Families Lose Hope of Finding Kosovo’s Missing Serbs
Inadequate investigations by international organisations and political tensions between Pristina and Belgrade have meant that several hundred Serbs who disappeared during and after the Kosovo war have not been found
Andrija Tomanovic, the head of the surgery clinic at the Clinical Hospital Centre in Pristina, called his daughter Jelena on June 24, 1999 at around 1pm to tell her he was on his way home from work.
The Kosovo war had officially been ended by the Kumanovo Agreement on June 9 that year. The NATO bombing of Yugoslavia had stopped, Belgrade’s army and police forces had withdrawn from Kosovo to Serbia, and the UN’s Interim Administration Mission, UNMIK, and the NATO-led Kosovo Force, KFOR, had been deployed to deal with security.
One of KFOR’s checkpoints was in front of the Pristina Clinical Hospital Centre on June 24 when Tomanovic was seen for the last time.
Twenty years later, on August 30, the International Day of the Disappeared, the Serb doctor is still listed as a missing person.
According to Kosovo government’s Commission on Missing Persons, there are still 1,650 people missing as a consequence of the 1998-99 war. Of these, 1,100 are ethnic Albanians, 360 are Serbs and 200 are from other minority communities, such as Roma.
The majority of Serb and non-Albanian civilians who went missing in Kosovo disappeared between June 1999 and December 2000, after the war ended and Slobodan MIlosevic’s forces pulled out.
Just after the war ended, many Serbs and Roma were targeted by armed groups, and thousands fled Kosovo, fearing revenge attacks, according to a report by Amnesty International.
As well as dealing with security issues in the chaotic post-war period, UNMIK was responsible for probing the disappearances – but Tomanovic’s case is one of more than 200 in which the UN mission has been accused of not conducting adequate investigations.
Absence of witness statements
A Kosovo Albanian man looks at the names of missing people, both Albanians and Serbs, written on a wall in Pristina in April 2011
The Kosovo Human Rights Advisory Panel, HRAP was established in 2007 by a special representative of the UN Secretary-General to examine alleged violations of human rights by UNMIK.
HRAP had jurisdiction to probe violations of human rights that happened after April 23, 2005 or before this date if they caused a continuing violation of people’s rights.
This gave HRAP the jurisdiction to examine complaints relating to events that happened in the period from 1998 to 2000, and helped to reveal some major problems in UNMIK’s investigations of what happened to non-Albanians who went missing or were killed during and after Kosovo war.
In Tomanovic’s case, HRAP noted that UNMIK became aware of his disappearance by the end of June 1999 at the latest. But it said that “it appears unclear what investigative steps were taken between 1999 and 2002”.
“Reference in the file is made to the investigation having been protracted and involving several investigators. However, little information is given as to exactly what investigative measures were actively undertaken in this case,” HRAP said.
Tomanovic’s wife gave UNMIK police the names of possible witnesses to events surrounding her husband’s disappearance. UNMIK police investigators tried to collect information from one of the staff members at the Pristina hospital in 2004, but without success.
HRAP said that “both these activities appear cursory in nature and no formal witness statements are recorded”.
“Indeed in assessing the entire file, the [Human Rights Advisory] Panel observes the complete absence of any recorded witness statements whatsoever… In addition, no witness statements were obtained from other hospital staff or other potential witnesses present at the time of Dr Tomanovic’s disappearance in June 1999,” it added.
In the Tomanovic case file, there was also a reference to the first name of a possible suspect with a recommendation for further enquiry, but no action appeared to have been taken to follow up the lead, HRAP said.
Delays, failures and silence
Relatives of 29 Kosovo Serbs killed during the 1998-99 conflict mourn over their coffins at a Belgrade cemetery in October 2006 after the bodies were handed over by UN authorities
HRAP’s final report, published in 2016, listed what it said were the most significant problems with UNMIK’s work in Kosovo.
Among them are delays in registration of missing persons reports or, in some cases, the complete lack of registration of such reports by UNMIK police. Delays lasted for months or even years, “with no explanation provided”.
“Important delays in, or even the complete absence of, initial investigative actions, such as crime scene investigation, ‘canvassing’ of surrounding areas, collection and preservation of physical evidence, recording of witnesses’ statements undermined the evidentiary basis of investigations from the very beginning,” HRAP’s report noted.
When it comes to witnesses, HRAP said that attempts to locate them did not seem to be thorough or diligent and that UNMIK failed to reach out to people who made complaints about rights violations and witnesses who had left Kosovo for security reasons.
“Delays in attempts to locate and interview witnesses appeared to be widespread. Because of such delays, witnesses died, others relocated and became untraceable,” it said.
Asked to comment on these allegations, UNMIK told BIRN that “there were many reasons why UNMIK was unable to determine the fate of missing persons; however, in many cases there was a lack of reliable evidence”.
It said that some of the main challenges were “a result of the volatile situation in post-conflict Kosovo”, such as the tense and unstable security situation and an absence of public institutions.
“There was no standing, professional and well-resourced UN police force in the immediate aftermath of the conflict in Kosovo; UNMIK had to re-establish law enforcement in the absence of law and order institutions and agencies which was a challenging task considering the circumstances on the ground,” UNMIK said.
HRAP’s report also criticised the lack of proper sharing of information between relevant UNMIK police units, and said that in a large number of cases, there were no indications of any prosecutorial overview or any kind of involvement by public prosecutors. Problems also occurred because there were at least three international organisations operating in the field at the time.
“Lack of coordination between UNMIK, ICTY [the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia] and [NATO’s Kosovo force] KFOR caused problems for the investigators. In some cases, UNMIK police did not investigate because the ICTY had taken over the investigations, but without providing any documentation,” HRAP said.
“A number of files reflected situations when victims were abducted in front of KFOR units, or information on abductions was passed to a KFOR unit. No investigative action was pursued by UNMIK police,” its report added.
Communication between UNMIK and the Serbian authorities was also poor.
“Serbian state authorities sent to UNMIK substantive information providing details of various incidents, including the locations, dates and names of victims, suspects and witnesses. However, in most of these cases, there was no proper cooperation between UNMIK and the Serbian authorities,” HRAP said.
In some cases, UNMIK investigations of alleged human rights violations were shut down for no apparent reason, according to HRAP.
“Police investigations were discontinued after an internal review, without informing the responsible prosecutors and the injured parties,” HRAP said.
“In a number of cases the investigations were ‘dropped’ without any formal decision and without any visible reason, despite leads that still needed to be followed. Moreover, on many occasions leads and recommendations identified by the reviewing investigators/prosecutors were not followed,” it added.
HRAP also claimed that serious criminal allegations against Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA members were not followed up.
“No substantive effort was made by UNMIK investigative authorities to investigate in a systematic and coordinated manner the disappearance and killing of a large number of Kosovo Serbs where there was an obvious line of enquiry leading to KLA [Kosovo Liberation Army] suspected perpetrators,” it said.
No investigation into organ-trafficking claims
Council of Europe rapporteur Dick Marty, who reported allegations of organ-trafficking by Kosovo guerrillas, in Strasbourg in January 2008
One of the most explosive allegations about people who went missing in Kosovo was that organs were surgically removed from some of the victims while they were held in captivity at secret Kosovo Liberation Army detention sites in neighbouring Albania to be sold for transplants.
These claims were made public in a report in 2010 by Council of Europe rapporteur Dick Marty, who probed allegations of crimes committed by KLA guerrillas.
Marty’s report said that “numerous concrete and convergent indications confirm that some Serbians and some Albanian Kosovars were held prisoner in secret places of detention under KLA control in northern Albania and were subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment, before ultimately disappearing”.
It also alleged that “organs were removed from some prisoners at a clinic on Albanian territory, near [the town of] Fushë-Krujë, to be taken abroad for transplantation”.
UNMIK became aware in 2003 of at least seven people who ended up dead in Albania, but declined to give more information to BIRN about how it followed up the allegation.
“UNMIK cannot comment further on ongoing criminal investigations or disclose confidential information,” it said.
The claims in Marty’s report were followed up by a European Union special investigative task force. The EU task force’s subsequent report, alleging serious crimes were committed by KLA members, led to the establishment of the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, the so-called ‘special court’ in The Hague, which aims to put the suspects on trial, although no indictments have been announced so far.
One of the missing persons whose name has been linked to the organ-trafficking allegations is Zlatko Antic.
Antic was 35 years old on July 28, 1999, when he left the village of Brezovica and visited his family’s apartment in the town of Prizren to check on the situation there and find out whether it would be safe to return.
He went to his neighbour, to whom he had given the keys to his apartment. The neighbour said later that a few minutes after he entered the flat, six men in KLA uniforms went in and forced Antic and another neighbour to leave with them.
Antic’s mother, who filed a complaint to Human Rights Advisory Panel, stated that at that time, the KLA was occupying an apartment on the ground floor of the apartment building.
She added that Antic and the abducted neighbour were taken to a student centre located behind Prizren’s town cemetery. The neighbour was later released, but the KLA held on to Antic. Since then, his whereabouts have been unknown.
Four years later, in 2003, Antic’s name showed up in a classified report by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia about what at that time was the little-known issue of human organ-trafficking. The report said that eight ethnic Albanians, some of them KLA members, claimed that they either knew about or participated in transporting captives from Kosovo to detention in northern and central Albania.
Although UNMIK did some investigation into the abduction of Antic and took statements, HRAP said that promising leads were not followed up.
“Unlike in other disappearances cases, there was an eyewitness to Mr Zlatko Antic’s abduction, and that, under these circumstances, an effective investigation should have also proceeded with analysing and resolving the discrepancies… as well as canvassing the area, including the location where the KLA had established its office [in Prizren],” HRAP said.
“Instead of proactively pursuing such leads, in January 2004, UNMIK police made the assessment that no evidence was available and decided to leave the case pending,” it added.
But the Antic case was not only special because of the eyewitness, but also because of the possible link to organ-trafficking, and HRAP expressed concern that this aspect was not probed by UNMIK.
“The [Human Rights Advisory] Panel also notes with concern that, based on the document mentioned above, at the latest by October 2003, the UNMIK DoJ [Department of Justice] had received information from eyewitnesses, all former KLA members, that Mr Zlatko Antic was probably among those captives who had been taken to illegal detention centres in Albania, reportedly for the purpose of having their organs harvested,” HRAP said.
“However, there is no indication in the file that this important piece of information was provided to those investigating the case of Mr Zlatko Antic or that any action was taken by UNMIK to further investigate these most serious allegations apart from transmitting the information to the ICTY in 2003,” it added.
In a damning verdict on UNMIK’s failed attempts to investigate, HRAP said it was “extremely concerned that so little effort was made to investigate and give effect to the right to truth with respect to these shocking allegations”.
‘All perpetrators should face justice’
After the Kosovo war, 6,044 people were registered as missing, 1,000 of them from non-ethnic Albanian communities, although these figures came down over the years as mass graves were discovered and bodies identified.
But more recently, the process has faltered significantly due to the lack of information.
Around 2,000 files relating to potential perpetrators responsible for missing persons were handed over by the EU’s rule-of-law mission in Kosovo, EULEX, to Kosovo’s authorities are now in the hands of the Kosovo Special Prosecution Office.
Some people have expressed hope that there could be progress on missing persons as a result of the EU-mediated Kosovo-Serbia dialogue to normalise relations or the establishment of the so-called Special Court in The Hague, but so far this has not happened.
Meanwhile, families of the missing have been losing hope that they will ever be found.
Rada Sabic saw her parents for the last time at the end of April 1998 in her home village of Leqine in the Skenderaj/Srbica municipality.
At the time, the war was intensifying in this part of central Kosovo, which was a Kosovo Liberation Army stronghold.
Sabic’s father Miroslav Smigic had told four other members of the family that he was determined not to leave his home because of the fighting.
On May 18, Sabic’s cousin Dostana, a social worker in Skenderaj/Srbica, was kidnapped on her way to work. Attempts by the family to learn what happened through international organisations resulted in nothing more than a vague suggestion that she was being held in an improvised KLA detention centre.
“We had information that she was being held at KLA headquarters in the village of Likovc [in the Skenderaj/Srbica municipality]. They told us that some Albanians were held there too. Later we heard that she was killed there,” Sabic told BIRN at her house in the northern Kosovo municipality of Zvecan.
One day, one of the Smigic family’s ethnic Albanian neighbours from Leqine came to their house to suggest they should leave.
“He told my parents that a meeting had been held in the village and from now on, there was no safety,” Sabic recalled.
“My father kept insisting that they did not have anywhere to go apart from their home, saying that he hadn’t done anything wrong to anyone,” she said.
On the morning of June 6, 1998, people in uniform knocked on the door of the family’s house in Leqine and took away Miroslav Smigic, 70, Sabic’s mother Sultana, 65, her aunt Aleksandra, 70, and her cousin Radomir, 54.
“First they tortured them and took them on a tractor that went down from the village. They were killed the same day near a gas station,” Sabic said.
Five members of the Smigic family are still on the list of those missing since the 1998-99 war.
Sabic said that their clothes, marked with bullet holes, were found at the place where they died.
“I still believe their bodies should be somewhere near the scene. During that time we were expecting their bodies to be found and hoping that Dostana was still alive. Two months afterwards, another tragedy happened. My brother committed suicide,” she said.
Milorad Trifunovic, the co-head of the Missing Persons’ Resource Centre, an organisation that represents families of missing persons from all communities in Kosovo, says that the fate of the missing is hostage to the poor relations between Pristina and Belgrade.
Trifunovic was one of the first people who started to actively work on missing persons after his brother, Miroslav, then 33, was kidnapped in June 1998 while going to work in Bardh i Madh/Veliki Belacevac near Pristina, one day before his wedding.
Most of the missing persons from non-Albanian families disappeared after the war, he noted.
“Currently, we have 442 missing Serbs and more than 70 per cent of them went missing after the war,” he said, quoting a higher figure than the Kosovo government’s Commission for Missing Persons’ statistic of 360 missing Serbs.
Meanwhile Prenke Gjetaj, the head of the government commission, criticised the political leaders of Kosovo and Serbia for not including the issue of missing persons in the EU-facilitated dialogue process.
“There cannot be any reconciliation without solving the issue of the people who are missing now,” Gjetaj told BIRN.
As for the people who disappeared after June 1999 when the war officially ended, Gjetaj noted that this was a chaotic time when security was in the hands of UNMIK and NATO’s KFOR troops.
“I am not trying to rehabilitate anyone. All those who were involved in crimes against other ethnicities should be hold accountable,” he emphasised.
In a tragic twist, the ethnic Albanian neighbour who warned the Smigic family that they were not safe was also killed in March 1999 by Serbian forces in the neighbouring village of Izbica, alongside 145 other Albanian civilians. Some of them are also still missing.
“I nearly collapsed when I saw the clothes of the Albanian children killed in Izbica,” Sabic said.
“This shows that those who committed crimes on both sides should face justice.”