Blakaj: 22 years after the war, the two sides continue to count only the victims of one side

Foto: Fejsbuk/Bekim Bljakaj

Twenty-two years after the end of the Kosovo war, the two sides continue to count and highlight only the victims of one side, while neglecting the victims of the other side, thus creating one-sided narratives. The younger generations of Serbs and Albanians have a completely differing opinion on what happened 22 years ago.

The victims’ right to justice is crucial, but so far it has been impossible for perpetrators to be held accountable for their crimes. For both societies, victims, and families, it is important that we at least acknowledge their sacrifice and pain, the director of the Humanitarian Law Center in Pristina, Bekim Blakaj, said in an interview for KoSSev.

„The worst thing would be for us to continue to deny their sacrifice. If we continue to do so, unfortunately, we may have a recurrence of the conflict.“

On the International Day of the Disappeared, Blakaj – who is one of the few experts to speak about war crimes exclusively from a humanitarian point of view, secretly hopes that new politicians and experts dedicated to justice, truth, and reconciliation will come to power in the future.

According to your assessment and findings, what is the key reason why the issue of missing persons in Kosovo has not been resolved more than twenty years later?

If you were to ask the competent institutions investigating the fate of missing persons, they would tell you that a lot has been achieved, because in early 2000, the list of the International Committee of the Red Cross contained about 4,500 names of persons who went missing in Kosovo, and today we are talking about 1,630 missing persons. Based on their assessments, a lot has been done over the past two decades to shed light on the fate of the missing, which is somewhat true. Unfortunately, when it comes to Kosovo, 1,630 families live with the pain that their family members have yet to be found.

The key problem at the moment is that there is no political will to solve this issue, even though the institutions of Kosovo and Serbia claim that they see the issue of missing persons solely as a humanitarian issue. I must say that this is not the case. The Serbian side waited 15-20 years to provide information on the exact locations of two mass graves in Serbia (Rudnica and Kizevak). It is obvious that they knew about those locations from the start. On the other hand, the Kosovan side claims that it has no information, that there is no archive. Until recently, when addressing the topic of missing persons in Kosovo, they would always shift the blame to the Serbian side, failing to recall that there are over 400 missing persons from the Serb community.

It is clear that Serbs are not responsible and that they are not competent to find information about the locations of graves where the remains of these Serbs are located. It is the responsibility of the Kosovo side to investigate and find those bodies. This shows us that there is no real political will for this and that they do not consider this issue as a humanitarian issue.

In addition to the obvious politicization, i.e. lack of political will, is there anything else that you begrudge politicians in Serbia and Kosovo? How do Serbian and Kosovo societies treat the issue of war crimes and the missing? Are societies ready for the truth and empathy?

Societies are very often led by the behavior of politics. In fact, the official position of the state very often influences public opinion. That is why, unfortunately, we in the Humanitarian Law Center begrudge political representatives. Twenty-two years after the end of the Kosovo war, the two sides continue to highlight and mention only the victims of one side, while neglecting the victims of the other side, thus creating one-sided narratives. The younger generations of Serbs and Albanians have a completely differing opinion on what happened 22 years ago.

Those who committed war crimes, even those convicted of committing those acts, are still perceived as heroes on both sides. This is just one example of why we begrudge government officials. A number of mass graves were found in Serbia containing the remains of Kosovo Albanians, but those locations have been neglected. There is not a single monument or any sign there – which would say that people were buried there, at least as a sign of respect for the victims, as a sign of their dignity. No, there isn’t any. The situation is the same in Kosovo.

In Kosovo, the Journalists’ Association displays a plaque every year near Rahovec/Orahovac, where two journalists went missing and this plaque is regularly removed. What I want to say is that these small deeds that the government should undertake, that is, the crimes that are happening, also affect public opinion. If a monument had been erected on Batajnica, it would have influenced public opinion in some way. There is no monument in Kosovo that the Kosovo authorities have erected in honor of the Serb victims.

Do you think that a step towards solving this problem is possible, not only a faster, but also a much more concrete one, or do you think that shedding light on the fate of the missing will take place at the current pace – step by step, over several years while witnesses are passing away? Can you imagine a time when Serbs and Albanians will be able to jointly mark the suffering of all victims?

To tell you the truth, I didn’t notice anything like it. I don’t see any proactive activity of the institutions – neither in Serbia nor in Kosovo, which would give me hope that the confrontation with the past will go as it should – in a normal way. Associations of the Missing do not have the power to change something in societies. The fact that some of these associations meet regularly and that they understand that they are on the same side, that they share the same pain, and that they should fight together for their rights is a very good sign. However, if the institutions do not move in that direction, it is very difficult to expect (cf. a solution). I secretly hope that new politicians and experts dedicated to justice, truth, and reconciliation will come to power in the future – as I do not see that happening at this moment.

How realistic is it for such politicians to come to power, if societies are polarized, and new generations are coming of age with that one-sided narrative in which their people are the only victim, and the opposite side is the culprit and the „symbol of evil“?

I have no answer to this question. Unfortunately, so far several generations have come of age in the spirit of a one-sided view of the past. Of course, there are a lot of open-minded individuals and young people. There is also civil society, which of course, has worked hard to change such an image, to properly inform the people on what happened in the past.

As a civilian activist and expert on the issue of war crimes and justice for victims, what did you face in your work? What are the bigger obstacles you encountered? Do you face disappointments, frustrations?

Dealing with this issue is not easy. The 20th anniversary since I started working at the Humanitarian Law Center is coming up and this entire time, for all these 21 years, I have been in contact with the families of the victims. My biggest frustration is that, regardless of the fact that we did our best, I still don’t see whether we made any greater impact or that we managed to change a lot when it comes to the policies of official institutions or in society.

Even so, you have a quality database…

Yes, we developed a very good program of non-formal education of young people about dealing with the past. We have held a significant number of lectures in high schools. We also organize our schools, but at the institutional level, we have not managed to change much, which is frustrating, of course. And I can’t imagine what it’s like for the families of the missing. Today, on the International Day of the Disappeared, 1,630 families are still waiting for information about their family members, they still do not know what happened to them – 21 years later. It must be very upsetting and painful for them.

The right of victims to justice is crucial, but we cannot expect that many victims will have a just epilogue – that the perpetrators will be held accountable for their crimes. If that had been impossible so far, and you mentioned that the memories are fading, some witnesses have already passed away, life is doing its thing – and if we can’t do that, for both societies, institutions and individuals and families of the missing it is important that we, at least, recognize those victims – to acknowledge their pain.

The worst thing would be for us to continue to deny their sacrifice. If we continue to do so, unfortunately, we may have a recurrence of the conflict.

Thank you for talking to KoSSev.

 

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