Update 00/01 on ICRC activities in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
27-06-2000 Operational Update
The issue of people unaccounted for as a result of the Kosovo crisis
I. What happened to over 3,000 people still missing ? Their families have a right to know
After two-and-a-half years marked by heightened tension and international conflict, the fighting has stopped in Kosovo. However, many thousands of people cannot find real peace for as long as the fate of their family members remains unknown. While the international focus is on reconstruction, security and political issues, families in both Kosovo and elsewhere in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) remain anxious for news of their relatives, their anguish undiminished as time goes by. They find it impossible to come to terms with their loss and rebuild their lives in a fundamental way while the uncertainty prevails. For the ICRC, tackling the humanitarian issue of missing persons is a major priority in Kosovo and elsewhere in the FRY today.
Regrettably, neither the plight of detainees nor of missing persons was specifically addressed in the agreement that ended the 78-day conflict between NATO and the FRY, signed in Kumanovo in June 1999, or the subsequent UN Security Council Resolution 1244. The lead role in tackling the issue of missing persons and defending the rights of their families thus fell to the ICRC, on the basis of its internationally recognized mandate. Its status as a neutral and impartial intermediary and trusted presence throughout the country have enabled the ICRC, unlike most other organizations, to work on all sides and have facilitated access to vital information. In addition, the ICRC is able to rely on the worldwide network of National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies which are indispensable local partners in gathering data and locating people.
Directly from families, the ICRC collected more than 4,800 names of persons reported missing. With the authorities in Belgrade, it managed to negotiate access to people notified as still being in detention following the Kosovo crisis. In this way, the ICRC was able to shed light on the fate of 1,306 of those missing.
Only a few of them were found alive and free, while the mortal remains of 200 of the missing were found in mass graves.
The 3,368 people still reported as missing are mostly Kosovo Albanians, but also include some 400 Serbs, more than 100 Roma and people from other communities. Some 16% disappeared before the conflict between FRY/NATO, while some 10% have gone missing since KFOR troops poured into Kosovo last June.
II. A further step in the quest for truth: the ICRC's "Book of the Missing"
In its latest initiative, on 7 June the ICRC published a 200-page book listing the 3,368 names collected from families from all communities in Kosovo between January 1998 and mid-May 2000. It shows the names both alphabetically and in chronological order of disappearance and has been presented at press conferences in Pristina, Belgrade and Geneva.
The Book of the Missing should by no means be understood to mark the end of a process. Rather, it is a milestone in a search which the ICRC intends to carry on until the families'need to know has been satisfied. Its pur pose is to:
1. serve as a tool for gathering more information that may help to shed light on the fate of the missing, from the general public, the authorities and those who took part in the hostilities;
2. impress on the general public that humanitarian problems by far outlast the duration of armed conflict;
3. and to remind the authorities on all sides of their obligation under international humanitarian law to provide answers to the families.
The book will be available for consultation in all Red Cross offices in the region. In Kosovo itself, it will also be accessible in the offices of the civil administration and the main humanitarian agencies. In addition, the list may be consulted on an ICRC website (www.familylinks.icrc.org).
The ICRC published a similar book after the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina which list the names of some 18,000 people, most of whom remain unaccounted for.
III. ICRC measures to date and in the future
1. Visits to detainees
In contexts of tension and armed conflict, the ICRC visits prisons to keep track of the detainees, ensure that they have decent material and psychological conditions of detention and are treated humanely, and that they are able to keep in touch with their families through Red Cross messages. The ICRC had been visiting Kosovo Albanian prisoners held by the Serbian authorities before the 1999 crisis but had to stop visiting during the conflict between NATO and the FRY. The ICRC resumed its visits afterwards and by July 1999 it had registered 1,922 detainees, whose families were immediately informed. By mid-May, some 850 detainees had been released, with the ICRC still visiting 1,245 detainees. It will continue these visits for as long as prisoners are held in the FRY.
Similarly, it will continue to provide transport back to Kosovo, at the request of the authorities, for those who are released (750 of the detainees released to date have been escorted home in this way).
In Kosovo the ICRC has access to all those detained by KFOR and the UNMIK police. It currently visits 68 people .
2. Approaches to the authorities concerned
The ICRC considers that it is the responsibility of the authorities concerned to spare no effort in seeking to provide answers. On 21/22 February 2000 the organization officially submitted to the authorities in Belgrade and to UNMIK and Kosovo Albanian leaders in Pristina the names of the missing people it had so far gathered, with the urgent request that they provide any information they may have which would shed light on the fate of individuals as quickly as possible. Regrettably, no firm information on any of the cases has so far been forthcoming. The ICRC will maintain its dialogue with the authorities on all sides and urge them to take all necessary steps to ascertain the fate of persons who disappeared in areas under their authority.
3. Tracing in the field
Extensive efforts have been made by ICRC field teams in towns and villages throughout Kosovo to urge th e population to come forward with information. A system of " tracing by event " was introduced, involving the gathering of details about the circumstances in which people disappeared or were allegedly detained/abducted. Based on the ICRC's experience in other contexts, this could help provide additional information leading to the clarification of cases. Families have also been invited to notify their missing relatives to the ICRC or the Yugoslav Red Cross in the FRY. The ICRC will continue to register new information and subsequently submit it to the authorities concerned, and will follow up allegations of arrest and abduction.
4. Coordination with other agencies
The ICRC has been officially recognized as the lead agency in the question of missing persons in Kosovo, and has established a coordination group with other organizations (such as UNMIK, the international police, OSCE, and the International Commission on Missing Persons) to share information. By the end of 1999 forensic experts of the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia had recovered 2,108 bodies from mass graves around the region. The teams have just resumed their work after the winter break and have so far excavated 92 sites out of a total of 440 known graves. The ICRC strongly encourages the continuation of the identification process.
5. Support for families
The ICRC is reviewing ways in which it can better help the families shoulder their burden of grief and uncertainty, for example through fostering the creation of family associations, through psycho-social support and by referrals to legal or other practical advice. The ICRC is aware of the unique responsibility it carries in being accessible to the families both in Kosovo and elsewhere in the FRY: its exclusive commitment is towards the families and their needs.