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Bosnia and Herzegovina: ten years on, thousands still missing

21-06-2005 Feature

Nearly ten years after the end of the war, the fate of more than 14,000 missing persons in Bosnia and Herzegovina remains unclear; this prolonged uncertainty causes untold suffering to their families. An overview of how ICRC supports the families to help clarify the fate of the missing.


The ICRC began the task of trying to locate missing persons during the war itself. Since the end of the conflict in 1995 it has continued this work, on the basis of both its standing mandate as well as provisions of the Dayton agreement.


Tracing requests for missing in Bosnia & Herzegovina
(as of 1 May 2005)

Total number of persons for whom an
ICRC tracing request was opened by the family: 21,438
  Number of tracing files closed: 6,080
  - persons found alive: 423
  - mortal remains returned to family: 5,607
  - tracing request cancelled/withdrawn: 50
  Persons for whom information was received on death,
but not on the location of the human remains: 914
  Total number of pending tracing requests
for which no additional information was received: 14,444 
These are the ways in which ICRC is active:  
Ante-mortem data collection 

During 2003 and 2004, the ICRC organized the systematic collection of ante-mortem data for missing persons. Thi s data helps to identify remains exhumed from mass graves.

Each family is asked close to 200 questions to clarify the circumstances of the disappearance of their relative, gather details of the personal belongings of the missing person and verify medical and dental records. The data is then used to confirm the findings of post-mortem examinations and DNA analysis of human remains. It helps to identify the dead, thereby bringing clarity and closure to the concerned families.

In close partnership with the Red Cross Society of Bosnia & Herzegovina and associations representing the families of the missing, more than 12,200 persons with missing relatives were contacted. Ante-mortem data for more than 4,100 missing persons was collected. So far, the ante-mortem data collected has helped forensic specialists to identify 940 human remains.

The Bosnia & Herzegovina Red Cross will continue this work in 2005. In addition, 16 Red Cross Societies in Europe and North America are contacting concerned families now living abroad. All ante-mortem data collected will be transferred to the Bosnia & Herzegovina authorities by August 2005.

Psycho-social support to families 

The ICRC psycho-social programme provides support to families of the missing. The main objective is to help these families cope with their anguish and the resulting psychological and social consequences. The programme has two components:

  • Ensuring that specific psychological support for families of the missing is systematically provided as an integral part of the process of ante mortem data collection.

  • Ensuring access to men tal health services for communities without such help.

The ICRC organises support groups (8 to 15 therapeutic sessions) for affected persons. Relatives of missing persons are given the possibility to get support from psychologists, social workers and neuropsychiatrists. 

Working group 

The Dayton Peace Accord of 1995 obliges the conflict parties in Bosnia and Herzegovina to provide information on missing persons and formally recognises the ICRC's role in clarifying the fate of the missing.

To achieve this objective, the ICRC set up a Working Group on Persons Unaccounted for , which met for the first time in March 1996. The ICRC chairs the group, which brings together all those involved in tracing missing persons, either as members or as observers. The working group serves as a channel through which tracing requests are submitted to the relevant authorities and answers on missing cases are communicated. So far, the working group has held 17 full sessions.

The 16th session of the working group took place in October 2003. It was decided that to tackle the regional dimension of the missing problem, a subcommittee would be set up bringing together key institutions from Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Serbia & Montenegro. At the first meeting of the regional subcommittee in June 2004, chaired by the ICRC, government representatives agreed to speed up the process of exhuming remains and repatriating them.

During the 17th working group session held in November 2004, state representatives from Bosnia & Herzegovina reported considerable progress, notably on establishing a law on missing persons and the Missing Persons Institute (see below). Both entities in Bosnia & Herzegovina – the Federation of Bosnia & Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska – also provided new information on individual cases of missing persons.

Provided the Missing Persons Institute functions as planned, the working group will gradually phase out its activities. The next working group session is scheduled for November 2005.

Missing Persons Institute 

The Missing Persons Institute (MPI) was originally founded by the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) in August 2000. In June 2003, the Presidency of Bosnia & Herzegovina agreed that the country become a co-founder of the MPI, and asked the Council of Ministers to establish a new protocol on the MPI.

The Ministry for Human Rights and Refugees chairs the working group drafting an agreement on the functions and structure of the MPI.

This group brings together the government and ICMP. The ICRC as well as the Federal Commission and the Republika Srpska Office for tracing missing persons are observers.

Law on missing persons 

In a process initiated by the Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees, an expert group including the ICRC drafted a Law on Missing Persons that came into force in November 2004.

The law regulates a number of points, including the families'right to know the fate of their missing relatives, the legal status of missing persons, and penal provisions for non-compliance.

Book of Missing 

The ICRC regularly publishes the names of persons unaccounted for in the Book of Missing Persons on the Territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina . The sixth edition   was completed in October 2004,   containing the names of 16,608 persons reported missing or dead.

The book is used by all who are engaged in the process of tracing missing persons, the aim being that it will solicit additional information that helps clarify the fate of those unaccounted for.

The book is widely distributed among authorities and the public at large and can be consulted on line (see below).


  You may have a relative who is anxious to know that you are alive.

  You might be in possession of accurate information about the fate of a person unaccounted for.

  Please help us to clarify the fate of those who are missing.

  You can   consult the names published on our web site (last update March 2005)