Pain goes on for relatives of Balkans 'disappeared'
by Jezerca Tigani
Nearly half of the people who disappeared in the former Yugoslavia in the decade after war broke out in 1991 are still unaccounted for – and allowing them to be forgotten would only add to the suffering of thousands of people, says Amnesty International
"If I could know where my son Albion is, and if I could bury him and put a flower on his grave, I would be in a better place." Those are the words of Nesrete Kumnova. She is from Kosovo and her son's body is believed to be among those transported to Serbia, and reburied there, during the 1999 conflict.
Tomorrow, August 30, marks the Day of the Disappeared. Across the world thousands of people remain unaccounted for – many assumed to have been taken by security forces never to be seen again. One of the clearest examples is in Nesrete's homeland of Kosovo. But her pain is replicated across the Balkans. Some 14,000 people remain unaccounted for in the countries that make up the former Yugoslavia, nearly half of the total number who disappeared in the decade since war broke out in 1991.
Between 1991 and 2001, a total of 34,700 people were reported missing due to enforced disappearances or abductions in the region. The majority of their relatives are still waiting for justice. To address the concern, Amnesty International today published a briefing called The right to know: Families still left in the dark in the Balkans. We continue to call on the authorities in the region to investigate enforced disappearances, which are recognised as crimes under international law, and to ensure the victims and their families receive access to justice and reparations. Repeatedly, Amnesty has been told by the relatives of the missing that just having the body returned for burial is the first step towards achieving justice.
In Croatia, of the 6,406 people reported as missing after the 1991-1995 war in Croatia, more than 2,300 people remain missing. In the last two years the fate of only 215 missing people has been revealed and the remains of approximately 900 bodies await forensic identification. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, out of a population of 3.4 million at the end of the conflict in 1995, an estimated 30,000 people were reported as missing. The fate of an estimated 10,500 people, most of whom are Bosnian Muslims, remains unknown.
Elsewhere, in Macedonia, for a decade after the 2001 armed conflict between the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army and the Macedonian security forces, the authorities failed to effectively investigate allegations of enforced disappearance. In Montenegro, 83 Bosniak civilians fleeing the armed conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina in May 1992 were arrested and taken back across the border where they were transferred into the hands of Bosnian Serb forces. Of the 83, some 21 are believed to have been killed in a prison camp in Foča, in the Republika Srpska. The fate of at least 34 of them remains unknown.
And some 3,600 people were reported as missing in Kosovo during the 1998-1999 armed conflict and in its immediate aftermath. They include more than 3,000 ethnic Albanian victims of enforced disappearances by Serbian military, police and paramilitary forces. An estimated 1,797 remain unaccounted for.
It is a bleak picture and the situation is made even more urgent as the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia is nearing the end of its mandate. The court has had a degree of success in prosecuting some of the perpetrators and helping to identify the final resting places of some of the disappeared. But now the responsibility will transfer to the courts of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia and Kosovo.
All six governments have failed to abide by their international legal obligations to effectively investigate and prosecute these crimes and the domestic courts are slow to abide by their responsibility to seek out, identify and prosecute the remaining perpetrators. It remains up to the likes of the European Union to ensure the fate of Europe's disappeared does not become forgotten and that the domestic courts of the Balkan states do not dodge their responsibilities. Failure to do so will only add to the suffering of the thousands of people like Nesrete.
Jezerca Tigani is deputy programme director for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International