KOSOVO - Interview of the vice-président of "Sphresimi", HALIT BERISHA
Interview of Mr. Halit Berisha, vice-president of the association Shpresimi helping the family members of victims of war crimes and enforced disapperances, in Suharekë, and member of the coordination council of associations for enforced disappearances in Kosovo .
As a volunteer on the issue of missing persons, what happened in Kosovo during the years of 1998 / 1999?
Before starting to describe what happened during and after the war, in 1998-1999, I am going to describe what happened before the war, under the tyrannical regime of Serbia headed by Sllobodan Millosheviqin. Reprisals from the police and the army of the regime, such as: violence, looting, imprisonment, tortures, blackmailing, abusing and other forms of denigration, were taking place against the local population. Acts of segregation and racism such as poisoning or expulsion of Albanian students from their schools were committed in order to play the different communities off against each other. Violent expulsions of local leaders from their political leading functions and when reprisals of the Serbian regime against the Albanian population were at their highest level, even expulsions of Albanian employees from their jobs, following the same aim which was to denigrate them, to make them poor and dependant of the Serbian regime. All of this led the Albanian population to be self-organized and to establish its own economic, social and political system. After a decade of passive killings and arrests, and mistreatments by the Serbian regime, Albanians were forced to fight against them and then began the war for freedom and independence.
How do you feel after 16 years of voluntary work on the enlightening the fate of missing persons?
The war with its wilderness has brought incurable wounds on many Kosovo families.
Implementation of ethnic cleansing politics and violently displaced persons by the Serbian regime from the March until June 1999 caused an exodus of tens of thousands of people in Albania and Kosovo. The main aim was the expulsion of Albanian population and the ethnic cleansing by burning everything we had and kill our hopes to return to our century-inherited-land.
At the end of the war, the Albanian population returned in Kosovo even though they were now homeless. Then, the grievance for the killed and missing ones started. We had no information for our family members, whether they are alive or buried somewhere. The Serbian criminal leaders had gone back to Serbia while international administration was established and started dealing with the returning population. No one was dealing with the issue of missing persons.
What were your steps on dealing with the issue enforced disappearances at this time, when no other body was dealing with it?
Firstly, some families of missing persons had some information and according to it, their loved ones have been killed, but other families had no information at all. We established contacts with the representatives of the temporary government and with KFOR (NATO) and the representatives of UNMIK (United Nation Mission in Kosovo) and with the teams of International Health Department. We started with a compilation of registers of the missing persons taken from family data and localized massive graves done by police, military and paramilitary groups. Then, exhumation and placing them at the improvised morgues managed by United Nation Administration.
When did you establish the Missing Persons Association?
When we realized that it was hard to work individually and to be successful, we decided to establish the Association for Missing persons and then the families of missing persons joined us. Those missing family members were later called enforced disappearances. It was easier this way to gather data of missing persons at the municipal level thus, we compiled a missing persons list. It was hard because we didn’t have experience in this field.
Which were your contact institutions?
After the establishment of national institutions dealing with the enlightening the fate of missing persons, we contacted with the International Comity Red Cross (ICRC), International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP), UNMIK forensic and the office for missing persons, Council on Defense of Human Rights and Freedom and KFOR.
With ICRC we started compiling the registry of the killed and missing persons. With ICMP we cooperated on the issue of finding the family members of missing persons for the blood donation on easier identification for DNA test. UNMIK forensic and the office for missing persons improvised a temporary morgue after exhumation and organized expositions of the clothes and personal effects of the dead in order to make their family able to recognize them (classic method of identification).
When were the Missing Persons Association and Coordinating Council established?
The need to coordinate the actions concerning the enlightening of the fate of missing persons required the establishment of Associations at the Kosovo level and the coordinating council. Disappointed family members on the slow development process on the enlightenment of the fate for their loved ones organized protests strikes, hunger strikes and other forms of protest, demanding from local and international bodies to speed up the process on the enlightening the missing persons fate. Here we lack experience on what actions should be taken. The ICMP gave us important help by organizing round table meetings with the families and the members of the Coordinating Council to help the situation that was created after war, with psycho-social trainings with the families in order to ease the traumas of war.
When did you ask for the establishment of Government Commission on Missing Persons?
The need on the establishment of local government institution which will deal with issues of missing persons has stated by the request of the Coordinating Council of the non-governmental organizations on against enforced disappearances. As a result, the Government of Kosovo, has established in 2001 the Government Commission on Missing Persons, which will deal with the demands of Association and addressing their demands to National Government Institutions aiming to enlighten of the fate of missing persons. Then, we requested the establishing of the Law on Missing Persons, which will define the Rights of Missing persons and of members of the families of missing persons. Our request was approved and the Kosovo Government has voted a Law on Missing Persons, even though with some defaults, it is still on a great progress.
What were the consequences of all those actions?
After exhumation out of all mass graves in Kosovo, it appeared that a high number of the missing persons were still missing. We were more or less aware of the fact that the Serbs have deported dead and alive bodies to Serbia. All of this was conducted to hide the proofs of those crimes. Later in Serbia, were discovered mass graves in Batajnica, Petrovo Sello and at the Peruqac Lake.
Outside mass graves in Serbia, from November 2002 until 30th of June 2006, 847 human remains identified by DNA test were repatriated.
Later, it was discovered a mass grave at Rudnica, close to the city of Rashka, in Serbia, where 53 human remains were identified, belonging to the Albanians killed in 1999 and deported to Serbia, in order to hide them. As members of the families and as an association, we will work and act until the final enlightening of a last missing person.
Aiming to enlighten the fate of enforced disappeared persons, under assistance of ICRC, in 2004, talk groups between Kosovo and Serbia were formed. These talks had no success until now. The members of the families demand a higher pressure by the International Committee against the government of Serbia in order for this issue to be sooner resolved.
What about transitional law?
I am well aware that without a change in the behavior of the belligerent parties, we cannot move forward. Concerning the request for reconciliation, it cannot be done when we are still looking for 1650 missing persons. The Government of Serbia has not shown its will to resolve this issue for the crimes committed by the police, military and paramilitary Serb forces against the civilian population, through killing the elder ones, youngsters and women and children. For a reconciliation, it is necessary to know who are the victims by name and family name, to know the circumstances of their death, because they were victims of war crimes. The threats from Serbia are still obvious today. As long as the criminals will be free, not convicted and so numerous, there will be no peace.
Could you say a word about your cooperation with the FEMED?
We thank the Euro-Mediterranean Federation against Enforced Disappearances (FEMED) which enabled us to participate at the Conferences and different meetings at which participated representatives of different countries having same issues as Kosovo. Moreover, it enables us to learn about other experiences on what and how should we act in the future for the achievement of the enlightening of the fate of enforced disappearances.
What is the current situation of the search for the truth?
The lack of political will between both of the parties is prevents the enlightening of the fate of missing persons. Thus, the family members of the missing persons still live in a permanent state of anxiety.
Interviewed realized by Destan Berisha, May 2016