Bosnia moves to help families of the missing

A new law may provide a model for survivors in Iraq and the families of those lost in the Asian tsunami

Fatima Fazlic hoped for years that she would hear from her husband, who disappeared trying to flee the northwestern Bosnian town of Kozarac in the early days of the 1992-1995 war. But the financial pressure of raising two daughters and paying rent forced her to exchange hope that he might be alive for a $380-per-month pension.

She gathered the paperwork and two witnesses, and declared him dead in 1998.

"Even though I knew deep in my heart that he was dead, I didn't want to accept it until ... they found him," she says. "It's terrible for a woman or for a family to have to go down that road and to deal with all that paperwork - you stop hoping."

Because of a law passed by Bosnia's parliament last November, Ms. Fazlic and tens of thousands of others whose loved ones disappeared during the war will no longer have to face the hope-sapping experience of declaring missing relatives dead in order to claim financial aid.

Nor will families have to declare relatives dead to get access to the family apartment or house. Under the new law, relatives can sign up for what's called a "temporary trusteeship" of the property. The law also fills in the gaps in international law by tasking the state with searching for remains and returning them to the family. And families not covered by pensions, veterans' benefits, or benefits for civilian victims can sign up for missing-persons benefits.

The law is the first of its kind in the world, and could prove to be a model for other countries.

Family associations in Kosovo, for example, are keen to put a similar law in place. But political problems there are keeping it on the back burner. The law may also provide a template for help in Iraq and in countries affected by the Asian tsunami, as they deal with the missing.

Iraqi officials are also looking to the methods used in Bosnia to identify remains from mass graves. They announced last month that they will open a national center to track down people who disappeared - the number could be as high as 1 million - during Saddam Hussein's 24-year rule.

In October, Iraqi human rights and forensics officials toured the offices of Bosnia's International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP), which runs the world's largest DNA identification project , matching DNA from bones found in mass graves to blood given by living relatives.

Last month at a meeting in Jordan, ICMP lawyers, who advised families of the missing in drafting Bosnia's law, also outlined basic elements of the legislation and possible ways to fund compensation, says ICMP lawyer Jeffrey Buenger.

Mr. Buenger also says that Iraqi family associations might visit their Bosnian counterparts to learn how to get governments to react, as these were the groups that lobbied for and helped create Bosnia's law on missing persons.

Families here, however, doubt that they'll see a penny anytime soon.

"[The law] would be a good foundation if there were any money, but there isn't any," says Stevo Macura, whose son was killed in a Bosnian government prison. In theory, the state missing-persons fund will be paid for by the three internal governments that were created after the war - the Muslim-Croat Federation, the Serb Republic, and the Brcko District.

In practice, family groups like Mr. Macura's - an organization for Bosnian Serb missing persons in Prijedor - will continue lobbying their governments to get officials to implement the law. "I would be lying if I told you it is happening today," says Buenger. "But it is an important thing this year to see happen, because otherwise having a right that's only on paper doesn't help."

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