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14 October, 2016

“We hope that a commission for the missing persons will be created in Ukraine”

Head of the ICRC mission to Ukraine on how to look for the missing and how their families can deal with obstacles in the process

Interviewed by Zhanna Bezpiatchuk

At least a thousand families are currently looking for their relatives that have gone missing on both sides of the contact line in Eastern Ukraine. 96% of these missing are men, half of them not related to any sort of military service. This is the data provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Ukraine.

Some families have already gone through all circles of hell: from indifference and inaction of officials to re-burial of the unknown military whose identity even DNA tests failed to determine reliably. Hopeful, these families turn to the ICRC. The organization is engaged in looking for those missing. Mission Head Alan Aeschlimann speaks to The Ukrainian Week about how the families of those missing can exit the vicious circle and how to look for people.  

What role does the ICRC mission play today when it comes to searching for the missing people on both sides of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine?

In Ukraine people don't speak much about this issue. There are more discussions about detained persons than missing ones. At ceasefire there is normally release or transfer of detainees. Only at the end parties start looking at those unaccounted for and missing. Now the Red Cross is working on both issues in parallel. It is important to raise awareness about the plight of the missing. At least two thousand people are missing in Ukraine. We are speaking about the whole context - governmental and non-governmental sides. For each missing person there are two-three members of their close family. Every person also has extended family. In fact, this is a large number of people who are affected.

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The ICRC has been requested several times in Donetsk areas that are not controlled by the government to be present while retrieving bodies. It is the responsibility of the party controlling certain areas to gather the remains of dead people. On our side, we are able to provide some advice, support to manage the collection of the body. There are many nuances that could help to identify a person. We did this also in Luhansk and on the government-controlled side.

Does the ICRC get sufficient security guarantees and access in the territory controlled by the Russian and separatist forces?

We have offices in Donetsk and Luhansk. We have daily activities across the frontline providing assistance to persons and localities. So, we have some security guarantees from all sides. When we organize field trips to Donetsk, to Horlivka, we send some notifications to all sides. If we don't get any negative feedback, we are going. We are doing this to get information if there is risk for our people. Sometimes there is shelling at some places. We don't want to expose out staff to danger.

The discussion is going on in Ukraine whether or not NGOs have to be granted the right to search for missing people independently or this right could be ascribed only to public authorities. The respective legislative initiative is being prepared. Meanwhile, relatives of the missing people point out that they receive real help only from NGOs and international organizations. The authorities mostly demonstrate inaction. What is your opinion on this issue?

It is clear that the main responsibility is with public authorities, they have to lead a process. It is a very complex process, and there are many legal issues to it. In many countries it is the police who deal with criminal aspects of this problem. There are several institutions which are involved. In Ukraine, you have very strong and dynamic civil society organizations. In some areas they supplement the authorities and do a very good job. But this has to be done under the coordination of the authorities and under their umbrella.

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However, it is important that the recovery of bodies, their management and identification are led by the authorities. We understand that families of the missing persons have huge anxiety, and for them it is necessary to speak to somebody. They meet officials and feel they don’t receive enough information on the identification process. NGOs could compensate this for families by providing them with information of possible procedures and by sharing the empathy.

How would you assess the ICRC’s cooperation with the SBU, the Ministry of Interior, the General Prosecutor's Office and other Ukrainian authorities? Do they help to solve the problems that you are tackling?

I would say that we are very satisfied with this cooperation. There are still issues that can and should be improved. The first one is coordination of all authorities involved. There is no single authority in charge of the issue of missing people. The Secret Service is in charge of some missing people but not all of them. The Ministry of Defense is involved with regard to the missing members of the armed forces. We have to cooperate with the Ministry of the Interior sending them the information on identification. There is the Forensic Research Institute in Dnipro which is in charge of identification of bodies. The Ministry of Social Policy is involved in some cases with regard to pensions. The work of all these bodies has to be coordinated. This is important. At this stage the coordination has not been established yet. We hope that some kind of commission for the missing persons will be created in Ukraine.

Is there a need also in a registry of missing persons?

It is important to have some registry where you have all information with regard to the missing people. Whether it should be public or not is debatable. Ideally, you need to have a consolidated list with Luhansk and Donetsk areas. It is clear that you might have bodies on one side of the conflict and the family living on the other side. So, it is important that you do not just say that a certain number of people are missing on the governmental side and a certain number - in Luhansk and Donetsk. These lists have to be put together.

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If there is no consolidated information and precise figures, we can rely at least on the number of cases that the ICRC deals with?

Speaking on behalf of the ICRC, there are 472 persons that contacted us. They are people who don't have information. So, they came to us. Some cases are very recent. The others have lasted since July 2014. There are some cases that we can solve because it turns out, for example, that a person was arrested. Sometimes the authorities inform us that the families have found their missing relative. We always get some cases closed and receive some new ones. Now we are launching the additional campaign to inform people that we are working on this problem, and that they can contact our offices. We can help to work on consolidated lists of missing people and share them with the government, with civil society.

Is the procedure for the identification of temporarily non-indentified Ukrainian soldiers efficient enough, from your point of you? Some relatives of the missing people say that even DNA tests do not provide certain results, so the relatives had to accept the identification results despite doubts. They are denied the chance to double check it independently.

We are speaking in this case about mass casualties. It could be compared with the airplane crash. It is very specific. Usually countries are equipped for individual cases. When we have huge numbers of casualties like this, all countries face incredible difficulties. When Hurricane Katrina occurred in the USA, they needed some time to identify persons. There have been a lot of improvements in the past 10-20 years concerning technical issues. The methods that are used nowadays are more reliable. But it is necessary to cross-check. When the body is recovered, it is necessary to gather all the information on the site and to make a proper forensic examination of the remains. When all the information is collected, you confirm it with the DNA test. We know that some families had problems with that. We work with professionals to exchange the best practices and to try to bring some international experience. We trust public institutions here. Trust is important in this process. Trust on the other side of the conflict is also important when they send bodies for identification and get test results. I agree that it is a disaster when the body is sent to the family, and it turns out that it is not their relative.

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Does the ICRC have unimpeded access to imprisoned people on the territories controlled by separatists in Eastern Ukraine, and in Ukraine in general?

At the moment, we have no access to detainees in the areas not controlled by the government. This is something we are working on very hard. We hope that we will have such an access.

What is the main obstacle for this?

It is a decision that a party takes to grant us access or not. We can just try to convince and show why it is important, and what kind of support we can provide to assure that people are treated with humanity and dignity. Since last October, we have participated in eight operations of release of detainees. We are visiting detainees in relation to the conflict on the government-controlled side. These are about 464 cases. But we don't have access to all of them. We are trying to get systematic access to all detainees from the government.


Alan Aeschlimann has headed the International Committee of the Red Cross mission n Ukraine since May 2015. A Swiss citizen, he graduated from the University of Neuchâtel. Aeschlimann has been working with the ICRC since 1987, including in Iraq (1987–1988, 1992–1993), Angola (1988–1990), Peru (1991), Israel (1998–2000) and Ethiopia (2000–2003). He also served at the ICRC headquarters in Geneva.

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