Discovery of bodies of Serbs killed in Kosovo war may, paradoxically, ease talks on missing persons between Belgrade and Pristina.
By Muhamet Hajrullahu in Klina (BCR No 554, 29-Apr-05)
Serbian families laid wreaths and lit candles on April 23 in front of a cave in the Klina region of western Kosovo, where the remains of 22 people were found.
DNA testing has identified seven of the victims, discovered on April 19, as Serbs who went missing in 1998 in Rahovec/Orahovac, 50 kilometres west of the capital, Pristina.
The discovery, near the village of Volljakë (in Serbian, Volujak), marks the first time a mass grave containing Serbs has been found in Kosovo, and both the authorities here and local human rights activists believe it will aid talks between Belgrade and Pristina on missing persons.
Two of the bodies found in the cave were of Olgica Bozanic's brothers, from the village of Opterusa in Orahovac/Rahovec, who until now were considered missing.
She said that until now the family had hoped its missing relatives might still be alive.
"Since their disappearance, we received various information that they were alive and being forced to work in labour camps," said Bozanic.
Seeing the bodies in the cave had been painful, she added, "but finally we know the truth and no one can fool us any longer with stories that our missing people are alive".
The Office of Missing Persons and Forensics, from the UN mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, estimates that just under 3,000 people are still counted as missing in Kosovo. The great majority – around 2,400 - are ethnic Albanians while the rest are Serbs, Roma and others.
Daut Dauti, spokesperson for the Kosovo government, told IWPR on April 26 that the Volljakë/Volujak mass grave discovery shows that Albanians are willing to return the bodies of missing Serbs and were serious partners in negotiations on missing persons in general.
"Negotiations with Serbs on missing persons issues have often been difficult because Albanians have been accused of not revealing and returning the bodies of missing Serbs," explained Dauti.
After a year of stalemate, when almost no progress was made, the working group on missing persons, chaired by the International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC, met in Belgrade on March 16.
The two sides signed a framework document and accepted ICRC's list of 2,960 still missing as the agreed reference figure. The officials also agreed to meet again on June 9 in Pristina.
According to Dauti, the discovery of the mass grave will strengthen Kosovar attempts to get the Serbian authorities to make more efforts to locate missing Albanians.
"The government supports the initiative to investigate and discover mass graves such as this one," said Dauti, adding that "this discovery will clearly help the Kosovar delegation in talks on missing persons with officials from Belgrade".
However, representatives of human rights groups, such as Jeta Bejtullahu, of the Humanitarian Law Centre, HLC, in Pristina say the grave's discovery will do more than expedite the activities of working groups on the missing.
The generally accurate and unbiased reporting of the event in the Kosovo media, she said, "shows Kosovo Albanian society is ready to accept that Serbs, although on a much smaller scale, were also victims in the Kosovo war".
She added, "This is a step forward from the complete denial that existed in the [immediate] post-war years."
Bejtullahu stressed that much work remained to be done on the issue from the point of view of human rights activists.
"There are still reservations [among Albanians] in accepting that the responsibility for crimes against minorities falls on the shoulders of the majority in Kosovo," she concluded.
Olgica Bozanic, who is now a refugee in Belgrade, told IWPR that she last saw her brothers on July 18 1998, when a battle took place between Serbian forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, for control of the Orhavac/Rahovec area.
"During the night between 17 and 18 July 1998, the Albanians attacked the Serbs living in Opterusa, which was mostly Albanian," she said.
The local Serb men had "defended themselves until the morning but then they surrendered to local Albanians and to people ... in black uniforms". She never saw her brothers again.
Dauti is convinced the Kosovo public is becoming more aware that crimes were committed against Serbs in the war.
"Albanian society and institutions have to accept that the Serbs of Kosovo were also victims in the war and the mass grave in Klina proves it," he said.
Bejtullahu says it is time now for Belgrade and Pristina to de-politicise the issue of missing persons.
The entire business should be transformed "from a political perspective to a humanitarian one", she said, as this would "help shed light on what happened to the rest of the missing persons - an issue that so far has been held hostage to political calculations".
Muhamet Hajrullahu is a regular IWPR contributor. Tanja Matic also contributed to this report.