On 7 August, Deutsche Welle published an interview with the EULEX Deputy Director of the Institute of Forensic Medicine, Tarja Formisto.
Formisto, talks about more than a decade of the Mission's work to establish the fate of the missing.
Deutsche Welle: The issue of missing persons of the Kosovo war, is one of the most crucial points in the relationship between Belgrade and Pristina for decades. How has EULEX faced this subject to help for a solution?
Tarja Formisto: The issue of missing persons is one of the most devastating legacies of the conflicts in former Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, Kosovo was no exception and today we still have more than 1640 people missing from all communities. From the beginning of the mandate of the EU Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX) in 2008, meaning already ten years after the beginning of the conflict, until today, the highly experienced team of forensic experts, has conducted 653 field operations to locate missing persons. This resulted in the identification of 456 individuals, including 316 missing persons and was made possible thanks to the good cooperation with the Kosovo and Serbian institutions, as well as with other international institutions such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Commission on Missing Persons. I take pride in the work of my team and we will continue to do our utmost to establish the fate of those still missing and provide the needed answers to their families and loved ones.
The Kosovo authorities always complain that Belgrade does not inform openly about the missing persons, the bodies are still in massive graves in Serbia. Serbia does not accept that. What can be done to move now forward?
To make more progress and establish the fate of the missing, there needs to be willingness from both sides to share information, to move forward and to solve cases, despite the difficulties. EULEX is here to help and support, but transitional justice is a process that must be owned by the two sides, which must engage at all levels, be willing to cooperate and to share information so that missing persons’ families get the answers they desperately need. Kosovo and Serbian institutions would have to put some more effort on this complex issue and willingness to share information. We are more than happy to continue to facilitate such efforts on the ground.
Your experts worked also with Belgrade, what is your conclusion today? Do you think that Belgrade hold information about missing persons?
Our cooperation with both the Kosovo and Serbian institutions is good. Once again, institutions on both sides would have to put some more effort on this complex issue and willingness to share information. Everyone will benefit from more transparency around the missing persons. If you do not provide information you may have on the fate of the missing you will not receive any information. A concrete example of our cooperation with the Serbian authorities, is our team’s work in Kizevak, a large quarry site in Serbia. In fact, this is a site where the use of aerial images is being implemented to hopefully help us locate the remains of missing persons. As soon as pandemic situation allows us to work again, our site assessment in Kizevak will continue in the area where the remains should be according the aerial images.
How realistic are the chances to find the bodies of missing persons after 20 years?
More than twenty years is indeed a long time for a parent, a partner and a relative not to know the truth. Unfortunately, it is not unusual. This is also the case in Bosnia and Herzegovina where families of more than 6500 missing persons are still waiting for answers, just like in Kosovo. Searching for the missing after an armed conflict is a painful, complicated and time-consuming process. In order to be able to locate and identify more missing persons, we need to have credible information. We hope that we will soon be able to resume our work on exhumations once the pandemic situation will improve. Despite the difficult circumstances, we still managed during this spring to assist our Kosovo partners in successfully exhuming the body remains of a missing person in western Kosovo.
Did you identify the person and notify the family?
This specific verification process is in the early stages right now, so no DNA testing has been sent yet. It usually takes three to six months to have DNA matches.
Where do you see the reasons why the bodies of more than 1640 others are not found?
There are several reasons why the number of missing persons stands above 1640 people. First there is a lack of new and reliable information on the location of graves. Time passes and more and more information is lost, also because people often no longer remember events accurately. In addition, there are times when people do not want to provide information for reasons of fear or security. Our mission team, together with our colleagues in Kosovo can examine the sites, only in the case of reliable information about their exact location. Another important issue is that not all families of missing persons have provided blood tests for DNA analysis. To succeed in identifying persons, we need blood tests. But these challenges do not discourage us, neither we as a EULEX team nor our local colleagues.
EULEX has worked together with the Serbian police to verify places doubted as massive graves. After your information, how many persons can be still in such massive graves?
In total, there are more than 1640 missing persons, who are still unaccounted for in Kosovo. Some of them could be in mass graves, but some of them could be in smaller, clandestine graves, or even in cemeteries in different areas. Around 50 % of the identified missing persons have been exhumed from cemeteries. As I mentioned, from the beginning of our Mission’s mandate in 2008 until today, we have identified 316 missing persons. In addition, there are around 300 body remains in the Pristina morgue and we are assisting the Kosovo authorities to address this issue.
There are some publications about burned bodies of Albanians from Serbian part in Trepce or Bor. Do you have any information about this?
If there is any credible information regarding this, the police and prosecution should investigate further. Our forensics work is based on an order of the Specialist Prosecution of Kosovo.
How do your experts work to find and identify the bodies of the missing?
It all starts with credible information on an area of interest. Then, we cross-reference the area with the list of missing people in this area and other information that could lead us to the location of the grave. When available, we also use aerial or satellite images, which might indicate changes in the landscape. After identifying the location, we carry out the field work that might lead to an exhumation and the recovery of the remains. Once the remains are recovered, an autopsy is performed, and bone samples are taken for DNA profile testing. In cases where relatives of a missing person have provided reference blood samples and there is a positive DNA match report, the identification process is completed. Then, the families are informed about the identification and the remains of the missing are handed over to them.
How long it takes to identify a victim?
As I have mentioned, this process is complex and time-consuming. The identification of a missing person can take from few months to years. The main problem we face is the modus operandi in concealing graves. By the time the conflict started in Kosovo, it was already well-known that mass graves were visible from the air. So, the perpetrators hid the bodies in smaller, clandestine graves, even in cemeteries to make the search for missing people more difficult. Another major issue is that not all missing persons’ relatives have provided blood samples. This is crucial for the identification process. In addition, several missing persons are elderly, without family members who can give blood. There are also families who refused to give blood. In some other cases, the individuals we identify might not be declared as missing persons. Sometimes, the individuals are foreign combatants and there is no blood sample available to identify them.
The opened issue of missing persons is since years a serious obstacle for the reconciliation between Serbs and Albanians - do you think it will continue to exist as an open wound without a solution, and both sides will have to live with that, or is just a question of political will?
The issue of the missing persons is a human rights issue. It is about the human rights of the relatives to find out what happened to their loved ones. This issue should not be politicized or be part of political agendas. Continued work on the fate of the missing will promote reconciliation across the region. Without addressing the missing persons, reconciliation will suffer and there may be no durable peace in the Western Balkans.