Family reunions a goal, but where are the missing?

Unknown number of Kosovars - Albanian and Serb - unaccounted for.

Avni Zhubi is one of the fortunate ones. They let him go.

But the retired pharmacist's two sons are still missing. They are believed to be among as many as 3,000 ethnic Albanians arrested throughout Kosovo during NATO's 78-day air campaign and taken to prisons in Serbia by Serbian police when they pulled out of the province.

"Every day I hope to see them," says Mr. Zhubi, who was seized with his sons and some 1,200 other men in a police sweep through Djakovica in May. He and three others were later freed. Last week, four more returned, released with 162 ethnic Albanians from two jails in Serbia.

Uncertain outcomes

Djakovica's missing men are but a handful of the unknown numbers of ethnic Albanians and Serbs whose whereabouts are unknown. As with wars and political turmoil everywhere, from Vietnam to Sri Lanka to Argentina and Guatemala, the fates of most of those missing in the Kosovo conflict may never be determined.

While dozens of Serbs have been abducted by ethnic Albanian rebels, most of the missing are ethnic Albanians. They may be among the refugees yet to return home, battlefield dead, or people executed and buried in mass graves by Serbian "ethnic cleansing." Or they may be among those believed to have been taken to jails in Serbia. An unknown number of ethnic Albanian political prisoners were already locked up in Serbia when the war began in February 1998. What has happened to them is also uncertain.

If the last Balkan war is any guide, the futures of most of Kosovo's missing appear to be bleak.

Nearly four years after the peace settlement at Dayton, Ohio, more than 20,000 people are still missing from the 1992-95 conflict that sundered Bosnia-Herzegovina when Belgrade-backed Bosnian Serbs sought to merge with Serbia territory purged of other ethnic groups. Most are believed to be dead.

Balkan precedent

Immediately after the Bosnia war, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) launched outreach programs through its own offices, local commissions, and the international news media to register and trace missing people. It collected more than 22,000 names. The whereabouts of about 2,000 were almost immediately clarified, including some 600 who were found to have gone abroad.

"Very few have been found detained by official or unofficial authorities. That was only a handful of people," says Erwin Bohi of the Sarajevo-based International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP).

The commission, funded by the United States, the Netherlands,and Iceland and chaired by Bob Dole, was set up in 1996 to underwrite programs, including the disinternment of mass graves, to trace those still unaccounted for. Up to now, 1,800 bodies have been found in mass graves; of those identified, only one-third were on the ICRC list, says Mr. Bohi.

"Of course it's difficult to make an extrapolation, but it shows there must be more than the 20,000 still missing," he says. "Most of the 20,000 missing are probably dead."

This does not mean the search has stopped. The ICMP began about a year ago underwriting a campaign by local commissions to lobby Bosnia's Serbian, Croatian, and Muslim authorities to step up efforts to trace those still missing. The aim is to pressure them into pressuring other governments to help in the tracing, which Bohi says they are now beginning to do.

Searches just beginning

Even though the fighting in Kosovo has been over less than a month, initial efforts are already under way to determine the number of missing.

The ICRC has begun sending mobile teams into towns and villages to take down the names of errant relatives. It is also pressing the regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to allow it to visit prisons to register ethnic Albanian inmates, although so far Belgrade has refused. "We are still waiting to receive the lists of detainees in Serbia. It is a considerable number of prisoners," says Geneva-based ICRC spokeswoman Jette Soerensen.

In Djakovica, the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army has set up an office where relatives of missing people show up daily to register and leave photographs. Local branches of the Political Prisoners Association, formed by ethnic Albanians to keep track of political detainees during 10 years of repressive Serbian rule, are collecting the names of people arrested during the NATO air campaign and believed to have been taken to jails in Serbia.

Protest marches have been held in Prizren, Djakovica, and Pristina by families of the missing to highlight their cause and press for international action.

The efforts, however, cannot make real progress until the return to Kosovo of the estimated 400,000 ethnic Albanian refugees still in Macedonia and Albania. "A lot of people are still in Albania, and we are not sure how many people are still prisoners in Serbia's jails," says Nuhi Bytuci, head of the Political Prisoners Association branch in Prizren.

He says at least 220 ethnic Albanian men are believed to have been taken to Serbia from the local jail as NATO peacekeeping troops moved into the area.

Mr. Bytuci, himself jailed twice on political grounds, says he is unsure why the men are being held. "We have information that these people are alive," he says. Still, he worries. "I've had a bitter experience in Serbian jails," he says. "A lot of these people could be executed. The same thing has happened to people before."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Family reunions a goal, but where are the missing?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today