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“In the middle of the night, the soldiers came. They took away the men — father, son or husband — and vanished into the deserted streets, their destination unknown.” This extract from a letter written by lawyers Jacques Vergès and Michel Zavrian to the president of the ICRC in 1958 relates to disappearances at the height of the Algerian war of independence. Sadly, it also tells a universal story: that of the people who have gone missing during armed conflict or situations of internal violence. Are they alive or dead? For the families, the most pressing need is to know what happened to their loved ones. The wait is endless, the anguish bottomless. It is the uncertainty that is hardest to bear.

In the field, the quest for answers is often uphill work, requiring sensitivity and patience. Frequently aided by the National Society concerned, the ICRC endeavours to shed light on the thousands of unresolved cases of missing people on every continent. It does so first and foremost through dialogue with all the parties to the conflict, starting with the authorities. Although the work of clarification is severely impeded by the code of silence that often prevails in such cases, every now and then answers emerge and can be communicated to the families. Their right to know must be respected.

Jean-François Berger
ICRC editor

Rosemarie North
International Federation editor

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