Bosnia and Herzegovina: 7,000 lives still missing

Tens of thousands of people went missing as a result of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992-1995). Almost 25 years later, 6,126 families are still waiting for information about the fate of their 6,586 missing relatives according to the ICRC records.
Article 11 January 2019 Bosnia and Herzegovina

As long as there is no credible information about what has happened to their loved ones, the families cannot find closure. They are left between the harsh prospects of hope, imagination and re­ality. This means that: 

  • Over 700 mothers and fathers still long to know what happened to their children
  • Close to 1,200 sisters and brothers still hope to find their siblings
  • More than 1,000 children have grown up waiting for information about the fate or return of one or both of their parents
  • Over 1,000 wives and husbands have raised their children on their own, not knowing whether they are widows/widowers or not
  • Close to 700 cousins, nieces and nephews, grandchildren and other relatives carry on the family duty to trace those who have not been yet been found
  • At least 1,250 family members left Bosnia and Herzegovina, without knowing the fate of their loved ones

Our worst fear is that we may not be able to find our missing relatives. The burden increases with the death of other family members, plus the feeling of guilt. My mother and father died not knowing what happened to my brother...

Focus group, Prijedor, 2016

The families do not live separately from us. They live among and with us. They are our neighbours, colleagues, fellow students and friends. Their struggle and engagement contributes to the reconciliation process of the entire society in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Based on ICRC records, the map displays numbers of families of missing persons according to their cantons/regions of residence in 2018 (does not necessarily mean that the missing disappeared there)
Based on ICRC records, the map displays numbers of families of missing persons according to their cantons/regions of residence in 2018 (does not necessarily mean that the missing disappeared there)

Uncertainty — The everyday struggle of the families

Is s/he dead or alive? If dead, how did s/he died and where is the body? If alive, what happened and where is s/he now? Did s/he suffer? Will I ever know? Will I ever meet him/her again? Will I ever bury his/her body and say a prayer at his/her grave?

These questions are an everyday reality for those who have missing family members.

Families of missing face a number of challenges

The needs of the families require a wide range of different measures: psychological and psychosocial support, financial support, legal and administrative support, while a holistic approach includes actions at all levels of society (family, community, municipal, entity and the state-level authorities).

By closely working with families associations, other organizations and the broader community, our goal is to strengthen the ability of individuals and families to cope with difficulties related to ambiguous loss.

People often perceive the families of the missing as victims only - passive recipients of information about fate of a person or a body - but they rise far beyond that role. They are true survivors, active members of society and active agents of the tracing process. We can learn so much from them. In return, the least they deserve is our understanding and support.

Dijanela Rajkić, ICRC

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One rose for every missing life in the local community. Prijedor, 2018. Association of Women from Prijedor "Izvor"

What can we do?

The families need community and each one of us to be aware of their fight and the specificity of their loss. For them, as long as they do not have reliable answers or a body to bury, their missing family members are not dead despite the harsh realities. Showing solidarity during commemorations makes the families feel accepted and understood. 

The awareness and compassion of citizens, for example in Tuzla, is changing for the better. At the beginning, for every 11th day in the month [when we commemorate] passers-by showed no understanding and spoke negatively. Now they join us.

Representative of a family association, Tuzla, 2017

Compassion, empathy, explanations, information, talking about the family member as a person and not just as a body, comfort in their grief during the identification procedure – all this makes a great difference in the lives of the families.