Burkina Faso: Relief for families of missing people

In Burkina Faso, armed violence has been forcing people from their homes for years. No region has been spared. As people flee to different areas of the country or to neighbouring countries, they sometimes get separated or lose track of each other. Our role is to help them get back in touch.

"If I died now, I'd die happy," said Massa Ouattara, looking at his adult daughter Korotimi, who had been missing for more than ten years. Today they were reunited at the ICRC's delegation in Ouagadougou. Ten years previously, Korotimi had ended up first in Côte d'Ivoire, where she searched for her children and their father, and then in Niger, where she eventually settled. Over time, her health had deteriorated, making it hard to imagine ever being able to return to Burkina Faso. "I had lost hope of ever seeing any of my family again," she admitted.

Ten years of silent longing

That changed when she was wounded after being caught in the crossfire of an armed clash. She was treated at a hospital supported by the ICRC, where she learned that the Red Cross had a programme to help people find their families.

The Red Cross Society of Niger, the Burkinabe Red Cross Society and the ICRC teamed up and found her father, brother and other family members in the Cascades region of Burkina Faso.

Massa's voice faltered as he spoke of his daughter's long absence: "Sometimes I stayed awake all night and wondered if it wouldn't be better to just kill myself and end the suffering." Then he smiled and said, "I dreamed of this moment: seeing my daughter sitting next to me and my grandchildren. Maybe it's crazy but I often thought that by some miracle she would come back to me."

Korotimi may have been gone all those years, but for Soumaila, her brother, she was ever-present: "Every conversation, family party, meeting, eventually they all came around to her." He had found it impossible to grieve without knowing what had become of her. "When there's a burial, you can move on, despite the pain. When you don't have answers, you're trapped in the trauma and worry."

Valentin Mano/ICRC

Bouba spent years not knowing if he would ever see his family again.

Reunion day in Kongoussi

Another reunion happened in the town of Kongoussi, between Bouba Maiga, 11 years old, and his grandmother. "I didn't think he'd make it back in my lifetime. Thank you for bringing him back. It's such a relief," said the grandmother, with tears in her eyes.

At the age of six, Bouba was sent to a teacher of the Qur'an. But because of the danger, Bouba and the other students were forced to change locations several times, and one time he ended up lost and alone. Not knowing how to find his family, he was put in touch with the ICRC, which started the search that led to his happy reunion.

Looking over at his nephew, Tahibou Maiga described what it had been like: "The years without news of Bouba were so stressful and traumatic."

Behind each missing person are many more people anxiously awaiting news and trapped in the uncertainty of not knowing where their loved one is or what happened. Whatever the cause of the disappearance – armed violence, migration or natural disaster – each family's pain is the same and is not eased by time. They need to know.


A silent tragedy

As of the end of June 2023, the ICRC had recorded 1,918 people as missing in Burkina Faso, including 406 since just the beginning of the year. Their families have been waiting for weeks, months or even years without knowing whether their loved ones are dead or alive. They must cope not only with the emotional pain, which can affect their physical and mental health, but also with legal and financial difficulties. In addition to those missing, the authorities report that more than two million people have been displaced within the country, and half of them are children.

Hundreds of thousands of people go missing or are separated from their families in connection with armed conflict and other violence, natural disasters and migration. Many of them never return and are never heard from again. It is a massive, worldwide humanitarian tragedy.