A History of Restoring Family Links: Finding Family in the Former Yugoslavia

Story by Patricia Hadley, Volunteer, San Francisco, California

I am new to volunteering with the Restoring Family Links program at the American Red Cross and have been digitizing old paper files from the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1990’s. I see many thank you notes, pictures and hand-written messages in hundreds of foreign languages and many different beautiful scripts. I have been so moved by some of the cases and amazed by the global work of the Red Cross network, and wanted to share these stories.

One case I recently stumbled across came as a result of the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. This series of conflicts has been called the deadliest since WWII. Many of the actions that took place during the war were genocidal, and it’s now infamous for the war crimes that took place.

In the aftermath of World War I, the country of Yugoslavia was formed to bring together the southern Slavic people of the Balkan peninsula under one flag. Following the chaos and horrors of World War II, Yugoslavia was reorganized as a socialist federal republic under the iron rule of Josip Broz Tito. Due to a number of factors, the six republics that constituted Yugoslavia began to break apart in 1991. A war of ethnic cleansing and untold human rights abuses ensued for the next ten years.

The American Red Cross story begins in the summer of 1993 when a man in the United States on Protective Amnesty Status contacted our office in San Francisco for help. He was concerned about his sister and her daughter who fled violence in Bosnia, and were living as refugees in a camp in Croatia. He was particularly concerned about the medical concerns of his 11-year-old niece whom he believed had Leukemia.

Because of the impartial stance of the Red Cross network, volunteers with the Croatian Red Cross were able to traverse the lines of conflict to find our client’s sister and niece and messages began to fly back and forth between brother and sister via the Red Cross. As a part of our assistance, the American Red Cross helped him translate and understand medical reports from Croatia where the niece was being treated. The messages show that she was doing well. She sent wonderful drawings to her uncle through the Red Cross. The story ends here with the man hoping for permanent residence, a good job and, with the guidance of the Red Cross, the opportunity to bring his sister and niece to the US.

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent were heavily involved in humanitarian efforts during this long conflict and in its aftermath. Their members even remained during the NATO bombings. In 1993 it was instrumental in reuniting the Yugoslav Red Cross that had existed from 1946-1991 and then splintered apart along with the individual republics. To bring people together for one humanitarian cause is truly the spirit of the Red Cross and was necessary to meet the needs of a divided peoples. So many went missing during the war (one estimate of 10,700 still missing was made in 2016) that the efforts of Restoring Family Links services are still very active today in the area.