The job of tracing missing people can easily be neglected in the urgency of a war or a crisis. But the ICRC is committed to not calling off the search.
A few weeks ago, 83 children were reunited with their families in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This was the culmination of painstaking work by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) between 2019 and 2021. The children, some as young as five, had been separated from parents and grandparents because of ongoing violence in the DRC.
Florence Anselmo, the head of the ICRC’s Central Tracing Agency, was there. She witnessed a brother and sister – Jason and Esther – being reunited with their grandmother. All were crying with joy, says Florence. But, she adds, the grandmother told her the moment was “bittersweet”, because although she could celebrate the return of her grandchildren, she was still mourning their lost parents.
The moment highlights the pain of families missing a loved one. It is, Anselmo tells us on the latest episode of Inside Geneva, the “one wound that only gets deeper.” Not knowing what has happened to your husband or wife, father or mother, son or daughter, not knowing whether they are alive or dead, healthy or ill, happy or sad, is a permanent agony.
The ICRC also knows that it is an issue which can easily be neglected in the urgency of a war or humanitarian crisis, when the priority is often food, shelter, and protection.
That’s why, every year on August 30th, the ICRC reminds us, on the international Day of the Disappeared, to think about that pain, and reminds us of the work it does to help find the missing, and bring families longed-for news. This year, the Red Cross says, 25,000 children in Africa remain missing.
That work, tracing the disappeared, as Anselmo tells us, started more than 150 years ago, when the founder of the ICRC, Henri Dunant, came across wounded soldiers on the battlefield of Solferino in Italy. One in particular, a young corporal who knew he was dying, pleaded with Dunant to let his mother know what had happened to him.
Since then, the Red Cross has worked in two world wars to find the missing, reunite loved ones, and exchange news between prisoners of war and their families. The Central Tracing Agency was created, and by the end of the Second World War the agency had registered a staggering 36 million names.
In 1949, the rights of prisoners of war were enshrined in the third Geneva Convention; warring parties are obliged to share the names of prisoners they hold, treat them humanely, and, ideally, allow the ICRC access to places of detention.
Ukraine and Russia, side by side
Today, high in the hills above Geneva, the Central Tracing Agency is busier than ever – and the languages you hear in its crowded call centre are Ukrainian and Russian. Since Russia attacked Ukraine, the ICRC has received more than 27,000 requests for information, and has provided 3,000 families with news.
The organisation does not know exactly how many POWs there are on either side, and has made clear that it does not yet have access to all of them. But seeing Russians and Ukrainians – some of them refugees themselves in Switzerland – working side by side to bring news to desperate families is testimony to the fact that, here at least, some humanity in war remains.
The messages range from the banal to the heart breaking. One young man assures his mother he is fine, but asks her to send him socks, tea, and chocolate. A young woman asks to pass on the latest news to her husband, who is now a prisoner. “Tell him I gave birth this morning to our child.” A mother, weeping, says she has had no news of her 19-year-old son since the end of February.
“No enquiry goes unanswered,” the CTA’s Jelena Milosevic Lepotic tells Inside Geneva. Even if the Red Cross has no news, it will answer, and it will keep the file open. In fact, all the requests for information, and the work done on them, are kept forever.
“If you are the grandchild of someone who was in the Second World War, you would be able to find information on your grandfather, when he was captured, how he was captured, where he was held and what had happened to him,” explains Lepotic. “And this is what this section is doing for the future generations so that we can keep that memory as well for the years and decades and centuries to come.”
The problem of not knowing
Its work with people missing in war, and with POWs, is perhaps the best known of what the ICRC does to trace people. But the organisation, together with national Red Cross societies, also helps to find those missing after natural disasters, and missing migrants.
As Anselmo points out, having a missing loved one is not just a source of grief and uncertainty, it can also cause huge social and economic problems. Women with missing husbands may find it difficult to prove ownership of their own homes. Access to property, bank accounts, and pensions can be blocked without a death certificate.
“And they cannot have a death certificate if there is no knowledge of what happened.”
Often, families find themselves embroiled for years in long bureaucratic processes. Sometimes, desperate for news, they are exploited by fraudsters who promise information in exchange for money.
And all the while, the pain of not knowing continues. The fact that the CTA still receives requests for information from the relatives of those who went missing decades ago, in the second world war for example, is testimony to the need of families for resolution.
“Families do not stop searching, the need to know crosses generations. They cannot live with this ambiguity,” says Anselmo. “Really this need to know is very deep.”
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