Deliver to: David Rohde, c/o the Taliban, South Waziristan

How does the Red Cross send letters to hostages?

The Red Cross delivers aid in Samoa

New York Times reporter David Rohde has written a five-part account of his seven-month ordeal as a prisoner of the Taliban. In the third installment, published Monday, Rohde mentions that he and his fellow hostages received letters from their families through the International Red Cross. How does the Red Cross deliver letters to hostages?

With a two-page form. For the last nine decades, the International Committee of the Red Cross has hand-delivered messages to hostages, detainees, soldiers, and civilians living in war zones using an official form (PDF). (To get one, the family of a hostage can contact their national Red Cross or Red Crescent society.) On the front of the first page, senders must fill out permanent contact information, date of birth, and parents’ full names for both themselves and the recipient. On the back, they write out a personal message by hand, so the hostage knows it’s from his family. There are 18 lines, or enough space for about 300 words, if you’re writing very small. The author then indicates his relationship to the hostage at the bottom of the page, and signs and dates the form. A second page is left blank, for a reply from the captive that will also serve as proof of delivery. The two pages are joined along a perforated line, so the hostage can separate the original letter from the response. (Hostages have emerged from captivity with a treasured stack of Red Cross Page One’s.) The form is never sealed in an envelope, since the captors will be reviewing it for ideological messages or indications of espionage anyway. According to the form, only “family and/or private news” is allowed.

The International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva takes the message from the national society and attempts to deliver it to the hostage using its network of contacts. The organization knows people inside nearly every insurgency and terrorist group you can name, and communications often occur at a very high level. A senior official in Geneva can get a high-ranking member of the Taliban on the phone, for example, and work out a delivery route for the message. If it’s possible to hand off the letter in person, that’s the preferred means. Otherwise, the Red Cross will use intermediaries. When it comes to dealing with smaller, upstart groups, the organization establishes contact through one of its local chapters.

Despite its vast communication resources, the Red Cross refuses to act as a mediator in hostage negotiations, which might undermine its neutrality. Once the terms of release are established, however, the organization will participate in three-way negotiations over the logistics of the handover. They provide personnel for the exchange and obtain promises from the local government that planes will not fly over the drop-off location during the release. The hostage must personally agree to his or her ultimate destination.

The Red Cross burnishes its reputation for trustworthiness by holding get-togethers with rebel groups—anything from formal meetings with regional commanders to tea with small-time insurgents. The organization also has special status under international humanitarian law. Their workers are protected under the Geneva Conventions, and it is illegal to misuse the famous red cross emblem. (The Colombian government recently violated this provision by displaying the cross during an armed hostage rescue operation.)

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Explainer thanks Bernard Barrett and Simon Schorno of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Thanks also to reader Guy Maxtone-Graham for asking the question.