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Update No. 96/8 on ICRC activities in the Former Yugoslavia

25-06-1996 Operational Update

 Missing persons  

Eight months after hostilities ended in Bosnia and Herzegovina, thousands of families have still had no news of their missing relatives. The ICRC believes that the majority of those who have not yet been traced are no longer alive. The continuing uncertainty and numerous false rumours about the fate of those unaccounted for are creating terrible strain for the families, who need to receive clear and tangible answers in order to move through the catharsis of a mourning process and take up their normal lives again.

The ICRC endeavours to help these families in conformity with its mandate, which was affirmed in Annex 7, article 5 of the Peace Agreement signed last December. In its quest for answers for the families, the institution has formulated a list of priorities and recommends that all possible avenues of information on persons unaccounted for, both documentary and oral, are systematically explored before exhumations are carried out. Steps in this identification process include:

1. concluding the gathering of requests from families and submitting them to the authorities;

2. calling for answers from the authorities;

3. collating additional information and eye-witness accounts from the public;

4. establishing an ante mortem database (comprising medical data on individuals) before carrying out with exhumations for identification purposes;

5. defining the legal consequences for the families of those presumed dead but not accounted for within a reasonable time-frame.

Up to now the ICRC has concentrated on the first three steps:

 1. Gathering requests from families  

Only the families can give information precise enough to enable the tracing process to be carried out effectively.

By gathering information directly from the families, the ICRC and the former warring parties will learn who is really missing and can prevent essential data being distorted for political and propaganda purposes.

To achieve this the ICRC relies on a network of :

- 22 ICRC offices throughout the former Yugoslavia;

- 527 local Red Cross branches in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia;

- the 30 Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies in those countries which have accepted Bosnian refugees.

Prior to the signing of the Peace Agreement, the ICRC had already gathered thousands of requests from families, and transmitted a number of them to the authorities.   By the end of 1996 the ICRC expects to have substantiated individual files on all persons missing in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

 The ICRC tracing department in Zagreb  

 Six expatriates and 18 locally hired employees, with the support of 25 computers, are currently working in the ICRC Zagreb office where all data collected in the field is centralized. This database, developed in 1991 for the former Yugoslavia, comprises information on more than 100,000 detainees, missing persons, family reunification cases and unaccompanied children.  


 In the field  

 Fourteen delegates and more than 50 locally hired employees are currently working in the field in specifically tracing-oriented activities. Tracing also forms a significant part of the work of other ICRC staff (total ICRC staff in the field: 130 expatriates and 800 local staff). Between mid-July and the end of August 1995, following the fall of Srebrenica, a team of four expatriates and 20 local employees gathered information from families in Tuzla. This information (11,000 allegations of disappearances) was then processed by the Zagreb tracing department. This resulted in a list of 8,000 names, which was circulated in early October. For three months, in the spring of 1996, a team of four delegates and 25 field officers were once again in the Tuzla area to update those allegations collected in 1995 and submit them to the authorities in the framework of the Working Group (see below). While several hundred people had reportedly reappeared in the meantime, the deaths of several dozen were unfortunately confirmed.  

 2. Calling for answers from the authorities: the Working Group  

The ICRC has set up and chairs a Working Group in which the three former warring parties of Bosnia and Herzegovina are participating. All tracing requests and replies are officially processed by this Working Group. Since its creation in March 1996, the Working Group has met four times and some 8,800 individual files on missing persons have been submitted to it. To date, another 3,000 cases are being proc essed and should be submitted during future Working Group sessions. Answers for some 250 of those cases submitted have now been released. In addition, of the 600 prisoners whose names had not appeared on any lists during the release process even though they had been identified by notification by the authorities, the testimonies of co-detainees or during ICRC visits, files on 150 of them have now been closed. 

 Follow-up work by the tracing department  

 Every tracing request collected is entered in the database, processed and printed on an official form to be submitted to the authorities. Personal data on individuals sought is extracted from the database and the circumstances of their disappearance are added by hand. The official form is then translated into the appropriate language. Each of the five parties participating in the Working Group receive a copy of every file submitted to the Group. This means that for the 8,000 cases submitted to date, 40,000 photocopies were prepared.  

 Every time information on the missing is presented at a Working Group session, the Zagreb tracing department has to analyse each answer before transmitting it to the families. Is the information precise enough? Are there any possible doubts about the identity of the person referred to? When the  

 information is not sufficient the ICRC goes back to the authorities and asks for further clarification. When necessary, delegates in the field provide a follow-up by tracking down the families to cross-check or complete some information, or collect additional details from local authorities. Only then will the ICRC pass the information on to the family concerned .

 3. Collating additional information and eye-witness accounts from the public  

The ICRC firmly believes that some of the answers to these cases of persons unaccounted for lie to a large extent with the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The institution's strategy has been to collect information from the population itself. On 12 June, a new step in this procedure was to implement a public campaign calling for people come forward with any information they might have was launched in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The main instrument in this campaign is the publication of a catalogue of the identities of the persons sought. The first edition of this publication includes almost 11,000 names of persons for whom the ICRC has collected individual tracing requests. Some 12,000 copies were distributed to authorities, local Red Cross branches and ICRC offices throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina and to the Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies of those countries hosting refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Furthermore, this publication can be found on the ICRC public server at the following Web site address:  

This first edition will be regularly updated as new names and further information are gathered.

 The media and public information campaign  

 Beginning on 12 June, some 150,000 leaflets and 10,000 posters, as well as radio and TV spots broadcast nationally will exhort those appearing on the lists or anyone possessing information on those listed to contact an ICRC, local Red Cross or - if abroad - a Red Cross/Red Crescent office, so that their information may contribute to solving cases. Those who wish to remain anonymous will be able to do so.  

 Special ICRC training sessions were given to local Red Cross tracing personnel in Bijeljina, Pale, Tuzla and Zenica. Further sessions are planned for Banja Luka, Gorazde, Mostar and Sarajevo in order to help them cope with the additional procedures employed in the process.  

 4. Exhumation for identification purposes  

On the question of exhumation for humanitarian purposes (identification or decent re-burial), the ICRC has asked that all agencies and international bodies concerned meet and coordinate their action through the High Representative. The Experts'Group on Exhumations and the Missing continues to meet regularly.