people who may have given up searching on their own. Their staff members visit people in their homes to take information and descriptions and pass them on to the BBC.

This week, for example, one show focused on the town of Merca. It featured a request from Noonoo Hasan for any information about his sister, Balkissa Hasan, who was last heard from in California.

But, perhaps surprisingly, there are no efforts to create human interest stories from the program. Baa Fin has no time for interviewing reunited couples and long lost brothers — there are simply too many names to read.