The anguish of not knowing what happened to loved ones who go missing can last for years. Added to the emotional and psychological turmoil, families are frequently left without economic support, access to inheritance, and with few resources to trace their missing family member. On the International Day of the Disappeared, (30 August), the ICRC is calling for greater support for affected families together with increased efforts to document the fate of missing persons. Such action could cut short the time families are left in anguish without answers.
Georgia – Waiting for an answer for two decades
Hundreds of thousands of people have gone missing in past conflicts, leading to protracted years of uncertainty and grief. In Georgia, Lile Pilpani’s brother Beqa went missing two decades ago. He was suspected of being on a plane that crashed while taking fighters to Abkhazia but no one has been really sure. Years later, the bodies were finally exhumed from the crash site in Babushera. DNA analysis should reveal the identity of those who died when the plane crashed.
Lile was devasted by the loss of her brother. She was left to support her bereft mother as well as her own daughter. But like many relatives of missing persons, she had little income or resources to take on the additional burden. Life was made a little easier thanks to a small ICRC grant which helped her set up her jewellery making business. Lile has hung on to the hope that her brother would somehow be found alive even after two decades. Speeding up the process of documentation and forensic examination could help many more people like Lile.
Syria – thousands go missing in conflicts today
The anguish of families whose loved ones go missing continues today. In the conflict in Syria, thousands of people have been reported missing for a wide variety of reasons.
Zahr-el-Ban has not seen her husband for over three years. She had to leave her home in Syria and has found shelter in the Lebanese town of Chebaa, which houses around 3,000 Syrian refugees. Zahr-el-Ban struggles to care for her two young children, one of whom was born after her husband disappeared and so has never known his father. She cries bitter tears, worrying desperately at what may have happened to her husband, unsure of whether she will ever see him again. “My life is on hold…I cannot describe the bitterness in my heart,” she says.
According to the ICRC’s Mathilde De Riedmattten, families are often seriously affected for years by the disappearance of family members - who are most frequently the male breadwinner. She explains that improved documentation of events surrounding a disappearance could shorten the time that families are left in a state of uncertainty.
Mexico – finding out the fate of migrants
When migrants go missing on the road, the anguish for families left behind is often forgotten. Soledad Toledo Alonso’s brother Ulises disappeared in 2008. Like many migrants from Mexico, he left his home town hoping to cross the border at Ciudad Juarez to find work in the United States. Nothing has been heard of him since. Soledad has tried to trace her brother but she comes from a small rural village and has little money to spend on the search. “It has affected us in every aspect of our lives…economically, emotionally…” she says. Soledad and her neighbour Gudelia, whose husband also went missing, make a two day bus journey to the region’s administrative centre in Oaxaca in search of information.
The ICRC has helped Soledad with the paperwork and has supported her in her search but she still has no answers and the grief of her broken family overshadows her life. Improved documentation and a more rapid response to requests for information would help families like Soledad.
Location: Georgia, Syria, Mexico
Format: H264.mov / 16:9 / HD
Production: Pawel Krzysiek, Jan Powell
Camera: Flora Bagenal, Pawel Krzysiek, Arturo Lopez
ICRC ref: AV 342N
Copyright: ICRC access all
0:00 GVs Tblisi
00: 12 Graveyard in Tblisi with unmarked graves of exhumed bodies from aircrash site in Babushera.
00:00:22 Lile Pilpani, sister of missing brother Beqa looks at photos of her brother- various
00:44 Lile Pilpani
“It’s hard to explain what it feels like. You may have hope… what if one day he appears? The fact we never saw him dead or had a body makes it very difficult. We don’t how to behave. But the facts don’t look good. He never came back… where else could he be? If I saw my brother today I would tell him that I miss him very much and that I love him so much. I would hug him… maybe I wouldn’t say anything.
01:14 GVs Lile in her jewellery making workshop – various
01:27 Lile walking in Tblisi street
01:39 Arriving at jewellery shop where she sells her work, discussing prices with owner
01:52 Lile outside her home – pensive shots.
02:02 GVs Lebanon countryside near town of Chebaa near the Syrian border.
02:09 Car on road to home of Zahr-el-Ban
02:13 Syrian refugee Zahr-el-Ban with her kids on doorstep – arrival of ICRC officer
02:25 Making tea
02:40 Interview Zahr-el-Ban, Syrian refugee with missing husband
“My husband has been missing for three and a half years. I am a mother of two children and life without him is very miserable. I have no money, no support... except the support of God. (sighs deeply)
02 57 "My life is on hold. I live hoping he returns. I pray to God that he comes back and that he is alive. I want to stop saying he’s missing. I wish he’d come back to his children, his family, his home and his life.
03:17 "This is my son, he has never seen his father. This is his uncle.
03:31 "No matter how hard I try I cannot describe the bitterness in my heart.
03:45 My heart is bleeding. It is now three and a half years. I don’t know if he is alive (tears running down her face)"
04:04 mid shot family
04:11 ITW Mathilde de Riedmatten, ICRC protection officer
"So the issue of missing persons in Syria just like in every other context is big, we see it obviously in the refugees who come to Lebanon from Syria who at times report having family members who have gone missing. As in every conflict, the longer the conflict lasts the more people go missing essentially. Obviously people go missing during the flight, if there is fighting going on, at times families are separated, each one goes in different directions and they loose contact and are not able to find each other again. Or indeed, if people for example are arrested or abducted, they sometimes also loose contact.
04:59 So what the ICRC is doing now is to document systematically cases of persons who have gone missing in order to one, have a list of all of these people and of course especially to stay in contact with the family members because they have specific needs now and in the future. And it is very important for us to establish this relationship with them, have them know they can count on the ICRC, and for us to follow them through this very difficult process."
05 29 GVs Mexican border near Ciudad Juarez
05:51 Photos of missing migrant brother, Ulises, with sister, Soledad Toledo Alonso
06:01 GV Soledad’ s house in rural Mexico
06:20 Soledad and neighbour Gudelia (wife of missing migrant) depart on 2 day journey to Oaxaca, administrative centre, to find information about the missing brother – various shots travelling on bus
06:57 ICRC staff sitting with Soledad , giving support, checking documentation
07:40 ITW Soledad Toledo Alonso, sister of missing person
“It has affected us in every aspect of our lives. Economically. Emotionally. Sometimes we get together during Christmas or New Year and we ask ourselves: Where is he? Has he eaten anything? Is he alive? If he is not alive, where is his body? What did they do to him? It is a huge angst we feel.