ICRC activities to restore family links in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
During the war in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) launched one of the biggest operations to restore family links since the Second World War, involving a staff of hundreds of expatriate and local workers throughout the region. The operation also embraced 80 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, ensuring a worldwide network.
Red Cross branches in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia played a further invaluable part in maintaining the network.
A first step in restoring family links: the Red Cross message
The conflict in the region meant that thousands of families became separated by front lines or scattered around the world, making communication impossible. Red Cross messages were the most reliable way to restore and maintain invaluable contact.
Today your mother was very happy. A man, who has been visiting us here and who has traced you, brought me a letter. They found you all alive and healthy. My dear children, I thought you were dead. I'm fine here; good nurses who feed us and clean us. Dear son Jovo, your mother was very happy when she heard of you. It's hard without you, I wish to see you all together one more time. I was extremely happy when this man brought news from you. I can't walk but nothing hurts me, thanks God. I hear well and I feel well. I eat what they give me, I'm not hungry. I lay in my bed in hospital and I'm watching Knin. If it is possible to come to you, maybe I could come with people to see you till I'm still alive. I thought you were not alive. Today is my lucky day. Tell Mila to write me. Kiss everybody who is there for me. I live for the day when I will see you all again. If I can't come there, some of you can come here.
I have been here since you had left and now I hear for the first time that you are alive. The first time your mother hears from you.
Lot of regards for all of you. I was sad, very sad, but now I cry because of happiness as well as of sorrow. I just wish to see you once again !
Your mother loves you, my dear and beloved children.
Mother Pera. "
So far, over 18 million Red Cross messages have been exchanged both within Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia - enabling people to transcend the physical barriers which separated them from their families, such as enclaves, front lines, places of detention and refugee centres - and overseas, to relatives who had fled the fighting. Red Cross messages are of paramount importance in times of war, as they are one of the only means by which people can exchange family news and locate their kin.
In accordance with standard ICRC procedures, every message is checked to ensure that it contains only family news and no material which could be deemed controversial. This is to guarantee its delivery over front lines and borders with the full understanding and agreement of the parties to the conflict.
Visits to persons detained in relation with the conflict as a way of keeping families in touch
Detention visits have three aims:
1. to monitor conditions of detention and the treatment of detainees;
2. to protect detainees through registration and the monitoring of individual cases until release and
3. to ensure communication between detainees and their families.
Unfortunately, and in spite of the commitment by all the parties to ensure access to the ICRC, delegates were unable to visit all persons detained in connection with the different conflicts in the region. However, for most of the persons visited - some 44,000 between 1991 and the end of 1995 - the Red Cross message was the first and only way to inform their families of their fate.
Since 1991, the ICRC has visited 45,357 detainees in more than 770 places of detention.
NB: the ICRC was unable to keep track of several hundred detainees who had been registered between 1992 and 1995 in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Top-level representations continue to be made to request the former detaining authorities to release information about these detainees.
Registration and follow-up of unaccompanied children
Since the beginning of the conflict in the region, the plight of children who had become separated from their families was a top priority. All children under the age of 16 residing in various institutions or reported to have been separated from their families were registered and followed up. Altogether, over 1,300 children were reunited with their families between 1991 and 1997. As of mid-1997, four cases of children looking for their families, or vice versa, had not yet been solved.
Mevla Babalija had almost given up hope of ever seeing again the baby she had left behind in Foca before she came to the ICRC.
In fact, she was visiting the Zenica delegation in central Bosnia to ask about the fate of her husband who had disappeared in 1992 when she mentioned that she had given birth to a baby girl, Elma, in her home town of Foca but had been forced to leave her behind in a hospital incubator when she and her family fled the town as it fell into the hands of the Bosnian Serbs. She was convinced her child had met a tragic fate.
The Zenica tracing team, touched by the sad story, began to look through the ICRC database to see if there was any trace of baby Elma. Thankfully, Mevla's baby daughter was in fact safe and well in a Montenegro institute with other "abandoned" children from Foca and was registered with the ICRC as an unaccompanied child (ENA).
Mevla was desperate to be reunited with her child; even if it meant bringing her from the safety of Montenegro to war-torn Bosnia. The journey to carry the precious cargo involved a number of ICRC delegations in the region, dozens of delegates and complicated and lengthy logistical planning. However, on February 11, 1995, almost three years after they were torn apart, mother and child were reunited and began to build a life together.