Missing in action, who do you turn to? The ICRC’s Central Tracing Agency

Olga Masia, working the phone lines at ICRC's Central Tracing Agency office focussing on the war in Ukraine. Peter Kenny/Geneva Solutions

Loved ones seeking information on prisoners of war or other missing in war in Ukraine now have an expanded outlet of the ICRC's Central Tracing Agency that operates from its headquarters in Geneva, as well as closer to the frontlines.

Imagine if your son or husband disappeared while fighting Russian invaders, or your conscripted son or husband was lost in a battle he was sent to fight in Ukraine. Who would you turn to? 

Especially during the holiday season when families would like to unite, it might be the Central Tracing Agency (CTA), a division of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) specialised in tracking down people missing during conflict. For in times of war, the words a family most fears about their loved one in conflict after a death announcement is “missing in action”, evoking the lingering fear, where is my son or daughter?

Set up soon after the 2022 conflict began, a new division of the CTA was launched in March 2022 in a building not far from the lakeside in Geneva. There, the CTA Bureau for the International Armed Conflict between the Russian Federation and Ukraine employs nearly 100 people of 22 different nationalities, who beaver away quietly with headphone sets, computers and archives.

Over 150 years of work

“One of the ICRC’s oldest institutions, the Central Tracing Agency has helped people who have been separated from their loved ones for more than 150 years,” says Erika Oman Chappuis, the public relations officer at the agency.

Its activity is a core part of the ICRC’s mandate under the Geneva Conventions, which sets out the rules for the treatment of POWs.

During the First World War,  some 10 million service members or civilians were captured and sent to detention camps. That war honed the ICRC’s ways of making contact between families and prisoners of war or those detained.

No accurate figures for the number of POWs in the Russia-Ukraine war exist but over 1,000 prisoners have been swapped since February, according to news reports. The Russian ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Gennady Gatilov, has claimed that Moscow holds over 6,000 POWs. The CTA, on its part, acknowledged that there were likely to be several thousands of POWs on both sides.

“Thousands of prisoners of war and civilians continue to be forcibly detained,” Ukraine’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Yevheniia Filipenko, told the Human Rights Council earlier in December. Ukraine has accused Russia of not allowing free access to the POWs it holds.

Discretion getting in the way of action?

Almost since its inception in 1863, the ICRC has worked with parties in conflicts, trying to set rules for the treatment of combatants during the chaos of war. 

The humanitarian organisation took some flak earlier this year, after Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February. The Ukrainian government accused the humanitarian group of acting too slowly in obtaining access to Ukrainian POWs and in finding missing civilians.

Observers have also been critical of ICRC’s policy of discretion, and failing to speak out in face of wartime abuses. Daniel Warner, former deputy head of Geneva’s Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, recently wrote in an opinion piece: “The ICRC policy of silence appears to continue in the face of serious violations in Ukraine.”

The ICRC’s firmly-held neutrality, which gives it access to both sides in a war, can also mean slow progress in access to people. But the Red Cross argues that its neutrality is what guarantees the trust of both sides. In her first public address on 30 November, ICRC’s new president, Mirjana Spoljaric said that “giving up the principle of confidentiality” would mean “losing trust, losing space, losing the possibility of access”. We’re not an advocacy group,” she said.

Read also: New ICRC chief Mirjana Spoljaric: ‘We’re not an advocacy group’

The ICRC announced earlier this month that it had carried out visits to POWs held by Ukraine and Russia, allowing delegates to assess their conditions and treatment, share news with their families, and provide personal items including blankets, warm clothes, hygiene products and books. More were scheduled for this month, the organisation said.

Contact work would have been supported by the ICRC’s CTA bureau for Ukraine and Russia. 

Marta Pawlak, head of the agency's front office, told Geneva Solutions, “Its role is to act as a neutral intermediary between the parties. It works to alleviate the suffering of families who want news of their loved ones missing due to the conflict, either because they have fallen in the hands of the enemy or because they fled their homes and have lost contact.”

The bureau collects, centralises, and transmits information about the fate and whereabouts of people.

“They are both military and civilians deprived of their liberty, who have fallen in the hands of the enemy,” said Pawlak, a Polish national. She works alongside Russians, Ukrainians, French and others, including a man from Gabon who had been studying in Kherson when the Russians invaded.

‘I’m waiting for you’

One of the bureau’s tasks is facilitating letter exchanges. An operator at the agency’s phone hub in Geneva, Olga Masia from Belarus, reads a message from a wife to her POW husband, “Hello, my beloved husband. We are well; our daughter is almost walking now; she is so funny. She is alright. Iliusha is going to the local school here; he likes it. We are here with my parents. I miss you very much and I’m waiting for you.”

Olga is careful not to give any details about the identity of the POW as caution is the watchword of the ICRC.

“Sometimes, we feel like a helpline here,” another operator commented about the calls that the agency receives from either side of the frontlines. “The same person can call us for days on end.” Some 28 phone operators in Geneva, Moscow and Kyiv manage over 400 enquiries a day, according to Pawlak, adding that “our call centres have received more than 45,000 calls, emails and online forms since March”.

Operating in both Ukraine and Russia, as well as Geneva, the agency also coordinates ICRC’s global efforts to protect and restore family connections, search for and identify missing people, protect the dignity of the dead, and address the needs of families of missing people.

The bureau has a multidisciplinary team, composed of in-field experts in family links, missing persons, and forensics. 

With the many tens of thousands of messages, calls and communications it has received since the start of the war, “handling all this data, managing it and analysing it is a key task,” said Jerome Cassou. From his computer in Geneva, he works as the head of data for the agency, which has millions of indexes for POWs and their details obtained from both sides of the conflict.

“The Central Tracing Agency Bureau will remain active for as long as needed to provide families with answers,” said Chappuis.