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Six years after the civil war in Kosovo, more than 3,000 Serbs and Albanians are still officially listed as missing or disappeared. International forensic teams have been searching for the bodies, and last weekend investigators announced that they had found the bodies of 22 Serbs buried in a mass grave in a western area of the country. Although the 18,000 NATO troops still stationed in Kosovo provide some stability, the fate of those who remain missing haunts the country. It also makes it difficult for Serbs and Albanians to build a common future. Eleanor Beardsley reports from Kosovo.
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ELEANOR BEARDSLEY reporting:
About an hour's drive from Kosovo's largest city of Pristina, at the end of a dirt road, lies a ravine surrounded by grazing cows.
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BEARDSLEY: At the mouth of a cave here, the United Nations forensic team is sifting through mud. Numbered markers are stuck in the ground, and the site is littered with plastic bags containing bone fragments. So far the team has found the remains of 22 people, and thanks to DNA testing they hope to identify all of them. Jose-Pablo Baraybar is a forensic scientist and head of the UN's Office of Missing Persons.
Mr. JOSE-PABLO BARAYBAR (Head of UN's Office of Missing Persons): Missing persons issues are at the crossroads of all sorts of other issues. We can't have a reconciliation ...(unintelligible) a lot of things that are quite empty words if you don't put any sort of substance to it. This is a substance. It is extremely important to try to account for every single of them and provide answers to the families, you know. It is not just a matter of collecting bones or exhuming sites like this; it's just giving answers, and that's what we trying to do.
BEARDSLEY: Ever since the UN arrived in Kosovo in 1999, it has been grappling with the issue of the thousands of civilians who went missing during the conflict. Most were Albanians who disappeared after falling into the hands of Serb military forces. But many Serbs were also kidnapped by members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, or KLA. Eight of the bodies found here have been identified as those of Serbs taken from their villages in 1998.
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BEARDSLEY: Today, the relatives of those eight men have come to the site. These families fled Kosovo during the NATO bombing and returned today with a full escort of UN troops in armored vehicles. Vesna Voskovich(ph) works for an organization that helps Serbian families with missing relatives. She says most people still cling to the hope that their loved ones are being held captive until they are brought to sites like this one.
Ms. VESNA VOSKOVICH: One day, the 17th of July 1998, they took 14 members of the family hostage, five from the family Borzric(ph) and two of the family Bordic(ph), young brothers. We found them right now after seven years. And they were in the dark--Can you imagine?--seven last years, and now they found the bones of their relatives. It will give them peace, they hope, but we will see.
BEARDSLEY: As the group is led down the steep path to the bottom of the ravine, their emotions overwhelm them. There are no bodies to bring back, only bone fragments. So the families say their final goodbyes here. They have brought candles and flowers to lay at the site.
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Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)
BEARDSLEY: As the group returns to the bus, literally staggering under the weight of their grief, one woman collapses.
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BEARDSLEY: In front of the Kosovo parliament building in Pristina stands a reminder of the thousands of Albanians still missing from the Kosovo conflict. Three hundred and fifty photos hang on the fence alongside a banner carrying the English words `We are all missing them.' The bodies of some of the missing Albanians have been found throughout Kosovo, and about 800 other bodies were found as far away as the Serbian capitol of Belgrade, where they had been dumped in mass graves by Serbian forces. Six years later, just half of those remains have been identified and returned to their families in Kosovo.
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Unidentified Choir: (Singing in foreign language)
BEARDSLEY: A memorial ceremony is under way in the Albanian town of Kline, not far from where the Serb men were found in the cave. Hundreds of Albanians have turned out to listen to patriotic speeches and nationalist music. Half of the town's population used to be Serb, and some Serbs are trying to return with the UN's help. But more than 100 of Kline's Albanian citizens are still missing. Kline native Seram Jerji(ph) explains why the return of the Serbs is being held up.
Mr. SERAM JERJI (Kline Resident): There are a number of families that have more than one person missing. And this is also blocking the other part of the town, saying to them, `Listen, we must reconcile.' When you go and talk to the mayor or someone who has a missing person in their family, they would say, `Listen, I'd love to help on reconciliation, but I don't know where my son is. I want to first know where my son is.'
BEARDSLEY: The UN's forensic scientists said they can't hope to trace every missing person, but will try to identify as many as they can so their families can find closure. Many here believe that only when this is achieved will Serbs and Albanians be able to put the past behind them and live together again in Kosovo. For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Kline, Kosovo.