Feature 12 Feb 18

Missing Persons’ Families Seek Answers as Vucic Visits Croatia

As Aleksandar Vucic makes his first visit to Croatia as Serbia’s president, relatives of the remaining missing persons from the 1990s war are hoping he will bring information to help find their loved ones.

Sven Milekic BIRN Zagreb
Exhumation of a wartime grave in Gornje Seliste in central Croatia. Photo: Croatian War Veterans' Ministry.

Victims’ associations and families who are still seeking relatives who went missing during the 1990s conflict are hoping for a gesture from Aleksandar Vucic as he visits Zagreb on Monday, believing that Serbia has information and documentation on the locations of wartime mass graves that mostly contain the bodies of non-Serbs.

“All I know is that after 26, 27 years it isn’t easy for us to look for our loved ones; not to know where are his bones, where is his grave,” Manda Patko, a 75-year-old Croat woman from the eastern Croatian town of Vukovar, told BIRN.

She was talking about is her husband Stjepan Patko, listed by the International Red Cross under the number HRZ-115242-01. He went missing in November 1991, a few days before the Yugoslav People’s Army and Serbian paramilitaries took control over Vukovar after almost three months of constant shelling.

“Someone who has some information on him - that person is keeping his mouth shut and isn’t interested in helping, maybe because he hasn’t lost anyone of his own… or maybe he can’t tell because of his fellow countrymen who know the same thing he knows,” Patko speculated.

Stjepan Patko is just one of the people on a list of 1,945 Croatian citizens from the 1990s war whose fate, or the location of whose remains, is still unknown.

The Croatian War Veterans’ Ministry says that 1,131 people are missing from 1991-92, of whom around 85-90 per cent were Croats, and 814 are missing from 1995, of whom around 95 per cent are Serbs who disappeared after the Croatian military operations ‘Flash’ and ‘Storm’.

Serb victims are mostly buried in marked common graves after the civilians and soldiers who were also killed were put into the graves. Their families and victims’ associations claim that the Croatian authorities are not putting enough effort into exhuming and identifying the bodies.

A large percentage of the missing Croats come from the region around Vukovar, where so far 42 mass graves have been exhumed, while 444 people are still considered missing.

Many in Croatia argue that Serbia has information on the location of yet more grass graves where the missing from Vukovar are buried.

“The [Belgrade-led Yugoslav People’s] Army was waging war here; they had all the documentation, which they took to Belgrade. Where these are documents located, why are they hidden and not revealed, I don’t know,” Patko said.

‘Vucic should bring data’

Aleksandar Vucic in Glina in 1995.

After Vucic accepted an invitation from Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic last month, some opposition MPs voiced scepticism that his visit would bring any real benefit to the troubled relations between the two counties, or help resolve the issue of the missing persons.

An additional problem is Vucic’s own role in the war, when he visited the Croatian town of Glina in March 1995, which at the time was under the control of Croatian Serbs, and said: “Never will again the Ustasa [Croatian WWII fascist movement] state come here.”

Predrag Matic, a former Croatian War Veterans’ Minister who was a soldier in Vukovar and after it fell, spent nine months in detention camps and prisons in Serbia in 1991-92, said that he does not expect much from Vucic’s visit.

“Vucic should bring data on missing persons [with him], but he won’t do it. And then we can ask him, completely within our rights, ‘Why have you come here?’” he told N1 television on Friday.

‘We need to talk’

Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic and Aleksandar Vucic. Photo: Beta/Emil Vas.

Despite the scepticism, many missing persons’ associations in Croatia back Grabar Kitarovic’s initiative to invite Vucic, hoping that it may ultimately bring some benefits.

“We, as families, supported the meeting, and a real conversation about the issue of the missing persons is the only excuse for our [Croatian] side to even talk to Vucic,” Ljiljana Alvir, the president of the Alliance of Associations of Families of Imprisoned and Missing Croatian War Veterans, told BIRN.

Alvir, who also comes from Vukovar, is still looking for her brother Robert, who joined Croatian forces in the city in 1991 at the age of 19.

She said that Grabar Kitarovic “must insist” that Vucic provides some answers on the issue.

“If that doesn’t happen, then I repeat, there is no excuse for this meeting,” she stressed.

Spomenka Kusic, the president of the Croatian Mothers association from the eastern Croatian town of Vinkovci, also also backs the meeting, as she thinks that “the truth about the destiny of our loved ones, about their whereabouts” is the “issue of all issues”.

Kusic is still looking for her son Mirabel, who went missing also after the fall of Vukovar in November 1991.

But she recalled how a visit to Vukovar in 2010by a previous Serbian president, Boris Tadic, did not lead to any further developments.

“Tadic was also here, but there wasn’t much of a result on the issue… We’re not putting too much hope in Vucic. But our president also talked to us, and we supported her initiative, and now we’re waiting to see what will happen in the end,” she told BIRN.

Manda Patko also recalled the disappointment that Tadic’s visit to Vukovar left behind, but she retains a shred of optimism about Vucic’s trip to Zagreb.

“We need to sit at the table and talk, with everyone,” she explained. “There must be some dialogue.”

Talk about it!

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