Cornilia Chiwedzerero spent more than two decades wondering what had happened to her son George. He left their village in the Zaka district of Zimbabwe’s Masvingo province for South Africa and was not heard from again.
Chiwedzerero, who is in her late 50s, cannot remember the exact date her son set off, but he was born in 1981 and left home when he was in his late teens. She heard about the Missing and Deceased Migrants and their Families programme from community leaders and signed up with the Zimbabwean branch of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), hoping it could help find George. The ICRC found that he had died and been buried in South Africa a few years ago. The organisation told Chiwedzerero and offered her counselling.
“I was very pained to ultimately know about my son’s death. But it helped me a lot as it brought closure rather than remaining expectant indefinitely, hoping that he would one day return home – as happens with many who have gone to South Africa but finally come home after many years,” she says.
Marie-Astrid Blondiaux is the protection coordinator at the ICRC’s regional head office for southern Africa in Pretoria. Blondiaux says many migrants do not have valid travel documents and end up losing contact with their families involuntarily because of injury or illness, or because they have been detained or trafficked. Some migrants die and are buried without identification because of a lack of documents.
The ICRC worked on a pilot project in Bulawayo, Harare, Gwanda and Zaka – areas with the highest number of missing migrants – between 2016 and 2018 to help find those who had not contacted home after leaving.
“We know that migrants hardly prepare for the possibility of being separated from their loved ones, and for the families left behind, it’s extremely hard. They don’t know whether their loved one is still alive or dead,” says Blondiaux. “Beyond the psycho-social effect of the disappearance … the families face numerous practical challenges. They struggle to access social benefits, to inherit, to remarry, to take care of their children … And we see that women and children are more affected by the disappearance of migrants or loved ones. In the case of death, the families and communities … cannot mourn in their traditional way.”
The ICRC, in collaboration with authorities in the target areas, starts by collecting information from the families of the missing migrants. It then visits migrant communities in South Africa, trying to trace the missing person. If they are not found alive, the ICRC, with the consent of the family, then shares information with the South African authorities. This is to see if the missing person is on a database or matches a description of unknown bodies in the country’s mortuaries or cemeteries. Many unidentified bodies end up being buried as paupers. According to the ICRC, these bodies often belong to Zimbabwean migrants.
As part of its missing migrants project, the organisation started working with one of the busiest mortuaries in South Africa, located in Johannesburg, to help it improve the identification rate of unknown bodies.
Lucinda Evert is a forensics specialist based at the ICRC’s office in Pretoria. She works closely with the identification unit at the Johannesburg Forensic Pathology Service. “Forensic experts at this facility were trained in the collection of unique features such as scars, skin marks, tattoos, malformations and amputations, which could be recognised by family members and could possibly assist in their identification. The experts at these facilities examine the body, clothing and personal items, take photographs of these and submit this information, together with fingerprints and DNA samples, to the authorities … in the hope of obtaining a possible identity,” Evert says.
Blondiaux says the ICRC’s collaboration with the mortuary has helped improve its procedures as well as the training of practitioners and forensic students, which in turn is helping to reduce the number of unidentified bodies. The project also often finds living migrants who have lost touch with home.
Together with the International Organization for Migration, the ICRC is working towards establishing an oversight committee that includes Zimbabwean and South African authorities, so they can exchange information on missing and deceased migrants across the border. It has already met with relevant South African authorities from various departments.
“The reaction of the authorities has been very encouraging. I believe there is a real understanding of the plight of the families of missing migrants. The families themselves are grateful for the support they receive in their search for loved ones, whether alive or dead. They feel less isolated, less alone, thanks to this initiative,” Blondiaux says.
The responsibility to respond
Greenwell Kunze used to buy spare vehicle parts in South Africa for resale back home. He has been missing since 2005. A pair of worn-out brown shoes, losing their colour from disuse, is one of the few possessions of his that his family holds on to.
“I was much younger than I am now when he left home,” says his younger sister Miriam Machingauta, “but I remember that he was a very responsible young man and he was helping look after all of us. He was well liked even within the community. Although we have so far not received any word about him, we remain hopeful that he will be found. The ICRC has been very helpful and has also counselled the family.”
As part of the programme, the ICRC and a number of national Red Cross societies across southern Africa host a website that seeks to reconnect missing people with their families. Individuals who have lost contact can check the website to see if their family is looking for them, or publish their photo so that family members know the person is looking for them.
The ICRC funds the missing migrants programme but Blondiaux hopes South African authorities in particular will contribute, realising it has the potential to decrease the burden on judicial, police and forensic resources, thus costing the government less overall. “We believe … the South African authorities not only have a responsibility to respond to this issue but they [also] have the infrastructure, the technical expertise [and] the legislation to address this humanitarian concern – and it will benefit them,” Blondiaux says.
Forty-four families have so far been reunited with their loved ones while 20 are still waiting to know the fate of their missing relative. Among them are Charles Ngano, who is looking for his sister, missing since 2005, and Deliwe Nkomo, who wants to find her grandson, missing since 2007.
Whatever the outcome of these cases, the ICRC initiative helps families cope with the anxiety and pain that comes from not knowing, or from finally finding out a loved one has died.