“The last time he called us, my son Arcesio* said that he was coming to see us,” said Ancízar Osorio in a faltering voice. That was eight years ago.
In Osorio’s country of Colombia, disappearances are a tragic normality; some 68,000 people are currently missing. Worldwide, hundreds of thousands of people have disappeared as a consequence of armed conflict, natural disaster or migration. For those left behind facing a future uncertainty, the Red Cross is often their last hope for answers.
“When people disappear, there are two kinds of victims,” said Marianne Pecassou, who heads the activities carried out by the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) for missing persons and their families. “The individuals who have gone missing and their families, torn between despair and hope, living with uncertainty and pain, waiting for news, sometimes for decades.”
The Osorio family searched desperately for their son for years. Finally, after researching old photographs and working with the Red Cross, they learned of his fate. Still, although his family is certain of his death and burial town, they have been unable to find the exact location where his mortal remains lie.
The suffering of the Osorio family is all too familiar to Rubiela, also living in Colombia. When her son Jáder was 16, he decided to join an armed group in order to earn money for his education. He told his mother that he would be back in a month. That was the last time that she saw him alive.
After three years of prolonged agony, she enlisted the help of the Red Cross and finally was able to learn her son’s fate and bury his body.
In Colombia and elsewhere, the plight of the disappeared and their families has been a constant concern of the Red Cross. Currently, it is attempting to establish the fate and whereabouts of more than 52,000 people worldwide.
The Red Cross offers guidance to families and authorities about searching for missing persons and works through its Restoring Family Links program to help reconnect those separated by war or natural disaster. Besides working directly with families of the missing, the organization instructs parties to conflict and other armed groups about the rules prohibiting the concealment of information regarding missing persons.
“I was nearly desperate,” Rubiela said of searching for her son. “So much suspense was driving me crazy. Now I know where my boy is. If it had not been for the Red Cross, I would still have been looking for him.”
*All names in this article have been changed to protect victims’ safety.