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The anguish of not knowing - the hidden trauma of war and disaster

Monday August 1, 2005

By Hang Vo, Australian Red Cross

Every day in Australia and elsewhere around the world, some families live with the agony and heartache of not knowing what has become of their loved ones. Their family members are among hundreds of thousands of people missing around the world due to war, conflict and natural disaster.

We are all aware of the physical destruction caused by wars and disasters - the lines of fleeing refugees, death and misery, bombed out buildings, mothers nursing sick or dying children. But the anguish of not knowing the fate of a loved one, sometimes for decades, sometimes forever, is the hidden trauma of war and disaster. For many people the psychological impact of not knowing the fate of a loved one can 'cripple' as harshly as a landmine or bullet.

Just for a moment, if you can, imagine what it would be like not to ever again know the whereabouts of your mother, father, brother, sister, husband, wife. It is quite beyond comprehension for many of us. It's hard to get exact figures on how many people are missing around the world, but we do know that since World War I, millions went missing. This includes more than 22,000 people still missing in the former Yugoslavia and over 100,000 in Rwanda. Closer to home, thousands remain unaccounted for in East Timor.

But for families to be able to move on with their lives they need to know what has happened to their loved ones. And that's why this National Missing Persons Week, Red Cross is highlighting its global tracing service - the only one of its kind in the world.

Every year Red Cross handles thousands of cases for people desperate to restore family links severed through war, conflict and natural disaster. We work to locate missing people, establish contact, bring news and reunite families. We work to ensure that the plight of missing families is not forgotten, no matter how long it is since a war or disaster ended.

The global Red Cross tracing service is unique. Spanning more than 180 countries, we get messages to people in areas where no formal postal service exists or could exist.

From the deserts of Sudan to the steamy jungles of Congo, Red Cross volunteers travel long and sometimes dangerous journeys to deliver their valuable cargo - a Red Cross Message containing family news. These unsealed letters are often the first communication families will have with one another for many years.

Delivering them can mean a bicycle ride for hours along dusty dirt tracks to remote refugee camps or canoeing up a flooded river to reach a tiny village. The tracing service can also mean posting the names of missing persons on a church notice board or collecting data from surviving relatives so that it can be compared with data from mortal remains exhumed from mass graves. And then there are detention activities of the Red Cross - for people detained as a result of war or conflict, often the only means to communicate with their families would be through the Red Cross Message service.

Last year Australian Red Cross was successful in restoring family links for 397 people - families able once more to forge bonds and live with hope.

Families such as the Robinsons from Sierra Leone that was torn apart by conflict when the West African nation descended into a decade long bloody civil war in the early nineties.

Edwina Robinson was forced to flee the country with her two younger brothers. She left behind her mother and father as well as four siblings. For eight long years she did not know what had happened to them. Were they living? Had they survived the fighting?

Meanwhile back in Sierra Leone her parents agonised endlessly until one day they held a burial ritual, believing them all to be dead.

In fact Edwina had resettled in Melbourne. And, finally, after almost a decade, family contact was restored with the help of Australian Red Cross.

It was, as you can imagine, a joyous moment for everybody when a Red Cross Message addressed to Edwina arrived in Melbourne. Her family had survived the war. They were safe and well.

This was a happy ending, but even in instances where the search may not have had a positive result, those who grieve express relief at knowing what has happened to their loved ones, enabling them to end the anguish of uncertainty.

For many people, the Red Cross tracing program is their last hope of ever restoring a family link severed through war or disaster.

But not everybody who is seeking a missing person is aware that Red Cross offers this unique service. There are thousands of families who still do not have answers they desperately seek. For these families, every day is a day of waiting, of mourning, of grieving, of hope fading - of not being able to live a full and happy life.

Red Cross believes that everyone has a right to know the fate of the their loved ones. For more information on the Australian Red Cross International Tracing Service please visit the Tracing Services page (link below).

Hang Vo is the National Manager of the International Tracing & Refugee Services at Australian Red Cross