Blog AnalysisRussia Caucasus Ukraine

Caucasus: the question of the disappeared, a prerequisite for reconciliation (ICRC)

in Tskhinvali (Credit: ICRC / M. Kokic)

(BRUSSELS2) The problem of missing people in the Caucasus is not really on the European political agenda, nor as a priority at the local level. It's the least we can say. But she is much more politically sensitive than she seems. I was able to speak with the head of operations of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for Central Europe and the Caucasus, Pascale Meige-Wagner, during one of her visits to Brussels. Whether in Georgia, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, there are several thousand missing. A very political issue which should be considered more seriously by the international community, according to the ICRC. Because it is an obstacle to reconciliation and a potential threat to stability.

The only international actor present in the republics and conflicts of the Caucasus, in South Ossetia, Abkhazia (from where it never left), in Nagorny-Karabakh, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) occupying displaced people, conveying messages or reuniting families, but also unexploded ordnance. " Many mined areas affect civilian populations. explains P. Meige-Wagner. " Military doctrine in the former USSR was largely based on anti-personnel mines. »

• How many people are missing linked to the last conflict in Georgia?

For the 2008 conflict, this concerns a small number. We have 47 files. Most of them are Georgians, there are 2 Russians and 7 South Ossetians. Files that can be listed in three types of categories: either we have no idea if the person is alive or not, or the family knows that there is a death but does not know where the body is, or we know that there is a death and a body identified and then it must be repatriated. We resolved a case in the spring with the exhumation of a woman (Georgian), who was able to be repatriated. It was particularly moving. Because her husband was in the terminal phase of cancer and wanted to be able to rest with knowledge. Bodies have already been identified by the parties. And if the forensic work and collection of DNA and data from families goes well, a large number of cases could be solved. The work is not easy. We have an 18-page questionnaire for families to complete…

•…DNA is not enough for you? What is this for you?

No. It is essential for us to have this data from the closest families, to allow comparison of ante-mortem and post-mortem data. Because DNA is not enough in itself. It comes more as a confirmation. Ideally, moreover, it would be necessary to have on one side both DNA, from the father and the mother and to have a collection of good quality DNA. But it all depends on how a body is preserved. It is more difficult, especially if it has been burned or the bodies are mixed, in the case of mass graves for example. There are also cases where there are no surviving parents, only brothers and sisters, or nieces or nephews. The probability will therefore be less strong.

• Does this mean that there will remain unresolved cases?

Yes. This is to be feared. We must therefore also provide families with psychological help and not provide too much hope. Our approach as humanitarians is to start with the easier cases, but not to start with the most difficult cases, which would require investigations by the political authority, but with the easiest cases. There were bodies returned early on in Georgia. We have a few bodies at the Tbilisi cemetery. But they are not automatically identifiable. We are making progress. We are trying to identify them. Because we cannot imagine that these people are completely unknown.

• And for the old conflict, of 1991-1992?

It's harder. There are around 2000 people who have disappeared for Abkhazia, between 120-150 people for Ossetia. It's difficult because families have moved. Many are displaced people. In terms of forensic science, it is also much more complicated. There is a risk of not having good DNA. It should be noted that this method of legal identification, through the collection of DNA, dates from after the Caucasian wars, after the Balkan war in fact; we really started in 2000. And then, there were moments of tension which were not conducive to this work. There were a lot of changes in Georgia which made it impossible to ensure the follow-up of files. We had times when we lost hope of ever being able to move forward. Today, we are in a completely different phase; we feel a real interest in moving forward on the subject. I am hopeful that 2012 will be a key year in this area. There is a need to catch up on the necessary information. But the will of the parties is there. The mobilization around the 2008 conflict made it possible to resurface and raise the (forgotten) questions of the 1990 conflict on the political agenda. Here too, we will start with the easiest cases, like this helicopter which crashed in Abkhazia. Obtaining information is not enough. The families want a place to pray, to repatriate the bodies. They want the body to mourn. As in the Balkans, the body in the Caucasus has enormous importance.

• In these missing persons, are there not living persons?

Maybe. But this seems very limited. There may be some cases of real amnesia, or people who take advantage of it to rebuild their lives... Anything is possible. But this is rather rare. Some information is also circulating on the existence of hidden detention centers which maintain hope. But, in our opinion, this seems limited, it is very difficult to hide a detention center for years. Despite everything, we cannot tell a family that their loved one is dead without having proof. There is great distress for families there. We set up programs to support families at the psychosocial level, in terms of health, and also economic assistance…

• And in Nagorny-Karabakh?

We are on another scale. We have 4400 missing people (including 3700 families present in Azerbaijan). The first difficulty is to create a mechanism for resolving missing persons. Tensions remain very high. We remain struck to see that this subject is not always considered significantly as a source of potential tension, as an obstacle to reconciliation. With this figure, there are a significant number of people involved – families, relatives, friends – and a dialectic develops around the enemy. For us, if this problem is not resolved, or does not begin to be resolved, we do not see how there can be reconciliation.

• In the conflict in Transnistria, do we have the same type of case?

No. There are no cases of disappearances. It can be noted that Moldova is the only country to have adopted comprehensive legislation on missing persons. What we can be happy about. Armenia should follow quickly. The ICRC has proposed a model law to the assembly of CIS countries, based on our experience.

• Why do you insist on this need to search for missing persons?

It's very emotional. But it is also very political. Even a purely humanitarian identification process can undermine certain authorities, particularly if certain people have been detained or have been executed. It may cause certain political difficulties. One party, believing that they had fulfilled their duty to return the bodies, the other believing that they were not the correct ones. There is an obligation of reciprocity. And this is also part of the fight against impunity.

• So the question of the disappeared is an undervalued problem in your opinion?

Yes. The question of missing persons has never entered the top political level in the conflicts of the Caucasus. It is not part of the preconditions to be discussed. Humanitarian issues have not been put at the center of the political debate. We are in the Caucasus, in a totally different situation from that of the Balkans where this question appeared expressly in the Dayton agreements, in the agreements on Kosovo... If the question of the return of prisoners of war (*) has been settled and considered as a highly political issue, as a threat to stability. This is not the case for the missing.

• Isn't this also somewhat the work of humanitarian workers who kept away from politics?

Indeed, at the start, we were afraid of being exploited. However, today, we clearly see that, without a political perspective, there is no possibility of moving forward.

Last question, concerning the presence of European observers in Georgia, is it useful?

Yes without a doubt. Without an external presence, we would not have had an incident prevention and resolution mechanism (IRPM); an important stabilizing factor. For South Ossetia, particularly, it is important that this dialogue mechanism is maintained (NB: in Abkhazia, relations are less tense). Sometimes it is a minor problem; someone crossed in the wrong place. It does not solve the basic problem – access for some people to their traditional markets, their pension, their house, etc. – but it undoubtedly reduces tensions. In Nagorno-Karabakh, there is no dialogue mechanism and no administrative line or contact line, and it is less easy.

(*) To be a prisoner of war, one must be a member of the armed forces or have been in the context of an international conflict; It only exists between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In internal conflicts, we speak only of combatants. Thus in the conflict in Georgia in 2008, Russians and Georgians could be considered as prisoners of war but not South Ossetians.
(photo credit: © ICRC / M. Kokic)

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).