Amnesty urges Balkans to probe war disappearances

Ljiljana Alvir is convinced Serbian authorities know how her brother died during the war in Croatia, and where his remains are. She just doubts they want to tell her.

"Serbian institutions have the information where he was killed, and where his bones lie," but they are hiding the truth, she alleged during a news conference Wednesday ahead of the International Day of the Disappeared. "Everyone deserves to find where the bones of their loved ones lie."

Alvir, a Croat from Vukovar — who lost both her fiancé and brother during the Serb conquest of the city in 1991 — is one of the many people across the Balkans that Amnesty International says are still searching for news on the whereabouts of the some 14,000 people missing since the end of the Balkan conflicts in 1990s.

Amnesty says most of the more than 10,000 missing are linked to the 1992-95 conflict in Bosnia, about 2,400 disappeared during the 1991-95 war in Croatia, and 1,800 during the 1998-99 conflict in Kosovo. The wars erupted when the former Yugoslavia broke up and its former republics and ethnic groups turned against each other.

Croatia's decision in 1991 to declare independence triggered a war with the Serb-led Yugoslav army which overran the eastern parts of the country, including Vukovar. The town fell in November 1991 after months of siege and heavy battle reduced it to rubble. Hundreds of people were killed by Serb troops when they took control and thousands more disappeared, including Alvir's brother.

More bloodshed followed with the war in Bosnia that pitted Serbs, Muslims and Croats against each other, and which was marked by torture, expulsions and massacres. In Kosovo, a million people were displaced before NATO intervened to stop the war in 1999 by bombing Serbia for 78 days.

Amnesty and regional human rights organizations on Wednesday urged the governments that emerged after the breakup — in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo — to investigate the fate of the disappeared. The states have all repeatedly pledged to resolve the matter, and thousands of people have since been unearthed from mass graves and identified.

Amnesty also called for those responsible to be punished and charged that Balkan governments lack the political will to prosecute them more than two decades after the wars started. The group said the states "have failed to abide by their obligations as set out in international law."

Jezerca Tigani, Amnesty's Europe and Central Asia deputy program director, said Wednesday the lack of an investigation and prosecutions remains a serious concern. "The major obstacle is ... a persistent lack of political will in the countries in the region," he said.

Tigani also urged the governments to ensure the victims and their families receive "reparation for the harm they have suffered."

Critics insist the governments have been deliberately concealing full truth to avoid responsibility. The families of the missing on Wednesday urged the European Union to condition any progress in the accession process of the Balkan states with the question of the missing.

Another regional organization dealing with the missing — REKOM — called for "the end on the silence about the mass graves" and demanded that finding the missing be set as a priority for the regional governments.

Amnesty said in its report that reluctance to prosecute war crimes "occurs especially where members of the government, ruling political parties and their allies, and members of the military and police forces are suspects."

Faced with massive atrocities in the Balkans, the U.N. Security Council set up a tribunal in 1993 to prosecute those responsible for the crimes. The tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, has jailed dozens of senior civilian and military leaders from the Balkans — including former Bosnian Serb wartime leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic — but local governments are expected to prosecute many more.

Saida Karabasic, whose father was killed by Bosnian Serb troops in the western town of Prijedor, said that those who have the power to resolve the fate of the missing and are not doing it "are accomplices in the crime."

Karabasic and other relatives of the missing who were on rival sides during the war but have joined forces to put pressure on the authorities are planning to urge all governments in the region to speed up the process.

"We do not see an end to our agony," she said.


Amer Cohadzic in Bosnia contributed to this report.