Back to Magazine

The Missing
the right to know

by Virginie Miranda

For the families of the missing any news is good news. In every corner of the globe. They tell of the pain and suffering, their only wish to know the truth. Presented under the motto of "Protecting Human Dignity", the issue of the missing will be high on the agenda of the next International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in November 2003.

Forensic experts trying to identify mortal remains in Vukovar, Croatia.

For more than 20 years, Uma Aziz has been waiting, waiting for her four sons to come home. The last time she saw them, they were 13, 21, 23 and 30 years old when, as refugees in Bir Hassan in Lebanon, they were forcibly abducted one day by armed men. With the passing years, the hope of receiving news of them has slowly become tinged with sorrow gradually turning to anger. "My life has been ruined. Not a single day passes without me thinking of them," she sobs, kissing their photos. "Even if one of them is dead, let them give me his body. If they are in prison, let me visit them. The worst is not knowing. If I knew what had happened to them, I could bear it.

"Like many others, Uma Aziz's sons are people unaccounted for as a result of armed conflict or internal violence. When the death of a soldier goes unrecorded, when the dead are mutilated, burned or abandoned, when prisoners are secretly detained or eliminated, when internally displaced people or refugees lose contact with their next of kin, when people disappear without trace all of these are "the missing".

No stone unturned

While each case may differ in the detail, onecommon thread remains: the all-consuming need of the families to know what happened to their loved ones. Tracing methods exist, but the work involved is enormous. An eyewitness account, a photo of a child stuck on a wall, a name read out on the radio, a television appeal: the ICRC and the National Societies use every means at their disposal to assist the families in their quest for answers, mobilizing the global network and expertise of the Central Tracing Agency. As soon as a request is submitted to a National Society's tracing service or to the ICRC, the search begins. Lists of refugees, displaced people and detainees are scrutinized, neighbours and villagers interviewed, hospitals and morgues visited. When, at times, good news arrives, the members of a separated family can at last be reunited.

But for the others, the search goes on, as Valeri Sergeevic Lagvilava knows only too well. He has lost count of the approaches he has made to numerous institutions in his efforts to find his eldest son Vadim, who disappeared in March 1993. At the moment when all trace of him was lost, Vadim was a young man of 23 enlisted in the Abkhaz forces and wounded in combat against the Georgian regular forces. Despite several sightings indicating that Vadim had spent time in prison, his name did not figure on any detainee register. "Some were registered, others not," was the terse response. When Valeri received a list of Abkhaz soldiers identified as dead, including his son, he was sceptical. "There were three or four other people on the list still alive." When a grave was excavated, Valeri was there to examine the 120 exhumed bodies one by one, "I'd recognize even the buttons on my son's clothes, for it was me who gave them to him!" His mother adds, "We would like to see him alive or know where he is buried, but I am afraid to know the truth."


An unbearable absence

Visaka Dharmadasa, for her part, has not seen her son since 1998. The young Sri Lankan soldier was 21 years old when he fell into rebel hands. "When a person dies, you bury them," explains Visaka. "You try to grieve, and then get on with life. When someone disappears, you undergo a kind of psychological torture. You can think of nothing else." She continues to believe, despite the years, that her son is alive. With time, the pain of absence gets worse and the wound begins to fester. A woman of determination, Visaka Dharmadasa is president of the association, "Parents of servicemen missing in action", which offers support and advice to the families concerned.

The problems facing the relatives of the missing vary from country to country, depending on local culture and customs. In certain societies, such as in Sri Lanka, when a wife has to assume the role of head of household, in addition to the financial or material difficulties she may face, she can be spurned by her family or in-laws for, according to popular belief, the "widow" is a harbinger of bad luck and as such risks rejection by the community.

More generally, "widows" suffer on account of their ill-defined status and often encounter problems of inheritance or access to a missing husband's property. It can also happen that the wife and children are obliged to live with the missing person's family, sometimes against their will. And without knowing what has become of her husband, a wife cannot even consider remarrying.

The missing: an open wound

It is very difficult to quantify precisely the number of missing people, but estimates suggest it is considerable. In the former Yugoslavia, the number from recent conflicts is estimated at 17,000; in Peru, 20,000; and in Rwanda, 270,000.

The right of the families to know the fate of their missing relatives is a fundamental tenet of international humanitarian law, for which the ICRC strives to ensure respect. In order to best accomplish the huge amount of work involved in tracing missing people, the ICRC undertook a series of consultations among its staff and experts from a variety of milieux: governments, armed forces and national and international organizations, as well as National Societies.

This process, begun in June 2001, provided the substance for an international conference which met in Geneva from 19 to 21 February 2003, attended by around 350 governmental and non-governmental experts representing more than 90 countries. Ultimately, it is hoped that this joint action will help to shed light on the fate of the countless missing persons and alleviate the suffering of their families.

A chance to grieve?

As the years go by, the hope of finding a missing loved one fades away. In some cases, the circumstances of a disappearance leave little cause for optimism. But without a body, it is difficult to go through the grieving process. Many are the unidentified corpses and deaths not officially announced. The families of these perpetual absentees must then decide on which path to follow in order to achieve peace of mind and come to terms with the past.

Against the verdant backdrop of south-west Rwanda, Esther Mujawayo Keiner indicates where the victims of the massacre in which her husband died are buried. A few metres further along four long mass graves contain the bodies of those who perished in the genocide. Esther stops at the third grave and whispers: "My children and I have chosen the left corner of this grave as my husband's. Here is where we lay flowers, every year on 30 April." She adds: "It really helps to have a tangible and symbolic place." Esther lost 21 members of her family in the Rwandan conflict and she has not yet been able to identify and bury them all. "I would like to say goodbye to each and every one of them."

Virginie Miranda
Virginie Miranda is part of ICRC audio/visual production unit.

Top | Contact Us | Credits | Previous issue | Webmaster

2003| Copyright