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Kosovo: Tussle Over Mass Graves

Discovery of more Serb civilian bodies may worsen political atmosphere ahead of crucial talks on protectorate’s final status.
By Berat Buzhala

The recent discovery of a second mass grave containing bodies of Serb civilians in Kosovo has stoked tensions in the run-up to expected final status talks this autumn.

UNMIK investigators discovered the bodies of 13 Serbs in a mass grave in Malisheva/Malisevo, in central Kosovo in mid-May.

Forensic experts said all were dressed in civilian clothes and had their hands tied behind their backs. The year of their execution is believed to have been 1998, during the height of the armed conflict between the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, and Serb government forces.

The finding in Malisheva follows the discovery of the first mass grave containing Serb bodies in Kosovo at Volljaka, some 60 kilometres west of Pristina, in April 2005.

Nine of the 24 bodies in Volljaka have been identified as missing Serbs, but UNMIK forensic experts said they suspected all were local Serbs who went missing in 1998.

The discovery has boosted fears this highly emotional issue may add to the tension between Pristina and Belgrade during the run-up to final status talks. Outside observers point out that the issue of missing persons has been manipulated, or used as a bargaining point, before.

At the core of the dispute is the unresolved fate of thousands of Albanians, Serbs and others who disappeared at the height of the Kosovo conflict in the late Nineties. Nothing is known of around 2,900. According to the Red Cross, ICRC, some 2,400 of these are Albanians and 700 non-Albanians, including 500 Serbs. Talks between Serb and Albanian officials have dragged on without resolving their fate, amid frequent mutual accusations of bad faith.

After a break of about a year because of anti-Serb violence, discussions between government experts from Kosovo and Serbia resumed in March 2005 in Belgrade.

But reluctance to close the whole issue is not limited to the Serb side. Anger over alleged foot-dragging in Belgrade has led Albanians to demand that they also pull out of talks on the remaining bodies.

Albanians were angered when UNMIK called in Serb forensic experts to help them in Malisheva and in Volljaka, as their Albanian counterparts were not invited to Serbia to help exhume bodies of Albanians found there.

The Albanians want the return of Albanians found in mass graves in Serbia speeded up. Many of those have been located at a site in Batajnica, near Belgrade, where around 800 bodies have been uncovered since in 2001.

About 500 have been returned to Kosovo in batches of 20 to 40, but delays to the process have frustrated the Albanian side.

More recently, the Serbian media revealed that large numbers of Albanian bodies were also incinerated at the Mackatica aluminium factory, in southern Serbia. Without faster progress on the return all of these bodies, Albanian missing persons groups say the Kosovo government should slow down the return of Serb bodies.

Ali Aliburolli, leader of the Association of the Families of Missing Persons, said Kosovo should "immediately halt" talks on missing persons with any Serb officials who held posts in Kosovo during the conflict.

"Our government should withdraw from these talks," he said, after a meeting with the Kosovo government commission on missing persons.

Kosovo Serb leaders, on the other hand, say the discovery of Serb mass graves in Volljaka and Malisheva alters the whole dynamic of the discussion about atrocities.

Serb representative Rada Trajkovic told IWPR the discoveries showed the West had been wrong to intervene in Kosovo in the first place. "The international community made a mistake with its intervention in Kosovo in 1999, bringing us to where we are now," she said. "The KLA killed Serb civilians in the territory it controlled."

Such claims worry some Albanian leaders. Jakup Krasniqi, a top official from the Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK - a former member of the KLA general staff, based in Malisheva when the group held the area in 1998 - said the recently discovered bodies "could belong to the Serbian military".

He claimed, "They were intentionally dressed in civilian clothes and buried together by their superiors."

Amid signs of a worsening political climate over missing persons, UNMIK sources told IWPR they feared the discoveries of Serb mass graves might increase tension and so damage prospects for talks on Kosovo's final status this autumn.

But Jose Pablo Baraybar, head of UNMIK's office for missing persons, disagreed. "The moment when the mass graves are opened is not important. People have to face their past so they can move forward," he said.

Oliver Ivanmovic, a moderate Kosovo Serb leader, agreed, saying the discoveries of new mass graves should have no impact on political developments in Kosovo.

"The sooner guilt is individualised on both sides, the better the chances of reconciliation between peoples who continue to blame each other collectively for what happened during the war," he said.

But there is little sign of people or politicians from either community accepting that guilt for such atrocities is a purely individual matter. And as courts on both sides stall on prosecuting those responsible for the killings, feelings of animosity stirred by the discovery of mass graves looks set to grow.

Berat Buzhala is managing editor of the Kosovan daily Express.

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