A two-day conference this week in Geneva aims to relaunch the process of identifying 1,658 people who disappeared during the war in Kosovo (1998-1999). On the eve of the conference, families of Serb and Kosovar victims together urged local and international authorities to rise above obstacles and lack of political will.
“We the mothers, fathers, spouses, brothers, sisters, daughters, sons and other relatives of the disappeared (…) will not rest until the fate of the last missing person has been clarified,” says the joint appeal signed on June 21 by Serb and Albanian families of people who disappeared in the Kosovo war (1998-1999). “For 18 years, each day has been agony for every one of us.” They are calling once again for the remains of their loved ones, most of whom were executed, to be returned to them, and that the truth about these crimes be made known so that they can finally grieve. The joint appeal is addressed to Belgrade, Pristina and the international community as the Geneva conference approaches.
The conference is being held Thursday and Friday under the auspices of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), and brings together not only victims’ families but also delegations from the governments of Serbia and Kosovo, specialist international organizations like the ICRC, and UN experts on forced disappearances. Its results will show whether the urgent appeal of the families is heard by the concerned parties and can allow the search to move forward for the missing, and for judicial action.
Up to now this has been more or less at a standstill. Out of the 6,044 people recorded in 2002 as disappeared, many were traced in the two years that followed. But then the pace slowed down constantly, with only 4 cases resolved in 2015,14 in 2016 and 6 this year, according to the ICRC.
Who is to blame?
UNMIK, the body charged with administering Kosovo up to 2008, has been accused for years of dragging its feet. In a 2013 report, the NGO Amnesty International criticized what it called the UN “protectorate”. “UNMIK’s failure to investigate what constituted a widespread, as well as a systematic, attack on a civilian population and, potentially, crimes against humanity, has contributed to the climate of impunity prevailing in Kosovo,” it said.
But the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) is also being accused for not having taken DNA samples from bodies found in Kosovo and therefore possibly misidentifying them. This is an additional cause of suffering for families who could find out that the grave they have been honouring holds someone other than their loved one.
Miriam Ghalmi, head of the human rights office at the UN Mission in Kosovo, says that the aim of this conference is not to settle scores. “The aim of some of these institutions was not a precise identification of the victims but to find and judge their killers,” she says. “This conference is first of all a space where the victims’ families can discuss and get their voices heard by the international community. It will allow the invited experts, from Argentina, Bosnia, Lithuania and Switzerland, to share their experiences and help resolve the issue of Kosovo’s disappeared, which will for once be in the international limelight.” She says that mistakes were made by all parties. “The conference is not about settling scores,” she stresses, “but relaunching in a strong way the process of identification and justice, listening to the families of the disappeared and their suffering.”
The conference will show to what extent political resistance can be overcome, since many of the authors of these crimes still hold important political office in Serbia and Kosovo. And so the issue also reflects the interminable difficulty of reconciling political settlements to wars with the need for peace and justice.