Missing Lives – Book and photo exhibition
The wars that scarred the Balkans in the 1990s cost the lives of about 140,000 people, a quarter of whom simply vanished and were reported missing by their families. In 2010, almost 15,000 people remain unaccounted for. A new book and photo exhibition called Missing Lives highlight 15 moving individual stories selected among thousands. Here we present four stories from the book. Photographs are by award-winning British photographer Nick Danziger, the text by acclaimed Canadian writer Rory MacLean.
Missing Lives – Book and photo exhibition
Fifteen years on from the wars in Croatia and Bosnia and ten years after the end of the conflict in Kosovo, thousands of families are still waiting for news of the fate of their loved ones classified as missing.
Since 1991, the ICRC has been asked by families to trace 34,777 missing persons. Each of them left behind a wife or a husband, child or parent, brother or sister condemned to suffering the agony of not knowing whether their loved one was dead or alive. In limbo, they were unable to grieve, to claim inheritance, to sell property, or – most poignantly – to hold a funeral.
More than half of all missing persons have now been accounted for, the vast majority through the DNA-led identification programme of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP). This has brought peace and certainty to many families about what happened to their loved ones.
The book and exhibition Missing Lives aim to give voice to the silenced victims and to pay tribute to the tragedy of so many families in the Western Balkans. Missing Lives is also designed to serve as a tool to encourage governments and political authorities in the Balkans and across the West to commit to solving more cases at a faster pace to alleviate families' suffering.
Launched in London in July 2010, the Missing Lives exhibition will visit cities across the Western Balkans in 2010 and 2011. It will also travel to other parts of Europe and to North America– see events for full list.
The book is published by and can be ordered from Dewi Lewis Publishing.
Dawn broke over Vukovar, the soft rays of the rising sun brushing the tops of the trees growing in and around the shell of the old communist party club. Rosy shadows fell across the pulverised brickwork of the Café Diksi. The facades of bullet-scarred apartment blocks were pockmarked as if by a fatal rash.
‘You need to understand that in the Balkans history is controlled by politicians,’ said Dragutin Tuskan, his watery blue eyes scanning the city destroyed alongside the hope of a peaceful transition to democracy. ‘Here they create history.’
Tuskan is a haunted survivor. He was born 81 years ago near Karlovac in the west of Croatia. During the Second World War the Partisans – communist guerrillas who would later form the Yugoslav government – stole the blanket from his bed as well as his older brother. The following year the Ustashi – Croat forces allied with the Nazis – swept him away to war too.
‘I was only 15 years old but no one could defy them,’ he said, turning the gold wedding band on his finger. ‘We simply had to fight.’
In the final days of the war Tuskan surrendered to the British along with an estimated 50,000 defeated soldiers and 30,000 civilians at Bleiburg on the Austrian-Yugoslav border. The Ustashi hoped to escape the victorious Partisans but they were abandoned to their vengeful enemy.
‘The Partisans were hiding in the forest,’ recalled Tuskan. ‘They moved around us with knives, picking out individuals, asking “Do you want to look at the sun?” When you lifted your head, they slit your throat. The next day they stood us in lines and opened fire with automatic weapons. I lay in pools of blood. I didn’t know if I was dead or alive.’
The survivors were formed into four columns and marched over four months from the far north to the far south of the country. Tens of thousands died along the route. They ate only when sympathizers threw food into their ranks. Tuskan once caught and swallowed an egg, shell and all. His weight dropped to 34 kilos and – while repairing a road tunnel in Macedonia – he caught typhoid.
The massacre of prisoners of war at Bleiburg was the largest of its kind in the Second World War. The Slovenian Commission on Concealed Mass Graves has identified 570 related sites, from Bleiburg itself and the subsequent ‘Mars Smrti’ or Death March.
In Croatia there are at least 190 mass graves, of which only one has been partially excavated. An estimated 16 – 18,000 bodies lie in the Tezno grave alone.
So many fell along the roadside,’ admitted Tuskan. ‘Some bodies were even buried under the roads themselves.’
After the horror of war Tuskan longed for a quiet life. He moved as far away as possible from home without leaving Croatia. In pretty Vukovar on the Danube he married Dragica, found work as a salesman and bought a simple house on Kaciceva Street. Together they raised two sons.
Then in August 1991 Tuskan visited his elder son and pregnant English daughter-in-law in Zagreb. He’d planned to spend only the weekend away but the Yugoslav People’s Army – successor of the Partisans – laid siege to Vukovar, cutting it off from the rest of Croatia.
‘My wife and younger son were trapped. I was full of emotions. I couldn’t go home,’ he said.
When Croatia had declared independence from Yugoslavia, Serbs living in Vukovar responded with armed insurrection. The politics of ethnic intolerance had convinced them that their future lay with Serbia across the Danube rather than in an independent Croatia. The Yugoslav army and paramilitary groups supported the insurrection, shelling the city with heavy artillery from August to November, killing hundreds of people and reducing every neighbourhood to rubble. Tuskan’s wife Dragica was hanging out the washing when the armoured ground assault began. A grenade landed in a nearby playground, its shrapnel hitting her arm and stomach. She and their younger son Drazen made their way to the hospital, which was considered to be the safest refuge in the city. At the entrance door Drazen was shot in the leg.
The next day Vukovar fell. In Zagreb the ICRC secured an agreement between the Yugoslav army and Croatian authorities to place the hospital, along with its war wounded and staff, under the protection of the Red Cross. But Yugoslav officers in Vukovar claimed they were unaware of the agreement. They prevented the icrc from entering the hospital. They separated men from women. According to an eye-witness, Dragica would not leave Drazen, clinging to his leg as she was beaten to the ground. Around 250 wounded fighters and civilians as well as hospital staff were loaded onto buses and trucks. A crowd of local Serbs were reported to have shouted abuse at the ‘Ustashi murderers’ as they were carried out on stretchers. The prisoners were driven first to a military barracks, where an unknown number of hospital staff were released, and then to a nearby pig farm at Ovcara. The next day, the captives were executed in cold blood by paramilitaries, their bodies dumped in a single mass grave.
Of the 200 bodies later recovered, 190 have been identified. Two senior Yugoslav army officers were found guilty of aiding and abetting the torture and murder of the hospital prisoners by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Tuskan returned to Vukovar as soon as possible after the war. His house was a ruin without windows, doors or a roof. His bulletriddled car – which Drazen had used both to reach the front line and to ferry the wounded to hospital – had been stolen. His beloved city was almost unrecognisable. Worst of all, neither Dragica or Drazen’s remains could be found.
‘For 17 years I haven’t known where they are. During the day, during the night, I think about finding them, burying them, lighting candles for them,’ Tuskan said, hitting his chest with his fist again and again. ‘For these 17 years I didn’t sing, didn’t dance, nothing.’
When politicians control history, truth can be distorted for personal gain. Events are transformed into myths, facts lose their value and neighbours can be turned against each other. ‘Yet no one has apologised,’ Tuskan whispered. ‘No one.’
These days with his eyesight failing he rarely leaves his elder son’s house in Zagreb. When he does come back to Vukovar he visits the city’s new cemetery. Beyond the haunting ranks of white crosses – where his wife and son should lie but do not – wait dozens of empty concrete frames. In these family members of Vukovar’s defenders can be buried.
‘I want to be buried here,’ said Dragutin Tuskan. ‘But I beg you to find their bodies for me before I die.’
In villages around Srebrenica almost every other building was a ruin. Amidst the devastation rose busy Orthodox churches and deserted mosques without a congregation. Vast cement crosses squatted on main streets. Blue beehives and slender white gravestones mounted the hillsides. Above them spread a ghost town of torched and vacated houses, their roofs collapsing, their windows open to the elements. Among them was a pretty little garden of yellow and red tulips, and a single restored home. Beside it stood two young evergreens.
‘My youngest boy Azmir planted the trees,’ said Dzidza Mehmedovic, ‘one for him and one for his brother. Every morning I look at them growing taller and stronger.’
Before the war I was a happy woman. I woke up and had something to look forward to in my day.
The Balkans contain a reservoir of tragedy but in few places is that reservoir as deep as in Srebrenica. The town in eastern Bosnia was besieged for much of the 1992 – 95 conflict. Tens of thousands of Bosniaks were trapped in it. Despite being declared a demilitarised ‘safe area’ under the care of the United Nations Protection Force UNPROFOR, it was eventually overrun by Bosnian Serb forces.
Before the war I was a happy woman. I woke up and had something to look forward to in my day,’ said Dzidza, speaking with fierce energy. ‘But if I had known what was going to happen, I would never have had children.’
In the days following the takeover of Srebrenica, the Bosnian Serb Army planned and implemented the execution of almost 8,000 men and boys.
‘My husband Abdulah and our sons tried to escape through the forest,’ said Dzidza. ‘Almir was wearing khaki jeans and a white shirt. Azmir had on old black trousers and carried his clean jeans in a plastic bag. I gave them bread. We had no other food to eat.’ Like most of the women Dzidza was evacuated to Tuzla and then Sarajevo. But unlike them, and against the advice of her friends, she was determined to return to Srebrenica.
I felt that if I came back I would learn the truth faster,’ she raved. Her white head scarf was edged in green and yellow flowers. ‘I also believed that my family would return to me. I knew it was irrational but I had to do it.’
The Serbs who had occupied her house stole her furniture and threw her personal possessions onto the rubbish tip. On her return Dzidza combed through the tippings and found Almir’s last class photograph, Azmir’s water-stained school exercise book and a single marble.
‘How can I bury a single bone?’ ‘How can I bury a son not knowing if it’s Almir or Azmir?
‘I worked for weeks to put the house back together,’ she said. ‘The morning after I’d finished, I heard a voice call, “Mama!”. I ran outside. I ran up the lane. Of course there was no one there.’ She hurried on, ‘I used to worry about my boys slipping on the snow, or falling down and grazing a knee. How could all that be taken away from me?’
Dzidza had leafed through a Book of Belongings.
‘I stared at one photograph after another,’ she recalled, ‘and I prayed to God not to recognise anything, even though I wanted to end the uncertainty.’
Later, when DNA became a method for matching living relatives to recovered bones, she gave a blood sample to the ICMP. Twelve years after the massacre she finally received news of her family’s fate. The skeleton of one of her sons had been identified, but because the boys had been so close in age it proved impossible to determine if it had belonged to Almir or Azmir. Of her husband only a single tibia remained.
‘How can I bury a single bone?’ wailed Dzidza. ‘How can I bury a son not knowing if it’s Almir or Azmir? The greatest joy in life is to have a child. The greatest tragedy is to have him or her taken away.’ Dzidza is a member of the Srebrenica Mothers’ Association which provides support for women still searching for missing family members whose bodies were dispersed in as many as a hundred mass graves.
‘Those people who were in uniform on the day of the genocide, I know them well. In town they either act as if they don’t recognise me or insult me by calling me a liar, saying that the Potocari Memorial is not true. Not true!’ she cries. ‘There are thousands of graves at Potocari, thousands of men and boys who were killed simply because they had different names.’
The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia found that the mass execution of Bosniak men and boys constituted an act of genocide. Senior Bosnian Serb army and police officers have been charged and imprisoned. But many individual foot-soldiers who carried out their orders remain free, feeling no regret, expressing no remorse.
Dzidza went on, ‘I am a small woman but I am a strong woman. I can fight. I’ll do whatever I can to prevent a similar tragedy happening to another mother or child. We must learn that evil does not come alone. One evil deed creates another. If we are to regain the trust of our neighbours, we have to deal with history. We have to know who started this war. I don’t want vengeance. I want justice.’
Dzidza is a prisoner, unable to free herself, trapped since 1995 by love for her family and grief. ‘There is no happiness in other people’s sorrow. There is no happiness in tears. No one will ever build a happy home in this place again,’ she said standing on her balcony overlooking the devastated houses that surround her. ‘This is the place I raised my children. Whenever I am away, I want to rush back to be here for them. I know that their remains have been found. But in my heart I still believe that my boys might come home for dinner.’
Sevdije and Naim Ismaili
‘I went back to Kralan right after the war,’ said Sevdije Ismaili, dressed in a stylish black suit, wearing no make-up. ‘I saw bullet holes on the garage walls. I saw scorched patches of ground. I found burnt jackets stinking of petrol. In an old horse cart were identity cards, key chains and jaw bones. In the long grass I saw the silhouette of a body, the grass having not grown underneath it.’ She stubbed out her cigarette and added, ‘But I recognised nothing that had belonged to my husband.’
Two months earlier an armed policeman had ordered the Ismaili family out of their apartment in Kosovo with the words, ‘You wanted NATO, so you will have NATO.’
Ninety per cent of Kosovars were Albanians who had long wanted independence from Serbia. But Serbs regarded the province as the cradle of their civilization. In 1989 Slobodan Milosevic ignited the Serb minority’s emotions, inflaming national grievances. Over the next ten years Kosovo descended into war. In March 1999 to stop attacks on ethnic Albanians, NATO launched a bombing campaign on military targets. In response Serbian ground forces began a systematic expulsion of civilians from Kosovo. Within weeks at least 800,000 civilians were forced to flee towards neighbouring countries. Thousands of homes were set alight, the rain pressing the smoke into low, evil clouds that stained the horizon. For years to come Kosovo would remain the battleground between two irreconcilable principles: that of a people to self-determination and of a state to territorial integrity.
Sevdije, her husband Sheremet and their three children were trucked with 200 neighbours away from Klina then told to walk to Albania. Sevdije, a strong and attractive 36-year-old, led the column. She sat her youngest son Burim on a relative’s tractor along with their suitcase of clothes, bread and family photograph albums. Slowly the tractor pulled ahead and out of sight.
‘We reached Kralan and I had never seen such a big crowd. All the fields were packed with people evicted from Klina, from Skenderaj, and from villages all around.’
As many as 20,000 refugees had taken shelter in and around the village, a few finding accommodation in houses and barns, the majority forced to sleep in the open.
‘On our third day there the Serbs started shelling us. We tied a white sheet to a stick but they didn’t stop shooting. We had to kneel and crawl to surrender.’
‘Tell them I am too young, Mama,’ pleaded Naim but a soldier hit him with a rifle butt and shoved him in with the male prisoners.
The soldiers wore a variety of uniforms. Some disguised their faces with camouflage paint. They separated women, children and the elderly from the men. Sevdije’s husband Sheremet was pulled aside. Sevdije stumbled onwards with her eldest son, 13-year-old Naim. Then, just as she thought Naim was safe, an officer sitting inside a military vehicle rapped his knuckles on the windscreen. He ordered his men to seize the boy.
‘Tell them I am too young, Mama,’ pleaded Naim but a soldier hit him with a rifle butt and shoved him in with the male prisoners.
‘The Serbs started firing into the air. I thought they’d shot him. Suddenly I didn’t know what I was doing. I stepped away from the crowd. I lost my daughter’s hand. I collapsed beside a tree. I was in shock. A neighbour spotted me and picked me up. She didn’t let go of me until we reached Albania.’
The column of women and children walked through the night to reach the border. Paramilitaries came out of the woods to rob them, one holding the nozzle of a machinegun at Sevdije’s throat until a ransom was paid. Girls dirtied their faces and wore headscarves to avoid rape. A 15-year-old was pushed all the way in a wheelbarrow, having lost her mind when her father was taken away.
‘Across the border in Kruma I found my daughter,’ said Sevdije. ‘But I didn’t know what had happened to my husband or my boys.’
Sevdije endured three tortuous days until she received news that Naim was alive, and three long weeks until she learnt that her youngest son who had been carried away on the tractor was also safe.
Naim had survived because his father Sheremet had offered his life for his son’s. At Kralan at least 100 young men including Naim had been selected for execution. Sheremet had begged an officer to take him instead. Naim had been released but as he ran away towards the road, Serbian soldiers had raised their guns to shoot him.
‘Let him alone,’ called the officer, a self-styled demigod in a village of death. ‘He is free.’
‘It was a little fortune in the tragedy,’ said Sevdije.
Later in her office in the Klina Municipal building Sevdije said, ‘Today some people still believe that their loved ones are in secret detention places in Serbia. They pay money for information or send gifts through intermediaries, but nothing comes back to them. One family even received a phone call after their son’s body had been found and buried. “That is not your son,” argued the stranger on the phone. “Send me money and I’ll prove that your son still lives.”’ Sevdije shook her head sadly. Sheremet has been reported missing to half a dozen organisations and blood samples have been given by all his relations. ‘But I don’t hold out any hope. I don’t believe that he is alive.’
‘Today some people still believe that their loved ones are in secret detention places in Serbia. They pay money for information or send gifts through intermediaries, but nothing comes back to them.
Only a few human remains have been found and identified from the Kralan massacre.
Today Sevdije is a Municipal Returns Officer, managing the repatriation of Serbs who had fled from Kosovo when the Albanians returned, some of whom were responsible for her – and her family’s – banishment. But more painful even than that irony is the expectation that Sevdije should mourn Sheremet for the rest of her life.
‘We cannot forget those who have been lost. But it’s ten years since my husband died. I am 46 years old and still young. I would love to wear make-up and bright colours again. Red is my favourite colour. But one has to be careful how one is perceived.’
As for Naim, whose life was traded for his father’s, he is haunted by the guilt. When he was involved in a recent car accident in which two people were killed he said, ‘Every place I go, I cause death.’
We met on holiday in Russia,’ said Olja Budimir, her pale blue eyes hidden behind designer sunglasses. Under the trees dappled sunlight flickered across her face. ‘Rade was the tour guide. We were dancing our first dance – I remember he moved so beautifully – when he was called away to deal with another tourist. That halfdance was like our life to come, never to be completed.’
On their return to the Balkans Olja and Rade started dating each other. One summer evening they were walking around the old Turkish Kalemegdan fortress in Belgrade. Music rose up from a nearby restaurant and suddenly they were waltzing along the battlements.
‘Rade told me that he knew I’d be his wife one day,’ she said, the shifting shadows playing tricks with her expression. ‘I just jumped into his life.’
Rade Budimir was an energetic and social fiftysomething, a lover of nights on the town and old Serbian folksongs, a director of the Putnik Travel Agency in Pristina. After they married, he and Olja travelled together to France, Italy, Germany and Greece. In Cyprus he took off his tie and jacket to dance the kalamatianos. In Halkidiki they went for long happy walks along the Aegean coast.
‘I saw cars full of blood. I heard shooting and crying. If you were not there you would not believe what was happening,’
‘We kept travelling as if nothing was going to happen,’ Olja said, her lips lifting into a pouting smile.
Their trips ended when war came to Kosovo. She and Rade stayed at home in Pristina throughout the fighting and bombing, sheltering Albanian neighbours, waiting for the conflict to pass. To them, like most Serbs, Kosovo was an integral part of their country. ‘We lived in Serbia and Serbia would protect us.’
But when Serbian forces finally withdrew from the disputed territory, Pristina became ‘a slaughterhouse’. Albanian vigilante groups embarked on a swathe of bloody revenge killings.
‘I saw cars full of blood. I heard shooting and crying. If you were not there you would not believe what was happening,’ she recalled, her lips curling in an involuntary twist.
The roads were deadly dangerous – convoys had been ambushed and a bus blown up – but Rade and Olja decided to try to escape from Kosovo with her family.
‘We had to try our luck. We loaded the cars quickly, before any Albanians could attack us. Then just as we were about to leave Rade said he wasn’t coming. My heart seemed to stop beating in my chest. All my relatives were in the cars. I was one of the drivers. I had no choice but to go.’
Olja and her family fled, taking refuge in a farmhouse just outside Kosovo. While nursing her invalid father, Olja rang Rade at home. ‘He told me that the troubles would be over in a few days. He simply wanted to get on with life.’ The call ended with their usual teasing double entendre. ‘It’s a miracle that I love you,’ he said.
Three weeks later Rade failed to arrive in Belgrade for a business meeting. In Pristina Olja’s brother – who had stayed behind in the city – found four Albanians living in their apartment. The strangers had changed the door lock and, when he asked to see the old lock, he found Rade’s key in it. His suspicion aroused, he asked KFOR, whose headquarters were across the road, to intervene. The NATO soldiers took away the four men only ‘to let them go out of their back door’.
Olja was ‘in complete madness’. She rang hospitals, churches and morgues as well as her Serb and Albanian friends. A month later she moved alone to Belgrade to hound government ministries as well as the ICRC and Serbian Red Cross. She was given a small hotel room by Rade’s travel agency for one night. With no other place to stay it became her home for most of the next four years.
Always there were rumours,’ she said. ‘One morning I would hear that he was alive in a prison camp, the next that he was dead.’ An Albanian acquaintance told her from Pristina, ‘Rade will always be my friend, in this world and in the next one.’ She tracked every rumour back to its source, calling the friend who had heard it from a cousin who had claimed to have seen Rade. She toiled with a fanatical meticulousness, refusing to ‘sit at home and cry. My objective was to find him, or at least his remains. I had to prevent dogs from carrying away his bones, to stop him from being just another statistic.’
At the same time Olja worked for the Family Association of Missing and Kidnapped Persons from Kosovo. ‘The first evening I stood in a corner, crying behind my glasses. I heard heartbreaking stories about mothers who had lost their sons, daughters who had lost their parents. I thought, I have only lost my husband.’ Olja’s humility and determination made her a tireless advocate for the association, and she rose to the position of Co-ordinator.
Then one year after his disappearance Olja went to an exhibition of photographs of personal belongings found on unidentified exhumed bodies. ‘I saw hundreds of pictures of jeans, shirts, skirts. They all looked the same. Halfway through the exhibition I almost stopped looking. Suddenly I recognised the dark blue suede shoes we’d bought together in Greece.’
Later she was shown the shoes and clothes themselves. ‘I recognised the jacket I’d washed and ironed. I found one of his hairs on the shirt.’ She had brought with her a copy of Rade’s dental records to confirm his identity. Only then did she learn that no head had been found. The body had been decapitated.
No one knew who had killed or buried him, nor what had become of the four Albanian strangers.
Even with a DNA match, Olja had difficulty accepting that the headless corpse with broken arms could be her vibrant, dancing Rade. His body was brought from Pristina to the border in a cheap wooden coffin held together by packing tape. There he was transferred into an ornate coffin she had brought from Belgrade. UN soldiers in their blue helmets, who had failed to protect him in life, stood guard as the blue coffin lining was folded over the white body bag.
‘I lost my husband, my love, my chance to have children,’ said Olja. ‘I ached like a wounded, wild animal yet I held my head high, proudly and with a smile on my face, without really knowing why.’ Against all the odds she found the courage to move on with her life. ‘But there was no way I would be forced to wear a headscarf,’ she went on, the music of her voice revealing a flint hard edge. ‘My suffering was no less because I chose to wear a yellow dress. Time and time again I’ve had to explain my understanding of mourning. External appearances do not indicate the depth of emotion. I chose to fight by remaining the way I was in the past. Otherwise I’d have killed myself.’
Olja sold the old Pristina apartment and bought a smaller place in Belgrade. She found a job, joined a trekking club and began to travel again. ‘I cried so much on my first holiday, but I knew I simply had to work through it. I’ve now trekked in Turkey and Europe, and that sort of travel suits me; I can be with the group or walk alone as the mood takes me.’
As day turned to evening Olja took off her dark glasses and looked out through the woods. ‘My life belongs only to myself now. I still love Rade but I cannot say that I will remain alone forever. Everything is possible in life.’
Note by Pierre Krähenbühl, ICRC Director of Operations
In conflicts people disappear leaving no trace. The stories told in Missing Lives illustrate some of the deepest scars of war: the loss of loved ones without knowing their fate, and the inability to let the dead rest with dignity. They also show that the lives lost are those of the bereaved as much as the deceased.
Not knowing the whereabouts of a husband or wife, a son or daughter, a father or mother prolongs the suffering. Only by meeting and listening to these families does one begin to understand the depth of their torment.
The fate of more than half of the persons reported missing during the successive conflicts in the former Yugoslavia has been established. Thousands of human remains were found and handed over to their families. This is a positive result when one looks at the very low rate of resolutions from the conflicts in Iraq, Guatemala or Chechnya. Three reasons explain why the search for missing persons has been relatively successful in the Western Balkans. First, the families could rapidly report their missing relatives to the Red Cross and other international bodies who had maintained an extensive field presence during the war. Second, dna technology made significant progress during the past decade, increasing greatly the possibilities for positive identification of anonymous human remains. Third, the issue of the missing was placed high on the agenda of the international community, both by putting pressure on former w arring parties to provide answers to the families, and by funding the slow and expensive process of identifying human remains found in gravesites across the region.
Over the past years, several international and national key players in each country of the Balkans have helped families and their associations in numerous ways. Their work also helped to keep the issue of missing persons and the needs of the families in the region under the spotlight of attention of the local governments and of the international community.
However, it is clear that much more remains to be done. It is simply unacceptable that the fate of more than 15,000 persons remains unknown and that their families continue to endure such suffering. Tens of thousands of relatives cannot lay their emotions to rest and this continues to adversely affect peace and reconciliation throughout the region. Efforts must focus on providing answers and information on the missing. They must also focus on helping families address their pressing legal, economic and social needs.
Under international humanitarian law, states party to the Geneva Conventions are primarily accountable to the victims of armed conflicts. They have an obligation to provide answers to families on the whereabouts of people who disappeared in the territories under their control during the conflict. To fulfil this obligation, states in the former Yugoslavia must do more. First, they have to initiate an extensive search for information on the fate of missing persons, including through data related to potential gravesites or to transfers of human remains that could have taken place during or immediately after the conflict. Second, they must increase the budgets they allocate to their national commissions in order to speed up the exhumation and identification process. Third and perhaps most difficult, governments in the Western Balkans have to start exchanging information unconditionally on the whereabouts of missing persons.
Common Article 1 of the four Geneva Conventions demands that signatory states undertake to respect and to ensure respect for the Conventions in all circumstances. Based on this, the icrc urges governments in the Western Balkans, as well as others who have a stake in the region, to intensify their efforts towards bringing answers to families of the missing.
Behind the many statistics and statements, there are individual men, women and children whose lives were torn apart by untold violence. It is a fundamental issue of dignity that the thousands of affected families receive news and support. It remains as urgent as ever to elucidate the fate of their missing loved ones.
Director of Operations
International Committee of the Red Cross