“Our society is completely traumatised” – finding and remembering the thousands still missing from the Yugoslav Wars

“Our society is completely traumatised” – finding and remembering the thousands still missing from the Yugoslav Wars

Families wait for the start of a collective burial at the Srebrenica–Potočari Memorial Complex for the Victims of the 1995 Genocide on 9 July 2017.

(Marion Dautry)

In 1995, when Seida Karabasić came back to her hometown near Prijedor – today in Republika Srpska, an entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina – the war was barely over. “The majority of us had family members killed. We did not know where they were or that they were dead, and we were hoping to find them,” she recalls. More than 25 years after the conflict that devastated the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Karabasić is one of the many family members looking for the thousands of people that are still declared missing. In her area alone, at the end of the war, more than 3,000 people were reported missing. Families are still looking for 400 missing people.

In the 1990s, Yugoslavia broke apart in a bloody conflict. Millions were forced out of their homes by ethnically motivated violence. An estimated 140,000 people were killed. Today, 12,000 people are still missing: 7,000 from the conflict in Bosnia, 1,962 from the conflict in Croatia, and about 1,600 from the war in Kosovo, according to the International Committee for Missing People (ICMP).

Most of the victims were civilians. Many bodies were secretly buried in mass graves. Often, those graves were dug up again with machines and the dislocated bodies were moved to secondary and tertiary graves in an attempt to make them harder to find and identify, and to conceal the war crimes committed. The remains of Kosovo Albanian victims, for example, have been found as far afield as the Serbian capital of Belgrade.

“Mothers are praying they will not die without knowing,” says Karabasić, who was born in a peaceful and united Yugoslavia in 1965. Today, she lives sells organic fruit and vegetables for a living and devotes all of her energy to several of associations of the missing in her local area. According to the Red Cross, which is helping to reunite families and offering psychosocial support to the victims, in Bosnia alone, “over 700 mothers and fathers still long to know what happened to their children” while “over 1,000 wives and husbands have raised their children on their own not knowing whether they are widows/widowers or not,” states a report published in January 2019.

“It is worse for the children. When there is no grave to visit, they are missing a part of their identity,” says Karabasić. “I was already grown-up when my father was killed, but I still feel his absence,” she says quietly.

Associations of families of the missing are essential in raising awareness and making sure that no one is forgotten. They established a strong advocacy network through the Regional Coordination of the Families of the Missing. Seida’s Udruženje Prijedorčanki Izvor (Association Source of Prijedor) started to work in 1998 to collect information and data about the missing. Their work nowadays focuses on psychosocial support. One of Seida’s latest programmes is a workshop to address transgenerational trauma. “One of our members who lost her husband has two children. They are adults now, but she says she knows very well that they are not here, they are not present,” she says.

“Our society is completely traumatised,” confirms Emsuda Mujegić from Srcem do Mira (Through the Heart Towards Peace), an association of families of the missing established in Croatia by Bosnian women refugees in 1992 and currently based in Kozarac, near Prijedor. “The trauma is transmitted from one generation to the other like an epidemic.”

“Our mission is to find everyone”

Finding and burying a body is essential for any grieving process. On 20 July 2019, 86 coffins were brought to Prijedor for a collective burial during the annual ceremony commemorating the ethnic cleansing perpetrated in the area. The bodies were found at Korićanske Stijene, a site at the bottom of a cliff that had previously been excavated three times. Ten days earlier, thousands gathered at the Potocari memorial near Srebrenica in Republika Srpska – the site of one of the worst atrocities to take place on European soil since the Second World War – to bury 33 new coffins.

“These burials are the most important event for families. Even if it is hard and painful, they are happy for those who have been found and for being able to bury them with respect,” says Karabasić.

In June 2019, 12 complete bodies were found after the exhumation of a site on Mount Igman near the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. A month later, another mass grave was found near Visegrad. The excavation at the Korićanske Stijene site in 2017 enabled the identification of 121 people. Hopes of finding a new grave in Kosovo and investigations are reported every now and then in the media. An investigation continues near Skenderberg/Srbica while new radar technology was used to search several locations last year, so far with no success.

Almost 80 per cent of all missing people in the former Yugoslavia have been found and identified in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the worst violence took place during the conflict.

But one missing person is one too many for any family member awaiting news. “Our mission is to find everyone,” says Emza Fazlić. She sits in one of the offices of the Institut za Nestale Osobe (Institute for Missing People of Bosnia) perched in one of the highest floors of the tower hosting Bosnia’s federal government. The wall behind her is covered with shelves that barely support the weight of the hundreds of thick files containing all the available data about the country’s missing people.

However, “the process [of finding the missing] is now in its most complicated phase. The ground has changed, those who know where the mass graves are aren’t talking...we are working tirelessly, but with less and less information,” says Fazlić. The young woman, who works as the Institute’s spokesperson, is still waiting to bury her uncle. She knows that time is passing and the chances of finding more victims are shrinking.

Making bones talk

Every discovery of a grave is not only essential for the grieving process of relatives but also for the process of transitional justice and against political manipulation. “We need to know our history. We live in a country that has different histories about the same problem. But we as scientists can present scientific facts about what has happened – they’re non-biased, non-political, they’re just facts,” says D. Saržinski, ICMP’s forensic coordinator for the western Balkans.

The ICMP was created in 1996 with the task of addressing the issue of missing people from the conflict in the western Balkans. The Commission’s team of only seven forensic experts is assisting local institutions in the excavation of mass graves, the reconstruction of the bodies and their identification thanks to DNA-sampling and the cooperation of the affected families. Their work has been used in trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and in local courts.

“Children are difficult cases. That’s when you lose that boundary between looking scientifically at a case and looking at a person who had family and friends,” says Sarzinski. The Bosnian-born expert recalls the case of a five-year-old boy. “He had a toy truck in his pants...I had to step out and gather myself before I could carry on doing my work.”

The methodology followed by the ICMP’s local team is precisely documented, from the moment they are called by the prosecution to assist on an excavation site to the restitution of the remains to their families. Croatian-born anthropologist Sandra Šoštarić goes through the photos of the fourth exhumation at Korićanske Stijene. “I have never worked on a case where the bones were so commingled,” she remarks, showing the ground on which the excavation was done. As the years passed, gravity pulled the bones down the cliff, breaking them and covering them with rocks.

Bags of bones were brought to the mortuary facility in Sanski Most near Prijedor, where the victims were from. The team worked for two months in reconstructing the victims’ bodies as much as possible, using thousands of DNA samples. “The families come to see and identify their relatives. If you take the time to explain to them what we have done, they appreciate the fact that our process pays such attention to detail and that we have a scientific approach,” says Šoštarić.

The long road to justice

The ICMP has established strong connections with every state in the region and built an extensive DNA database in collaboration with the families of the victims. However, everyday politics remains an obstacle to cooperation. “[Politicians] wrap themselves up in their national flags, they say ‘we are the only ones who protect national interests, they killed your relatives and they’re not finding them’… all to ensure they keep enjoying support,” says Matthew Holliday, the head of the western Balkan program at ICMP. “What needs to happen now is the depoliticisation of this work,” he adds.

“Our mayor says: ‘Let’s move on and not go back to the past’ but some essential things have not been resolved,” says Karabasić.

As a Bosniak living in a now predominantly Serb-populated area as a result of the war, she says she has good relations with her fellow citizens on an everyday basis. However, she is aware of their lack of willingness to face the past. “I think the most difficult thing to accept is that so many innocent people were killed in their name,” she adds.

Amar, a web developer in his late twenties from the central Bosnian town of Gornji Vakuf, never had a chance to bury his grandfather. “I have made my peace with it,” he says, sitting in a café just a few metres away from the cemetery’s entrance. “But my grandmother is still traumatised. She wants to know where he is.” He says she has paid strangers hefty sums of money in exchange for alleged reliable information on the location of the body. “Of course, nothing came out of it.”

Mujegić from the civil society organisation Srcem do Mira says that survivors of the war and their descendants shouldn’t have to fight to find out the truth about what happened to their loved ones. “If we don’t shed the light on who is responsible for which crime, there will always be suspicion on every side. That’s why we need to establish who is responsible, who is guilty. Then we can move on.”