Most Americans have never and will never experience the devastation that occurs in the aftermath of war on their homeland. It is hard to quantify the scale of missing persons in conflict, but available statistics reflect a vast number have gone missing due to conflict, migration and disaster.
The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) reports that in Shri Lanka 20,000 people remain missing after the end of the civil war. In Columbia, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) puts the number at nearly 80,000 following decades of civil war. There are many other conflicts that report tens of thousands missing.
Kosovo refugees in the aftermath of war. Photo courtesy of Euromaidan Press.
Over 20 years have passed since the armed conflict in Kosovo but as many as 1,647 families still await answers about the whereabouts of their loved ones in connection with the 1998-1999 events and the aftermath.
Families of the missing are left with ambiguity, not knowing what has really happened to their loved ones, unable to give them a dignified funeral, and unable to go on with the lives.
To help family members find information about the fate of their missing loved ones, Belgrade and Pristina adopted the Procedures on the Handover of Human Remains in 2018. The session was chaired by the ICRC along with families of the missing and international community.
Treated as a humanitarian effort, ICRC is concerned about the snail pace rate of progress. According the Chairman of the group, Fabien Bourdier of ICRC, “Only seven cases were resolved in 2018.”
Hasiba Zlatarac has been searching for her son, husband and brother since 1992 in Sarajevo. Photo courtesy of BIRN.
According to Balkan Transitional Justice, Hasiba Zlatarac , who lives in the Sarajevo suburb of Vogosca, is still searching for the remains of her son Nedzad, 22, when he disappeared during the war, along with her husband Huso, 53, and her brother Fikret who was 42.
All three men were taken by Bosnian Serb forces and held at the Planjina Kuca detention facility in Vogosca during the spring of 1992.
“In June 1992, they were taken from Planjina Kuca . . . I don’t know where to” said Zlatarac. Nobody knows . . . up to this day, I’ve not heard a rumor, a trace . . . nothing.”
Zlatarac accused Bosnian authorities and politicians of “forgetting” the 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 can find our loved ones and lay them to rest. Then I could also rest,” Zlatarac explained.
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 remain missing.
Halil Ujkani in searching for his three sons, Shaip, Nahit, and Nazmi since 1999. Photo courtesy of BIRN/Serbeze Haxhiaj.
Halil Ujkani prays he will live to learn the fate of his three sons. The eldest, 29, and the youngest only 19.
On the evening of April 16, 1999, Ujkani’s three sons, Shaip, Nahit and Nazmi, left the house to travel to Montenegro to try to survive the war in Kosovo.
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 the evening of April 19 in the village of Dreth which was Serb occupied. Ujkani told the Balkan Investigative Network (BIRN), “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 of killings that day,” Ujkani added.
Three days later, two of the 24 people who were stopped by Serbian forces, along with his sons, came back to Mitrovica after getting lost in mountain roads. They had lost contact with the rest of the group, never making it to Montenegro territory.
“On April 22, my Serb neighbors in north Mitrovica saw my son and some other while Serbian military took them in a military truck,” said Ujkani. “My neighbor Bogoljub Aleksic heard that they were taking them to Pozarevac [in Serbia].”
Ujkani, 84, is a former mine worker, said he has spent 19 years searching for his sons in what has become the most painful chapter of his life.
In addition to his three sons, two of his nephews are among the group who went missing.
“I have searched for them both among the living and the dead, said Ujkani. “Everyday I imagine that I’m finding them.”
The number of those disappeared during the communism in Albania is impossible to know, some experts believe the number to be close to 5,000 people killed that still await proper burial.
The families know the clock is ticking while living with the torture of doubt about the fate of those who vanished and were never heard from again.
Bodies Mistakenly Identified
Unknown graves at a southern Kosovo cemetery. Photo courtesy of Human Rights Watch/Fred Abrahams.
On March 26, 1999, two days after North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) launched air strikes against Yugoslavia, Serbian forces killed Halim Hajdari. His son Flurim Hajdari recollects that day when they killed his father and five brothers, the youngest only 12 years old, along with 108 other Albanian citizens.
About half of the victims were found in a nearby river, the other are still missing.
In July 1999, Hague experts invited Flurim Hajdari to a makeshift morgue in the Kosovo town of Rahovec/Orahovac where he hoped to find the bodies of his father and brothers.
Flurim Hajdari awaiting word of the fate of his missing father and five brothers. Photo courtesy of BIRN.
Personal belongings and clothing found in the graves was put on display in the same building as the improvised morgue, so family members of the missing may be able to identify the items.
By 2003, when the ICMP signed an agreement to use DNA to identify bodies, thousands of victims had already been identified by sight.
“This traditional method of identification carried significant risk of error,” the ICMP told BIRN media. The ICMP is lobbying to reverse the identifications made without using DNA.
Like efforts here in the United States, ICMP proposes collecting genetic reference samples from family members whose loved ones were already identified without the use of DNA.
In 2015, Flurim Hajdari was notified by neighbors that the graves at the Pristina mortuary were being dug up again.
A forensic team was able to identify the remains of two of his brothers, Salajdin and Rasim.
“When I showed them identification documents issued by the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), they took them from my hands and gave me some with the European Union Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) stamp, without further explanations,” said Flurim Hajdari.
EULEX stated that it “held a number of meetings with those affected to explain why the exhumations were needed.”
Since then, the ICMP has issued 2,466 DNA identification reports. The exhumations were a direct result of EULEX’s efforts through forensics work and the advancement of DNA aimed at rectifying the mistakes made in the past. However, the remains of 400 people at the Pristina morgue do not match with any DNA reference samples of families of missing people.
Kushtrim Gara of the government’s missing person commission expressed concern about mistaken identifications.
“This has happened in the aftermath of the war when those responsible for these issues were international institutions and identifications were made with the traditional method,” Gara said.
Victims have been exhumed and reburied at least twice by Serb forces before hidden mass graves were discovered causing some body parts to become mixed up. At times only parts of remains were found.
“There was also mixing of the remains during the handing over of human remains,” Gara sharing her concern that there was also a problem after DNA matching started to be used.
Another problem is convincing the victims’ families to cooperate with a slow and painful process.
EULEX emphasized that the key factors for proper identifications are “the provision of accurate information as well as of complete blood references in order to carry out essential DNA testing.”
Arsim Gerxaliu, the head of the Kosovo Institute of Forensics said that the identification process must now involve talking to every family to get blood samples for DNA matching.
“Based on tests so far, around 20 percent of the cases are incorrect burials,” said Gerxaliu.
Depoliticizing the Search for Missing Persons
On the National Day of the Disappeared, the families of missing persons gather to memorialize the graves of their loved ones. Photo courtesy of ICRC/Jetmir Duraku.
On July 18, after eight years of negotiations, Albania signed an agreement to find remains of missing persons with the help of the International Committee on Missing Persons.
In September, parliament is expected to ratify the agreement to open the way to begin exhumations.
International Day of the Disappeared, on August 30, marks the day that the International Commission on Missing Persons will be launching a website to exchange information with the public about missing persons.
Similar to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), or National Missing and Unidentified System (NAMUS) here in the United States, families will be able to submit information about their cases and check the status of the case.
“We take this opportunity to once again pay tribute to the families who struggle with despair of not knowing what happened to their loved ones,” said Agim Gashi, head of the ICRC in Kosovo. “On their behalf, we urge authorities to increase their efforts in solving this humanitarian problem that continues to affect Kosovo even two decades down the line.”
Under international humanitarian law, the former parties to the conflict are responsible to provide answers about the whereabouts of people who have vanished on territories under their control.
Meanwhile, families await justice and information two decades after conflict.