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ICRC special report: Unknown fate, untold grief

31-08-2002 Report

ICRC activities on behalf of missing persons and their families from the conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Federal Republic of Yugoslavia/Kosovo


Executive summary 

A decade since the wars in former Yugoslavia began, thousands of people who went missing during the hostilities in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina are still unaccounted for. The recent conflict in Kosovo has added its own toll of people who have disappeared without trace.

Over 31,500 people are still listed by the Interna tional Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as missing in connection with these conflicts. And this figure is not yet definitive. In the past two years, over a thousand new enquiries have been made to the ICRC in Bosnia-Herzegovina alone. Yet only a fraction (8,202) of those who have disappeared over the last decade have been accounted for.

The ICRC has played an active role in locating people who disappeared during the conflicts in former Yugoslavia since 1991. This is part of the ICRC’s mandate to protect and assist victims of armed conflicts. The ICRC’s approach is based on the need to clarify the fate of missing persons and to address the needs of their relatives, who live in the anguish of uncertainty.

Whilst it is the responsibility of the authorities to ensure clarification of the fate of missing persons and support to the relatives, the ICRC seeks to back this process. Its role is to lend its services and expertise to bring the different authorities together in the search for information and answers.

In a first phase, the ICRC tries to trace the person using all information available. It submits the details of the case to the authorities and asks them for an answer.

If this proves unsuccessful, a second phase is activated. Here, the focus shifts from the missing person to his or her family. The ICRC continues to seek answers from the authorities to transmit to the families. It also supports other ways of finding answers, to that effect working in close coordination with other organizations. For instance, the ICRC actively supports the process of exhumation and identification of human remains, either through logistical support, collection of ante-mortem data, or projects such as the Book of Belongings. The ICRC considers the needs of the families of missing persons and how best to respond to them. This includes addressing legal problems, helping to create family associations and providing ps ychological or other support.

In its response, the ICRC always bears in mind the role and responsibility of the authorities. It takes into account the need for sustainability due to the long-term nature of the problem. The ICRC also seeks complementarity with other actors, liaising closely with the relevant government ministries, local authorities, international institutions, UN agencies, NGOs and other organizations on all aspects of the search for the missing.

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, with its vast network of staff and volunteers worldwide, can make a unique contribution towards resolving the highly complex issue of the missing. In much of the former Yugoslavia, Red Cross Societies and the ICRC work together to gather information and support the families of the missing. Further afield, in countries where such families live as refugees, national Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies facilitate contacts there with the ICRC through the Red Cross tracing service, and keep the issue of the missing in the spotlight.

Despite the difficulties and challenges of the task, the ICRC is resolved to continue seeking answers. The authorities’ willingness to fulfil their obligations by releasing information is crucial to establishing the fate of the missing. Only then can their relatives begin to rebuild their lives.