On the occasion of its 20th anniversary, the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) hosted a panel discussion with speakers from around the world who have lost loved ones as a result of conflict, human rights abuses, disasters and organized crime. Profiles of the Missing, which was opened by Deputy Mayor of The Hague Ingrid van Engelshoven and moderated by award-winning war correspondent Janine di Giovanni, was held on 8 July in The Hague.
The panel discussion addressed the multitude of reasons that persons go missing and explored strategies that families of the missing have developed in order to ensure that the authorities take all necessary steps to locate and identify their loved ones. Examining the emotional, social and political aspects of seeking truth, justice and reparation, the speakers were Ali Alillele from Syria, Ram Kumar Bhandari from Nepal, Norah Fuathum from Uganda, Blanca Luz Nava Velez from Mexico, Dennis Schouten from the Netherlands, and Munira Subasic from Bosnia and Herzegovina. The speakers, all of whom are family members of missing persons, described how they joined forces with others who had suffered the same trauma, in order to seek the truth about the fate of their loved ones.
“It is complex to live with ambiguous loss,” said Ram Kumar Bhandari, whose father was arrested by police in December 2001 and has not been seen since. “It’s now been 15 years: this is a long, long wait.” Ram, who has taken the case of his father’s disappearance through the courts, described how he suffered harassment when he sought legal redress. “We are fighting against injustice, to repair society: we are not following a path to revenge. We see the perpetrators posing in the media and leading the issues from the government side. We have been fighting against impunity. Truth is important, the objective truth, the social truth, and the forensic truth. It’s very important for closure, for final rituals. We will never forget.” Between 1960 and 1989, around 30 people are believed to have been subject to enforced disappearance in Nepal. However, during the ten-year conflict between Maoist guerrillas and the government in Kathmandu, the number of missing increased exponentially. More than 10,000 people died in the 1996-2006 war and more than 1,300 were reported missing.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, 30,000 people went missing as a result of the 1992-1995 conflict. Over 70 percent of those people have been identified with ICMP’s assistance. “We mothers have been waiting for 20 years,” said Munira Subasic, whose husband and son and 20 other family members were killed in July 1995 in the Srebrenica genocide. “We have been searching for justice. The biggest injustice is to be waiting for justice. In 1995 we were left all alone. In order to learn the truth about the fate of our loved ones we established an NGO where all the mothers got together. We raised children who were left without parents, we raised them to be healthy adults, none of them ever sought vengeance; our children are friends with children whose fathers are murderers. We know that when a man falls ill he can be cured, but hatred is something you can never get cured of.”
Blanca Luz Nava Velez, whose son was one of the 43 students who were forcibly disappeared in September 2014 in Guerrero state, Mexico, described how she has actively sought the truth behind her son’s disappearance. “We’ve protested, marched, worked with experts, the government is not helping us,” she said. “I am the wife of a farm worker, our destiny wasn’t to stage marches, but as a mother I always told my son the difference between right and wrong and that is why I’m so angry. Why was he taken away? Why did the government not protect us?” The issue of missing persons in Mexico gained international attention after the disappearance of the 43 students in September 2014. It is estimated that more than 26,000 persons have gone missing in the country in the last decade. September 2016 will mark two years since the disappearance of the students. The families’ quest for truth and justice is relentless, yet the authorities have not yet delivered on the promise to investigate this case in a thorough and transparent manner, and to address the overall issue of missing persons in Mexico effectively.
In Uganda, as a consequence of the 1986-2006 conflict between government forces and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), it has been estimated that some 75,000 persons were abducted in the north of the country. The fate of thousands of these people remains unknown. Norah Fuathum, whose oldest son was abducted by the LRA and remains missing, spoke of the trauma her son’s disappearance had caused to herself and her family, and of the incremental steps through which she began to respond, eventually leading a network of families in the effort to establish what had happened to their loved ones.
Ali Aillele’s brother was arrested by government forces in Syria in February 2012 and has not been seen since. Since making his way to Germany as a refugee, Ali Aillele has worked to highlight the plight of civilians caught in the midst of the Syrian conflict. It is estimated that at least 60,000 persons have gone missing in Syria since the beginning of the war.
Dennis Schouten’s brother-in-law was among the 283 passengers and 15 crew on board Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, which was hit by a missile over Ukraine in July 2014. He spoke of the need for survivors to organize and lobby so that information related to the disappearance of loved ones is not withheld.
All of the panelists have actively lobbied the authorities to establish the circumstances of their loved ones’ disappearance and take steps to find and prosecute those who were responsible.
ICMP Commissioners HM Queen Noor, Tom Miller, Wim Kok, Knut Vollebaek and Alistair Burt also participated at Profiles of the Missing, along with ICMP Director-General Kathryne Bomberger.
A video recording of Profiles of the Missing of the missing can be accessed here