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.