The empty tombs of the Balkans | International

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Stacked between chairs and brochures, dozens of black cardboard figures in the shape of a person dominate the entrance to the headquarters of the Alliance of Families of Detained and Missing Croatian War Veterans, in Zagreb. They are only a part of the nearly 2,000 that were used on August 30 in an act to mark the World Day in Remembrance of the Disappeared. The figure is not accidental; This is an estimate of the number of people still to be found in Croatia – alive or most likely dead – as a result of the war that the country suffered, along with other territories of the former Yugoslavia, and which ends this month 25 years.

"There are so many that we do not fit all of them," acknowledges the president of the association, Ljiljana Alvir, in a recent trip that EL PAÍS made to Zagreb. One of these silhouettes recalls his brother Robert, a soldier in the second (after a brief 10-day conflict in Slovenia) of the wars that dismembered Yugoslavia in the 1990s, leaving more than 100,000 dead, a genocide (Srebrenica) and -more than two decades later – around 10,000 missing persons that the passage of time makes it increasingly difficult to find. Alvir, in fact, no longer aspires to hug his brother again ("with all the years that have passed, if he were alive he would have found some way to get in touch with us," he says), but to give him a Catholic burial as the one who received her fiancé, who also died in the war and whose remains rest in Vukovar, the Croatian border town where the Serbian aggression began.

“My brother and I were very close. He was 19 years old and I was 21. He was a soldier and the day before Vukovar fell (November 18, 1991) he tried with other young people to cross to the other part of Croatia to stay alive, but the Serbs captured them. That is the last trace there is of him. I have followed leads and testimonies, but I still don't know what happened from that day on. I've done my best to find it. I dream of him. And I feel a responsibility that he is not here. That he should have done something. Something. Having said: 'stay here'. I know it is not like that, but it is very difficult to live this agony and it is very difficult to live without a grave. When I go to Vukovar I visit my fiancé's grave. And I talk to him. I tell him about my nephews. Every family, not just mine, needs something like that. Have that place. Knowing ‘here is my brother, my son or my husband’ and being able to light a candle, put flowers or say something to him ”, she assures through tears.

Drazenka Kosic is the other side of the same coin. He is 51 years old, the age his father was months away from reaching when, in 1992, two Croatian military policemen took him from his home and were never seen again. He was a Croatian Serb in Slatina, a town in eastern Slavonia that was seized by Serbian paramilitaries in the early winter of 1991 and shortly thereafter recovered by Croatian forces. "It was then that the Croats began to retaliate, killing civilians or burning the houses of people who had nothing to do with what happened," Kosic recalls today. First it was an explosive device as a warning; then, the disappearance and, finally, an anonymous call asking them for a large sum of money if they wanted to see him alive again. They paid, but nothing changed.

“We spent a year thinking that he would be alive, until the police told us that he was murdered the same day he was captured. They took him to a barracks by the Drava River, where he was interrogated. Then they killed him and threw his body into the river, ”he says. The murderer was convicted by a military court, but benefited from an amnesty, for which he only spent around two months in prison, he adds. The accomplices did not enter the jail. His father's corpse has never turned up. Both – judgment and the lack of a tombstone to cry on – are Kosic's two great pains. “The hardest thing is that sometimes I run into the person my father killed. But if the body is not found, something will always be missing. It is as if, in a way, it does not close. And I don't have much hope that we will find it. "

Despite the tree of stories of pain from those still looking for their loved ones, the forest is full of closed cases. Of those who managed to bury – or found alive – those who disappeared during the wars in Croatia (1991-1995) and Bosnia (1992-1995), and in Kosovo (1998-2000). According to data from last August from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), one of the international organizations that participates in the search for the disappeared in the former Yugoslavia, 71.4% (25,000) of the 35,013 disappearances reported to the organization have been resolved: 60% of the bodies were found and the remains were handed over to the families, and 10% of the disappeared were found alive.

“The results in the former Yugoslavia are unprecedented. In no other region of the world has there been such a percentage of successful identifications of missing persons after the conflict, "says Matthew Holliday, head of the Western Balkans program of the International Commission on Missing Persons, created at the initiative of the then president of the United States. Bill Clinton in 1996, shortly after the signing of the Dayton Accords that ended the bloodshed in Bosnia, and who has since worked in more than 40 countries. The Commission, which raises the dossiers of missing persons to about 40,000 (10,500 of them to be resolved), has been important in a work involving a mosaic of local, state and international organizations (officials, civil society, war veterans , etc.), sometimes depending on the country and the nationality or ethnic affiliation of the disappeared.

The country that suffered the most is also the one with the largest number of tombstones to fill. Bosnia has concentrated almost two thirds (22,424) of the cases, 6,395 still open. Some 8,000 disappeared had the stamp of genocide. They are the Muslim men killed in the Srebrenica massacre by Bosnian Serb forces under the command of Ratko Mladic, who is serving a life sentence in a prison in The Hague.

The remains of about 1,000 remain to be found. Among them, several of the 22 family members that Munira Subasic lost in the genocide, today president of the Association of Mothers of the Srebrenica and Zepa enclaves. Her husband was identified and buried in 2005. The remains of her son, found scattered in two mass graves, one 10 kilometers from the other, near Srebrenica. It's just two bones, which came back positive in the DNA test. “It was very important that my son had a dignified grave and a headstone, which in my perception is proof of his existence. Although their names are written on graves, no one can say that they did not exist, ”he explains by email.

More arduous

Along the way, many unknowns have been resolved, but the temporal remoteness of the events makes it increasingly difficult to resolve pending cases. "Being fewer, they are being much more difficult to find than the previous ones," says Alvir. One of the problems: some attempts to remove traces of the atrocities worked. “We know from some witnesses where the bodies were initially. There we excavated and found remains, but the corpses are no longer there because they were moved elsewhere, even more than once. And that's where we lose track ”.

"The main challenge is the lack of credible information on new secret mass graves and individual graves," says Holliday, who admits that the "reluctance or inability of States to meet their obligations to effectively investigate the fate and location of the disappeared ”and“ politics, with some efforts focused exclusively on some groups of the disappeared, to the detriment of others ”.

Fabien Bourdier, coordinator of the issue of missing persons in the Western Balkans and chair of the ICRC's working group on missing persons in Kosovo, admits that the decline in the number of new file folders is "particularly worrying". “In recent years it has practically stopped, due to the passage of time and the lack of information on new burial sites. In 2018, 111 people were found and identified; last year, 218; and so far this year, only 31 ”, he says by email. In 2018, the Committee reached an agreement with the residual mechanism that succeeded the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia – closed in 2017 after 25 years of activity – by which it is tracking any potential clue among the nine million pages that it houses in La Beech.

Vesna Terselic, director of Documenta, an NGO based in Zagreb dedicated to assuming the warlike past in the region and also involved in the dossier of the disappeared, sees three reasons that explain the almost impasse current: “Direct witnesses to murders or burials rarely speak out because they are afraid of those who did it; government institutes, departments and commissions do not invest the necessary resources and means; and, finally, cooperation between governments and the exchange of information is inefficient. Too often the issue of searching for missing persons is politicized and misused, which should be purely humanitarian. " In fact, local associations of relatives of the disappeared tend to punctuate their speech by denouncing comparative grievances with respect to an “other” (Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, Kosovar Albanian…) to whom more attention would be paid. "Each anniversary of the disappearance is more than just families demanding the truth: they are communities of memory that also claim the right to know what happened. Our societies live de facto in circles of retraumatization linked to the fate of the disappeared ”, he adds.

The President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, and the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Avdullah Hoti, pledged to deepen the search for the disappeared in the agreement, mainly economic, which they signed last September at the White House in the presence of Donald Trump. Most of the more than 6,000 missing from the conflict are Kosovar Albanians, but there are also Serbs, such as Ivan Celic, whose trail was lost in Pristina in 1999 two days after the deployment of multinational KFOR troops to the city. “He received a call from the director of the company he worked for to go to the center of Pristina for a relief. He drove there in the morning and we had no further information about him. During the conflict, he had not been recruited by the army or the police. He was 39 years old ”, explains by email his brother Dusko Celic, president of the Serbian Coordination of Families of the Disappeared and Dead in the former Yugoslavia, which brings together 60 associations. It was in this period, from the withdrawal of Slobodan Milosevic's forces until the end of 2000, that the vast majority of disappearances of Serbs and other non-Kosovar Albanian communities, such as the Roma, occurred.

In 2003, the family received the remains. He had been shot to the neck while his hands were tied with wire, according to the autopsy report obtained by the family, Celic adds. “The period of uncertainty was the most difficult. We got fake news from people with fake names asking for money for their services, saying that Ivan was alive. It was also painful to convince his wife, children and mother of the tragic fact that the remains belonged to Ivan. That he was dead ”.

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