Wednesday, 18 March 2015

1992-1993 Georgia-Abkhazia armed conflict: ICRC helps to clarify the fate of Missing Persons

Problem of people missing during and after armed conflicts unfortunately relates to Georgia too. According to various sources, there is significant number of people who got missing during and in relation with armed conflicts of last decades in our country.

It is known that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is actively involved in the process of searching of those people.

Ms Jelena Milosevic Lepotic, who coordinates the work related to issues of missing persons and their families, tells us more about the role and activities of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Indeed, there are over 2000 persons missing from the conflicts of the last decades and families are still waiting for answers,. Families are ageing and they told us many times that all they want is to have an answer and be able to give a proper burial to their relatives.

The ICRC initiated a "Missing project" which aims at addressing the issue of people who were unaccounted for as a result of armed conflicts in order to prevent disappearances, locate missing persons, and also to address the needs of their families. It is important to recall that the families of the missing persons should also be seen as victims of conflicts. An international conference was organized in Geneva in 2003, which led to recommendations and best practices on various issues linked with the disappearance of people, which unfortunately excessively occurs in conflict affected countries all over the world. Georgia has, unfortunately, not been spared. Thus, it is extremely important to try to implement and put into practice what has been recommended following the Conference. Aside from the various needs the families of missing persons are facing, the most crucial one is their need to know the whereabouts of their loved ones. In Georgia, we are actively working with all the parties involved in order to address this issue of the missing people in a purely humanitarian manner in order to find their whereabouts and if deceased, to identify and hand over the human remains to the families to allow them have a proper funeral ceremony and do their mourning.

In 2010, we succeeded to set up two humanitarian mechanisms: one addressing the issue of persons who disappeared in relation with the 1989-1992 and 2008 conflicts and the other addressing the issue of persons who went missing in relation to the 1992-1993 conflict. Both mechanisms are chaired by the ICRC.

It is important to mention that the authorities are actively involved in the process. I would say we see that the Georgian, Abkhaz, South Ossetian and Russian participants to the process do realise their responsibility in getting answers for the families of missing persons.

You mentioned the two coordination mechanisms that were established and work under the auspices of the ICRC. How successful is the work of those mechanisms? What are the results achieved by now?

The two mechanisms that we established are: the Bipartite Coordination Mechanism for Clarifying the Fate of Persons Missing in Relation to 1992-1993 Armed Conflict and after and the Tripartite Coordination Mechanism for the Clarification of the Fate of Persons Missing from the August 2008 armed conflict and earlier hostilities.

Despite the complexity of the process, the work of the two mechanisms does bring concrete results. The participants to the Bipartite Coordination Mechanism keep on meeting on regular basis and exchanging information relevant to the work. The ICRC provides support with technical expertise within the framework of its mandate of a neutral humanitarian organisation. The Tripartite Coordination Mechanism is presently facing some difficulties, yet the ICRC continues providing support to the participants to overcome present difficulties and continue successful bringing of answers to the families that await them.

So far, the following results have been achieved:

Following the decision made by the Bipartite Coordination Mechanism, experts from the Argentine Forensic Anthropology team were invited by the ICRC to support exhumations and analysis of 64 sets of human remains of unidentified persons that died during the 1992-1993 armed conflict and who were subsequently buried in the site of Park Slavy in Sukhumi. . Remains of 21 individuals have been identified and returned to their families since December 2013. In 2014, exhumations of 2 sites containing remains of persons who died in the 1993 plane crash at the Babushera Airport took place. Remains of 55 individuals were exhumed and analysed. Following the DNA and anthropological analysis, remains of 9 persons have been identified.

In parallel to work of the two mechanisms, we have also initiated a project in favour of the families of the missing people.

What kind of support do you provide to families of missing individuals?

Under the project Accompaniment of Families of Missing Persons, local non-governmental organizations, Georgia Red Cross Society and a number of enthusiastic individuals in cooperation with the ICRC provided psychological, legal, social, economic and psychosocial support to the families of missing. The aim of the project is to address their various needs, and assist them to live with their ambiguous loss.

Based on their feedback this work seems to be very much appreciated. These people feel that they are not forgotten and that their specific needs are taken into consideration.

You informed about exhumations in Babushera, Sukhumi and Tbilisi. According to various media sources, some other graves might as well be exhumed. What additional information could you give us on that issue?

As mentioned previously, the participants to the Bipartite Coordination Mechanism agreed and carried out exhumations at the sites of Park Slavy (Sukhumi), Babushera and Digomi (Tbilisi). So far, remains of 30 persons have been identified and handed over to their families both in Sukhumi and in Tbilisi. The first identifications of remains exhumed from Babushera were reached in December 2014 when one family received remains of its four missing family members. Identification of 5 more individuals exhumed from Babushera has been reached and Georgian participants to the Bipartite Mechanism (Ministry of IDPs and Refugees and the National Forensic Bureau Medical Department and Morgue), with support of the ICRC, organised the handover of the identified remains to the families in February 2015. More identifications can be expected as the process of identification using anthropology and DNA analysis continues.

What ensures accuracy of identification of human remains? What are the standards applied in this complex activity?

A multi-disciplinary approach is taken towards the identification of human remains. This includes using different types of information such as data about the missing person when they were alive, the circumstances of disappearance, DNA reference samples from family members and reliable information about the location about where the bodies may have been buried. This information is compared against data collected during the scientific recovery and analysis of the human remains as well as DNA samples that are taken from the skeletal material. In this way, multiple lines of enquiry and all supporting evidence is used for a positive identification. This approach follows international best practice in the identification of human remains and ensures confidence in the results.

What are the plans for the future?

The Bipartite Coordination Mechanism and its Forensic Working Group will continue meeting regularly. The next meeting is preliminary agreed to take place sometime in the spring in Istanbul. The dates are still not confirmed. It is expected that the participants will continue working on the collection of information about potential burial places to enable future exhumations, identifications and hand overs to the concerned families.

In order to have the process running smoothly, it is expected that all institutions directly and indirectly supporting the process fulfil their agreed roles: e.g. The Ministry of IDPs and Refugees continues collecting and managing information through its department for missing persons, the National Forensic Bureau DNA laboratory continues assisting the ICRC-led and financed process of collection and storage of biological reference samples and the Georgian government continues financing the process of DNA profiling of the biological reference samples collected from family members of missing persons, etc.

At the same time, safeguarding this humanitarian process from political agenda is highly important. The ICRC together with the Georgian and Abkhaz participants will continue ensuring that the nature of the coordination mechanism – non-politicized, non-reciprocal, and humanitarian – is maintained in the future.

The ICRC will recommend to the Georgian government to form a state commission on missing persons that will facilitate a standardised and centralised management of data on missing persons, their families, potential gravesites, and other relevant data. It is hoped that this will in turn facilitate clarification of the fate and whereabouts of those registered as missing and provide long-awaited answers to their families.

Wednesday 18 March 2015

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Myanmar ferry accident death toll climbs to 61

The death toll in a ferry accident last week off northwestern Myanmar rose to 61 as two more bodies were recovered Tuesday, state television reported.

The report on the evening news said that the bodies of 14 males and 47 females had been found so far, and efforts were continuing to recover victims from the ship about 30 meters (90 feet) underwater.

The Myanma Ahlin newspaper reported earlier Tuesday that the number of known survivors was 169.

The crowded government-run double-decker ferry was carrying more than 225 passengers when it left the coastal town of Kyaukphyu. The ferry had travelled about 80 kilometers (50 miles) north near Myebon in Rakhine state Friday night when it hit rough seas and capsized after taking on water.

Boat accidents due to overcrowding and bad weather are common in Myanmar's river deltas and coastal regions. People rely on boat transport because of the lower cost and the inaccessibility of many areas by road.

Wednesday 18 March 2015

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South Africa: 100 bodies recovered from unmarked grave on sugar cane farm

South African authorities on Tuesday said they have discovered a suspected mass burial site containing around 100 bodies at a sugarcane farm near the southestern port city of Durban.

The bodies buried at the unmarked site are suspected to be those of former prison farm labourers.

The Vulamehlo municipality mayor and senior local government officials visited the farm last week and "discovered that there were indeed graves ... where close to 100 people were buried," municipality manager Msizi Zulu told.

"We are not quite sure if they were buried in coffins or were just dumped there." A traditional sangoma, or witchdoctor was last year "prompted by the spirits about the grave" and led the authorities to the derelict site, he said.

It is not yet clear how old the burial site is and authorities have not yet started procedures to determine the identities of those buried. Glenroy Farm, situated less than 100 kilometres south of Durban, is now owned by leading sugar conglomerate Illovo, which bought it in 1989.

A statement from a provincial cabinet meeting last week said the farm was known as having used prison farm labourers years ago. Illovo said until now, it was unaware of the existence of the graves and "has never used, and does not use, prison labour at any of its operations".

"We have been informed that a broken-down and derelict building, which was previously hidden ... by thick and overgrown vegetation on an uncultivated section of the farm, was in fact a prison building many years ago, and that the graves recently discovered may well be those of prisoners," said Illovo.

It said it had no knowledge on whether the prisoners may or may not have worked on the farm prior to its ownership of the property 26 years ago.

Wednesday 18 March 2015

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The worst storm of all: Tri-State Tornado holds records 90 years later

Wednesday, March 18, 1925, was a comparatively slow news day in Cape Girardeau.

Among the headlines on the front page of the Southeast Missourian's evening edition: "College not likely to get new building." "Girl, 18, makes second trip to the altar." "Left-hand turn into driveways now prohibited."

And this: "Small town obliterated by cyclone."

Annapolis, Missouri, about 100 miles west of Cape Girardeau, was nearly wiped out by a tornado that passed through the area about 2 p.m. that day, the story stated.

The paper also said a little damage had been reported at Appleton and Perryville, Missouri, but a line of the Cape Girardeau Telephone Co. was down between towns, making communication impossible. But the storm had been "barely noticeable" in Cape Girardeau, "there being only a brisk wind."

No doubt the town went to bed gossiping about the 18-year-old divorcee. Little did they know of the extensive damage and losses their neighbors had suffered.

March 19, 1925

Thursday's headline across the top of the front page revealed a reality few had considered: "STORM TOLL IS NEAR 1,000."

The tornado -- known today as the Tri-State Tornado -- had, indeed, touched down at Annapolis, the first of many landing spots. The tornado went on for more than 200 miles, touching down at Biehle, Missouri; Gorham, Murphysboro, De Soto and West Frankfort in Illinois; and Griffin, Owensville and Princeton in Indiana, setting records along the way that still stand 90 years later.

The National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office website, which categorizes the Tri-State Tornado as an EF5, said it had an average path width of three-fourths of a mile, traveled 219 miles and caused 3 1/2 hours of continuous devastation.

The twister caused 695 deaths, a record for a single tornado.

A record 234 deaths were reported in Murphysboro, the most for a single community from such a disaster. And 33 people died at the De Soto school -- only bombings and gas explosions have caused more deaths at high schools, according to the website.

The site said modern research suggests such a long-lasting tornado is the result of an evolving supercell, in which one storm cell leads to the development of another.

Because the Tri-State Tornado's path was continuous, however, it's believed it could have been one rare, massive storm.

Five people in Cape Girardeau and Perry counties were known to be dead and 14 injured.

But across the river, the early death-toll numbers being reported were much higher: 35 killed at Parrish, 200 at West Frankfort, 500 at Murphysboro.

Dr. G.S. Cannon of Fornfelt, who had been helping treat the injured, told the Missourian: "Several carloads of injured were placed on board trains there at midnight to be taken to a Cairo hospital, and rescue workers were still searching the ruins for more injured and dead."

March 20, 1925

Somber news of the storm's toll on the area continued to roll in Friday. It was time to bury the dead.

A revised list of those killed was printed, with one more than previously had been thought after a report came in by phone after communication was re-established.

The paper said the "latest figures indicate the death list will be more than 600 in final and official compilations."

Hundreds of mourners gathered for triple services at Whitewater Presbyterian Church near Lixville in Bollinger County, Missouri, and a double service was held in the wrecked Catholic church at Biehle.

The tales of devastation seemed endless. One 35-year-old farmer, Joe Blechle, was laid to rest even as his wife lay injured at a neighbor's house in Biehle.

The prognosis was not good for 9-year-old Hazel Statler, who was fighting death at a Cape Girardeau hospital after she sustained a depressed skull fracture when the storm stuck her school at Lixville.

Ida Steuve, who with her sister, Concordia, was injured when wind damaged the Rich parochial school in Frohna, was expected to be taken to a Cape Girardeau hospital for surgery -- if she could withstand the trip.

In Indiana, 92 were reported dead, the United Press reported.


The tornado had set a record speed of 73 mph between Gorham and Murphysboro, where the death toll continued to rise. One-hundred-fifty bodies were recovered the morning of March 20; 250 people were reported injured.

The Murphysboro power plant was damaged, leaving the city without water or light. One hundred city blocks were destroyed, and 70 more, including residential areas, were swept by flames.

Five students died when the storm ripped through the high school. Four other public schools were damaged, as well, killing 12 students.

Cape Girardeau visitors to Murphysboro urged others to stay away: "The city is under martial law, with state militiamen guarding the ruins. Everywhere there were tragic signs of the disaster."

The city of Murphysboro said it welcomed aid, but urged visitors to stay away. "Raise money; send supplies, but keep the people away," one story read.

So many rescue workers flocked to Illinois towns, a general order was issued to stop the flow of people into the cities.

Supplies had been rushed to the area, but apparently some of the curious visitors had been taking advantage, and townspeople were worried food would run out.


Over the week following the Tri-State Tornado, recovery efforts began to take shape.

The Red Cross organized to help in Biehle and Sedgewickvile.

Two representatives worked out a program to help nearly 100 left homeless in the communities, the Southeast Missourian reported March 25, 1925.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency would not be created for another 54 years, but calls were made for government intervention.

"An application will likely be made to Gov. Sam A. Baker for funds from the state appropriation, now pending in the legislature" for relief work, one story read, because local monies weren't going to be enough.

Locally, $1,400 was raised and used to help tornado victims. That equates to just over $18,600 today.

In Illinois, Gov. Lennington Small ordered immediate construction of Highway 13 north from Murphysboro to St. Louis, the newspaper reported.

Isaac Levy, chairman of the general rehabilitation committee in Murphysboro, had asked Small to order the work completed by state labor so Murphysboro citizens could get employment.

Three thousand men from the area were expected to be employed on the project within a few weeks, beginning to rebuild for their communities and their families.

Wednesday 18 March 2015

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Turkey: Migrant boat disaster in the Aegean Sea kills six, 2 missing

A small boat carrying illegal Syrian and Iraqi immigrants sank off the Aegean coast of Turkey early on Tuesday. Six aboard were killed while two others are missing in the latest tragedy that befell migrants hoping to cross into Europe via Turkey A small boat carrying 16 illegal Syrian and Iraqi immigrants from Bodrum, a popular vacation resort in southwestern Turkey, to Greece's Kos Island in the Aegean Sea, sank off the Turkish coast around midnight on Tuesday. The bodies of six migrants were recovered from the sea while eight others were rescued by the Coast Guard. Search and rescue crews continue to scour the area for two unaccounted migrants.

The incident was discovered when a Syrian man was found half-conscious off the coast by a Coast Guard patrol. The man told authorities they were sailing to Kos, some 5 miles from Bodrum when their boat started taking in water and sank. He said 15 others were aboard, including Iraqi citizens. Coast Guard boats and helicopters combed the area and rescued seven others who were found alive, while six bodies were found floating near the site where the boat sank.

As search and rescue efforts were underway, the Coast Guard stumbled across another group of immigrants boarding a 7 meter-long rubber boat near the area. Immigrants are suspected of sailing together with those aboard the sunken boat. Forty-six immigrants crammed on the boat were rescued minutes before their dinghy started taking on water and was taken to shore.

The Aegean Sea is a hotbed for illegal immigration, according to figures indicating more than 12,000 immigrants were caught by the Coast Guard last year. Undocumented immigrants from Middle Eastern and Asian countries increasingly head to Europe from Turkey via the Aegean Sea despite the ever-present risk of death in overcrowded dinghies.

In the first three months of 2015, teams rescued 1,497 migrants and captured six smugglers in about 60 incidents in operations in the Aegean Sea.

The Coast Guard captured 12,872 illegal immigrants in 2014 in 524 cases as they were trying to cross into Greece via the country's islands located near Turkish territories by boarding small boats. An average number of 35 people were captured daily while the Coast Guard managed to apprehend only 74 smugglers. Immigrants pay large sums to smugglers who often abandon them halfway through the trip to escape capture.

The number of illegal immigrants captured in 2013 by the Coast Guard was 8,047, with 6,937 of them captured in the Aegean Sea. Figures rose considerably in three years, from 2,531 in 2012.

Syrians who were displaced by four years of civil war in their country make up the majority of captured migrants. Although Turkey offers a safe haven for some 1.8 million Syrian nationals, many look to travel to Europe in pursuit of better employment. Immigrants from Myanmar and Afghanistan are also among the immigrants captured most often in the Aegean Sea during their journey of hope.

Almost all trips end up with the sinking of the boats carrying immigrants, as most travel in small rubber boats that are not built for long-distance travel. The boats are generally boarded by about two dozen people despite their capacity being far below that. According to 2014 figures by the Coast Guard, the bodies of 154 people were found in 842 operations against illegal immigrants throughout 2014, but this figure might be higher since most migrants enter Turkey illegally from the country's southern and eastern borders before reaching its western shores.

Wednesday 18 March 2015

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Indonesia ends search for AirAsia Flight #8501 crash victims; 56 people still missing

The search for remaining bodies from a plane crash in the Java Sea ends on Tuesday night, the head of Indonesia's rescue agency has confirmed.

The ships involved in the search will then be pulled out on Wednesday, Bambang Soelistyo told the BBC.

AirAsia lost contact with flight QZ 8501 on 28 December as it was flying from Surabaya in Indonesia to Singapore with 162 people on board.

The search effort has recovered 106 bodies, with 56 unaccounted for.

The families of those missing are disappointed but understand that the search cannot go on indefinitely, reports the BBC's Alice Budisatrijo in Jakarta.

Frangky Chandra, the older brother of Gani Chandra, an Indonesian man who was on board the plane, and whose body has not been found, said it was difficult for his family to move on.

"We will never stop waiting," Mr Chandra told the BBC.

He said "the most important thing" was that DV1, the official search team, has said it will help with the identification process if any more bodies are found.

Tony Fernandes, the CEO of AirAsia, told reporters last week that he was satisfied with the search operation

"We have been successful... To get more than 50% is considered a huge success," he said.

But he added that the search could not "go on indefinitely".

The fuselage of the crashed plane was located in the Java Sea in mid January and the final part of it that was recoverable was removed at the end of February. Divers established that those elements of fuselage that had to be left in the sea did not contain any bodies.

The bodies that were recovered were mostly found in and around the wreckage, with a few discovered some 1,000km away, off the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Three were found as recently as 14 March.

Wednesday 18 March 2015

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