By Velimir Perovic
The agreement made in Brussels to open archives in Belgrade and Pristina in order to find the bodies of 1,639 persons killed during the conflict in Kosovo won’t come to anything – at least not in the near future. And even though the ink on the document signed by the members of the negotiating teams, Petar Petkovic and Besnik Bislimi, hadn’t had the time to dry, negative reactions to that decision arrived from all sides. However, a significantly higher number of such reactions arrived from Kosovo than from Belgrade.
Families, who have been trying to learn the location of the bodies of their loved ones for more than 20 years, will be left in pain once again and without hope that burial sites or mass graves will eventually be discovered with the help of some new secret documents, so that they can bury the remains of their loved ones.
What hindered the intention to find the bodies of all missing persons? First, let us note that Petkovic and Bislimi agreed to open military archives in Belgrade and the archives of the so-called KLA and the State Archives of Kosovo on the KLA in Pristina.
Now, the question remains whether those archives exist and if so – what is in them. If it is known that they do not exist, or if they are empty, or if it is known that the documents on the crimes were faked, then the agreement of the negotiators is meaningless and represents the re-killing of those already killed.
Several former KLA commanders claim that they did not keep any records of „activities“ during, before, and after the war. Currently, as per the estimations by both Missing Persons Commissions (Pristina and Belgrade), the bodies of 570 victims suspected of being killed by KLA members are located in Kosovo.
The KLA was a guerrilla army, whose leaders knew nothing about the Geneva Conventions on the rules of war. Even when it comes to those who knew something about it, there is no evidence that they respected them. They simply did not function institutionally. Civilians were captured and taken to more than 30 makeshift camps, killed, and many had their organs removed. It is hard to believe that members of the KLA left evidence of their crimes in writing. If anyone did, it must have been destroyed or buried somewhere deep underground in the two decades since the war.
During the conflict, members of the Serbian security forces searched the headquarters of KLA units on several occasions but never came across a document that would indicate the whereabouts of the victims’ remains. All mass graves discovered in Kosovo, especially those from early 2000 in Orahovac, during the time of UNMIK pathologist and investigator Jose Pablo Baraybar, were discovered with the help of eyewitness reports.
It remains to be seen whether any of them, those who committed a crime or witnessed it, will grow a conscience and provide information on where the bodies were buried. So far, there have been few such examples, as a number of potential witnesses have been murdered. Protected witnesses at the trial of KLA leaders in The Hague are the only hope for learning more about the 570 bodies, which the Missing Commissions claim are located in Kosovo.
Most likely, KFOR and UNMIK missions also do not have archives on crimes in Kosovo and missing persons after the arrival of international forces. Although they had all the power, for the first few years they went on a wild goose chase, they did not shed light on any crime and their documentation is equal to an empty folder. After the arrival of KFOR and UNMIK in Kosovo, the disappearance of 701 people was reported, 420 of whom are still listed as missing
The Commission on Missing Persons of the Government of Serbia delivered to the Kosovo side the information on a dozen locations that needed to be searched and checked, but nothing has been done so far. The Kosovo side refuses to cooperate with Belgrade because it does not accept Veljko Odalovic as the head of the Commission, which is just another unreasonable reason to gain time and never reveal the truth.
This is, unfortunately, the grim truth as far as the archives in Kosovo and the search for the missing are concerned. So it is unclear to anyone what the Pristina negotiator Besnik Bislimi actually committed to, as he refuses to check the existing information. Upon his arrival in Pristina, after pressure from the public and political opponents, Bislimi even denied that he committed to opening the archives of the so-called KLA. His statement that only the Kosovo side will benefit from the agreement in Brussels is also astonishing, which in a way confirmed that the search for the missing will not be carried out in Kosovo. Reasonable people often cannot understand political interests and statements, because they often conflict with what is normal.
In such a situation, one should not trust the sincerity of the Belgrade negotiator Petar Petkovic either – that the military archives will reveal where approximately 1,100 bodies that the Pristina Commission on Missing Persons is looking for are buried.
That some kind of progress may come to be is indicated by the fact that Petkovic addressed the press in Brussels after displaying a framed photograph of the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, behind him. President Vucic has so far proved to be very cooperative in the Brussels negotiations, so it is to be expected that he will treat this, above all human problems, with due seriousness and responsibility. He swore to that last year as well, when he signed the Washington Agreement in front of the then President of the US, Donald Trump.
The question remains, however, whether the discovery of new mass graves suits the authorities in Serbia at this moment. Certainly not, because for many that would lead to the issue of criminal responsibility and elections are set to take place soon… It is expected that even some convicted war criminals, soon to be released from prison, will take part in the election campaign, on the side of the ruling power.
Nevertheless, the authorities in Belgrade and Pristina, with the mediation of the international community, are required to disclose all relevant evidence indicating the whereabouts of the remains of the missing. In Belgrade, Aleksandar Vucic can decide to do so by himself, and it remains to be seen whether the USA and Germany – above all – will force the Kosovo Albanians to do so. If both sides do not equally dedicate themselves to solving that problem, the families of the victims will never know the truth about their loved ones.
It should not be forgotten that in the area of the former Yugoslavia, since the beginning of the war in 1991, 10,000 persons are still listed as missing, and there are 4,000 bodies in the morgues throughout the region, whose identities remain unknown. Until all the bodies are found and identified, there will be no real reconciliation between the former neighbors.
Velimir Perovic is a journalist with the Beta news agency. Until the middle of June 1999, he lived in Pec/Peja. He started his career as a journalist in TV Pristina in 1998. In 2019, he won the NUNS award for investigative journalism.
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