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Bearing bad news

By Amanda Williamson

The painstaking search for Bosnia's missing is now uncovering the truth. For the families it ends an agonising wait. They can mourn, some day accept it, and start the healing process. But reality is crippling, and those who bring the news share the psychological burden, tested to their professional and emotional limits.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Red Cross emblem is taking on a new connotation. For the families of the missing, the sight of it on their doorstep can mean news, the thing they want and dread most in life.

Slowly, the tracing process is finding answers for the families of more than 18,000 people reported missing on all sides of the Bosnian conflict. And, as it yields results, ICRC delegates are dealing with one of the most difficult tasks they can face – telling a mother, wife, or daughter that a man she loves is dead. It is a moment charged with emotions as families confront the horror of the reality of death, and the destruction of the hope which has sustained them for months.

ICRC stress management consult-ant, Barthold Bierens de Haan, describes a scene he says is typical of those now confronting delegates daily. The location is Tuzla, where many families of the missing are living, many of them from Srebrenica. A young woman who is searching for her husband is visited, and, as a delegate prepares her, explaining the tracing mechanisms, her face gradually falls. She balls up her fist and her breathing becomes more rapid.

The ICRC is now sure, she is told, and she suddenly turns pale. The tragic news of her husband’s death is then given, and the circumstances in which it occurred. She bursts into tears and buries her face in her skirt. Her mother-in-law, sitting on the ground at the delegate’s feet, so dignified before, rocks back and forth moaning. Soon all the women in the room are weeping.

“The shock and grief may come out in more violent and demonstrative ways,” says Bierens de Haan. “Some people scream or moan, others choke or faint, others still run from the room.”

The psychiatrist is now convinced that the work, although extremely difficult, is an important step in helping families begin the mourning process. The release of emotions can last many months before a kind of acceptance is reached.



Nothing more humanitarian

In Tuzla, the enormity of the responsibility so concerned sub-delegation head Florent Cornaz that he called in Geneva experts to help him find ways to ensure the work was approached as professionally as possible, and that his staff were protected from potential psychological consequences. “There is nothing more humanitarian,” he says, “than having to sit face to face with another human being, and deliver news of this enormity. It demands that we are at our most professional.”

Since the Dayton Agreement, which entrusted the ICRC with the issue, just over 18,000 have been registered by their families as missing in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Finding out what happened to them is principally down to a working group, set up and chaired by the ICRC, in which all three parties from the Bosnian conflict are supposedly compelled by Dayton – and international humanitarian law – to disclose any information they have about people killed by their side. So far, answers have been slow in coming. There are other sources. Individuals have responded to a worldwide ICRC campaign urging those who have information to come forward. At the time of writing, the fate of 1,000 men had been discovered. Only a handful were confirmed as still alive.

Any answers are double-checked against in-formation given by the families themselves be-fore a formal letter is drafted and delivered by delegates. The letter is essential: it may become an important document for social and legal benefits. It does not, of course, address the problem which the revelation brings – the right of the families to have the body returned, a question currently being tackled by the international community.

Psychological burden

The process exposes delegates to the full impact of human suffering, stripping away the protective shield that comes of avoiding emotional involvement. Here, the very essence of the work is compassion – delegates must forge a human connection, spend time, listen, even hug or hold hands. It exposes them to the necessary emotional and psychological burden which the sub-delegation in Tuzla has been at pains to tackle.

At the outset, a seminar was organised with leading psychiatrists, where expatriates were taught about mourning customs, and encouraged to explore their own feelings. In the wake of the first, sometimes shocking, experiences, the help of qualified local nurses was enlisted to deal with extreme reactions.

Teams now work in rotation, to avoid emotional burn-out, local staff are compelled to take time off in between, and expatriates are recruited from other offices. To limit possible damage, regular debriefings are held in which delegates share experiences. It means that new, effective ways can be found to deal with the unpredictable. As Florent Cornaz says, “You learn as you go along. You cannot write a guide book for something like this.”





Crippling reality

Despite the preparation, despite ending an agonising limbo, the news that a loved one is dead presents families with a crippling reality in which the ICRC and the international community can offer little comfort. Some women refuse to believe the news – their hope extinguishes rationale – and they find comfort in powerful rumours that their men are hidden in secret prisons. For all the ICRC’s constant work in following up these allegations, and finding nothing, the rumours keep hope alive, for the alternative is almost unbearable.

“Think of the women of Srebrenica,” says Cornaz. “They lost all touch with time, obsessed as they became with what happened in July 1995. The news forces the clock to start again. They have to confront a future without their menfolk, to accept an unwanted emancipation. They have to think about their lives as displaced people relying completely on outside help for survival, and of confronting their children who ask: ‘When is daddy coming home?’”

“For others it isn’t only the circumstances of losing a relative that they have to deal with, but the whole horror of what happened to them during the war. Some lost their homes four or five times, lived under siege in terrible
conditions, and went through many traumatising events. They are so vulnerable, which makes it absolutely essential for the ICRC to deal with what we do as sensitively as possible.”

It is pioneering work and the effects will not be known for a long time. As for the impact on delegates, Bierens de Haan says, “They will probably never be the same people again. It is normal in some ways to be hurt by an experience like this, but it is also a very important human lesson.”

Amanda Williamson
Amanda Williamson is an ICRC press officer.

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