Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Families of Missing Kosovars Seek Justice

Relatives of disappeared hope legal action will prevent issue being exploited by local leaders.
By Alma Lama

Families of Albanians abducted during the Kosovo war are bringing a legal action against the alleged kidnappers to head off any attempt by local politicians to use their missing relatives as a negotiating ploy in talks with Belgrade.


They hope the case will deter Albanian leaders from employing the issue of the disappeared to gain the upper hand in the negotiations, which deal with practical problems that must be resolved before Serbia and Kosovo can begin to discuss the latter's future.


The families of 114 missing Albanian men from Krusha e Vogel/Mala Krusa village want to take legal action against 54 Serbs and two Roma they have named responsible for their relatives' abduction in late March 1999.


The plaintiffs are reluctant to disclose the names of the alleged kidnappers at present, but they are believed to be Serb policemen and paramilitaries, some of whom lived in Kosovo before the war.


The relatives of the disappeared - encouraged by a network of the local non-governmental organisations, NGOs - submitted their case, the first of its kind in Kosovo, to the public prosecutor at the Pristina district court last week.


According to the UNMIK Office on Missing Persons and Forensics, OMPF, some 3638 people - 2842 of them Albanian - disappeared during the war, and their whereabouts is unknown; although many suspect that they were executed some time after their abduction.


The issue of the missing - together with Serb returnees, electricity, telecommunications, travel documents and car licence plates - has been earmarked for discussion in talks between Belgrade and Pristina, which will focus on sorting out practical and technical problems affecting their relations.


The discussions, which began last month and are expected to last a year, are seen as a prelude to what are likely to be extremely fraught negotiations on the final status of the entity.


Spokesman for the Krusha e Vogel families, Agron Limani, who has been preparing the testimonies for the lawsuit, believes that the issue of the missing should be a matter for the judiciary and not a subject for negotiation. "You cannot compare car plates and electricity with missing persons and unreturned bodies," said Limani, who had six members of his family abducted during the war.


Albin Kurti, from the Kosova Action Network, KAN, part of the NGO coalition encouraging the Albanian families to launch their legal action, said, " We want justice…negotiations usually mean compromise and we don't want any compromise on the missing persons issue."


The relatives of the disappeared and their supporters also contend that even if their politicians genuinely try to establish what happened to them, Belgrade will simply turn round and insist that Pristina address the matter of missing Serbs and those displaced by the conflict - which it has so far been reluctant to do.


Head of the OMPF, Jose Pablo Baraybar, assured IWPR that there was no possibility of the issue of the Albanian disappeared becoming part of a trade-off in negotiations over other matters, but said discussion of the subject was inevitable.


"It is not easy to talk about this issue and it might not be politically correct but in order to resolve it and find out what happened to the people who are unaccounted for you have to talk about it," said Baraybar.


While the decision to bring a court action is to a great extent linked to the Belgrade/Pristina negotiations, it also reflects a significant shift in the attitude of the relatives of the disappeared.


Up until recently, many were convinced that their loved ones were still alive in secret prisons in Serbia, and believed that legal moves or indeed any publicity around the issue would endanger them.


But, increasingly, the families of the missing are coming to terms with the likelihood that the abducted men were probably killed, and are now determined to seek justice.


Bexhet Shala, director of the Council for Defense of Human Rights and Liberties, KLMDNJ, believes the legal action will encourage families clinging to the vain hope that their relatives are still being held prisoner to be more realistic.


"There is no way that more than 3000 people can be kept hidden somewhere for 4 years and nobody know about them. The amount of personnel it would take to manage these prisons would be just simply impossible to be kept secret for so long," said Shala.


Teki Bokshi, a lawyer with the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Centre, said even if some of those abducted are still alive, it was time for relatives of the disappeared to take their case to the courts.


"Until now justice has been sought only for people who died during the war in Kosovo, but it is not fair for the missing to be deprived of justice just because they don't have a body to prove the crime - massive hostage taking is a crime too," he said.


Should Pristina's public prosecutor agree to Krusha e Vogel families' court action going ahead, the defendants will probably be tried in absentia, as Belgrade is unlikely to transfer them to Kosovo.


But the families of the missing and their supporters believe the hoped for convictions will nonetheless provide them with some degree of justice and at the very least discourage displaced Kosovo Serbs implicated in the crime from returning to the region.


Alma Lama is a journalist for Radio Television Kosova, RTK and Jeta Xharra is IWPR Kosovo project manager.