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Souls searching: the head of the Red Cross faces the tormented families of 'the missing'

19-07-1999 Article, The Guardian, by Cornelio Sommaruga

This article was published in the Guardian on 19 July 1999.

 Cornelio Sommaruga is president of the International Committee of the Red Cross  

For the past three weeks in Kosovo there has been a steady stream of people arriving at Red Cross offices or approaching our mobile teams searching for their loved ones, mainly men. It is a sad reality that we are compelled to implement the lessons gleaned from Bosnia and Croatia so quickly again in the same region. The " missing " will be one of the most important humanitarian issues to confront us in Kosovo. As I heard from a colleague in Pristina recently: " People ask each other first,'Is your family alive?'and only second,'Is your house still there?'"

It was exactly four years ago that the world watched helplessly in Bosnia as the enclave of Srebrenica fell. The barbarity plummeted new depths - tens of thousands of women and children expelled from their homes in the most debasing way imaginable and the systematic massacre of thousands of men.

We all share a collective responsibility and a shame. The tragedy triggered a painful soul-searching exercise and I know of many colleagues for whom the episode has left indelible psychological scars. It could even be argued that the guilt felt by the international community for its failure to prevent the crime shaped the fervour with which we have since all engaged in " healing the wounds " .

But whose wounds are we really trying to heal? Let us not forget that those living the real legacy of Srebrenica are the thousands of people whose lives were frozen in time on th e day they were forced out of their homes, to leave their men behind to their deaths.

Their existence since then has been indelibly imprinted with pain, humiliation, uncertainty and desperate and vain hope. Often ostracised by a community because they are " different " , deprived of the breadwinner and key reference in society, paralysed from moving forward by the inability to grieve, too often exploited as political pawns, theirs is a pitiful and utterly powerless existence.

To meet the families from Srebrenica was not always a comfortable experience, but, I felt, a necessarily humbling one. Diplomatic niceties were often suspended and I was forced to confront not only the force of the anger and scorn they often feel towards the international community, but also to confront head-on the human debris which was left in the wake of the war.

It made me realise that the task bestowed upon the Red Cross in the Dayton Agreement, to search for the unaccounted for, was an awesome responsibility. Nearly four years on, the statistics are sobering - there are still around 18,000 people officially registered by the ICRC as missing, of which the number from Srebrenica constitutes more than 7,000; the cases of only about 1,800 people have been resolved. The waiting time has lasted longer than the entire war, and it sadly could be longer.

Many of the lessons we are implementing in Kosovo. In Bosnia we learnt that the bureaucratic approach we necessarily had to take was also a de-humanising experience for individuals feeling their sons and husbands were reduced to a statistic. We had to learn to listen and give time, as well as record, and we had to invest in the families a sense of empowerment over the whole process - too often in Bosnia people told us they felt powerless, too often the hostage to the forces of diplomatic and political deadlines.

We observed how hope ca n understandably cloud reason and rumours can fester and feed hope. Even though we believe sadly that the vast majority of the people still unaccounted for in Bosnia are no longer alive, we realised that we had no right either to crush hope nor to build it up falsely with bold promises.

Families told us the overwhelming need is to have their loved one returned and, if he is dead, to bury him decently and with dignity and with it all the pain of uncertainty. We tried to make the authorities assume their responsibilities and provide the families with information. We have also promoted the need for exhumations to continue.

But with this emotional burden come all the other problems which define the difficult existence today of families of the " missing " . A more " holistic " approach must address this tangled web of problems - counselling, advice on legal and practical matters - a modest way to build a bridge from the past to the future and try to liberate them from limbo and reconstruct their lives.

In Kosovo we are building up community centres where families can benefit from services which address all the emotional, psychological and practical needs associated with dealing with a family member unaccounted for.

In the immediate aftermath of the Kosovo conflict, our main focus is on those people still in detention so that families can know their relatives are still alive. We have been encouraged to receive the official notifications from the Yugoslav authorities of around 2,000 detainees and are in the process of visiting all of them. Sadly, we fear that for some families there will not be this good news.