It has been nearly 18 years since Natasa Scepanovic has seen her parents.
The couple were living in Istok, a town in Kosovo*. After the war that ripped the area apart, Scepanovic’s parents, ethnic Serbians, remained in the town they had lived in, believing that the conflict was over and they were safe. They knew their neighbours and though there were tensions between Serbian and Albanian ethnic groups, it had not hit the town. Besides, she said, if there was trouble, United Nations and other international forces were on hand to protect people.
“They had a good relationship with their neighbours, who were Albanians, and they trusted the international community…so of course they were convinced that they would be protected if something happened,” she said.
But her parents were not protected. In 1999, after a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) bombing campaign, Scepanovic, who had moved from the area years earlier, heard her parents had gone missing, along with 50 others in the town. Five years later, the remains of her father were found. Her mother, remains among the 1,658 people still missing in Kosovo* from the conflict.
Scepanovic and representatives of several families of missing persons groups gathered recently in Geneva for a meeting hosted by the Human Rights Office of the UN Mission in Kosovo* (UNMIK) to discuss ways to improve the search for missing persons in Kosovo*. During the two-day gathering, representatives from families of the missing met with members of the Working Group on Persons Unaccounted for in Relation to the Events in Kosovo* and the International Committee of the Red Cross emphasised the need to re-energise the Working Group’s efforts to shed light on the missing.
“To families who are present here today, I say to you, you have the right to know, a right to truth and a right to justice,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. “We have a duty to do everything we can do to facilitate that truth telling and accountability. There must be truth telling and justice.”
Missing for decades
Between 1998 and 1999, open conflict erupted between Serb police and the separatists Kosovo* Liberation Army. As a result of the crackdown, civilians were driven from their homes and NATO launched airstrikes for 78 days before the conflict ended. During this period, more than 6,000 people went missing. In March 2004, the Working Group provided support to try to clarify the fate and whereabouts of people unaccounted for and to keep families of the missing informed throughout the process.
Bajram Qerkini, is still waiting to learn the truth about what happened to his son. Reshat Querkini was 30 when he left home in Mitrovica, Kosovo* in 1999 to head to the centre of town with friends. They were picked up by Serbian police and never seen again. The 80-year-old said he worries that the slow pace of finding people still missing could mean he may never find out what happened to his son before he dies.
“There are 13 friends of mine who are in this situation,” he said. “They passed away before they could learn the fate of their beloved ones. It could happen to me. But I am still with the hope that I will find my son. And whoever is responsible must be held accountable.”
A multi-ethnic discussion space
The meeting also marked the official opening of the Multi-Ethnic Resource Centre on Missing Persons in Kosovo*. The centre aims to provide opportunities for representatives of family associations from across all ethnic lines to communicate, cooperate and jointly face the past.
“This is the first ever multi-ethnic association where all the communities affected by the loss of their relatives as a result of the conflict in Kosovo* work together towards the aim of elucidating the fate of missing persons,” said Miriam Ghalmi, head of the Human Rights Office of UNMIK.
“Because of its multi-ethnic dimensions, the resource centre fosters at the same time reconciliation efforts in Kosovo* between communities.”
Milorad Trifunovic, whose brother and nine colleagues have been missing since they were taken from the parking lot of a mine 18 years ago, said this spirit of cooperation has been crucial in sustaining the search for missing persons over nearly two decades. As co-chair of the centre (along with Qerkini), he hopes the centre will not only shed light on the issue of missing persons but also address many of the social issues linked with the disappearance of thousands in Kosovo*.
He said he worries that as the years move on, and people like him and others are no longer around, there will be no one left to carry on the search.
“We are like junkies with the situation prevailing, we are drugged with it,” Trifunovic said. “I do not know whether they will be able or whether they will know to deal with it. I would prefer we are replaced by some other elderly people. I would prefer for (the young) to commit to their own families…and continue with a normal life.”
Kumrije Karaqica, who represents an NGO that deals with both missing persons and those who were victims of sexual assault during the conflict, said that in addition to wanting the perpetrators of these crimes to face justice, families of the missing are also seeking answers about the cause of death of their loved ones.
“We know our beloved ones are not alive anymore, and we would like to have their remains (to bury),” she said. “But there is another issue which is of concern to us. When human remains are found after a forensic exam, a certificate is provided, but but it doesn’t note the cause of death. This is written as ‘unknown’. But we want to know what happened to them.”
During the meeting in Geneva, the groups agreed to reenergise the Working Group’s work by closer involvement of the families of missing persons and by intensifying efforts to gain access to archives of local, national and international actors involved.
14 August 2017
* Reference to Kosovo shall be understood in full compliance with the UN SC Resolution 1244 (1999) and without prejudice to the status of Kosovo*.