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

Hopes Fade for Missing Macedonians

Families of Macedonians who went missing during last year's ethnic conflict say the government is not doing enough to find out what happened to their loved ones.
By Ana Petruseva

Relatives of 12 missing people from the Tetovo area have been occupying part of the Macedonian parliament building, fearful that the government will otherwise forget about their loved ones, who have not been heard of for six months.

The families have been camping in a long narrow conference room since December 21, sleeping on the carpet beneath the conference table. The parliament restaurant serves them three meals a day. "We cannot leave. Even with our presence here and all the contacts we have made, nothing is moving and there is no new information," said one man, who preferred not to be named.

Vaska from Drenovec, a predominantly Albanian neighbourhood of Tetovo that most Macedonians fled when tensions were rising during the summer, said her husband Gjoko disappeared when he went with four other men to turn off the electricity at a friend's house.

"He is an invalid and always walks with a cane. Later, a cane was found at the house and his cigarettes were also there," she said. "After they disappeared a red-and-black Albanian flag appeared over the house." To date, she has not heard a word about her husband.

The families are tormented by a constant stream of rumours about the disappeared. Before New Year, one of the missing was alleged to have called a friend of the family to say that all 12 were alive and well. The call could not be verified.

"People tell us all kinds of things. We hear that somebody phoned, but it could be speculation," said Altana, who is hoping against hope that her husband and son will return. "None of us here has had any direct contact or received any useful information since the day they went missing. I honestly don't know what to believe anymore."

Francois Stamm of the International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC, is also sceptical about the alleged telephone calls. "They are mentioned, but are shrouded in mystery," she said. "No one will tell me who has received a telephone call, so we cannot use this information in our investigation."

A total of 20 people were reported missing during the seven-month insurgency by Albanian guerrillas demanding minority rights. In addition to the 12 Macedonians, six Albanians and one Bulgarian have disappeared.

The EU is now investigating the cases. Officials are in daily contact with the families of the missing, but acknowledge that there has been no significant progress. "We know from experience that it takes a lot of time to find out what really happened," said one official, noting that large numbers of people are still missing years after the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo.

On the ground, former rebel chief Ali Ahmeti has designated a commander to investigate the cases. The commander, known as Ljuli, has been conducting interviews with ex-NLA soldiers on a daily basis, so far with no results. "It is hard to ascertain what happened," he said. "For example, in Drenovec, where five people were reported kidnapped, the commander in charge is now dead and the other soldiers don't know anything."

Within the parliament, hardline speaker Stojan Andov has used the plight of the missing to issue ultimatums and stall the passage of constitutional reforms. The families camped out in the assembly building admit that they have been receiving advice from Andov.

Otherwise, there are few people they trust. "Our only hope is the EU Special Representative Alain Le Roy. It is questionable how much he can do for us right now, but at least he keeps up the pressure on everybody else," said one of the relatives, as others nodded in agreement.

Aside from a few visits by interior minister Ljube Boskovski, who offers only florid patriotic rhetoric, the Macedonian government has shown little interest. "To be honest, I think the missing people are dead. I know it is incredibly painful and sad, but why has there been no sign of them for six months if they are still alive?" asked one senior government official.

Some members of the international community are similarly pessimistic about the fate of the disappeared. "There is no way of knowing whether they are alive or dead. Personally, I doubt they are alive," a NATO official told IWPR.

The families of the missing say they have no alternative but to remain in the parliament building until they get some news of their loved ones. One woman spoke tearfully for the whole group, "I have to know what has happened. This is no life. Dead or alive, please tell me."

Ana Petruseva is a journalist with Forum magazine in Skopje.