The Missing: Lessons from the Families

Federica Riccardi, Every Casualty Count’s Global Network Lead, reflects on her work with the families of ‘the missingand the universal importance of knowing.

I was 25 years old and working in Kosovo when I first came across the reality of ‘the missing’. The missing is a catch-all term for people who go missing through armed conflict, violence and natural disasters.

Back in Kosovo, I saw photos of clothes and of other everyday things.

I realised that these were to help a family recognise if their missing relative had, in fact, died. Those images still haunt me to this day – especially the handmade and child-sized clothes. 

Every family is unique

After many years of sitting with families of the missing working for the International Committee of the Red Cross, I have learned that each person and every family deals with a disappearance differently. I have learned not to assume.

Of course, often the search comes first, ‘Please find my relative or friend’. I would not underestimate the power of love in an extended family or friendship. I have come to think of all these relationships simply as ‘family’.

Often these families will start thinking the worst but hoping for the best (Vivo se lo llevaron…vivo lo queremos).

I have witnessed families cursing a disappearance as being against nature itself, ‘My child has their whole life ahead of them. I cannot outlive them. I must take care of them’. 

In the places I have worked, families of missing people often suffer from stigma, even getting cut off from their own communities. It seems that communities hope that the family’s ‘bad luck’ will not rub off on them. Perhaps it’s even guilt if their son or daughter or husband or uncle went off with a rebel group.

I have seen regular loving families become disunited, aggressive even, when a member is missing. When someone is missing life just gets harder, you take less care of the people not missing, you think it’s your fault, you start having mental and physical problems.

Nothing more to lose

Equally, I’ve had the honour of meeting families with enormous strength and awe-inspiring coping mechanisms throughout my life. I can still remember the dignity and moustache of a Mexican father I met at an event who told me he was going up North, through the migratory route his son had taken, to speak with his – extremely dangerous – kidnappers who were the last ones who had seen him. He had “nothing more to lose” he told me with a smile, almost trying to reassure me. 

If they are dead, I want to know where they are and prepare a proper funeral and grave. If they are not dead, I want to visit them, to make sure they are O.K.

Of course some people also want to find the person responsible for the disappearance. And sanction them. But each case and each person is different. 

An uncomfortable truth

I’ve also come to realise that a disappearance can actually happen to anyone, no one is immune. Yet often we live so far away from a place of conflict or violence, we don’t like to talk about it. Or when we do, it’s as if it happens in another world.

We have strong opinions about what is just and fair for them. As if they were a homogenous group. Forgetting each family is made of individuals who think and deal with things differently.

The starting point

There is, however, a starting point: every individual, dead or alive, is important. Record their data and their personal story. Follow it up, search for them and restore their dignity. Respect every civilian casualty even in the cruellest of environments. Show empathy and seriously and practically commit to “never again”.

Civilian casualties, dead or injured, are not just collateral damage in a war or a situation of armed violence. They can and should be recorded for a variety of reasons. Civilian casualties are not inevitable. They are preventable. History should teach us this.

Indeed governments have an existing obligation to record the casualties, to provide information and to help reunite families.

Of the countless testimonies that deserve a mention, I remember a young Syrian, not even 20 years old. I remember her crying on the phone:

“Please, just tell me, after all these months of searching, what happened to my brothers? Where are they? If they are dead, I just want to go and pray on their graves”.

I will never forget the dignity and strength in her tone. 


*note, these are Federica’s personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organisation mentioned.

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