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

REGIONAL REPORT: Efforts to Identify War Dead Intensify

Croatia and Serbia step up efforts to share information on the fate of people who went missing during the Balkan conflict.
By Marina Grihovic

"A grave is the only thing that remains behind any man - it's a trace of his existence," said Stanka, a Croatian Serb from Kninska Krajina, who spent years searching for her husband who disappeared during the war.


"When we fled to Serbia, we still hoped that he was alive," she said. "As months and years went by that hope slowly faded. But the desire to know the whereabouts of his grave grew nonetheless."


Improved cooperation between Serbia and Croatia on the search for persons gone missing during the war has finally granted Stanka her wish. With the help of both governments, she and 40 other people have identified the remains of their relatives since autumn last year.


The wars in former Yugoslavia left hundreds of mass graves. For obvious reasons, Croatia and Yugoslavia were slow to exhume sites containing alleged victims of their respective armies.


But while fear of being branded the aggressor clearly held up the identification process, so did the lack of communication between Serbian and Croatian commissions for missing persons.


The International Committee for the Red Cross, ICRC, helped bridge the gap through its access to documentation held by the commissions - but its success was limited. The relatives of the missing who attempted to get news via embassies, met a brick wall. Neither government would offer information on mass graves, prisoner of war camps or unidentified bodies buried on their territory.


The breakthrough came with the elections of new governments in Croatia and Serbia in January and October of 2000, respectively. Political changes together with pressure from The Hague war crimes tribunal finally resulted in acknowledgements by both authorities of the existence of mass graves in areas they control.


But they stressed the excavations of some graves would prove that no war crimes were committed since soldiers killed in battle were buried there.


The government in Belgrade released information on "enemy" graves in Novi Sad cemetery in summer 2001. Their subsequent release of news on mass graves in the Batajnica suburb of Belgrade was, however, more a convenient excuse to extradite ousted president Slobodan Milosevic to The Hague, than to help identify the missing.


The Yugoslav commission also gave its counterpart in Zagreb documentation on missing Serbs, believed to be buried in Croatia.


The work between the two commissions intensified after Zagreb made public the existence of hundreds of unidentified graves at the New Knin cemetery, in the south-east of the country.


Under the watchful eye of Hague and Belgrade experts, the Croatian authorities exhumed the remains of around 100 persons there in summer 2001. Using DNA analysis at the Zagreb Institute for Forensic Medicine, 40 bodies have so far been identified.


The issue of DNA analysis has been an obstacle in cooperation between the commissions. They both insisted their side should perform the tests, even though Serbia did not have a suitable laboratory at the time.


Ivan Grujic, president of the Croatian missing persons commission, estimates some 300 Croatians, killed during the conflict in the early Nineties, floated down the Danube into Serbia where they were pulled from the water and buried. Zagreb has demanded information on these deceased.


The Serbian police carried out autopsies and kept records on the bodies found in the river. The dead were usually buried in individual graves in the local cemetery. Until 2001, however, this information was never made public.


The Belgrade government has now confirmed the Novi Sad cemetery holds 87 unidentified Danube bodies. A further 100 are buried in Sremska Mitrovica.


Visnja Bilic, chief secretary of the Croatian missing persons commission, is delighted by recent progress. "Last year the two commissions made significant headway. We can be satisfied at Yugoslavia's public statement that there are victims of the war in Croatia buried on Serbian territory. We have also agreed some concrete steps to help identifying these people," she said.


According to Miroslav Alimpic, an official at the Novi Sad district court, 12 of the 87 bodies in the town cemetery have so far been identified. DNA samples were sent to Zagreb and to Belgrade, where they will be kept in storage until Serbia's DNA facility is up and running.


In April 2002, Croatian foreign minister Tonino Picula and his Yugoslav counterpart Goran Svilanovic agreed to work on establishing responsibility for war crimes of both countries and to remove visa requirements between the two for four months.


The visa moratorium would greatly reduce the travel barriers for the relatives of missing persons and refugees in general.


Red Cross workers are optimistic the continued improvement in relations between Belgrade and Zagreb will produce useful information on most of the unidentified dead. The organisation plays a vital role in this process, facilitating relatives' travel from one country to another to identify the dead.


Stanka has just returned from such a journey. "It was both the hardest and the easiest trip of my life," she said. "It is hard to explain, but when they gave me a coroner's sheet to sign and confirm my husband's death, I felt a sense of relief. As if he were with us again. And he will be soon, when his remains are transported to Serbia.


"After six years of not knowing the fate of my husband, I can now give the burial he deserves. I will soon be able to take flowers to his grave."


Marina Grihovic is an independent Belgrade journalist, and a member of IWPR's war crimes reporting network.


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