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Desperately seeking Swiss help trace missing loved ones

Nicole Windlin on duty in Tunisia

(Suchdienst SRK)

War, natural disasters, migration, personal conflicts: the reasons why families and friends are torn apart are myriad.

The tracing services department of the Swiss Red Cross helps people living in Switzerland to find missing loved ones all over the world. Each year, the Bern-based office handles hundreds of cases.

In 2010, nearly half of those cases involved political unrest or natural catastrophes. About a quarter were the result of migration issues; the balance were more personal in nature.

“The trust people give us is impressive. I used to do government-organised social work, where it took maybe half a year to build a good relationship with the people I was counselling. And here you’re a member of the family within five minutes,” said Nicole Windlin, head of tracing services at the Swiss Red Cross.

“This is really nice in one way, but it’s difficult because you cannot be a member of 500 families every year. In this situation you are often a symbol – a contact to the missing person,” Windlin told swissinfo.ch.

Flexibility is key

Windlin, who took the job three years ago, works within a team of four people. She says she and her colleagues need good listening and language skills, as well as an interest in current affairs. A flexible way of thinking is also important – especially when asking clients for information considered basic by Swiss standards.

“You might expect to get a name and a date and place of birth, but sometimes people come in and they don’t even know the family name of their spouse,” Windlin explained, “Maybe they don’t have an address – they say ‘the second tree after the fountain’ – so it’s completely different.”

Half of the requests they receive are from clients abroad looking for people believed to be in Switzerland. Whatever the case is, the first step is figuring out whether they can help; for example, security or political reasons might prevent the Red Cross from working in certain areas.

“We often have an idea of whether we’ll be able to help, and we try to be realistic --  we can’t promise,” Windlin said.

Not a normal loss

“The biggest challenge is trying to give psycho-social support to the people who are really suffering. They don’t know anything about their loved ones, and sometimes they’ve been living like this for years – sometimes it’s more recent,” said Windlin, noting that they currently have a lot of requests regarding Eritreans living as migrants in and around Libya.

She emphasises that when somebody is missing, it is not a “normal” loss for those left behind.

“If you have a missing person then you never have closure unless you know what happened to that person. ‘Ambiguous loss’ is the term. Whole families are really stressed because they can’t move on or take important decisions. To live with this uncertainty is really, really difficult.”

What people also need to keep in mind is whether the sought-after person actually wants to be found.

“When we find a person, we always ask if he or she wants to restore the contact. If they don’t agree, then we would never pass the contact details on,” pointed out Windlin. However, they do try to be transparent by giving a brief status report; sometimes they can even arrange for a letter to be sent.

Reunited

Thanks to the Red Cross Tracing Service, 89-year-old Karoly Rozsa has been reunited with a long-lost relative. After his wife died last year, the Hungarian-Swiss citizen began thinking about the rest of his family and decided to look for his niece in Budapest.

However, they had not seen each other in 30 years – and had lost touch. He tried writing to a Hungarian radio station for help, but got no reply. Then he contacted the Red Cross with the details of his family tree.

“I can only say good things about the Red Cross. They were so kind and they took the time for me right away,” Rozsa told swissinfo.ch. With the help of the Hungarian Red Cross, the Swiss branch was able to locate his niece within about three months.

“I was so happy that they could find my only relative,” said Rozsa, beaming. Eva, who is now 60 with two grown sons, will visit him at his home in Basel this autumn. The retired precision engineer, who is fit enough to drive and tend his large garden as well as two cats, plans to show Eva some of his favourite spots in Switzerland – like Mount Pilatus in Lucerne.

African mission

Occasional travel is also a part of Windlin’s job; she has recently returned from a month-long mission on the Tunisian-Libyan border.

The mission, organised  by the International Committee of the Red Cross, involved informing relatives about people crossing into Tunisia from Libya. Working from a tent pitched in the desert, Windlin helped people begin the process of looking for missing loved ones.

Some challenges included phone line problems and disappearances of people in Libya, but for Windlin it was a good experience overall.

“It was really impressive to work with the Red Cross and Red Crescent network and volunteers,” she said, describing their shared principles and investment in their jobs as inspirational.

Because her work does not always lead to a happy ending, Windlin finds it important to concentrate on the good stories and successes.

“It’s important to enjoy these moments – it helps you through the harder times, like the crisis in Libya with lots of desperate calls and people crying,” Windlin said.

Indeed, being sad is also a part of the job.

“We always say that if it doesn’t touch us, then we’re not doing the right job anymore. If you don’t cry at some point then there’s something wrong.”

International Day of the Disappeared

The International Day of the Disappeared (August 30) is a reminder that a great number of people are missing as a result of conflicts around the world.

Each year, the Red Cross marks the day by commemorating those who have gone missing in armed conflicts or other situations of violence – and remembers the plight of their families.

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SRC Tracing Service

The Swiss Red Cross Tracing Service is available to anyone living in Switzerland who wants to find a missing family member or close friend.

Family members can be separated by war, natural disasters or migration. But sometimes even disputes, adoption or other social reasons can lead to families being split up.

When trying to trace missing persons worldwide the SRC Tracing Service works in collaboration with the International Committee of the Red Cross and the 185 tracing services of other National Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies.

Before any direct contact is established, the persons being traced are asked whether they would like to be reunited.

The services of the SRC Tracing Service are free of charge; however, donations are always gratefully received.

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Facts and figures 2010

516 requests seeking 621 people

263 cases were processed, of those:

137 with positive outcome

104 with no outcome

17 discontinued

5 passed to other organisations

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swissinfo.ch


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