Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Fading Hopes for Kosovo's Disappeared
When 143 Albanians were released from Serbian jails at the end of April, this left just under 300 still behind bars, according to the International Committee for the Red Cross, ICRC.
However, many more Kosovars disappeared during the war and have never been accounted for. Both the ICRC and Albanian sources agree that many more went missing during the 1999 conflict - the former put the figure at 2746, the latter at 4300. And their fate may gradually be coming to light.
Agim Muhaxhiri's brother, Imer, is one of the 'disappeared'. Muhaxhiri was among the prisoners released at the end of April. He returned home to Djakovica and now looks after his brother's children as well as his own.
"It's unbelievable that one parent is here and the other not," said Muhaxhiri. No one knows what happened to Imer who went out shopping in March 1999 and was never seen again.
Evidence of what happened to people like Imer is becoming more abundant. Eye-witness statements collected since the conflict all seem to point to one inevitable conclusion - that the majority of those unaccounted for were killed.
This being the case, the generally accepted civilian casualty toll for the 1999 conflict of 10,000 could rise significantly.
One vital key to the mystery was the story in a local magazine in eastern Serbia, Timocka Crime Review, about a freezer lorry containing 50 bodies which had been pulled out of the Danube in 1999. Zivadin Djordjevic confirmed that he had pulled out the bodies of men, women and children from the lorry which had Pec (in western Kosovo) number plates.
Since 205 new, but mostly empty, graves had been discovered in Pec soon after the end of the conflict, it is supposed that the bodies were exhumed and sent to Serbia for disposal in order to destroy evidence of civilian killings.
Bodies are also believed to have been removed from graves in villages and cities around Kosovo like Djakovica, Pustosela and Izbica.
Sixty-five- year-old Shaqir Gashi who survived a Serb firing squad at Izbica, in central Kosovo, says he helped bury over 130 corpses on March 28, 1999. Six weeks later, Serb soldiers exhumed them and trucked away the bodies.
"We were hiding and frightened and saw how the Serbian troops took the corpses ... we have no idea where they are," said Shaqir.
Many sources have pointed to the Trepca mines in northern Kosovo as their most likely destination. With its giant, concealed furnaces, it seemed the ideal location for the incineration of the exhumed bodies. Interviews conducted with both Serbs and Albanians both support this theory.
Albanians have confirmed Serb troop movements in the direction of the mine. Also, Serb soldiers interviewed for a documentary programme on the US radio station, National Public Radio, NPR, told journalists that 1500 corpses had been incinerated in the mine.
The soldiers also described in detail how bodies were burnt there. "The furnace was about 15 metres above us," said a soldier in the documentary. "Only one furnace was working. The temperature in them was extremely high ... The corpses were burnt there."
US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher commented after the broadcast of the documentary that "the US government has confirmed that efforts to destroy the evidence of war crimes have taken place in Kosovo".
Despite all the evidence concerning the fate of the missing Kosovars, many families are still continuing their search. Shukrie Rexha, chairwoman of the Political Prisoners and Disappeared Association in Pristina, says the relatives of the disappeared are desperately searching for new clues.
"People come forward everyday," said Rexha. "They've heard something about the place where their loved one was buried but there's little or nothing there. It seems that the disappeared are no longer among us."
Sixty-seven-year-old Fejze Hyseni says it is very difficult to live on hope alone. He still has no information about his six sons taken away in May 1999 by Serb troops, following a massacre in the village of Zahaq near Pec. "This will always make me suffer," he said. " I might forgive many things if I knew where my sons' bones are. I'm not asking for more than that."
But with the current administration's failure to seriously address the issue, it seems unlikely that people like Fejze will ever discover the truth. And as long as the truth behind the disappearance of the Albanian civilians remains obscured, any reconciliation between Serb and Albanian communities remains highly unlikely.
Adriatik Kelmendi is a journalist with Koha Ditore
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