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Search for the missing beyond Kosovo

By Blerim Krasniqi

05 October 2013 - It is 6:30 in the morning. Krassimir Nikolov and Tarja Formisto, both EULEX experts, leave from the Department of Forensic Medicine (DFM) in search for remains of the missing. It is not a typical site assessment operation as it is conducted in Svirce, a village in municipality of Medvegje/Medvedja in Serbia.

The convoy of EULEX, Kosovo Government Commission on Missing Persons, International Committee of Red Cross, and local experts from DFM meet at Mutivoda, crossing point between Kosovo and Serbia, and head to Medvegje/Medvedja municipality to get the necessary clearances before the digging can commence.

EULEX does not have a mandate to conduct site assessments in Serbia. The court order is requested by a Serbian prosecutor based on the information provided by a witness, through the Kosovo Government Commission on Missing Persons.

A total of four trenches in three different locations were dug on Friday, 5 October 2013. The first location was checked due to artificial disturbances of the soil, while the second and third sites were pointed out by a witness who allegedly saw some activities in May 1999. The information was not precise and there were no indications which could lead to finding mortal remains.

"Unfortunately we did not find anything this day. But it is important to eliminate the doubt or suspicions that come from the relatives of the missing. They have some expectations, because it was known for them that we are going to check some place in Serbia, and although nothing was found today, it is still an answer", said Krassimir Nikolov, EULEX Exhumation Coordinator.

Friday's site assessment was the 57th field operation conducted by EULEX experts this year alone. There are about 10 court orders outstanding, and some needed to be finalised this year due to the requirement of the circumstances. But the field work heavily depends on weather conditions.

Since the beginning of the Mission EULEX-DFM has conducted 405 field operations, aimed at gathering ground-based data which potentially could lead to exhumations and other associated forensic processes. So far the remains of 340 individuals have been returned to families. Of these, 260 were missing persons, while the rest relate to criminal cases or requests for confirmation of identity by families.

This year EULEX-DFM will begin the assessment of an alleged mass grave in Raska, southern Serbia in conjunction with the Serbian authorities. It is suspected that if the grave exists, it will hold a considerable number of missing persons. Given that today there are still 1726 missing persons, a successful conclusion to this case would have a significant effect on this issue.

Information is key

EULEX experts at DFM emphasise that reliable information remains the main challenge in shedding light to the fate of the missing. A number of cases are check based on the information provided by the second or third hand witnesses. With the time passing there is less and less information.

"Unfortunately it is common to dig and not to find remains, because after 14 years many people have no good memory of what they have observed. Sometimes they even cannot find the places that they know, as the environment during this time changes", says Nikolov.

Although the mandate of DFM in the nutshell is humanitarian - knowing the location, exhume and identify the remains, and hand them over to the families, experts say that many witnesses are reluctant to share information.

"For the people that live in Kosovo, and outside, mainly in Serbia, the problem is that they are afraid to share the information, and if they are really familiar with a certain case, they know that there can be consequences for them if they share this information with us", says Nikolov, underlining that the questions they ask are not to develop criminal cases but to find remains of the missing persons.

"There is still lots of hesitation to contact us", he says.

Building local expertise

EULEX forensic experts have been making real progress in their mentoring and monitoring of local Ministry of Justice/Department of Forensic Medicine staff. Much of the work has centred around the development of a local exhumations team and a separate dedicated team working on the issue of misidentification and also public outreach.

Two members from the local exhumation team of DFM were present at the site assessments conducted in Svirce village.

"For us is very important to have them present in each location, especially when we are digging out of Kosovo because it is a very good experience for them as it is an opportunity for them to learn about the paperwork, laws and regulations when digging outside of Kosovo", said Krassimir Nikolov. He explains that in this particular site assessment his local colleagues were introduced to Serbian authorities, so they know to whom they should refer to and what the procedures for conducting work outside Kosovo are.

The mentoring they are receiving from EULEX represents a crucial first step towards creating the self-sustainability which in the missing persons operation is required once EULEX leaves Kosovo.