Saint of the Missing brings lost people home

  • 2010-07-01
  • Interview by Linas Jegelevicius

If you have a missing family member or a relative, you may have exhausted all options while looking for him or her. You may have tried the Criminal Police, Interpol or costly private detectives and numerous personal quests, but with no success. Those whose hope to find their loved ones is crushed, ultimately, seek out the last resources. No doubt the most powerful one, as Palmira Galkontaite and her husband, Egidijus Knispelis, celebrity producers and hosts of the popular TV program “National missing-person search service” say, employ what outshines traditional means – television. On the TV screen, with her wide-open eyes and somber voice scintillating hope for many, she conjures up the image of a Saint, who one day may call you up and say, in a soft-spoken manner, “Come on to meet your missing mother, sister, brother or your youth sweetheart…” The Baltic Times met the Saint of the Missing for this interview.

What was your way to the acknowledgment?
Galkontaite: To tell the truth, in the beginning our TV show was formatted according to a popular Dutch TV show during which people apologized to one another for their committed faults and misbehavior. Our role in the show was as intermediaries or consolers. However, the program, which was very popular on Dutch TV, did not gather a vast audience in Lithuania. I explain that by the fact that our Lithuanian society is indulging less in the ‘good life’ – we needed something more devastating and shattering on air here. Fortunately, we came upon a girl who was searching for her dad. She had not seen him for over twenty years. I remember we managed to find the man. Consequently, the much-publicized story boosted our TV ratings, pouring in the requests of the viewers to find their missing family members or relatives. Nevertheless, the start was rather difficult, as our TV show was new of this kind and we had to work on our brand name. In the beginning, I can admit, even for us, it was hard to comprehend the vast numbers of missing persons. I was stunned to find out that we have so many family and kin break-ups in our little Lithuania! We have so many scattered people all over! However, a decade ago, just a few people gave a thought on that.

Maybe that is why many people thought that your TV stories were staged?
Oh yes. In the beginning probably most of the viewers thought that these kinds of stories could not be real. People would wonder how we get people to act so well, realistically. It just shows that the subject was very distant and unperceivable to many. Thanks to God, with time passing, for many, our show served like a revelation that there is an abundance of heartbreaking stories on missing persons. I am proud that we have brought understanding about that.

How far do you travel in search for a missing person?
To tell the truth, I have been all over, reaching spots as remote as Siberia, Latin America and even Afghanistan. Quite frankly, the latter was quite adventurous, as a trip to the Panshera Valley, a Taliban stronghold, could put in serious jeopardy every foreigner. Burqa-clad and lead by a prominent Moudjahid leader and his entourage, I kept walking from one stony hut to another and kept talking to the locals in hopes of finding out the fate of several Lithuanian men, former Soviet Army soldiers, who presumably had been captured by the Afghan insurgents. However, my efforts in the rugged country brought no success.

What kind of people go missing most often?
People most often tend to search for their relatives – family members or just some kind of relatives. However, people often look for their comrades-in-arms, exiled friends, peers from orphanages and, as a rule, childhood sweethearts. My search experience is such that former comrades-in-arms are often closer than real brothers. I think it is a miraculous and unexplainable thing why blood-unrelated people often are closer than the closest relatives.

How long does a search usually last, until you can definitely tell what happened to the missing person?
A missing person search is a very long, painstaking, tedious, expensive and exhausting matter. Sometimes it takes up to five, six or ten years until we find out something about the missing person. With time passing by, new search circumstances come up, our search means widen and the list of our personal contacts broadens. All hardships pay off if, at the end, we receive a call or a letter, asserting that the person we were looking for is sound and well.

What do you call a hopeless search?
Knispelis: It is nearly impossible to find those people who emigrated after the wars and changed their names and surnames. In this kind of case, regardless of your input, you are always guaranteed a negative answer.

Can you recall a case when the search seemed hopeless, but fate was on your side?
Perhaps five years ago, an 83 year-old man contacted us for help to find his childhood sweetheart, which he had not seen for over 60 years. He knew only her first name, maiden surname and the fact that after the Second World War she left for the West. He did not even have a picture of the girl. From today’s perspective, this kind of request is hopeless, but in the beginning of our TV broadcasting, we took it very seriously, showing a brief TV coverage on the case. After a few weeks, we got a letter saying the woman lives on the outskirts of Chicago. However, the final push to make them meet turned out unexpectedly. When our people told the lady about the purpose of their trip, she hissed at them, cursing. “Is he still alive? Oh, God, I have hated him all my life,” she shut her door in front of their bewildered faces.

How often do private detectives and prosecutors address you for help?
People tend to hire private detectives abroad on a regular basis. Since this kind of service is very expensive, there are few private detectives in Lithuania. Prosecutors called us for help on several occasions, but their requests were hard to fulfill. A few years ago, Vilnius District prosecutors called with the request to reveal personal data of a man that had been on our program and who, according to the prosecutors, had been implicated in a murder case. We confirmed to them his participation on our show, however, we refused to reveal any data about him. We argued that, following our general practice, we do not disclose this kind of information about a missing person to anyone, including to his or her relatives, unless the found person wishes this. The prosecutors were defiant and, consequently, soon we got a call from our TV studio reporting that the police were carrying out a search, picking up all the computers. To the dismay of the prosecutors, there was no data about the person. This story proves our importance among law enforcement agencies.

Do feelings of men and women differ? Who tends to search for their youth sweethearts more often, men or women?
P. Galkontaite: It depends, but women, as a rule, tend to look for their sweethearts very often. Sometimes I think that women tend to exaggerate men’s role in their life. Women often think that, once their marital life breaks apart, their life could be brought together and lived fully again only with the man she once loved in her youth. Upon such middle-age break-ups, women tend to contemplate their past, saying, “Oh, I was so silly to give him the brush-off! He was so nice to me! He truly loved me! If we were together now, we would love each other so much!” However, my experience shows that once we find the loved person and my TV crew comes to see him, the man of the dreams often rolls his eyes and scratches his head, trying to remember who the heck the woman was. The bottom line is that men’s psychological and emotional attachment to the feelings, love and the past is not that strong and important as for women.

Which search case made you laugh?
Oh, it was quite recently. Requested by former classmates of a school, I was looking for their class-girl, which they had not seen for over fifty years. When all were invited to the TV studio, the elderly ladies chattered and blabbed, waiting for the appearance of their old friend. When she finally showed up, the septuagenarians shut their mouths in awe, ultimately, uttering surprisingly, “Oh, God, she has changed so much!” Believe me, it was one of a very few moments when I burst into unquenchable laughter. On a serious note, many people, particularly women, think that only other people change, but not themselves.

Can you guess how many of those missing people have become crime, human trafficking and slavery victims? How many of them hide dodging persecution?
It is hard to say that definitely. However, a significant part makes up those who disappeared after the recent emigration. In that sense, it is common when a daughter looks for her mother, for example, in Spain, or a mother searches for her son in England. Quite recently, we spotted a man, left without any ID, money and beaten up, wandering homeless on the streets of London. We brought him back home. We found out that he had become a victim of human trafficking. There are many cases of this kind.

What part of the searches do you perform in Lithuania and abroad?
Being affected by the crisis, our show is stripped of financing that we once used to have. Therefore, we limit ourselves only to domestic searches now. It is sad that the work is on hold.

How do you perform missing person searches abroad? Do you travel abroad on every occasion?
We perform them there using our personal contacts. In addition, usually we receive much help from Lithuanian emigrants, local Lithuanian communities in foreign countries, and our counterparts in mass media.

Nevertheless, do you not think that special services, such as the Criminal Police, consulates and private detectives should be involved in missing people searches first?
In more developed societies, with more developed social infrastructure, there are many social agencies dedicated to finding missing persons. Unfortunately, we do not have that much of this kind of establishment in Lithuania. It is a common practice to hire a private detective to find a missing person abroad, however, in Lithuania, 95 percent of people could not afford that. Only our ‘National missing-person search service’ does that free of charge and, more importantly, very successfully as we employ the most effective means – a popular TV show. I am not boasting when saying that it is enough to show our program to send ripples all over the world. We do receive calls from all over after the program is aired. We do have some cases when we found persons that the police could not trace.

How big is your missing person database?
We have a bit over 20,000 entries in our database. Statistically, we find one fifth of the total number. Only 40 percent of the stories go on air. As for the rest, we inform the relatives and family members of the found persons, about their location, etc. Of course, it happens upon their wish, as some found persons prefer not getting in touch with their family members or relatives. Each such story is worth a documentary movie. Unfortunately, due to the cut budget, we have to slow down with our searches.

Can you reveal how much you and your crew’s trivp to Latin America in search of a missing person cost?
It cost us nothing. The commercial TV, LNK, which could afford this kind of expenditure then, covered all the expenses. We call the years our golden age. All our foreign trips to trace missing persons have come to a halt. We do not have enough money to settle our phone bills now. Sometimes Egidijus and I deliberate about introducing a certain fee to access our program, or charge the so-called search fee to relatives of those successfully found. However, we are not sure whether the suggestions would find approval.