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
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
Virginie Miranda is part of ICRC audio/visual production unit.
Top | Contact
Us | Credits | Previous
issue | Webmaster
© 2003| Copyright