When A Person Goes Missing And Authorities Leave, Communities Are Left Looking For Answers
Exhaustion. Fear. Relentless Perseverance. That's how Christos Tsestmetzis describes the mood in his hometown of Byron Bay.
It's a tourist hotspot, bustling with families and holidaymakers, but it's also not unfamiliar to tragedy.
Christos has been one of the locals leading the search for a Belgian teenager who disappeared without a trace from the coastal NSW town, almost three months ago.
When 10 daily spoke to Christos this month, he had spent the day liaising with the teenager's family -- who have been making the heartbreaking 15,000 kilometre journey between Byron Bay and Belgium.
While police-led ground, air and water searches for 18-year-old backpacker Théo Hayez ended in July, a dedicated group of Byron Bay locals has never given up hope in finding him.
"I'm still shocked and amazed that people are relentless and getting out there," Christos said.
"A lot of people are giving up their work and family time just to continue on".
While in earlier days the community searches saw hundreds turn up to help, as the weeks progressed with still no trace of the teenager, Christos admitted the crowds have dwindled to just 20.
"I wish we could just click the finger and here are 150-200 people, but it just doesn't happen anymore," he said.
The volunteer searchers have managed to cover around 97 percent of the cape and surrounding beaches and bushland around the well-known Byron Bay lighthouse.
Christos says much of it is thanks to locals offering not just their time, but also tools such as drones and even abseiling skills to look in remote, and at times dangerous, places.
This week, following a community callout, Sydney-based group Search Dogs Sydney also joined the locals to search the area where Théo's phone last pinged.
"They specialise in lost persons, they are behavioural analysts for lost people... and there will be cadaver dogs as well," Christos said.
"We are also in the early stages of arranging certified master divers," he added.
'They Want Answers'
Asked what the impact of Théo's disappearance has been on the community, Christos said it was sadly not the first time someone had gone missing in the area.
"There are families galore here, and they're just petrified and I think they want answers. They want to understand what community they live in and if they can feel safe," he said.
With more than 38,000 Australians reported missing every year, there are thousands of communities across the nation impacted.
Founder and CEO of Missing Persons Advocacy Network (MPAN) Loren O'Keeffe said it's often the complexity of grief and the subsequent silence that are the biggest impact on the communities where people go missing.
"Ambiguous loss is considered to be the most unmanageable type of grief, and it’s difficult to comprehend, especially living in this information age when answers are so easily attainable," she told 10 daily.
"Society isn’t comfortable with uncertainty, so it’s usually easier for people to ignore it, to avoid it. And that silence makes it even more difficult for families to cope".
Loren founded MPAN in 2013, after her own brother Dan went missing in 2011. Her campaign to find him: "Dan Come Home" became the biggest of its kind, reaching more than 70,000 people online.
While Dan's body was found a few years later, Loren has continued working with other families who reached out for help in finding their own missing loved ones.
United In Grief
Loren said establishing community awareness of missing people is "vitally important."
"We first have to challenge the stereotypes and change the perception of the people and the topic then re-frame this as the community health issue it is," she explained.
"Awareness is important for; ideally locating missing loved ones, showing families they’re not alone in their search ... and we’ve also learned that awareness campaigns are actually preventative to those vulnerable to going missing".
Loren says that for every missing person in Australia, at least 12 people are directly affected, financially, emotionally and psychologically.
"[We're] striving to alleviate the financial, emotional and psychological burden on those left behind."
THE SEARCH FOR THÉO
Théo was last seen leaving the Cheeky Monkey's bar just after 11pm on Friday May 31st. He was due to return home to Belgium the following week.
To date, no trace of the missing teen has been found. However, locals are hopeful a cap that was found in the search area last month, may bring new hope to the search.
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Featured Image: AAP.