Bosnia and Herzegovina: Families of missing persons pursue their quest
Munira, Milan and Josip from Bosnia and Herzegovina have been living in uncertainty since the conflict in their country ended with the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995.
Munira Subasic, a Bosniak from Srebrenica, had been without news of her family since the fall of her home town in July 1995. She found her husband Hilmo in 2004. He was exhumed from a gravesite near Srebrenica, while her son Nermin, who was only 19 when he disappeared, was found this year. His remains were incomplete and in a heartbreaking decision, Munira agreed to bury only one bone of her son.
Milan Mandic, a Serb from Sarajevo, lost his 64-year-old father Bozo at the very beginning of the war in Dobrinja, a suburb of Sarajevo. Twenty-one years have passed but Milan still has no information on his whereabouts.
Josip Brezjak, a Croat from Mostar, lost both his parents at the beginning of September 1993. He is the only survivor of the military attack on his village.
They come from different ethnic communities that were enemies in the war. Today, they symbolize thousands of families, across the country, finding the strength to overcome old animosities to pursue the ultimate goal – to find out what happened to their loved ones. The families still insist that the authorities, including former enemies, provide answers and cooperate. The unity of the families is often challenged, but their pain brings them back together and drives forward the tracing process in the country.
The role of the ICRC
The ICRC has been involved from the very beginning. We managed to include an article in the peace agreement, obliging the former warring parties to help determine the fate of those who went missing during the 1992-95 conflict. The ICRC helped the families organize their associations and advocated for the families’ right to know what happened to their relatives. We also established a forum in which the former parties to the conflict could exchange information on missing persons.
The ICRC provided support to another institution, the International Commission on Missing Persons, leading in turn to the establishment of the Missing Persons Institute (MPI). We also participated in the creation of the Bosnia-Herzegovina law on missing persons, which clearly defined the status and rights of the families of missing persons and the obligation of the authorities to account for all missing persons by providing information and support to the MPI.
The MPI recognised the importance of the families, by creating an advisory board of six representatives of the country’s 52 associations of the families of missing persons. This board, with broad ethnic and regional representation, personifies the voice of the families and channels communication between the families and the MPI. The ICRC continues to support the advisory board.
Exhumations and identifications
The work being done in Bosnia-Herzegovina on the missing persons issue is unparalleled, ranging from the legal definition of the issue to exhumations of mass and individual graves and the identification of remains. Families have submitted tracing requests to the ICRC concerning 22,438 people. In total, 14,552 of these families have received information on their relatives. However, there are still 7,886 families looking for information. Exhumations are an important way of helping the families find peace of mind. However, in the last year the pace of exhumations has slowed significantly. Over the last twelve months, only 650 sets of remains were identified, compared with up to 2,000 a year a few years ago. The ICRC and its partners are trying to ensure continued political will to provide new information on the location of graves.
A new Central Records of Missing People has been established to accelerate the tracing process. Many see such records as the ultimate proof of a life once lived, a memorial to those who died and whose remains have yet to be found..
The families of missing persons say they share the same anguish and endure the same psychological hardship. Many family members feel isolated from their communities, or obliged to take on an additional role to fill in for the missing person. Often they feel guilty for having survived. They say a missing relative, without a gravestone or a place where they can be remembered, has no name and no links with the community to which he or she once belonged.
Rituals such as commemorations and funerals mark the separation with the deceased and provide the family with an opportunity to say goodbye and pay their respects.
The families across the country refuse to give up on their right to know and play a crucial role in keeping the issue high on the authorities’ agendas. The ICRC will continue to support them, helping ensure their voice is heard.