It’s never too late to find those missing from the Kosovo war
My assignment to the US Mission in Kosovo (now Embassy) in 2005 is unforgettable. Although I have covered the region at the US State Department in Washington, DC since 2002, living and working in Kosovo has been a meaningful experience, both professionally and personally.
Not only did I enjoy the local culture, including the infamous macchiatos, but I also developed many meaningful friendships. Although I no longer work for my government, I continue to follow Kosovo politics and occasionally write about transitional justice in the Balkans as part of my current job as a university professor.
Although I have fond memories of Kosovo, some experiences have been traumatic. As part of my portfolio at the Mission, I was responsible for working with the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, local Provisional Institutions of Self-Government, PISGs and civil society on missing persons. At that time, the United States was helping fund the exhumations of graves in Kosovo, and in order to monitor the implementation of our assistance, UNMIK invited me to a grave they were exhuming.
There, in a shallow grave, the skeletal remains of 13 individuals were found with their hands and feet still bound with string. It was clear that they had been executed as many had a single bullet in the back of the neck. I had never seen anything so unsettling, and the images and emotions of that day remain fresh in my mind.
Yet compared to the pain the families of the missing continue to experience, my discomfort means little. More than two decades after the end of the conflict in Kosovo, more than 1,600 people are still missing. Although resolving the fate of those forcibly disappeared during conflict often takes many years in most countries, it is tragic that thousands of families in Kosovo, across all ethnic communities, have still not had the chance to learn the truth about the fate of their fathers, sons, daughters, etc.
According to the Geneva Conventions, in particular Additional Protocol I, Article 33 (1977), victims of an armed conflict have the right to know the fate of their missing relatives, and the parties to the conflict have the responsibility to search for the missing. as well as facilitating the return of leftovers.
Recognizing the importance of this issue, the United Nations Security Council issued Resolution 2474 in 2019 reminding parties to a conflict of their responsibilities under international humanitarian law, and also noted that resolving this issue was important for building peace. In fact, the resolution states that “the manner in which these cases [the missing] are addressed affects relations between parties to an armed conflict and conflict resolution efforts”.
If we must never forget the human toll that this represents for its victims, the question of the missing is also a political and social challenge which prevents Kosovo and Serbia from moving forward. During my time at the State Department, I met regularly with victims of war. During a meeting, I spoke to a mother whose son had disappeared; I reminded him of the United States’ commitment to finding the missing and reiterated our wish for a multi-ethnic Kosovo.
After completing what I thought was a perfect statement of our policy, this individual kindly informed me that while Kosovo appreciated American support, I was rather naïve to believe that reconciliation between Kosovo Albanians and Serbs would possible while thousands were away from friends and families. . At that point, the depth of distrust between the ethnic communities of Kosovo and the pain that the war inflicted on them finally marked me.
While I am heartened to see Kosovo Albanian and Serbian families now working together on the missing, I wonder if full reconciliation is possible when over 1,600 people have still not been found (and the perpetrators of these crimes have not apologized or admitted responsibility).