Bosnia and Herzegovina: a race against time

12-11-2010 Interview

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the whereabouts of more than 10,000 people who went missing during the conflict in the early 1990s – representing seven out of every ten missing persons in the Western Balkans – remain unknown. Clarifying their fate is the task of the Missing Persons Institute (MPI) in Sarajevo. The institute's directors met the President of the ICRC, Jakob Kellenberger, in Geneva on 12 November 2010. Barbara Hintermann, head of ICRC operations for North America and Western, Central and South-Eastern Europe talks about the issues at stake.

Barabara Hintermann

What are the most pressing issues?

The families of the missing people are in a race against time. They are growing old, and they desperately need to know, before they die, what happened to their loved ones; and they want to pass on this knowledge to the next generation. If reconciliation is to take place, this is crucial.

I have just come back from a visit to Belgrade, Zagreb, Sarajevo and Pristina; and I have myself heard such sentiments expressed. One elderly man, who had finally received the remains of his son, said: "Knowing what happened to my son is like bringing him back home." This alone should tell you how crucial it is for people to know. They need to be able to mourn with dignity. Only then can they find peace of mind. The authorities must take action: this is urgently needed. I feel this every time I visit the region, and on each occasion, more than before.

The most pressing task is to accelerate the process, by which I mean finding and providing information about newly discovered gravesites and ensuring that exhumations and the identification of mortal remains take place in a timely way. Another priority is maintaining psychosocial support and accompaniment for the families, because they will continue to suffer as long as the fate of their missing relatives remains unknown.

How can the process be accelerated?

The authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina need to provide all the information in their possession that would help to solve the fate of missing persons. They must search their archives and share what they find with the Missing Persons Institute. International humanitarian law requires them to do this.

How does the Missing Persons Institute contribute?

The MPI was established in 2004, through a decision of the two "entity governments": the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska. It is a national and multi-ethnic institution, which is crucial for impartial action. The MPI is responsible for the process of exhuming and identifying mortal remains; it also provides psychosocial support to the families of missing persons. The institute must be given all the necessary political and financial support by the authorities. It is essential that it be given all available information on the location of gravesites.

I would like to emphasize this: the rate of success in identifying missing persons in the Western Balkans, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, is far greater than anywhere else in the world. The MPI has, since its inception, been contributing to this. At present, it is establishing a central database, consolidating data collected by various organizations involved in resolving the fate of missing persons. It is a huge task and will take time.

How is the ICRC helping?

The ICRC provides technical and material support to the institute. We invited the three directors of the MPI to Geneva for discussions with various experts. We also organized a visit for them to the International Tracing Service in Bad-Arolsen. We hope that they will return to Sarajevo with fresh ideas for their work. It was reassuring to see how the three directors went about their work: they had a common goal; they were not distracted by issues of ethnic origin.

What did the President of the ICRC say to the directors of the institute?

Our president assured them of the ICRC's support and its commitment to helping solve the fate of missing persons in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He acknowledged the contribution of the MPI, and encouraged them to put all their efforts into strengthening the functioning of the institute, so that it could provide support to the families that was both adequate and sustainable.


Tuzla. ICMP (International Commission on Missing Persons) 'Book of Belongings.' 

Tuzla. ICMP (International Commission on Missing Persons) 'Book of Belongings.' The book shows the possessions of people who were executed, in the hope that family members might be able to identify a missing relative.
© NB picture for ICRC/Nick Danziger / v-p-ba-e-00079

Srebrenica. The  

Srebrenica. The "Book of possessions" confirmed Dzida's fears: her busband and at least one of her sons were among those who died at Srebrenica. See "Missing Lives" for her full story.
© NB picture for ICRC/Nick Danziger / v-p-ba-e-00073

Srebrenica-Potocari memorial. Each stele represents one victim identified. 

Srebrenica-Potocari memorial. Each stele represents one victim identified. Up to 8000 Bosnian Moslims were killed during the Srebrenica massacre.
© ICRC / Benoît Schaeffer / bosnia-v-p-ba-e-00058.jpg