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The disappeared: reconnecting relatives separated by conflict and disaster

Tuesday August 30, 2011

International day of the disappeared


A mother and children reunited in Lubango, after three years stranded in the remote south-west of Angola. Australian Red Cross works with the International Red Cross/Red Crescent global tracing network, to re-establish contact family members separated by conflict and disaster.


For years Isha Munya had no idea where her mother and eldest daughter were, after civil war in Somalia tore the family apart. But after more than a decade of uncertainty, with the help of Red Cross, Isha has finally found her loved ones.

Isha and her family tell their story to mark International Day of the Disappeared (30 August 2011). In the last year Australian Red Cross' Tracing Service has resolved the cases of more than 370 people separated by war, conflict or disaster.

Along with Isha, among those we have helped is Sonia*, who lost most of her family in the Rwandan genocide, but through Red Cross has found her 16-year-old sister alive in a Kenyan orphanage. And Edmund Makowiecki who spent close to 20 years searching for family in Europe before Red Cross, with the help of his father's WWII records, uncovered a sister and brother he never knew he had.

'Everyday somewhere in the world, in the midst of conflict and disaster, families are torn apart. It can happen in a matter of minutes; children can lose their way in the chaos, the sick and elderly might not be able to be moved, relatives can be arrested and detained unable to get word to their families,' said Australian Red Cross International Tracing Service National Program Coordinator Nicole Batch. 'Surrounded by turmoil, panic and terror it can be the beginning of long years of anguish and uncertainty about the fate of missing children, husbands, wife, sisters, brothers, parents.'

Australian Red Cross Tracing Service is currently working with 1,255 families, many of them looking for more than one missing relative. These families come from places as diverse as Hungary, Afghanistan and Democratic Republic of the Congo - some have been separated from their loved ones for more than 20 years.

'Looking for answers Red Cross Tracing staff and volunteers can end up bicycling for hours along dirt roads or canoeing up flooded rivers, to visit a remote refugee camp with no postal service; it can also mean days spent pouring through national archives, public databases and newspapers in the hunt for clues to the whereabouts of the missing,' said Ms Batch.

On average Red Cross is able to resolve almost 60% of cases, though some cases can take years to resolve and sadly sometimes the news is not good.

Red Cross' mandate of neutrality and impartiality helps the Tracing Service - which draws on the resources of the organisation's global network in187 countries - to secure access to information in even the most difficult circumstances.

You can support Red Cross to reconnect families separated by war, conflict or disaster by making a donation to Australian Red Cross. For more information visit or call 1800 811 700.

For media enquiries or to arrange interviews contact Red Cross media adviser Kim Batchelor on 0457 542 113 or

Available for selected interviews:

Hawa, the daughter of Tracing client Isha Munya, can tell the story of her family's search for missed loved ones. When civil war broke out in Somalia in 1992 Isha fled to Kenya with her young family - including Hawa, who was just a baby. But Isha was forced to make the heartbreaking decision to leave behind her eldest daughter, eight-year-old Faduma, with her mother. Eventually after six years in refugee camps Isha and her family were resettled in Adelaide, where she came to Red Cross for help to find those she had had to leave behind. Red Cross was able to trace her missing family, and Faduma has since been able to resettle in Australia. Isha's mother, who she last saw 20 years ago, is living in a Kenyan refugee camp - she dreams of the day she will be able to see her again.

• Tracing client Sonia, who now lives in Melbourne, was a young girl when her family was torn apart by the Rwandan genocide in the early 1990s. Earlier this year, with the help of Australian Red Cross' International Tracing Service, she tracked down her younger sister, who she lost contact with more than a decade ago, in a Kenyan orphanage. When the genocide swept across Rwanda in 1994, Sonia and her mother, unable to find her father and other siblings, fled alone to Tanzania. Sonia's sister Rosalie was born in Tanzania the following year, but they were separated when they returned to Rwanda a year later. Sonia, who came to Australia two years ago, feared she had lost almost her entire family to the genocide and its aftermath, and has now been able to speak to 16-year-old Rosalie on the phone and they have exchanged emails. She hopes to one day bring her to Australia to live.

• Tracing client and Queenslander Edmund Makowiecki , who is in his early 60s, spent almost two decades searching for family in Europe, before a lucky break with Australian Red Cross led him to a sister and brother he never knew he had. His Polish-born father - who was a prisoner of war during WWII - and his mother died when he was a teenager leaving no information about their relatives. He spent 17 years searching unsuccessfully for his family - with no idea if anyone was even alive - before contacting Red Cross. 'It's a great feeling, I can't explain it. I thought I was the only one left in the family. I thought I had no relatives, and now I have 18.'

• Australian Red Cross Tracing National Program Coordinator Nicole Batch. Red Cross has sent Nicole on missions as a Tracing caseworker to Sudan and Myanmar.

* The names of Sonia and her sister Rosalie have been changed to protect relatives living in precarious circumstances in East Africa.

 Credit: Australian Red Cross/Jessica Letch