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Missing persons in Bosnia-Herzegovina: families more closely involved

18-07-1997 News Release 97/20

Geneva (ICRC) - The authorities, the families concerned, local Red Cross organizations and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have all committed themselves to a new and closer partnership in the effort to trace persons reported missing in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Almost 20,000 people remain unaccounted for, and their families are living in uncertainty or are waiting to mourn their dead and give them a decent reburial.

The Working Group set up to gather information on persons reported missing in connection with the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina met under the chairmanship of the ICRC in Geneva on 17 and 18 July. The heads of the country's three State Commissions on missing persons and representatives of family associations from all sides were present, and an official from the Office of the High Representative and government officials of the Republic of Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia attended as observers.

At this week's meeting - the eleventh - the members of the Working Group decided to associate the families fully in the group's proceedings and to put their interests at the centre of discussions. Thousands of families whose loved ones are still missing not only endure mental and emotional anguish but are often struggling with social problems, administrative difficulties and the legal implications of their unclear status.

The group felt strongly that it was unacceptable to leave unidentified bodies in unguarded mass or individual graves, and that exhumations had to be given top priority. Remains must be identified and returned to their families. The identification process is complex and will take a long time, so the group decided to prepare temporary resting places for remains which could not be immediately identified, pending possible future identification. The funding of this vast project is a problem, and the Working Group urged the donor community to become more actively involved and to provide the necessary funds.

Dissatisfaction was expressed about the inadequacy of the replies and information on the missing supplied so far by the respective authorities. To date only 1,200 cases have been resolved. The ICRC now has a consolidated database with details on almost 20,000 missing persons whose files have been constituted at the request of their families. This makes it possible to analyse specific items of information such as the time and place of disappearance. The strong commitment of the parties and a close partnership with the families is essential to yield results.