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The Missing:
a hidden Tragedy


Uncertainty about the fate of their loved ones is a harsh reality for countless families of people unaccounted for as a result of armed conflict or internal violence. Much remains to be done to address this pressing humanitarian issue and to help families cope with the trauma.


The last time Guliko Ekizashvili saw her son Besarioni was nearly 15 years ago, when he went to join the war in Abkhazia. In her modest home on the outskirts of Tbilisi, Georgia, one wall is covered with pictures of the handsome young man with dark wavy hair and an intense regard who disappeared from her life a few weeks before his 22nd birthday. “He told me ‘I have to fight for my country’,” she recalls.

Eleven days after he left for the breakaway republic of Abkhazia, his parents were informed that most of his battalion had been killed, and that he was in hospital with an injured knee. They took a plane to see him, but he wasn’t there. Ekizashvili’s husband joined the fighting while she set out on foot, looking at corpses in the forest and walking from village to village showing his picture. She slept on benches in bus stops, eating fruit from trees. “There was a rumour that some men were thrown over a cliff in Tsugurovka. It’s the only place I wasn’t able to go,” she says. Eventually she had to return to Tbilisi, but she never gave up hope. “Just before my husband died seven years ago, he was slipping in and out of consciousness and suddenly he said, ‘I see my son, he’s alive.’ ‘Where is he?’ I asked, but he couldn’t answer.” She breaks off in sobs, her suffering as deep today as it ever was.

Around the world, there are countless stories like hers, of people whose family members have gone missing without a trace during wars (see box. The victims, civilians or military, might be murdered during mass executions and thrown into unmarked graves, as happened so often in the Balkans. They could be arrested at home or abducted off the street. Some disappear while fleeing combat or become separated from their families. They might be held in a secret location or killed in custody. Many are fallen soldiers, their bodies simply abandoned on the battlefield.

Doubts and hope

It’s a tragedy for the person who disappears, but it’s a never-ending torture for the families left behind, suspecting their loved ones are dead yet unable to mourn without any proof, hoping against hope for a miracle — a secret prison or a new life in a foreign land. Many spend years, and their life savings, in a futile search. The pain may be compounded by poverty, as it is often the household breadwinners who go missing, their wives and mothers left to support the family. Many of their children are forced to drop out of school. Furthermore, the situation is often a bureaucratic nightmare, since some countries allow years to pass before declaring a person officially dead or absent. In the meantime, family members are unable to claim their inheritance, sell property, remarry or simply hold funeral rites.

It is clearly stated in the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols that it is forbidden to make people disappear, and the next-of-kin must be informed about a captured, wounded or deceased relative without delay. Nonetheless, the occurrence is as old as war itself. “For a long time, people looked at the issue as totally hopeless,” says Pierre Krähenbühl, the director of operations for the ICRC in Geneva. This mentality changed in the 1990s when Yugoslavia imploded and more than 20,000 people disappeared in Europe’s backyard; their families reacted with unexpected force. In 2003 the ICRC hosted an exceptional conference in Geneva that brought together governmental and non-governmental experts from around the world, reaffirming that people have the right to know the fate of their loved ones.

But what concrete measures can actually be taken on the ground? Action starts with prevention. In an international war, bureaus must be established on either side to furnish information about detainees or the deceased, and to return human remains. The most vulnerable civilians can be registered. Soldiers are encouraged to wear identity tags.

If somebody goes missing, the ICRC and National Societies have a system of tracing requests that family members can fill out with the person’s identity, circumstances of their disappearance, eyewitnesses, and as many other details as possible. This information is submitted to the parties to the conflict, and also used during prison visits. When a detainee is identified, it may make the difference between life and death. “From the momentthey’re registered, it’s much less likely they’ll be executed,” says Krähenbühl.

The Nepal file

Tracing efforts and registering of prisoners were a relative success in Nepal, where civilians were caught up in a bloody ten-year insurgency pitting Maoist rebels against government forces. Many villagers were captured or arrested, and the ICRC visited nearly 7,000 detainees. “Most of them survived,” says Jean-Paul Corboz, the protection coordinator in Kathmandu.

And yet today, more than a year after a still shaky peace agreement was signed, nearly 1,000 Nepalese people are still missing. Close to a quarter of these disappeared in the impoverished rural Bardiya district. One day last spring in the village of Baidi, an hour’s drive from Nepalgunj on a road filled with bicycles, stray cows and pedestrians walking in the suffocating heat, a dozen people, mostly women, gathered to tell their stories for the umpteenth time, each time hoping it would make a difference. Their tales were variations on the same heartbreaking theme: they — the army or the rebels — came to my house in the middle of the night, calling my husband’s name. They beat him and took him away. I begged them to take me instead, so someone could provide for our children. That was the last time I ever saw him.

From the Balkans to northern Caucasus via Baghdad

The 1990s were marked by the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, during which thousands of people disappeared. To this day, the ICRC can list more than 17,000 people who are still registered as missing from those conflicts. In Croatia, more than 2,500 people remain unaccounted for following the armed conflicts between 1991 and 1995. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, more than ten years after the end of the war, the fate of more than 14,000 people has still not been clarified, 5,500 of whom went missing in Srebrenica. In Kosovo, 2,047 people from all the communities have been reported missing by their families. As is also the case for Bosnia and Herzegovina, their names are listed in a Book of the Missing, which is widely distributed in the region, and can be found on the web site:

“Obtaining answers from the authorities for the families of the missing presupposes a strong political will which is often lacking, mainly owing to fear of legal proceedings and the necessity of putting security and political stability before the right of the families to know what happened to their loved ones,” says Bertrand Kern, the ICRC person responsible for facilitating dialogue between the authorities in Belgrade and Pristina on missing people in Kosovo.

According to official Iraqi sources, between 375,000 and 1 million people are still unaccounted for from the Iran–Iraq war (1980–1988). Since the war in Iraq in 2003, tens of thousands of people have been seeking family members. Between 2006 and June 2007, some 20,000 bodies were deposited at the Medico-Legal Institute in Baghdad, less than half of whom have been identified. Unclaimed bodies are buried in various cemeteries around the city.

In January, the ICRC president, Jakob Kellenberger, appealed to Russian authorities to support the work to discover the fate of some 1,200 people who have disappeared in wartorn north Caucasus, in particular in Chechnya, since 1999.

In a poverty-ridden country, these are the poorest of the poor. And in almost every case it was the family breadwinner who disappeared. A young woman named Sabita Nepali watched as a group of men dragged her husband into the jungle blindfolded, arms tied to a stick, battered so badly he could barely walk. Traumatized, she says her body stopped producing milk and her baby son died of starvation. She now lives in a dirt shack with her mother and one remaining child.

In Kathmandu, the ICRC is doing its utmost to obtain answers and compensation for people like her, but it’s a long, slow process of negotiations. Delegates strive to make authorities and security forces aware of international humanitarian law. In June 2007, the Nepalese government established a Commission on Missing Persons which still needs to be adjusted to international legal standard.

Slowly but not surely

The conflict between Georgia and Abkhazia flared up in 1992, ending in a ceasefire in 1993. The peace is fragile, the hostilities not truly resolved. Today there are an estimated 1,800 Georgians and 135 Abkhazians missing, half military and half civilian. Practically all the human remains are believed to be on Abkhaz territory, where the fighting took place. But where exactly the bodies lay is the question now. Each side has a missing commission but they barely communicate, and no cases will be solved until both parties agree to share information on where the grave sites are.

In Georgia, most of the missing people are sons, not husbands, and it’s especially difficult to accept the death of a child. Keti Apridonidze, who works in the Tbilisi office of the ICRC, recalls one time when she accompanied 20 families to pray. “In the Orthodox church there are two places where you light candles, depending on whether a person is alive or dead. Half of the group lit candles at the place for the dead, and half went to the place for the living.”

It has come to a point where most are probably dead. The ICRC is coaxing the authorities from both sides to negotiate, and preparing the groundwork for an eventual breakthrough on exhumations. It has financed the collection of ante-mortem data from the families, to be compared to post-mortem data when bodies come out of the ground and it conducts training sessions for local forensic specialists.

It is a slow process. But it is crucial to persevere, to bring some sort of closure to people like Guliko Ekizashvili, who admits her main goal in life now is to go back to Abkhazia, to the bottom of that cliff in Tsugurovka. “Even if I find a skeleton I don’t care,” she says sadly. “I just want my son back.”

Fifteen years after the conflict between Georgia and the breakaway republic of Abkhazia, 1,800 Georgians and 135 Abkhazians remain missing.



The agony of uncertainty

Time passes but there is no end to the pain of countless relatives of the missing across the globe. The ICRC, often in cooperation with the National Society concerned, is currently working on the issue in dozens of countries on all continents, including: Africa: Angola, Côte d’Ivoire, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Namibia, Somalia, Sudan and Zimbabwe. Asia and the Pacific: Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka and Timor-Leste. Europe: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Cyprus, The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Russian Federation, Georgia and Serbia (Kosovo). Americas: Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Haiti and Peru. Middle East and North Africa: Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait and Morocco.

During the 30th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, held in Geneva from 26 to 30 November 2007, the participants adopted Resolution No. 3 entitled “Reaffirmation and Implementation of International Humanitarian Law: Preserving Human Life and Dignity in Armed Conflict”. The resolution specifically recalls the prohibition of enforced disappearance and the right of all persons deprived of their freedom in relation to armed conflict to enjoy the fundamental guarantees established by international humanitarian law. Behind these provisions, thousands of lives are at stake.


Relatives of people missing from Srebrenica search for evidence in the ICRC Book of Belongings.



A Nepalese family receiving news through the Nepal Red Cross from a relative missing for over a year and a half.



This poster was produced for the first edition of the Book of the Missing in Croatia (1991–1995) by the ICRC and the then Red Cross of Serbia and Montenegro.



Posters of unaccompanied minors were displayed in many camps and villages of Darfur.



A lifeline for families separated by war, migration or disaster

For most people, keeping close ties with their families and knowing where and how they are is essential to their well-being. In armed conflict, situations of violence, migration or natural disaster, those ties can be brutally severed, scattering family members and leaving them bereft of contact or news of each other. The Movement does all it can to assist people in this predicament through its unique Restoring Family Links service. This consists of a range of activities that aim to prevent separation and disappearance, to restore and maintain contact between dispersed family members and to shed light on the fate of people who have gone missing. These activities are often backed up by psychological, legal and material support to the affected families, by resettlement and reintegration programmes, and by social protection services.

Other activities involve the proper handling and medico-legal identification of human remains. In the immediate aftermath of the South Asian tsunami in 2004, for example, the Indonesian Red Cross Society recovered 60,000 bodies, while its volunteers and ICRC delegates trawled the camps
for displaced people, registering “I am alive” messages. In tandem, all data collected on missing persons and survivors were published on a web site created for this purpose.

Amy Serafin
Amy Serafin is a freelance writer based in Paris.

Sombre Return

After decades of agonized waiting, familes in Cyprus are starting to receive the remains of their missing loved ones.

The woman bends forward and lowers her voice as she addresses her husband, whom she has not seen for more than 30 years. “You have come back to us. We have been expecting you.”

There is no response, and no expectation of one. The woman is talking to the skeletal remains of someone who was killed in 1974 during one of the vicious bouts of violence that has wracked Cyprus in the past half-century.

She leans forward, kisses the skull and calls her three sons, all aged about 40, to gather round. The normally stoic men are weeping openly.

This emotional reunion took place in July 2007 at a laboratory in Nicosia, in the United Nations-controlled buffer zone along the ‘green line’ dividing the island.

It followed the first return of human remains to families resulting from the work of the UN-sponsored Committee on Missing Persons (CMP). The CMP has a list of almost 2,000 missing people — 502 Turkish Cypriots and 1,493 Greek Cypriots. Several hundred of them disappeared in 1963–1964, during inter-communal violence; the others in 1974, after the Turkish military intervention.

That violence has stopped but, according to the UN, mistrust and animosity persist between the island’s communities and no significant progress has been made towards a political settlement.

The CMP was created in 1981 by an agreement between the two sides under the auspices of the UN. It comprises one member from each community and a third appointed by the UN secretary-general. Its sole task is to establish the fate of missing people from those troubled years.

But for two decades, with scant political support from the authorities on either side, it produced only lists of people unaccounted for and rules of procedure.

“The political will has changed,” says Ahmet Erdengiz, a senior official in the Turkish Cypriot administration and assistant to his community’s official CMP member. “The work done since 1981 was arduous and necessary, but produced no action on the ground.”

Things improved after the intervention of Kofi Annan in 2004. Since then the CMP has established a project for locating, exhuming and identifying the remains of the missing, and returning them to their families. By mid-February, the remains of 379 people have been exhumed around the island. Of these, 83 have been formally identified and 70 were returned to their families for burial.

Kudret Özersay recently received the remains of his father, Hüseyin, who was taken prisoner after clashes in his village in 1974. Özersay was just a few months old.

“There were clashes between Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot groups in our village,” he says. Hüseyin and five others were reportedly captured and were never seen again.

Özersay’s mother moved with her three children to the north, all the time desperately hoping for news — perhaps her husband was still a prisoner. But after the CMP began its investigations, news of a mass grave near their village was confirmed and hope faded.

Following formal identification by the CMP’s scientists, Özersay went to view his father’s remains. “It was amazing,” he says. “For the first time in my life I pronounced the word ‘Dad’…”

Panayiotis Hadjipandeli, an official of the Orthodox church, last saw his father just before he was detained, after Turkish forces surrounded their village in north-eastern Cyprus. A mass grave was opened nearby in 2005 and the father’s remains were among several bodies exhumed. Identification was completed in 2007.

“Since we buried my father, we have a sense of relief because we know his fate,” says Hadjipandeli. “Now we go every day to his grave and light a candle.”

The need to give the dead a decent burial is strong in both communities. And there is an acknowledgement that families on both sides experience the same pain and grief.

“We have psychologists working with both communities, helping families to ease their distress,” says Christophe Girod, the ‘third member’ of the CMP and a former senior ICRC delegate. “It is very emotional — after being told their husband has been identified, some widows ask ‘What will be the purpose of my life now?’.”

Since 2004, the CMP has become determinedly operational. Grave sites have been mapped; witnesses — who remain anonymous — interviewed; bi-communal teams of scientists, helped by experts from Argentina,* have been painstakingly excavating graves and exhuming remains.

Bones are transferred to the CMP’s anthropological laboratory in Nicosia for tentative identification. DNA samples are analysed, to find a match with the families’ DNA. Medical institutions in both the north and the south have been involved in the process, but the final results are authenticated at the Cyprus Institute of Neurology and Genetics in Nicosia.

As the process gathers pace, and results are made public, more witnesses are coming forward — a crucial element, given that many of them are approaching old age.

The CMP’s mission excludes any criminal investigations, in order to focus on its humanitarian role. The issue of the missing has been discussed at the European Court of Human Rights but some Cypriots fear that legal action could inflame communal passions and put the CMP’s work at risk.

This is particularly sensitive because the project is hailed as an example of how people from both sides can work together. There is also a feeling that the project remains vulnerable to any possible changes in the political climate.

The families insist that the work must continue. One Greek Cypriot close to the families says that people on both sides have the right to know the truth about what happened.

There is also a demand for the past not to be forgotten. “We must tell our children the truth,” says a Turkish Cypriot. “Even if we don’t like it, this is part of the island’s history.”


Grief is a uniting factor for families on both sides of the Cypriot dividing line.






A long waiting list

In the 1960s and 1970s, ICRC staff in Cyprus were overwhelmed with requests from families desperate to know what had happened to their loved ones. In 1974, together with the Cyprus Red Cross, the ICRC handled mountains of Red Cross messages and tracing requests — some 50,000 in August alone. Through its visits to villages and places of detention and its daily radio broadcasts of names, many families obtained news of their loved ones. The ICRC continues to support efforts to establish the fate of the missing through advice and training by its own forensic specialists. The Committee on Missing Persons’ ‘third member’ is always proposed by the ICRC, for appointment by the UN secretary-general.





©Turgut Vehbi



The Red Cross in Cyprus

The Cyprus Red Cross Society was established under national legislation, but had not been recognized or admitted to the Movement at the time of the Turkish intervention in 1974. Since then, it has been unable to extend its activities throughout the country and a Red Crescent group was formed in the north. The Cyprus Red Cross Society does, however, work as actively as it can in support of vulnerable people in Cyprus. This and other work responding to local disasters and cases of social hardship prepared it well for the challenges faced in 2006 when Cyprus Red Cross volunteers helped look after tens of thousands of people fleeing the conflict in Lebanon and arriving by ship at Larnaca and elsewhere.


Nicolas Sommer
Nicolas Sommer is ICRC web editor.

See also:
* The Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team members are acknowledged as leading specialists in the field.



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