Feature 02 Apr 13

Kosovo War Victims Not Ready for Serbia Reconciliation

Kosovo has started work on a reconciliation strategy, but relatives of victims of the war and its violent aftermath are sceptical that justice can be done, 14 years after the conflict ended.

Edona Peci

Xhafer Veliu’s 13-year-old son Shyqyri was captured and killed by Serbian forces in 1999, but his body was only found six years later.

Now, like many relatives of wartime victims in Kosovo, Veliu believes that Serbia has to make the first move towards reconciliation by admitting its guilt and saying sorry.

“I cannot forgive unless Serbia apologises and all perpetrators of crimes during the war are brought to justice,” Veliu, who comes from a village near Gllogoc/Glogovac in central Kosovo, told BIRN.

Many others are still waiting for news of their relatives who’ve not been seen since they disappeared during the 1998-99 conflict, he added.

As the 14th anniversary of the end of the war with Serbian forces approached last month, Kosovo established a ministerial working group tasked with dealing with the past and reconciliation.

Officials vowed that evidence on war crimes committed during, before and after the Kosovo conflict would be collected and presented to the relevant authorities so all the perpetrators can be brought to justice.

“It’s clear that the main aim is the dignified treatment of all victims,” said the head of the working group, Dhurata Hoxha.

Officials said it was also necessary to sign a peace treaty with Belgrade which would include “a request for an apology by Serbia, for compensation for war damages and [more clarity] about missing persons”, Hajredin Kuci, Kosovo’s deputy prime minister and justice minister, explained at the time.

There was no official reaction from Belgrade, suggesting that such a move is not even being considered by the Serbian authorities who are determined not to do anything that could be seen as a step towards recognising Kosovo as an independent state.

Relatives of wartime victims also believe that reconciliation with Serbia is not even on the horizon at the moment.

It’s unclear “how the Kosovo government plans to achieve this [by itself]”, Veliu said.

“It’s up to Belgrade to bring all perpetrators before justice because they live in Belgrade,” he argued.

Unilateral reconciliation impossible

During the 1998-99 war, more than 13,000 people are estimated to have been killed and more than 1,700 remain missing.

Inter-ethnic clashes between Albanians and Kosovo Serbs also broke out several times after the end of the war, causing hundreds of deaths on both sides and amongst UN police officers and troops from NATO’s Kosovo force, KFOR.

Bajer and Kastriot Elshani were among around 19 people shot dead during ethnic unrest in March 2004 when several thousand people were forced to leave their homes.

Their brother Asllan Elshani told BIRN that one of them was shot by NATO forces in Cagllavica/Caglavica, while the other one is believed to have been killed by a Serb.

He said that his hopes for justice had already faded.

“Nine years have passed now and we have had no response. I have no hopes at all. It’s not that a dog or a chicken was killed - two men were killed. And not only my two brothers - there are many more,” Elshani said.

He and other relatives of victims were invited to present their evidence before the new working group on dealing with the past and reconciliation, which held its first meeting on March 18.

Experts however have warned the authorities not to raise people’s hopes by making extravagant but unrealistic promises about ensuring justice for the victims.

Fadil Maloku, professor of sociology at the University of Pristina, described the governmental initiative as “media manipulation for internal consumption”.

Reconciliation, he explained, cannot be achieved unilaterally.

“The readiness in Kosovo and Serbia is still not at the necessary level, because of the moral stance of Serbia, whose society lacks accurate information on what really happened in the five wars the regime of [Belgrade’s former strongman leader Slobodan] Milosevic had,” Maloku said.

In recent years, Belgrade has prosecuted several cases against Serb policemen and former Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA guerrillas for crimes committed during the conflict, with a major case against members of the paramilitary Jackals unit currently ongoing in the Serbian courts.

Pristina has also tried several cases of war crimes against civilians, both Kosovo Albanians and Serbs, with a high-profile case against three former KLA commanders ongoing. The EU rule of law mission in Kosovo is still investigating more than 70 war crimes cases, while more than 300 remain unresolved.

Survivors demand help

Meanwhile controversy has also erupted in Pristina about whether thousands of wartime rape victims should be put under existing legislation covering conflict victims and their family members – possibly assuring them of compensation payments of around 300 euro a month – has raised new questions about the government’s efforts to deal with the past.

Some lawmakers argue Kosovo does not have the money in its budget to make payouts to rape victims, while campaigners have urged proper treatment for all victims of the late 1990s conflict.

A parliamentary debate on the issue sparked protests in Pristina, with campaigners accusing some lawmakers of being disrespectful to women who were sexually abused by Serb troops.

The US embassy in Pristina backed the move to give more aid to rape victims.

“Every country has an obligation to identify appropriate support for those who have suffered as a result of war, including survivors of rape,” the embassy said in a statement last week.

Families of missing people in Kosovo have also called for increased welfare payments. They currently receive more than 100 euro a month in financial assistance, but their main demand is for the authorities to shed more light on the fate of the remaining 1,700 people who have yet to be found.

However it is still not clear when missing persons commissions from Pristina and Belgrade will hold their next joint meeting, at which topics like future exhumations of mass graves could be discussed.

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