The Promise of Justice : Burning the Evidence  

The War's Missing Serbs

Editor's Note: Some names in this report have been changed.

Hundreds of Serbs are missing in Kosovo. Their families still await answers.

Only in the safety of his Pristina apartment and under a pseudonym will Ilir tell the story of the abduction of a Serbian acquaintance. It is a subject few Kosovar Albanians discuss openly, despite the murders and disappearance of hundreds of Serbs during and after the war.

Ilir's saga unfolds in Pristina, soon after the arrival of NATO troops in June, 1999. Two armed Albanian men dressed in civilian clothes barged into his café and began questioning a man called Petar. Petar was in a circle of young Pristina Serbs whom Ilir considered friends. After demanding Petar's identity card and confirming he was a Serb, the Albanians led him away.

"They said they were taking him in for questioning," says Ilir. Petar was never seen again.

Days later, one of Petar's abductors flaunted the Serb's identity card, boasting, "There's one less Serb now."

"I don't like what happened to him," says Ilir. "I feel responsible. But I couldn't help him because I could have been killed. This should not have happened to him and other Serbian guys I know. Some of them really tried to help the people here."

Despite months of phone calls from Petar's parents outside Kosovo, no information ever emerged about his fate. There are hundreds more Serbs who disappeared during and after the war. Western officials believe most of them were killed by KLA supporters or other Albanians, either as reprisals, or as a way to drive Serbs from Kosovo.

Ilir does not know the identity of the men who abducted Petar, but like many cases of missing Serbs, it appears they had no personal connection to their victim. Nor is there evidence that Petar participated in the war.

In fact, human rights investigators say many of the Serbs killed or abducted after the war had sterling reputations among Albanians.

One of those was Dr. Andrija Tomanovic, head of the surgical ward of Pristina hospital, who was snatched on June 24, 1999, as NATO troops patrolled the capital.

"He gave aid to whomever needed it, he didn't think about nationalities," says Verica Tomanovic, wife of the abducted surgeon. "During the troubles in Kosovo, my husband treated wounded KLA soldiers on many occasions. I expected that the people whose lives my husband saved would help him, but in 16 months I haven't heard a thing."

Tomanovic is a member of an association of families of missing Serbs in Kosovo. At the association's small office in Belgrade, members say their plight has been virtually ignored by western officials and by their own government in Serbia.

Radmila Spasic's husband was abducted early in the conflict while visiting his 90-year-old mother in western Kosovo. Spasic has received no concrete information about him in nearly three years.

Spasic and others make a point of distinguishing between Serbian fighters who implemented Slobodan Milosevic's policies in Kosovo and ordinary Serbs. "Most of these people were kidnapped because of their nationality, because they were Serbs. They were innocent people. They had a clear conscience," Spasic says.

Spasic and Tomasevic welcomed the release from Serbian prison of Flora Brovina and others, saying all Albanians should be free. But they say these gestures have not been reciprocated.

"When I ask [Albanian] friends about missing Serbs, no one has a response, no one wants to talk," says Spasic. "There's a wall of silence."

Western officials and investigators agree a lack of cooperation among some Albanians has hindered efforts to collect information about missing Serbs and identify and punish their abductors.

"There is a wall of silence [among Kosovar Albanians]," says Fred Abrahams, who served as the lead researcher in Kosovo for the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "One reason is the widespread notion of collective guilt. Many Albanians see all Serbs as guilty. But there's a more pressing reason, and that is fear.

"There's no question that the KLA did engage in abductions and executions of Serbs and also Albanians deemed to be collaborators with the Serbian regime. There's fear. No one can protect ... an Albanian who is believed by the KLA to have spoken out about the crimes committed."

The chief prosecutor for the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague has said investigators are focusing on at least five cases of possible war crimes committed by the KLA. But investigators admit privately that their work has been slow and frustrating. After nearly 18 months of investigations, no public indictments have been issued against former KLA officials.

Tribunal lawyers are currently seeking to expand their investigations of the KLA to the three-month period between the end of the war and the formal disbandment of the guerrilla army.

The fact that so little information is available means that even the number of missing Serbs is contentious. Serbian officials say the figure is more than 1000, while the International Committee of the Red Cross says around 550 Serbs are unaccounted for.

Belgrade's media has fueled rumors that some of the missing Serbs are alive and being held in secret, mobile prison camps. Tomasevic says there is no concrete evidence to support these stories, but many families still believe their loved ones are alive.

"We are afraid of the darkest outcome, that they are no longer with us. So we continue to hope," she says.

Following the release of hundreds of Albanians from Serbian prisons, Tomasevic and others now hope relatives of missing Albanians will agree to forge a common front.

But western officials say efforts to bring together families of abducted Serbs and Albanians have consistently failed.

"Even before the war, among local associations of relatives of the missing, there was very little understanding for relatives of missing persons from outside the group," says Susanne Ringgaard, coordinator for victim identification and recovery for the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe's Pristina office. "So relatives of missing persons in Orahovac had very little understanding or cared very little about the relatives of missing Serbs from Obelic."

Tomasevic and other Serbian women say they have offered to meet Albanian families in a neutral location like Macedonia. But Albanian representatives in Pristina say such talks can only take place after all Albanians are released from Serbian prisons.

The situation in Kosovo contrasts sharply with Bosnia, where some 20,000 people are still missing. Many Serbs continue to live peacefully in Sarajevo despite a wartime siege by Serbian forces that killed more than 10,000 people. And in Bosnia, Serbian and Bosniak women work together in their quest for information.

In Kosovo the atmosphere is bleak and unforgiving.

"The Albanians are very clear that they don't want to talk with the Serbs," says Ringgaard. "There's no culture of dialogue."

A program led by the OSCE has had some success in identifying the remains of Serbs and Albanians. In 2000, the remains of some 100 people were identified in an elaborate process that matches post- and ante-mortem evidence collected by investigators and forensic scientists, according to Ringgaard.

Despite this progress, Fred Abrahams says the issue of the missing will continue to hinder Kosovo's postwar reconstruction. "It will be difficult, more than it is already, to support moderate political forces, to establish democratic institutions, and to have reconciliation because, as long as both sides have missing persons, it's an issue that can easily be manipulated," he said.

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