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Missing Persons:
Autor: BIRN
Objavljeno: 30. Aug 2018. 14:08:42

To mark International Day of the Disappeared, relatives of people who went missing in Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo and Albania during the 1990s wars or under Communism describe the agony of waiting decades to discover their loved ones’ fate.

Tens of thousands of people went missing during the 1990s wars in the Balkans, and the bodies of several thousand of them have not yet been found. Under Albania’s Communist regime, thousands of people also disappeared and the locations of many of the burial places have not been established decades later.

Each of these unresolved disappearances leaves the missing person’s loved ones in a state of perpetual uncertainty – constantly hoping for news about their whereabouts, for year after year after year.

As the International Day of the Disappeared is marked on Thursday, some of these grieving relatives from across the Balkans explain how these unresolved disappearances have affected their lives, and tell the stories of the ones they lost who have yet to be found.

Bosnia: “They can’t even tell us where the bodies are”

Hasiba Zlatarac, who lives in the Sarajevo suburb of Vogosca, is still searching for the remains of her son Nedzad, who was 22 when he disappeared during the war, as well as her husband Huso, who was 53, and her brother Fikret, who was 42.

All three men, Zlatarac said, were taken away by Bosnian Serb forces and held at the Planjina Kuca detention facility in Vogosca in the spring of 1992.

“In June 1992, they were taken from Planjina Kuca… I don’t know where to… Nobody knows… Up to this day, I’ve not heard a rumour, a trace… Nothing,” Zlatarac told BIRN.

She said she believes that a wartime official called Jovo Tintor knows where her loved ones were taken. Tintor, the former president of the Crisis Committee in the Vogosca municipality, is standing trial before the Bosnian state court on charges that include the detentions at Planjina Kuca.

Tintor, who was wartime Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic’s adviser and the head of his Serb Democratic Party in Vogosca, pleaded not guilty. The verdict in his trial is expected on Thursday, the same day as the International Day of the Disappeared.

Zlatarac accused the Bosnian authorities, politicians and decision-makers of “forgetting” families of missing persons.

“I am bitter. I am angry at the government and all of them… It’s been 22 years since the end of the war, and they can’t even tell us where the bodies are, so we could find our loved ones and lay them to rest. Then I could also rest,” she explained.

“I called all of them, the Red Cross, the Institute for Missing Persons, but I never got any information… This country is such that no one has any idea,” she added.

Zlatarac claimed that politicians often mention families of people killed in the war, but rarely try to help.

“They talk about us, but nobody comes asks us how we live. I don’t need anything, but it would be right if they could come to see how we are and how we are living,” she said.

According to the country’s Missing Persons Institute, more than 30,000 people were considered missing in Bosnia and Herzegovina after the end of the conflict, and the remains of more than 7,000 of them are still being sought.

Croatia: “I no longer have hope of finding the body”

For more than 26 years, Drazenka Kosic has been searching for the remains of her father, Nikola, a Serb who went missing in February 1992 in the eastern Croatian town of Slatina after being taken away by Croatian military policemen.

“On February the 19th, he was taken by two members of the military police, Luka Perak and Damir Hokal, from Virovitica [a nearby town]. Later, we learned that there was no warrant for that. That day, we reported his disappearance; at least I think we did, mum worked in the afternoon, and when she came from work, she went to the police station,” Drazenka Kosic, now 49, told BIRN.

The military policemen said her father was going with them for interrogation.

“What was specific about our case is that after a couple of days [after Nikola Kosic’s disappearance], they [the policemen who took him] called and blackmailed us, asking for 40,000 German marks for him, which we collected and left in the garbage container by the [local] health centre,” she explained.

But he was not returned to his family, and his body was never recovered.

Kosic recalled that when how her sister-in-law, who was at the family home when her father was taken, was put in a room with Luka Perak when she was questioned and asked if he was the person who took him.

“There was no one-way glass that you see in the movies, they [police] simply seated her across [from the suspect Perak]. She said he was one of the guys who took my father. When I called [the police in] Zagreb, asking if that was intimidation, they told me to f*** off,” she said.

The investigation established that Nikola Kosic was killed by another military policeman, Dinko Mijatovic, on the day he was taken away, and his body thrown in the Drava river on the border with Hungary.

Later, a military court in Osijek sentenced Perak and Hokal to a year and a year-and-a-half in prison – but not for participating in the murder, although they were present when Mijatovic shot Kosic. Mijatovic got a four-and-a-half-year sentence, but only served two months in investigative custody because the state granted him an amnesty.

Those who may have ordered the killing were never named.

Kosic tried for years to find the remains of her father and managed to convince the Croatian Office for Imprisoned and Missing Persons to exhume a location on the banks of Drava river near the town of Donji Miholjac a few years ago.

“According to what I know it was done pretty badly, they went out to the field, but they did not follow the instructions of the late gravedigger and dug in other places. They found the remains of a body, but that was not my dad,” she said.

Croatia is still searching for 1,509 missing citizens from the 1990s war. A further 414 people are known to have died, but their remains have yet to be found.

The Croatian War Veterans’ Ministry says that 1,131 people are missing from 1991-92, of whom around 85-90 per cent were Croats, and 794 are missing from 1995, of whom around 95 per cent are Serbs who disappeared after the Croatian military operations ‘Flash’ and ‘Storm’.

Kosic believes the Croatian state is unwilling to resolve the issue of missing Croatian Serbs. “I no longer have hope of finding the body, or that the crime will ever be punished. On the contrary,” she said.

“I live in a country that denies the crimes it caused. I’m not just thinking about my dad solely, but also of many others.”

Kosovo: “I pray for any news, good or bad”

Halil Ujkani prays that he will still be alive when Kosovo and Serbia sign a final deal to normalise their relations.

This is his last and only hope of learning the fate of his three sons who went missing in the spring of 1999.

On the evening of April 16, 1999, his three sons, Shaip, Nahit and Nazmi, left the house and departed for Montenegro in an attempt to escape the war. The eldest son was 29 and the youngest 19.

For three days, they stayed in villages near the Kosovo-Serbia border before they were stopped by Serbian armed forces.

“The Serbian military caught them on the evening of April 19 in the Serb-inhabited village of Dreth. An old Serb woman who was taking care of her cows said that she witnessed the moment when they were stopped by the military. There was no shooting or killings that day,” Ujkani told BIRN.

Three days later, two of the 24 people that were in the group of civilians who were stopped by Serbian forces with his sons came back to Mitrovica after they got lost in mountain roads and lost contact with the rest of the group without reaching Montenegro territory.

“On April 22, my Serb neighbours in north Mitrovica saw my son and some other while Serbian military took them in a military truck… My neighbour Bogoljub Aleksic heard that they were taking them to Pozarevac [in Serbia],” Ujkani said.

As well as his three sons, two of his nephews were among the group that went missing.

Ujkani, a former mineworker who is now 84, said that the 19 years he has spent trying to find out what happened to his sons has been a long and painful chapter in his life.

“I have searched for them both among the living and among the dead. Every day I imagine that I’m finding them,” he said.

For almost two decades, he has woken up every morning with the hope of getting any news about them.

“Celebrations are the hardest moments to experience. You have nothing to celebrate about. Our house is always empty and in continuous grief,” he said.

“I and my wife pray for any news, good or bad. It is important to at least find their bones.”

The Kosovo authorities say there are 1,658 people still missing as a result of the war, 561 of whom are Serbs.

The issue of missing persons has so far not been tackled in the European Union-facilitated dialogue aimed at normalising relations between Kosovo and Serbia, which started in 2011.

Ujkani said that his sons were taken by regular Serbian military forces and he believes that the Serbian government can shed light on their fate.

“If there is no agreement between Kosovo and Serbia, there is no hope for us. If things continue like this, I will never rest in peace,” he said.

Serbia: “There was no trace of my father”

When Natasa Scepanovic left the Kosovo town of Istok with her husband and children in late June 1999, her parents decided to stay in their family home. It was the last she saw of them.

“All those who made the decision not to leave their homes, like my parents, met a similar fate,” Scepanovic told BIRN.

After a week in Serbia, around the end of June and early July 1999, Scepanovic said she heard that armed men in Kosovo Liberation Army uniforms had started attacking people in Istok.

“We heard that dad was taken from my apartment – he was there to guard it from intruders. He was taken and there was no trace of him left,” she said.

She added that several days later, her mother was taken from their family home with a female Serb pensioner who had moved in with her. Scepanovic’s father’s body was identified in 2003, but her mother is still listed as missing.

Scepanovic, who now heads the Victims of Kosmet Association, said that families seeking their loved ones continue to cooperate with international organisations, but that she has not received any new information in a long time.

“From all those institutions, administrators and missions – [NATO’s Kosovo force] KFOR, [the UN’s Kosovo mission] UNMIK, [the EU’s rule-of-law mission] EULEX – we always received promises that they will do anything in their power,” she said.

The Serbian government’s Commission for Missing Persons is seeking 570 Serbs and non-Albanians missing from the 1998-99 Kosovo war. The Commission says it is also looking for 97 people in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and 1,746 in Croatia.

However, the Humanitarian Law Centre NGO warns that Serbia’s own handling of the issue of missing persons sought by other former Yugoslav countries is deeply flawed.

According to the HLC report from June, measures implemented from the national strategy for the prosecution of war crimes did not significantly improve the search for missing persons.

The HLC put together proposals to help the search for missing persons, which include “depoliticising” searches, passing a law on missing persons, creating a regional list of all missing persons from the former Yugoslavia and improving regional cooperation.

“It is necessary to upgrade the capacities of all Serbian institutions that are competent to search for missing persons,” HLC legal analyst Visnja Sijacic told BIRN.

Sijacic said that in order to make the search for missing persons efficient, the process must be regarded as humanitarian and independent from politics.

Albania: “The field was full of human remains”

Hamza Kazazi, now 77, describes his father Jup Kazazi as a bold and honest man and a patriot. He was only five when his father killed himself in the city of Shkodra so he did not have to surrender to the Communists after been identified as one of the leaders of Postribe revolt that aimed to overthrow the newly-established regime in Albania.

Jup Kazazi’s body was put on display in Shkodra and photographed by the Communists in order to show that the regime would crack down on every attempt against it, then the body was taken away to be buried in a place that the family cannot locate.

For Hamza Kazazi, finding his father’s remains has been his life’s mission, one he has continued since the fall of communism.

“In 1994, together with relatives, we went to dig in the area next to the Catholic cemetery in Shkodra where people believe they saw the Communists bury my father and my other relatives who participated in the Postribe revolt,” Kazazi told BIRN.

Hamza was shocked to find at a very shallow depth the remains of a Catholic priest he recognised from the rosary and black cassock, and he stopped the digging right away.

“I could not continue since the field was full of human remains and I could not risk damaging the other ones in order to find those of my father,” he said.

Now after years of waiting for the state to lead the process of finding those who disappeared under Communism, Hamza is finally hopeful that something could be done.

On July 18, Albania – after eight years of negotiations – signed an agreement to find the remains with the help of International Commission on Missing Persons.

In September, parliament is expected to ratify the agreement to open the way for exhumations.

On this year’s International Day of the Disappeared, the Albanian Authority for Access to Information on Ex-Sigurimi Files, in collaboration with the International Commission on Missing Persons, is launching an online service to receive and give out information about the missing.

Families will be able to submit information about their cases and check the status of their search. It will also have a section on burial places where people can anonymously report and receive information.

The number of those disappeared who during communism in Albania remains unclear, although institutions believe that 4,000 to 5,000 people killed during that time don’t have yet proper graves.

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