Analysis 15 Aug 12

Families of Kidnapped Macedonians Seek Final Closure

Eleven years since the 2001 Ohrid Peace Accord, the painful issue of Macedonians kidnapped during the conflict remains unsettled, and the bodies of some victims remain stuck at the forensic institute.

Sase Dimovski

Macedonian parliament sent war crimes cases to history

Vena Dimovska, 70, from the northwestern town of Tetovo, a focal point of the 2001 Macedonian armed conflict, regularly stands staring at the Constitutional Court building in Skopje.

She is still awaiting a decision of the court on the motion she filed in November 2011, disputing the Macedonian parliament’s decision on “the authentic interpretation of the Amnesty law”.

The July 2011 decision relates to four war-crime cases that the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY, returned to the Macedonian courts in 2008. As a result All four cases were annulled by the Macedonian justice system.

The cases concerned atrocities allegedly committed by former ethnic Albanian rebels of the now disbanded National Liberation Army, NLA, in the 2001 armed conflict.

“Regardless of the outcome, my husband who was kidnapped by the NLA in 2001 in the Tetovo region, will not come back,” Dimovska says.

“But I cannot accept that the state can just suspend international law and allow those who abducted our dear ones to remain unpunished," she adds, showing a photo of husband Dimitri, one of 12 kidnapped Macedonians from Tetovo.

She recalls that parliament passed a law saying that the defendants should not be tried for war crimes in Macedonia.

But she still wants to know why nobody is asking the former NLA commander, Daut Rexhepi Leka - who was accused of ordering the kidnapping - or the former NLA political representative, Ali Ahmeti, now leader of the governing Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, to say where the bodies of the remaining eight of the 12 kidnapped Macedonians are buried.

In July and August 2001, in the Tetovo region 12 men were kidnapped while walking into town or working on the fields.

Macedonian Constitutional Court

They were Andre Ristovski (born 1967), Vasko Mihajlovski (1963), Cvetko Mihajlovski (1949) Dimitrie Dimkovski (1941), Krsto Gogoski (1934), Simeon Jakimovski (1941), Boban Jevtimovski (1972), Vasko Trajcevski (1953), Ilko Trajcevski (1953), Gjoko Sinadinovski (1954), Bosko Dimitrievski (1945) and Slavko Dimitrievski (1952).

After the 2001 armed conflict ended with the Ohrid Peace Agreement, the so-called Amnesty Law was passed.

But the exact interpretation of this law remained the subject of dispute.

Ethnic Albanian political parties have understood the law as granting complete immunity to all who took part in the insurgency.

But others consider that the four cases referred to the ICTY for suspected war crimes should be exempt from the immunity provision, and that the alleged perpetrators should still face investigation.

Some respected rights groups agree. By applying the Amnesty Law to these four investigations, Amnesty International last September said that it fears that the victims of the armed conflict may not receive justice.

"In August 2001, Ali Ahmeti sent a document to the German Embassy in Skopje, listing the names of the kidnapped Macedonians,” recalls Vojo Gogovski, whose father was kidnapped in July 2001 and whose body was later identified among the remains found in a mass grave near the village of Neprosteno, Tetovo.

“He claimed to know where the bodies of 12 kidnapped Macedonians were at that time,” he added.

“Ahmeti told the Embassy about the issue of abducted people because the German troops as part of NATO contingent were present in the Tetovo region.”

Information that Ahmeti knew about the fate of kidnapped Macedonians was confirmed by government officials several times in the past decade.

Relatives of the kidnapped persons | archive photo

One was former Interior Minister Ljube Boskoski. He was later indicted by the Hague Tribunal for violating the rules and conduct of war, though the court freed him.

Macedonian police in October 2001, a few days before launching the first operation to uncover mass graves and exhume bodies, said the kidnapped Macedonians were killed and then buried in three graves in the vicinity of Tetovo.

In one of the largest, they said, were the bodies of six people. In the second, three to four people were buried, while the bodies of an additional two people lie in the third grave.

“According to witnesses, the bodies of the killed people are at the bottom of this grave. The whole tomb has been covered with garbage from the nearby village in order to cover the massacre," police said at the time.

Although the exhumation operation was launched with the agreement of international officials and local people, police and investigative teams came under gunfire when they arrived, killing three of the policemen.

Under tight police security, forensics experts later discovered the remains of the bodies in one of the locations, after which the operation had to be suspended for safety reasons.

Since 2001 no other attempts have been made to investigate the other locations where witnesses had indicated that the rest of the 12 kidnapped Macedonians were buried.

“It was unbearable work,” a physician from the team that worked on the discovery of the bodies recalled to BIRN.

“We were held at gunpoint by snipers. But among all the garbage thrown round the location we managed to find the remains of human bones and almost an entire body at a depth of 4.5 metres,” he added.

“However, the operation was then interrupted and the investigation stopped. Later, we identified that the remains [we had found] belonged to four of the missing Macedonians.”

The pit near Tetovo where remains of four bodies were found

Despite results confirming that these were the bodies of four of the missing Macedonians, their families refused to collect them.

And so, 11 years after the conflict ended, they are still lying in refrigerators in the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Skopje.

As for the remaining eight bodies, no one has given any orders for the completion of their exhumation, although police claim to know where they are buried in the Tetovo region.

“Relatives of the four initially did not accept the results, though they were confirmed by the Forensics Institute in Tuzla, Bosnia, after which the entire documentation was submitted to the court in Tetovo, which was responsible for the investigation,” Dr Alexei Duma, director of the Institute of Forensic Medicine, told BIRN.

“But the investigation did not continue, nor did the families of the four missing persons came to collect the bodies,” he added.

Representative of the families of the kidnapped Macedonians, who spoke under condition of anonymity, said the police and the government had kept promising that the case would be resolved in its entirety - and the bodies of the other missing persons would be found and a joint funeral organized for all of them.

“Now, since the law on amnesty was passed for the so-called Hague cases, it is clear that they lied to us,” a member of one of the families said.

“All families were joined in a group and we always acted together,” he added.

“But after jobs were offered to several of the families, they distanced themselves from the association, and we could no longer agree on what to do with bodies that had been identified,” he continued.

“Therefore, 11 years after the conflict they are still found in the refrigerators of the Institute.”

Now, as Macedonia marks the 11th anniversary of the signing of the Ohrid Peace Accord, which ended the conflict by granting greater rights to the Albanian community, the families of kidnapped Macedonians want the state to bring some closure to probably the most painful issue still lingering from that time.

Relatives want to see the completion of the halted investigation

They want to see the completion of the halted investigation, a thorough search of the other sites named by the police and the discovery of the remaining bodies.

"There can be no reconciliation unless all these painful issues are solved,” one woman, whose son and husband were kidnapped, said.

“I have nothing against the amnesty, but the law must apply to all. We do not want anything else, just to know where the bodies are.”

In 2005, the Tetovo Court declared the missing persons dead and the families received compensation of 10,000 to 20,000 euro each.

The marking of the 11th anniversary of the peace deal has meanwhile brought back memories of another painful issue.
This concerns some 200 internally displaced people from the village of Aracinovo near Skopje and from Matejce near the town of Kumanovo, whose homes were destroyed in the conflict and who still live in student dormitories.

“Our homes were set on fire, our Albanian neighbours still do not allow us to return to the villages,” Jana Stojanovska, chair of the Zora Association of Displaced Persons, says.

“They have occupied and illegally cultivate our land, but the state does nothing to solve our problem,” she adds.

“Approximately 200 people remain internally displaced and live in small rooms in student dormitories in Skopje.”

Stojanovska said the displaced people have sued the state, which has not guaranteed their safe return to their homes.

But the Macedonian courts rejected most of their complaints, after which they filed a motion in the court in Strasbourg.
“A psychiatric expert examination was conducted which showed that we all have post traumatic stress and will have lifelong problems, but the court did not think we should receive compensation because we were not missing any body parts,” Stojanovska said.

“I no longer know where to turn about our problem.”

To add insult to injury, in several cases where damages were awarded for trauma suffered during the conflict, the higher court later rejected them.

Now, some of the displaced Macedonians have been ordered to return the money.

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