How the Red Cross works to help those lost to wars and disaster

Humanitarian organisation calls for university course in Arabic on disaster victim identification

Denise Abboud, the group's regional forensic manager in the Middle East. Antonie Robertson / The National
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The February 6 Turkey and Syria earthquake killed more than 50,000 people with many more still missing.

While miracle rescues of people under rubble have brought some muted cheer, the aftermath will be felt for a long time — particularly among the families of the missing.

Enter the International Committee of the Red Cross, more commonly known as the ICRC. It works to assist countries during times of natural disaster, conflict and migration to ensure proper treatment of the dead; correct identification of the deceased; and try to help locate those unaccounted for.

The ICRC’s forensic team spearheads this work and it was in sharp focus at the World Police Summit in Dubai on Wednesday where a virtual reality simulator allowed people to step into the shoes of a forensics expert in a warzone to try to identify those killed.

“Most people think of death as something that is going to happen to elderly people mostly, but when you work in our field, you will face the reality that anyone could die at any point for any reason, even if they are babies,” Denise Abboud, ICRC regional forensic manager for the near and Middle East, told The National.

“I have worked worked on autopsying babies and I can tell you how difficult that is. It is very difficult.”

ICRC staff searching for human remains in Abkhazia, Georgia. Photo: ICRC

The ICRC is the guardian of the Geneva Conventions, which protects the dignity of the dead, and it remains neutral, which allows it to operate around the globe. While the Geneva-based organisation was founded in 1863, its forensic team is only 20 years old. Ms Abboud and her team work with countries worldwide to bolster their capacity to deal with natural disasters, conflicts and migration.

“There are obligations on states to identify those who die in conflict and ensure the dead are not tampered with or mistreated. The ICRC tries to ensure states abide by these rules,” she said.

But what Ms Abboud and the ICRC are seeking to do is shift from “boots on the ground” in times of crisis, to preventive action to bolster the medical, legal and forensic systems of a country so they are more resilient when disaster strikes. An example in the context of the Turkey-Syria earthquake is how the ICRC helped to repair the morgue in Aleppo that had been damaged during the war. This was not done in anticipation of an earthquake but because it is good practice.

“We added a family reception that was not there in the previous morgue so we ensured families had a place to go to, request info about their loved ones and be able to be assisted there.”

Plight of the missing

According to the ICRC, hundreds of thousands are missing in the Middle East because of the Lebanese Civil War; the Iran-Iraq war; both Gulf wars and countless other events. For Ms Abboud, it is a challenge to keep the focus on this when the headlines of a crisis fade. For example, work is ongoing to find those missing from the 1990 Gulf War.

“We still have people not identified,” she said. “Families will never give up on missing persons. So the work of the ICRC is to remind [countries] of the importance [of this work]. It is very difficult because it needs long-term funding and will not end in a few years.”

Countries have asked the ICRC to come in and clear battlefields but Ms Abboud stresses this isn’t really the ICRC’s mandate as some areas are still dangerous and high-risk to staff. “We are not in a capacity to do that or have a legal mandate. So we remind the authorities of best practices of how to do it. And how to take into account cultural and religious sensitivities. Some refuse to use body bags. But the importance of body bags is they maintain the integrity of a body.”

Ms Abboud, who is from Lebanon and holds a master's degree in forensic science and a PhD in social science with a focus on criminal justice, is also keen to see the Middle East region develop its own teams and university courses specialised in disaster victim identification (DVI). While the UAE has developed expertise, she believes there should be a regional team with skills in forensics, fingerprinting; DNA; and genetics ready to deploy to a crisis. “So instead of seeing a European team come to the Beirut blast, can it be a GCC team?”

Arabic university courses needed

She also wants to see a university in the Middle East teach, in Arabic, a course on DVI which despite the huge numbers of missing people, doesn’t exist yet. “We will support the creation of a curriculum and bring expertise. We want local solutions to local problems,” she said.

For Ms Abboud, dealing with trauma is just part of her daily workload. And the ICRC places significant emphasis on mental health support as much as anything else.

“When you write tonnes of emails every day about people who died, unconsciously you are grieving all the time,” she said. “Every day you are dealing with the death of a person or an unidentified body so you are continuously grieving.”

International Committee of the Red Cross forensic work — in pictures

Updated: March 10, 2023, 1:26 PM