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The Balkans: the ICRC extends network to help shed light on the fate of those still missing

04-10-2004 Feature

The ICRC has extended its collection of ante-mortem data to help thousands of families still unaware of what happened to relatives during hostilities in the former Yugoslavia. In collaboration with several national societies, the ICRC is now gathering ante-mortem data from families living outside the region.

Even though major hostilities have ended, the wars in the former Yugoslavia continue to have an impact on peoples' lives. Thousands of families in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro, Kosovo and Croatia are still hoping for news of relatives who went missing during the different armed conflicts in the region. They have the right to know what happened to their loved ones.

Meanwhile, the human remains of thousands of persons found in mass graves across the region remain unidentified. The ICRC and National Red Cross Societies in the former Yugoslavia, elsewhere in Europe, in North America and in Australia, have been intensifying their efforts to clarify the fate of the missing.  

Until now, the ICRC has recorded the details of more than 32,500 people reported as missing in the region. Unfortunately, the real figure is almost certainly higher and new cases continue to be added to the ICRC's lists. As of June 2004, more than 22,500 of these cases remained unresolved clearly illustrating the continuing magnitude of this humanitarian crisis.

The ICRC as well as some national Red Cross societies and authorities in the affected countries have been contacting family members of the missing to collect ante-mortem data that helps to identify the remains of persons exhumed from mass graves. They ask each family close to 200 questions to clarify the circumstances of the disappearance of their relative, collect details of the personal belongings of the missing person and verify medical and dental records. The data is then used to confirm the findings of the post-mortem examination and DNA analysis of the human remains. It helps to identify the dead, thereby bringing clarity and closure to many families of the missing.  

According to international law, it is the responsibility of states to provide answers to the families of the missing. To support this process, the ICRC liaises closely with the relevant government ministries, local authorities, international institutions and community organisations including bodies that represent the affected families.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the ICRC's efforts in this respect have produced some results. The Council of Ministers recently endorsed the draft Law on the Missing, the first of its kind in the world. The ICRC and the State Ministry for Human Rights and Refugees have also signed an agreement on the collection of ante-mortem data from the families of the missing. In line with this agreement, the ICRC in October 2003 started making contacts with about 8 to 9,000 concerned families from whom ante-mortem data had never been collected.

In Croatia, the authorities and the national Red Cross began collecting ante-mortem data in 1994. Following a request by the government, the ICRC has been gathering such data specifically for the cases of missing persons whose families live in other countries of the former Yugoslavia.

In Serbia and Montenegro, the ICRC has been collecting ante-mortem data related to the cases of persons who went missing during the conflicts in Bosnia Herzegovina, Croatia and Kosovo. Meanwhile in Kosovo the ICRC has also been gathering data from families whose relatives are still unaccounted for.
By July 2004, ante-mortem data had been collected from nearly 21,500 families in the region.

To reinforce its efforts to clarify the fate of the missing of the Balkan wars, the ICRC has now joined forces with national Red Cross societies in 14 countries throughout Europe, North America and Australia to contact families originating from the former Yugoslavia but now living outside their homelands in order to collect ante-mortem data.

For many of these families, having to relive the terrible events that led to their relative going missing is a painful process. The ICRC and the involved National Societies have been training their staff to ensure that they can properly respond to the families' suffering and grief. Yet, the Red Cross is convinced that the collection of ante-mortem data is an essential element of the quest to ensure that families know what happened to their missing relatives.