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
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
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,”
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: www.familylinks.icrc.org.
“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,
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
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
©AGNES MONTANARI / ICRC
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
Relatives of people missing from Srebrenica search for evidence
in the ICRC Book of Belongings.
©SANELA BAJRAMBASIC / ICRC
A Nepalese family receiving news through the Nepal Red Cross
from a relative missing for over a year and a half.
©JON BJORGVINSSON / ICRC
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.
©VIRGINIE LOUIS / ICRC
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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.
The Red Cross
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.